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4

Zhou Qi was separated from the others in the midst of the battle. The Manchu troops surged around her, and she galloped blindly off trying to escape them. In the darkness, her horse suddenly tripped, and she tumbled to the ground, her head crashing heavily against the hard earth. She passed out, but luckily it was still dark, and the soldiers did not find her.

She had been unconscious for she did not know how long when there was a sudden bright flash before her eyes and a great roar followed by a wave of coolness on her face. She opened her eyes and saw the sky was full of black clouds and torrential rain sweeping down.

She jumped up. Someone beside her sat up as well, and she started in fright and frantically grabbed for her sword. Then she gasped in surprise: it was 'Mastermind' Xu.

"Mistress Zhou, what are you doing here?" he called out above the roar of the rain.

Zhou Qi had never liked Xu and had gone out of her way to quarrel with him. But he was at least one of her own people, and she burst into tears.

"What about my father?" she asked, biting her lip.

Xu motioned her to lie down. "Soldiers," he whispered.

Zhou Qi threw herself to the ground, and they slowly crawled behind a small mound of earth.

The sky was already light, and through the rain, they saw several dozen Manchu soldiers hastily burying corpses, cursing as they worked. "You two, have a look round for any more bodies," an officer shouted, and two soldiers went onto higher ground. Looking around, they spotted Zhou Qi and Xu and called out: "There's two more over there."

"Wait for them to come over," Xu whispered.

The soldiers walked over carrying shovels, and as they bent over them, Zhou Qi and Xu simultaneously thrust their swords into the bellies of the two. They died without a sound.

The officer waited for a while, but with no sign of the soldiers returning and the rain getting heavier, he rode over to investigate.

"Don't make a sound. I'll steal his horse," Xu whispered. As the officer rode closer, he saw the bodies of the two soldiers, but before he could call out, Xu leapt up and slashed at him with his sword. The officer raised his horse whip to stop the blow, but both his whip and head were sliced off.

"Mount up quickly!" Xu called, holding the horse's reins. Zhou Qi leapt onto the horse and galloped off with Xu running along behind.

The Manchu troops began to give chase. After only a few dozen paces, the pain in Xu's shoulder where he had been hit by the Golden Needles became unbearable and he fell to the ground with a cry. Zhou Qi reined the horse round and galloped back. Leaning over, she pulled him across the saddle, then slapped the horse's haunches and raced off again. The soldiers soon dropped far behind.

When they had gone some distance, Zhou Qi stopped and had a look at Xu. His eyes were tightly closed, his face white and his breathing shallow. Greatly frightened, she sat him properly on the horse, then with her left arm around his waist to keep him from falling, galloped on, keeping to lonely, deserted tracks. After a while, she saw an inky-black section of forest ahead and rode in amongst the trees. The rain had stopped, and she dismounted and continued on foot leading the horse with Xu on it behind her until she came to a clearing in the forest. Xu was still unconscious, and Zhou Qi lifted him off the horse and laid him on the grass. Then she sat down, letting the horse wander off to graze. Here she was, a young girl not yet twenty, alone in a strange forest. She began to sob, her tears falling onto Xu's face.

Xu slowly recovered consciousness and thought it was raining again. He opened his eye a little way and saw a beautiful face before him with two big eyes red from crying. His left shoulder began hurting again and he cried out in pain.

Zhou Qi was overjoyed to see he was still alive. "How are you?" she asked.

"My shoulder is extremely painful. Please look at it for me, Mistress Zhou," he replied. He forced himself to sit up and used his right hand to cut a hole in the shoulder of his jacket with his knife.

"I was hit by three Golden Needles here," he said, examining the shoulder out of the corner of his eye." The needles were small, but they had penetrated deep into the flesh.

"What shall we do?" Zhou Qi asked. "Shall we go to a town and find a doctor?"

"We can't do that," replied Xu. "After last night's battle, going to see a doctor would be like walking straight into a trap. What we really need is a magnet to draw the needles out, but we don't have one. I wonder if I could ask you to cut away the flesh and pull them out?"

During the night battle, Zhou Qi had killed quite a number of the Manchu troops without losing her composure once. But now, faced with the prospect of cutting away the flesh on Xu's shoulder, she hesitated.

"I can't stand the pain," he pleaded. "Do it nowno, wait. Do you have a tinder box with you?"

Zhou Qi felt around in her bag. "Yes. What do you want it for?"

"Collect some dried grass and leaves and burn up some ash. When you've pulled the needles out, you can cover the wound with the ash and then bandage it."

She did as he said and burnt up a large pile of ash.

