@@ @@@@@@ @@
The Book and The Sword

Copyright Graham Earnshaw 1995


@@@@@@

@@ @@@@@@ @@
PART FIVE

** 1 **

`Mastermind' Xu went later to see the Muslim envoy.

"I will take you to see the Emperor," he said, and they left, accompanied by Meng carrying the leather box containing the vases. Unknown to the envoy, one of the vases had been removed.

When they arrived at the Commander-in-Chief's Yamen, Meng handed the leather box to the envoy and pointed to the main gate.

"Go in on your own," he said.

That afternoon, an attendant handed a visiting card to Great Helmsman Chen. It was signed 'Your servant Deng Tunan', the trusted lieutenant of Commander Li Keshou.

"Your plan has probably worked, Brother Xu," Chen said. "Brother Wei, please go and receive him."

'Leopard' Wei went to the reception room and saw a robust military official seated in a chair. "What is it you wish to see our master about, Master Deng?" he asked.

"I have come with instructions from Commander-in-Chief Li to see the Great Helmsman of your society to discuss a certain matter with him," Deng replied.

"Our master is not free at present. It is the same if you talk to me."

"It concerns a Muslim vase," he said.

Wei frowned enquiringly.

"The Muslims dispatched an envoy with a pair of vases to plead for peace. But when the Emperor opened the box, only one of the vases was inside. He was very angry and questioned the envoy, who said that he had already had an audience with the Commander-in-Chief of Zhejiang Province. The Emperor called in Commander Li, who was naturally mystified. Luckily, the Emperor knew Commander Li would not do such a thing, that there must be some good explanation."

"That is good," said Wei, nodding.

"But the Emperor said that Commander Li would be held responsible for the affair and gave him three days to find and return the other vase. This presents a great difficulty."

"He's afraid that if he doesn't find the vase, he will be removed from office, is that it? It's probably easier not being an official. If one's whole family could to be executed and all one's possessions seized, it must be rather distressing."

Deng ignored his sarcasm. "Let us not deceive each other. I have come to ask your society to return the vase."

"We have not heard of any such vase," replied Wei. "But as Commander Li has encountered this difficulty, there is no reason why we shouldn't help him find it. We may possibly come across some clue to its whereabouts in a year or two."

"Commander Li said he had great respect for Master Chen. He sent me today to ask your assistance, but would not feel at ease if he was unable to do anything in return. Please do not hesitate to inform us of Master Chen's wishes."

"You are very frank, General Deng. That is excellent," Wei replied. "Our Master Chen has two wishes. Firstly, the Red Flower Society has offended Commander Li, and he would like to ask him to let bygones be bygones."

"That goes without saying. I can guarantee that the Commander will never make difficulties for your society over this matter. And the second thing?"

"Our Fourth Brother Wen Tailai is imprisoned in the Commander's Yamen."

Deng grunted.

"He is an Imperial criminal," Wei continued. "No matter how courageous Commander Li is, he would never dare to release him. We understand that. But Master Chen misses him greatly and would like to see him alone tonight."

Deng thought for a second. "This is an extremely serious matter. I will have to ask the Commander and return with the reply."

Deng returned two hours later.

"The Commander says that Master Wen's crimes are serious in the extreme, and that normally no-one would be allowed to visit him," he said.

"Normally!" Wei exclaimed.

"But as Master Chen has agreed to return the vase, the Commander will risk his neck and allow Master Chen to see him. However, there are two small conditions he must agree to. First, the Commander has recklessly agreed to this purely in order to cement his friendship with Master Chen. If anyone else found out about it, it would be disastrous."

"Commander Li wants Master Chen to agree not to reveal a word about the affair to anyone, is that it?"

"Exactly."

"I can agree to that on our Master's behalf," Wei said.

"The second point is that only Master Chen will be allowed to make the visit."

Wei smiled. "Commander Li is naturally afraid that we will take advantage of the opportunity to try to rescue Master Wen. All right, we agree. Master Chen will go by himself. But we have not agreed not to attempt a rescue."

"You are a good man, Brother Wei, and I value your word. Please ask Master Chen to come to the Yamen this evening."

"If Zhang Zhaozhong is around when Master Chen and Master Wen meet, it will naturally be impossible to preserve the secrecy of the agreement, which could be extremely inconvenient for Commander Li."

"That is true," Deng replied. "The Commander will think of some excuse for getting him away."

When Deng had left, the heroes gathered in the Great Hall to await their orders for Wen's rescue.

"Brother Xu, I will leave the arrangements to you," Chen said.

Xu was silent for a moment. "Now that we know Zhang Zhaozhong will be elsewhere and that the Great Helmsman can get inside, it will of course be much easier to rescue Brother Wen," he said. "But Li is also certain to prepare for that eventuality. We must first work out what he plans to do and then do something unexpected."

"He will gather a large contingent of troops and surround the entrance to the dungeon and may even enlist the support of some Imperial Bodyguards," Yang pointed out. "They will allow only the Great Helmsman in, and only the Great Helmsman out."

"We had better be waiting outside the Yamen just in case the Turtles try anything against the Great Helmsman," said one of the Twin Knights.

"We will of course be waiting outside," answered Xu. "But I don't think Li will dare to harm the Great Helmsman with the vase in our hands."

"I've got it," Chen said suddenly. "When I go to see Fourth Brother, I will wear a wide cape and a large hat with a face cover..."

Xu knew what he meant. "But that way, we would gain one man only to lose another. It's not a good idea."

"Finish what you were saying, Great Helmsman," said Priest Wu Chen.

"Once I am in the dungeon, I will exchange clothes with Fourth Brother and then let him leave. The guards will think it is me. You can be waiting outside to receive him."

"But what about you?"

"The Emperor and I have a special relationship. Once they discover the switch, they will let me go."

The heroes were unhappy that their leader was placing himself in such danger, but they were forced to agree it was probably the best plan.

All the arrangements were completed. Chen threw on a large cape with the collar turned up, pulled a hat well down over his face, and set off for the Commander-in-Chief's Yamen accompanied by 'Leopard' Wei. By the time they arrived, it was already close to dusk and the first stars had began to appear at the edge of the sky. A man came out to meet them.

"Is that Master Chen?" he whispered. Wei nodded. "Please come with me. This other gentleman, please stay here."

Wei stood and watched as Chen followed the man into the Yamen. A flight of ravens flew overhead through the evening mist on their way home, cawing as they went, and Wei's heart beat wildly as he wondered what would happened to the Great Helmsman. After a while, the rest of the heroes arrived and spread out around the Yamen.

As he entered the gate, Chen saw the Yamen was filled with thousands of soldiers on guard. The man led him through three courtyards and into a room.

"Please take a seat," he said, and left. A moment later, Commander Li entered and saluted Chen. "It is an honour to meet you," he said.

Chen opened his cape and revealed his face. "We met the day before yesterday on the lake," he answered with a smile.

"You may now see the prisoner," said Li. "Please follow me."

As they reached the door, an attendant rushed breathlessly towards them.

"Commander, the Emperor has arrived," he reported. "Master Deng has gone out to meet him."

Li started in surprise and turned to Chen. "You had better wait here for a while," he said.

Li ran through to the front courtyard and saw Qian Long with a large contingent of Imperial Guardsmen. He hurriedly knelt down before him and kowtowed.

"Arrange a well-guarded room," said Qian Long. "I want to personally interrogate Wen Tailai."

Li invited the Emperor into his own study, and the Imperial Bodyguards established themselves on all sides of the study and even on the roof.

"I have important matters of a confidential nature to discuss with this prisoner. No-one else must hear," Qian Long told Bodyguard Bai Zhen.

"Yes, Your Highness," Bai replied and retired.

A moment later, four bodyguards entered carrying a stretcher on which Wen, handcuffed and chained, lay asleep. The bodyguards retired and there was silence for a time.

"How are your injuries?" Qian Long asked. Wen's eyes opened and he sat up. His wounds had not yet healed, but his mind was clear. He had seen Qian Long once before when he had entered the Imperial Palace with Master Yu, but was surprised at suddenly meeting him again in Hangzhou.

"I'm not dead yet," he said coldly.

"I asked my men to invite you to come to see me because there is something I wish to discuss with you."

Wen grunted.

"When you visited me with that leader of yours, Master Yu, I discussed an important matter with him. Unfortunately, I hear he became ill and died very soon afterwards. It was a great pity."

"If Master Yu had not died, I expect he would be imprisoned here with me," replied Wen.

Qian Long laughed. "You underworld fighters, you're very frank. You say whatever you are thinking. Now, Master Wen, I have only one question for you. Answer me honestly, and I will immediately release you."

"Release me? Ha! Do you think I am a three-year-old child? I know that you cannot eat or sleep easy knowing that I'm still alive. You have stayed your hand until today only because you wish to question me."

"You're much too suspicious," said Qian Long with a smile. He walked forward two paces.

"Did Master Yu tell you what it was he talked to me about?" he asked.

"What did you talk about?"

Qian Long stared at him, and Wen returned the gaze unflinchingly. After a while, Qian Long turned his head away.

"About my origins," he said quietly.

"He didn't say. You are the Emperor, the son of the late Emperor and Empress. Everyone knows about your origins. What more is there to say?"

Qian Long breathed a sigh of relief. "That night you visited me, you must have known what the reason was?"

"Master Yu said that he had helped you once over some important matter. The Red Flower Society was short of funds and he went to ask you for three million taels of silver. But you refused the request, and have even had me seized. If I ever get out of this, I will reveal how ungrateful you are."

Qian Long laughed out loud. He glanced at Wen: his anger did not appear to be a pretence. "If that is the case, I had better have you killed," he said, half-believing him. "Otherwise, if I let you go, it could damage my reputation."

"Why didn't you kill me earlier? If you had, you wouldn't have had to harbour such evil schemes against your mother."

"What about my mother?" Qian Long asked, turning pale.

"You understand."

"So you know everything?"

"No, not everything. Master Yu said the Empress Dowager knew he had helped you and had asked you to repay him, but that you were still unwilling to part with the silver. You have mountains of money. Three million taels should be nothing to you. But you insist on being petty."

Qian Long laughed nervously. He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped away the beads of sweat on his brow. He paced the room to steady himself, then smiled. "You show no fear at all before the Emperor. You are indeed a man of steel," he said.

"What have I to be afraid of? I doubt if you would dare to kill me," said Wen.

"Wouldn't dare?"

"You want to kill me because you're afraid your secret will be revealed but as soon as you kill me, your secret will be impossible to keep."

"Can dead men talk?"

"As soon as I die, someone will open a certain letter and reveal the evidence to the world. Then you will be in a real predicament."

"What letter?" Qian Long asked.

"Before we went to the palace to see you, Master Yu wrote down every detail of the affair and sealed the document in an envelope together with two important pieces of evidence and left it with a friend."

"Was he afraid that something untoward might happen?"

"Of course. How could he trust you? Master Yu told his friend that if we were both to die suddenly, he should open the letter and do what it said, but if one of us was still alive, not to open it under any circumstances. Master Yu has already passed away, so I don't think you'll dare to kill me."

Qian Long wrung his hands, anxiety written all over his face.

"Wouldn't it be worth spending three million taels of silver to buy that letter and the two pieces of evidence?" Wen asked.

"The silver? I had always planned to hand it over and then release you. Write a letter to your friend telling him to bring the letter to me and I will immediately pay up the money."

"Ha, ha. Once I tell you his name, you can send your bodyguards to kill or capture him. Actually, I'm very comfortable here. I would be happy to stay the rest of my life. You and I have the same fate. If I die first, you won't live much longer."

Qian Long bit his lip. "If you won't write the letter, it is of no importance," he said after a pause. "I will give you two days. If you persist in being stubborn, I will have no alternative but to kill you. No-one else will know about it and your friend will think you're still alive. And even if I don't kill you, I can still have your eyes gouged out, your tongue removed, your arms cut off...Think about it over the next two days."

He pushed open the door and walked out. His bodyguards re-assembled around him, and Commander Li saw him out of the Yamen.

Wen was carried back to the dungeon by the Commander's personal guards with Zhang Zhaozhong providing an escort. Once in the cell, one of the guards handed Zhang a letter.

"Commander Li asked me to give you this," he said. Zhang opened and read the letter, then left.

Wen lay on the bed thinking about his wife and friends. He hoped none of them would be harmed if they should attempt a rescue.

Just then, the iron door to his cell opened with a clang and a man walked in. Wen thought it was Zhang returning and did not open his eyes.

The man walked over to the bed. "Fourth Brother," he said quietly.

Wen was stunned. He looked up and saw it was Chen. "Great Helmsman!" he exclaimed, sitting up.

Chen smiled and nodded. He pulled two steel files from his pocket, and began filing at Wen's manacles. After a few strong strokes, a series of light scratches appeared on the surface, but the file was ruined. The manacles were made of a specially-cast steel brought from the West, and an ordinary file was useless against it.

