The men at the inn were causing trouble, but that was none of Zhang San-Yao's concern. A year ago, they would be lying face down on the packed-dirt floor. But it's funny how time changes a man. He had matured from the impulsive young man he was; he was no longer eager to prove himself. He knew that their type crawled every corner of everywhere; to "teach them a lesson" would prove nothing, would not stop the scores more that patronized and terrorized every other roadside in across the country. Now he left them alone.

It is strange how anguish can change a man. How abject misery will mature even the most adolescent of men. Zhang San-Yao knew misery. He had felt anguish. One year ago, he had known what real suffering was, and it unnerved him. He was on his way home to the Wudan monastery. There he would retreat. The true nature of reality had sobered his impetuous and youthful desire to right all of the wrongs in the world. No matter how hard a man tries, he will never fully conquer the evils of the world. Better to remain detached than to suffer trying to change that.

___

The newcomer was young, barely out of his teens, from the looks of it. His gait was smooth, relaxed; he flicked his long hair behind his back and adjusted the bun at the top of his head. He was ambling down the beaten dirt path, admiring the natural beauty of the surrounding bamboo forests and groves. It was nothing like the tall peaks of Wudan, from where he'd come. Wudan was austere, and constantly covered in pale mists from the altitude. The mountains did not make for a good environment in which nature like this could thrive. Wudan was indeed beautiful, but it was of a different sort. The scenery there was noble, isolated. It was where the old Taoists came to become Immortals in the secluded caves, away from the world of man. These forests simply exuded a humble welcoming beacon to all living things to bask and enjoy its splendor.

As he walked along, he came upon something that ruined such beauty. At the side of the road, he saw two men standing over something that shrieked and screamed with a woman's voice. Fearing something to be amiss, he stuck to the shadows and snuck up to see that it was indeed a woman and the two men were bandits trying to force themselves on her. Silently, he emerged behind them and asked in a polite tone that they stop what they were doing. The two bandits turned around; one was scrawny with flyaway hair, the other shorter and more muscular with a round, slick-shaven head.

The two of them asked him who he thought he was; he only stared back, and hard. The bandits sized him up. He was very much a stereotype of Northern Chinese stock, tall and slender with pale skin and a winsome, angular face. He wore an elegant topknot, travel-stained (but still plainly very well made) robes and a long straight sword sheathed and held in his right hand, a tassel hanging from the pommel. It was the blade commonly attributed to poets, nobles and scholars; it was even more commonly associated with those mysterious warriors that traverse the lands and right wrongs. They could see the Bagua, a diagram of the Eight Trigrams, and taijitu, the black-and-white circle symbolizing the principles of yin and yang. He was clearly one of the Xia caste, a sort of knight-errant swordsman that often roamed the Jianghu, martial world, performing righteous deeds. Deeds like saving a young woman from hapless would-be rapists.

Suddenly remembering that they had other matters to attend to, the two ruffians beat a hasty retreat down the dirt path. The young man extended his hand to the lady, who was not much younger than he, and helped her to her feet. After introducing themselves to each other, he was Zhang San-Yao and she was Wen Bei-Bei. She was from the nearby Ti Long village, where she worked at the local inn as a server. He suggested with exaggerated gallantry, purely for the sake of humor and charm, that he accompany her to town in case of another such occurrence. She accepted, and they walked side-by-side to the inn.

As they hit the outskirts of the town, she invited him to the inn for a drink and a chance to freshen up. It was an invitation that he gladly accepted, as he had been on the road for quite some time without a properly cooked meal. San-Yao found a table tucked into a back corner, away from others, trying not to draw attention to himself, which he found difficult. If his look and the way he had carried himself, as well as his sword, had not drawn attention, then the two bandits from earlier certainly did. They were seated with a bunch of other rough types, and after they identified him, the entire table glared daggers at him. However, he ignored them, looking away and sipping his tea.