"That's fine," said Xu with a laugh. "There's enough there to stop a hundred wounds bleeding."

"I'm just a stupid girl," Zhou Qi replied crossly. "Come and do it yourself."

She pressed on his shoulder beside the needle holes. As her fingers came into contact with male flesh, she involuntarily pulled back and her whole face turned bright red down to the roots of her hair.

Xu noticed her blush, but misinterpreted her reaction in spite of his nickname.

"Are you afraid?" he asked.

"What have I got to be afraid of?" she replied, suddenly angry. "It's you that's afraid! Turn your head away and don't look."

Xu did as he was told. Zhou Qi pressed the skin around the needle holes tightly, then slipped the tip of the knife into the flesh and slowly began to turn it. Blood flowed out of the wound. Xu silently gritted his teeth, his whole face covered in beads of sweat the size of soyabeans. She cut away the flesh until the end of a needle appeared, then grasping it tightly between the thumb and forefinger, pulled it out.

Xu forced himself to maintain his jocular front.

"It's a pity that needle doesn't have an eye to thread through, otherwise I'd give it to you to use in embroidery," he said.

"I can't do embroidery," Zhou Qi replied. "Last year, my mother told me to learn, but I kept snapping the needle or breaking the thread. She scolded me, and I said: "Mother, I can't do it, you teach me." But she said 'I've no time.' Afterwards I discovered that she can't do embroidery either."

Xu laughed. As they had been talking, another needle had been removed.

"I didn't really want to learn," Zhou Qi continued with a smile. "But when I found out that mother didn't know how, I pushed her to teach me. But I couldn't catch her out. She said: 'If you don't know how to sew, I don't know how you'll'"

She stopped in mid-sentence. Her mother had said: "I don't know you'll ever find a husband."

"Don't you know how you'll what?" asked Xu.

"I don't feel like telling you."

As they talked, her hands never stopped, and the third needle was finally out as well. She covered the wound with ash, then bandaged it with strips of cloth. She couldn't help but admire him for the way he continued to smile and chat to her despite the pain.

"He may be short, but he's a brave man," she thought. By this time, her hands were covered in blood.

"You lie here and don't move," she said. "I'll go and find some water to drink."

She looked at the lie of the land, then ran out of the trees. Several hundred paces away, she found a small stream which was flowing swiftly after the heavy rain. As she bent down to wash her hands, she caught sight of her reflection in the water, the dishevelled hair, her wet and crumpled clothes, and her face, covered in blood and dirt.

"Damn!" she thought. "How could I let him see me looking so awful?"

She washed her face clean, combed her hair with her fingers. Then, scooping water from the stream, she drank deeply. She knew Xu would certainly be thirsty too, but had nothing in which to carry water. After a moment's thought, she took a piece of clothing from the knapsack on her back, dipped it in the stream so that it was soaking wet than ran back.

Zhou Qi could see from his face that he was in great pain, although he was trying to appear unconcerned, and feelings of tenderness stirred within her. She told him to open his mouth and squeezed water into it from the cloth.

"Is it very painful?" she asked softly.

Xu's whole life has been spent amidst mountains of knives and forests of spears, or else in the shady world of plots and traps; no-one had ever spoken to him with the warmth and softness he detected now in Zhou Qi's voice. Deeply moved, he steadied himself. "I am a little better now. Thank you."

"We can't stay here," Xu said after he had drunk some water. "Nor can we go to any town. All we can do is to find a secluded farmhouse and say that we are brother and sister"

"You want me to call you brother?" asked Zhou Qi, astounded.

"If you feel that I'm too old, you could call me uncle," he suggested.

"Pah! Do you think you look like my uncle? I'll call you my brother, but only when there are other people around. When we're on our own, I won't."

"All right, you don't have to," he replied with a smile. "We'll say that we met the army on the road and were attacked by the soldiers who stole all our possessions."

Having agreed on their story, Zhou Qi helped him to mount the horse. The two made their way out of the trees, and chose a small track heading straight towards the sun.

The northwest is a desolate place. Hungry and tired, they had to travel for more than two hours before finally spotting a mud hut.

Xu dismounted and knocked at the door. After a moment, an old woman came out. Seeing the strange clothes they were wearing, she looked at them suspiciously. Xu gave her some of the story they had concocted, and she sighed.

"These government troops, always making trouble," she said. "What is your name sir?"

"My name is Zhou," said Xu.

Zhou Qi glanced at him but said nothing. The old woman invited them inside and brought out some wheat cakes. They were black and rough, but hungry as they were, tasted delicious.