"Great Helmsman, only the finest of swords could break through these chains and manacles," said Wen.

Chen remembered the battle with Zhang Zhaozhong at the Yellow River crossing and how sharp Zhang's 'Frozen Emerald' sword had been.

"Does Zhang guard you night and day?" he asked quickly.

"He's never more than a step from me. He only left a short while ago."

"Good. We'll wait for him to return and steal his sword." Chen threw the files under the bed.

"It's possible I won't be able to get out of here," Wen said. "The Emperor wants to silence me because he's afraid I will reveal his secret. I had better tell you what it is, Great Helmsman, so that no matter if I live or die, there will be no delay."

Chen nodded.

@@@@@@

@@ @@@@@@ @@
"The night I went to the Imperial Palace with Master Yu, Qian Long was very surprised to see us. Master Yu said: 'A lady from the Chen family in Haining asked me to come,' and handed him a letter. The Emperor's face went pale as he read it, and he told me to wait outside. The two of them then talked for about two hours before Master Yu finally came out. On the way back, he told me the Emperor was not a Manchu at all, but a Chinese and also your elder brother."

Chen started in shock. "That's impossible," he said firmly. "My brother is in Haining."

"Master Yu said that on the day the Emperor Yong Zheng's wife gave birth to a girl, your mother by coincidence also gave birth to a boy. Yong Zheng ordered the Chen family's child to be brought for him to look at, and when it was returned, it had become a girl. The boy is now the Emperor Qian Long..."

Before he could finish, they heard the sound of footsteps in the corridor and a guard came in.

"What is it?" asked Chen.

"Master Zhang is returning. Commander Li is unable to detain him further and asks you to leave quickly."

"Thank you," Chen replied. His left hand shot out and touched a Yuedao point on the guard's body. The guard toppled to the floor without a sound, and Chen pushed him under the bed.

"With Zhang on his way, I don't have time to give you all the details," Wen continued. "Master Yu knew the Emperor was Chinese and went to urge him to overthrow the Manchus and restore China to the Chinese while remaining as Emperor himself. Qian Long appeared moved by the appeal, and asked Master Yu to bring evidence before making a decision. But as soon as Master Yu returned home, he fell ill and never recovered. His last wish was that you should be the Great Helmsman, and he said to me that this was a good opportunity for us to restore the honour of the Chinese people. The Emperor is your elder brother. If he is unwilling to overthrow the Manchus, then everyone will support you to take his place."

His words left Chen too stunned to speak. He thought back to when he had first seen Qian Long by the lake and afterwards crying before the tomb of his parents. Could it really be that the Emperor was born of his own mother and father?

"I understand your mother wrote down the full details of how the Emperor Yong Zheng swapped the girl for your brother in a letter which Master Yu gave along with several other pieces of evidence to your teacher, Master Yuan, to look after."

"Ah, so when the Twin Knights went to see my teacher this summer, they were carrying these things to him on Master Yu's orders?"

"That's right. It was so secret that not even you could be told. All that Master Yuan knows is that they are extremely important, but he does not know what they are. Just before Master Yu passed away, he said that after you became Great Helmsman, you should open the letter and make your plans accordingly. But I stupidly allowed myself to be captured and risked the whole enterprise. Great Helmsman, if you can't get me out today, you must go to the Muslim regions as quickly as possible to see your teacher. You must not endanger the great cause of restoration just for my sake."

Wen was clearly relieved to have completed what he had to say.

He was about to add something when footsteps sounded in the corridor again. He signalled quickly with his hand, and Chen hid under the bed. Wen then draped himself over the side of bed with his head resting on the floor.

Zhang entered the cell, and under the faint light of the room's single candle, saw Wen lying half on the floor as if dead. Shocked, he leapt forward and touched Wen's back, but there was no reaction. He started to lift Wen's body back onto the bed, but as he did so, Wen leapt up and attacked him. Zhang fell back in surprise, felt a sudden numbness in his lower abdomen, and knew he had been hit by someone waiting in ambush under the bed. He roared angrily, sidestepped two paces and suppressed his breathing to control the numbness. Chen, who was startled to see Zhang still standing, leapt out from beneath the bed and struck his face with his fists seven or eight times.

If he responded, Zhang knew his control would be lost and the paralysis in his abdomen would spread. He retreated as Chen's foot flew up and struck another yuedao point. This time, he could not sustain his control. His whole body went limp and he fell to the ground.

Chen searched him and was extremely disappointed to find he did not have the Frozen Emerald sword with him. He pulled a piece of paper out of Zhang's pocket and saw under the candlelight that it was a note from Commander Li asking Zhang to show his sword to an important official who was waiting to see it:this must have been the excuse Li had used to draw Zhang away. He guessed that Zhang had been anxious to get back to the dungeon to resume his guard duties and had left early without the sword.

Chen continued his search of Zhang's body, and suddenly leapt up jubilantly.

"What is it?" Wen asked. Chen held his hand up and displayed a set of keys. He tried one on the manacles and they opened immediately.

Finally freed, Wen exercised his arms and legs as Chen took off his cape and hat.

"Put these on and get out quickly," he said.

"What about you?"

"I'll wait here for a while. You get out."

Wen understood his meaning. "Great Helmsman, I am very grateful for your good intentions, but we cannot do it that way."

"Fourth Brother, you don't understand. I am in no danger if I stay here." He told Wen about how the Emperor and he had sworn an oath to each other.

"It is still impossible,," Wen said.

Chen frowned. "I am the Great Helmsman. All members of the Red Flower Society must follow my orders, is that not correct?"

"Of course."

"Fine. Then this my order. Put these on quickly and get out. The brothers are outside waiting for you."

"This time I am forced to disobey your order," Wen said. "I would prefer to accept whatever penalty you decide upon."

They were deadlocked. Chen pursed his lips and then had an idea.

"Well, we'll have to risk going out together then. Put on his clothes," he said pointing at Zhang.

"Excellent! Why didn't you say so earlier?" Wen exclaimed.

The two stripped Zhang of his clothes and exchanged them for Wen's, then locked the chains and manacles onto him. Zhang shook with rage, his eyes blood-red with hate, but he was unable to utter a sound.

The two walked quietly through the door and along the corridor. As they ascended a flight of stone steps, a bright light assailed their eyes and they saw the whole courtyard was filled with torches. Several dozen soldiers stood with shining spear tips pointed at the dungeon entrance. Behind them were several hundred archers with bows drawn. Commander Li stood with his right hand held high. Once it dropped, the spears and arrows would be loosed, and Chen and Wen would be dead.

Chen stepped back a pace. "How are your wounds?" he whispered to Wen. "Can you charge through?"

"No, my leg is not up to it," Wen replied with a rueful smile. "You go by yourself, Great Helmsman, don't worry about me."

"All right, pretend you're Zhang and we'll see how we do," Chen replied.

Wen pulled his cap down to his eyebrows and strode out. Commander Li's heart sank at the sight of Zhang and Chen together and he assumed that Zhang had arrested him. He turned to his daughter Yuanzhi.

"Give Zhang's sword back to him and distract him so that Chen can get away," he said.

Yuanzhi walked over with the 'Frozen Emerald' sword in her hand and held it out to Wen, positioning herself between the two men.

"Uncle Zhang, here is your sword," she said, giving Chen a slight nudge with her elbow. Wen grunted and moved to accept the sword, and suddenly under the torch light she recognized him.

"Wen Tailai! So you're trying to escape," she cried and thrust the sword at his chest.

Wen feinted to one side and caught the blade with his fingers while his right hand struck out at the Solar Yuedao points on her forehead. Frightened, Yuanzhi tried to retreat a step, but found that with his fingers still holding the sword, she was unable to move an inch. She let go of the sword and tried to slip away, but Wen struck her left shoulder and a bone-splitting pain surged through her. She cried out and squatted down. Looking back, Chen saw Wen was surrounded but he continued to fight fiercely.

"Stop or the archers will shoot," Commander Li roared.

The old wounds on Wen's thigh burst open with the sudden effort and blood poured out. He knew he did not have the strength to break out of the circle of soldiers.

"Great Helmsman, catch the sword and get out!" he shouted. He tried to throw the Frozen Emerald Sword, but with a sudden pain in his shoulder, his hand went limp and the sword fell to the ground only a few feet from him. He had been hit by an arrow.

Chen turned to Commander Li. "Stop shooting!" he shouted. Li waved his hand and the archers stopped.

"Get a doctor quickly to deal with Master Wen's wounds. I'm going," Chen said, and raced out of the Yamen. Following Li's orders, the guards pretended to give chase, without really obstructing him.

Once out of the Yamen, 'Leopard' Wei and Luo Bing came up to meet him. Chen smiled bitterly and shook his head. The eastern sky was already pale as with heavy hearts the heroes returned home.

** 2 **

They gathered later in the Great Hall to discuss the situation.

Chen said to Wei: "Ninth Brother, send the vase to Commander Li. We cannot betray our word." Wei bowed and left.

Master Ma's son entered the hall and walked over to Chen. "Great Helmsman, Zhang Zhaozhong has sent a letter to you," He said.

"Zhang? That is strange. I wonder what he has to say?"

He opened the letter and found it angrily accused him of deception and plotting, of behaviour unbefitting an honourable man, and challenged him to a duel at a time and place of his choice. "He wants to get revenge for last night," Chen told the others. "Huh, a duel! Does he think I'm scared?"

"We have to rescue Fourth Brother in the next two days," said Xu. "Why don't you ask Zhang to postpone the meeting for a few days? We should not allow this matter to interfere with our real purpose."

"That is true," said Chen. "Today is the twentieth, so I will set the meeting for noon on the twenty-third."

He immediately wrote a letter inviting Zhang to meet him alone on that day and ordered an attendant to take it to the Commander-in-Chief's Yamen.

An attendant entered and said to Master Ma: "Master, the old man Wang Weiyang still refuses to eat and does nothing but curse."

"Who does he curse?" Ma asked.

"The Imperial Bodyguard for their lack of sense. He says he doesn't understand why they have imprisoned him."

"The North China Earth-Shaker," Priest Wu Chen chuckled. "As soon as he comes down to the south, he has to put up with some hardship."

Xu's face suddenly brightened. "I have a plan that should make it easier for you to deal with Zhang, Great Helmsman," he said. He told them the plan and they all clapped and laughed in delight.

"Excellent, very cunning," said Priest Wu Chen. Zhou Qi smiled and shook her head.

"Mistress Zhou once again thinks that Seventh Brother is not being straightforward enough," Chen said with a smile. "But when dealing with dishonourable men, one does not have to be completely honourable. Brother Meng, go and have a talk with the North China Earth-Shaker."

In forty years, Wang Weiyang had never suffered a setback. Now, on his first trip to the south, he was in dire straights. He yelled and shouted, insisting that he should be allowed to see the Imperial Guard Commander to settle the matter. As he ranted, the door to his cell opened and Meng walked in wearing the uniform of an Imperial Guard officer.

"So you are the North China Earth-Shaker?" he said unceremoniously.

Wang raged inwardly. "Yes," he said. "It is a nickname given to me by my friends. If Commander Fu finds it unpleasing, I will change it immediately."

"Commander Fu is a confidante of the Emperor," said Meng coldly. "He has no interest in such things."

"I am escorting a quantity of precious articles to Hangzhou for the court. Why are you detaining me here?"

"Do you really want to know?"

"Of course!"

"I am just afraid that at you age, you may not be able to stand the shock."

Wang hated references to his age more than anything. In a rage, he struck the corner of the table with his fist and splinters flew.

"I may be old, but my heart is still strong," he shouted. "What shock have I to be afraid of?"

Meng laughed. "Your're truly remarkable, Master Wang. There is a saying in the fighting community. 'Meeting the Devil is preferable to meeting old Wang, bumping into a spear is preferable to bumping into Zhang Zhaozhong', isn't that right?"

"That's the reputation I have amongst bandits."

"Why does 'old Wang' come before 'Zhang'? Could it be that old Wang's kung fu is better than Zhang's?"

Wang stood up. "Aha!" he exclaimed. "So the Fire Hand Judge wants to test me. I'm getting too slow in my old age. I never thought of that."

"Master Zhang is my superior, did you know that?"

"I knew that Master Zhang was in the Imperial Guard."

"Would you recognize him?" asked Meng.

"We both live in Beijing, But he is an official and I am an ordinary citizen. I have heard much about him, but have never had the good fortune to meet him."

"Master Zhang has also heard much about you," said Meng. "He says there are three matters he wants to raise with you. If you agree to them, you will be allowed to leave immediately."

"Well?"

"Firstly, he wants you to abandon the nickname 'North China Earth-Shaker."

"Huh! What's the second thing?"

"Please close down the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency."

