** 1 **
The day they crossed the provincial border into Fujian, the hills were covered in flowers and dancing butterflies. Chen thought of Princess Fragrance and how she would have loved such a scene.
They were met at the Shaolin Monastery by Lord Zhou, who had come south to Fujian with his wife and servants to meet the Monastery's abbot, Heavenly Rainbow. With Zhou's great name in the fighting community, the Shaolin priests were happy to exchange knowledge with him. Heavenly Rainbow insisted that he stay in the temple, and by the time the Red Flower Society heroes arrived, several months had slipped by.
The abbot led his assistants, Great Insanity, Heavenly Mirror, Great Hardship and Great Idiocy into the great hall to meet the visitors. After they had introduced each other, the abbot led them to a quiet antechamber when tea was served. He asked the reason for their visit.
Chen knelt down before the abbot, tears glistening in his eyes. Greatly surprised, Heavenly Rainbow moved quickly to help him up.
"Great Helmsman," he said. "What need is there for such formality? Please say whatever you wish."
"I have an embarrassing request to make that according to the rules of the fighting community should not even be uttered," Chen replied. "But, Venerable Sir, for the sake of millions of souls, I boldly make this appeal to you."
"Please speak freely," the abbot said.
"The former Great Helmsman of the Red Flower Society, Master Yu Wanting was my foster father..." Heavenly Rainbow's expression changed immediately as he heard the name, and he raised his white eyebrows.
Chen told him in detail about his relationship with the Emperor Qian Long and about the plan to restore the Chinese throne and overthrow the Manchus. Then he asked why his foster father had been expelled from the Shaolin school and whether it had anything to do with Qian Long's identity.
"Please, Venerable Sir," he concluded, his voice almost choked with sobs. "Think of the common people....."
Heavenly Rainbow sat in silence, his long eyebrows trailing over his closed eyes. He was in deep meditation and no-one dared disturb him.
After a while, his eyes sprang open, and he said: "For several hundred years, it has been the practice of the Shaolin school not to reveal to outsiders information on members who offend against the school's regulations. Great Helmsman Chen, you have come a great distance to our monastery to enquire into the behaviour of our expelled pupil, Yu Wanting. According to the monastery's rules, this would ordinarily be out of the question..." the faces of the heroes lit up with delight. "...but as this affair involves the fate of the common people, I will make an exception. Great Helmsman Chen, please send someone to the Upholding the Monastic Regulations Hall to collect the file."
Chen bowed to the abbot in thanks, and another monk led the heroes to guest rooms to rest.
Chen was congratulating himself on his success when he saw Lord Zhou looking worried. "What's wrong?" he asked.
"The abbot asked you to send someone to the Hall to collect the file. But to get there, it is necessary to pass through five other halls, each guarded by a kung fu master and each one stronger than the last. It will be difficult to make it through all five," Zhou replied.
"We could try and force our way through together," Wen suggested.
Zhou shook his head. "No, the problem is that one person has to win through all five halls alone. If anyone helped him, the monks would come to the assistance of the guardians of the halls and it would turn into a brawl. That wouldn't do at all."
"This is an affair involving my family," Chen said quietly. "Perhaps Buddha will be merciful and let me through."
He took off his long gown, picked up a bag of his 'chess piece' projectiles, tucked the ancient dagger into his belt, and let Zhou lead him to the first hall.
As they reached the hall entrance, Zhou stopped. "Master Chen," he whispered. "If you can't make it, please come back and we'll think of some other way. Whatever you do, don't try and force your way through or you may get hurt." Chen nodded.
"Everything is arranged!" Zhou shouted, and then stepped to one side.
Chen pushed open the door and walked inside. Under the bright candle-light, he saw a monk seated on a mat, and recognised him as one of the abbot's chief assistants, Great Hardship.
The monk stood up and smiled. "So you have come yourself, Great Helmsman Chen. That is excellent. I would like to ask you to instruct me in a few martial arts moves."
Chen saluted him with his fists. "Please," he replied.
Great Hardship bunched his left hand into a fist and swung it round in a great arc while his right palm swept up. Chen recognised it as the 'Drunken Boxing' style kung fu. He had once studied the style, but decided not to reveal the fact by using it now. He clapped his hands together and countered with the 'Hundred Flowers' kung fu style. Great Hardship was taken off guard and only avoided being struck by dropping to the floor. He rolled away and stood up, and the two continued to fight closely, each a master of his own style.
Great Hardship aimed a blow at Chen's legs. Chen leapt up, and as he landed, hooked his right leg round, tripping the monk up neatly. As fast as lightning, Chen bent over and stopped him from falling. Great Hardship's face flushed red with embarrassment and he pointed behind him.
"Please proceed," he said.
Chen saluted once more and walked through into another hall, seated in the middle of which was the senior monk, Great Insanity. As Chen entered, the monk rose and picked up a thick staff lying beside him. He casually tapped the floor with its tip, and the impact shook the very walls of the hall, bringing a shower of dust down from the rafters. The monk lightly flipped the staff from left hand to right, then attacked using the 'Crazy Demon' staff style of kung fu. Chen knew it would be folly to underestimate the power of this opponent, and he drew his dagger. Great Insanity swept the staff across and Chen ducked down to avoid it then countered with a thrust from his dagger. The two fought round and round inside the hall, their weapons apparently greatly mis-matched.
Rather than attack, Chen concentrated instead on trying to tire the monk out. But Great Insanity's Inner Strength Kung Fu was profound, and as time passed, Chen could discern no hesitation in the monk's actions. On the contrary, the staff seemed to whirl and dance with ever-increasing speed, forcing Chen back into a corner of the hall. Seeing Chen could not escape, Great Insanity grasped the staff in both hands and swung it down at his head with all his strength. Chen stood stock-still until the staff was no more than two inches from him, then grabbed its end and carved a deep line across the middle with his dagger, snapping it in two.
Great Insanity was furious, and charged at Chen again. But with the staff only half its former length, he wielded it with much less dexterity. A moment later, Chen snapped another piece off the end, then dodged passed the monk and ran towards the rear of the hall. With a roar of anger, Great Insanity threw what was left of his staff to the floor and sparks flew in all directions.
As he entered the third hall, Chen's eyes were struck by a bright glare, and he saw both sides of the hall were full of burning candles, several hundred of them at least. In the centre, stood the monk Great Idiocy.
"Master Chen," he said, a welcoming smile on his face. "Let us compete using projectiles."
Chen bowed. "As your Reverence wishes," he replied.
"There are nine candles and eighty-one incense sticks on each side of the hall. Whoever can extinguish all the candles and incense sticks on his opponent's side is the winner." The monk pointed to the altar table in the centre of the hall. "You will find darts and projectiles of all kinds over there. When you have used up all the ones you have, you can go and get more."
Chen pulled a pile of chess pieces from his pocket and wished he had spent more time in the past learning the finer points of dart kung fu from the Red Flower Society's dart expert, 'Buddha' Zhao. "After you," he said.
Great Idiocy smiled again. "Guests first," he replied.
Selecting five chess pieces, Chen threw them simultaneously at the foot of the opposite wall and extinguished five incense sticks.
"Excellent kung fu," Great Idiocy praised him. He took a string of prayer beads from around his neck, snapped the chord and let five of the beads fall into his palm. With one movement, he slung them away, snuffing out five incense sticks on Chen's side.
Chen quickly extinguished another five sticks of incense. Great Idiocy replied by knocking out all nine candles on Chen's side, and in the darkness, the burning tips of the incense sticks became much easier targets for the monk.
"Of course, why didn't I think of that?" Chen thought. He chose nine chess pieces and threw them three at a time at the candles on the monk's side of the hall. But the flames were untouched. He had heard a series of clicks coming from the centre of the hall and he realised that Great Idiocy had knocked each of his nine projectiles down with his prayer beads. As Chen gaped in surprise at such skill, the monk extinguished another four incense sticks. Chen waited for the monk to throw another wave of prayer beads, and then aimed chess pieces to intercept them. But with the candles on the opposite side still burning he found it difficult to spot the small beads clearly and only managed to hit two of the five. The other three struck home.
Great Idiocy, already nine candles and two incense sticks ahead, concentrated on protecting his own candles, while extinguishing more of Chen's incense sticks whenever the opportunity arose. In a short while, he had snuffed out another fourteen, while Chen, putting his all into the task, only managed to extinguish two of the candles. Suddenly, he remembered one of 'Buddha' Zhao's tricks and threw three chess pieces at the side wall with great force. They ricocheted off and two of them struck their targets. Great Idiocy, who had thought the throw was a show of childish petulance on Chen's part, let out a cry of surprise.
Chen continued in this way, bouncing chess pieces off the wall. Great Idiocy had no way of protecting the candles, but he was already several dozen incense sticks ahead, and without taking any further notice of his opponent, he redoubled his efforts to knock out the rest. As the last of the monk's candles went out, the hall was plunged into darkness. Chen counted seven incense sticks left on the monks side while his own was still a mass of red dots, perhaps thirty or forty. Just as he was coming to the conclusion that he had lost, he heard Great Idiocy shout: "Master Chen, I've used up all my projectiles. Let us stop for a moment and get more from the altar table."
Chen felt in his bag and found he only had five or six chess pieces left.
"You go first," the monk added. Chen walked over to the altar table and with a flash of inspiration, stretched out his arm and swept all of the projectiles into his bag. He jumped back to his place and Great Idiocy ran over to find the table top was empty. Chen threw a shower of projectiles at the remaining fiery spots, and in a moment had extinguished them all.
Great Idiocy let out a hearty laugh. "I have to hand it to you, Master Chen," he said. "That was more of a battle of wits than a trial of strength. You win. Please continue."
"I apologise," Chen replied. "I had already lost, and only used such a trick because of the importance of the matter. Please forgive me."
"The masters guarding the next two halls are my martial uncles. Their kung fu is very good. You must be careful."
Chen thanked him and went on to the next hall. This hall was also brightly lit with candles, but it was much smaller than the previous three. Two rattan mats lay on the floor in the centre of the hall, and the senior monk Heavenly Mirror was seated on one of them. As Chen entered, he monk stood up in greeting.
"Please sit down," he said, gesturing to the other other mat. Chen wondered how he wanted to compete, but took his seat in silence.
Heavenly Mirror was an extremely tall man and very formidable to look at. Even seated on the mat, he was not much shorter than an ordinary person. His cheeks were two deep hollows, and there appeared to be no flesh on his body at all.
"You have passed through three halls, which is greatly to your credit," he said. "But you are still junior to me, so I cannot compete with you on equal terms. Let us do it this way: if you can go ten moves with me without losing, I will let you go through."
Chens bowed to him. "Thank you for your kindness, Your Reverence."
Heavenly Mirror grunted. "Now parry this!"
Chen felt a force striking towards his chest and raised his hands to counter it. Their palms met and Chen was forced to make use of his full strength to keep from falling backwards. The shock of the impact caused a dull ache to grow in his left arm.
"Now the second move!" Heavenly Mirror called. Chen did not dare to counter his hand directly again. He leant to one side, then hit out at the monk's elbow. Heavenly Mirror should have responded by withdrawing his arm, but instead he swept it across in attack, and Chen only just managed to parry it. A bell close to the hall began to chime, and as it resounded, Chen had an idea. He switched to the kung fu style he had learned in the White Jade Peak, synchronising his movements to the sound of the bell. Heavenly Mirror gasped in surprise and fought back carefully.
When the bell ceased, Chen withdrew his hands. "I cannot continue," he said.
"All right. We have already exchanged more than forty moves. Your kung fu is very good. Please pass."
Chen stood up, and was about to walk off when he suddenly swayed and stumbled and hurriedly leant against the wall for support. Heavenly Mirror helped him to sit down again.
"Rest here for a moment and catch your breath," he said. "It won't affect matters."
Chen close his eyes and did as the monk said.
"Where did you learn that style of kung fu?" Heavenly Mirror asked. Chen told him.
"I never guessed that the standard of kung fu would be so high in the western border regions. If you had used that style from the start you would not have hurt your arm."
"Seeing as I am hurt, I am sure I will not be able to make it through the last hall," Chen said. "What does Your Reverence suggest I do?"
"If you can't make it through, turn back."
Chen's martial training made it impossible for him to accept defeat so easily. He stood up and bowed to Heavenly Mirror, then strode bravely towards the last hall.
He was surprised to find it was in fact only a tiny room in the centre of which sat the abbot of the Shaolin Monastery, Heavenly Rainbow. Chen wondered how he could possibly overcome the best kung fu fighter in the Shaolin Monastery if his junior, Heavenly Mirror, was already so formidable.
The abbot bowed. "Please be seated," he said. A steady stream of sandlewood-scented smoke rose from a small incense stove on a table between them. On the wall opposite Chen, was a painting of two monks which, although executed with only a few brush-strokes, was full of vitality.
Heavenly Rainbow meditated for a moment, then said: "There was once a man who was very successful at goat-herding. He became very rich, but he was by nature very miserly...."
Hearing the abbot begin to tell a story, Chen was greatly puzzled, but he concentrated on what the old man was saying: "An acquaintance of the goatherd knew he was very stupid, and also that he badly wanted to find a wife. So he cheated the goatherd, saying: 'I know a girl who is very beautiful. I can arrange for her to marry you.' The goatherd was delighted and gave him a large amount of money. A year past, and the man said to him: 'Your wife has given birth to your son.' The goatherd hadn't even seen the woman, but hearing he had a son, he was even more pleased and gave the man another large sum of money. Later, the man came to him again and said: 'Your son has died!' The goatherd cried uncontrollably, heart-broken in the extreme."
Chen had a fairly good general education, and knew he was quoting from the Hundred Parables Sutra of the Mahayana school of Buddhism.
"In fact all worldly matters are like this," the abbot continued. "Power and riches are like the wife and child of the goatherd: just fantasies. What is the point of wasting effort to obtain them when losing them will only cause sorrow?"
"There was once a husband and wife who had three cakes," Chen replied. "They ate one cake each, but could not decide who should eat the third. Finally, they agreed that whoever talked first would lose the chance to eat the cake."
Hearing Chen relate another story from the Hundred Parables Sutra, Heavenly Rainbow nodded.
"The two stared at each other in silence. Soon after, a thief entered and ransacked the house for the couple's valuables, but because of their agreement, the couple continued to stare at each other without saying a word. Seeing them thus, the thief became even more bold and violated the wife in front of the husband. The husband made no complaint at all about what was happening, but in the end, the wife could stand it no longer and cried out. The thief grabbed up the valuables and fled, while the husband clapped his hands and shouted triumphantly: 'You lose! The cake is mine!'"
Heavenly Rainbow could not help but smile, even though he knew the story well.
"He ignored great suffering for the sake of minor personal satisfaction, allowing the thief to steal his possessions and violate his wife in order to satisfy his appetite. According to Buddhist tenets, one should try to help all living things and should not think only of oneself."
Heavenly Rainbow sighed, and quoted from the Buddhist scriptures: "There are no rules to regulate behaviour, there are no rules to which I am subject. Man is at a standstill until acted upon by a force. Those with no desires, will not be troubled by dreams and fantasies."
