home | login | register | DMCA | contacts | help | donate |      

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
А Б В Г Д Е Ж З И Й К Л М Н О П Р С Т У Ф Х Ц Ч Ш Щ Э Ю Я


my bookshelf | genres | recommend | rating of books | rating of authors | reviews | new | форум | collections | читалки | авторам | add



5

Zhou Qi continued to be antagonistic towards Xu as they travelled along. No matter how often Zhou sternly reproved her, or Luo Bing tried to mediate with smiles, or how calmly tolerant Xu was, Zhou Qi jeered at him, not giving him the slightest bit of face. In the end, Xu became angry as well.

"I've only been nice to her to give her father face," he thought. "Does she think I'd really be afraid of her?" He reined in his horse and dropped behind.

On the third day, they passed through the Jiayu Gate, which marks the western end of the Great Wall.

Seeing his daughter being so disobedient, Zhou several times called her over and tried to reason with her. Each time she would agree, but as soon as she saw Xu, she would start arguing with him again. Zhou thought his wife may have been able to discipline their daughter, but she had gone he knew not where.

They arrived in Suzhou, and found rooms in an inn near the east gate of the city. Xu went out for a while, and when he returned he said:

"Fourteenth Brother hasn't met up with the Twin Knights yet."

"How would know?" Zhou Qi demanded. "You're just guessing."

Xu glanced at her in contempt.

"This place was called Wine Spring Prefecture in ancient times," said Zhou, fearing that his daughter would say something else equally impolite. "The wine here is very good. Brother Xu, let's you and I go to the Apricot Blossom Tavern on Great East Street and drink a cup."

"Good idea," said Xu.

"Father, I want to go too," Zhou Qi said. Xu stifled a laugh. "What are you laughing at? Why shouldn't I be able to go?" Zhou Qi asked angrily. Xu turned away and pretended he hadn't heard.

"We'll go together," Luo Bing said with a smile.

Being a chivalrous man, Zhou did not object.

The four arrived at the Apricot Blossom Tavern and ordered wine and food. The spring water of Suzhou was clear and cold, and the wine that was made from it was fragrant and rich, and was considered to be the best in all the northwestern provinces. The waiter brought a plate of Suzhou 's famous roasted cakes, as fragile as spring cotton and as white as autumn silk. Zhou Qi couldn't stop eating them. The tavern was crowded and it was inconvenient to discuss Wen's coming rescue, so instead, the four talked about the scenery they had passed and other things.

"Your honourable society's Master Chen is very young," said Zhou. "What style of kung fu does he use?"

"A style invented by his teacher," Xu replied. "When he was fifteen years old, Master Chen was sent by our former Great Helmsman Master Yu to the Muslim regions to become the pupil of 'The Strange Knight Of The Heavenly Pool', Master Yuan, and he never returned to southern China. Only Priest Wu Chen and some of the other senior members of the society saw him when he was young."

"Master Chen is certainly a remarkable man," said Zhou. "Truly: 'A man's worth cannot be measured by his looks'."

Xu and Luo Bing were very pleased to hear Zhou praising their leader in such glowing terms.

"In these last few years, the fighting community has produced many new heroes," Zhou continued, addressing Xu. "The rear waves of the Yangtse push forward the front waves', as the saying goes. It is rare to find someone who combines the qualities of intelligence and bravery as you do. It is important that such skills are not wasted, but are used to achieve something worthwhile."

"Yes," said Xu, agreeing with Zhou's view that his skills should be used to good purpose, but Zhou Qi grunted and thought: "My father praises you and you agree! Such modesty!"

Zhou drank a mouthful of wine. "I once heard that old Master Yu of your honourable society was a member of the Shaolin School of kung fu, very similar to my style," he remarked. "I had long wanted to meet him and learn from him, but with him in southern China and myself in the northwest, my wish was never fulfilled and he has now passed away. I enquired about the origins of his martial arts skills, but everyone had a different story, and from beginning to end I never heard a reliable report."

"Master Yu never talked about who he studied under, and it was only just before he died that he said he had once learned kung fu in the Shaolin monastery in Fujian province," Xu said.

"What illness did Master Yu die of?" Zhou asked. "He would have been a few years older than me, I think?"

"Master Yu was sixty-five when he passed away," Xu replied. "The cause of his illness is a long story. There's a very mixed bunch of people here and we might as well travel on another few miles this evening. We'll find a deserted place and talk at length there."

"Excellent!" Zhou said. He asked the cashier to make up the bill.

"I'll just go downstairs for a second," Xu said.

"I am the host," Zhou warned. "Don't you snatch the bill away."

"All right," he replied, and went down to the ground floor.

"He's always so furtive!" Zhou Qi said with a pout.

"Girls must not talk such ill-mannered nonsense," Zhou scolded her.

