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As far as Dong Yao could tell, he and the woman with the veiled hat started to cross the bridge at the same time.
Constructed from stones that would already have been ancient a hundred years ago, the bridge rose over a shallow brownish stream that might have been a roaring river once. Dong Yao came from the overgrown footpath at one end of the bridge, while the woman came from the other end. Behind her were a stocky old man and another, younger man who appeared to be the former's son. They both carried baskets of produce, and were bickering with mutual passion.
Keeping his eyes straight ahead, Dong Yao observed the woman as discreetly as possible. She was dressed in dark blue, her face completely hidden by the layers of black cloth attached to the brim of her wide conical hat. In her left hand was a long sword; the sheath was black with two gray stripes near the hilt. Dong Yao felt that she was aware of his scrutiny but could not care less - after all, if she was indeed who he assumed her to be, she would have no trouble in handling a mere seventeen-year-old, and a scrawny one at that.
In less than half a minute they would pass each other in the middle of the bridge. Dong Yao then did something that was - he would soon admit to himself - so fantastically stupid it bordered on disgraceful. He blurted out, "You're Zhong Ma, Phantom of the Qiantang River."
The woman halted. She stood still, giving no indication that she was going to either confirm or deny Dong Yao's statement.
"My name is Dong Yao," Dong Yao continued, not wanting her to comfortably think that she was about to kill a nameless boy. Meanwhile, the father and son stopped arguing as they scented impending trouble. "I've been looking for you." Knowing Zhong Ma's reputation and how she worked, he understood that their conversation was bound to be one-sided, and fired the next question. "Were you at the Green Pine Manor on the first day of the month?"
Realizing he wanted no part in whatever was happening, the father scurried away. His son, however, lingered behind, face enraptured. "Come on!" his father called out, a little too shrilly, but his son ignored him.
"And did you kill its master, Chen Jiaolang?"
The conical hat bobbed, and the son began to look alarmed. He reluctantly backed away from Zhong Ma to join his father, and together the two of them rushed off the bridge.
"Before we go on," Dong Yao said, "I just want you to know I'm not from the Green Pine Manor." Despite the strong possibility that his death might only be a couple of heartbeats away, Dong Yao was oddly thrilled - which, to him, proved that he was more of an idiot than he had always thought. "You see, Master Chen did me a favor once, so I went to his Manor to repay him - I hate being in anybody's debt. But all I met was his stone tablet, since he was murdered a week ago. I spoke with the retainer, who said he happened to catch a glimpse of you and your sword sheath on that night. Master Chen also managed to give him your name before he died."
Zhong Ma remained motionless and silent. Dong Yao had heard that she rarely, if ever, spoke or otherwise uttered a sound, which was only logical to him: if she happened to have a unique, easily recognizable voice, she would want to conceal it along with her true appearance.
He folded his arms. "Yes, I can see what you're thinking - here's a stupid boy with noble ideas, probably even more laughable than a hired assassin who uses her martial skills to earn money. An assassin who kills whoever it is she's paid to kill, even righteous folks who probably never harmed others." That last sentence left a faintly sour taste in his mouth: he was never one to wax enthusiastic about righteousness and those who practiced it. "Hey, am I right?"
Zhong Ma began to resume walking.
"Go ahead, leave." He was briefly curious about how he looked to her. Perhaps as he really was: an unkempt teenager with a mouth bigger than his brain. "I'll tell everyone under heaven how you ended Master Chen's life just because - "
The black-and-gray sheath slid off the blade and whirled toward Dong Yao. He sprang away from it, avoiding direct contact lest the sheath was loaded with a considerable amount of internal energy. The sheath flew around him and then back to Zhong Ma, who caught it deftly.
"Oh, so now you're going to finish me off too?" Dong Yao yelled. "Bullying a person who's younger than you - an unarmed person, too! Bah! You're not Phantom of the Qiantang River, you're Turtle Egg From the Qiantang River!"
Suddenly Zhong Ma was directly in front of him, the unsheathed sword slashing outward. It would have sliced off Dong Yao's nose had he not leaped sideways and landed on the very edge of the bridge. Zhong Ma's veiled hat whipped around; Dong Yao barely had the time to blink before the sword once again cut through the air, aiming for his chest. He teetered but did not fall: his balance had always been superb, and qinggong, or body-lightning gongfu, was the martial skill he was best at.