"Life for most people is full of hardship," Chen replied. "The monk Zhi Daolin once said: 'Emperors are cruel and evil by nature. How can one stand idly by?'"
The abbot could see Chen's determination to carry out his duty and help ease the people's burden, and was full of respect for him.
"Your enthusiasm is commendable, Master Chen," he said. "I will set you one more question, and then you can have your way."
Chen bowed his head in acknowledgement.
"An old woman was once lying under a tree, resting. Suddenly, a huge bear appeared wanting to eat her. She jumped up and ran behind the tree to escape, and the bear stretched its paws round either side of the tree to grab her. Seizing the opportunity, the old woman pressed its paws down onto the tree trunk. As a result, the bear could not move, but the old woman did not dare to let go either. Some time later, a man passed by and the old woman appealed to him for help, saying they could kill the bear together and share the meat. The man believed her and took her place holding down the bear's paws. The old woman then fled, leaving the man in the same dilemma she had been in."
Chen knew the moral of the story: "Never regret helping others, even if you suffer yourself as a result," he replied.
Heavenly Rainbow lifted the the long-haired duster he was holding. "Please go through," he said.
Chen stood up and bowed before him. "Please forgive me for trespassing on this sacred place," he said.
The abbot nodded. As he walked out of the room, Chen heard the old man sigh.
Inside was a thick file of yellowing papers, a man's embroidered waistcoat, and a woman's white undergarment which was badly ripped and speckled with black spots that appeared to be blood stains. Chen opened the file and began reading from the beginning: "I, Yu Wanting, a twenty-first generation pupil of the Shaolin Monastery of Putian, Fujian Province, do hereby respectfully confess in full my misdemeanors.
"I was born into a peasant family and spent my youth in great poverty and hardship. I knew the girl Xu Chaosheng, who lived next door, from when we were very young. As we grew, we came to love one another...."
Chen's heart began to thump wildly. "Could it be my foster father's misdemeanor had something to do with my mother?" he wondered. He continued reading:
"We secretly agreed to remain faithful to each other for life, and would marry no-one else. After the death of my father, there were several years of drought, and with nothing in the fields to harvest, I went out into the world to find a life for myself. Due to the compassion of my benevolent master, I was taken in by the monastery. The embroidered waistcoat enclosed was given to me by the girl Xu when I left home.
"Before I had been fully initiated into the higher skills of the Shaolin martial arts school, I left temporarily to return to my home village. Because of the girl Xu's kindness, I was unable to abandon worldly emotions and went back to see her, but was shocked to find that her father had married her into the family of the local landlord, surnamed Chen. In a state of extreme anguish, I entered the Chen mansion one night to visit her. Using martial skills I had learned from the Shaolin School, I trespassed on the property of an ordinary citizen for personal reasons. This was my first breach of discipline.
"The girl Xu moved with her husband to Beijing, and three years later, having failed to renounce my love for her, I went to visit her again. As it happened, that very night, she gave birth to a son. I was outside the window and managed to catch a glimpse of the child. Four days later, I returned once more and found the girl Xu looking very pale. She told me that her son had been taken away by the Princess Rong Zhang and replaced by a baby girl. Before we had a chance to talk further, four assassins entered, obviously sent by the Princess to kill the girl Xu. In the heat of the fight, I received a sword wound on my forehead, but killed all four assassins before passing out. The girl Xu bandaged my wound with the enclosed undergarment. Having heard a secret of the Imperial Palace and having been seen to use Shaolin kung fu, I risked bringing great trouble upon the school. This is my second breach of discipline.
"For the next ten years, although I was in Beijing, I did not dare to go and see the girl Xu again, but submerged myself in learning kung fu. Finally the Emperor Yong Zheng died and Qian Long succeeded him to the throne. I worked out the dates and realised that Qian Long was the son of the girl Xu. Knowing how cold-blooded Yong Zheng was and afraid that he might have left orders to have her killed to silence her, I entered the Chen mansion again. One night, two assassins did indeed come. I killed them both and found Yong Zheng's written order on one of them. I enclose the document."
Chen flipped through the rest of the pile and found at the end a note on which was written: "If, when I die, Chen Shiguan and his wife are still alive, they must be speedily killed." It was unmistakably the calligraphy of the Emperor Yong Zheng. Chen guessed Yong Zheng must have known his parents would not dare to breathe a word while he was alive, but thought they might try to make use of the information after his death. He continued reading.
"Qian Long apparently knew nothing of the matter, for no more assassins were sent. But I could not rest easy, so I dressed as a commoner and obtained employment in the Chen mansion, chopping firewood and carrying water. This I did for five years. Only when I was certain there would be no further repurcussions did I leave. I acted with great recklessness, and if I had been discovered, it would have caused great embarrassment to the Shaolin School, and have damaged the school's honour. This is my third breach of discipline."
Now Chen understood why his mother had wanted him to go with Yu, and why Yu had died of a broken heart after the death of his mother. He thought of Yu working for five years as a lowly servant in his own household to protect his mother, truly an expression of deep love and an overwhelming sense of duty. He wondered which one of the dozens of servants around the house when he was young was Yu.
After a while, he wiped his eyes and read on: "I am guilty of three serious breaches of discipline. Full of fear, I hereby present the full facts to my benevolent master and plead for leniency."
Yu's submission ended at that point and was followed by two lines of vermillion characters which said: "Yu Wanting has committed three misdemeanors. If he is truly willing to reform and follow the teachings of the Buddha, why should we not forgive him since the Buddha was willing to forgive the Ten Sins? But if he hankers after worldly passions and refuses to use his intelligence to break the bonds of emotion, then he should be immediately expelled. It is up to him."
So his foster father was expelled from the Shaolin School because he could not give up my mother, Chen thought.
He looked up and saw the stars on the western horizon were beginning to fade while in the east, day had already arrived. He blew out the candles, wrapped the things up in the yellow cloth and picked up the parcel. He closed the cabinet doors and slowly walked back out to the courtyard where he found a statue of a laughing Buddha gazing down him. He wondered what his foster father must have felt, being confronted with this Buddha as he left the courtyard after being expelled. He walked back through the five halls, all of them deserted.
As he passed through the last doorway, Lord Zhou and the Red Flower Society heroes came forward to greet him. They had waited anxiously for half the night and were delighted to see him returning safely. But as he came closer, they saw his weary look, and his red, swollen eyes. Chen gave them a brief account of what had happened, omitting only the relationship between his foster father and his mother.
"Our business here is finished," he said. The others nodded.
Lord Zhou accompanied Chen back inside to bid farewell to the abbot, then the heroes collected their belonging and started on the way.
Just as they were leaving the monastery, Zhou Qi went pale and almost fainted. Her father quickly helped her back inside to rest, and the monastery's physician announced after examining her that she was in no condition to travel and would have to rest at the monastery to await the birth. Zhou Qi could only smile bitterly and nod in agreement.
The others discussed the situation and decided that Lord Zhou and Xu should stay to look after Zhou Qi, and join them in Beijing after the birth of the child. Zhou rented a number of peasant huts a couple of miles west of the monastery for them to live in, and Chen and the other heroes started off north.
Shi's face lit up. "Zhang is dead?"
"Yes, he was eaten up by wolves."
Shi bowed before Chen and the others.
"Twelfth Brother," said Chen. "Have your wounds fully recovered?"
"Thank you for your concern, Great Helmsman, completely recovered. You and the others have had a long, hard journey."
"Is there any news from the capital?"
Shi's expression turned grim. "None from the capital. But I have hurried here to report that Master Muzhuolun's entire army has been destroyed."
"What?" Chen's face went white and he stood up.
"When we left the Muslim regions, General Zhao Wei and the remains of his army was competely surrounded," Luo Bing said. "How could the Manchus score another victory?"
Shi sighed. "Reinforcements suddenly arrived from the south. From what the Muslims who managed to flee say, Master Muzhuolun and his son fought to the death. Mistress Huo Qingtong was ill at the time of the attack and was unable to direct the defence. No-one knows what happened to her."
Chen slumped down into his chair.
"Mistress Huo Qingtong has an excellent command of kung fu," Lu Feiqing said. "She would not come to harm at the hands of the Manchu troops."
They all knew he was just trying to ease Chen's anxiety. It was difficult to see how a sick girl could protect herself in the confusion of battle.
"Huo Qingtong has a sister," Luo Bing said. "The Muslims call her Princess Fragrance. Did you hear any news of her?"
"Nothing at all," Shi replied. "But she is a well-known person. If anything had happened to her, there would be bound to be reports circulating in the capital. I heard nothing, so I presume she is all right."
Chen was embarrassed by their elaborate concern for his feelings. "I will go inside and rest for a while," he said, and walked to his room.
"Go and look after him," Luo Bing whispered to Xin Yan. The boy ran after his master.
After a short while, Chen thrust aside the curtain to his room and strode out again. "We must eat quickly, and get to Beijing as quickly as possible," he said.
A new note of determination in his voice surprised the heroes. Wen raised his thumb in agreement and dug into his food with increased gusto.
As they travelled on, Chen forced himself to smile and chat with the others, but his features became more haggard as the days went by. Before too long, they arrived in Beijing. Shi had rented a large residence in Twin Willows Lane. Priest Wu Chen, the Twin Knights, 'Buddha' Zhao and 'Pagoda' Yang were there waiting for them.
"Third Brother," Chen said to 'Buddha' Zhao. "Please go with Xin Yan to see the Emperor's chief bodyguard, Bai Zhen. Take the lute that the Emperor presented to me and the jade vase that Luo Bing stole and give them to him to pass on to the Emperor, to let him know that we are here."
Zhao and Xin Yan left and returned several hours later.
"We went to Bai Zhen's home to look for him and he happened to be at home," Xin Yan reported. "We gave Zhao's name card to one of his servants, and he rushed out to greet us. He dragged us inside and insisted on us drinking several cups of wine before letting us go. Extremely friendly."
Early the next morning, Bai Zhen paid them a visit. He chatted with 'Buddha' Zhao for a while about the weather, then asked respectfully if he could see Chen.
"The Emperor has ordered me to take you to the Palace," he whispered to Chen when he appeared.
"Good," replied Chen. "Please wait here for a moment."
He went back inside to discuss things with the others. They all thought he should take strict precautions.
Several of the heroes accompanied him into the Forbidden City, while Wen and the rest stationed themselves outside the palace walls to await their return.
With Bai Zhen leading the way, Chen and the others walked through the palace gates, passed guards who respectfully bowed to them. They were overawed by the imposing atmosphere of the palace: its thick, sturdy walls, the heavy defences. They had walked for a good while when two eunuchs ran up to Bai Zhen.
"Master Bai," said one. "The Emperor is in the Precious Moon Pavilion, and orders you to take Master Chen there to see him."
Bai nodded, and turned to Chen. "We are now entering the forbidden area of the palace. Please ask everyone to leave their weapons here." Despite their uneasiness at this, the heroes had no alternative and did as he said, placing their swords on a nearby table.
Bai led them through halls and across courtyards and stopped in front of a large, richly-decorated pavilion.
"Announcing Chen Jialuo!" he called out. Chen straightened his cap and gown and followed the old eunuch into the pavilion while Priest Wu Chen and the others were forced to remain outside.
They climbed up the stairs to the fifth floor, and entered a room in which they found Qian Long, seated and smiling. Chen knelt down and kowtowed before him respectfully.
"You've come," said Qian Long. "Excellent. Please be seated." With a wave of his hand he dismissed the eunuchs. Chen remained standing where he was.
"Sit down and let us talk," Qian Long repeated. Only then did Chen thank him and take a seat.
"What do you think of this pavilion?" the Emperor asked.
"Where else would one find such a building but in the Imperial Palace?"
"I told them to build it quickly. From start to finish, it took less than two months. If there had been more time, it would have been even more elegant. But it will do as it is."
"Yes," replied Chen. He wondered how many workers and craftsmen had died of exhaustion during the construction.
Qian Long stood up. "You have just returned from the Muslim areas. Come and look. Does this look like a desert scene?" Chen followed him to a window, and as he looked out, started in surprise.
To the right, was a classic Imperial Chinese garden, filled with purples and reds and twisting paths, a sumptuous scene. But looking left, towards the west, the view was entirely different. For about a third of a mile, the ground was covered in yellows and, arranged into small sand dunes. Looking closely, Chen saw the signs of pavilions having been knocked down, water pools filled in and trees and bushes uprooted. The scene naturally lacked the majesty of the endless desert, but it was a good likeness.
"Does your highness like desert views?" he asked.
Qian Long smiled. "What do you think of it?"
"A lot of work has been put into it," Chen replied. There were a number of Muslim tents staked on the sand with three camels tied up nearby and with a sudden heartache, he thought of Princess Fragrance and her sister. Looking beyond, he saw several hundred workers demolishing several more buildings: the Emperor had obviously decided he wanted a bigger desert.
Chen wondered why on earth Qian Long would have had a piece of dry, desolate desert constructed in the palace grounds. Incongruously placed in the middle of such a lush Chinese garden, it looked simply ludicrous.
Qian long walked away from the window and pointed to the antique lute he had given Chen, now lying on a small table.
"Why don't you play me a tune?" he said.
Chen could see the Emperor did not wish to discuss the important business at hand, and he could not raise it himself, so he sat down and began to pluck the strings. As he played, something caught his eye, and he looked up to find the jade vases decorated with Princess Fragrance's image smiling at him across the room. With a twang, one of the strings broke.
"What's the matter?" Qian Long asked. He smiled. "Do you find yourself a little afraid, here in the palace?"
Chen stood up and replied respectfully: "Your humble servant has disgraced himself in front of your Celestial Majesty."
Qian Long laughed., greatly pleased by this. Chen lowered his head and noticed Qian Long's left hand was bound with a white cloth as if it was wounded. Qian Long's face flushed red and he hurriedly put the hand behind his back.
"Did you bring the things I wanted?" he asked.
"They are with my friends downstairs," Chen replied.
Qian Long picked up a small hammer and rapped the table with it twice and a young eunuch ran in. "Tell the gentlemen accompanying Master Chen to come up," he ordered, and the eunuch returned a moment later with the six heroes.
Chen stood up and shot them a glance and they had no option but to kneel down and kowtow before Qian Long.
"You stinking emperor!" Priest Wu Chen thought as he did so. "We almost scared you out of your wits that day in the pagoda in Hangzhou, but you're still just as damned arrogant. If it wasn't for the Great Helmsman, I would kill you this instant."
Chen took a small, sealed wooden box from 'Buddha' Zhao and placed it on the table. "They are in here," he said.
"Good. That will be all," Qian Long replied. "When I have looked at them I will send for you." Chen kowtowed again. "And take the lute with you," he added.
Chen picked up the lute and handed it to 'Leopard' Wei. "Since Your Highness has already subdued the Muslim areas, your servant pleads with you to be merciful and to order that there be no indiscriminate killings there," he said.
Qian Long did not answer, but simply waving them away with his hand. Bai Zhen led them to the palace gate where Wen and the others were waiting.