"My Bodyguard Agency has been operating for more than thirty years," Wang protested angrily. "Never have I suffered a loss at the hands of our friends in the fighting community, yet Master Zhang wants me to retire! And the third thing?"

"The third thing is to ask you to issue a proclamation asking members of the fighting community to reverse the order of the saying about you and Master Zhang. Master Zhang also says that as you are now getting on in age, your Eight Diagrams sword is probably no longer of much use to you, and suggests that you donate it to the Imperial Guard."

Wang's anger surged. "Zhang Zhaozhong and I have nothing against one another. He's carrying this too far!" he shouted.

"You have enjoyed a great name for forty years. Perhaps you ought to retire. As the saying goes, one mountain cannot contain two tigers. Surely you understand the sense of that?"

"So he wishes to humiliate me to promote his own name. Huh! And what if I don't agree. Will he continue to hold me here?"

"Master Zhang is an honourable man. He would not do such a thing," said Meng. "He invites you to duel with him at noon today on Lion Peak. If you win, the three conditions will not be mentioned again. If you lose, then he asks you to agree to all three. He says it would be rather inconvenient if the Emperor found out about this, and asks you to go alone. That is, if you dare."

Wang spluttered with rage. "Even if I was to die there, I would still go alone."

"Then please write out a letter and I will take it back to Master Zhang," said Meng. He pulled out some paper and a writing brush.

Wang, his hand shaking in anger, wrote out a short note:

"To His Excellency Master Zhang Zhaozhong. Your words and behaviour have gone too far. I will meet you today at noon on Lion Peak. If I lose, I will be at your disposal. Wang Weiyang."

Meng smiled, picked up the letter and walked out, closing the door of the cell behind him.

That morning, Master Han, the original owner of the white horse, was moved from one cell to another. Having fallen into the hands of Red Flower Society once again, he was afraid he would not be able to escape so easily again. As he morosely considered his dilemma, he heard someone shouting in the cell next to his, and recognized the voice of Wang Weiyang. He could hear he was cursing Zhang Zhaozhong. Greatly curious, he was just about to call out to Wang when the door opened and two men walked in.

"Please come with us to the Great Hall for a chat, Master Han," one of them said.

As they entered the hall, Han saw three men sitting on the left. In the middle was the Red Flower Society's Great Helmsman Chen, while on either side of him sat a dwarf and a man with a flowing white beard. Han bowed silently and sat down.

"Brother Han, I never thought that we would meet again here," said Chen. "Our fates seem to be tied."

Han hesitated for a moment. "I know I agreed to give up my sword and return home," he said finally. "But Master Wang insisted that I do this job. Out of feelings of friendship and because I knew the valuables belonged to your family, I..."

"Brother Han," Xu interrupted harshly. "We of the fighting community are very particular about two things: trust and honour. By your own word, you have proved to be untrustworthy. How do you think you should be dealt with?"

Han steeled himself. "What is there to say? If you're going to kill me then kill me."

"There's no need to talk like that," Chen said. "Master Wang has been grossly insulted by Zhang Zhaozhong, and says that no matter what, he must fight it out with him. We of the fighting community are very annoyed over this affair. What is your relationship with Zhang Zhaozhong?"

"I've met him a few times in Beijing, but we are from two different worlds. You couldn't say we had any relationship."

"As I thought. Have a look at this letter," said Chen, and handed him the note Wang had written.

Han knew that Wang always showed the greatest respect for officialdom. But if Zhang really had been that insulting, he would have been unable to swallow it. Having himself heard Wang cursing and now seeing the letter, there was no room for doubt.

"I would like to see Master Wang and discuss the situation with him," he said.

"There is not enough time," Chen replied. "I would like you to take this letter to Zhang now and you can see Master Wang when you return. Twelfth Brother, please come here," he called. 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi emerged from an inner chamber and Chen introduced him to Han. "Brother Shi will accompany you to see Zhang Zhaozhong. You are unaware of how Zhang has caused Master Wang to lose face, but there is no time to give you the details now. When you see Zhang, you can say that Brother Shi here is a lead escort with the bodyguard agency. Do exactly as he says."

Han's suspicions rose again and he hesitated once more.

"Do you have any doubts, Brother Han?"

"No, no," he answered hastily.

Xu knew that Han suspected. "Please wait a moment," he said. He left the hall for a moment, returning with a flask of wine and a wine cup into which he poured some wine.

"I was too abrupt in what I said just now," he said, offering the cup to Han. "Please accept this as a token of my apology. Let there be no hard feelings."

"Well said!" Han replied. He drained the cup, picked up the letter and walked towards the door.

"Oh no!" Xu suddenly exclaimed. "Brother Han, I've made a mistake. That cup of wine had poison in it!"

Han went pale, and he turned back towards them.

"I am truly sorry," said Xu. "That flask was poisoned for use whenever needed and one of the servants gave it to me by mistake. I didn't realize it until I smelt it. You've already drunk a cupful. Brother Han, oh dear, oh dear. Get the antidote quickly," he added to an attendant.

"The antidote is in the east city residence," the attendant replied.

"You fool. Ride over there and get it!" Xu shouted at him. The attendant bowed and left.

"I have been neglectful," Xu said apologetically to Han. "Please deliver the letter first. If you do exactly as Brother Shi says, you can take the antidote when you get back, and everything will be fine."

Han knew he either did as the Red Flower Society ordered or he was a dead man. He gave Xu a look of hatred, then turned and walked out without a word. Shi followed him.

Lord Zhou frowned as the two left. "Han doesn't appear to me to be all that evil," he said. "Poisoning him like that was not a very honourable thing to do."

"But there was no poison in the wine," Xu replied.

"No poison?"

"None." Xu poured himself a cup and drank it down.

"I was afraid he might mess up our plan in front of Zhang, so I scared him a little. When he comes back, he can drink another cup and it will all be over."

The others laughed.

Zhang was sitting beside Wen Tailai keeping watch when the cell door opened and a guard came in with a visiting card inscribed with the words: 'North China Earth-Shaker Wang Weiyang.'

"Go and tell him that I cannot see visitors," he said.

The guard left, but returned a moment later to say: "The visitors won't leave. They have a letter for you."

Zhang read the letter, and was both angered and perplexed by it. He had never had any disputes with Wang and wondered why the old man should challenge him to a kung fu duel.

"Tell Commander Li that I have to see a visitor and ask him to send someone to stand watch in my place," he said to the guard.

Four bodyguards arrived to replace him, and Zhang went to the reception hall. He recognized Lead Escort Han and saluted him with his fists.

"Isn't Master Wang here?" he asked.

"This is Lead Escort Shi of our bodyguard agency," Han replied, pointing to his companion. "There are a number of things Master Wang wants him to say to you."

Zhang threw Wang's letter onto the table. "I have respected Wang from afar for a long time, but I have never had any dealings with him whatsoever," he said. "How can he say that my words and behaviour have gone too far? There appears to be some misunderstanding here."

"Master Wang is a leading member of the fighting community," said Shi coldly. "When the community produces scum, he considers it to be his business regardless of whether there is a direct connection."

Zhang stood up, absolutely furious. "So Wang Weiyang says I am scum, does he?"

Shi said nothing in silent confirmation.

"Please enlighten me as to just how I have dishonoured the fighting community," demanded Zhang.

"Members of the fighting community abhor disrespect for superiors above all else," Shi replied. "You, Master Zhang, are a senior member of the Wudang School. It is said that you have not only turned hostile towards your own martial brothers, but have also attempted to arrest one of them for the Manchu court. Is this true?"

"The affairs of my martial brothers and I are of no concern to anyone else," Zhang said angrily.

"Secondly, there is no personal emnity between yourself and the Red Flower Society and yet purely for the purpose of your own career and enrichment, you seized Master Wen Tailai, and caused the death of the young son of Lord Zhou of Iron Gall Manor. Is your mind at ease over such things?"

"I am employed by the Emperor and I am loyal to him. What has that got to do with the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency?"

"Did you not work to implicate the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency in your schemes, as a result of which many of our men were killed and wounded?" said Shi.

"You really did do wrong there, Master Zhang," Han added. "You can't blame Master Wang for being angry."

"We will ignore other examples for the moment," Shi continued coldly. "How do you think these three questions should be handled?" He rolled up his eyes and struck an expression of dignified authority.

Zhang was incensed at being treated like a criminal in the dock. "All right, you," he shouted, striding forward. "You're obviously looking for trouble!"

Shi retreated a pace. "What's this?" he asked. "You want to take me on because you don't dare to accept the North China Earth-Shaker's challenge, is that it?"

"Who says I don't dare?" Zhang roared. "I will be there on Lion Peak at noon today."

"If you decide not to go, then never again consider yourself to be a member of the fighting community," Shi said. "Master Wang says that if you have any guts at all, you will go alone. There will be no one else from the Bodyguard Agency there."

"Why should I need help? Do you think I am afraid of this egotistical, stupid old man?"

"Master Wang is not a great orator," Shi continued, ignoring Zhang's comment. "When you meet him, the issue will be decided by kung fu alone. If you want to curse and swear, please feel free to do so now."

Zhang was speechless with rage.

Shi laughed coldly, then turned on his heel and left with Han following.

While the two had argued, Han's mind had been on the poison he had taken, and wished that Shi would hurry up and finish so that he could get back and take the antidote.

"We agreed to meet at noon," Shi reported on their return to the mansion at Solitary Peak.

Han collapsed on a chair with what appeared to be stomach cramps. Xu poured out a cup of wine and handed it to him.

"This is the antidote. Drink it up, Brother Han."

Han quickly stretched out his hand to take it, but Lord Zhou snatched the cup away first and drank it down at one draught. Han stared at him an amazement.

"We have joked with you enough, Master Han," Zhou said with a smile. "You didn't take any poison at all. He was just playing with you. Master Xu, come and apologise."

Xu walked over, grinning and bowed. "Please forgive me, Brother Han," he said.

Meng went in once more to see Wang Weiyang. "Master Zhang has agreed," he said. "You can go now. And by the way, he does not like naggers, so if you have anything to say, say it now. When you get to Lion Peak, the matter will be decided with fists and blades. If you try talking to him even to beg for mercy, I doubt if he will listen to you. If you are afraid, there is still time to pull out."

"I am prepared to die today if need be," Wang shouted, huffily stroking his beard. He stood up and strode out. Meng motioned with his hands to an attendant who handed Wang his sword and a bag of projectiles.

Han was standing by the door. "Please be careful Master Wang," he said.

"You know about this too?"

Han nodded. "I have seen Zhang."

"What did he call me?"

"It was demeaning. You would not wish to hear it."

"Speak," ordered Wang.

"He called you ... an egotistical, stupid old man."

Wang grunted. "We shall see whether or not I am egotistical. Brother Han, if anything should happen to me, please look after the agency and the affairs of my family for me." He hesitated. "And tell my two sons not to rush into taking revenge. Their kung fu is still not good enough, and they would lose their lives to no good purpose."

He then started out for Lion Peak and the duel.

** 3 **

The slopes of Lion Peak produce abundant quantities of tea, one of the most exquisite varieties of the leaf under heaven. The mountain itself is high and precipitous, and few people go to the very top.

Wang Weiyang, his great sword slung across his back, clambered up the steep slope and emerged through the tea bushes onto an expanse of open ground on the summit. He noticed walking towards him a tall, robust man wearing a short jacket. The man stared at him for a moment.

"Are you Wang Weiyang?" he asked.

"Yes. And you are the Fire Hand Judge, Zhang Zhaozhong?"

"I am. Do you wish to fight bare-handed or with weapons?" Zhang was a very thorough man. He had searched about carefully during his climb up the peak, but had found no sign of anyone lying in ambush.

Wang was startled to see Zhang's mouth and nose were swollen and with his right eye ringed in black, injuries caused by Chen the night before. "We have no great grudges against each other," thought Wang. "Why risk killing him with a sword-stroke? The consequences of killing an official of his rank are unthinkable. It will be enough to humiliate him with my Eight Diagram Kung Fu. I'll show him I'm not egotistical."

"I would be honoured to pit myself against your famous Limitless Occult Kung Fu, Master Zhang," he said out loud.

"Fine," Zhang replied. He brought his fists together in salute and waited for the other to attack.

"If I may..." Wang said, and as he spoke, his left fist shot out and his right hand sliced across towards Zhang's right shoulder. Then in a flash, his left fist flipped over and aimed for the right shoulder while the right hand went for the chest. Zhang retreated three paces and fended off the blows. The two circled around, surprised at the extent of the other's ability.

"His moves are fast and powerful," Zhang thought. "He's a strong adversary."

"He avoided those blows of mine with ease," Wang thought. "Fire Hand Judge is no misnomer."

Suddenly, Zhang stepped forward and swept his left leg across at Wang, who jumped clear off the ground to avoid it and countered with a fist aimed at Zhang's face.

