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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


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5

In less than a day, they had passed Lanzhou. Two days further on, Xu discovered markings on the road left by Chen saying that everyone should meet in Kaifeng. Zhou Qi was delighted to hear that the main group was all right. She had been very worried about her father, but she now relaxed and drank some wine to celebrate. The wound on Xu's shoulder had by now closed and he was fully recovered. They chatted as they travelled. Xu told her stories of the fighting community and explained all its taboos and rules. She took it all in eagerly.

"Why didn't you talk about these things before, instead of always quarrelling with me?" she asked.

That day they arrived at Tongguan, a gateway town between central China and the northwest, and searched for lodgings. They heard that the old Yuelai Inn was the best, but when they got there, they were told there was only one room left.

Zhou Qi was impressed with how refined and polite Xu had been towards her, a real gentleman. But now, suddenly faced with the prospect of having to share a room with him, she was both embarrassed and suspicious.

As soon as they were in the room, Xu barred the door. Zhou Qi's face went bright red and she was just about to speak when Xu hurriedly silenced her with a wave of his hand.

"Did you see that Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency scoundrel just now?" he whispered.

"What?" said Zhou Qi, startled. "You mean the one who led the others round to capture Master Wen and caused the death of my brother?"

"I only caught a glimpse of him so I can't be absolutely sure. I was afraid he would see us, which is why I rushed us into the room. We'll go and investigate in a while."

The servant came in with some hot tea and asked if they wanted anything to eat. Xu ordered a few dishes, then said:

"Several eminent gentlemen from the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency are also staying here, I think?"

"Yes," replied the servant. "Whenever they pass through Tongguan, they always give us their custom."

Xu waited for the servant to leave. "That Lead Escort Tong is the ringleader and chief troublemaker," he said. "We'll finish him off tonight and properly avenge your brother and Master Wen."

Zhou Qi thought once again of her brother's tragic death and the burning of Iron Gall Manor, and her anger surged.

"Lie down for a while and rest," said Xu, seeing her impatience. "We can wait until nightfall before making our move and still have plenty of time."

He sat down at the table and settled himself for sleep without so much as glancing further in Zhou Qi's direction. Zhou Qi had no option but to suppress her anger. She sat down on the kang and tried to rest. The time dragged by until the second bell struck, one hour to midnight, and she decided she could control herself no longer.

"Let's go," she said, drawing her sword.

"There are many of them, and some may be good fighters," Xu whispered. "Let us investigate first. We'll think of some way to lure Tong out, then deal with him alone."

Zhou Qi nodded.

They went into the courtyard and saw a lamp shining in a room on the eastern side. They walked stealthily over. Zhou Qi found a rip in the window paper and looked through while Xu stood behind her keeping a look out. Suddenly, she stood up and kicked out at the window. Xu started in fright, and shot in front of her, blocking her way. Zhou Qi hurriedly retracted her leg as it was about to strike Xu's chest, and overbalanced. He knelt down close to her.

"What is it?" he whispered.

"Do something, quick," she hissed. "My mother's in there. They've got her tied up."

Xu was startled. "Back to the room quickly and we'll discuss it there," he said.

They returned to the room.

"What is there to discuss?" demanded Zhou Qi desperately. "They've captured my mother."

"Control yourself. I will rescue her for you," Xu replied. "How many people were there in the room?"

"About six or seven."

Xu hung his head, deep in thought.

"What are you afraid of?" Zhou Qi asked. "If you won't do it, I'll go by myself."

"I'm not afraid. I'm thinking of a way to save your mother and kill that fellow at the same time. It would be best if we did the two things together."

Just then, footsteps passed by the door, and they heard a man muttering: "Midnight and these lead escorts are still at it. What are they doing drinking at this time? Damn their mothers! May the blessed Buddha make sure they meet up with robbers on the road."

Suddenly, Xu had an idea. "That Doctor Cao gave you two packets of medicine, didn't he?" he said to Zhou Qi. "Give me the one he said would make you unconscious, quickly."

Zhou Qi gave him the packet. "What are you going to do?" she asked. Xu didn't answer, but opened the window and jumped out with Zhou Qi close behind.

They ran along the corridor. Suddenly Xu whispered: "Get down, don't move."

Zhou Qi wondered what trick he was up to. A moment passed, then suddenly they saw a flicker of light as the servant came back towards them carrying a candlestick and a tray. Xu picked a pebble off the ground and threw it, extinguishing the candle.

The servant started in surprise. "This is damn ridiculous," he cursed. "There's no wind at all, and yet the candle goes out."

He put down the tray and turned to relight the candle. While his back was turned, Xu darted out, and in a flash, he had tipped the medicine into the two pots of wine on the tray and slipped away without the servant noticing.

"Let's go and wait outside their room," he said to Zhou Qi.

They made their way round to the exterior of the lead escort's room and settled down to wait. Xu looked in through the hole in the window covering and saw a middle-aged woman seated on the floor with her hands tied behind her back. There were several men sitting around her, including Master Han, the white horse's former owner, and Lead Escorts Qian and Tong. They were engaged in a lively discussion.