He stared for a moment at the jade vases on the table, then said to the eunuch: "Send her up." The eunuch disappeared, and returned on his knees to report: "Your slave deserves to die. The lady refuses to come."
Qian Long laughed shortly and glanced at the jade vases again. Then he stood up and went downstairs. Two eunuchs followed carrying the vase.
One floor down, a maid servant pulled aside a curtain and Qian Long walked through into a room full of fresh flowers. Two other maids servants took the vases from the eunuchs and carefully placed them on a table.
A girl wearing a white gown was sitting facing the wall. With a wave of his hand, Qian Long dismissed the maid servants from the room. He had just opened his mouth to speak when the door curtains parted and two bodyguards came in and stood quietly by the entrance.
"What are you doing here? Get out," he said angrily.
"Your slaves have orders from the Empress Dowager to protect Your Highness," said one of the bodyguards.
"I'm fine. What do I need protection for?"
"The Empress Dowager knows she ... that the lady is not ... that she is strong-willed, and is afraid that she will inflict injury on Your Highness's precious self."
Qian Long glanced down at his bandaged hand, and shouted: "There's no need. Get out!"
The two bodyguards kowtowed frantically but did not retire. He knew that no matter what, they would not dare to disobey the Empress Dowager's orders, so he took no further notice of them, and turned back to face the girl in the white gown.
"Turn round, I have something to say," he said in the Muslim tongue. The girl took no notice. In her hand was a dagger. She gripped it even tighter.
Qian Long sighed. "Look at what is on the table," he said. The girl ignored him for a moment, but finally her curiosity got the better of her. She glanced round and saw the pair of jade vases, and at the same moment, the Emperor and the bodyguards were dazzled by the sight of her beauty: it was Princess Fragrance.
She had been captured by General Zhao Wei's army and sent to Beijing under special guard to the Emperor. Qian Long thought it would be more interesting to be able to talk to the girl directly, so he called for a teacher to teach him the Muslim tongue. He was an intelligent man and studied diligently, and after a few months he could talk in a halting fashion.
But Princess Fragrance was already tightly bound to Chen. Furthermore, Qian Long had been responsible for the death of her father, making her even more adament in her refusal of his advances. Several times she had been forced almost to the point of suicide, but each time she thought of Chen and restrained herself.
"I will be just like I was when surrounded by the wolves," she thought. "That large wolf wanted to eat me, but my knight finally saved me."
Qian Long watched her becoming more haggard day by day. He was afraid she would die of melancholy, so he called for the capital's best craftsmen and had the Precious Moon Pavilion built for her to live in.
But Princess Fragrance took not the slightest notice. The priceless treasures used to decorate the pavilion were ignored, except for the murals covering the walls. They depicted scenes of the Muslims areas, and she stared at them glassy-eyed, reliving over and over the carefree happiness of the days when she and Chen had been together.
Sometimes Qian Long spied on her secretly and saw her staring into distance, the trace of a smile playing around her lips. One day he could resist it no longer and he stretched out his hand to grasp her arm. There was a flash of a dagger, and only Princess Fragrance's ignorance of kung fu and his own sprightliness saved him. But his left hand had been cut and in a moment was covered in blood. He was so scared by the incident that from that moment on, he did not dare to risk annoying her again. When the Emperess Dowager heard of the matter, she ordered the eunuchs to take the dagger off her, but Princess Fragrance pointed it at her chest whenever anyone came near her and threatened to commit suicide. So Qian Long ordered them to stay away from her and not to interfere.
Princess Fragrance was also afraid they would put something in her food or drink, so apart from fresh fruit she had peeled herself, she would touch nothing. Qian Long had a Muslim-style bath constructed for her, but she refused to use it, and after many days of not bathing, her body's fragrance became even more pronounced. Originally naive and ignorant of worldly affairs, she became increasingly strong and knowledgeable as the weeks went past as a result of her exposure to the evil people who populated the palace.
As soon as she spotted the vases, she started in shock and quickly turned back to face the wall, gripping the hilt of the dagger tightly and wondering what Qian Long was up to.
He sighed. "When I first saw your image on the vases, I was certain that such a person could not exist in this world," he said. "But now I have seen you, I know that the greatest of craftsmen could not capture a ten thousandth of your beauty."
Princess Fragrance ignored him.
"If you continue to worry like this all day, you are going to become ill," he continued. "Do you miss your home? Go and look out of the window." He ordered the bodyguards to open the window shutters.
Seeing the two bodyguards and Qian Long standing near the window, Princess Fragrance harrumphed and turned away. Qian Long understood and walked to the other side of the room and ordered the bodyguards to do the same. Only then did Princess Fragrance slowly walk over to the window and look outside. She saw the expanse of sand and the Muslim tents and her heart twisted in pain. Two tears rolled slowly down her cheeks, and she picked up one of the vases on the table and threw it with all her strength at Qian Long's head.
One of the bodyguards shot forward and intercepted the vase, but it slipped from his grasp and shattered on the floor just as the second vase came flying after the first. The other bodyguard tried to catch it, but it slipped through his hands and smashed beside the first vase.
Afraid that she would try some other way of harming the Emperor, the bodyguards sprang across the room at her. Princess Fragrance immediately turned her dagger round and put it to her throat.
"Stop!" Qian Long shouted frantically, and the bodyguards halted in the tracks. Princess Fragrance retreated several steps, and as she did there was a clinking sound as something fell from her dress to the ground. The bodyguards were afraid it was some kind of weapon and quickly picked it up. Seeing it was a piece of jade, they handed it to the Emperor.
Qian Long took hold of it, and his face drained of colour. He recognised it instantly as the piece of warm jade he had given to Chen on the breakwater at Haining. When he had presented it, he had told Chen to give it to the lady of his heart as an expression of love.
"Do you know him?" he asked, flustered. He paused for a second, then said: "Where did this piece of jade come from?"
Princess Fragrance put out her hand. "Give it back to me," she said.
Qian Long's jealousy flared. "Tell me who gave it to you and I will return it."
"My husband gave it to me."
Qian Long was greatly surprised by this reply.
"Are you married already?"
"I have not married him in body yet, but my heart has long been married to him," she answered proudly. "He is the kindest and bravest person in the world. I know he will rescue me from you. He is not afraid of you and neither am I, even though you are Emperor."
"I know the man you are talking about," he said, his voice full of hatred. "He is the Great Helmsman of the Red Flower Society, Chen Jialuo. He is just a bandit leader. What is so special about him?"
Princess Fragrance's heart leapt for joy at the sound of Chen's name and her face lit up.
"So you know of him too. It would be better if you let me go."
Qian Long looked up and happened to catch a glimpse of his own face in a dressing table mirror. He thought of Chen, his features handsome and cultured, equally versed in scholarship and the martial arts and knew he was no match for him. Full of jealousy and hatred, he threw the jade piece at his image and smashed both it and the mirror, covering the floor in broken glass. Princess Fragrance rushed forward to pick up the jade, which was unharmed, and wiped it lovingly, making Qian Long even more angry. With a stamp of his foot, he stormed out of the room and down the stairs.
He went to the quiet study where he usually read and wrote poetry, and spotted a half-written poem on the desk entitled 'The Precious Moon Pavilion': "The Fairy Princess is in the Pavilion, A vision from the Son of Heaven's dreams of former days."
Now, in a flash of anger, he ripped the poem up, and then sat in silence for a long time.
Slowly, his temper cooled, and he thought: "I am the Son of Heaven, I am all-powerful. So it finally comes out that this barbarian girl's stubbornness is the result of interference by Chen Jialuo. His appeal to me to drive the Manchus out of China is a good idea, but if things do not go as planned, not only will the affair end in failure, but could end my life as well. I've been debating this matter for months now, unable to come to a decision. What should I do?"
And another thought rushed to the fore: "I can do whatever I like already, and if this affair is successful, it could mean I would be controlled by these people. Can I allow myself to become a puppet? Why abandon concrete assets for the sake of improving my reputation? This Muslim girl thinks of nothing but him. All right, we'll settle these two matters together."
He told a eunuch to call for Bai Zhen who appeared shortly afterwards. "Station four top-ranking bodyguards on each floor of the Precious Moon Pavilion and another twenty outside," he ordered. "There must be no slip-ups of any kind." Bai Zhen bowed. "And call for Chen Jialuo again. I have important business to discuss with him. Tell him to come alone."
"The fact that he calls me back so soon after receiving the evidence I gave him must mean he wants to talk about it," said Chen. "This is the big chance for us to recover China for the Chinese. I have to go no matter what dangers are waiting for me. Second Brother," he added turning to Priest Wu Chen. "If I don't return, please take over command of the Red Flower Society and avenge me."
"Don't worry, Great Helmsman," the priest replied, deeply moved.
"There's no need to wait for me outside the palace this time. If he means to harm me, there is no way you could help me and trying would just cause needless casualties."
By the time Chen re-entered the forbidden precincts of the palace with Bai Zhen, it was already dark. Two eunuchs carrying lanterns led them through webs of tree-branch moon shadows to the Precious Moon Pavilion. This time, they ascended to the fourth floor, and as soon as the eunuchs reported Chen's arrival, Qian Long ordered him sent in. He was seated on a couch in a small room, a far-away look in his eyes. Chen knelt and kowtowed and Qian Long told him to be seated. He was silent for a while. Chen looked around him and noticed a poetic couplet on the wall written by Qian Long himself.
"What do you think?" Qian Long asked, seeing him reading the couplet.
"Your Highness has high aspirations and the spirit of an Emperor of great courage and intelligence. When the Great Endeavour is successfully accomplished, and the Manchus have been driven from China, your merit will far exceed even the Han dynasty emperor who expelled the Tartars or the Ming dynasty emperor who threw out the Mongols, and will be remembered for ten thousand generations."
Qian Long was delighted to hear such praise. He smiled and stroked his whiskers. "You and I may be servant and master, but in spirit we are brothers," he said after a moment's contemplation. "In future, you must assist me well."
Chen was overjoyed to hear these words: From his tone, Qian Long did not appear to be planning to go back on his oath. His doubts dispersed, Chen knelt down once again and kowtowed.
"Your Highness's wise decision is truly a great blessing for the people," he said.
Qian Long sighed. "I may be the Son of Heaven, but I am not as fortunate as you," he said. Chen wondered what he meant. "In August last year, when we were in Haining, I gave you a piece of jade," he added. "Do you have it with you?"
Chen was startled. "Your Highness told me to pass it on to someone else, and I have already done so," he replied.
"You standards are very high. Whoever it is must be one of the world's most beautiful women."
Chen's eyes reddened. "Unfortunately, I do not know if she is dead or alive, or where she might be. When our business is concluded, I will search to the ends of the earth to find her."
"Do you love this lady deeply?"
"Yes," said Chen quietly.
"The Empress is a Manchu, you know that?"
"She has served me for a long time and is very virtuous. If we go ahead with this plan, she will certainly fight to the death. What do you think should be done?"
Chen was unable to answer. "Your Highness's opinions are sacred," he finally said. "Your servant would not dare make any reckless suggestions."
"I cannot allow the nation to be split in two. This consideration has made me very hesitant of late. Also, at present I have a personal problem which unfortunately no-one can help me with."
"I will do whatever Your Highness orders."
"Gentlemen should not snatch prized possessions from others, but this is something decided by Fate," replied Qian Long. "Ah, when one's love is concentrated on one person, what can one do? Go over there and take a look."
He pointed to a doorway on the western side of the room, then stood up and walked out.
Chen was greatly confused by this strange speech, but he calmed himself and pulled aside the thick door curtain. He walked slowly through into what he saw was an extremely sumptuous bed chamber. A red candle burned in the corner, and a girl in a white gown sat staring at its flame.
Suddenly seeing Princess Fragrance in the depths of the Imperial Palace, Chen was dumbfounded. He swayed unsteadily and was unable to speak. Upon hearing the footsteps, Princess Fragrance had grasped the dagger hilt tightly. Then she looked round to see the very person she had been dreaming of day and night. Her angry glare immediately melted into an expression of delight. She cried out and threw herself across the room into Chen's arms.
"I knew you would come and save me," she cried. "I waited patiently, and finally you have come."
Chen held her warm body tightly. "Are we dreaming?" he asked. She looked up and shook her head as tears began to course down her cheeks.
Chen's first thought was that the Emperor had found out she was the lady of his heart and had brought her from the Muslim areas to be with him. He put his arms around her waist and then unself-consciously kissed her on the lips. In the midst of the sweetness of the long kiss, they became oblivious to everything around them.
After a long, long time, Chen finally looked at the pink flush on her cheeks. Behind her on a dressing table, he noticed a broken mirror, and the image of them both embracing in each segment.
"Look," he whispered. "There are one thousand me's, and every one is holding you."
Princess Fragrance glanced at the broken mirror, and then pulled the piece of warm jade from her pocket.
"He stole my jade piece and broke the mirror with it," she said. "Luckily it wasn't damaged."
"Who?" Chen asked, startled.
"That evil emperor."
"Why?" Chen asked, even more astonished.
"He bullied me, but I said I wasn't afraid because I knew you would rescue me. He was very angry and tried to grab me, but I have this dagger."
"Dagger?" he repeated distantly.
"Yes. I was with my father when they killed him. He gave me this dagger and told me to kill myself if the enemy violated me. People who commit suicide are sent to Hell, but if they are girls dying to protect their virtue then Allah makes an exception."
Chen looked down and wondered how many times this weak, naive girl had come close to death in the past few months. His heart was filled with love and pain and he embraced her again. After a while, he steadied himself and began to carefully consider the situation.
He now realized that Qian Long had had Princess Fragrance brought to Beijing because he wanted her himself. He had obviously ordered the construction of a desert in the Imperial Gardens to try to please her. But she had sworn never to give in. He had threatened and cajoled her in every way he could think of, all without effect. That must be why Qian Long had said that he was not as fortunate as himself.
He looked down at Princess Fragrance as he held her and saw she had closed her eyes and was fast asleep. Why did he let me see her? he wondered. He had raised the problem of the Empress and said that if the Great Endeavour was to accomplished, she would have to be discounted, and that a choice would have to be made between family and country. Yes, his meaning is......"
He shivered and began to sweat. He felt Princess Fragrance move slightly against him and heard her sigh. A smile appeared on her face like a flower bud opening.
"Should I break with the Emperor for her sake, or ask her to give in to him for the sake of the Great Endeavour?" The thought shot through his brain like a lightning bolt, and he cringed from it.
"She loves me so deeply. She's managed somehow to maintain her virtue for my sake, she believes firmly that I will rescue her. How can I really bring myself to reject her, to betray her? But if I think only of us two, I must break with my brother, and this rare opportunity to recover the throne will be lost. If I did that, would we not be cursed by generations to come?" His brain was in turmoil, and he had no idea what he should do.
Princess Fragrance opened her eyes. "Let's go," she said. "I'm afraid of seeing that evil Emperor again."
"Wait here for a moment. I'll go out for a while then come back." She nodded and took the dagger from his hand, then watched him leave the room with smiling eyes.
He went up the stairs and found Qian Long on the next floor up sitting on a couch, stony-faced and motionless.
