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The Book and The Sword

Copyright Graham Earnshaw 1995


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PART FOUR

** 1 **

In less than a day, the heroes arrived in Xuzhou. The local Red Flower Society Chief was immediately rushed off his feet making arrangements for them. After a night's rest, they continued on south. Every place they passed through now, big and small, had a Red Flower Society branch, but the heroes maintained their anonymity and sped onwards. They reached Hangzhou several days later and took up residence in the home of the Hangzhou Helmsman, Ma Shanjun. Ma's residence lay at the foot of Lonely Mountain beside the West Lake.

Ma was a merchant who owned two large silk factories. About fifty years old and portly, Ma, in his flowered silk robe and black woollen jacket, was the picture of a wealthy man used to luxury. But the appearance was deceptive: he was also a brave fighter. That night at a welcoming banquet in the rear hall, the heroes told him of their plan to rescue Wen Tailai.

"I will immediately dispatch men to find out which prison Master Wen is in, and then we can decide on a plan of action." He ordered his son Ma Dating to send someone to investigate.

The next morning, the son reported that his men had discreetly asked about Wen at all the prisons and military headquarters in the area, but had failed to find any trace of him.

Chen called a meeting of the heroes to discuss the situation.

"We have brothers in all the Yamens and in the military headquarters," said Ma. "If Master Wen was in an official prison, we would know about it. I am afraid the authorities are guarding him secretly."

"Our first step is to find out where Brother Wen is," said Chen. "Please continue to dispatch capable men around all the Yamens, Brother Ma. This evening, I will ask Priest Wu Chen and the Twin Knights to go to the Commander-in-chief's Yamen to see what they can find out. It is important that we don't alert the Manchus to what we are doing so whatever happens, there must be no fighting."

Priest Wu Chen and the Twin Knights set out at midnight and returned four hours later to report that the Yamen was tightly guarded with at least a thousand soldiers with torches on guard duty. Several of the officers on patrol were second and third level Mandarins wearing red caps. The three had waited a long time, but the troops did not drop their vigilance in the slightest and they had no option but to return.

"The patrols have been particularly strict around Hangzhou over the past few days," Ma said. "Yamen officers have visited every gambling den and every brothel, and many people have been seized for no reason at all. Could it have something to do with Master Wen?"

"I don't think so," replied Xu. "The local people must be making an extra effort to impress some high officials visiting from Beijing.

"I haven't heard of any high officials coming here," Ma said.

The next day, Zhou Qi asked her parents to take her to see the famous West Lake. Lord Zhou agreed and asked Xu to accompany them. Xu had lost his parents when he was very young and had been alone ever since. To be suddenly treated as a son by Lord Zhou and his wife and to have such a lovely fiancee moved him greatly. He was very happy, and the brothers were happy for him.

Great Helsman Chen also went to the lake for a stroll with Xin Yan. They walked for a while, then sat alone on a bridge and gazed at the depths of the lake and the mountains. The forests of bamboo and wood on the hillsides were dark and dense, a myriad leaves glistening brightly. The air was moist and hazy and the beautiful mountain peaks were wreathed in clouds. Chen had been to the West Lake several times in his youth, but had been unable, then, to appreciate its beauty.

As he gazed out at the scene, he spotted a carriage heading towards the Hidden Spirit Temple on Flying Peak, five hundred feet above them.

"Let's go up there," he said to Xin Yan. There was no road straight up to the peak, but the Lightness Kung Fu of both was excellent and they reached the top quickly. They gazed up at the sky, enjoying the peace and seclusion of the forest.

Suddenly, they saw two large men wearing blue gowns walking towards them. The two weighed up Chen and Xin Yan as they passed, expressions of surprise on their faces.

"Master, they're Kung fu experts," Xin Yan whispered.Two more men appeared walking towards them dressed exactly the same. They were discussing the scenery, and from their accents, it appeared they were Manchus. All the way along the path, they kept passing the blue-gowned fighters, perhaps thirty or forty in all, who all looked surprised when they saw Chen.

Xin Yan was dizzy at the sight of so many obviously top-ranking fighters. Chen was curious.

"Could it be that some secret society or martial arts school is holding a meeting here?" he thought. "But Hangzhou is Red Flower Society territory. If there was something of that sort, we would surely have been informed. I wonder why they all look so surprised when they see me?"

They rounded a bend and the sound of a lute accompanied by a chanting voice and the soft tinkle of a waterfall drifted across towards them. The voice recited:

"All is peace throughout heaven and earth,
Politics unsullied.
Fortunes and good fortune mount over four reigns.
The people wait to greet the Emperor
The banners of prosperity and wine fly in every village.
As the Imperial attendants appear."

They strolled across in the direction of the music, and saw a man dressed in the manner of a noble seated on a rock playing the lute. He was aged about forty. Two strong fighters and one stooped old man, all wearing blue gowns, stood beside him.

Chen suddenly shivered. He was struck with a vague feeling of recognition as he looked at the lute player. The man had an aristocratic bearing, and the more Chen looked at him, the more he seemed familiar.

The group eyed Chen and Xin Yan warily. The lute-player's fingers performed a final swirl over the strings and the lute was silent.

Chen saluted with his fists. "I could not help overhearing the song you just played, sir," he said. "I have never heard it before. Did you write it yourself?"

The man smiled. "Yes. It is a recent composition of mine. Since you are a music lover, I would be grateful of your opinion."

"Excellent, excellent," said Chen. "I especially liked the phrase 'The banners of prosperity and wine fly in every village.'"

An expression of delight appeared on the man's face. "So you remember the words. Please come over here and sit down, sir."

Chen refrained from adding that he disapproved of the way the song flattered the Emperor. He walked over, bowed and sat down.

The man studied Chen carefully and with curiosity.

"While coming up to the peak, we met a large number of other strollers all of whom looked surprised when they saw me," said Chen. "You now look at me in the same way. Is there something strange about my face?"

The man laughed. "You wouldn't know," he said. "I have a friend who bears a remarkable resemblance to you. The people you met on the path are also my friends, so they were naturally puzzled."

"So that's it," Chen smiled. "I also find your face very familiar, as if we had met before, but I can't remember when. I wonder if you can?"

The man laughed again. "Well that really is strange," he said. "What is your honourable name, sir?"

"Lu Jiachen. And you, sir?"

The man thought for a moment. "My name is Dongfeng. I am from Hebei Province. From your accent, I would guess you are from around here."

"That is correct," said Chen.

"I had long heard that the scenic beauty of the south was incomparable," continued the man who called himself Master Dongfang. "I can see today that it is true. Not only is the scenery superb, but the area is also obviously blessed with much talent."

Chen could tell from his speech that this was no ordinary man. He watched the reverential way in which the old man and the other two attendants treated him, and wondered just who he was.

"Someone with such outstanding knowledge of music as yourself must certainly be a virtuoso," Dongfang said. "Why not play a song for us?" He pushed the seven-stringed lute in front of Chen.

Chen stretched out his hand and lightly strummed the strings and found the lute's tone to be matchlessly crisp and clear. It looked liked an antique of great age.

"I am not worthy of playing such an instrument," he said. He checked the tuning, then struck up a tune, named 'The Goose Lands on the Flat Sands'.

Dongfang listened, engrossed. "Have you ever been to the border regions?" He asked when the tune finished.

"I have just returned from there," Chen replied. "How did you know?"

"Your playing conjures up the vast emptiness of the great desert. I have heard that tune many times in my life, but never have I heard it played with such feeling." Chen saw he indeed had a great knowledge of music and was very pleased.

"There is something I would like to ask you," Dongfang continued.

"Please feel free to ask."

"I would guess that you are from the family of an official," he said. "What post does your respected father hold? And what is your rank?"

"My father has unfortunately passed away. I myself am a man of mediocre abilities with no official rank," Chen replied.

"But you are obviously greatly talented. Could it be that the examiners failed to appreciate your abilities?"

"No, it is not that."

"The Commander-in-chief of Zhejing province is a friend of mine. If you went to see him tomorrow, you could have an opportunity."

"Thank you for you kind thought, but I have no wish to be an official," Chen replied.

"But do you intend to hide yourself away like this forever?"

"I would prefer to live in seclusion than oppress the common people."

Dongfang's expression suddenly changed and the two blue-gowned attendants both took a step forward. He was silent for a second, then laughed out loud. "You are indeed a man of noble character," he said. "Simple folk such as myself cannot be compared with you."

The two weighed each other up, aware that there was something special about the other.

"You must have heard much news on your long journey from the Moslem regions," Dongfang said.

"When I arrived at the Yellow River, I found great flooding and many homeless people. I had no heart for appreciating the scenery after that."

"I am told that the refugees in Lanfeng looted grain stores meant for the western army. Did you hear anything about that?"

Chen started in surprise and wondered how he could have known. They had hurried south after the Lanfeng incident without resting. "I understand there was such an incident," he said. "The refugees had no clothes and no food and the local officials did nothing to help them. They were forced to break the law in order to survive, an action which under the circumstances is pardonable."

Dongfang was silent for a while. "I understand it was not quite simple as that," he said nonchalantly. "I heard the Red Flower Society incited the refugees."

"What is the Red Flower Society>" asked Chen, feigning ignorance.

"It is rebellious underworld society. Have you never heard of it?"

"I am afraid that between my lute and my chess board, I have little time for the affairs of the world."

"There's no need to be ashamed. These people are in any case no great problem."

"What basis do you have for saying that?"

"The Emperor is on the throne and the administration of the country is enlightened and orderly. Once one or two men with talent are assigned to the job, the Red Flower Society will be destroyed in no time at all."

"I know nothing of administration, so please do not laugh if I should say something stupid. But in my humble opinion, most court officials are drunkards and guzzlers. I doubt if they would be able to accomplish such a mission."

As he spoke, Dongfang and his three attendants turned pale.

"That is simply the view of a scholar," Dongfang replied. "These friends of mine here are of more than mediocre ability. If you were a student of the martial arts, you would know that I was not exaggerating."