They were evenly matched and fought close and fast. The sun was riding high and their two shadows danced on the ground, merging and separating in a flash. Wang knew that at his age, a long battle would finish him. So he quickly changed his style, and with one hand protecting his body and the other facing outwards, he raced round Zhang, his feet following the pattern of the Eight Diagrams.

The style dictated that he keep moving, circling round Zhang to the left and right, waiting for an opportunity to strike. It would make even a kung fu master dizzy after a few circuits.

Zhang knew how ferocious this style was, and lunged at his opponent. But Wang had already circled round the other way. Suddenly he struck at Zhang with both fists, one of which slammed into his shoulder. Zhang caught hold of Wang's wrist and struck out at his elbow in retaliation. With his free hand, Wang swung at Zhang's other shoulder and the two leapt apart.

Zhang had had the worst of the encounter. "Your kung fu is excellent," he shouted. "Let us duel with swords."

He drew his Frozen Emerald sword, Wang also drew his sword and the two stood facing each other.

Zhang's mind was bent on recovering face, and he struck out with a series of attacking sword strokes, fast and vicious. Wang could tell from the way the light glinted on the Frozen Emerald sword that it was a superb weapon, and knew that if the two swords clashed, his own blade would come off the worst. So he did not dare to directly parry the strokes.

They fought round and round. Wang began to sweat and he secretly worked a number of darts into his palm and then swapped his sword over to his left hand. He slashed out with a left-handed stoke, and simultaneously flung the darts at Zhang. Zhang managed to dodge both dangers, but he was becoming flustered by the onslaught. He swept his sword across at Wang's waist, and as the two swords clashed, Wang's blade snapped cleanly in two.

Wang roared and hurled the remaining half at Zhang, and followed it with his remaining three darts. With a cry, Zhang fell over backwards and the Frozen Emerald Sword dropped to the ground.

"Master Zhang, forgive me!" Wang cried out anxiously. "I have some Golden Scar Ointment here."

Zhang was silent. Wang feared he was dead, and killing a court official was no laughing matter so he rushed across and bent down to examine Zhang.

As he did so, he saw flashes of gold before his eyes. Cursing himself, he leant over backwards as fast as he could, but too late. He felt stabs of pain in his left chest and shoulder as the needles plunged home. He gave another angry roar and jumped up ready to fight Zhang to the death. But as he swung his sword, the pain in his chest and shoulder was so extreme that he fell back to the ground with a groan. Zhang laughed out loud. He pulled one of Wang's darts from his wrist, ripped a strip of cloth off his jacket, bound the wound then stood up.

"How could you attack me when I was coming to see if you were injured?" Wang demanded angrily. "What sort of man are you to do such a despicable thing? We'll see if you have the effrontery to face the rest of the fighting community after today."

"There's only the two of us here. Who else knows about it?" asked Zhang with a smile. "Having lived to such a ripe old age, it's about time you went to meet your forefathers."

He picked up half of Wang's snapped sword and dug a hole in the ground, then heaved Wang to the edge of it.

"So you're the North China Earth-Shaker," he said. "I'll give you some earth to shake." He kicked Wang into the hole and began to bury him alive.

As he worked, he heard a long, cold laugh from somewhere behind. He whirled round in fright and found Lead Escort Han standing there with an Iron Pipa in his hand.

"So that's it!" Zhang shouted angrily. "The Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency arranges a one-to-one duel and secretly sets up an ambush. Do you have no shame?"

"It is you that is shameless," Han replied pointing to Wang.

"All right, you can demonstrate your Iron Pipa kung fu for me," Zhang said. He flew at Han using Lightness Kung Fu and thrust his sword at him. Han retreated two steps and a sword struck out at Zhang from amongst the bushes. Zhang parried the stroke, and saw the swordsman was the other lead escort who had accompanied Han to see him earlier.

"Come on, fight me together. It is of no consequence to the Fire Hand Judge," he shouted.

Just as he was about to strike, he heard a noise behind and turned to see eight or nine men walking towards him led by the Red Flower Society's Great Helmsman, Chen Jialuo. A shiver of panic passed through him, and he glanced about, looking for some avenue of escape.

"Brother Han, go and look after Master Wang," said Chen. Han ran over to the hole and helped Wang out.

"Master Wang said he wished to have a private duel with no observers or seconds," Zhang shouted.

"My brothers and I came to admire the scenery and happened to come across the two of you," Chen replied. "It was a very artistic display, but you did not win very honourably, Master Zhang."

"We were matching our strength and our wits. What is wrong with such a victory?"

"You are wise indeed, Master Zhang." Chen walked slowly forward. "We want to rescue Master Wen."

"Well?"

"His manacles are made of the finest steel which no file could get through. I therefore have no alternative but to ask you to lend us your excellent sword. As a member of the fighting community, I am sure you will be happy to oblige."

Zhang looked at the number of his adversaries and knew it would be difficult to get away.

"If you wish to borrow my sword, you will have to take it by force," he said. He turned and sprinted towards the southern path down the mountain slope. Suddenly, he saw in front of him the one-armed Taoist priest, and slung two Golden Needles at him. He knew there was no chance of hitting the priest, but he hoped that the needles would occupy him long enough to get past. Priest Wu Chen, however, deftly dodged out of the way then crouched down and thrust his sword at Zhang's right leg. Zhang brought his own blade down to parry the stroke and the two fought fiercely. Zhang found his strength beginning to wane. The priest gave a shout and the Frozen Emerald sword was jolted out of Zhang's hand. For a split second, Zhang stared at it in surprise, and the priest aimed a flying kick at his groin, knocking him to the ground. Zhang Jin and two of the other fighters then jumped on him while Luo Bing pulled out some rope and bound his hands. Remembering Zhang had led the capture of her husband at Iron Gall Manor, she punched him smartly on the nose.

Chen walked over.

"You have only won because of numerical superiority," Zhang shouted angrily. "If you bandits are going to kill me then get it over with."

"He ought to be buried in the hole that he dug," suggested 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi. The others shouted their agreement, and Zhang broke into a cold sweat.

"What do you say?" asked Chen. "If you admit defeat and swear never again to go against the Red Flower Society, we will spare you for the sake of your martial brother, Master Lu."

"Stop wasting words!" Zhang shouted stubbornly. "After all your crafty tricks, how can you expect anyone to concede defeat to you?"

"All right," said Chen. "I will kill you to relieve you of the horror of being buried alive." He pulled out his dagger and walked over to Zhang. "Are you not afraid of death?" he asked.

"Do your worst," Zhang replied, and laughed bitterly. He closed his eyes and waited for death.

Suddenly they heard shouts from the mountainside below, and turned to see two men running towards them, moving as fast as the wind with superb Lightness Kung Ku.

As they approached, the heroes saw that one was Lu Feiqing, and the other a kindly-looking old Taoist priest.

Just as Lu was about to introduce the old man, Zhang went up to him and bowed.

"Brother, we have not seen each other for many years," he said. "How are you?"

The heroes realized that it must be Ma Zhen, 'Scholar' Yu's teacher. They all bowed before him.

"We came as fast as we could when we heard about the duel," Lu said. He looked round and saw with relief that no-one had been injured.

Ma Zhen had long heard of Zhang's unsavoury record, but seeing his blood-stained clothes and swollen face, he now found himself feeling almost sorry for him. "Brother Zhang, how did you get into such a mess?" he asked.

"With one against so many, how could I look any different?" Zhang replied indignantly.

The heroes were furious at his insinuation. "So you're blameless are you?" shouted Zhou Qi. She brandished her sword and made as to charge at Zhang, but her father held her back.

"His two martial brothers are here now," Lord Zhou said. "Let us see what they have to say." His words put the onus of dealing with Zhang squarely on Ma Zhen.

Ma Zhen looked at Lu, and then at Zhang. Suddenly, his knees folded and he knelt down before the heroes. Greatly surprised, Chen helped him up again.

"My brothers," he said, his voice choked with sobs. "This useless martial brother of mine has committed truly heinous crimes. To the shame of our school, we have failed to discipline him and have lost face before all our brothers in the fighting community...I...I..." He was overcome with emotion. "Brother Lu," he added. "Tell them what I mean."

"Brother Ma is very angry about Zhang's behaviour. But in memory of our late teacher, he wishes to ask you to spare him."

The heroes looked at Chen and Lord Zhou, waiting for their decision.

"Master Zhou will be the arbiter," said Chen. "We will do whatever he says."

"Considering he had Iron Gall Manor burnt to the ground, I should not rest until revenge has been gained," Zhou said, then paused. "But having heard your words, Master Ma, I will hand him over to you with all past scores forgotten."

"Father!" Zhou Qi cried, horrified.

Zhou stroked her hair. "Forget about it, child," he said softly.

"Out of respect for your wishes, Master Ma, the Red Flower Society will also let bygones be bygones," added Chen.

Ma and Lu bowed to the heroes. "We will be eternally grateful," said Ma.

"Brother Ma, what do you intend to do if he does evil again?" Priest Wu Chen asked sternly.

"I will insist that he turn over a new leaf," Ma replied. "But if he does revert to his old ways, then I will be the first to strike, unless he kills me first! I will now take him back to Wudang Mountain so that he can reflect on his misdeeds in solitude. Brother Lu, once Master Wen is out of danger, please write and inform me so that my mind can rest easy. By the way, where is my pupil, Yu Yutong?"

"He was separated from us at the Yellow River," Chen replied. "We later heard that he had been rescued by a girl, but we have no further information. As soon as we have rescued Brother Wen, we will go and investigate. Please don't worry, sir."

"That pupil of mine is very clever but he is not steady enough. Please give him whatever direction is necessary, Master Chen."

"We treat our brothers as blood relations," Chen replied. "Brother Yu is a capable man. We place great faith in him."

"I am very grateful for what you have done today," said Ma. "My brothers! Next time any of you are in Hubei Province, please come to stay at Wudang Mountain." The heroes all thanked him.

"All right, let's go!" Ma told Zhang curtly. Zhang noticed that Luo Bing had slung his Frozen Emerald Sword across her back, and he knew that to try to retrieve it would only result in more punishment. So he bit his lip and followed after Ma Zhen, his head bowed.

When they had gone, the others asked Lu what had happened to him since they had parted. He told them that for a time he had searched unsuccessfully for Yuanzhi. Then, realising that Zhang was the key to the affair, he went south and asked Ma Zhen to help him. They hurried to Beijing only to discover that Zhang had gone to Hangzhou, so they travelled south once more.

The heroes walked slowly down from the peak, talking as they went. Chen turned to Wang and Han.

"You are both free to go," he said.

"Master Chen, I will never forget how you saved my life," Wang replied.

Chen laughed. "I must ask your forgiveness, Master Wang," he said and related how they had stolen the jade vases and provoked the duel between himself and Zhang. Having just escaped from the jaws of death, Wang did not seem to blame him for the deception.

"You are certainly a born leader," he said to Chen, and laughed. "So young and already a hero. I may be old, but I still have a thing or two to learn."

"When our affairs have been successfully concluded, we will drink a few cups of wine together," Chen replied.

They arrived at the lake and returned to Lonely Mountain by boat. Lu Feiqing extracted the Golden Needles from Wang's wounds with the use of a magnet, and then treated them with Golden Scar ointment.

By this time, evening was approaching.

"Most of the work on the tunnel has been completed," Master Ma, the Hangzhou Helmsman, reported. "We should be finished in another six hours."

Chen nodded. "Good, thank you Brother Ma. Thirteenth Brother, please go and supervise the work." 'Crocodile' Jiang bowed and left.

Chen turned once more to Wang and Han.

"We have been looking after a few members of your honourable bodyguard agency," he said. "Why don't you take them to the lake for some recreation?"

Wang watched the Red Flower Society fighters hurrying to and fro and guessed they were preparing to rescue Wen Tailai. He decided that if he were to go out by himself now and the plan should go wrong, they could easily suspect that he had informed the authorities.

"I am getting old, and what with these Golden Needle wounds, I am not feeling at all well," he replied. "I would like to rest here for a day."

"As you wish," said Chen.

** 4 **

The heroes ate a full meal and then returned to their rooms to rest. At six o'clock that evening, an attendant reported that the tunnel diggers were already under the Commander-in-Chief's Yamen, but that a large rock was blocking their path which they were trying to dig around. Chen and Xu assigned their forces: some were to attack from the left, some from the right, and some would be held in reserve. At about eight o'clock, the attendant returned to report that the diggers had come up against an iron plate and had decided to stop work for a while for fear of alerting those inside.

"We will wait another two hours and then make our move," Chen said.

During those two hours, the heroes could hardly control their impatience. Zhang Jin paced up and down the hall mumbling curses. Master Ma kept taking out a large gold watch and checking the time while Chen read a book.