"Affairs of state are of more importance than private concerns," Chen announced. "I will urge her to give in to you."
Qian Long jumped up off the couch in delight. "Really?" he exclaimed.
"Yes, but you must swear an oath." Chen stared at him as he spoke.
"What oath?" asked Qian Long, avoiding his gaze.
"If you do not honestly do all in your power to drive the Manchu barbarians out, what then?"
Qian Long thought for a moment. "If that is the case, then no matter how glorious my life may be, may my grave be dug up and my skeleton smashed to pieces."
The grave of an emperor was inviolable. Such an oath was extremely serious.
"All right," said Chen. "I will talk to her. But I will have to do it outside the palace."
"Outside?" Qian Long asked, startled.
Chen nodded. "At the moment, she hates you to her very bones. She won't be able to quietly listen to what I have to say here, so I wish to take her to the Great Wall to explain things."
"Why do you want to go so far?" said Qian Long suspiciously.
"I once promised to take her to the Great Wall. When I have done so, I will not see her ever again."
"You will definitely bring her back?"
"We members of the fighting community consider our word to be worth more than our lives. I will do what I have said."
Qian Long was uncertain of what to do. He wondered how he would ever find this beauty again if Chen escaped with her. But on the other hand, he knew the girl would never give in to him unless Chen could think of a way of convincing her to do so. He was sure Chen was committed to their Great Endeavour and would not give it up just for the sake of a girl.
"All right," he said finally, slapping the table. "Go, both of you."
He waited until Chen had gone, then said to the curtain behind him: "Take forty bodyguards and follow him the whole way. Whatever you do, don't let them get away."
Chen returned to the fourth floor and took hold of Princess Fragrance's hand. "Let's go," The two walked together out of the pavilion and out of the Forbidden City. The guards had already received their orders and made no attempt to stop them. Princess Fragrance's heart was full of joy. She had always believed her knight was capable of doing anything, and was in no way surprised that they could just walk out of the palace gates.
As they reached the outside, the sky was already growing light. Xin Yan was standing close by, the reins of the white horse in his hands, keeping watch, and when he spotted Chen, he rushed over. Seeing Princess Fragrance standing by his master's side, he was even more surprised and delighted.
Chen took the rein from him. "We are going on a trip out of the city for the day," he said. "We won't be back until late evening, so tell the others not to worry."
Xin Yan watched the two mount up and ride off north, and was about to leave when the sound of galloping hooves rose behind him and several dozen palace guards thundered past. He recognised the frail old man leading the troop as Bai Zhen, and returned quickly to Twin Willow Lane to report.
As the white horse left the city, it galloped ever faster. Princess Fragrance, snuggling into Chen's arms, watched the trees on either side of the road zip past, and all the distress and sorrow of the previous few months evaporated. The horse's strong legs carried them quickly past the small villages to the north of Beijing, and as they approached a crossroads, Chen said: "Let's go and see the tombs of the Ming dynasty emperors."
The horse galloped on. Just past the Jade Stone Bridge, they came upon a huge stone monument inscribed with the words: 'The Sacred Tombs of the Great Ming'. On the right-hand face of the monument were several lines of poetry in Qian Long's hand.
"What is it?" Princess Fragrance asked.
"It's a poem written by the Emperor."
"He's vile and horrible. Don't look at it," she urged. She took his hand and they continued on, and soon found themselves walking along an avenue flanked by stone lions, elephants, camels and strange mythical creatures. "I have only this one day left with her so I must make sure she enjoys it," Chen thought. "After today, we will neither of us ever pass another happy day again." So he roused his flagging spirits and smiled.
"You want to ride on the camel, don't you?" he said and lifted her up onto its back and sat behind her. With shouts and calls, they urged the stone camel forward. Princess Fragrance bent over double with laughter, then after a moment she sighed.
"If only this camel could really run and could carry us back to the Tianshan mountains," she said.
"What would you want to do there?"
She looked into the distance. "Oh, I would be very busy. I would have to pick flowers for you to eat, and look after the goats and feed the small deer. And I'd have to visit the graves of my father and mother and brother to keep them company, and think of some way to find my sister....."
"What happened to her?" he asked.
"She was ill the night the Manchus attacked. We were split up during the battle and I have heard no news of her since."
Chen was silent as they remounted the horse and started on their way. The road wound upwards and before long they arrived at Ju Yong Pass and caught sight of the Wall, writhing like a long snake through the clusters of hills.
"Why did they waste so much effort to build this thing?" Princess Fragrance asked.
"It was to stop the northern enemies from invading," Chen replied. "Countless people must have died on either side of this wall."
"Men are truly strange. Why don't they all live happily together and dance and sing instead of fighting? I really can't see the point of it all."
"If you ever get the chance, you must tell the Emperor not to make war on the poor peoples of the border areas. All right?"
"I will never see that evil Emperor again," she replied, puzzled by his sudden solemness.
"But if you were able to make him do your bidding, you must urge him not to do bad things, and to do some good for the people. Promise me!"
"What a funny thing to say. Do you really think I would be unwilling to do anything you asked me to do?"
"Thank you," Chen said, and she smiled.
They walked along a stretch of the wall hand-in-hand.
"I just thought of something," said Princess Fragrance.
"I am very happy today, but is it because of this beautiful scenery? No. I know it's because I am with you. As long as you are by my side, I would think even the most ugly place on earth was beautiful."
The happier she was, the more uncomfortable Chen felt. "Is there anything you would like me to do?" he asked.
"Oh, but you have already done everything. You have always given me everything I wanted, even without asking for it." She pulled the snow lotus from her pocket. The flower was now dry and withered, but it still possessed a strong fragrance.
"There is only one thing you refused to do," she added with a smile. "And that is to sing me a song."
Chen laughed. "It's true," he said. "I have never sung you a song."
Princess Fragrance pulled a face. "Well, I'm not going to sing for you any more either."
"I remember my mother's maid servant singing several rhymes when I was young. I'll sing one for you now, but you're not allowed to laugh."
She clapped her hands in delight. "All right! All right! Sing!"
He thought for a moment, and then began:
"The light rain falls
After he had finished, Chen explained the words of the song in the Muslim tongue, and Princess Fragrance laughed.
"The lady's eyesight was not too good, apparently," she said.
They explored the top of the wall, which consisted of battlements on the northern side, a stone hand rail on the other and a walkway in between. Every three hundred feet or so, there was a watchtower. They came to a beacon tower, and Chen thought of the time Huo Qingtong had burned wolf dung as part of her plan to destroy the Manchu army. He wondered again if she was alive or dead, and his sadness increased.
"I know what you are thinking," said Princess Fragrance.
"Yes. You are thinking of my sister."
"How did you know?"
"When the three of us were in the Secret City together, I could see how happy you were in spite of the danger. Oh, you mustn't worry so!"
He took her hand, "What do you mean?" he asked.
She sighed. "In the old days, I was just a child. I didn't understand anything. But every day I was in the Imperial Palace, I thought about the times we were together and realised many things that had not occured to me before. My sister loved you all along, and you love her, don't you?"
"Yes. I shouldn't try to deceive you."
"But I know you truly love me too. And without you, I cannot live. So let's go and find my sister quickly and we can all live happily together forever. Don't you think that would be lovely?"
Her eyes and face radiated happiness. Chen squeezed her hand. "You have thought it out perfectly," he said softly. "You and your sister are the nicest, the best people in the world."
Princess Fragrance stood looking out into the distance, and noticed the sun glinting off a body of water to the west. "Let's go and have a look over there," she said.
They made their way across the hills, and came upon a clear spring bubbling merrily out of a crack in the rocks.
"I will wash my feet here, is that all right?" Princess Fragrance asked.
"Of course," Chen replied with a smile. She took off her shoes and socks and stepped into the water, relishing the coolness as the crystal clear water flowed around her milk-white feet. Chen happened to see his own shadow on the water, and realised the sun was already sinking into the west. He reached into his bag and pulled out some food for them. Princess Fragrance leant against him and wiped her feet dry as she ate.
Chen gritted his teeth. "There is something I must say to you," he said. She turned and put both her arms round him, resting her head on his chest.
"I know you love me," she said quietly. "I understand. You don't have to say it."
He cringed and swallowed what he had been about to say. After a while, he started again: "Do you still remember Mami's last testament that we read inside the White Jade Peak?"
"She is living in Heaven now with her Ali. That's the way it should be."
"You Muslims believe that after good people die, they will live forever in paradise, is that right?"
"Of course that's what happens."
"When I return to Beijing, I will go and find an Islamic Imam and get him to teach me so that I can become a good follower of the Muslim faith," said Chen.
Princess Fragrance was overjoyed. She had never guessed he would be willing to voluntarily join the Muslim faith. "Oh my brother," she said looking up at him. "Will you really?"
"You're willing to do even that because of your love for me. I never dared to hope for such a thing."
"Because in this life," Chen continued slowly, "we will not be able to be together. So I want to be sure that after death, I can be with you every day."
The words struck Princess Fragrance like a clap of thunder. After a moment's silence, she said in shaking voice: "You....what are you talking about? We can't be together?"
"No. After today, we will not be able to see each other again."
"Why?" Her body quivered and two large tears fell onto his gown.
Chen embraced her tenderly. "If it were possible for me to be with you, I would be content even without food or clothing, even if I was beaten and humiliated everyday. But do you remember Mami? The good Mami was willing to leave her true love Ali in order that her tribe would no longer be oppressed and bullied by Sanglaba and was even willing to go and allow herself to be violated by him...."
Princess Fragrance's body went limp. "You want me to give in to the Emperor?" she whispered. "You want me to kill him?"
"No, he is my blood brother." He told her everything about his relationship with Qian Long, and the Red Flower Society's plans, about the oath sworn in the Six Harmonies Pagoda, and of Qian Long's demand earlier that day. As he spoke, Princess Fragrance realised that what she had been longing for day and night and thought she had achieved, was slipping from her grasp again. She was overwhelmed by a wave of panic and fainted away.
As she came to, she felt Chen holding her tightly, and was aware of a damp patch on her dress soaked by his tears. She stood up.
"Wait for me here," she said softly, and walked towards a large flat rock in the distance where she prostrated herself in prayer towards the west. She appealed to the True God, Allah for guidance on what she should do. The pale sunlight glanced off her white dress, her back presenting a picture of both great melancholy and warmth. After a while, she walked slowly back.
"Whatever you want me to do, I will do," she announced.
Chen jumped up and ran over to her, and the two embraced each other tightly.
"If I had known we had only today, I would have wanted you to hold me the whole day rather than come here," she whispered. Chen kissed her, unable to answer.
A long time passed. Then suddenly, Princess Fragrance said: "I have not had a bath since I left home. I am going to have one now." She began to take off her outer gown.
Chen stood up. "I'll go over there to wait for you," he said.
"No! No! I want you to watch me. When you saw me for the first time, I was bathing. Today is the last time...After you have seen me, I want you to never forget me."
"Do you really believe that I would ever forget you?"
"Please don't go," she pleaded, and there was nothing for Chen to do but to sit down again.
While Chen watched and the mountain spring gurgled, she removed all her clothing piece by piece, until the golden evening sun illuminated one of the world's most beautiful bodies. Chen felt giddy, and hardly dare to look directly at this vision. But he could not fail to notice her innocent, guileless expression, and suddenly thought of her as simply a naked three or four-year-old child. She was so beautiful and so pure.
"To make a body of such incomparable beauty, there must be an all-knowing, all-powerful God in heaven," he thought. His heart was filled with reverence and gratitude.
Princess Frgrance slowly wiped the pearls of water from her body, and then put her clothes back on.
"This body," she thought self-pityingly. "I will never again be able to show it to the one I love."
She rubbed her hair dry and then returned to sit in Chen's embrace.
"I once told you the story of the cowherd and the spinning girl, do you remember?" Chen asked.
"Yes. I remember. You said that although they met only once a year, they still saw each other countless times more than ordinary people."
"Yes. We cannot be together forever, but the True God will make sure we meet again eventually. In the desert, and here, we have been very happy. The time has been short, but we have perhaps had more happiness than many couples who live together for decades."
She listened to his soothing voice comforting her, as the sun slowly sank towards the hills with her heart following it down. Suddenly she jumped up and wailed: "No! The sun is disappearing!"
Chen's heart shattered. "I have asked so much of you!" he exclaimed, taking her hand.
She continued to stare at the point where the sun had gone down. "If only it was able to rise again, even for just a moment," she said quietly.
"It is right that I should undergo hardship for the sake of my people, but you have never even seen them, let alone loved them."
"I love you, so are they not my people too? Do you not love all our Muslim brothers?"
The sky was growing darker. The sun did not rise again, and a wave of coldness touched her heart.
"Let's go back," she said. "I am very happy. My life is fulfilled."
They climbed onto the back of the white horse and started back the way they had come. They were both silent and neither turned back to look at the place of beauty they had just enjoyed.
Less than an hour's ride later, they heard the sound of many galloping hooves in front and several dozen riders emerged out of the evening mist with Bai Zhen in the lead. His face lit up as soon as he saw Chen and Princess Fragrance, and signalling to the others to stop, he leapt off his horse and stood by the roadside. Chen did not even glance at him, but urged the white horse on even faster. Soon after, horses' hooves sounded in front once again, and the Red Flower Society heroes appeared.
"Great Helmsman!" 'Leopard' Wei shouted. "We're all here!"
The sky gradually became light and Qian Long watched the sun rising from the east as the eunuchs laid out the Imperial breakfast for him. It consisted of many delicacies, but he found it difficult to swallow them. With Chen and Princess Fragrance gone, he felt nervous and unsettled.
That day, he did not grant an audience to his ministers, and spent his time napping fitfully. On several occasions, he sent guards out to search for news, but the sky grew dark and the moon sailed up over the palace walls, and still none of them had returned to report.
He started to become extremely anxious and tried to calm himself by staring fixedly at the desert murals on the walls of the Precious Moon Pavilion.
"Seeing as she likes him, she will certainly like Chinese clothes," he thought. "When they return he will already have convinced her, so why don't I take off these Manchu clothes and put on something Chinese to give her a surprise?"
He ordered his eunuchs to find him some, but where would Chinese clothes be found in the heart of the Manchu court? Finally, one bright young eunuch ran over to the theatre troupe and brought back a theatrical costume, which he helped Qian Long to don.
Qian Long examined himself in front of a mirror, and was delighted by his dashing appearance. Then he noticed a few white hairs amongst his whiskers and urgently ordered the young eunuch to get a pair of tweezers to pull them out.
Just as he was sitting with bowed head to allow the eunuch to remove the offending hairs, he heard the patter of light footsteps behind and another eunuch announced: "Her Highness the Empress Dowager has arrived."
Qian Long started in surprise. He looked up and saw the Dowager's image in the mirror, her face stern and pale and full of anger.
"I trust you are well, Madame?" he said, hurriedly turning to face her. He escorted her to the couch where she took a seat, and then dismissed the eunuchs with a wave of her hand.
There was a moment's silence.
"The slaves say you have not been well today," she began in a deep voice. "They said you did not hold court this morning and haven't eaten, so I have come to see you."