One of the men from the table finally rose and swaggered over to San-Yao's table and sat down across from him. He set down his paired short axes in front of the newcomer, a show of intimidation. San-Yao continued to ignore him. The man finally introduced himself with a martial salute as The Burning Ox, a local, and asked San-Yao to introduce himself. Zhang San-Yao told the Burning Ox his name, and said the he was from the Wudan Mountain Sect. A sudden rush of murmurs swept the inn and the Burning Ox looked taken aback. He told San-Yao that it was indeed his rare pleasure to personally welcome such a prestigious young lord into their humble town. But he implied that San-Yao must not have heard of the village feelings on strangers in the business of the locals.

San-Yao remained silent. The Burning Ox had become enraged at this flagrant display of disrespect and stood up and heaved the table aside, pointing his finger at San-Yao, demanding that he show proper respect. San-Yao said that the best idea would be to stop pointing, advice that the Burning Ox did not take. Before the thug was able to register the movement, San-Yao had grabbed the man's extended wrist.

The giant of a man tried to reclaim his arm, but when he felt the newcomer's iron-like vicegrip, he instead swung his other fist towards the stranger's head. The stranger likewise used his other arm to block and delivered a kick to the Ox's stomach, releasing his wrist as he did so and sending him flying back. One of his friends, the stocky bald man from earlier, jumped from his bench and went on the attack. San-Yao sidestepped most of the lunges and deflected with a seemingly effortless pushing motion those that he could not dodge.

The bald man turned behind him and grabbed his large saber, a less elegant weapon than the newcomer's, but just as deadly. He began to swing and slash in vicious arcs, with the stranger barely moving from reach. San-Yao jumped on top of the table where the thugs sat and vaulted for his own seat, grabbing his sword. In another show of disrespect, he quickly darted to and sat down at a table across from theirs, sword in hand, grabbing the wine bottle on it and gulping it down, wiping the sides of his mouth close-eyed and exhaling a content sigh, completely ignoring the group behind him, back turned. His speed was incredible, doing this all before the bald man had a chance to advance again.

But, being stupid enough to live as a small-time bandit and thug, the bald man made the mistake of continuing his assault. San-Yao's sword flashed from its scabbard with a metallic ring, the polished gleam nearly blinding the bald man. As he raised a hand to cover his eyes, the stranger turned his sword around and used the tassel on the hilt to lash him with it several times, leaving large red whelps. With a flick of his wrist, he turned the sword again and nicked off the thug's cloth belt, showing all the patrons of the inn that he had so chosen this morning to forgo undergarments.

As the bald thug scurried a hasty and embarrassed retreat to the door, the other gangsters took it as a sign to attack. One-by-one, two-by two, and even three-by-three, San-Yao effortlessly bested and humiliated each and every thug there. Further adding to their shame was that after taking care of the bald thug, he had not once drawn his sword. It was even more blatant disrespect; his actions implied that he did not find them worthy enough to fall by his blade, that their blood would only taint the steel. After soundly beating them all, they, too scurried out like dogs, their tails between their legs in shame.

After they had left, Bei-Bei hurried to San-Yao's side, fussing over several minor cuts and nicks, concerned for his welfare. She took him by the arm to one of the few tables left standing after the rousing fight, bringing him a fresh bowl of lamb noodle soup. As he picked up his chopsticks, she noticed one of the nastier gashes on his upper right arm. Despite his protests, she wrapped the wound, which had already stopped bleeding, with her own silk scarf. San-Yao was surprised and more than a little delighted and intrigued by her caring nature and forward demeanor. She was not so demure as the courtly girls of the imperial North, and nowhere near as frustratingly coy.

And yet, being a young lady, to be coy came naturally. A bit drunk, San-Yao told her that he was flattered by her actions, even more so as they barely knew one another. The other employees, mostly female, gathered around to see the handsome, gallant hero. Bei-Bei caught on to his game and played along; she introduced herself once more and asked him his. Telling her his name and where he came from, she put on a look of awe and told him that it was truly an honor that a young lord such as he were to grace her with his presence. She batted her eyes and asked where he was headed; San-Yao laughed and told her he did nothing more than follow the Tao, and asked her if she knew the way to The Infinite. His drunken charm was truly shining through, but it was a bit strong and she pushed him a cup of tea for soriety's sake. She told him that she was sorry and did not know the way, but if he were to stay in their village for a while, perhaps she could help him figure it out. They locked eyes and San-Yao agreed; the sparks that jumped between their stares were all but visible.