"The time has arrived," Ma finally announced.

The heroes all charged for the door. They donned various disguises and made their way separately through the darkened streets of Hangzhou to a house just outside the Commander-in-Chief's Yamen.

'Crocodile' Jiang was waiting for them. "This area is being tightly patrolled by Manchu troops," he said. "Be as quiet as possible."

He stood at the entrance of the tunnel with his iron oar at the ready, as the heroes filed through one by one. The tunnel had been dug deep, and with Hangzhou being such a low-lying area, it was ankle-deep in water. By the time they reached the big rock, the muddy water was up to their chests, while several dozen yards further on, it rose to their heads.

Seven or eight attendants were waiting near the iron plate with torches and spades in hand.

"Start work!" Chen ordered.

With the Great Helmsman there watching them, the attendants worked like demons, and soon shifted the rock to the side of the iron plate. Another moment of furious digging and the iron plate was dislodged, and 'Leopard' Wei, his pair of hooks at the ready, went through first with the rest of the heroes behind.

The attendants held the torches high to illuminate the way as Wei ran along a corridor towards Wen's cell, but found the way blocked by a locked iron gate.

"Eighth Brother, Ninth Brother," said Xu suddenly. "Go and guard the exit to the dungeon just in case the Manchus have some secret scheme."

Yang and Wei assented and left. Several of the attendants worked to loosen the stones to the side of the gate, and then with the help of several of the heroes, lifted the gate out of position. Luo Bing ran through, and into Wen's cell only to find it empty.

After so many disappointments, Luo Bing crumpled onto the floor and began to sob. Zhou Qi wanted to comfort her, but her father held her back.

"Let her be," he said. "A cry will do her good."

"Commander Li was afraid we would come to organise a jail break and has moved Fourth Brother somewhere else," Xu said.

"But now we are in the Yamen, we will find him no matter what," Chen replied.

They went to the door of the dungeon and saw Yang fighting fiercely with a group of Manchu soldiers. Priest Wu Chen gave a shout and charged out of the dungeon and finished off two Manchu soldiers on the spot. Further on, they found Wei battling six or seven officers.

"Considering my relationship with Commander Li, I had better not reveal myself," Lu Feiqing thought. He ripped a strip off his gown and covered his face so that only the eyes were showing. Just then, the Manchu soldiers broke and retreated up to the Yamen courtyard in confusion with Wei and the others in hot pursuit.

Xu leapt up onto a nearby wall and saw soldiers standing guard throughout the whole Yamen. A drum sounded, and Xu guessed the commanders were still positioning their soldiers. Then he spotted a lonely two-storey building in the southern part of the main courtyard surrounded by several hundred troops. There was nothing special about the building except for the tight defences, and he decided that was probably where Wen was being held. He jumped down from the wall and whirled his sword around his head.

"Brothers, follow me!" he shouted, and charged towards the building.

The further they went, the more soldiers appeared. But despite their numerical superiority, the Manchu troops were unable to contain the Red Flower Society fighters, each of them a master of the martial arts. In only a short while, the heroes had fought to within a few yards of the building.

"Third Brother, let's go and have a look inside," Priest Wu Chen said to 'Buddha' Zhao.

"Right," said Zhao, and they sprang over to the doorway with two long strides. A sword sliced towards them, but with one thrust from the priest's blade, the swordsman screamed and his weapon clattered to the ground. They raced into the building with Luo Bing and the others close behind.

As the fighting continued, the heroes found the numbers of Manchu soldiers diminishing. Suddenly they heard Priest Wu Chen yell from upstairs: "Fourth Brother is here! We've got him!" The heroes shouted in joy.

Zhou Qi raced up the stairs and saw everyone gathered round an iron cage. Chen was sawing at the bars with the Frozen Emerald Sword. Zhou Qi went close and noticed that inside the iron cage was another smaller cage in which Wen sat with his legs and arms manacled like a captured wild animal. Chen sawed through two bars, and Zhang Jin used brute strength to twist them back. Luo Bing, thanks to her slim figure, managed to wriggle into the outer cage, then took the sword from Chen and began to saw away at the lock on the small cage. The heroes were all smiling jubilantly. Suddenly they heard a bugle sound, and the remaining Manchu troops retreated out about one hundred feet and formed themselves into ranks around the building.

"Master Chen!" someone shouted from amongst the Manchu ranks. "I wish to speak with Master Chen!"

Chen went to the window and spotted Commander Li outside. "I am here. What is it, Commander?"

"Come out quickly or you will all die."

"We will not come out alone, even faced with death," Chen replied. "I am sorry, but today we intend to leave with Master Wen."

"Don't be so stubborn," Li shouted. "Start the fire!"

The troops pushed out huge piles of firewood and grass and surrounded the building with them. The firewood was soaked in oil and a second after a torch was thrown into it, a fiery ring sprang up with the heroes trapped inside.

Chen could see how dangerous the situation was, but he remained calm. "Everyone together," he said quietly. "Cut through the bars as quickly as you can."

A man walked out from behind Li and pointed angrily at Chen. "Death is staring you in the face and still you don't go down on your knees and beg for mercy?" he boomed. "Do you realize what we have in that building?"

As Chen stood thinking, he heard Xu exclaim in their secret code: "Oh no, they've packed the place with gunpowder."

Chen noticed a row of wooden barrels around the room they were in. With a quick movement, he smashed one of them open and black dust flew out in all directions, the smell of saltpetre filling their noses. His heart froze. "Is the whole Red Flower Society going to be blown to pieces today?" he wondered. He turned and saw the inner cage had been opened and Luo Bing helping Wen out.

"Sister Luo Bing, Brother Zhao!" he shouted. "You two look after Fourth Brother. Everyone else follow me." He charged down the stairs. Zhang Jin bent over and heaved Wen onto his back while Luo Bing and Zhao escorted them down to the ground floor. As they reached the door, they saw swarms of arrows like locusts flying at them. Wei and the Twin Knights tried several times to break out of the building, but each time they were forced back inside.

"You are standing in a gunpowder keg and I have the fuse here," Commander Li shouted. He raised a fiery torch and waved it.

"As soon as I light the fuse, you will all be burnt to ashes. Put Wen down immediately."

Chen knew that what he said was true, but he also guessed that because of Wen's importance to the Emperor, Li would not dare to light the fuse.

"Put Fourth Brother down!" he shouted. "Let's get out of here!" He brandished his long sword and charged out with Wei and the Twin Knights at his side.

Zhang Jin, running flat out with his head down, didn't hear what Chen had said.

"Put Fourth Brother down," Zhao told him. "It's too dangerous. We've got to get out or he'll get killed."

Zhang Jin placed Wen on the ground near the door. Luo Bing hesitated, but Zhang Jin grabbed her arm and charged on after the others. Li saw in the firelight that they had abandoned Wen, and with a wave of his hand ordered the archers to stop firing to prevent him being hit by mistake.

Having made it out of the building, the heroes regrouped by the wall.

"Eighth Brother, Ninth Brother, Tenth Brother and the Twin Knights, you five lead an attack on the Manchu troops and disperse them," ordered Chen. "Brother Xu, you think of a way to cut the gunpowder fuse. The rest of you, as soon as that's done, we will go back and rescue Fourth Brother."

Commander Li was just about to order someone over to keep watch on Wen when he spotted the Twin Knights approaching. He hastily shouted to a detachment of Imperial Bodyguards who raced over to intercept the Red Flower Society fighters.

Lu Feiqing was the first to spot a way out of the dilemma. He ran like an arrow straight for Commander Li. Li's bodyguards moved to stop him, but Lu dodged to left and right and slipped past them all. In a moment, he was at Li's side. Yuanzhi, wearing boy's clothes, was standing by her father's side. Seeing this strange masked man charging forward, she cried out shrilly: "How dare you!" and thrust her sword straight at his chest. Lu ducked under the stroke, then slipped round behind Commander Li and gave him a powerful shove which sent him reeling forward. Full of fear for her father, Yuanzhi struck out again with her sword, but Lu dodged out of the way once more, picked Li up in his arms and ran inside the circle of fire. The Manchu troops shouted in alarm, but the heat from the flames was so intense that none dared to follow him.

The Red Flower Society heroes saw Lu carrying Commander Li into the danger zone, and Zhang Jin and 'Crocodile' Jiang went in after them.

"That's enough," ordered Chen. "No-one else need go in."

The Manchu troops completely ignored the Red Flower Society fighters, and stared anxiously at the men in the centre of the ring of fire. Suddenly, someone with a torch leapt over to the gunpowder fuse and lit it. Deng Tunan recognized him as Imperial Bodyguard Fan who had shamed himself in front of the Emperor the day before. He bore such a deep grudge over the incident, that he wanted only to snatch victory away from the Red Flower Society with no concern for whether Commander Li lived or died.

The thread of sparks whirled off at an incredible speed. Once it reached the circle of fire, disaster would be inevitable. The Manchu troops scattered in panic and in the midst of the confusion, a figure, his face covered with a blue silk mask, raced forward and threw himself down on to the gunpowder. His clothes burst into flames, but the fuse was stopped.

The immediate danger past, Zhang Jin and 'Crocodile' Jiang charged out through the circle of fire with Wen Tailai in their arms. The flames were now even more fierce, and all three caught fire. The Twin Knights, racing forward to meet them, shouting: "Roll! Roll!" Zhang Jin and Jiang first put Wen down and rolled him about until all the flames on him had been extinguished, then put out their own fires. Luo Bing ran up to attend to Wen.

The Twin Knights meanwhile ran over to rescue the masked man, who had collapsed on the ground. By the time the flames had been extinguished, his body was a mass of burns.

Once Wen was out of danger, Lu slung Commander Li over his shoulder, took a deep breath and leapt back out of the circle like a great bird.

"We've done it!" Chen shouted. "Retreat, retreat!"

Priest Wu Chen led the way, his sword flying, and the others followed, the Twin Knights carrying the masked man, Zhang Jin carrying Wen and Lu with Commander Li over his shoulder.

The Manchu troops chased after them, shouting and yelling, but none dared get too close. The Imperial Bodyguards, however, were frantic at the sight of Wen escaping: his loss could cost them their heads. Among them was Fan, the one who had lit the fuse. Chen handed the Frozen Emerald sword to 'Buddha' Zhao.

"Cover the others as they retreat, Third Brother," he said. "I'm going to deal with this fellow." He pulled out his 'Pearl Strings', the ropes with steel balls fastened to the ends, and with a flick of his hand, sent them flying towards Fan.

Fan tried to leap out of the way, but he was not quick enough, and the strings wrapped themselves round his legs. Chen yanked them back fiercely, and threw Fan into the heart of the roaring flames.

By this time, almost all of the heroes had escaped over the Yamen walls. Chen raised his hand and shouted to the rest: "Retreat!"

'Leopard' Wei raced over to the gunpowder fuse and relit it, and the Manchu troops cried out in fear as the remaining Red Flower Society fighters retired.

Suddenly, there was a blinding flash, and a roar as the gunpowder stacked in the building ignited. Explosion followed explosion, black smoke swirled up and bricks flew in all directions. The soldiers and guardsmen threw themselves on the ground, but despite their great distance from the building, several dozen of them had their heads smashed to pieces by stray bricks and pieces of wood. By the time the rest crawled back onto their feet, the Red Flower Society heroes were gone.

Only when they were certain they were not being chased did the heroes relax. They rode out of Hangzhou and arrived at a river with more than a dozen boats lined up along the bank. The heroes joyfully boarded the craft.

"Master Chen," Lu Feiqing whispered. "I have had connections with Commander Li in the past. Now that Brother Wen is safe, why don't we let him go?"

"Whatever you say," Chen replied, and on his orders, an attendant untied Li's bonds and released him.

"Anchors aweigh!" Chen called. "Head for Jiaxing!"

The rivers and canals of Zhejiang Province are an endless maze with countless twists and turns, and in a moment the boats had disappeared.

"We'll head west and take Fourth Brother to Heavenly Eye Mountain to convalesce," said Chen. "Let Commander Li race off to Jiaxing after us!"

The heroes all burst out laughing and the accumulated low spirits of several months were swept away.

Dawn was just breaking as Luo Bing wiped Wen's body clean. His manacles had been sawn off with the Frozen Emerald sword, and he was in a deep sleep.

"Great Helmsman," said Xu. "That masked man who saved Fourth Brother is very badly wounded. Shall we have a look at him?"

"Since he keeps his face covered, he obviously does not wish to be recognized. I don't think we should," said Lord Zhou.

Xin Yan gently applied white soya sauce to the masked man's burns, but his whole body had been blistered by the flames, and he cried out incessantly in pain. His hands were clawing about aimlessly as he screamed in pain, and suddenly ripped the mask off. The heroes all cried out in unison: "Fourteenth Brother!"