"I am better now," he replied. "It was just that I ate something fatty which made me a little uncomfortable. It was nothing. I would not have dared to have bothered Your Highness about it."
"Huh! Was it Muslim fat or Chinese fat?" she said, to Qian Long's consternation.
"I think some roast lamb I ate last night disagreed with me," he replied.
"That is one of our Manchu dishes. Huh! You seem to be tired of being a Manchu."
Qian Long did not dare to say anything.
"Where is that Muslim girl?" the Empress Dowager asked.
"She was in a bad mood so I sent her out with someone who can talk some sense into her."
"She has a knife, and would clearly prefer to die rather than give in to you. What use is there in getting someone to talk to her? Who did you send?"
Qian Long noticed anxiously how close her questioning was becoming.
"An old guard officer, surnamed Bai," he replied.
The Dowager looked up and let the silence hang for a moment. Then she laughed coldly. "You are the Emperor, the master of all under heaven. You can do whatever you like, and concoct whatever lies you like, too."
Qian Long knew the eyes and ears of the Dowager were many and guessed he probably would not be able to deceive her about this affair. "The other person I sent with the girl," he answered quietly, "was a scholar I met in the south, who is very learned..."
"It's someone from the Chen family of Haining, isn't it?" the Dowager's voice rasped out sharply.
Qian Long hung his head, not daring to utter a sound.
"No wonder you've put on Chinese clothes. Why haven't you killed me yet?" Her voice had become even harsher. Qian Long knelt down in fright and began kowtowing frantically.
"May I be damned by Heaven and Earth if I have been unfilial in any way," he said.
The Dowager flicked up the long sleeves of her gown and walked out. Qian Long rushed after her, then stopped when he realised he was still wearing the Chinese costume. To be seen wearing such clothes would not do at all, so he hurriedly changed back into his usual gown and rushed out after the Dowager. He found her in a side room of the Martial Hero Pavilion.
"Please don't be angry, Madame," he pleaded. "I have committed some errors and would willingly accept your criticism."
"Why have you called that man Chen into the palace several days running?" she asked coldly. "And what happened in Haining?" Qian Long hung his head and was silent.
"Do you really intend to restore the Chinese style of dress?" she shrieked. "Are you going to kill every one of us Manchus?"
"Please don't listen to the nonsense spouted by servants," he replied, his voice shaking. "How could I plan to do such a thing?"
"How do you intend to deal with this man Chen?"
"His society is large and widespread and many of his followers are martial arts masters who would die for him, so I have been polite to him throughout while waiting for an opportunity to deal with them all at once. I want to remove the roots as well as chopping off the grass."
The Dowager's expression softened slightly. "Is this true?"
Qian Long knew the secret had leaked. With no room left to maneouvre, he decided he had no choice but to swear to destroy the Red Flower Society.
"I will see to it that Chen is beheaded within three days," he said.
The shadow of a smile appeared on the Dowager's forbidding face. "Good," she said. "Only then will you be holding to the wishes of our ancestors." She stood up. "Come with me," she added.
She stood up and walked over to the main hall of the Martial Hero Pavilion with Qian Long close behind. As they approached, a eunuch gave a shout and the huge doors were opened. Inside the brightly-lit hall, two files of eunuchs stretched away from the entrance towards eight princes kneeling on the floor to receive the Emperor. The Dowager and Qian Long walked over to two chairs on the dais in the centre of the hall and sat down. Qian Long saw all eight princes were of the immediate Imperial family, including his own brothers. He wondered uneasily what the Dowager was planning.
"When the late Emperor passed away," she began slowly, "he left orders that the command of the Imperial Banner troops should be divided amongst eight members of the Imperial family. But because of the constant dispatch of forces to the Muslim border regions in the past few years, it has never been possible to act on the Emperor's last wish. Now, thanks to the blessed protection of the Ancestors, the Muslim areas have been pacified, and from today, the leadership of the Banners will be divided amongst the eight of you." The princes kowtowed and expressed their great gratitude.
So she has decided to disperse my military strength, Qian Long thought.
"Please make the assignments, Your Highness," the Dowager said to him. He knew he was in a losing position, but he decided that as long as he did not attempt a revolt, a temporary dispersal of military power would be of no great consequence. The Dowager, he could see, had been very thorough, and he guessed that she had also made preparations in case he refused. So he assigned each of the eight princes to be commander of one of the Banners.
Meanwhile, the eight princes, all full of curiosity, were thinking: "Based on the wishes of the founder of our dynasty, three of the Banners should be under the direct leadership of the Emperor, and the other five subordinate to them. The Dowager's action to divide the Banners among us is a serious violation of rules laid down by the Ancestors and is obviously intended to weaken the Emperor's power." None of them dared to directly refuse the Dowager's command, but all decided it would be best to return the command to the Emperor the following day in order to avoid the possibility of execution.
The Dowager signalled with her hand and one of the princes came forward holding a tray on which was placed a small iron box. He knelt before her and she picked the box up and opened it, and took out a small scroll. Qian Long glanced at it out of the corner of his eye and saw the inscription, written in the Emperor Yong Zheng's hand, read "Posthumous Edict." Next to this was a line of smaller characters: "If there should be any political changes, the eight princes who lead the Banners must gather together and open this."
Qian Long's face drained of colour as he realised his father had long ago taken precautions to guard against his secret ever being revealed. If he dared to alter in any way the instructions of his ancestors, let alone attempt to overthrow the Manchus, the eight Banner commanders would be required to dispose of him and set up a new Emperor. He steadied himself.
"The late Emperor was far-sighted indeed," he said. "If I can match even a ten thousandth of his abilities, then you have no need to worry further, Madame."
The Dowager passed the scroll to the most senior of the eight princes and said: "Take this edict of the late Emperor and have it placed in the Lama Temple. Assign one hundred bodyguards to guard it day and night." She hesitated for a moment, then added: "They are not allowed to leave their posts for a second, even if ordered to do so by the present Emperor."
The prince complied with her command and left with the scroll for the Lama Temple. The temple was in the northern part of the city near the Gate of Serenity, and had been used by the Emperor Yong Zheng as his home before ascending the throne. After he died, Qian Long had had the residence expanded and turned into a Tibetan Lamaist temple in memory of his grandfather.
Her arrangements complete, the Dowager yawned lazily. "The achievements of our Ancestors must be safeguarded," she sighed.
"Master Chen has escorted the lady back to the palace, and she is now awaiting Your Highness in the Precious Moon Pavilion," he said.
Qian Long was delighted with the news and walked briskly to the door of the Martial Hero Pavilion. Then he stopped and turned. "Was there any trouble on the road?" he asked.
"Your slaves came across a large number of Red Flower Society fighters at one point, but luckily, Master Chen intervened and prevented an incident."
When Qian Long arrived at the Precious Moon Pavilion, he found Princess Fragrance seated as before, facing the wall.
"Did you have fun at the Great Wall?" he asked happily. She ignored him. Qian Long decided to deal with more pressing matters first before questioning her further. He went into the adjoining room and gave orders for his favourite, Fu Kangan, to be summoned.
Before too long, Fu rushed in and Qian Long ordered him to lead a troop of Imperial Guardsmen and lay an ambush around the Lama Temple. After he had departed, Qian Long ordered Bai Zhen to also hide near the temple.
"I intend to hold a great feast in the Lama Temple tomorrow evening," he added. "Tell Master Chen and all of the senior Red Flower Society people to attend."
Bai Zhen immediately guessed the Emperor intended to deal with all the Red Flower Society leaders at one stroke and shuddered at the thought of the slaughter that would take place.
"Also," Qian Long added, "summon the Head Lama of the temple immediately."
As the old Lama kowtowed his way into the Imperial presence, Qian Long asked: "How many years is it since you came to the capital?"
"Your vassal has served the Emperor for twenty-one years."
"Do you want to go back to Tibet?"
The Lama kowtowed again but said nothing.
"There are two Living Buddhas in Tibet, the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama," Qian Long continued. "Why isn't there a third?"
"Your Highness, that has always been the way, ever since..."
Qian Long silenced him with a wave of his hand. "If I made you the third Living Buddha and gave you an area to govern, no-one would dare to defy the order, would they?"
The Lama's joy soared to the skies, and he kowtowed furiously, unable to believe his luck. "Your Reverence's benevolence will be difficult to repay," he said.
"I want you now to do something for me. Go back to the temple and gather together all your trusted lamas and prepare gunpowder, firewood and other inflammable materials." He pointed at Bai Zhen. "When he gives you the signal, you will put the temple to the torch."
The Head Lama began frantically kowtowing again, this time in fright. "But it is the former residence of the late Emperor," he protested. Many of his possessions are there, I wouldn't dare..."
"Do you dare to disobey my command?" Qian Long roared, sending the old Lama into a cold sweat.
"I...I will do as Your Highness commands," he replied in a quavering voice.
"If half a breath of this matter leaks out, I will have you and every single one of your eight hundred lamas executed." After a moment, he added in a more friendly tone: "There will be Banner troops guarding the Suicheng Pavilion in your temple, so you must be careful. When the time comes, I want those troops trapped inside and burned to death. When things have been successfully completed, you will be the third Living Buddha of Tibet. Now go!" He waved his hand and the Lama left with Bai Zhen, thanking the Emperor for his benevolence as he went.
His preparations completed, Qian Long considered how his plan would enable him to kill two birds with one stone, both the Red Flower Society and the Dowager's forces. After tomorrow evening, his position secured and stable, he could continue his reign in peace.
He felt very satisfied. Looking round, he noticed a lute sitting on a tabletop and went over to play it. After a few phrases, his playing became increasingly strident and aggressive, and with a twang, the seventh string broke. He started in surprise and laughed loudly. Then, pushing the lute aside, he stood up and walked back to the other room.
Princess Fragrance was sitting at the window staring up at the moon. As she heard his footsteps, there was a glint of light as she pulled the dagger out again. Qian Long frowned and sat down at a distance.
"When you and Master Chen were at the Great Wall, did he tell you to kill me?"
"He told me to do as you said."
"Are you going to disobey him?"
"I would never do that."
Qian Long was both delighted and jealous. "Then why are you still carrying the dagger? Give it to me!"
"No, I'll wait for you to become a good emperor first."
Aha, thought Qian Long, so that's how he hopes to control me. Anger, jealousy, lust and hatred rose within him all at once, and he laughed harshly. "I am already a good emperor," he replied.
"Huh! I heard you playing the lute just now. You're going to kill people, you're going to kill many, many people. You're...you are evil."
Qian Long realised that his thoughts had indeed revealed themselves through his playing. "Yes," he replied. "I am going to kill people. I have already caught your Master Chen, but if you do as I say, I can release him. If you don't do as I say..." He laughed again. "Then you know I will kill many people."
Princess Fragrance was shocked. "You would kill your own blood brother?" she asked in a quavering voice.
Qian Long's face went white. "So he told you everything?"
"I don't believe you've caught him. He's much cleverer than you."
"Cleverer? Huh! And even if I haven't got him today, what about tomorrow?" She did not answer. "I advise you to forget this idea," he went on. "Whether I'm a good emperor or a bad emperor, you are never going to see him again."
"But you promised him that you would be a good emperor," Princess Fragrance protested. "How can you renege on your promise?"
"I will do whatever I want," he roared. "No-one can tell me what to do." All his pent up anger from the humiliating audience with the Dowager spilled out.
His words struck Princess Fragrance like a fist-blow to the chest. "So the Emperor is going to cheat him," she thought in anguish. "If only we had known earlier, I wouldn't have had to come back here." She almost fainted at the shock of it.
Seeing her face suddenly go pale, Qian Long immediately regretted being so coarse. "If you will treat me well," he said, "I will naturally not harm him. In fact, I will make him a senior official and allow him to become rich and powerful."
But Princess Fragrance was not listening. She was trying to work out a way of letting Chen know of the Emperor's deceitfullness, so that he wouldn't fall into a trap. She frowned deep in thought, her expression adding to the beauty of her face, and Qian Long stared at her, mesmerized.
"Everyone in the palace is a servant of the Emperor," she thought. "So who can deliver a letter for me? There's only one way to do it."
"So you promise not to harm him?" she said.
Qian Long was delighted. "I promise, I promise," he replied immediately. There was not the slightest touch of sincerity in his voice, and Princess Fragrance glanced at him in hatred.
"Early tomorrow, I want to go to a mosque," she said evenly. "I will only do as you say after I have prayed to Allah."
Qian Long smiled. "All right," he replied. "But there is to be no more delay after tomorrow."
Princess Fragrance watched him leave, laughing as he went, then found a pen and paper and wrote out a letter to Chen warning him of the Emperor's intentions, and telling him that the plan to overthrow the Manchus was just a dream. She urged him to quickly devise away to rescue her. When she had finished, she wrapped the letter in a blank sheet of paper and wrote on it in the Moslem script: "Please deliver speedily to the Great Helmsman of the Red Flower Society, Chen Jialuo." She knew the respect all Muslims had for her father and sister, and the way in which they worshipped her herself, and felt certain that if she just had a chance to pass the letter on to any Muslim in the mosque, they would certainly find a way to deliver it.
Having written the letter, her heart felt much easier. She was certain Chen was capable of anything and would easily find a way to rescue her. At that point, a sense of indescribable warmth and sweetness swept over her, and tired out from the day's exertions, she fell fast asleep.
Through the mists of slumber, she became aware of bells chiming around the palace, and opened her eyes to find the sky was already growing light. Hurriedly, she arose and washed herself, then combed her hair. The maid servants went to look after her knew she would allow no-one near her and watched from a distance. She carefully secreted the letter in her sleeve and then left the pavilion. Eunuchs were already waiting outside with a palanquin and took her to the mosque on the West Avenue of Eternal Peace while bodyguards crowded round both before and aft.
Seeing the round dome of the mosque as she descended from the palanqin, she felt both happiness and anguish. She walked through the mosque's entrance with head bowed and noticed two men walking on either side of her. They were dressed as Muslims, and she was about to pass the letter to one of them, then stopped herself. His features and manner were not at all those of her people. She glanced at the other man and saw he was the same.
"Were you sent by the Emperor to guard me?" she asked quietly in the Muslim tongue. Both men nodded, not understanding what she had said.
Disappointed, she turned round and saw there were another eight palace guards dressed as Muslims behind her, and that all the real Muslims were being kept at a safe distance. She walked over to the chief Imam of the mosque and said: "Please make sure this letter is delivered no matter what happens." The Imam started in shock as Princess Fragrance pushed the letter into his hand. A guard rushed forward and snatched the letter away and gave the Imam a heavy push on the chest, causing him to stumble and almost fall. The other worshippers looked at each other in surprise, wondering what was going on.
"What do you people think you're doing?" the Imam demanded angrily.
"Mind your own business," the guard hissed at him. "We are from the palace."
Severely frightened, the Imam did not dare to say another word, and turned to lead the gathering in prayer.
Princess Fragrance knelt down with the others and tears welled out of her eyes like water from a spring. In the midst of her pain and sorrow only one thought remained: "How can I warn him to be on his guard? I must let him know even if I die doing it, but how?"