"I lack even the stength to tie up a chicken, but I have always had the greatest respect for heroic fighters," Chen said. "Are these your pupils? I wonder if you could ask them to perform a demonstration of their abilities?"

"Show this Master Lu one of your tricks," Dongfang said to the attendants.

"Thank you," said Chen.

One of the attendants stepped forward. "That magpie in the tree is too noisy," he said. "I'll knock it down so we can have some peace."

With a wave of his hand, a sleeve dart shot off towards the magpie, but just as it neared the target, it suddenly veered off to one side and missed.

Donggang looked surprised and the attendant's face went red with embarrassment. He threw another dart. This time everyone was watching closely and saw a piece of earth knock the dart off course.

The old man noticed Xin Yan's hand had moved slightly and realised he was responsible. "This young brother's kung fu is excellent. We must get to know one another," he said and grasped for Xin Yan's hand with fingers of steel.

Chen was surprised to see the old man was using Great Eagle's Claw kung fu. "There are only a handful of men as good as that," he thought. "Why would such a man agree to be Dongfang's servant?"

He flicked open his fan in front of Xin Yan as the old man lunged at the boy, and the old man quickly withdrew. As his master was treating Chen in a friendly manner, it would be extremely disrespectful to damage one of his possessions. He glanced at Chen, wondering if he knew kung fu. Chen began fanning himself lightly, completely relaxed as if the move a second ago had been a pure coincidence.

"This boy's kung fu is very good despite his youth," said Dongfang. "Where did you find him?"

"He doesn't know kung fu," replied Chen. "But he has been throwing things at insects and birds since he was small, and he's become quite good at it."

Dongfang could see this was untrue, but did not pursue the matter. He looked at Chen's fan.

"Whose is the calligraphy on your fan? May I look?" he asked. Chen handed the fan over to him.

"A man who was not of such noble character as yourself would be unworthy of this object. Where did you get it?"

"I bought it in a bookstore for ten gold pieces."

"If you had paid ten times as much, I would still consider it a bargain," Dongfang replied. "Possessions such as this are usually passed down from generation to generation in the great families. It is certainly amazing that you were able to buy it so easily in a bookstore."

Chen knew Dongfang didn't believe him, but he didn't care. He smiled lightly.

"I like this fan very much," Dongfang said. "I wonder if I could ask you to sell it to me?"

"If you like it, I would be pleased to give it to you," Chen replied.

Dongfang accepted the fan and lifted up the ancient lute and presented it to Chen. "Just as an heroic fighter should be presented with a treasured sword, so should this lute belong to you."

Chen knew the lute was extremely valuable, and he wondered why the man wanted to exchange gifts so soon after they had met. But as the son of a high official, he had seen many treasures and was not dazzled by them. He saluted Dongfang with his fists in thanks and told Xin Yan to pick the lute up.

"If there is anything I can ever do for you in the future, please come to Beijing with that lute and just ask for me," Dongfang said. "Why don't we walk back down the hill together?"

"Fine," said Chen, and the two started off, holding hands.

As they reached the Hidden Spirit monastery, several people came towards them, led by a handsome-faced man wearing an embroidered gown. The man bore a striking resemblance to Chen and was even about the same age, but he lack Chen's imposing air. Chen and he started in surprise as they looked at each other.

"Isn't he like you, Brother Lu?" Dongfang said. "Kang, come and meet Master Lu."

Kang bowed towards him, and Chen quickly returned the courtesy.

All of a sudden, they heard a girl call out in surprise. Chen turned and saw Zhou Qi with Xu and her parents emerging from the monastery, and knew she must have struck with surprise at the sight of two Great Helsmen Chen's. He saw Xu hustling her away and turned back.

"Brother Lu," Dongfang said. "We seem to have become good friends on our first meeting. We will meet again. Goodbye." They bowed to each other and Dongfang walked off guarded by several dozen of the blue-gowned men.

Chen turned and nodded slightly in Xu's direction. Xu hurriedly made his apologies to Lord Zhou and to Zhou Qi and followed after Dongfang and his companions.

Towards evening, he returned to make his report. "The fellow spent a long time floating about on the lake and then went to the Provincial Commander-in-chief's Yamen," he said.

Chen told him about his meeting with Dongfang, and the two decided he must be a very senior official, either an Imperial Inspector-General or a member of the Emperor's close family. From his appearance, he did not look like a Manchu, and so they concluded he was probably an Inspector General.

"Could his arrival have anything to do with Fourth Brother, I wonder," Chen mused. "I think I will go over to the Commander-in-chief's Yamen personally this evening to investigate."

"It would be best to take someone with you just in case," Xu replied.

"Ask Brother Zhao," said Chen. "He's from Zhejiang province so he should know something of Hangzhou."

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** 2 **

At nine o'clock, Chen and 'Buddha' Zhao started out for the Commander-in-chief's Yamen. Using Lightness Kung Fu, they soon found themselves near the wall of the Yamen. They spotted two figures patrolling on a rooftop close by and crouched down to watch for a while. Zhao waited for them both to turn their backs, then sent a pellet shooting off towards a tree a few dozen yards away. Hearing a noise in the branches, the guards quickly went over to investigate, giving Chen and Zhao an opportunity to slip silently over the wall into the Yamen.

They hid in the shadows and looked out over the Yamen's main courtyard. To their surprise, they found it brightly lit with torches and several hundred troops standing guard. Another strange thing was that so many soldiers could be so quiet. When they moved, they walked lightly on tip-toe, and the only sounds that could be heard were the call of a cicada and an occasional crackle from the burning torches.

Chen could see there was no way of getting in. He gestured towards Zhao and the two retreated, avoiding the rooftop guards. They stopped behind a wall to discuss what to do.

"We don't want to alert them," Chen whispered. "We'll have to go back and think of some other plan."

Just then, a side gate of the Yamen creaked open and an officer emerged followed by four soldiers. The five marched down the street a few hundred yards and then turned back, obviously on patrol.

"Get them," Chen whispered. Zhao slipped out of the shadows and threw three darts, and three of the soldiers immediately dropped to the ground. Chen followed with two of his chess pieces, hitting the officer and the remaining soldier. They quickly dragged the five into the shadows, stripped the uniforms from two of the men and put them on themselves.

They waited once more for the rooftop guards to turn away, then jumped over the Yamen wall and strode nonchalently into the torch-lit courtyard. They passed through into an inner courtyard which was being patrolled exclusively by senior military officials, commanders and generals. Waiting for the right moment, they leapt up under the eaves of one of the buildings, then hung onto the rafters not daring to breathe. Once it was clear they had not been discovered. Chen hooked his legs over a beam and hung down over a window. He moistened the window paper and looked inside, as Zhao kept guard beside him.

Chen found himself looking in at a large hall. Five or six men wearing the gowns of high officials stood in the centre facing another man who was seated with his back to Chen. Another official walked in and kowtowed nine times towards the seated man.

Chen was surprised. "That is the ceremonial form used when entering the presence of the Emperor," he thought. "Could it be Qian Long himself is in Hangzhou?"

"Zhejiang Province Civil Administrator Yin to see your Highness the Emperor," the officer said.

So it was the Emperor, Chen thought. No wonder security was so tight.

"I have sent troops to quell the Muslim regions," the Emperor said. "I hear you object to this idea."

Chen frowned: he found the Emperor's voice strangely familiar.

"I deserve to die, I would not dare," Yin said, continuing to kowtow.

"I asked Zhejiang Province to supply six thousand tons of grain to meet the needs of the army. Why did you disobey my orders?"

"I truly would not dare, your Highness," Yin said. "But the harvest in Zhejiang this year has been very poor. The common people are in great hardship, and it is temporarily impossible to supply such an amount."

"So the common people are in great hardship, are they? The army is in urgent need of food supplies. Shall I tell them to starve out there?"

"I wouldn't dare to say," Yin quavered, continuing to kowtow.

"No, I want you to tell me," replied the Emperor.

"Your Highness's ability to spread enlightenment and civilisation is far-reaching. The Muslim barbarians are in fact not worth such a long trek by Your Highness's armies. As the Ancients said: 'Soldiers are instruments of violence which a man of virtue should use only as a last resort.' Your Highness could cancel the campaign, and the whole world would be thankful for your benevolence."

"The people are discontented because I have decided to wage this campaign, is that correct?" Qian Long replied coldly.

Yin kowtowed even more energetically. His forehead was by now covered in blood.

Qian Long laughed shortly. "You have a hard skull," he said. "If you hadn't, you wouldn't dare to contradict me."

He turned round and Chen started violently: the Emperor was the Master Dongfang he had met earlier that day.

"Get out!" he heard Qian Long shout. "And leave your cap here!" Yin kowtowed a few more times and then retired.

"There must certainly be some irregularities in Yin's affairs," Qian Long said to the remaining officials. "I want the Commander-in-chief to conduct a thorough investigation and inform me of the results. He must not be protected for personal reasons. His crimes must be exposed." The officials assented in chorus.

"Now leave me. And arrange for six thousand tons of grain to be collected and dispatched immediately." The officials kowtowed and retired.

"Tell Kang to come," the Emperor added, and an attendant left and returned a moment later with Chen's look-alike. He stood close to Qian Long with an air of familiarity very different from the cringing manner of the officials.

"Call for Li Keshou," Qian Long ordered, and a military officer quickly appeared, kowtowing his way into the Emperor's presence.

"Li Keshou, commander-in-chief of Zhejiang Province, pays his respect to Your Highness," he said.

"How is that Red Flower Society bandit chief, Wen Tailai?" asked Qian Long.

"He was arrested after a savage battle and he is very seriously wounded," Li replied. "I have assigned doctors to treat him. We will have to wait until his mind is clear before we can question him."

"You must be careful," Qian Long said.

"Your servant would not dare to be the slightest bit neglectful," replied Li.

"Go now," said the Emperor, and Li retired.

"Let's follow him," Chen whispered, but as they dropped quietly to the ground, someone inside the hall shouted: "Intruders!"

Chen and Zhao ran into the outer courtyard and mingled with the troops. Bamboo clappers sounded loudly and the old man Chen had seen earlier that day with the Emperor began directing a search.

