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2

Luo Bing and Yu Yutong kept to the back roads for fear of meeting Yamen officers and rode on until the sky was completely black. The countryside was desolate: there were no inns and they couldn't even find a farmhouse. They stopped to rest beside a large rock.

Yu releaed the horses to graze, then cut some grass with Luo Bing's sword and spread it out on the ground.

"Now we have a bed, but no food or water," he said. "All we can do is wait until tomorrow and try to think of something then."

Luo Bing cared about nothing but her husband. She cried continuously. Yu comforted her, saying the Red Flower Society would certainly come in force to help them rescue Fourth Brother. Luo Bing was exhausted, and hearing his words, she relaxed and soon fell into a deep sleep.

In her dream, she seemed to meet her husband, who held her gently in his arms, and lightly kissed her on the mouth. She felt deliciously happy and lazily let her husband embrace her.

"I've been so miserable thinking about you," she said. "Are all your wounds healed?"

Wen mumbled a few words and held her even tighter, kissed her even more passionately. Just as she was beginning to feel aroused, she suddenly started in fright and awoke. Under the starlight, she could see that the person embracing her was not her husband, but Yu.

"I've been miserable thinking about you too!" he whispered.

Ashamed and angry, Luo Bing slapped him heavily on the face, fought her way free and stumbled away a few steps. She fumbled for her knives, and shouted harshly: "What are you doing?"

Yu was stunned. "Listen to me"

"You listen to me!" she replied angrily. "Which four classes of people does the Red Flower Society kill?"

"Tartars and Manchus; corrupt officials; landlords and tyrants; and villains and scoundrels," Yu recited quietly, his head hung low.

The space between Luo Bing's eyebrows closed. "Which four crimes by Red Flower Society members are punishable by death?"

"Death to those who surrender to the Manchu Court. Death to those who betray the Societydeath to those who betray their friends, and death to those who violate others'wives and daughters."

"If you have the guts, you will quickly punish yourself with the 'Three Thrusts and Six Holes'!" Luo Bing shouted.

According to the Society's code, a member who had committed an offence in a moment of confusion and sincerely regretted it could pierce his own thigh three times with a knife so that it penetrated right through, an act known as the 'Three Thrusts and Six Holes.' The member could then plead to the Great Helmsman for forgiveness, and could hope that his case would be dealt with leniently.

"I beg you to kill me," Yu cried. "If I die at your hand, I will still die happy."

Luo Bing's anger blazed even more intensely. She raised the knife in her hand, her wrist steeled, ready to throw.

"You don't know anything," Yu said in a shaky voice. "How much I have suffered for you over the last five or six years. From the moment I first saw you, my heartwasno longer my own."

"I was already Fourth Brother's then," Luo Bing said angrily. "Do you mean you didn't know?"

"Iknew I couldn't control myself, so I never dared to see too much of you. Whenever the Society had any business to be done, I always begged the Great Helmsman to send me to do it. The others thought I was just hardworking, no-one knows I was really avoiding you. When I was away working, there was never a day or an hour when I did not think of you."

He took a step towards her and pulled up his left sleeve, exposing his arm. "I hate myself," he said. "I curse my heart for the animal it is. Every time the hatred overcomes me, I cut myself with a knife here. Look!"

Under the dim starlight, Luo Bing saw his arm was covered in motley scars, and her heart involuntarily softened.

"I always think, why couldn't Heaven have allowed me to meet you before you married," he continued. "We are about the same age, but the difference in age between you and Fourth Brother is huge."

Luo Bing's anger surged up once more. "What does the difference in our ages matter? Fourth Brother is loving and just, a great man. How could he be compared with someone like you, you"

She gave a snort of contempt, then turned and walked over to her horse. As she struggled to mount it, Yu went over to help her up, but she shouted "Keep away!" and got up of her own accord.

"Where are you going?" he asked.

"It's none of your business. With Fourth Brother in the hands of the Eagle's Claws, I might as well be dead anyway. Give me my swords."

Yu lowered his head and handed the pair of swords to her.