It was 'Scholar' Yu. They looked at his face, red-black and swollen with countless blisters, and were horrified. Luo Bing brought over a wet cloth and lightly wiped the dirt and gunpowder from his face then applied more white soya sauce. Whenever she thought about his disgraceful behaviour that night near Iron Gall Manor she still felt angry, but having seen what he was willing to go through to save her own husband, she knew that his infatuation was more than just lust. She looked down at him and wondered how she could ever repay him.

The boats docked and Master Ma sent someone hurrying off to find a doctor. When he came, the doctor examined Wen and said: "This gentleman's wounds are only superficial. He is strong and healthy, and with several months of recuperation there should be no problem." Pointing at Yu, he added: "This gentleman, however, has extremely serious burns. There is a danger that the fire poison will attack his heart. I will make out a prescription to counter it and have another look later." From his tone, he appeard to consider it hopeless.

The doctor went ashore. A while later, Wen opened his eyes and looked at everyone standing around him.

"What are you all doing here?" he asked wearily.

Luo Bing burst into tears. "Brother!" she cried happily. "You've come back. You've come back!"

Wen nodded slightly and closed his eyes again.

During the night battle at the Yellow River crossing, Yuanzhi had been cut off from the Red Flower Society fighters. She spotted a carriage and jumped into it, urged the mules and raced blindly away. It was only next morning when she had put a great distance between herself and the Manchu army that she stopped to rest. Opening the carriage curtain, she found 'Scholar' Yu lying inside unconscious and badly wounded. After carefully considering the situation, she climbed back onto the carriage and drove on to Wenguang town.

As the daughter of an official, she was used to doing things in an impressive manner. She chose the largest residence in the town and knocked on it's door to ask for lodgings. The residence belonged to the evil landowner, Tang, who took them in. When Tang was found murdered, Yu realized immediately that they could be implicated, and they escaped in the confusion. Yuanzhi was planning to go to Hangzhou to be with her parents and Yu, knowing that Hangzhou was also where Wen was being held, decided they may as well go together. He was still seriously wounded, and Yuanzhi looked after him carefully as they travelled.

When they reached Hangzhou, Yuanzhi told her parents that Yu had been wounded while saving her from bandits, and her father, Commander Li, allowed him to stay in the Yamen as an expression of his gratitude. A doctor was called to treat his injuries. When Li saw what a refined person Yu was, skilled in both scholarly and martial pursuits, he decided that once his wounds had healed he would invite Yu to become his son-in-law. Little did he know that Yu was also a key member of the Red Flower Society.

** 5 **

When Qian Long was told that the Red Flower Society had rescued Wen, he was both surprised and angry. But he decided there was nothing to be gained in punishing the Imperial Bodyguards. He could see from their wounds that they had fought bravely.

A while later, Commander Li also arrived, and was informed by the Emperor that a decision on whether or not he would lose his post would be deferred until later. Li was overjoyed at this unexpected luck.

After Li had left, Qian Long thought about Wen's escape and wondered if his secret would get out. From what Wen had said, it did not appear that he knew, but there was something about his manner which suggested there was still much he could tell. Wen had said there were two important pieces of evidence hidden somewhere and he wondered what the evidence could be. He was already almost certain he was a Chinese and not a Manchu, but what good could come of such knowledge leaking out?

He paced about the room, extremely angry that he, the Son of Heaven, should be out-witted by a band of brigands. If they discovered his secret, would he be forced to submit to them for the rest of his life on pain of having the secret revealed? The more he thought about it, the angrier he became, and he picked up a large porcelain flower vase and threw it violently to the floor.

The guards and eunuchs waiting outside heard the crash clearly and trembled in their boots, not daring to enter.

Qian Long passed most of the day in a state of mental confusion. Towards evening, he heard the sound of gentle music drifting in from outside. The music moved closer and closer, passed by the gates of the Yamen then gradually receded. A moment later, another musical troupe passed by. He had always been very fond of music, and hearing it now, his mood suddenly changed.

"Servants!" he shouted.

A senior bodyguard named He Jia, who had recently come to favour, hurried in. Hearing the Emperor's call, the others had pushed him forward.

"What is that music outside?" Qian Long asked. "Go and find out."

After a while, He Jia came back to report: "Your slave made enquiries and learned that all of the famous courtesans of Hangzhou will gather on the West Lake this evening to choose what they call the 'Top Candidate of the Boudoir', as well as second, third and fourth ranking candidates."

"How dare they make fun of the Imperial Civil Service Examinations in such a way!" Qian Long said, amused. "Ridiculous!"

Seeing the smile on the Emperor's face, he advanced a step and added in a low voice: "I heard that the Four Beauties of Qiantang River will be there."

"And who are the Four Beauties of Qiantang River?"

"Your slave was talking to a local just now who said that they are the four most famous prostitutes of Hangzhou. Everyone out in the streets is trying to guess which one will be the Top Candidate of the Boudoir this year."

"The Top Candidate in the Imperial Examination is chosen by me. Who chooses this Top Candidate of the Boudoir? Don't tell me there is an Emperor of the Boudoir as well?"

"I hear that each prostitute sits in a flower boat on which are displayed the gold and jewels presented by her customers. Then the winner is chosen by some of Hangzhou's most eminent gentlemen."

"When do they play this game?" Qian Long asked, fascinated.

"It starts soon," He Jia replied. "As soon as it gets a bit darker, the judging will begin. If Your Highness is interested, you could go and watch."

Qian Long smiled. "I'm afraid people may laugh at me," he said. "If the Empress should hear that I chose the Top Candidate manner which suggested there was still much he could tell. Wen had said there were two important pieces of evidence hidden somewhere and he wondered what the evidence could be. He was already almost certain he was a Chinese and not a Manchu, but what good could come of such knowledge leaking out?

He paced about the room, extremely angry that he, the Son of Heaven, should be out-witted by a band of brigands. If they discovered his secret, would he be forced to submit to them for the rest of his life on pain of having the secret revealed? The more he thought about it, the angrier he became, and he picked up a large porcelain flower vase and threw it violently to the floor.

The guards and eunuchs waiting outside heard the crash clearly and trembled in their boots, not daring to enter.

Qian Long passed most of the day in a state of mental confusion. Towards evening, he heard the sound of gentle music drifting in from outside. The music moved closer and closer, passed by the gates of the Yamen then gradually receded. A moment later, another musical troupe passed by. He had always been very fond of music, and hearing it now, his mood suddenly changed.

"Servants!" he shouted.

A senior bodyguard named He Jia, who had recently come to favour, hurried in. Hearing the Emperor's call, the others had pushed him forward.

"What is that music outside?" Qian Long asked. "Go and find out."

After a while, He Jia came back to report: "Your slave made enquiries and learned that all of the famous courtesans of Hangzhou will gather on the West Lake this evening to choose what they call the 'Top Candidate of the Boudoir', as well as second, third and fourth ranking candidates."

"How dare they make fun of the Imperial Civil Service Examinations in such a way!" Qian Long said, amused. "Ridiculous!"

Seeing the smile on the Emperor's face, he advanced a step and added in a low voice: "I heard that the Four Beauties of Qiantang River will be there."

"And who are the Four Beauties of Qiantang River?"

"Your slave was talking to a local just now who said that they are the four most famous prostitutes of Hangzhou. Everyone out in the streets is trying to guess which one will be the Top Candidate of the Boudoir this year."

"The Top Candidate in the Imperial Examination is chosen by me. Who chooses this Top Candidate of the Boudoir? Don't tell me there is an Emperor of the Boudoir as well?"

"I hear that each prostitute sits in a flower boat on which are displayed the gold and jewels presented by her customers. Then the winner is chosen by some of Hangzhou's most eminent gentlemen."

"When do they play this game?" Qian Long asked, fascinated.

"It starts soon,"He Jia replied. "As soon as it gets a bit darker, the judging will begin. If Your Highness is interested, you could go and watch."

Qian Long smiled. "I'm afraid people may laugh at me,"he said. "If the Empress should hear that I chose the Top Candidate of the Boudoir, she may have something to say about it. Ha, ha!"

"If Your Highness dressed up as a member of the common people, no one would know," He Jia suggested.

"All right, we'll go and have a quiet look and then come back. But tell everyone not to attract attention,"said Qian Long.

He Jia quickly helped Qian Long change into a long silk gown and a closely-embroidered jacket, the attire of a member of the gentry. Then they left for the West Lake together with Bai Zhen and several dozen bodyguards.

Once at the lakeside, a bodyguard steered a boat up to meet them. Music and singing could be heard coming from different parts of the lake, while the multitude of lanterns provided a sumptuous sight. They watched as more than twenty flower boats glided lazily back and forth over the water, each boat draped with silk curtains and lanterns. Qian Long ordered the oarsman to steer close to the flower boats. Some of them were decorated with flowers and animals cleverly constructed out of silk and lit with lanterns. Qian Long sighed in praise for the richness of life in the south of China with which the north could not hope to compete. As many as a hundred other small boats moved to and fro carrying well-to-do pleasure seekers.

A gong sounded and the music from the boats ceased. One rocket after another soared up into the air and burst in a dazzling array of colours before falling into the lake with a hiss. As the firework display ended, the curtains on each flower boat were drawn apart simultaneously to reveal a gorgeously-attired woman seated inside. Thunderous cheers and applause arose from every part of the lake.

Servants produced wine and food for the Emperor to partake of while enjoying the scene. The boat slid slowly over the lake past the flower boats. Qian Long, who kept three thousand concubines in his palace, had seen countless beauties in his time. But now, with the lanterns reflecting on the water, the splash of the oars and the slight waft of perfume, he was completely captivated. They neared the boats of the Four Beauties of the Qiantang River, and saw they were different from the other flower boats. One was decorated entirely with paper water lilies while the second was topped by two pagodas. The third was decked out as the Lunar Palace and lit with lanterns shaped as toads and hares, the animals which are supposed to inhabit the moon.

Qian Long gasped in delight. As they glided towards the fourth, he saw it was decorated entirely with real bushes and flowers, the branches criss-crossing each other and covered with a thick foliage, as simple as nature, and as beautiful as a painting. The courtezan, dressed all in white, was seated with her back to them, but she had an air of other-worldliness about her, as of a goddess.

Overwhelmed, Qian Long could not help but sing out a line from the opera, 'The Western Chamber': "Oh, will you not turn your face to me?"

The prostitute, hearing the snatch of song, did indeed turn and smiled. Qian Long's heart leapt: it was the girl he had met on the West Lake several days before, Beautiful Jade.

He heard the tinkle of a feminine voice as the courtesan on the water lily boat began to sing. At the end of the song, the crowd applauded and a pile of ingots, big and small mounted on the table in front of her. Then the courtesan in the Twin-Pagoda boat picked up a pipa and lightly strummed a tune, following which the third played the flute. Qian Long ordered He Jia to give her ten taels of gold.

The pleasure launches then crowded round Beautiful Jade's boat. She opened her ruby lips, revealing her sparkling white teeth, and began to sing accompanied by a flute.

It was the middle of the eighth month and it was already cool on the lake, but Beautiful Jade's voice suggested warm breezes and fragrant flowers.

"Such talent," Qian Long sighed.

To his great delight, Beautiful Jade's dew-drop eyes constantly looked over in his direction as she sang. Qian Long loved demonstrating his talents in art, calligraphy and poetry and his ministers, not surprisingly, praised everything he did. But for a beautiful woman to favour him not because of reverence for his position as Emperor, but because of his real worth meant she had recognized his ardour, good looks and talent. Famous courtesans are truly discerning, he thought. He immediately ordered He Jia to present Beautiful Jade with fifty taels of gold.

The boats of all the courtesans were piled up with gifts, especially those of the Four Beauties. Midnight approached and the judge began the job of inspecting the gifts. As with the imperial examinations, not only the courtesans, but also the spectators on the lake, were anxious about the outcome.

Qian Long said a few quiet words to He Jia, who nodded and hurried back to the Yamen. He returned a while later with a package.

The inspection over, the boats all clustered round the launch on which the judge sat to hear him announce the winners.

"The gifts presented to Miss Twin Pagodas are the most numerous," he announced. There was a roar from the other boats as some applauded and some groaned.

"Not so fast," someone shouted. "I will present one hundred taels of gold to Miss Water Lily."

"And I present Miss Lunar Palace with a jade bracelet and ten pearls," another wealthy gentleman called out. The crowd saw the green bracelet and the large round pearls sparkling under the lantern light and knew that they must be worth well over a hundred taels of gold. All concluded that Miss Lunar Palace was certain to be chosen at the Top Candidate for the years.

Suddenly He Jia called out: "Our master has a number of items he would like to present to Miss Beautiful Jade!"

A servant carried the package over to the judge, a man of about forty with a lean, handsome face and a wisp of moustache. He opened it to find it contained three scrolls. He turned to the old man on his left and said: "Master Fan, this is indeed a refined gentleman. I wonder what treasures he has presented?" He ordered the servants to unrill the scrolls.