"Brother Xu is always full of strange tricks," Luo Bing told her with a smile. "If you make him angry, you will have to be careful he doesn't play some of them on you."

"Huh!" she said. "He is no taller than I am. Why should I be afraid of him?"

Zhou was about to berate her again, but hearing footsteps on the stairs, he said nothing.

"Let's go," Xu said, walking up.

The four covered ten miles at one go. They noticed a spinney of a dozen or so large tree to the left of the road screening rocks and boulders behind.

"What about here?" Zhou asked.

"All right," said Xu. They tied their horses to the trees and sat down, leaning on the trunks. The moon was bright and the stars sparse, and the night air was as cool as water. The wind blew through the grass with a low whistling sound.

Xu was about to speak when he heard the muffled sound of horses galloping from far off. He lay down with his ear to the ground and listened for a while, then stood up.

"Three horses coming this way," he said.

Zhou waved his hand and they untied their horses and led them behind the boulders. The sound of hooves came gradually closer, and three horses passed heading east. In the moonlight, they could see only that the riders all wore white turbans and long striped gowns, the clothing of Muslims, while sabres hung from their saddles. They waited until the riders were a long way off, then sat down again. Zhou asked why the Manchu court had arrested Wen.

"The authorities have always considered the Red Flower Society to be a thorn in the eye," Luo Bing replied. "But there is another reason for them dispatching so many martial arts masters to catch our Fourth Brother. Last month, Master Yu went to Beijing, and Fourth Brother and I went with him. Master Yu told us that he intended to break into the Imperial Palace and see the Emperor Qian Long. We were very surprised, and asked what he wanted to see the Emperor about, but he wouldn't say. Fourth Brother warned him that the Emperor was very dangerous and cunning and advised him to enlist our best fighters and to get Brother Xu here to devise an absolutely fool-proof plan."

Zhou Qi studied Xu. "Is this dwarf so talented that others come to him for help?" she thought. "I don't believe it!"

"Master Yu said that he had to see the Emperor on a matter of great importance, and that only a small number of people could go with him or there could be problems. So Fourth Brother agreed. That night, the two of them crossed the wall into the palace while I kept watch outside. I was really frightened. More than two hours passed before they came back over the wall. Very early next day, the three of us left Beijing and returned to the south. I asked Fourth Brother if they had seen the Emperor and what it was all about. He said they had seen him, and that it concerned driving out the Manchus and restoring the throne of China to the chinese people. He said he couldn't tell me more, not because he didn't trust me, but because the more people who knew, the greater the danger of the secret getting out."

"After we returned to the south, Master Yu parted from us," Luo Bing continued. "We returned to the Society's headquarters at Tai Lake, while he went on to Haining. When he returned, his whole appearance had changed. It was as if he had suddenly aged more than ten years. He never smiled, and a few days later he contracted the illness from which he never recovered.

"Just before he passed away, he called together the Lords of Incense and said that it was his last wish that Master Chen should succeed him as Great Helmsman. He said this was the key to the restoration of the throne to the Han people. He said it was not possible to explain the reasons then, but said we would all find out one day."

"What was Master Chen's relationship with Master Yu?" Zhou asked.

"He was the old Master's foster son," Luo Bing said. "Master Chen is the son of the Emperor's former Chief Minister Chen from Haining. When he was fifteen, he passed the provincial civil service examination, and soon after that, the old Master took him to the Muslim regions to learn the martial arts from the Strange Knight Of The Heavenly Pool, Master Yuan. As to why the son of a Chief Minister would honour a member of the fighting community as his foster father, we don't know."

"I imagine one of the reasons Master Wen was seized is that he knows something about all this," Zhou said.

"Perhaps," Luo Bing replied. "At the time of old Master's death, there was one important piece of unfinished business on his mind and he wanted very badly to see Master Chen once more. When he first got back from Beijing, he sent a messenger to the Muslim border areas with instructions for Master Chen to go to Anxi and wait there for orders. The Old Master knew he wouldn't last long enough to see his foster son again, so he urged us all to hasten to Anxi to work out a plan of action together with Master Chen. He entrusted all the secret information to Fourth Brother to pass on personally to the Young Helmsman when they met. Who would have guessed that he…" Her voice choked with sobs. "If anything should happen to Fourth Brother…no-one will ever know what the old Master hoped to achieve."

"You mustn't worry," Zhou Qi consoled her. "We'll soon rescue him."

Luo Bing squeezed her hand and smiled sadly.

"How was Master Wen wounded?" Zhou asked.

"We travelled in pairs to Anxi, and Fourth Brother and I were the last pair. When we were in Suzhou, eight Imperial Bodyguards came to our inn and said they had orders from the Emperor to accompany us back to Beijing. Fourth Brother said that he had to see the Young Helmsman before he could comply, and a fight broke out. It was a hard battle, two against eight. Fourth Brother killed two of them with his sword and three more with his bare hands, while I hit two with my throwing knives. The last one sneaked away. But Fourth Brother was badly wounded.