"By dying!" The realisation streaked across her brain like a flash of lightning. "If I die here, word will get out and he will hear of it. That's it. There's no other way!"
Then the Prophet's words sounded in her ears like thunder: "Those who take their own life will fall into the eternal fires and will never escape." She was not afraid of death, and believed that people who died could ascend to Paradise and be re-united with their loved ones for eternity. But with suicide, there was nothing to look forward to but never-ending pain!
A violent shiver ran through her and she suddenly felt extremely cold. She listened for a moment to the congregation reciting the scriptures.
For a true religious believer there is nothing more terrible than the consignment of the soul to eternal Hell, but she could see no other way. Love overcame the greatest fear of all.
"Most sacred and Holy Allah," she whispered. "It is not that I don't believe you care for me. But there is no other way except by using my own blood."
She took the dagger out of her sleeve and on the stone in front of her, carved out the words "Don't trust the Emperor." Then she lightly called out the word "Brother!" and thrust the blade into the purest, most beautiful breast in this world.
They passed the rest of the morning in kung fu training, and Chen showed the others some of what he had learned inside the White Jade Peak. Just as they were in the midst of the practice, they heard wailing and mournful singing outside. At first, they did not take much notice, but the noise gradually increased in volume, as if thousands of people were gathering in an state of extreme grief.
Xin Yan had lived in the desert for a long time and recognised the song as a Muslim funeral dirge. His curiosity aroused, he ran out to find out what was going on, and returned a while later, unsteady on his feet and ashen-faced. He walked over to Chen. "Master!" he exclaimed, his voice shaking.
The heroes stopped their kung fu training, and Chen turned to him. "What is it?" he asked.
"She ... Princess Fragrance is dead!"
The heroes blanched. For Chen, everything went black and he collapsed to the ground. Priest Wu Chen dropped his sword and helped him up.
"How did she die?" Luo Bing asked.
"The Muslim I talked to said she stabbed herself to death while praying in the mosque," Xin Yan replied.
"What else did he say?"
"That the Empress Dowager would not let her body back into the palace and had it handed over to the mosque. They are just on their way back from burying her now."
The heroes all cursed the Emperor bitterly for his cruelty in hounding such a pure, innocent young girl to her death. Luo Bing broke down and started to cry. Chen was silent for a while, and then suddenly said to Prist Wu Chen: "I haven't finished showing you all the moves yet. Let us continue."
To their amazement, he walked back out into the middle of the courtyard. Wu Chen decided it would be a good idea to help distract Chen from his grief, so he raised his sword and resumed the training session. The heroes saw Chen's footwork was just as sure as before and his hands moved with the same skill as if the news had had absolutely no effect on him, and they began to quietly discuss it amongst themselves.
"Men have no hearts," Yuanzhi whispered into 'Scholar' Yu's ear. "He thinks only of his great plans for the country, and doesn't care at all about the death of the woman he loved."
Yu said nothing. But he silently praised Chen for his self-control. If it were me, he thought, I think I would immediately go insane.
Aware that a great change had come over Chen, Priest Wu Chen did not dare press him too hard, and in a few moves, Chen had easily gained the upper hand. As the Priest retreated, Chen's hand suddenly shot out and touched his hand. The two leapt apart.
"Good! Excellent!" exclaimed the priest.
"You weren't really trying," Chen replied and laughed. But before the laugh was finished, he vomited a mouthful of blood. The heroes rushed forward as one to help him, but Chen waved them away with a wan smile.
"It's nothing," he said. He walked back into the house, supporting himself on Xin Yan's shoulders.
Chen slept for more than two hours. Upon waking, he thought of all the important things he had to do, including seeing the Emperor that evening, and knew he had to look after himself. But as soon as he thought about Princess Fragrance's tragic death the pain was such that he wanted to end it all. He wondered why she would suddenly commit suicide after clearly agreeing to give in to the Emperor. Could it be that she had changed her mind and decided she could not renounce her love for him? But she knew this was a matter of no small significance. He was convinced that something must have happened, but what? He meditated on the problem for a while but could come to no conclusion, so he took out a set of Muslim clothes he had brought from the northwest and put them on, then blacked his face with some diluted ink.
"I'm going out," he said to Xin Yan. "I'll be back in a while." Xin Yan quietly followed him. Chen, who knew he was simply acting out of loyalty, did not try to stop him.
The streets were full of people and noise, intermingled with many carriages and horses, but in Chen's eyes, all was deserted. He walked into the mosque on the Avenue of Eternal Peace, went straight into the main hall, and threw himself down on the ground to pray. "Wait for me in Heaven," he said quietly. "I promised you that I would be converted to the Islamic faith, and I will make sure that you do not wait in vain."
He raised his head and noticed what looked like an inscription on the floor about five feet in front of him. He went forward to investigate and saw it was several Muslim words etched into the stone with the point of a knife: "Don't trust the Emperor." There was some pigment in the grooves of the words, and Chen started in shock. Looking around, he found a part of the floor nearby that was slightly darker in colour, and thought: "Could this be her blood?" He bent down to smell the patch and caught the tang of fresh blood. In a second, he was overcome with grief and he threw himself on the ground, sobbing.
After crying for a while, he felt someone tap him lightly on his shoulder. He leapt to his feet ready to fight, then started in surprise: it was Huo Qingtong, dressed as a Muslim boy.
She had arrived that day with the Twin Eagles in the hope of rescuing Princess Frangrance, but had heard almost immediately that her sister was dead. She had come to the mosque to pray for her.
Chen noticed two palace guards enter the mosque, and with a tug on Huo Qingtong's sleeve, pulled her down to the ground where they prostrated themselves in prayer.
The guards walked over. "Get up!" they barked. Chen and Huo Qingtong did as they were told and walked over to a window. Behind them, they heard the sound of hammering as the guards used implements to prise up the flagstone on which Princess Fragrance's message was engraved. They carried the stone out of the mosque and rode away.
"What was that?" Huo Qingtong asked.
"If I had been one step late I would have missed the warning she wrote in her own blood and sacrifed her life for."
"There are too many eyes and ears here," Chen replied. "Let's kneel down on the floor again and I'll tell you." So they prostrated themselves again and Chen gave her a brief account of all that had happened.
"How could you be stupid as to trust the Emperor?" Huo Qingtong declared angrily.
Chen was mortified with shame. "I thought that because he is Chinese, and also my blood brother...." he began.
"And what if he is Chinese? Do you mean to say Chinese are incapable of doing bad? And what use is he going to have for brotherly love, as Emperor?"
"I am responsible for her death," Chen sobbed. "I...I can't bear not to follow her immediately."
Huo Qingtong saw how heartbroken he was and felt she had been too hard on him. "What you did was for the good of the common people," she said softly to comfort him. "You can't be blamed." After a moment's silence, she asked: "Are you going to go to the banquet in the Lama Temple this evening?"
Chen gritted his teeth in rage. "The Emperor will be there, so I'll assassinate him and avenge her death."
"Yes," Huo Qingtong agreed. "And also avenge my father and brother, and all the people of my tribe."
"How did you manage to escape when the Manchu troops attacked?" he asked.
"I was very sick at the time, but luckily I had my troop of bodyguards with me who managed to get me out and took me to my teacher's home," she replied.
Chen sighed. "Your sister said that even if it meant travelling to the ends of the earth, we had to find you." The tears began to stream down Huo Qingtong's face.
They walked out of the mosque and Xin Yan came up to meet them. He was astonished to see Huo Qingtong with Chen.
"Mistress! How are you?" he exclaimed. "I've been thinking of you."
"Well thank you," she replied. "You've grown a lot since I last saw you."
They returned to Twin Willow Lane to find the Twin Eagles of Tianshan in the middle of a heated argument with the heroes. Chen swallowed his tears and told them of the blood-stained words he had seen in the mosque. Bald Vulture slapped the table.
"Didn't I tell you?" he demanded. "Of course that Emperor means us harm. The girl must have obtained some definite proof of it in the palace before she would give her life to let us know." The others agreed.
"When we go to the banquet this evening, we won't be able to carry swords, so everyone prepare daggers or darts," said Chen. "The food and drink may be poisoned so don't allow anything to touch your lips. We have to kill the Emperor tonight for the sake of revenge but we must also plan our escape route."
"None of us will be able to live in central China again," said Bald Vulture. "We should all go to the Muslim regions."
The heroes had long lived in the south of China, and the idea of leaving their home was not easy to accept. But the Emperor was evil and dangerous and bitterly hated by all of them, and everyone was willing to do what was necessary.
Chen ordered 'Leopard' Wei to go to the west gate of the city with several of the heroes and to kill the guards at the right moment to allow them all to escape. He then ordered Xin Yan to arrange for horses to be waiting outside the Lama Temple. Turning to Yu, he told him to immediately inform all the Red Flower Society's members in Beijing and all other provinces to go to ground to avoid being arrested.
The arrangements complete, Chen turned to the Twin Eagles and Master Lu. "I would like to ask you three elders for suggestions on how the assassination should be carried out," he said.
"Isn't it simple?" replied Bald Vulture. "I go up and grab his neck and give it a good twist. That should finish him."
Lu smiled. "I'm afraid you won't get close enough to grab his neck with all the bodyguards he is bound to have around him."
"It would be better if Third Brother attacks him with poisonous darts," suggested Priest Wu Chen. "Even if just one hits the target, that will be enough."
Lu turned to Luo Bing. "You could dip your throwing knives into some poison too, and I could do the same with my Golden Needles," he said.
Luo Bing nodded. "If we all loose our weapons at once, a few at least will hit him no matter how many bodyguards he has," she said.
Chen watched the heroes as they dipped their various weapons into a pot of bubbling poison on the stove, and thought uncomfortably about how the Emperor was born of the same mother as himself. But then he remembered his cruelty and deviousness and his rage burned up again. He drew his dagger and placed it for a moment in the pot of poison along with the others.
At the temple gate they dismounted, and Bai Zhen led them inside. Three tables had been prepared in the Hall of Tranquillity, and Bai Zhen solemnly invited the heroes to be seated. Chen sat at the head of the middle table while Bald Vulture and Master Lu took the head seats on the other two tables. Underneath a statue of the Buddha, a fourth table had been set up with one large chair covered with satin and brocade, obviously the Emperor's seat. The heroes began to weigh up the distances in preparation for the assassination attempt.
Dishes of food were brought out and placed on the tables and the heroes quietly awaited the arrival of the Emperor. After a while, footsteps sounded outside and two eunuchs marched into the hall with a senior military official whom the heroes all immediately recognised as Li Keshou, the former Commander-in-Chief of Zhejiang Province. Yuanzhi gripped Yu's hand and almost cried out in surprise at the sight of her father. She wondered when he had been transferrd to the capital.
"Here is an Imperial pronouncement!" one of the eunuchs shouted, and Commander Li, Bai Zhen and the other officials present immediately knelt kown. Chen and the rest of the heroes had no alternative but to do likewise.
The eunuch unrolled a scroll and announced: "On the orders of the Heaven-ordained Emperor, the following proclamation is made: We are benevolent in order to encourage talent just as our ministers and the common people should strive for merit in order to gain rewards. Chen Jialuo and the others have been loyal citizens and deserve to be honoured. Accordingly, I bestow upon Chen Jialuo the title of Successful Candidate of the Imperial Civil Service Examination, while the others are to be given good positions in the Board of Rites and the Military. We invite you to dine at the Lama Temple. The Commander-in-chief of the Imperial Forces in Zhili Province Li Keshou will host the banquet." The eunuch looked up from the scroll and shouted: "Express thanks for the Imperial benevolence!"
The heroes realised with a shock that the Emperor had cheated them and was not coming.
Commander Li walked over to Chen and bowed before him.
"Congratulations, Master Chen. You are honoured to be so highly favoured by the Emperor. It is truly unexpected." Chen replied with a self-deprecating remark.
Yuanzhi and Yu walked over together. "Father!" Yuanzhi said quietly.
Commander Li turned to find his lost daughter standing beside him, as if she had dropped out of nowhere. He grasped her hand, tears welling into his eyes.
"Yuanzhi," he said, his voice shaking. "Are you all right?" She nodded. "Come, come and sit with me," he added, and pulled her over to a table on the side.
The two eunuchs, obviously kung fu experts, walked over to the central table and stood before Chen. One of them saluted with his fists, then turned and shouted: "Boy!"
Two young attendants entered carrying a tray on which was placed a pot of wine and several cups. The eunuch lifted the pot and filled two cups, then picked one of them up. "I drink to you!" he said to Chen, and drained the cup at one draught. He picked the other one up and offered it to Chen.
But Chen had been watching intently, and had noticed two small holes on the side of the wine pot. The eunuch had put his thumb over the left hole when he poured the first cup of wine, and had moved it to cover the right hole as he poured the second cup. Chen guessed the pot was divided into two compartments inside, and that the flow of wine from each could be controlled by covering one or other of the holes. He glanced at the eunuch in distaste and knew that if it had not been for Princess Fragrance's warning, he would have drunk the cup down.
He saluted with his fists in thanks, and lifted the cup as if to drink it. Expressions of delighted anticipation sprang to the faces of the eunuchs, but then Chen put the cup down again, picked up the wine pot and poured out another cup. This cupful he drank then offered the original cup to the second eunuch.
"You drink a toast as well, sir," he said.
The eunuch turned pale as he realised Chen had seen through the trick. His right foot shot up and kicked the cup out of Chen's hand and the other eunuch shouted: "Get them!" Several hundred Imperial bodyguards and guardsmen sprang into view from every side.
"If you gentlemen don't wish to drink, then don't," said Chen with a smile.
"His Imperial Highness decrees," one of the eunuchs shouted, "that the Red Flower Society has engaged in rebellion and continues to harbour evil intentions, and that its members must be immediately seized and killed."
Chen waved his hand and the Twin Knights leapt over to the two eunuchs, paralysing each with a blow to the neck. The Red Flower Society heroes brought out their weapons from under their gowns, and Priest Wu Chen charged for the door with the other heroes close behind. He seized a sword from one of the guards and killed three others as he passed.
Commander Li grabbed his daughter's hand and dragged her after him as he directed his forces to stop the heroes, but Yuanzhi pulled herself free and ran off shouting: "Look after yourself, father!"
Commander Li stared after her for a moment, then began urgently calling: "Yuanzhi, come back!" But she had already left the hall and had joined Yu who was fighting fiercely with five or six guardsmen in the courtyard outside.
Flames were licking up towards the sky from a nearby hall, and the noise of the battle was deafening. As Chen and the other heroes broke out of the Tranquillity Hall into the open, they were surprised to find several dozen Lama monks fighting with a group of Manchu soldiers outside the burning hall. From the look of things, the monks could not hold out for long, but as they watched, Bai Zhen led some of the Imperial guards over and helped them force the Manchu troops back into the hall. Chen had no knowledge of the enmity between the Emperor and the Empress Dowager, but he immediately recognised the fight as an excellent diversion and quickly ordered the heroes to escape over the temple walls.
As they touched the ground, the heroes involuntarily sucked in their breaths: in front of them were rank upon rank of Manchu troops, all with bows drawn or with swords in hand. The scene was brightly lit by several thousand torches.