Chen and Zhao walked slowly towards the gate.

"Who are you?" the old man shouted at them, and grabbed for Zhao. Zhao deflected his hand, and they made a run for it with the old man chasing. As they reached the gate, the old man lunged at Zhao. Chen ripped off the uniform he was wearing and flung it over the old man's head, then they raced out of the Yamen gate. The old man cast the uniform off to one side and chased after them. But the slight delay had made all the difference.

Two or three thousand troops swarmed out behind the old man like bees from a hive.

"All of you get back!" he shouted. "Protecting the Emperor is more important! You five, come with me." He ran off down the street with the five guards, following the two black shapes flying over the rooftops ahead.

The old man gradually closed the distance between himself and the intruders. Suddenly, the two figures leapt down and stood stock-still in the middle of the street. The old man lunged at Chen.

"I am your master's good friend." Chen laughed, not bothering to retreat or defend himself. "You are an audacious old fellow!"

The old man looked at his face under the moonlight and started in surprise.

"So it's you," he said, retracting his hand, "Come along with me."

"Do you dare to follow me?" Chen asked with a smile.

The old man hesitated, and as the five guards ran up from behind, Chen and Zhao raced off westwards towards the West Lake.

"After them!" shouted the old man. The guards reached the lake in time to see Chen and Zhao jump into a boat and push off from the shore. The boatman punted the craft out several yards from the bank.

"My friends," the old man shouted. "Please tell me who you are before you go."

"I am Zhao Banshan from Wenzhou," Zhao roared. "You, I take it, are a member of the Songyang martial arts school?"

"Ah, so you are the one they call the Thousand Arm Buddha?"

"That's just a nickname. I don't really deserve it. And your name, sir?"

"My surname is Bai, my name Zhen."

Zhao and Chen gasped in surprise. Bai Zhen was a famous kung fu master, but he had not been seen or heard of for years. Obviously, he had become the personal bodyguard of the Emperor.

"So it's you, Master Bai. No wonder your kung fu is so superb," said Zhao.

"I hear you are a leading member of the Red Flower Society, Master Zhao. Who is your companion?" Suddenly, he realized the answer without having to be told. "Oh, of course, it must be Master Chen, the Great Helmsman of the society, is that right?"

Chen opened his fan. "The moon is clear and the wind is fresh," he said. "Why not come and drink a cup of wine with us, Master Bai?"

"You have intruded into the Commander-in-chief's Yamen, and disturbed the official household. You must accompany me to see my master. He is well-disposed towards you, and would not do you any harm."

"Go back and ask your master to come and have a chat with me," Chen replied. "We can have a drink together if he wishes. I will wait for him here."

Bai had seen the concern with which the Emperor had treated Chen earlier, and he dared not offend Chen. But after such an intrusion into the quarters of the Emperor, he was also loath to return without them. There were, however, no other boats nearby, and with no way of chasing after them across the lake, he was forced to return to report to Qian Long.

"It would be quite nice to go to the lake and enjoy the moonlight," Qian Long said after a pause. "Go and tell him I will come immediately."

"These are dangerous bandits," replied Bai. "In my humble opinion, you should not risk such danger."

"Go," said Qian Long.

Bai did not dare to press the matter further, and rode swiftly back to the lake. 'Crocodile' Jiang was sitting at the stern of a boat with his arms round his knees, waiting for him.

"Tell your master that my master will be here soon," Bai shouted.

"Heaven knows what the Emperor sees in this fellow," he thought as he hurried back to resume his guard of the Emperor's person.

Qian Long was in high spirits, and talked and laughed as Commander Li Keshou waited on him. He had changed into an ordinary gown, while his bodyguards had also put on civilian clothes. Once at the lakeside, he gave his orders.

"He probably already knows who I am, but I want everyone still to pretend to be common people."

Imperial guard units had been hidden all around the lake with troops hand-picked by Commander Li behind them. Beyond the flickering lantern light, they saw five boats gliding towards them across the water. 'Leopard' Wei stood on the bow of the middle boat.

"I have been sent by Master Lu to invite Master Dongfang onto the lake to enjoy the moon," he announced, and jumped onto the bank and bowed before Qian Long.

Qian Long nodded slightly. "Excellent," he said, and stepped onto the boat. Commander Li, Bai and thirty or forty bodyguards boarded the boats with him. More than a dozen of the bodyguards were expert swimmers, and Bai ordered them to keep their wits about them.

They started out across the lake, which was a fairyland of lights. Pleasure boats were everywhere, bedecked with lanterns that filled the darkness like stars in the night sky and the sound of music floated across towards them. A small sampan darted into view then turned and led the boats to a flotilla of other craft. Despite the huge number of troops they had stationed around the shore, Bai and the other bodyguards were uneasy at the sight of such a powerful force, and all covertly felt for the weapons they had hidden around their persons.

"So you decided to come, Master Dongfang," Chen called from a nearby boat. "Please come aboard!"

The two boats drew alongside each and Qian Long, Commander Li, Bai, and several other bodyguards jumped across. Bai and the others relaxed as they saw that Chen and his attendant, Xin Yan, were the only other people on the boat. The cabin was spacious, with exquisite murals on the walls. The table in the centre was set with wine cups, bowls and chopsticks and was covered with dishes of fruit, wine and all manner of delicacies.

Chen and his guest shook hands and smiled broadly, then sat down facing each other. Commander Li, Bai and the others stood behind Qian Long.

Chen smiled briefly at Bai and noticed a handsome-faced youth standing behind Commander Li whom he recognised as Lu Feiqing's pupil. Surprised, he wondered what the youth was doing accompanying court officials.

Xin Yan poured some wine, and Chen, afraid that Qian Long would be suspicious, drained his own cup first, then began eating. Qian Long picked at a few of the dishes that Chen had already tried, then put down his chopsticks. He heard a flute on a neighbouring boat playing the tune 'Welcome the Honoured Guest.'

"You are truly a man of culture," he said to Chen. "It is amazing that you managed to arrange things so well at such short notice."

Chen dismissed the praise. "One cannot drink wine without music," he said. "I understand Beautiful Jade has the best voice in all Zhejiang Province. Shall I ask her to sing for us?"

Qian Long clapped his hands in approval. "Who is this Beautiful Jade?" he asked, turning to Commander Li.

"She is one of Hangzhou's most famous courtezans," he replied. "I have heard that she is very haughty by nature and if it does not please her, she won't even show herself let alone sing, no matter how much she is offered."

"Have you ever seen her?" Qian Long asked.

"I...no I haven't," Li replied, extremely embarrassed.

'Leopard' Wei escorted Beautiful Jade out. Qian Long looked admiringly at the perfect whiteness of her skin and her petite figure, but decided her face was not particularly attractive. Her eyes, however, were full of life, and her glance around the cabin contained an intimate greeting for every person there.

Chen stretched out his hand towards Qian Long. "This is Master Dongfang," he said. Beautiful Jade greeted him, then sat down next to Chen and cuddled up to him.

"I hear you sing very well," Chen said. "I wonder if you would allow us the pleasure of enjoying your talent?"

"If you want to hear me sing, Master Lu, I will sing for three days and three nights continuously. But I am afraid you would tire of me." An attendant handed her a pipa, and with a light strum, she began to sing:

"Outside the window all is quiet
You kneel before the bed eager for some kissing
I scold you, call you heartless, and turn away,
But despite my words I am still half willing."

Chen applauded enthusiastically. Qian Long, hearing her smooth, clear voice, felt a warm feeling rising in his chest. Beautiful Jade smiled, then strummed the pipa and turned to Qian Long:

"I want to beat you,
Don't think I'm joking," she sang.
"I clench my teeth
This time I really will
But you won't fear me
If I hit you softly,
And I cannot bear
To hit you hard.
Oh, my lover
I won't hit you after all."

The Emperor was completely carried away by the song. "If you want to hit me, then hit me," he said.

Qian Long, born and raised in the depths of the Imperial Palace had seen many girl singers, but all of them had been dignified and monotonous, nothing like this southern Chinese courtesan. He was entranced by her eyes and her seductiveness, and the song, the perfumed lake, the moon's reflection, all conspired to make the scene dreamlike, so that gradually he forgot that he was with renowned bandits.

Beautiful Jade poured some wine for Chen and Qian Long and the two drank three cups in succession while Beautiful Jade drank one to keep them company. Qian Long took a jade ring off his finger and gave it to her.

"Sing another song," he said. Beautiful Jade looked down and giggled, revealing two little dimples. Qian Long's heart melted.

"All right," she said. She batted her eyelids at him then struck up a tune on the pipa. This time, the rhythm was fast and light with a complex melody, and Qian Long shouted out his approval.

She sang of a poor man with ambitions who gradually climbs his way up, first obtaining clothes, then a house, a wife and concubines, and then power. Finally, he begins to covet the throne of the emperor himself.

Chen laughed heartily, but as the song progressed, Qian Long's expression became increasingly dour. "Could this girl know who I really am and be singing this song to make fun of me?" he wondered.

Beautiful Jade finished the song and slowly put down her pipa.

"The song makes fun of poor men," she said with a smile. "Both of you, Master Dongfang and Master Chen, are wealthy gentlemen with large mansions, lovely wives and beautiful concubines. You would not think of such things."

Qian Long laughed, and his eyes travelled over her, taking in her softness, her fun-loving spirit. He wondered how he should go about telling Commander Li to have her brought to the Yamen, and how to make sure the affair remained secret.

"The Emperor Xuanzong had a great interest in beautiful women," he suddenly heard Chen say. "That in itself is not important, but he should not have put his weakness for women above the interests of the nation."

"The Xuanzong Emperor was at first a wise ruler, but he became muddle-headed in his later years. He was far inferior to his ancestor, Emperor Taizhong," Qian Long replied.

"Taizong was certainly a very capable ruler," said Chen.

The two men Qian Long most venerated in all the world were Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty and Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty. Both had greatly expanded the empire, and their reputations had carried far beyond their borders. Ever since he had ascended the throne, Qian Long had worked single-mindedly to emulate them and had sent armies out on long expeditions to the Muslim border regions with the intention of carrying on their work.