As the first scroll was unrolled, the judge and the others started in surprise: it was a poem written in the hand of the famous cillgrapher, Zu Yunning.

"This is extremely valuable," exclaimed the man called Master Fan. They hurriedly opened the second scroll and saw it was a painting of flowers on the top of which was the Imperial vermilion seal of Qian Long. Yuan Mei was puzzled and turned to ask his colleagues if they knew who the benefactor was. They looked at the scrolls and pondered silently.

"Why don't we go over and meet him?" one finally suggested.

"If we do that, people will accuse us of being unfair," replied another. "With such treasures as these two scrolls, the Top Candidate is obviously Beautiful Jade."

"Let us have a look at the third scroll," suggested a third.

They unrolled it and saw it was a piece of unsigned calligraphy.

"Not very graceful," remarked one of the experts. "The writing style lacks strength."

"Shh! It's written in the Emperor's hand," another whispered urgently. The others all jumped in fright and dared not discuss the matter further.

"The judging of the gifts has been completed," Yuan Mei announced in a loud voice. "The Top Candidate is Miss Beautiful Jade, second is Miss Lunar Palace, third is Miss Water Lily."

Applause arose from all corners of the lake.

Beutiful Jade began to sing again, and her tender voice penetrated Qian Long's bones, making his heart itch unbearably.

"Go and tell that girl to come over," he said to He Jia. "And don't say who I am."

The boat glided over to Beautiful Jade's and He Jia leapt across. After an interval, he returned with a piece of paper and handed it to Qian Long and said: "She told me to give this to you."

Qian Long peered at the note under the lamplight and saw it read: "Tomorrow."

The calligraphy was very poor, but the paper was heavily scented with a fragrance that made his heart quiver.

"Why wait until tomorrow? I am here now," he said. But when he looked up again, he saw Beautiful Jade's boat was already moving off. As Emperor, the concubines of the palace tried every trick they could think of to be favoured by him. When had a woman ever rejected his advances? But the more she kept him at arms length, the more he desired her. He hurriedly issued an Imperial command: "Chase after that boat!"

Qian Long stood silently on the prow, his heart pursuing the boat ahead. The lights on the lake were going out but the music had not yet been extinguished. He indistinctly heard what he thought was the sound of laughter and soft words from the boat in front.

The distance between the two boats gradually closed. Suddenly the curtain on the flower boat parted for a second and a object was flung in the direction of Qian Long. Bai Zhen lunged forward to intercept it, and as it hit his hand he noticed the object was not a dart as he had expected but a red handkerchief with all four corners knotted together. He quickly presented it to the Emperor.

Qian Long untied it and inside he found a lotus sweet and a lily bulb: both were symbols of a well-matched couple. How could he fail to catch the meaning of such a romantic message?

The flower boat reached the bank, and Beautiful Jade stepped off and into a small horse-drawn carriage. She looked out of the carriage window and smiled seductively at Qian Long, then released the carriage curtain.

"Hey! Wait a moment, don't go!" He Jia yelled, but the driver took no notice and with a clatter of horses' hooves, the carriage moved off south.

"Get another carriage quickly!" He Jia called. The bodyguards soon found a carriage and forced its occupants out. Qian Long stepped inside and it raced off after the other carriage.

Bodyguard Bai Zhen saw they were heading towards the prosperous district of the city, and decided everything was all right: the Emperor had obviously decided to spend the night at the home of the courtesan. But having seen her only a few days before with the Red Flower Society men, he had to take precautions against a trap. He quickly ordered Rui Dalin to bring extra men to help protect the Emperor.

Beautiful Jade's carriage passed along several streets, then turned into an alley and stopped in front of a pair of black-painted gates. An attendant on the carriage jumped down and knocked on them just as Qian Long was descending from his carriage. With a long squeak, the gates were opened, and an old woman came out, pulled aside the carriage curtain and greeted Beautiful Jade. She stepped out of the carriage and, seeing Qian Long standing to one side, hurried over to greet him.

"Aiya, Master Dongfang," she said. "Thank you so much for your gifts just now. Please come in and have some tea." Qian Long smiled and walked through the gates.

One of the bodyguards rushed in ahead of the Emperor, his hand on the hilt of his sword, checking for assassins or perhaps a customer of the prostitute who would wish to protest that he was first.

Beyond the gates was a courtyard. A wave of flowery fragrance assailed their noses and tree shadows danced on the ground around two cinnamon bushes which were in full bloom. Qian Long followed Beautiful Jade into a small, elegantly-decorated chamber lit by two tall, red candles.

A maid brought in wine and food. Qian Long looked at the plates of delicacies, including marinated chicken and Thousand-Year-Old eggs, and marvelled at how exquisite they were compared to the heavy food he was served in the Imperial palace. The maid strained two cups of aged, deeply-fragrant rice wine.

Beautiful Jade took a sip and smiled. "Master Dongfang, how can I ever thank you?" she said.

Qian Long raised his cup and drained it in one draught. "Sing a song first," he said, also smiling. "We will discuss at our leisure how you can thank me."

Beautiful Jade picked up a pipa and began to play softly.

While the Emperor drank and enjoyed himself inside, Commander-in-Chief Li arrived with a detachment of troops and encircled the alley with ring after ring of guards. His officers searched every nearby house thoroughly, leaving only Beautiful Jade's room untouched. Bai Zhen ordered a group of guardsmen to patrol the roof tops with bows and arrows at the ready. Countless men have been to brothels over the centuries, but Qian Long's visit was surely the most imposing and awe-inspiring visit of all.

The guards and soldiers were kept busy the whole night, but dawn finally broke without anything untoward having happened. The sun rose, and He Jia tiptoed over to Beautiful Jade's bed-chamber to peek through a crack in the window. He spied Qian Long's boots lying by the bed and retreated. Eight o'clock passed, nine o'clock and ten o'clock and still there was no sign of the Emperor rising. Becoming anxious, He Jia returned to the window and called quietly: "Master, would you like some breakfast?" He called several times, but there was no response.

He went to the door and gave it a push, but it was barred from inside. "Master!" he called out loudly. Still no answer from the room. He Jia was very concerned, but he didn't dare break the door down. Instead, he went to discuss the situation with Commander Li and Bai Zhen.

"Why don't we tell the old house woman to go and knock on the door with some breakfast. His Highness won't be offended," suggested Li.

"An excellent idea, Commander," Bai Zhen said.

The three went off to look for the old woman, but found the whole establishment was deserted. Greatly alarmed at the situation, they began banging frantically on Beautiful Jade's door.

"Force it open!" ordered Li. Bai Zhen put both of his palms on the door, and with a sight push, snapped the door bar.

He Jia went in first and carefully pulled apart the bed curtains to find the bed clothes in disarray but absolutely no sign of Qian Long or Beautiful Jade. He fainted to the floor in fright.

Bai Zhen hastily called in some guards and searched the establishment, but they failed to find so much as half a clue. How could the Emperor have disappeared when the guard they had mounted was so tight that not even a sparrow could have escaped without being noticed? Bai Zhen toured round the room once more looking for a secret door, but he knocked and banged for a long time without finding anything suspicious. The Imperial Guard Commander Fu Kangan and the provincial governor arrived having received news of Qian Long's disappearance, and they all gathered in the middle of Beautiful Jade's boudoir, pale frightened and completely at a loss for what to do.

** 6 **

After listening to Beautiful Jade sing for a while and drinking a few cups of wine, Qian Long had begun to feel a little sleepy.

Beautiful Jade smiled. "Would you like to lie down?" she asked. He nodded in answer, and she helped him take off his clothes and boots, led him over to the bed and covered him with the bed clothes.

"I'll just go out for a second, then come back to you," she said. Feeling lulled and drowsy from the scented pillow and sheets, Qian Long heard a faint sound in front of the bed.

"You mischievous girl," he said with a smile. "What's the hold up?"

The curtain opened and a head appeared. Under the candlelight Qian Long could see it had a pock-marked face, and thick sideburns, very different from Beautiful Jade's fair features. He rubbed his eyes in disbelief and looked again just as the intruder placed a shining dagger by his neck and said quietly in Cantonese: "Damn your ancestors, you bastard Emperor, make one sound and I'll use this."

Qian Long's lust dissipated in a flash as if he had been doused with a bucket of iced water. The man said nothing more, but stuffed a handkerchief into Qian Long's mouth, then rolled him up tightly in the eiderdown and carried him off.

Unable to move or make a sound, Qian Long's eyes stared at the blackness and felt himself being carried down a flight of steps. His nose caught the musty smell of mud and dank humidity, then after a moment, he felt himself being carried upwards again. He realized the man must have emerged from a hidden tunnel in the room.

He felt himself being shaken and heard the sound of wheels starting to move, and knew he was in a carriage. In his terror, he wondered who had kidnapped him and where they were taking him.

The carriage travelled for a long time. After a while the road became uneven, and the carriage shook and bumped about, indicating they had left the city. Finally they stopped, and Qian Long felt himself lifted out of the carriage and carried upwards, one step after another endlessly until he thought they must be ascending a high peak. He was so frightened, his whole body quaked, and surrounded by darkness inside the quilt, he almost began to cry.

Finally, he was put down with a bump. He waited quietly, not daring to speak, but a long while passed without anything happening. He slowly pushed aside the quilt in which he was wrapped and looked out to find everything in total darkness. He fancied he could hear the sound of waves breaking a long way off, and concentating he also heard the wind rippling through fir trees and the clear, steady chime of a brass bell. The wind became stronger and stronger, gusting angrily, and he thought he felt the structure he was in rocking slightly. Even more afraid, he moved as if to stand up.

"If you want to live, don't move," a deep voice close by growled. Qian Long jumped in fright and stayed as still as he could.

Gradually, the wind subsided and it began to grow light until he could see he was in a small room. Having climbed for so long to reach it, he wondered if it was a house on the peak of a mountain. He heard a series of snuffling noises, and listening carefully, realised the guards were eating noodles. From the sound of it there were two of them, chewing great mouthfuls with relish. Having been awake all night, he felt hungry and his appetite sharpened as the smell of the noodles wafted over to him.

The two finished eating. One of the guards walked over and placed a full bowl of prawn and eel noodle soup about five feet from his head.

"Is that for me?" Qian Long wondered to himself. But the guards said nothing, and despite his hunger he did not dare to open his mouth to ask.

"That bowl of noodles is for you," one of the guards finally said. "There's no poison in it."

Qian Long was overjoyed. He sat up to get the bowl, but a wave of cold struck his body and he remembered that he was naked. He hastily lay down again and wrapped himself in the quilt. How could he stand up in front of strangers without a stitch on?

"Damn your ancestors, so you're afraid of poison are you?" one of the guards said. "All right, I'll eat it to show you." He picked up the bowl and guzzled its contents down.

Qian Long looked at his scar-covered face in fright. "I am not wearing anything," he said. "Please get me some clothing."

Even though he said please, his words still smacked of an Imperial order. The man grunted. "I don't have time," he replied. It was 'Melancholy Ghost' Shi.

Qian Long's anger surged up, but remembering his life was in their hands, he swallowed his Imperial pride.

"Are you Red Flower Society men?" he asked. "I want to see your leader, Chen."

"You had our Brother Wen treated so badly, his body is a mass of wounds. The Great Helmsman is busy finding a doctor to help heal him. He has no time to see you," Shi replied. "Maybe when Brother Wen has recovered, we'll think about it."

Qian Long wondered how many months or years it might take for Wen to recover.

"And if Brother Wen doesn't recover," said the other guard, 'Iron Pagoda' Yang, "that's it for you. A life for a life."

Qian Long pretended he hadn't heard.

The two guards began talking at once, cursing the Manchu invaders for seizing the lands of the Chinese people, and the officials and landlords for the way they oppressed the common folk. Qian Long was shocked by the hatred evident in every word. At noon, two other guards arrived to relieve them, and as the new pair ate, they discussed the sadistic ways in which magistrates punished and tortured honest citizens, describing in great detail how slivers of bamboo were forced under finger nails, buttocks branded with red-hot iron bars and bodies stretched on racks.

"When we have seized all these corrupt officials," said one, "we'll give them a taste of their own medicine."

"First we have to deal with their leader," replied the other.

To Qian Long, that day seemed as long as a year. Towards evening, the Twin Knights took over. First, they drank in dour silence. Then, when they were slightly drunk, they began discussing the cruel and unusual methods used by the fighting community to take vengeance on enemies: how Black Tiger Kao had once been arrested, and later went back and gouged out the eyes of the official responsible; how White Horse Tan had avenged his brother's death by burying alive the murderer's family.