"We knew we couldn't stay in Suzhou, so with difficulty we made our way through the Jiayu Gate. But Fourth Brother's wounds were serious and it was really impossible for us to go much further, so we stopped at an inn to give him a chance to recover quickly. Little did we guess that the Eagles's Claws would find us again. What happened afterwards, you already know."

"The more the Emperor fears and hates Fourth Brother, the less his life is in danger in the immediate future," Xu said. "The officials and the Eagles's Claws know he's important so they won't dare to harm him."

"That's very shrewd, Brother," Zhou said.

"It would have been better if you'd gone to meet a bit earlier," Zhou Qi suddenly said to Xu. "Then Master Wen wouldn't be in any trouble, and you wouldn't have had to go venting your anger on Iron Gall Manor…"

"You stupid girl!" Zhou shouted. "What are you talking about?"

"Brother Wen's and Sister Luo Bing's kung fu is excellent, so who would have guessed that anyone would dare to attack them?" Xu replied.

"You're the 'Kung Fu Mastermind'," Zhou Qi said. "How could you have failed to guess it?"

"If Seventh Brother had guessed it, we wouldn't have become acquainted with these good friends from the Red Flower Society." Zhou told her. He turned to Luo Bing. " By the way, who is Master Chen's wife? Is she the daughter of some great family perhaps, or a famous martial arts fighter?"

"Master Chen hasn't married yet," Luo Bing replied. "But Lord Zhou, when are we going to be invited to your daughter's wedding reception?"

"This girl is crazy, who would want her?" Zhou answered with a smile. "She might as well stay with me for the rest of her life."

"Wait until we've rescued Fourth Brother, then I'll become her match-maker," Luo Bing said. "You're sure to be very satisfied with my choice."

"If you're going to keep on talking about me, I'm leaving," Zhou Qi said quickly, deeply embarrassed. The other three smiled.

A moment passed, then Xu suddenly stifled a laugh.

"What are you laughing at now?" Zhou Qi asked him angrily.

"Something personal. What business is it of yours?" he countered.

"Huh," she replied. "Do you think I don't know what you're laughing at? You want to marry me to that Master Chen. But he's the son of a chief minister; how could we possibly be matched? You all treat him like some precious treasure, but I don't see anything special about him."

Both angry and amused, Zhou shouting at her to be quiet. "This stupid girl talks without thinking," he said. "All right, everyone sleep now. As soon as it gets light, we'll be starting out again."

They took their blankets off the horses' backs, and lay down beneath the trees.

"Father," Zhou Qi whispered. "Did you bring anything to eat? I'm starving."

No, I didn't," Zhou replied. "But we'll make a move a little earlier tomorrow and stop when we get to Twin Wells."

Not long after, he began snoring lightly. Zhou Qi tossed and turned, unable to sleep due to her hunger. Suddenly, she noticed Xu stealthily get up and walk over to the horses. She saw him take something out of his bag, then return and sit down. He wrapped the blanket around himself, and started eating noisily and with relish. She turned over away from him and shut her eyes, but finally, she could bear it no longer, and glanced over out of the corner of her eye. It would have been better if she hadn't. She saw a pile next to him of what were obviously the famous Suzhou roasted cakes. But having spent the whole time arguing with him, how could she now beg him for food?

"Go to sleep and stop thinking about eating," she told herself. But the more she tried to sleep, the less she was able to. Then the fragrant smell of wine hit her nostrils as Xu took a swig from a drinking gourd and she could suppress her anger no longer.

"What are you doing drinking wine at two o'clock in the morning?" she demanded. "If you have to drink, don't do it here!"

"All right," said Xu. He put down the gourd without re-corking it and settled down to sleep, letting the fragrance of the wine drift over towards her.

She angrily buried her face in the blanket, but after a while, it became too stuffy. She turned over again, and in the moonlight, she saw her father's two Iron Gallstones glistening beside his pillow. She quietly stretched her hand over, picked one of them up and threw it at the wine gourd. It shattered and the wine spilled out over Xu's blanket.

He appeared to be asleep, and paid no heed to what had happened. Zhou Qi saw her father and Luo Bing were sleeping peacefully and crept over to retrieve the Iron Gallstone. But just as she was about to pick it up, Xu suddenly turned over, trapping it beneath his body, and then proceed to snore noisily.

She jumped in fright and pulled back her hand, not daring to try again. Despite her bold character, she was still a young lady, and could not possibly put her hand beneath a man's body. There was nothing she could do, so she went back and settled down to sleep. Just then, she heard a laugh escape from Luo Bing. Completely flustered, she didn't sleep well all night.


предыдущая глава | The Book and The Sword | cледующая глава