"Emperor Taizong was wise and courageous," he said. "The barbarians cringed in fear at the sound of his name. He was proficient in both letters and war. Such talent would be hard to equal."

"I have read the Emperor Taizong's works," said Chen. "He makes some points which I feel are very true."

"Such as?"

"He said: 'The ruler can be compared to a boat, and the common people to water. The water can support the boat or sink it."

Qian Long was silent.

"Sitting as we are in this boat, the metaphor could not be more apt," Chen continued. "If we row smoothly, we will have a very stable ride. But if we row about frenziedly, or if the water should rush by in a raging torrent, the boat will certainly capsize."

His words contained not only the implication that the people could overthrow the Emperor whenever they wished, but also the threat of throwing Qian Long into the water there and then. Never in his life had Qian Long had such threatening words addressed to him. His anger surged up and unable to control himself, he threw his wine cup at the floor.

The cup flew downwards, but just as it was about to hit the deck, Xin Yan shot out and caught it. He presented it to Qian Long on bended knee. "Master Dongfang, you dropped your cup," he said.

The speed of his move startled Qian Long. Commander Li took the cup from Xin Yan and watched for some sign from the Emperor's eyes. But Qian Long composed himself and laughed.

"Brother Lu, this little helper of yours is very agile," he said, and turned to one of the guardsman. "Play with the little fellow," he said.

The guardsman, who was surnamed Fan, bent down and struck out at Xin Yan with his pair of large swords. Xin Yan somersaulted over backwards and landed on the bow of the boat.

"Let's play hide and seek," he said to Fan with a smile. "If you catch me, we'll say I've lost and then I'll chase you."

Fan was furious at having missed his target and bounded after him, but the boy soared off through the air like a great bird and landed on a small sampan nearby. The two chased each other across more than a dozen boats before Fan finally cornered Xin Yan at the end of a string of three boats. He thrust the sword in his left hand at Xin Yan's chest, and Xin Yan countered by striking out with his fist at Fan's stomach. Fan then leapt up in the air, aiming to fall on Xin Yan from above. But as he jumped, the boatman, 'Crocodile' Jiang, twirled his oar and spun the boat around. Fan shouted in fear as the boat disappeared from under him, and he fell heavily into the lake. Xin Yan clapped in delight.

Two of Qian Long's bodyguards dived into the water to save Fan, who was splashing and clutching at the air in desperation. Meanwhile, Jiang placed his oar in front of Fan, who grabbed it and held on tight. Jiang then swung the oar up, tossing Fan over towards Qian Long's boat, and shouted "Catch!" A bodyguard ran to the bow and caught him. Another bodyguard, surnamed Long, stepped forward.

"I understand this little brother is also very proficient with missiles," he said darkly as Xin Yan moved back to Chen's side. "Let us spar for a while."

"You and I are already firm friends," Chen said to Qian Long. "We should not allow our servants to disturb the pleasant atmosphere with their bickering. As this gentleman is an expert in the use of darts, let us ask him to display his talent on something other than my serving boy. What do you think?"

"Fine, except we don't have a target," Qian Long replied. Xin Yan leapt over onto the boat on which 'Iron Pagoda' Yang was sitting and whispered into his ear.

Yang nodded, waved to Zhang Jin in the next sampan, and pointed to another boat nearby. "Grab the end of that boat," he said, and took hold of the other end himself. "Up!" he shouted and the two lifted the little boat out of the water while their own boats sank lower. The others gasped at this awesome display of strength.

"Master, will this do as a target?" Xin Yan shouted. "Please come and draw a bulls-eye on it."

Chen raised his wine cup and drained it, then flung it at the boat. It sliced into the keel without shattering. The onlookers clapped and cheered. Bai and the other bodyguards frowned at the sight of such phenomenal power: a man whose Inner Strength Kung Fu allowed him to drive a porcelain cup into a boat keel as if it was a steel dart was a formidable opponent.

"Use the cup as the target," Chen suggested, smiling.Bodyguard Long silently pulled five spiked balls from his bag and threw them one after the other. They struck the target with a quick "rat-a-tat" and slivers of porcelain flew in all directions.

Xin Yan slipped out from behind the boat. "Not bad!" he shouted.

Long was suddenly swept with a wave of malice, and he threw another five of the spiked balls at Xin Yan.

A shout of surprise went up from the others, and greatly frightened, Xin Yan lunged to one side, but one of the spiked balls struck his left shoulder. There was no pain, but the shoulder immediately went numb. The heroes edged their little boats forward, all eager to match themselves against Long.

The other Imperial bodyguards were ashamed that Long should use such a low trick against a boy in front of the Emperor. But protecting His Highness was of overriding importance, and they immediately pulled out their weapons. Commander Li gave a sharp whistle, signalling the troops on the shore to mobilise.

"Brothers!" Chen called. "Master Dongfang is my honoured guest. We cannot show any impoliteness towards him. Move back, all of you."

The heroes rowed back several yards. Yang and Zhang Jin had already put the target boat back to the water, and Luo Bing was inspecting Xin Yan's wound. 'Mastermind' Xu also jumped over to see how he was.

"Don't worry, it's not painful," Xin Yan said. "But it's very itchy."

He moved his hand up to scratch the wound and Xu quickly stopped him. He could see the spiked ball had been dipped in a very powerful poison.

"Let go of me," Xin Yan yelled. "It's too itchy to bear!" He struggled powerfully to break free.

"Be patient for a moment," Xu told Xin Yan, trying not to look as worried as he felt. He turned to Luo Bing. "Ask Third Brother to come over."

Another boat moved swiftly up alongside with the Red Flower Society's Hangzhou chief Master Ma standing on the brow. He leapt over next to Xu and whispered: "Master Xu, the whole lake is surrounded by Manchu troops including Imperial Guard units."

"How many altogether?"

"Seven or eight thousand not counting the reserve forces waiting further away."

"Go and call together all the brothers in Hangzhou and surrounding areas. Tell them to gather near the lake and await orders. Also tell them to have a red flower hidden on their persons." Ma nodded.

"How many can you get together immediately?" Xu asked.

"Including the workers from my factories, about two thousand," he replied.

"Two thousand of our brothers should be enough to deal with fifteen thousand of them," said Xu. "And what's more, many of the troops in the Chinese units are society members. Go and make the arrangements." Ma nodded and left.

'Buddha' Zhao's boat glided over. He looked at Xin Yan's wound and frowned deeply. He carefully pulled out the poisonous spiked ball, then took a large medicine pill from his bag and placed it into the open wound. He looked up at Xu.

"There's nothing I can do," he said, desolation in his voice. "The poison is extremely potent. No-one can save him except the man responsible."

"How long can he hold on?" Xu asked, greatly frightened.

"At the most, six hours."

"Third Brother, let's go and get that fellow over here and force him to deliver the antidote."

Zhao leapt in three great bounds over to the boat in which Chen and Qian Long were sitting, with each bound touching down on the deck of a different boat.

"Master Lu," he said. "I would like to ask this gentleman to acquaint me with some of his tricks."

Chen, who was furious at the wonding of Xin Yan, turned to Qian Long.

"This friend of mine is also quite good with projectiles," he said. "It would be interesting to see them matched against each other."

The Emperor was eager to see any spectacle, the more dangerous the better. "Go on," he said to Long. "But don't lose." Long bowed.

"That's the Thousand-Arm Buddha," Bai whispered. "Be careful."

Long knew the name well, and shuddered at the thought of facing him. But he had never yet met his equal in the field of projectiles. "This is just between you and me," he said to Zhao.

"Do you think we would trick you?" Zhao demanded angrily.

"Right. That's what I wanted to hear you say," Long replied, and leapt onto the prow of a boat nearby.

Zhao sent off a flurry of darts and sleeve arrows after him, and Long's heart froze at the sight of such speed. He threw himself down onto the deck and the darts struck the boat with a quick succession of popping noises.

Long jumped up again, and spotting Zhao's figure in the moonlight, flung a dart at him. Zhao dodged to the right to avoid it, and suddenly found three of the poisoned spiked balls winging towards him. He leant over backwards and the spiked balls whizzed passed the tip of his nose. Three more spiked balls followed in quick successsion. Zhao knocked two of them into the water with darts of his own, then caught the third and placed it inside his gown.

Long leapt towards another boat and Zhao threw out a boomerang-shaped blade. Long ducked and watched in surprise as the blade swirled over him and returned to Zhao's hand. Fascinated by the sight of the strange weapon, Long failed to notice two other darts flying towards him which simultaneously struck both his shoulders. His body went limp and he fell to his knees.

The Imperial Guards were astounded at the sight of him falling. Chu Yuan, one of Long's comrades, raced over to defend him, but another swordsman intercepted him. Chu saw in the moonlight that the man was dressed in Taoist robes.

"Who are you?" he barked.

Priest Wu Chen smiled. "Do you mean to say you are a swordsman and you don't know me?" he asked.

Chu attacked with a 'Buddha Ambushing the Tiger' stroke followed by a 'Nine Successions' stroke.

"That's very good," Wu Chen said, still smiling. "Now continue with a 'Gold Wheel' stroke".

As he spoke, Chu did indeed attack with a 'Gold Wheel' stroke. "How did he know?" he wondered, startled. The priest also guessed his next two moves correctly, just as if he was a teacher instructing a pupil. Chu retreated two paces and stared at him, embarrassed.

Meanwhile, Zhao had grabbed Long and was pressuring him to hand over the antidote. Long, however closed his eyes and said nothing. "Just as long as I don't give in, the Emperor will surely reward me when we get back," he thought.

Priest Wu Chen continued his game of forcing Bodyguard Chu to counter with the moves he called out. Qian Long, although a mediocre fighter himself, had a thorough knowledge of kung fu and was amused by the spectacle. But he felt the chill of anxiety too.

"Chu is one of the top Imperial Bodyguards," he thought. "What use are they if these bandits can play with them in such a fashion?" He watched for a few more moves and then decided he had had enough.

"Tell him to come back," he said to Bai.

"Brother Chu," Bai shouted. "The Master asks you to come here."