"He has arranged things very carefully," thought Chen. Priest Wu Chen and Bald Vulture charged into the Manchu ranks, killing as they went, and a hail of arrows descended on them.
"Everyone try and make a break for it!" shouted Huo Qingtong. The heroes fought like demons.
Priest Wu Chen noticed seven or eight Imperial Guardsmen attacking Zhang Jin, and he leapt over to help him. He stabbed three of them in the neck, and the rest howled and retreated.
"Tenth Brother, are you all right?" he asked.
Zhang Jin looked up at him and dropped his wolf's tooth club. "Second Brother, I'm finished," he said. In the fire-light, Priest Wu Chen saw he was covered in bloody wounds. With only one arm himself, the Priest could not support him.
"Lie on my back and hold on," the priest said between clenched teeth. He squatted down, and Zhang Jin put his arms round his neck. He felt the warm blood spurting out of the hunchback's wounds, but stood up and charged off again with sword raised to continue the killing.
Chen could see things were going badly and ordered the heroes to return to the wall to regroup.
"All right, Tenth Brother, get down," said Priest Wu Chen as they reached the comparative safety of the wall. Zhang Jin did not move. Luo Bing went over to help him, but found that his body was stiff and his breathing had already ceased. She threw herself onto his corpse and began to sob.
Just as the Manchu troops moved in for the final attack on the heroes, their ranks parted and several dozen monks fought their way through, their yellow robes glowing in the firelight. Leading them, his long white beard dancing and shaking, was Lord Zhou.
"Come with me, all of you!" he shouted to the heroes, and they charged after him through the Manchu blockade, and found Heavenly Mirror and the monks battling fiercely with the Manchu troops.
Huo Qingtong surveyed the situation with dismay. The heroes were killing large numbers of the enemy, but no matter which direction they went, they were always surrounded. She looked around for some possible solution and spotted a dozen or so people standing on a nearby Drum Tower.
"One of those men must be the commander," she shouted to the others, pointing at the tower. "Let's seize him."
The heroes immediately saw the wisdom of her words.
"Let's go," Priest Wu Chen roared. Wen and the Twin Knights ran after him. They quickly reached the foot of the Drum Tower, and leapt up onto the balcony just as several dozen guards moved to intercept them. Wen, however, dodged nimbly past them and charged straight for an official standing in one corner who wore a red cap signifying senior rank. As he caught sight of the official's face in the firelight, he almost called out "Great Helmsman!" He was almost an exact twin of Chen's. Wen remembered his wife telling him about the resemblance of Qian Long's favorite, Fu Kangan, to Chen. This must be Fu, he decided.
It was indeed Fu, who was also the Beijing Garrison Commander. Wen deftly dodged the swords of two surprised bodyguards and lunged at Fu with Priest Wu Chen close behind. Down below, the Manchu troops ceased their attack and stood watching the drama above them.
Fu knew no kung fu and he cringed in fear as Wen lifted him bodily into the air. A gasp went up the Manchu troops. By this time, the Twin Knights had killed the last of the bodyguards on the tower balcony and ran over beside Wen. Fu raised his command flag and shrieked: "Stop, all of you! Return to your units!"
Three bodyguards bravely charged forward, but Priest Wu Chen placed the tip of his sword on Fu's throat and smiled at them. "Come on," he said. "Don't be shy."
The bodyguards hesitated, glanced at each other, then withdrew.
Wen squeezed Fu's arm and he screamed in agony. "Retreat!" he shouted. "Back in position, all of you!" The Manchu troops did not dare to disobey and immediately formed up at a distance.
Chen gathered the heroes and the Shaolin monks together on the Drum Tower balcony. He counted up the casualties and found that apart from Zhang Jin who was dead, eight or nine of the others had been wounded, only one of them seriously. He surveyed his followers in the lights of the flames from the temple.
"Let us attack the Palace and kill the Emperor to avenge Tenth Brother!" he shouted. The heroes roared their approval, and the Shaolin monks joined in.
"The Shaolin Monastery has been destroyed by him," Heavenly Mirror added. "Today, the Commandment against killing is suspended."
"What?" asked Chen, shocked. "The Shaolin Monastery destroyed?"
"Yes, it's been burnt to the ground. Brother Heavenly Rainbow died protecting the sacred scriptures."
The news compounded Chen's anger. With Commander Fu as their hostage, the heroes marched through the ranks of Imperial Guards encircling the Lama Temple. When they had passed the last rank, they saw Xin Yan and a number of the Society's followers standing at a distance with several dozen horses. They ran over and mounted up, one or two to each horse, and with a defiant shout, galloped off towards the Imperial Palace.
Xu rode up alongside Chen and shouted: "Has an escape route been planned, Great Helmsman?"
"Ninth Brother has gone with some of the others to the West Gate to wait for us. What are you and the monks doing here?"
"Those Manchu devils!" replied Xu, his voice full of hatred. "They came one night and sacked the monastery. Heavenly Rainbow would not leave and was burned to death. They even kidnapped my son! We have been looking for the officers responsible ever since, and the chase brought us to Beijing. We went to Twin Willow Lane and they told us you had gone to the Lama Temple."
By this time, they had arrived at the Forbidden City with the Imperial Guardsmen pressing in on them from behind, loath to leave them alone even if they did not dare to attack.
Xu looked over at the Twin Eagles. "If the Emperor gets wind of this and hides somewhere in the depths of the palace, we'll never find him. Could you two go on ahead and investigate?" he asked.
The two old people were delighted to have the opportunity to show their worth, and immediately agreed. Xu took four flare rockets from his bag and gave them to Bald Vulture.
"When you catch sight of the Emperor, kill him if you can, but if he is guarded too tightly, signal us with these," he said.
The Twin Eagles leapt over the palace wall and ran swiftly across the courtyard inside and then up onto the rooftops. As they raced along, they saw the heavy palace gates and the endless courtyards and pavilions, and wondered how they could ever hope to find the Emperor in such a place.
"Let's grab a eunuch and question him," Madame Guan said.
"Good idea!" replied her husband, and the two jumped down to the ground and hid themselves in a dark corner. After a while, they heard footsteps approach and two figures walked quickly by.
"The thin one knows kung fu," Bald Vulture whispered.
"Let's follow and see where they go," Madame Guan replied.
The Twin Eagles silently shadowed the two figures, one very thin, the other fat and much slower on his feet. The thin man had to constantly stop to wait for him to catch up, and at one point said: "Faster! Faster! We must report to the Emperor as soon as possible."
The Twin Eagles were overjoyed when they heard this. They passed through doorways and courtyards and finally arrived in front of the Precious Moon Pavilion.
"You wait here," the thin man said and disappeared upstairs, leaving the fat man standing alone by the front door. The Twin Eagles crept round to the side of the pavilion and climbed up onto the roof. Then, with their feet hooked onto the eaves, they hung down over a balcony smelling of fresh paint and flowers and saw a row of windows, one of which glowed with the faint light of a candle. They slipped onto the balcony, just as a shadow passed across the window paper. Madame Guan carefully wet the paper with her finger, making a hole and then looked through to find Qian Long seated in a chair, a fan in his hand, and the thin man kneeling before him: it was Bai Zhen.
"The Tranquillity Hall in the Lama Temple has been burned to the ground and not one of the soldiers guarding it escaped," he said.
"Excellent!" exclaimed Qian Long, very pleased.
Bai Zhen kowtowed. "Your slave deserves to die. The Red Flower Society bandits eluded capture."
"They saw through the attempt to poison them with the wine, and they escaped while I was dealing with the guards."
Qian Long grunted and hung his head, deep in thought.
Bald Vulture pointed at Bai Zhen and the Emperor, indicating to his wife that he would attack Bai Zhen while she killed Qian Long, and the two were just about to burst through the window when Bai Zhen clapped his hands twice and twelve bodyguards slipped noiselessly out from behind cupboards and screens, each one carrying a sword. The Twin Eagles knew they were no match for so many expert fighters and decided to summon the other heroes first. Bai Zhen whispered something to one of the bodyguards who left and brought the fat man back with him.
The fat man, wearing the yellow robes of a Lama priest, kowtowed energetically before the Emperor.
"You have done well," Qian Long said. "Are you sure you left no clues?"
"Everything was done according to Your Highness's wishes. Nothing is left of the Tranquillity Hall or what was in it."
"Good, good, good! Bai Zhen, I promised that he should be made a Living Buddha. Go and see to it."
"Your Highness," Bai Zhen replied with a bow.
The Lama kowtowed again.
As they walked out of the pavilion, Bai Zhen stopped the Lama. "Show your gratitude to his Highness, abbot," he said.
The abbot looked at him in surprise, but unwilling to disobey an Imperial bodyguard, he knelt down again and kowtowed in the direction of the Precious Moon Pavilion. Then he felt an icy coldness on his neck, and started in shock.
"What...what's happening?" he asked, his voice shaking.
Bai Zhen laughed coldly. "The Emperor said to let you become a Living Buddha, so I'll send you to the Western Heavens where you can be one."
He twitched his hand and the blade did its work. Two eunuchs brought a carpet over, wrapped the abbot's corpse in it and carried it away.
Suddenly, Bai Zhen heard shouting in the distance. He turned and ran back into the pavilion.
"There are bandits outside causing a disturbance, Your Highness," he said. "Please retire to the inner palace."
Qian Long had seen the Red Flower Society fighters in action in Hangzhou and he knew that his bodyguards were no match for them, so without questioning Bai Zhen further, he stood up.
Just then, Bald Vulture released a flare, and with a 'whoosh' it scrawled a path of white light across the night sky.
"Where do you think you're escaping to?" he roared as they burst through the window into the room. "We've waited a long time for this!"
The bodyguards around the Emperor stared for a moment in surprise at the red-faced old man and white-haired old woman who had suddenly appeared in their midst, then rushed at the intruders. Bai Zhen slung Qian Lung over his back and with four bodyguards protecting the front and rear, ran for the stairs. But Madame Guan forced the bodyguards back with a fistful of projectiles and lunged at Qian Long with her sword. Bai Zhen leapt backwards in fright.
Meanwhile, Bald Vulture was fighting with three guards simultaneously. Bai Zhen gave a whistle and four other guards joined the other three and completely surrounded Bald Vulture. But he fought like a demon and kept all seven at bay for a while, until one of the guards lashed out with a whip which cracked loudly against his right arm. In great pain, Bald Vulture switched his sword over to the left hand and forced the bodyguards back.
Seeing her husband was wounded, Madame Guan went over to help him, and the two retreated towards the second floor of the pavilion. Bald Vulture knew they could not tie down so many top-class kung fu fighters for much longer, so he slipped over to the window and shot off another flare. He and his wife blocked the stairs, retreating a step at a time when the pressure was too great. Luckily, the staircase was narrow and only three or four bodyguards at most could attack at one time. Even so, the strain of having to fight against an enemy which always had the advantage of height was very wearying.
Bai Zhen could see things were going badly. "Brother Ma," he said to one of the bodyguards. "Put His Highness on your back." The bodyguard squatted down and the Emperor climbed on. Bai Zhen gave a shout and charged at Bald Vulture. The two began to fight, and Bald Vulture cursed his luck. The longer he fought, the more painful the wound on his right arm became. Bai Zhen by himself was as much as he could manage, let alone the other four or five bodyguards that also surrounded him. Bai Zhen's hands dived and flew, every move accurate and deadly, and Bald Vulture, completely absorbed in fending him off, was unprepared for a cold-blooded attack from behind. A bodyguard thrust his sword deep into Bald Vulture's back.
Bald Vulture knew instantly that he would die. He swung his elbow back with all his strength and smashed his attacker's skull, then with a huge roar, he raised his sword and threw it forcefully across the room at Qian Long. The bodyguard Ma who was carrying the Emperor, saw the blade flying towards them and with no time to dodge out of the way, put his hand up to stop it. But this was a throw by a man on the verge of death, backed by incalculable strength and outrage and the sword sliced off half of his hand and plunged through his chest and out the other side.
Bald Vulture was content, assuming that the sword must have entered Qian Long. Exchanging his own life for that of an Emperor made death seem worthwhile. Madame Guan ran to her husband as Bai Zhen hurriedly picked Qian Long up off the floor.
"Your Highness, are you all right?" he asked.
Qian Long was scared out of his wits, but he struggled to control himself. "At least I was well-prepared," he replied with a smile.
Bai Zhen could see the tip of Bald Vulture's sword extending six inches out of Ma's back and the rip on the front of Qian Long's gown, and he wondered in awe how the Emperor had avoided injury.
"Your Highness is very fortunate," he said. "Truly, the Son of Heaven has the protection of a hundred Gods."
What he did not know was that Qian Long had been so fearful of an assassination attempt as a result of his decision to break his pact with the Red Flower Society that he decided to wear a metallic vest at all times. It had saved his life.
Bai Zhen looked round and saw there was no longer anyone blocking the steps. He lifted Qian Long onto his back, the bodyguards fell in around him and they all ran straight downstairs. But just as they were about to pass through the pavilion's main entrance, Qian Long gave a shout of alarm and struggled free of Bai Zhen's grasp: standing in the doorway was Chen Jialuo. Behind him, their torches dancing and swords glinting, were several dozen kung fu fighters. The Emperor turned and ran straight back up the stairs. The bodyguards swarmed like bees after him with the Red flower Society heroes on their heels. Two of the guards who were slightly slower than the rest were intercepted by the Twin Knights and instantly killed.
Chen and the other heroes had had to fight their way through the palace to the Precious Moon Pavilion, and they were delighted to find that in spite of the delay, the Emperor had not yet escaped. Shouting in triumph, the heroes galloped up the stairs. Chen assigned men to watch the various exits. Priest Wu Chen stood with his sword at the ready at the head of the stair well on the third floor, while the Twin Knights guarded the bottom of the stairs. 'Buddha' Zhao and three of the Shaolin monks took up positions by the windows.
Huo Qingtong saw her teacher Madame Guan in a corner embracing Bald Vulture, blood welling in great surges from the gash in his back. She went over with Master Lu who took out some ointment. Bald Vulture smiled bitterly and shook his head.
"I'm sorry," he said to Madame Guan. "Because of me, you've been unhappy for all these years. When you return to the Muslim areas you must marry ... marry Brother Yuan ... and then I will be content in the afterworld. Brother Lu, you must make sure for me that this happy event takes place..."
Madame Guan's eyebrows flew up in outrage. "Do you mean to say," she demanded, "that you do not know how I have felt towards you in the past few months?"
Lu was just about to suggest it would be better for her to say a few comforting words to her dying husband rather than start another argument, when she jumped to her feet and shouted: "Well, I'll rest your mind at ease!" She raised her sword and drew it firmly across her throat. Lu and Huo Qingting were standing at her side, but neither was quick enough to save her. Bald Vulture let loose a wail of grief which was cut short as he also died. Huo Qingtong threw herself onto their corpses and sobbed uncontrollably.