"Old woman," said Xu, "I am wounded and am not able to travel. We would like to spend the night here."

"There's no problem about your staying here, but poor people's homes have little to eat in them, so don't blame me on that account, sir."

"We are eternally thankful that you are willing to put us up," Xu replied. "My sister's clothes are all wet. If you have any old clothes, I would appreciate it if you would allow her to change into them."

"My daughter-in-law left some clothes behind. If you don't mind, mistress, you could try them on. They'll probably fit."

Zhou Qi went to change. When she came out, she saw Xu was already asleep in the old woman's room.

Towards evening, Xu began babbling incoherently, Zhou Qi felt his forehead and found it feverish. She decided his wounds must be festering. She knew such a condition was extremely dangerous, and turned to the old woman. "Is there a doctor near here?" she asked.

"Yes, there is, in Wenguang town about twenty li east of here," the old woman replied. "The most capable one is Doctor Cao, but he never comes out to country places like this to see patients."

"I'll go and fetch him," Zhou Qi said. "I'll leave mymy brother here. Please keep an eye on him."

"Don't you worry about that, miss," the old woman replied. "But the doctor won't come."

Zhou Qi stowed her sword beside the horse's saddle and galloped off. Night had already fallen when she entered Wenguang town.

She asked a passer-by where Doctor Cao lived, then galloped straight on to his residence. She knocked on the door for a long time before a man finally opened it.

"It's already dark. What are you banging on the door like that for?" the man demanded.

Zhou Qi was furious at his manner, but remembered that she was appealing for help. "I've come to ask Doctor Cao to visit a patient," she said, controlling herself.

"He's not in," said the man. Without another word, he turned and began to close the door.

Panic-striken, Zhou Qi pulled him out of the doorway and drew her sword. "Where's he gone to? Quickly!"

"He's gone to Little Rose's," the man replied in a quavering voice.

Zhou Qi brushed the blade over his face. "What is Little Rose's?"

The man was frantic with fright. "Your ExcellencyMiss, Little Rose is a prostitute," he said.

"Prostitutes are bad people. What's he gone to her place for?" Zhou Qi asked.

The man wanted to laugh at the sight of this girl who was so ferocious and yet so ignorant of worldly matters, but he did not dare. "She is a good friend of our master," he said.

"Lead me there quickly."

With the sword resting on his neck, he dared not disobey and led her off down the street.

"This is it," he said, pointing to a small house.

"Knock on the door. Tell the doctor to come out."

The man did as she said, and the door was opened by the Madame of the house.

"This lady wants my master to go to visit a patient," the man said. "I told her the master was busy, but she wouldn't believe me and forced me to come here."

The Madame gave him a look of contempt and slammed the door.

Zhou Qi rushed forward to stop her, but was too late. She beat thunderously on the door for a while, but not a sound came from inside. Absolutely furious, she kicked the man to the ground.

"Get lost!" she shouted.

The man picked himself up and ran off.

Zhou Qi waited until he had disappeared then leapt over the wall into the courtyard of the house. She saw light coming from a room nearby, and stealthily made her way over towards it. Crouching down, she heard two men talking. She licked the tip of her finger, then wet a small part of the window paper and made a hole in it. Putting her eye to the hole, she saw two men lying on a couch, talking. One was stout, and the other thin and tall. A tartishly seductive girl was pummelling the thin man's thighs. The stout man give a wave of his hand and the girl stood up.

"I can see you two want to discuss more ways of creating mischief," she said with a smile. "You ought to accumulate some good deeds, otherwise you may give birth to sons without arseholes."

"Damned nonsense," the stout man shouted back with a laugh. The girl smiled and walked out, locked the door, then turned and went into an inner hall.

"That must be Little Rose," Zhou Qi thought. "She's really shameless, but there's some truth in what she said."

She watched as the stout man pulled out four silver ingots and placed them on the table.

"Brother Cao," he said. "There's two hundred taels of silver. We are old business partners, and that's the old price."

"Master Tang," the thin man replied: "Take these two packets of medicine, and have a good time. The red packet you give to the girl, and in less time than it takes to eat a meal, she will be unconscious to the world and you can do whatever you like with her. You don't need me to teach you anything about that, do you?"

The two men laughed together.

"This black packet you give to the man," Cao continued. "Tell him it will speed his recovery. Soon after he takes it, his wounds will begin discharging blood and he will die. It will appear that his wounds have simply re-opened and no-one will suspect you. What do you think of such a ruse?"

"Excellent, excellent," Tang replied.