Chu breathed a sigh of relief. The Emperor's order was like a reprieve from the death sentence, and he prepared to jump away. Priest Wu Chen, however, had other ideas.

"Just a moment," he said. He struck forward with his sword and Chu felt a cool breeze course across his face and body as the sword flashed about him. The courtesan Beautiful Jade suddenly laughed out loud, and Chu looked down and saw that his clothes had been cut to shreds by the priest's sword. Not only that: he felt his head and found his hair and queue had been shaved completely off. As he shook with fear and shame, his trousers suddenly fell down.

"These friends of yours are extraordinarily skilled in the martial arts, Master Lu," Qian Long said to Chen. "Why don't you all offer your services to the court? It is a pity to waste such talent."

Chen smiled. "We would prefer to do just as we please," he said. "But thank you. We are very grateful of the offer."

"Since that is the case, I will take my leave. It is getting late." Qian Long looked meaningfully over at Bodyguard Long in the other boat.

"Brother Zhao," Chen called. "Let Master Dongfang's servant come back."

"Absolutely not!" Luo Bing answered. "Xin Yan has poisoned by him and he refuses to hand over the antidote."

Qian Long whispered some instructions to Commander Li, then turned to Long. "Give him the antidote," he ordered.

"I deserve to die," Long replied. "I didn't bring the antidote with me. I left it in Beijing."

"Brother Zhao, give me two of those spiked balls," said Xu. Zhao pulled them out of his bag and handed them over. Xu ripped Long's gown off his chest and drove the balls into him. Long cried out in panic.

"Master Lu," Xu shouted. "Please send over some wine. We want to drink a toast with our friend here to seal our friendship, and then we will let him go."

"All right," said Chen. Beautiful Jade filled three cups with wine, and Chen threw them one by one over to the other boat. Zhao calmly stetched out his hand and caught them without a drop being spilled.

Xu took one of the cups. "Master Long, let us drink a toast," he said. Long knew that the alcohol would greatly speed up the effects of the poison and clamped his mouth shut.

"Go on, have a drink. There's no need to stand on ceremony," said Xu with a smile. He grabbed Long's nose between his third and little fingers then pressed strongly on his cheeks with the thumb and forefinger, forcing Long to open his mouth, and poured all three cups of wine into him.

Long decided his life was more important than his reputation. "Let me go," he said. "I...I...I'll get the antidote," Zhao laughed and loosened his grip. Long pulled three packets of medicine from his bag.

"The red one should be taken orally, the black one sucks out the poision and the white one closes the wound," he said and fainted away.

Zhao hurriedly poured the red medicine into one of the wine cups, mixed it with some lake water and gave it to Xin Yan to drink, then spread the black medicine onto the wound. A moment later, black blood welled out of the gash. Luo Bing wiped it up as it appeared, and gradually the blood turned red. Xin Yan cried out in pain as Zhao administered the white medicine.

"Please forgive my friends," Chen said to Qian Long. "They are very unrefined."

Qian Long laughed. "It has certainly been an interesting day. I will take my leave now."

"Master Dongfang wishes to go home," Chen called. "Head back to the shore!"

The flotilla glided slowly off, and soon reached the lakeside. Commander Li jumped ashore and helped Qian Long across onto land as the bodyguards formed a protective semi-circle. Li pulled out a pipe and blew three sharp notes on it, and several hundred Imperial troops appeared.

"You insolent wretches!" Li shouted at the Red Flower Society fighters. "You are in the sight of the Emperor and still you don't kowtow?"

Xu gestured with his hand, and Master Ma and his son fired flares up into the air above the lake. A moment later, a huge roar went up from all sides, and men rushed out from the trees, from behind buildings and from under bridges, each one with a red flower on his lapel and a sword in his hand.

"Brothers!" Xu shouted. "The Great Helmsman has arrived!" The society men roared their approval and surged forward.

The Imperial Bodyguards and troops drew their swords, fixed arrows to bows, and the two sides confronted each other, each determined not to yield. Commander Li mounted a horse and waited for Qian Long's order to seize the Red Flower Society fighters.

Chen walked calmly over to an officer of the Imperial Bodyguard and pointed at the horsewhip he was holding. Hypnotised by Chen's gaze, the officer meekly dismounted and handed the whip over. Chen then leapt onto his horse and pulled a red flower from his pocket which he fixed to his gown. The flower was made from the finest silk stitched with gold thread and the green leaves around it were studded with jewels which glittered and sparkled in the torchlight. It was the badge of the Great Helmsman and the Red Flower Socety heroes bowed before him in respect.

Suddenly, a large number of the soldiers broke from the Manchu ranks and swarmed forward despite shouts from their officers. They raced over to Chen, bowed, then ran back to their ranks as another batch ran out to pay their respects. The Red Flower Society's power was so great in the south that many soldiers in the Manchu armies, especially those in units under Chinese command, were members.

Qian Long was flabbergasted at the sight of so many of his own troops breaking ranks to bow before Chen. The Imperial Guard units he had brought with him from Beijing were clearly the only ones he could trust, and considering the danger of his position, he decided a fight had to be avoided at all costs.

He turned to Commander Li.

"So these are your trusted soldiers," he said coldly. "Tell them to retire."

"Yes sir," replied Li, stunned with fear. He ordered the troops back to camp.

"Brothers!" 'Mastermind' Xu shouted when he saw the Manchu troops were retreating. "Thank you all for your trouble. Please go now."

An answering roar went up from the mass of the Society followers: "Great Helmsman, goodbye!" The thunderous cry echoed out over the lake.

Qian Long raised his hands towards Chen. "Thank you for a very pleasant outing on the lake," he said. "We will meet again."

** 3 **

Chen and the heroes returned to the boats and ate and drank to their hearts' content. They had handed out a crushing defeat to the Imperial Bodyguard, and were in good spirits.

"Brother Ma," Xu said to the society's Hangzhou Helmsman. "After such a setback, the Emperor certainly won't let matters rest. Advise all the brothers in Hangzhou to be very careful, especially those in the Manchu ranks."

Ma nodded, finished off his cup of wine and departed with his son.

Chen also drained his wine cup and sighed as he watched the broken reflection of the moon floating on the lake between the lotus lily leaves.

"What date is it today?" he asked Xu, looking up. "We have been so busy lately, I have completely lost track of time."

"It's the seventeenth. It was the mid-Autumn festival the day before yesterday. Don't you remember?"

Chen was silent for a moment, then said: "Brothers, please go and rest now, all of you. I will stay here for a while. Tomorrow, I have some private business to attend to, but the day after that we will begin preparations for rescuing Fourth Brother."

"Would you like anyone to accompany you?" Xu asked.

"No, there's no need. There is no danger. I just want to be by myself and think about things quietly."

The boats moved over to the shore, and the heroes bade farewell to Chen. Some of them were already half drunk, and they joined arms as they walked through the deserted streets of Hangzhou, singing loudly into the darkness.

Chen watched them go, then jumped into a small sampan and skulled the boat out over the mirror-smooth surface of the lake. The shore receded, and he stowed the oar and stared up at the moon. The next day was his mother's birthday. For ten years, he had been away from home, and now that he was back in southern China, his mother was already dead. He thought of her kindly, smiling face and of the common fate that awaits all men, and tears began to trickle down his face.

The first light of day began to spread across the sky. Chen plucked the red flower off his gown and placed it in his bag, then strolled towards the eastern gate to the city. The guard on duty stared at him, then saluted: he was a Red Flower Society man. Chen nodded to him.

"Since you are leaving the city, do you need a horse, Great Helmsman?" the guard asked.

"Yes, thank you," answred Chen. The guard went jubilantly off and came back a short time later with a horse. Following behind were two minor officials who both bowed respectfully before Chen. They felt fortunate to have had an opportunity to render a service to the Great Helmsman.

Chen mounted up and galloped off. The horse was fast and he reached the western gate of Haining city by noon. It had been ten years since he left his home town, but everything was still as it had been. Afraid of meeting someone who would recognise him, he turned his horse northwards and rode two or three miles further on. He stopped at a farmhouse and ate lunch, then lay down to sleep. Having been up the whole previous night, he slept very deeply.

Noting his gentleman's attire and the fact that he spoke the local dialect, the farmer and his wife treated Chen with great courtesy, and killed a chicken for dinner. Chen questioned them about events of the past few years and the farmer said: "The Emperor has ordered that the whole of Haining county be exempt from taxes for three years. It's all because of his respect for Minister Chen."

Chen thought about how many years it had been since his father had passed away, and wondered again why the Emperor had suddenly begun to bestow such handsome favours on his family. When he had finished dinner, he gave three taels of silver to the farmer in thanks and rode towards his family home in the northwest of the city.

As he reached the gate of the house, he stopped in surprise. In the old days, it had been named 'Secluded Garden', but the old name board had been taken down and replaced with one which read 'Peaceful Pool Garden'. The characters were rounded and flowing, and he recognized the calligraphy as being that of the Emperor Qian Long himself. perplexed, he leapt over the wall into the compound. Next to the old house, new structures had been erected with endless pavilions and platforms, mansions and chambers.

He passed along a covered walkway towards the Jade Bracelet Hall, but again found a new name board over its door inscribed 'Beloved Days Hall', also written in Qian Long's hand. Chen frowned. The words 'Beloved Days' referred to the filial affection of children for their parents. What was the Emperor doing writing such a thing here?

He emerged from the hall and walked across a zig-zag bridge with red railings into a thick bamboo grove towards the 'Fragrant Bamboo Lodge', the former residence of his mother. This name board had also been changed, this time to read 'Spring Sunshine Hall'. Chen sat down on a rock, greatly confused. 'Spring Sunshine' was a poetic allusion used to describe a son's gratitude for his mother's love. It had no other meaning.

"Why has Qian Long placed this name board on my mother's house?" he wondered. "Even if he is more stupid than I think, he would not have been so thoughtless. Could it be he knew I would come back here and wrote out these name boards in an attempt to befriend me?"