Chen pointed his dagger at Qian Long. "Even forgetting the pact we made in the Six Harmonies Pagoda, we agreed on the dyke at Haining never to harm each other. And yet you use poisoned wine to try and get rid of me. What do you have to say?" He stepped forward and pointed the dagger's blade, glinting coldly, directly at Qian Long's heart. "You have decided to throw in your lot with the barbarians. You have cruelly oppressed the common people. You are the enemy of all good men under heaven," he announced in a formal tone. "Our fraternal bond is broken forever. Today, I will drink your blood to avenge all those who have been killed in your name."
Qian Long's face turned deathly pale and his whole body quivered with terror.
Heavenly Mirror strode forward. "We of the Shaolin Monastery led a simple life," he shouted. "We had no quarrels with the world. What justification did you have to send your evil underlings to burn our monastery to the ground? Today, I will disregard the sacred commandment against killing."
Chen helped Huo Qingtong up and placed his dagger in her hand. "Your father and mother, your brother and sister and countless members of your tribe died at the hands of this man," he said. "You kill him."
Huo Qingtong took the dagger and walked towards Qian Long. One of the bodyguards moved to intercept her, but Wen stopped him and with eight or nine swift blows broke all his ribs and his spine, so that he fell limply to the floor in a heap. A hubbub of voices rose from outside. 'Buddha' Zhao looked out and saw a sea of torches and faces around the pavilion.
Wen walked over to the window. "The Emperor is here," he called. "If anyone dares to come up here, I will kill him immediately." His tone was forceful and commanding, and a hush fell over the crowd. The heroes in the Precious Moon Pavilion also fell silent, and stared fixedly at the gleaming blade in Huo Qingtong's hand as she advanced step by step towards Qian Long.
Suddenly, a figure darted into the room and in front of Qian Long. Huo Qingtong stopped in surprise as she saw it was a Manchu officer holding a baby. He smiled and held up the white, chubby baby which was sucking its little fingers.
"Give me back my baby!" Zhou Qi screamed and lunged forward.
"Come on, then," the man shouted. "If you want a dead baby, come and get it."
Zhou Qi stopped in her tracks and stared at him in a daze.
The officer, surnamed Fang, had been commander of the troops sent by Qian Long to destroy the Shaolin Monastery. He knew of the Emperor's wish to get rid of the Red Flower Society, and during the night attack, his men had snatched Zhou Qi's baby son. Fang had recognised this as an achievement of great merit and made his way to Beijing for an audience with the Emperor.
Qian Long had questioned him closely that evening, wanting to ascertain for certain that no evidence relating to his origins could have survived at the Shaolin Monastery. When the Twin Eagles appeared, Fang had dodged behind a curtain, but he now recognised an opportunity to gain even greater merit.
"All of you leave the palace and I will return the child to you," Fang said.
"You devil!" Huo Qingtong shouted at him. "It's just a trick!" In her excitement the words came out in the Muslim and Fang looked at her uncomprehendingly.
The heroes had thought they finally had the Emperor in their grasp. But one man, clearly ignorant of kung fu and holding a baby, had left them powerless. They turned to Chen, waiting for his decision.
Chen looked at Huo Qingtong and thought of how Qian Long had forced Princess Fragrance to suicide. How could the deaths of her whole family remain unavenged? Looking round, he caught sight of the corpses of the Twin Eagles of Tianshan. Then he saw Xu's face, full of fear for his son, and glanced back at the child in Fang's arms. It was only two months old and was gurgling happily, stretching out its little fingers to feel the knobbly hand holding its neck. Chen looked at the other heroes: Heavenly Mirror's eyes radiated compassion, Lu Feiqing sighed and Lord Zhou's white beard shook as he trembled. Zhou Qi was standing with her mouth wide open, a crazed expression on her face.
Chen knew Lord Zhou's last son and heir had died as a result of the Red Flower Society and that the baby before them was his sole hereditory lifeline. But if they did not kill the Emperor today, they were unlikely to ever have another opportunity to gain revenge. So what to do?
Huo Qingtong turned and handed the dagger back to Chen.
Chen nodded. "All right," he said to Fang. "We will not harm the Emperor. Give the child to me." As he spoke, he replaced the dagger in its sheath and stretched out his hands.
"Huh! Who'd believe you?" Fang replied darkly. "I'll return the child only after you have left the palace."
Chen was furious. "We of the Red Flower Society hold to our word," he said. "Why would we bother to cheat an animal like you?"
"That's why I don't believe you."
"All right," Chen countered. "Then you leave the palace with us." Fang hesitated.
As soon as Qian Long heard Chen say that his life was spared, he was ecstatic with happiness and didn't care less what happened to Fang. "Go with them," he said. "You have gained great merit today. I will naturally not forget it."
Fang shivered as he heard the Emperor's tone, and realised that he was talking about honouring him posthumously. But all he could say was: "Thank you, Your Highness, for your benevolence." He turned to Chen. "If I leave the palace with you, what chance have I got to live?" He wanted Chen to promise to spare him.
"You've already done enough evil," Chen replied angrily. "You should have been consigned to Hell long ago."
Qian Long, worried that other complications could arise, and that Chen might change his mind, urged Fang on: "Quickly, leave with them now."
"But I'm afraid that once I've gone, they will try and harm Your Highness," Fang added.
"So what do you suggest?" Chen asked in exasperation.
"Allow his Imperial Highness to leave first and then I will accompany you out of the palace."
Chen could see they would have to let him go. "All right," he said to Qian Long. "Leave."
Qian Long did not concern himself further with the bearing an Emperor should maintain, and fled for the door as fast as his feet could carry him. Suddenly, Chen stretched out his right hand and grabbed him as he ran past, and boxed his ears sharply with his left hand --'bang, bang, bang!' the sound ringing out crisp and clearly. Qian Long's cheeks immediately began to swell up. The heroes were taken by surprise, and there was a brief silence before they roared out their approval.
"Do you still remember that poisonous oath you swore?" Chen demanded, but Qian Long did not dare to make any reply. With a contemptuous wave of his hand, Chen dismissed him, and Qian Long stumbled out of the room and down the stairs.
"Get the child!" Chen shouted.
'Buddha' Zhao was holding his poisonous darts and looking out of the window, waiting for the right moment. As soon as Chen had hold of the child, and Qian Long appeared down below, he would fire off several dozen projectiles at the Emperor's body.
Fang, meanwhile, was frantically looking around, trying to think of some way out for himself. "I want to see with my own eyes that His Highness is out of danger before I'll hand over the child," he said, shuffling slowly towards the nearest window.
"You Turtle! You're already a dead man," snarled one of the Twin Knights. They shadowed him, waiting for an opportunity to strike.
Qian Long emerged from the main door of the pavilion, and the bodyguards waiting down below surged forward.
"You traitor," 'Buddha' Zhao muttered to himself. "You traitor."
Fang saw the several dozen bodyguards gathered below, and decided it was better to take a risk than to simply wait to die where he was. So in a sudden movement, he embraced the child and threw himself out of the window.
Taken completely unawares, a cry of surprise went up from the heroes. One of the Twin Knights flicked out his Flying Claw and hooked it round Fang's left leg, then tugged with all his might. Fang's body flew up, the baby left his hands and the two began to fall. 'Buddha' Zhao crouched down and launched himself like an arrow out of the window. As he flew through the air, his head pointing down and his feet up, he stretched out his left hand and grabbed hold of one of the child's tiny legs while at the same time throwing three of his poisonous darts at Fang, hitting him squarely on the head and chest.
A shout went up from both the heroes in the pavilion and the bodyguards down below. Zhao steeled himself, hugged the baby to his chest and landed firmly on his two feet. The Twin Knights, Lord Zhou and some of the other heroes jumped down from the pavilion and surrounded Zhao and the baby to protect them. Zhao looked down at the child in his arms and saw it kicking and waving its arms about, chuckling away in delight. It obviously thought the leap a moment ago that had almost ended its life had been great fun and wanted to do it again.
Chen pushed their hostage Commander Fu to the window and shouted: "Do you want him to live?"
Qian Long, once more under the protection of his bodyguards, caught sight of Fu in the torchlight. "Stop! Stop everything!" he shouted. The guards turned and waited for his directions.
Fu was in fact Qian Long's illegitimate son. The Emperor's first wife was the elder sister of a senior minister, whose beautiful wife Qian Long had spotted when she came to the palace one evening to pay her respects to the Empress and he had had illicit relations with her which resulted in the birth of Fu. Qian Long had many sons, but for some perverse reason he loved this illegitimate one more than all the rest. The great physical likeness between Fu and Chen was therefore the result of the fact that they were uncle and nephew.
Chen knew nothing of this, but was aware that the Emperor doted on Fu. He and the other heroes escorted their hostage downstairs. Zhou Qi ran over to Zhao and took the baby from him, almost crazy with happiness.
On one side, were the Red Flower Society heroes and the Shaolin monks, on the other, the mass of palace guards and Imperial bodyguards. Commander Li could see his forces vastly outnumbered the enemy, but he also knew how the Emperor felt about Fu.
"Great Helmsman Chen," he shouted. "Let Commander Fu go and we will allow you to leave the city peacefully."
"What does the Emperor say?" Chen shouted back.
Qian Long's cheeks were painful and swollen like over-ripe peaches as a result of Chen's blows, but seeing his beloved son in the hands of the enemy, he could only wave his hand and say: "You can go, you can go."
"Commander Fu will see us out of the city," Chen said, then looked straight at Qian Long and announced in a loud voice: "All the common people under Heaven would be happy to eat your flesh and make a bed out of your skin. If you live another hundred years, may they be one hundred years of fear-filled days and tormented, sleepless nights!" He turned to the heroes. "Let us go," he said.
The heroes pushed Fu forward and made their way towards the palace gate, carrying with them the bodies of the Twin Eagles and Zhang Jin. The Manchu guards stared at them fixedly as they passed, but did not dare to stop them.
Soon after the heroes passed out of the palace, they spotted two horsemen galloping after them, one of whom was Commander Li.
"Great Helmsman Chen!" he called as they drew near. "There is something I wish to discuss with you."
The heroes reined in their horses and waited for Li and his lieutenant, Deng Tunan, to catch up.
"His Highness says that if you allow Commander Fu to return safely, he will agree to anything," Li said.
Chen's eyebrows shot up. "Huh! Who would believe a cursed word the Emperor said any more?"
"Please, Master Chen. I ask you to express your wishes so that I can return to report."
"All right," Chen said. "Firstly, I want the Emperor to rebuild the Shaolin Monastery with his own funds, making the golden statues of Buddha even larger than before. The court and government must never harrass the monastery again."
"That is easy to arrange," said Li.
"Secondly, the Emperor must not increase the military burden on the common people in the Muslim areas and all the Muslims taken prisoner must be released."
"That is not difficult either."
"Thirdly, the Emperor must not bear a grudge against the Red Flower Society or seize any of its members no matter where they may be." Commander Li was silent. "Huh! If you really did try to seize any of us, do you think we would be afraid? Did not Master Wen here spend some time as a guest in your own military headquarters?"
"All right. I will rashly agree," Li said finally.
"Exactly one year from today, if all three demands have been fully met, Commander Fu will be released."
"All right. We will so arrange things," replied Li and turned to Fu. "Commander Fu. Great Helmsman Chen's word is very precious. Please do not worry. His Highness will certainly issue orders to see that all three requests are met. I will not allow a moment to pass without thinking of your safety, and will make sure everything is done as quickly as possible in the hope that Master Chen may see fit to release you early."
Fu said nothing.
Chen suddenly remembered how they had seen Bai Zhen and Commander Li's forces had mysteriously attacked the Banner troops guarding the Hall of Tranquillity in the Lama Temple. He did not understand the circumstances of the incident but knew it must involve a very dark secret. He decided to scare Li a little.
"Tell the Emperor that we know everything about the Hall of Tranquillity affair," he said. "If he is treacherous again, it would not be beneficial."
Li started in surprise and hastily assented.
"Commander Li, we will take our leave of you," Chen continued and saluted with his fists. "When you are promoted and become rich, take care not to oppress the common people."
Li saluted in reply. "I would not dare," he said.
Yuanzhi and Yu dismounted and walked over to Li and knelt down in front of him. Li realised sorrowfully that he would never see his daughter again.
"Look after yourself, child," he said quietly. He stretched out his hand and stroked her hair, then turned his horse round and rode back to the palace. Yuanzhi began to cry as Yu helped her onto her horse.
The heroes galloped to the city gate where 'Pagoda' Yang and 'Leopard' Wei were waiting for them. Fu ordered the city gate to be opened. The huge bell in the bell tower above sounded, ringing out the start of the fourth watch.
As they passed out of the city, the heroes saw an expanse of reeds beside the city moat flailing about in the pale moonlight. A bit further on, they came upon a graveyard, and noticed a crowd of people there wailing and singing a Muslim funeral dirge. Chen and Huo Qinging rode over to investigate.
"Who are you mourning for?" they asked the crowd.
An old Muslim man raised his head, his face coursed with tears, and said: "Princess Fragrance."
"Princess Fragrance is buried here?" Chen asked.
The old man pointed at a new grave, the yellow mud on which was not yet dry. "There," he replied.
Huo Qingtong began to cry. "We cannot allow her to remain buried here," she said.
"You're right," Chen replied. "She loved that Jade Pool in the heart of the White Jade Peak, and said how much she would like to live there forever. Let us take her remains and bury them there."
"Yes, I agree," Huo Qingtong said, swallowing her tears.
"Who are you?" the old man enquired courteously.
"I am Princess Fragrance's sister," Huo Qingtong replied.
"Ah!" another of the Muslim suddenly shouted to the other mourners. "It's Mistress Huo Qingtong!"
"Let us open up her grave," she said, and Chen and the heroes started work helped by several of the Muslims. They shifted the earth as fast as they could and in a moment, had uncovered the stone slab placed over the grave. They lifted the slab up and a perfumed fragrance emerged. But when they looked inside, they found the grave was empty.
Chen took a burning torch from one of the mourners and held it over the grave opening. On the floor was a small pool of blood and the piece of jade that he himself had given her.
"We brought Princess Fragrance's remains here and buried them ourselves," said the Muslims. "We have not left this spot since. How could her body have disappeared?"
"She was so wondrously beautiful. Perhaps she was a spirit that descended to earth," Luo Bing suggested. "Now she has returned to Heaven. Don't be distressed."
Chen bent down into the grave and picked up the piece of jade. Suddenly, he began to cry, the tears running down his face like rain. She was so beautiful, so pure. Perhaps she was a spirit.
The people sighed and covered up the grave once more, and as they finished the work, a large jade-coloured butterfly appeared and began dancing to and fro above the pile of earth.
Chen turned to the old man. "I will write a few words. Please ask a master carver to erect a stone engraved with the inscription on this spot," he said.
The old man nodded, and Xin Yan gave him ten taels of silver to cover the cost. Then he took writing implements from his bag and handed them to Chen.
Chen raised his writing brush and wrote: "Fragrant Tomb" in large characters. Then after a moment's thought, he wrote:
"Vast, vast sadness,
The heroes stood for a long time in silence. Only when the eastern sky was already light did they mount up and ride off westwards.