Seeing him standing there, so lost and bewildered, Luo Bing suddenly said: "As long as you seriously work for the good of the Society, and are never impolite to me ever again, I won't tell anyone about what happened tonight. And I'll also help you find a nice girl who has both talent and beauty."

She smiled briefly, slapped her horse and rode off.

Luo Bing rode on for a mile or so, then stopped, searching the sky for the North Star to get her bearings. If she went west, she would meet up with the fighters of the Red Flower Society; to go east would be to follow after her captured husband. She knew that, wounded as she was, it would be impossible for her to save him single-handed, but with her husband heading eastwards, how could she possibly turn away from him? Broken-hearted, she let her horse wander unrestrained for a few miles. Then, seeing she had already travelled a long way from Yu, she dismounted and settled down to sleep in a spinney of small trees. Angry and bitter, she cried for a while and then fell into a deep sleep. In the middle of the night, she woke suddenly with a burning fever and called out in a blurred voice: "Water! I must drink water!" But there was no-one to hear her.

Next day, her condition was even worse. She managed with a struggle to sit up, but her head hurt so badly she was forced to lie down again. She slept, and awoke feeling the sun beating down on her head. She watched as it sank towards the west. She was thirsty and hungry, but remounting the horse was impossible.

"It is not important that I die here," she thought. "But I will never see Fourth Brother again." Her eyes glazed over and she fainted away.

Suddenly, she heard someone say: "Good. She's coming round!"

She slowly opened her eyes and saw a young, doe-eyed girl standing beside her. The girl was eighteen or nineteen years old with a tanned face and thick eyebrows. She looked very happy to see Luo Bing awaken.

"Go quickly and get some millet gruel for the Lady to drink," she told a maid.

Luo Bing realized she was lying on a kang in between the folds of a quilt. The room she was in was clean and tastefully furnished, obviously in the house of a very wealthy family.

"What is your honourable surname, miss?" she asked the girl.

"My surname is Zhou. You sleep for a while. We can talk again later."

The girl watched as Luo Bing ate a bowl of gruel and then quietly left. Luo Bing closed her eyes and slept once more.

When she woke, the lamps had already been lit. Outside the door, she heard a girl's voice saying loudly:

"Father shouldn't have allowed them to bully people and run riot here in Iron Gall Manor! If it had been me, I would have taught them a good lesson!"

Luo Bing started in fright when she heard the words 'Iron Gall Manor'. The girl and her maid walked into the room and looked through the canopy over the kang, but Luo Bing closed her eyes and pretended to be asleep. The girl went over to the wall and took down a sword. Luo Bing noticed her own swords on a table close by and prepared herself. If the girl struck out at her, she would throw the quilt over her head, grab the swords and fight her way out. But all she heard was the maid saying:

"Mistress, you mustn't make any more trouble. His Lordship is very distressed. Don't make him angry again."

"Huh! I don't care," the girl replied. She raced out of the room, sword in hand, with the maid at her heels.

Luo Bing guessed correctly that the girl was Lord Zhou's daughter, Zhou Qi. She was a bold, straight-forward person, very much like her father, and had a love of minding other people's business. On the day Wen was seized, she had wounded someone in a fight, and had spent the night away from home, planning to wait for her father's anger to subside before returning. On her way back, she came across Luo Bing unconscious by the road and brought her to the manor, where she discovered to her horror that her father had killed her brother, and her mother had run off.

"If they can betray Fourth Brother to the authorities, why did they save me?" she thought darkly. "There must be some other evil scheme afoot."

The wound on her thigh had not yet healed, and she couldn't afford the slightest mistake. Having been in the Manor once before, she had a vague idea of its layout, and planned to stealthily make her way round to the garden, and then leave by the back gate. But as she passed by the great hall, she saw the lamps were burning brightly inside and heard someone talking very loudly. There was something familiar about the voice, and she put her eye close to a crack in the door and saw Lord Zhou in conversation with two other men, one of whom she recognised as Lead Escort Tong. Seeing him, she thought again of her husband's cruel fate and immediately ceased to care about whether she lived or died. She pushed open the door and slung a throwing knife at Tong.


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