"So, Master Tang, you have gained both the girl and the money. Doesn't two hundred taels seem like rather a small reward for such a service?"

"We are brothers, and I wouldn't try to deceive you," the other said. "The girl certainly has a pretty face. I could hardly restrain myself even when I thought she was a boy because of the way she was dressed. But there is nothing much special about the man, except that he's with the girl, so I cannot allow him to live."

"Didn't you say he had a flute made out of gold?" Cao asked. "That flute must weigh several catties alone."

"All right, all right, I'll add another fifty taels," Tang said, and pulled out another ingot.

Zhou Qi became angrier and angrier as she listened, and ran to the door, kicked it open and charged straight inside. Tang gave a shout and aimed a flying kick at Zhou Qi's sword wrist. Zhou Qi flipped the sword over and smoothly cut off his right foot then thrust the blade into his heart.

The thin man stood to one side, struck dumb with fright. His whole body shook and his teeth chattered. Zhou Qi pulled her sword out of Tang's corpse and wiped the blood off the blade onto his clothes, then grabbed the thin man.

"Are you Doctor Cao?" she shouted. The man's legs folded and he fell to his knees.

"Pleasemissspare my life"

"Who wants your life? Get up."

Cao shakily stood up, but his knees were still rubbery, and he had to kneel down again. Zhou Qi put the five silver ingots and two packets of medicine on the table into her pocket.

"Out," she ordered.

She told him to fetch his horse, and the two mounted up and galloped out of the town. In less than two hours, they arrived at the old woman's hut. Zhou Qi ran to Xu and found him still unconscious. In the candlelight, she could see his whole face was bright red and knew he had a terrible fever. She dragged Cao over.

"My, er, brother here has been wounded. Cure him quickly," she ordered.

Hearing that he was expected to give medical treatment, Cao's fears eased slightly. He looked at Xu's complexion and took his pulse, then undid the bandage round his shoulder and looked at the wound. He shook his head.

"The master is deficient in both blood and breath," he said. "His body heat is rising"

"Who wants to hear all that?" Zhou Qi interrupted him. "You just cure him quickly. If you don't, you can forget about ever leaving here."

"I'll go to the town to get some medicine," Cao said. "Without medicine I cannot do anything."

Xu awoke and he lay listening to the two talking.

"Huh, do you think I'm a three-year-old child?" Zhou Qi demanded. "You make out the prescription and I'll go and buy the medicine."

Cao had no alternative. "Well, please bring me a pen and paper, Miss," he said.

But where was pen and paper to be found in such a poor hut in such a desolate place? Zhou Qi frowned, at a loss for what to do.

"The master's condition will not allow delay," said Cao with an air of complacency. "It would be best if you let me return to the town to get the medicine."

"Sister," Xu said, "Take a small piece of firewood and burn it to charcoal, then let him write on a piece of rough paper. If that can't be done, you could write on a piece of wood."

"What a good idea!" Zhou Qi exclaimed happily, and burnt up a piece of firewood as he had said. The old woman searched out a piece of yellow paper originally meant to be burnt in worship of Buddha, and Cao made out the prescription. When he had finished, Zhou Qi found a length of grass rope and tied his hands behind his back, bound his legs together and put him on the floor next to Xu.

"I'm going to the town to buy medicine," she told the old woman as she placed Xu's sword beside his pillow. If this dog doctor tries to escape, wake up my brother and he can kill him."

Zhou Qi rode back to the town and found a medicine shop. She shouted for the shop-keeper to open up and got him to fill the prescription, which was for more that ten different types of medicine.

The sky was growing light. She saw village militiamen patrolling the streets and guessed that the murder at Little Rose's had been discovered. She shrank into a corner and waited until they had passed before galloping off.

As soon as she had returned to the old woman's hut, she hastily brewed up the medicine then poured it into a rough bowl and took it over to Xu. She shook him awake and told him to drink the medicine.

Xu was extremely moved at the sight of her face covered with sweat and ash and her hair filled with twigs and grass. He knew she was the daughter of a rich family and would never before have had to do this sort of work. He sat up and took the bowl from her and passed it over to Cao.

"You drink two mouthfuls," he said. Cao hesitated slightly and Zhou Qi realised Xu's meaning.

"Yes, yes," she said. "He must drink some first. You don't know how evil this man is," she added to Xu.

Cao opened his mouth and drank two mouthfuls.

"Rest for a while, sister," said Xu. "I'll wait a while before drinking the medicine."

"Yes," said Zhou Qi. "Let's see if he dies first. If he dies, you mustn't drink the medicine."