He tiptoed up the steps, and looked through a window, into the main room of the lodge. It was arranged exactly as it had been when his mother was alive, with redwood furniture, a large carved bed, a clothes chest inlaid with gold, all as he remembered them from ten years before. A red candle flickered on the table. Suddenly, he heard the sound of footsteps from an adjoining room and an old woman entered. It was his mother's personal maid, Nanny Huan. The woman had reared him, and Chen felt closer to her than to any of the other servants.

He jumped into the room and hugged the old woman.

Greatly frightened, she opened her mouth to scream, but Chen covered it with his hand and whispered: "Don't shout, it's me." She stared at him, too shocked to speak. In fact, his appearance and manner had changed so much in the ten years since he had left that she did not know who he was.

"It's me, Jialuo. Don't you recognize me?" he asked.

"You....you are Jialuo? You've come back?" the woman asked, completely confused.

Chen smiled and nodded. She gradually recovered her senses and vaguely discerned the features of the mischievous child she had known. Suddenly, she threw her arms round him and began to sob loudly. Chen hastily restrained her.

"Stop crying! No-one must know that I've returned," he said.

"It doesn't matter," she replied. "They've all gone to the new section. There's no-one else here."

"What new section?"

"Of the mansion. It was built earlier this year. Heaven knows what it cost, or what it's for."

Chen knew she had little understanding of such matters. "How did my mother die? What illness?" he asked.

The woman pulled out a handkerchief and wiped her eyes. "Mistress was very unhappy, I don't know why. She hadn't had a good meal for days, and she become ill. It dragged on for more than a week before she passed away." She began to cry quietly again. "She kept calling for you. 'Where is Jialuo? Hasn't he come yet? I want to see Jialuo!' She was shouting like that for two days before she died."

Chen began to weep too. "Where is her grave?"

"Behind the new Sea Goddess temple," she replied.

"Sea Goddess temple?" Chen echoed.

"Yes, they built that in the spring too. It's huge, right on the sea embankment."

"I'm going to have a look. I'll be back in a while," he said.

"No...no, you can't!" She interrupted hastily, but he had already leapt out through the window.

He knew the path down to the embankment well and was there in a moment. Looking west, he saw a huge structure that had not been there before, and decided it must be the Sea Goddess temple. He ran towards the main entrance.

Suddenly, he heard the patter of light footsteps and hid behind a willow tree. Two men dressed in black clothes emerged from either side of the temple wall, saluted each other and continued on in opposite directions around the temple. Chen was mystified. Just then, two more men appeared dressed the same as the first pair and followed the same path round the temple wall. Even more curious, Chen waited for them to disappear around the corners, then jumped silently up onto the wall. Another pair passed him down below. He waited for a while and counted about forty men constantly circling the temple, all of them alert and silent, and obviously kung fu experts. Could this be a religious ceremony, he wondered? Full of curiosity, he jumped quietly down into the courtyard and crept into the main temple building to investigate.

Incense smoke curled up from in front of the central altar as candles flickered and danced. He wondered which god the altar was dedicated to, but when he looked up to see, he gasped out loud involuntarily. The handsome-faced statue was a likeness of his father.

He spotted an open door to the left and crept over. Looking out, he saw a long covered walk-way paved with white flag-stones. He knew that if he went along the white-stoned path he would easily be spotted, so he leapt onto the roof of the walkway and flitted silently down to its end. In front was another altar hall outside which was written in huge characters: 'The Palace of the Empress of Heaven.' The doors to the hall were open and he went inside. As he caught sight of the statue on the central altar, he started again, even more violently. It's face was that of his mother.

It was as if he was in a thick fog of bewilderment. He ran back outside, looking for his mother's grave and saw a long yellow tent behind the hall. He shrunk into a corner as a sturdy black-clothed man passed by on patrol.

The things he had seen that evening beggared the imagination, and despite the strict guard being kept, he resolved to get to the heart of the matter. He crept slowly over to the tent and crawled inside.

He lay absolutely still and listened carefully. There were no sounds outside, and he concluded that he had not been discovered. He looked round and saw the vast tent was completely deserted. The ground had been carefully flattened and the grass cleanly cut. The tent was joined to a string of others so that they formed a long tunnel stretching back from the temple buildings. Two large lanterns burned brightly in every tent, and looking down the tunnel, the two rows of lights stretching away looked like fiery dragons. He stood up and walked forward, as if in a dream.

Suddenly he heard the rustle of clothing in front and quickly hid to one side. After a moment, he continued forward again and spotted a man seated in front of two graves at the end of the tunnel. The graves were those of his mother and father. He was about to run forward and prostrate himself when the man stood up, gazed at the graves for a while, then knelt down and bowed several times. Chen saw the man's back shaking as if he was crying.

Faced with such a scene, all of Chen's suspicions disappeared. This man was either a relative or one of his father's former subordinates. He walked quietly over and tapped the man on his shoulder.

"Please get up," he said.

The man jumped in fright, but did not turn round.

"Who is it?" he shouted harshly.

"I have also come to pay my respects," Chen replied. He knelt before the graves and began to cry uncontrollably.

"Mother, father," he sobbed. "I have come too late. I will never see you again."

The man gasped and Chen turned to find it was none other than the Emperor, Qian Long.

"What...what are you doing here in the middle of the night?" Qian Long asked in surprise.

"Today is the anniversary of my mother's birth," Chen replied. "I have come to pay my respects to her. And you?"

Qian Long ignored the question. "You...you are the son of Chen Shiguan?" he exclaimed incredulously.

"Yes. Didn't you know?"

Qian Long shook his head.

In the past few years, Qian Long had been bestowing extraordinary favours on the Chen family of Haining, and although some of his ministers were aware that the new leader of the Red Flower Society was a son of Minister Chen, none dared to mention it because of the Emperor's unpredictable temper.

Chen wondered why on earth the Emperor would come secretly to kneel and cry before the grave of a former minister. It was completely inexplicable.

Qian Long took Chen's hand. "You must think it strange, seeing me here paying my respects in the middle of the night," he said. "Your father and I had great affection for each other, so I took advantage of this visit to the south to offer my thanks to him."

Chen made a sound, half believing, half not.

"If word of this should get out, it would be extremely inconvenient," Qian Long continued. "Can you give me your word that you will not reveal it to anyone?"

Chen was deeply moved by Qian Long's reverence for his own mother and father. "Don't worry," he replied. "I will not mention this evening to anyone."

Qian Long immediately breathed easier. The two men shook hands, one the Emperor of China, the other the leader of the country's largest secret society. They were silent for a while, each with his own thoughts. Far off, they heard a low roar like thunder.

"The tide is coming in," said Chen. "Let us go to the embankment and watch. It has been ten years since I saw it."

"All right," replied Qian Long, still holding Chen's hand. They walked out of the tent.

The guards outside the tent spotted the two as they emerged and rushed forward to wait on the Emperor, wondering how his companion could have entered the tent without them being aware of it. Then Bodyguard Bai Zhen and the other officers noticed that it was the Great Helmsman of the Red Flower Society, and they shook with fear. One of the guards led the Emperor's horse across to him.

"Take my horse," Qian Long said to Chen. The guards hurriedly lead over another horse and the two rode out of the temple gate.

The roar of the ocean filled their ears and they gazed out at the pale moonlight reflecting off it in silvery shades.

Qian Long stared at the waves for a long time, then said: "Fate seems determined to throw us together. Tomorrow, I will return to Hangzhou, and after three more days there, will continue back to Beijing. Why don't you come with me? It would be best if you were always by my side. Seeing you is like seeing your father."

Chen was surprised by the warmth of his words.

"You excel in both scholarship and the martial arts," Qian Long continued. "It would be easy to promote you to your father's former post, which would be ten thousand times better than hiding yourself away in the underworld."

"I am extremely grateful to you for your goodwill," Chen said. "But if I coveted great wealth, I would not have left home in the first place."

"Why did you leave? Why did you insist on mixing in the underworld instead of doing what a nobleman should? Was it that you couldn't get on with your father and brother?"

"No, it wasn't that. It was the wish of my mother. My father and elder brother knew nothing of it. They have spent a lot of time and effort looking for me."

"Your mother told you to leave home? That is truly strange. Why did she do that?"

Chen hung his head. "It was the result of a tragedy she suffered. I am not too clear about it either."

"The Chen family has been distinguished for many generations. During the last three hundred years alone, more than two hundred members of the family have passed the Imperial examinations, three have served as prime ministers and eleven as other senior officials. The number is extraordinary. Your father was an honest and hard-working man. He often used to plead before my father on behalf of the common people, crying as he did so. My father used to laugh and say: 'Chen Shiguan was sobbing again today. I suppose I'll have to agree to what he says.'"

Hearing of his father's conduct as an official, Chen was at once saddened and pleased. "He cried before the Emperor and I steal military grain," he thought. "Our methods are different but our aim is the same."

They stood and watched the tide thunder in.

"I would like to give you a piece of advice," Qian Long said.

"Please do."

"The actions of the Red Flower Society have come very close to rebellion. Past behaviour I can ignore, but you must not disregard the law in such a way again."

"All we do is for the country and the common people," Chen replied.

Qian Long sighed. "What a pity," he said. After a moment, he added: "As a result of our meeting tonight, I promise that when we destroy the Red Flower Society, you will be spared."

"In that case, if you should fall into the hands of the Red Flower Society, we will not harm you either."

Qian Long laughed. "You refuse to give an inch, even before the Emperor. All right, it's been said now. Let us join fists and swear that from today onwards neither shall harm the other."

The two men stretched out their arms and touched fists three times.

"With such a strong tide, if the sea embankment is not renovated, the homes and graves of the common people will sooner or later be inundated," Qian Long said. "I must see that my officials arrange for it to be reconstructed."

"That is the act of a ruler who loves his subjects," Chen replied. "The common people will be very grateful."

Qian Long nodded. "Your father performed great services for the Empire. I could not bear to see his grave swallowed by the sea."

He took Chen's hand and started to walk along the embankment with him. The guards wanted to follow, but he waved them back.

"I gather from your expression that you are still unhappy," he said as they strolled along. "Apart from thoughts of your parents, what other problem do you have? You may be unwilling to become an official, but if you have any requests, I will do my best to comply with them."