Hungry and frightened, Qian Long covered his ears, but every word still found its way in. The twins displayed great staying-power, and talked until morning, cursing the "Turtles" an untold number of times. The candlelight flickering on the Twin Knights' features made them look like living ghosts, and Qian Long was unable to close his eyes once during the night.

The next morning, 'Buddha' Zhao and 'Leopard' Wei came. Qian Long looked at the kindly face of Zhao and the handsome face of Wei, very different from the demon-like guards they replaced and he relaxed slightly. But his hunger was becoming too much to bear.

"I want to see your leader, Chen," he said to Zhao. "Please pass on the message for me."

"The Great Helmsman is busy today," Zhao replied. "Maybe in a few days time."

Qian Long wondered if he would still be alive after a few more days of such treatment. "Well, please get me something to eat first to ease my hunger."

"All right," replied Zhao. "His Imperial Highness wants a banquet," he shouted at the top of his voice. "Make preparations quickly!" Wei bowed and left.

Qian Long was overjoyed. "Get a set of clothing for me," he said.

"His Imperial Highness wants some clothes! Bring a gown for him quickly!" Zhao bawled out again.

"You're a good man," said Qian Long. "What's your name? I will reward you well later." Zhao smiled slightly but did not answer. Qian Long suddenly recogized him. "Ah, now I remember," he said. "You're the one who is so good at Dart Kung Fu."

Meng brought a set of clothing in and placed it on the quilt. Qian Long sat up, then saw it was a suit of chinese clothes in the style of the Ming dynasty which the Manchus had overthrown. He hesitated.

"That's the only set of clothes we have," Zhao said. "Wear them or not, as you like."

Qian Long considered the situation. How could he, as the Emperor of the Manchu dynasty, wear a set of Ming dynasty chinese clothes? But if he didn't put something on, he would not be able to eat, and after one day and two nights of hunger, he dispensed with his misgivings and donned the garments.

The clothes felt unfamiliar, but there was something dashing and elegant about them. He walked the few steps over to the window and looked out, and started involuntarily. Forests and fields were spread out before him like a chess board, and in the far distance was a great river spotted with sails. He realised he was at the top of a tall pagoda, and from its position and design, recognized it as the famous Six Harmonies Pagoda near Hangzhou.

Several more hours passed before someone came to announce: "The banquet is ready. Please come down and eat."

Qian Long followed Zhao and Wei down one floor where a large round table had been set up in the centre of the room. All the seats around the table were already occupied except for three, and as Qian Long descended, the diners stood up and saluted him. Qian Long was secretly ecstatic at this sudden display of respect.

"Our Great Helmsman says Your Highness and he have been close friends ever since you first met," said Priest Wu Chen. "As a result, he has invited you here to stay for a few days to provide an opportunity for the two of you to have a discussion. However, important matters have suddenly come up which require the Great Helmsman's attention and he has asked me to convey his sincere apologies."

Qian Long grunted noncommitally. Priest Wu Chen invited him to take a seat, and Qian Long took the guest of honour's place.

A servant brought up a flask of wine and the priest took it from him.

"We brothers are very uncouth, completely incapable of waiting on Your Highness properly. Please do not be offended," he said, pouring wine into Qian Long's cup. But as it reached the rim, his face darkened.

"His Majesty must have the very best wine," he shouted angrily at the servant. "How dare you bring us this tepid spirit?" He picked up the cup and threw its contents into the servant's face.

"This is only wine we have here, sir," replied the servant apologetically. "I will immediately go to the city and buy some of better quality."

"And be quick about it," shouted Priest Wu Chen. "Wine such as this is all right for coarse people like ourselves, but how can you offer it to His Highness?"

'Mastermind' Xu took the wine flask from him and poured out a cup for everyone else, leaving only Qian Long's cup empty, apologising effusively as he did so.

A moment later, another servant brought in four steaming dishes of food, one of lightly-fried shrimps, another piled with salted pork ribs, a third with steamed fish, and a fourth of fried chicken slices. Qian Long breathed in the fragrant aroma of the food, but Priest Wu Chen frowned.

"Who cooked this food?" he demanded. A man took two steps forward. "I did," he said.

"What sort of object are you? Why didn't you arrange for His Majesty's favourite cook, Zhang Anguan, to come to prepare some dishes? How can you expect His Majesty to eat such rough Hangzhou food?"

"These dishes look delicious," protested Qian Long. "They certainly cannot be called rough." He picked up his chopsticks and stretched over to pick up some food. Lu Feiqing, sitting next to him, stretched out his own chopsticks and caught Qian Long's between them.

"These dishes are too coarse for Your Highness. You would not wish to have an upset stomach," he said, and applying a slight amount of pressure, snapped Qian Long's chopsticks in two.

Qian Long's face flushed deep red and he slammed the chopstick ends down onto the table. The others pretended not to notice and began eating.

"Go and get His Highness's personal cook to prepare some food quickly," Xu shouted. "His Highness is hungry, do you hear?"

The cook hastily retired. Qian Long knew they were playing with him. Hunger burned in his stomach as he watched the others eating and drinking voraciously. He was livid with rage, but he could not risk displaying his feelings. When they had finished, a servant came in with some tea.

"This tea is not too bad," said Xu. "Your Highness may like to drink a cupful."

Qian Long drank the cup dry in two mouthfuls, but it only served to aggravate his hunger. 'Crocodile' Jiang rubbed his belly appreciatively and said: "I'm full!"

"We are making arrangements for a proper banquet for you, Your Highness," 'Buddha' Zhao said.

Priest Wu Chen stamped his foot and exclaimed that the Great Helmsman would be very displeased to find his honoured guest had been kept waiting.

Lord Zhou began clicking his iron gallstones together. "Are you hungry, Your Majesty?" he asked. Qian Long said nothing.

"What do you mean, hungry?" asked 'Crocodile' Jiang. "I'm full!"

"The well-fed never appreciate the anguish of the hungry," added Xu. "There are countless millions of common people who are starving, but when have those in authority ever spared a thought for them? Having been a little bit hungry today, perhaps Your Highness will in future understand more about how the common people suffer when they starve."

"Some people are hungry for months and years on end. Some never eat their fill once in a whole lifetime," said one of the Twin Knights. "What's so special about not eating anything for a day or two?"

Most of the Red Flower Society heroes had been born into poverty. Their anger rose as they thought of the past and they all began talking at once, swapping stories.

Qian Long's face went pale as he listened. He found himself moved by their sincerity. "Could such misery really exist in the world?" he asked himself. The more he heard, the more embarrassed he felt, and finally he rose and went back upstairs. The heroes did not try to stop him.

A few hours later, he smelt the aroma of mutton with onions and green peppers wafting up from below. This was a speciality of the Imperial chef, Zhang Anguan, and just as Qian Long was wondering if it could really be him, Zhang Anguan ran up and kowtowed, saying: "Please come and eat, Your Highness."

"What are you doing here?" Qian Long asked in amazement.

"Your slave was watching an opera performance in a park yesterday when I was kidnapped. Today, I was asked to wait on you, and your slave was delighted to have the opportunity."

Qian Long nodded and went downstairs. The table had been set with a number of dishes including the mutton, all them his personal favorites. As well as the main dishes, there were also a dozen or so plates of small delicacies, and his heart leapt for joy at the sight of the feast. Chef Zhang filled a bowl of rice for him.

"Please eat, Your Highness," said Priest Wu Chen.

Qian Long wondered whether they would allow him to eat this time. He was just about to raise his chopsticks when a young girl came in carrying a cat.

"Daddy," she said to Lord Zhou. "Kitty is hungry."

The cat struggled to free itself and jumped onto the table. The animal ate a couple of mouthfuls from the dishes spread before Qian Long, then it suddenly went rigid, dropped onto the table top, dead.

Qian Long's face went white, and Chef Zhang, shaking from fright, knelt down and said: "Your Highness...Your Highness...the food...they've poisoned the food...don't eat it!"

Qian Long laughed out loud. "You have committed rebellion and other heinous crimes. Now you wish to assassinate me," he said. "If you are going to kill me, do it cleanly. Why go to the trouble of poisoning the food?" He pushed his chair back and stood up.

"Your Highness, are you sure this meal is inedible?" asked Priest Wu Chen.

"You traitorous thieves!" Qian Long shouted, his anger breaking through. "We'll see what sort of an end you all come to!"

Priest Wu Chen slammed his hand down on the table. "For a real man, life and death are decided by Heaven!" he shouted. "If you won't eat, then I will! Who has the guts to join me?"

He picked up his chopsticks, took some food from one of the dishes the cat had tried, and began chewing noisily. The other heroes sat down again too, all saying: "If we die, we die. What does it matter?" Qian Long was stunned at the sight of these criminals eating poisoned food.

The heroes, who had fed the cat poison in advance, ate all the dishes clean in a trice, and suffered no ill effects. Qian Long, having failed to eat even one mouthful, had lost yet another round.

** 7 **

While Qian Long went hungry, the official administration in Hangzhou was turned upside down. News of the Emperor's disappearance had not yet leaked out but the whole city had been searched. All exits from Hangzhou by both land and water were heavily guarded, and several thousand "suspected bandits" had been arrested until every prison was full. The local officials were very worried, but they also took advantage of the situation to seize rich businessmen and merchants and extort large sums of money from them.

Fu Kangan, Commander Li and Bai Zhen jumped about like ants on a hot plate, completely at a loss for what to do.

Early on the morning of the third day, Fu Kangan called a meeting in the provincial governor's residence. Glum-faced and powerless, they argued about whether or not the Empress should be informed. But none of them dared consider the consequences once such a report had been sent.

As they sat gripped by indecision, one of the Imperial Bodyguards, named Rui, ran in, his face deathly pale, and whispered into Bai Zhen's ear.

Bai Zhen went white and stood up. "How could this happen?" he demanded. Fu Kangan hurriedly asked what was wrong.

"The six bodyguards standing guard outside the Emperor's bed chamber have been killed," Rui said. Far from being alarmed, Fu was pleased by this news.

"Let us go and see," he said. "This event must be connected with His Majesty's disappearance. We may even find some clues."

They hurried to the bed chamber that had been set aside in the Governor's residence for Qian Long. Six corpses lay at all angles around the room. Some had had their eyes gouged out, some had gaping holes in their chests: All had died horribly.

"These six brothers were good fighters," said Bai Zhen. "How could they have been finished off without being able to even utter a sound?"

They stared in open-mouthed horror, incapabale of deciphering the scene. Bai Zhen examined the corpse. The assassins had moved so fast, some of the six had not even had time to draw their swords.

He frowned. "This room is not big enough for a large number of people to fight in, so at the very most there cannot have been more than two or three of them," he said. "Their kung fu must be extraordinary."

"Since they already have the Emperor, why should they come and kill these bodyguards?" asked Commander Li. "From the look of it, last night's assassins and the people who kidnapped the Emperor are not the same bunch."

"That's right!" exclaimed Fu Kangan. "The assassins came, planning to kill the Emperor, but found he wasn't there."

"I would guess that you are correct," said Bai Zhen. "If the men who killed the bodyguards were from the Red Flower Society, then the Emperor has fallen into someone else's hands. But apart from the Red Flower Society, who else is there whose kung fu is so good?" The Red Flower Society's fighters were already difficult enough to handle: the sudden appearance of yet another group of powerful enemies froze his heart.

Bending over to look at the corpses again, Bai Zhen noticed that some of the wounds appeared to have been made by the claws and teeth of a dog, and he hurriedly asked Commander Li to send someone to find some hunting hounds.

About two hours later, a soldier appeared with three hunters and six hounds. Bai Zhen ordered the hunters to let their charges sniff around the corpses, and after a second the dogs charged out of the chamber on the trail of a scent. They ran straight to the lake and barked madly across the water. After a moment, they raced off again along the lake shore to where Qian Long had stepped ashore following the courtesan contest, then turned towards the city. The streets were crowded and the scent confused, and the dogs were forced to slow down, but they continued to head towards Beautiful Jade's establishment.

There should have been troops on guard outside the entrance, but none were to be seen, and as they entered the courtyard they found a dozen corpses lying on the ground. The ruthless assassins had not left one bodyguard alive. Some had had their throats ripped out by dogs, which Bai Zhen thought appeared from the wounds to be very large animals, possibly a cross between dogs and wolves such as were bred in the northwest. Could the assassins have come from there?

The dogs sniffed their way around Beautiful Jade's chamber several times, then began scratching and pawing at a certain point on the floor. Bai Zhen ordered the soldiers to prise up the floor boards with their swords and underneath they found a stone slab.

"Lift it up!" Bai Zhen ordered urgently. The soldiers heaved the slab up, revealing a deep hole into which the dogs immediately leapt. Commander Li and Bai Zhen looked down at the tunnel glumly. The kidnappers had avoided the heavy guard by coming and going via the tunnel. Full of shame, they led their troops down into the darkness.




@@@@@