She moved the oil lamp next to Cao's face and watched him with her big, black, unblinking eyes to see whether he would die or not.

"We doctors have the best interest of our patients at heart. Why would I want to harm him?" Cao said, smiling bitterly.

"That secret discussion you had with that man Tang about harming some girl and getting hold of someone else's golden flute, I heard it all," Zhou Qi said angrily. "Do you deny it?"

Xu's ears pricked up at the mention of a golden flute and he quickly asked her about it. Zhou Qi related the conversation she had heard, and how she had killed a man at Little Rose's.

Xu asked Cao: "Who is the person with the Golden flute? And who is the girl who was dressed as a boy?"

Zhou Qi drew her sword and stood by him threateningly. "If you don't tell us everything you know, I'll run you through with my sword immediately," she told him.

"II'll tell you," said Cao, absolutely terrified. "Yesterday Master Tang came to see me and said that two people had asked to take lodgings at his home. He said one was very badly wounded and the other was a pretty youngster. At first he was unwilling to take them in, but seeing how extraordinarily beautiful the youngster was, he let them stay for one night. He noticed the youngster's voice and manner were just like a girl's. Also, the youngster wasn't willing to share a room with the other, so he concluded it must be a girl dressed in boy's clothes."

"So you sold him some poison," Zhou Qi said.

"I deserve to die," replied Cao.

"What was the man like?" Xu asked.

"Master Tang asked me to examine him. He was about twenty-three or four, dressed as a scholar, and had sword and club wounds in seven or eight places."

"Were the wounds serious?" asked Xu.

"Very serious. But they were all external wounds. He wasn't wounded on any fatal points."

Xu saw he would not gain much by continuing the questioning and gingerly raised the bowl of medicine. But his hands shook and some of the medicine slopped out. Zhou Qi took the bowl from him and raised it to his mouth. He drank the brew down as she held the bowl, then thanked her.

"These two bandits are not brother and sister," Cao thought as he watched. "Whoever heard of a brother saying thank you to his sister?"

After drinking the medicine, Xu slept for a while, his whole body sweating profusely, and towards evening, the sickness began to recede. The next day, Xu was more than half recovered and he was able to get up.

After another day, he decided he could just about manage to ride a horse.

"That man with the golden flute is Fourteenth Brother," he said to Zhou Qi. "I wonder why he should seek lodgings with such a man? But seeing as you've already killed Tang, they shouldn't have had too much trouble. But I'm still a little worried. Let's go tonight and see what the situation is."

"Fourteenth Brother?" Zhou Qi asked.

"'Scholar' Yu. He was also at Iron Gall Manor. You've seen him before."

"Oh, if I had known it was him I would have brought him along with me, then the two of you could have convalesced together."

Xu smiled. "But who could this girl dressed in boy's clothing be?" he wondered, mystified.

That evening, Zhou Qi gave the old woman two of the silver ingots and she accepted them with effusive blessings and thanks. Zhou Qi then pulled Cao up, and with a swish of her blade, cut off his right ear.

"I'm only sparing your worthless life because you cured my brother," she shouted. "If I ever catch you doing evil again,I'll stick my sword straight into your heart."

"We'll visit you again in three months time, to check up," Xu warned.

"You ride his horse and we'll leave," Zhou Qi said to Xu. The two mounted up and galloped off towards Wenguang town.

"Why did you say we would be coming back in three months' time?" Zhou Qi asked.

"I was just deceiving the doctor so that he wouldn't give the old woman any trouble," Xu replied.

Zhou Qi nodded and they continued on for a while.

"Why are you always so crafty with people?" she suddenly asked. "I don't like it."

"You don't realise how many evil people there are in the world," he said after a long silence. "When dealing with friends, love and justice should always come first, of course. But when dealing with bad people, you must be very careful otherwise you will be tricked and will suffer."

"My father say it's better to suffer yourself than to cheat other people," Zhou Qi said.

"That is what makes your father the great man that he is," replied Xu.

"Well, why don't you imitate my father?"

"Lord Zhou is benevolent and generous by nature. I am afraid that such a perverse person as myself would never be able to emulate him."

"That's what I dislike most about you: your perverse temper. My father says that if you treat others well, they will also naturally treat you well in return."

Xu didn't reply.

The two waited until it was dark before entering the town. They found Tang's residence and climbed over the wall toinvestigate. Xu caught a watchman and, threatening him with a knife, asked him about 'Scholar' Yu's whereabouts. The watchman said the two lodgers had left during the confusion after Doctor Cao had killed Master Tang at Little Rose's.

"We'll chase after them," Zhou Qi said.


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