Chen was silent for a moment. "There is one thing...but I doubt if you would agree."

"Any request you make will be granted."

"Really?"

"I never joke."

"Then I ask you to release my sworn brother, Wen Tailai."

Qian Long started in surprise. He had not guessed that this would be the request. For a moment, he was at a loss.

"How has Master Wen offended you?" Chen asked.

"I cannot release him, but since I have promised, I cannot go back on my word. I tell you what: I won't kill him."

"Then we have no choice but to rescue him by force," replied Chen. "I asked you to release him not because we are unable to rescue him, but simply to avoid injuring our friendship."

Qian Long had witnessed the might of the Red Flower Society, and he knew this was no empty boast.

"I appreciate your good intentions," he said. "But I tell you honestly, I cannot allow this man out of my grasp. If you insist on trying to rescue him, then I will kill him three days from now."

Chen's blood boiled. "If you kill Master Wen, you will never eat or sleep easy again," he threatened.

"And if I don't kill him, I will never eat or sleep easy either."

"If that is true, then even being Emperor cannot compare with the carefree life that I lead."

"How old are you?" Qian Long asked.

"Twenty five."

"I am not jealous of your carefree life, but I am jealous of your youth. But it is of no consequence. No matter what one's achievements, everyone still returns to dust when their time is up."

The two strolled on for a time.

"How many wives do you have?" Qian Long asked. Without waiting for an answer, he plucked a piece of jade off his gown and offered it to Chen, saying: "This is a priceless treasure. Give it to your wife."

Chen did not take it. "I have not married yet," he said.

Qian Long laughed. "You always set your sights too high. Give it to the lady of your heart as a wedding present, then."

Chen accepted the stone. The jade shone with a pale glow under the moonlight and he found it slightly warm to the touch. He realized it was a piece of incalculably valuable "warm jade". He placed the jade in his pocket. "Thank you for the present," he said. "We will meet again." He saluted with his fists, mounted his horse and started off.

Qian Long waved goodbye to him. "Look after yourself!" he shouted.

** 4 **

Putting aside thoughts of home, Chen rode back to the society's mansion near Hangzhou where he found everyone gathered around 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi who had just arrived from Beijing. Shi immediately broke free from the group and bowed before Chen.

"I found out in Beijing that the Emperor had come south, and travelled day and night to get here to tell you only to find that the brothers had not only seen him, but had clashed with his men as well," he said.

"You've had a hard trip, Twelfth Brother," replied Chen. "Did you hear any other news while you were there?"

"Once I heard about the Emperor, I disregarded everything else," Shi said.

Chen noticed his haggard look and guessed he was worn out after the hard ride. "Go and get a good sleep. We'll talk again later," he said.

Shi bowed and walked off. As he passed Luo Bing, he said: "That white horse of yours is very fast. But don't worry, I took good care of him...Oh," He stopped again. "I also saw the horse's former owner, Han Wenchong, on the road."

"What? Did he want his horse back?"

"He didn't see me. I came across him in an inn in Yangzhou with several lead escorts from the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency. I heard them cursing our Red Flower Society, so I went across and eaves-dropped. They called us low and vulgar, and said we had killed that fellow Tong Zhaohe."

'Mastermind' Xu and Zhou Qi smiled at each other. "What is the Zhen Yuan Agency up to this time?" Xu asked.

"I gathered that they were escorting a consignment of treasures presented by the Emperor to the Chen family of Haining." He turned to Chen. "It was for your family, Great Helmsman, so I told the local society leader to quietly make sure it was delivered safely."

"Thank you," Chen replied, smiling. "For once we can work together with the Zhen Yuan Agency."

"The head of the agency is with them, which is an indication of the importance they attach to the consignment."

Chen and the others gasped at the news that the North China Earth-Shaker Wang Weiyang was escorting the consignment personally.

"Wang hasn't escorted a consignment for more than ten years," said Lord Zhou. "Great Helmsman, your family obviously has great prestige."

"I thought it strange too," added Shi. "But later I heard that apart from the valuables for the Great Helmsman's family, they were also carrying a pair of jade vases."

"Jade vases?" Chen asked.

"Yes, treasures from the Muslim regions. The Muslims scored a victory over General Zhao Wei's army, but with the Manchu forces so powerful, they can't hold out for much longer. So they have sent the vases as a peace offering."

The heroes excitedly asked Shi for details of the Muslims' victory.

"I heard that General Zhao Wei's troops starved for several days as a result of us stealing their rations, and finally had to retreat. The Muslims organised an ambush on the road and killed two or three thousand of them." The heroes clapped and laughed.

"The Manchu army finally received more supplies," Shi continued. "It began to advance again, but I didn't hear any further news. When the Muslim envoys arrived in Beijing, the court officials didn't dare to make a decision, and sent him and the vases down south for the Emperor to dispose of."

"The vases won't make any difference," Chen said. "No matter what valuable treasures they send, he will never agree to peace."

"I heard the agency men say that if peace was agreed to, the vases would be kept. If not, they will have to be returned, so it is vital that they not be damaged in any way."

Chen glanced at Xu, and the two walked away from the main group into a side chamber.

"Brother Xu, last night I saw the Emperor. He said that he would be returning to Beijing in three days' time, and that before he left he intended to kill Fourth Brother."

"Then we'd better start making arrangements to save him immediately," Xu replied.

"The Emperor is probably not back in Hangzhou yet, and most of their top fighters are with him, so it should be relatively easy to rescue him if we move fast."

"The Emperor isn't in Hangzhou?"

Chen told him about their meeting in Haining. Xu fiddled meditatively with the pens and paper on the tabletop in front of them.

"The only plan I can see at the moment is to steal the jade vases," Xu said finally. "Since the Emperor has already sent a huge army out west, he is certain to be unwilling to talk peace, which means he will have to return the vases. If he is unable to, his word will lose all credibility, and the Emperor, as we know, is obsessed with his own prestige."

"Once we have the jade vases, we can go to him and say that if he touches one hair on Fourth Brother's head, we will smash them," Chen added.

"Exactly! Even if we can't exchange the vases for Fourth Brother, we can at least postpone things for a few days which will also be of benefit to Master Muzhuolun and his Muslims."

"All right," said Chen. "Then we attack this North China Earth-Shaker, Wang Weiyang."

Wang Weiyang was sixty-nine years old. The Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency, which he had built up with his own hands, had prospered in north China for more than thirty years in spite of strong and sometimes violent opposition, and there was a saying in the fighting community: 'It is better to bump into the Devil than into old Wang.' He planned to retire the following year in the expectation of living to a venerable old age, but when the agency was entrusted with the task of escorting the jade vases to the Emperor, he decided to accompany the consignment personally. In light of the diplomatic sensitivity of the mission, he did not dare to be neglectful. From each of his agency branches, he detailed six top fighters, while the court also supplied four Imperial Bodyguards and twenty Imperial Guardsmen to accompany the Muslim envoy on his journey south. Precautions along the way were most strict, and there had been no incidents of any kind.

Noon was approaching as they arrived at a town less than three miles from Hangzhou. The agency men went into the largest restaurant and ordered food, and were jubilantly discussing how they planned to celebrate once they got to Hangzhou when a horse neighed outside.

Lead Escort Han pricked up his ears and ran out to find his own beloved white steed walking slowly past with a heavy load of firewood on its back. He tried to grab the reins, but the peasant with the horse gave the animal a rap on the rump and it cantered off down the street. Unwilling to give up, Han ran after them. Once outside the town, the horse turned off the road and galloped into the trees with Han following as best as he could.

"Brother Han's gone crazy thinking about that white horse of his," said another of the lead escorts with a smile. "Every time he sees a horse on the road with even a couple of white hairs, he has to chase after it to see if it's his. When he gets home tomorrow and sees his old lady's snow-white skin, I expect he'll probably think she's his horse and immediately jump..."

The others exploded into laughter.

Just then, one of the waiters suddenly called out: "Master Liang, please sit over here."

A man with the appearance of a rich merchant entered with four servants behind him, one of them carrying a water pipe. He seated himself at a table and a waiter hurried round pouring him a cup of tea and chattering: "Try this Dragon's Well tea, Master Liang. It's made with fresh spring water brought in only yesterday."

Liang grunted and said in a voice thick with the accent of Hanzhou: "Bring me a few slices of meat, a bowl of eel soup and three catties of the best rice wine."

The waiter bowed and a moment later, the fragrance of hot wine assailed their noses as he returned with a large flask.

"What is Brother Han doing away so long?" Master Wang Weiyang asked.

Suddenly the main door of the restaurant was kicked open, and a dwarf shuffled in followed by a girl and a strong young man, all three dressed in rough clothes.

The dwarf bowed in all four directions and announced: "I am a humble travelling player who can do a few tricks to make you laugh. If you are impressed, please make a contribution. If you are not, please accept my apologies."

He picked up a teacup from a table and covered it with his tattered cap. "Change!" he shouted, and whisked the cap away: the cup had disappeared. He waved the cap around to show that the cup was not inside.

Intrigued, Master Liang stood up and walked over to get a closer look.

"May I borrow your snuff box, sir?" the dwarf asked him. Liang laughed and handed the snuff box over. The dwarf placed it in his cap and made it disappear in the same way.

"That snuff box is very precious," one of Liang's servants warned. "Don't damage it now."

The dwarf smiled. "Please look in your pocket, sir," he replied. The servant felt around in his coat pocket and pulled out the snuff box.

Liang and his servants were amazed, and so were the Lead Escorts and Imperial Guardsmen. All crowded round to watch the dwarf's conjuring. Liang pulled a jade ring off his left hand and handed it to him saying: "Make this disappear too."

The dwarf put the ring on the table, covered it with his cap and blew on it.

"Alter east and transpose west, Topsy-turvy like the rest!" he shouted and whipped away the cap. The ring had disappeared. The onlookers gasped.

"Please feel in your pocket, master," the dwarf said, and Liang pulled the ring out and stared at it in surprise.

"Excellent, excellent!" he cried.