Zhong Ma's foot kicked out at him - two, three times. Dong Yao avoided it every time, but on the fourth kick he had to shift his weight completely and thus lost his balance. His heel slipped on the stone; he dropped off the bridge and right into the river, splashing dirty water all around him.
There was a flash of dark blue, and Zhong Ma was standing on a jutting rock before Dong Yao, her sword pointed at his neck. He thought of saying that true men did not fear death, and was irritated: he could do better than waste his last breath on a speech he had always considered trite.
"Go ahead, kill me." He spat out a small glob of what tasted like liquid mud. "Just so you know, my ghost will haunt you forever. I'll follow you wherever you go, spill your drink when you're having a meal, and bang on the walls when you try to sleep. Ha! I hope it's going to be as much fun for you as it is for me."
"He was a rapist."
For a wild moment Dong Yao thought he was already dead and hearing the voice of another ghost. It certainly did not sound very human - nothing more than a low, almost atonal hum. Then he realized that it was Zhong Ma who had spoken. "What? What did you say?"
"A month ago, Chen Jiaolang raped the granddaughter of a merchant in Hunan, two days before her wedding. She killed herself by jumping into a well. The merchant, who has no other family left, and her husband-to-be knew who did it, but they had no martial skills, and could not avenge her. On my way to the Green Pine Manor, I did some investigation. It turned out the girl was not Chen Jiaolang's only victim. He had been preying on women from outside the martial society for years."
Dong Yao lowered his head. The weather was growing colder, and masses of dark clouds were blocking out the sun. "How do I know you're not lying?"
"I can give you the names and addresses of her grandfather and fiancé in Hunan, so you can go ask them yourself." The veiled hat moved up and down slightly. "You have good qinggong, for someone so young."
"Yeah, I do, don't I?" Dong Yao was secretly grateful that Zhong Ma did not ask where he had learned martial arts or what sect he was from, which would have been awkward for him. A mental image of Chen Jiaolang trembled in his mind: the master of the Green Pine Manor had been a sinewy man with coarse white hair and an unassuming manner. He had given shelter to Dong Yao once, when Dong Yao was hiding from a group of pugilists he had angered. At that time, Dong Yao thought that Chen Jiaolang was a gentle and friendly person.
Zhong Ma's long sword slid back into its sheath. "So, Dong fellow, do you still want to settle scores with me?"
Now that it was clear this afternoon was not to be his last, Dong Yao gingerly got to his feet. Ignoring the wet, slightly gritty fabric clinging to his skin, he tried to peer past the black veil and only caught a blurred impression of strangely flat features. Either Zhong Ma was supremely ugly, or she wore a mask for extra precaution. "If Chen Jiaolang really did what you said he did, then he deserved to die."
"You might have heard differently, but I, Zhong Ma, only kill people who have done evil."
"I don't know about the evil part, but making others suffer is reason enough for someone to be punished. By the way, your own qinggong isn't too bad either."
Zhong Ma raised her head toward the bridge. "There's an abandoned temple two li to the north. I'll be taking a rest there, in case you change your mind and decide Chen Jiaolang died an unfair death."
She tapped her foot on the rock, and then she was soaring over the river. Her figure flitted across the bridge and the footpath leading away from it before she vanished from view.
Dong Yao climbed up the riverbank, vaguely disgusted with how he must look. He was also amazed that he was still alive, having heard Zhong Ma speak. Then again, perhaps she had different voices for different occasions - just another part of her repertoire as an assassin.
He had no doubt that the story of the Hunan girl was true - how, he was not too sure. It might have been gut feeling, a simple instinctive response to Zhong Ma's solemn sincerity. Unless, of course, charming people into believing her was also part of her repertoire.
She had made no mention of actually being hired to avenge the girl, only that she killed those who committed evil deeds. This should not have piqued Dong Yao's interest as much as it did, since Zhong Ma's honorable principles, or any principles that she might have, were really none of his business. Or that she had bothered to compliment the qinggong of a rude boy who spewed out childish curses.
A drop of rain splattered against his cheek. He scowled, wondering how long it would take to reach the level of qinggong required for covering two li in an instant.