Several dozen people had entered the restaurant by this time, to see what was going on, including a number of army officers.

"What's so special about a trick like that?" one of the officers said. "Let's see if you dare to make this disappear." He slapped an official document down on the table and the onlookers saw it was marked "Urgent dispatch for Master Wang, Beijing Military Bureau", underneath which was written "Zhejiang Provincial Commander-in-chief Li".

"Please don't be offended, sir," the dwarf replied. "I may earn my living in a rather casual way, but I would never dare to touch an urgent official dispatch."

"What does it matter?" Liang said to the dwarf. "It's just a game. Go on, make it disappear." He turned to his servants. "Give me five taels of silver," he said. One of the servants pulled an ingot of silver from a bag and handed it to Liang who placed it on the table. "If you make the dispatch disappear, this silver ingot is yours," he said to the dwarf.

The dwarf looked at the ingot, then turned and held a whispered conversation with the girl.

"I have found some more courage," he finally said. He covered the document with his cap and shouted "Change! Change!" His hand pointed to left and right, up and down, and settled on the leather case that contained the jade vases. "In! In! Go into the case!" he roared. He picked up the cap, and the document had indeed disappeared.

"He's got quite a talent, this Turtle," the officer commented. The dwarf bowed before Master Liang.

"Thank you for your contribution," he said, then picked up the ingot and handed it to the girl standing behind him. The crowd clapped in approval.

"All right, now give me the dispatch back," said the officer.

The dwarf smiled. "It's in the leather case. Please open it and look," he replied. All the agency men jumped in shock as he spoke. The case was sealed with the Imperial seal, and none dared to break it open. The officer went over and felt the case with his hand.

"Excuse me, my man," said Wang Weiyang. "That is a treasure belonging to the Imperial court. It cannot be touched."

"You must be joking," the officer replied and continued to feel the case.

"Who's joking with you? Back off a bit!" one of the Imperial Guardsmen warned.

"Yes sir," the officer said. "But please return the dispatch to me, sir."

"Enough of your tricks!" the guardsman shouted at the dwarf. "Give him back the dispatch, quickly!"

"It's in the leather case. If you don't believe me, open it and see," said the dwarf.

The officer flew into a rage and punched him on the shoulder. "Hand it over!" he roared.

The dwarf put on a sorrowful expression. "I dare not deceive you," he said. "The dispatch is inside the leather case, but I cannot spirit it out again!"

Master Liang walked over to the Imperial Guardsman. "What is your honourable surname, sir?" he asked politely.

"My surname is Lin."

"Master Lin, these marketplace scoundrels have no sense of propriety. Please take a hand in this matter and return the dispatch to him."

"This case is the property of the Emperor," Lin replied. "Who would dare to open it without the Emperor's permission?"

Master Liang frowned, as if in a quandary.

"If you don't return that dispatch to me, you will be guilty of delaying important government business which is a capital offence," said the officer. "What do you say brothers?"

Seated around the room were another dozen or so army officers and men who began to edge towards Lin.

Wang Weiyang, with his decades of experience, felt there was something strange about the scene. He guessed that the dwarf was the key to the affair and stretched out his hand to grab his arm. The dwarf shrank away, crying: "Master, master, have mercy on me!"

Wang noted the dwarf's agility and became even more suspicious. He was just about to chase after him when the military men began brawling with the lead escorts and Imperial Guardsmen. He clutched the leather case to his chest and a lead escort stood guard on either side of him. The Guardsman Lin pulled out his dagger and slammed into the table.

"Enough of this!" he roared. "Back off, all of you!"

The army officer drew his sword. "If you don't return the document, I'll finish you off even if I die doing it!" he shouted. "Brothers! All together!"

He lunged forward and clashed with Lin. The other armymen drew their weapons and charged into the fray and a great battle ensued. Guardsman Lin was one of the best fighters in the Imperial Guard, but after a few strokes he found this lowly army officer gaining the upper hand.

Wang Weiyang shouted repeatedly for them all to stop but no-one listened. In the midst of the confusion, another group suddenly surged in through the door and someone commanded: "Seize the trouble-makers!"

The army men all stopped where they were. Guardsman Lin took a deep breath and saw that a young official had entered surrounded by several dozen soldiers. He and immediately recognized the man as the Emperor's favorite, Fu Kangan, who held the posts of military governor of Manchuria, commander-in-chief of the Nine Gates of Beijing as well as commander of the Imperial Guard. Lin hastily pushed his way forward and greeted Fu as the other Imperial Guardsmen bowed before him.

"What's going here?" the official asked.

"They started making trouble, Commander," Lin replied, and gave an account of what had occurred.

"And where is the magician?" the official asked. The dwarf, who had hidden himself in a far corner, now came forward.

"This is a very strange business," the official said. "You will all come with me to Hangzhou. I wish to conduct a thorough investigation."

"Yes, sir. A wise decision, sir," said Lin.

"Let us go," the official said, then walked outside and remounted his horse. The soldiers under his command gathered together the agency men, the army officer that had started the trouble and even the Muslim envoy and herded them out after him.

"Master Fu," said Lin to the official. "This is the head of the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency, Wang Weiyang."

Wang went over and bowed in greeting, but the official merely glanced at him once from head to foot and grunted. "Let's go," he said.

The column of men entered Hangzhou city and made its way to a huge private residence by the West Lake.

"This must be where the commander is staying," Wang thought to himself. "Being the Emperor's favorite, it's not surprising he has such a strong force of men with him."

They entered the rear hall of the residence. "Please be seated," the official said to Guardsman Lin, and continued on into an inner chamber by himself.

A short while later, an Imperial Guard officer came out and escorted the army officer who had started the trouble, the conjuring dwarf, Master Liang and his servants inside.

"I was getting a bit worried during that brawl," said one of the lead escorts. "There was something funny about those army men. I thought they might try to damage the jade vases."

"Yes, their kung fu was surprisingly good for army officers," Guardsman Lin replied. "It's lucky Commander Fu turned up or we may have had some trouble."

"Commander Fu's Inner Strength Kung Fu is superb," said Wang Weiyang. "It's very unusual for such a senior nobleman to be so accomplished in the martial arts."

"What?" said Lin. "Commander Fu's kung fu is good? How do you know?"

"You can see it in his eyes."

As they were talking, an officer came out. "Wang Weiyang of the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency, come with me," he said. Wang stood up and followed him out.

They passed through two courtyards and into another hall in which sat Commander Fu Kangan on a dais. He had changed into an official gown with a huge plume in his cap, and the imposing atmosphere was enhanced by the long official desk in front of him and the many Imperial Guardsmen standing on either side.

As he walked in, two officers shouted in unison: "Kneel!" Wang did as he was told.

"So you're Wang Weiyang, are you?" Fu said shortly.

"I am sir," said Wang.

"I hear you have the nickname 'North China Earth Shaker'."

"That is just what some of my friends call me."

"Both the Emperor and I live in Beijing," Fu said coldly. "Are you suggesting you can shake us off our feet too?"

Wang felt a sudden wave of fear. He hastily kowtowed and said: "This humble person would not dare. I will immediately do away with the nickname."

"Such insolence!" Fu roared. "Take him away!"

Two soldiers marched up and led him off, and Wang, in spite of his kung fu skills, did not dare to resist.

The Imperial Guardsmen and lead escorts were brought in one after the other, and one after another they were taken away and thrown manacled into the dungeons. Finally, an army officer marched up to Fu's table carrying the leather box in both hands, knelt down on one knee and raised it above his head in presentation, saying: "Commander Fu, here are the jade vases."

Fu laughed out loud, and stepped down off the dais. The dwarf and the others kneeling on the ground also stood up and began laughing.

"Seventh Brother," Fu said to the dwarf. "You truly deserve the nickname Kung Fu Mastermind!"

The conjuring dwarf was in fact 'Mastermind' Xu, while the Hangzhou Helmsman, Master Ma, had played the part of Master Liang. Chen had taken the role of his double, the Emperor's favorite, Fu Kangan, and the Twin Knights and some of the other heroes had played the trouble-making army officers. Xu had remembered that Han Wenchong would be able to recognize the heroes and so had arranged for him to be lured away using the white horse as bait into the forest where he had been seized.

Chen broke the seal on the leather box and lifted the lid. Inside were a pair of jade vases about one foot in height. On each was drawn the picture of a beautiful girl dressed in Muslim clothes, her hair plaited in a long queue. The girl was stunningly attractive with bewitching eyes and cherry-red lips that almost seemed to move. She looked as if she was about to walk out of the picture.

Everyone gathered round and voiced their admiration for the vases.

"When I saw Huo Qingtong, I thought she was certainly the most beautiful girl under heaven," added Luo Bing. "But this girl is even more lovely."

"It's just a picture," Zhou Qi protested. "You don't think there's really anyone that beautiful, do you?"

"I don't think the artist could have invented such a face," Luo Bing replied.

"Let's bring the Muslim envoy in and ask him," Xu suggested.

As he entered, the envoy bowed respectfully before Chen, in the belief that he was a senior court official.

"You have had a long hard journey, sir," said Chen. "What is your name?"

"My name is Kaibiexing. May I ask your name?"

Chen smiled but did not reply.

"This is General Li, Commander-in-chief of Zhejiang Province," said Xu.

The others stared at him in surprise, wondering what he had in mind.

"I trust Master Muzhuolun is well?" Chen said to the envoy.

"Thank you for asking, Commander. Our leader is very well."

"I wonder if you could tell me, sir, who is this beautiful girl on the vases? Is it a real person, or did the artist draw it from his own imagination?"

"The vases originally belonged to Master Muzhuolun's daughter. The girl in the picture is her."

"Is she Huo Qingtong's elder or younger sister?" Zhou Qi asked.

The envoy was surprised. "Do you know her, miss?"

"I have met her," she replied.

Chen wanted to ask about how Huo Qingtong was, but stopped himself. "Please go and rest now," he said to the envoy. "We will talk again later."

The envoy bowed. "Thank you, Commander. Where shall the vases be kept?"

"We have other arrangements," said Chen.

The envoy was led away.




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