"When people talked of Iron Gall Manor, they always said it was impregnable as if it had walls of iron," Tong was saying. "But with just my one torch, it was razed to the ground. Ha ha!"

Outside the window, Xu shook his hand at Zhou Qi, afraid that she would have a fit of rage.

"Old Tong, stop bragging," Han replied. "I've met Zhou and I doubt if all of us together could beat him. If he ever comes looking for you, you'll be in a pretty situation!"

"But look!" replied Taong. "We must have a lucky star, otherwise how could Zhou's old woman manage to find us? With her in our hands, how would he dare to do anything to us?"

Just then, the servant entered with the wine and food, and the bodyguards immediately began eating and drinking heartily. Han was quiet and dispirited and Tong continually urged him to drink the wine, saying "Brother Han, even heroes are helpless when they're outnumbered. Next time, we'll take the Red Flower Society one to one and see who's the better."

"And who are you going to take on, old Tong?" asked another of the bodyguards.

"I'm going to find that daughter of Zhou's…" Before he could finish, he slumped to the floor. The others all started in fright, but as they jumped up to help him, and one by one, they dropped to the ground unconscious.

Xu prised the window open with sword, then leapt into the room. Zhou Qi hurriedly cut the ropes which bound her mother's hands. Lady Zhou was speechless at the sight of her beloved daughter: she felt as if she was in a dream.

Xu lifted Tong up. "Mistress Zhou," he said, "Avenge your brother."

With a sweep of her sword, Zhou Qi killed Tong instantly. She raised her sword again to kill the other lead escorts, but Xu stopped her.

"The crimes of the others do not deserve death. Spare them," he said.

She nodded and withdrew her sword. Lady Zhou knew her daughter's temper, and was surprised at how she obeyed Xu.

Xu searched the bodies of the lead escorts and found several letters which he placed in his gown, planning to examine them later.

The three returned to their room. Xu picked up their knapsacks and left a small silver ingot on the table in payment for the room and the food. Then they went to the stables, led out three horses and galloped off eastwards.

When she realized her daughter was not only travelling with a man but had shared a room with him, Lady Zhou's suspicions rose even further. Her temper was as explosive as her daughter's.

"Who is this gentleman?" she asked accusingly. "How come you are with him? You lost your temper with you father and left, didn't you?"

"It was you that lost your temper and left," Zhou Qi replied. "Mother, I'll talk to you about this later."

It looked as if an argument was about to start, and Xu quickly tried to mediate.

"It's all your fault," Zhou Qi told him angrily. "Do you want to make it worse?"

Xu smiled and walked away. Mother and daughter pouted silently, each thinking her own thoughts.

That night, they took lodgings in a farm house, and once they were in bed, mother and daughter together, Zhou Qi finally told her everything that had happened. Lady Zhou kept up a constant bombardment of questions and the two were crying one minute and laughing the next. It was past midnight before they had each given a rough sketch of the events since they parted.

Heartbroken and angry over the death of her son, Lady Zhou had gone to Lanzhou to stay with relatives, but after a few days, she began to feel restless, and left. On reaching Tongguan, he saw the Zhen Yuan Agency's flag outside the Yuelai Inn. She remembered that the man responsible for her son's death was a Lead Escort Tong and that evening she had gone to the inn to investigate. She listened to the lead escorts talking, and discovered Tong was among them. Unable to control her anger, she attacked him, but the agency men had the superiority of numbers and she was captured.

The next day on the road, Lady Zhou asked Xu about hisfamily background.

"I am from Shaoxing in Zhejiang province," Xu replied. "When I was twelve, all the members of my family were killed by the authorities. I was the only one who managed to escape."

"Why did they do that?" asked Lady Zhou.

"The magistrate of Shaoxing prefecture liked my sister and wanted her as his concubine. But she had already been promised to someone else, so my father naturally refused to agree. The magistrate then accused my father of being in collusion with bandits and put him and my mother and brother in prison. He told my sister that all she had to do was agree, and my father would be released. My sister's husband-to-be went to assassinate the magistrate, but he was caught and beaten to death by the guards. When my sister heard, she drowned herself in the river. After that, what chance did the rest of the family have of being spared?"

"Did you get revenge?" Zhou Qi asked.

"When I had grown up and had learned the martial arts, I went back to look for the magistrate, but he had been promoted and transferred somewhere else. In the last few years, I've been everywhere looking for him, but I've never had any news."

Lady Zhou also asked him if he was married, and said that having travelled about so much, he must surely have seen some girl he liked?

"He's too cunning. No girl would want him," Zhou Qi said with a laugh.

"Enough of your remarks, young lady," Lady Zhou scolded her.

"You want to become his match-maker, don't you?" Zhou Qi said with a smile. "Which girl are you thinking of? One of your relatives in Lanzhou?"

When they lodged at an inn that night, Lady Zhou spoke plainly to her daughter.

"A virgin like yourself, travelling together with a young man and staying in the same room! How do you expect to ever be able to marry anyone else?" she said.

"He was wounded," Zhou Qi replied angrily. "Did I do wrong to save him? He may be full of cunning tricks but he has been very gentlemanly towards me all along."

"You know that, and so does he. I believe you, and your father would believe you too. But how are other people going to believe it? If your husband ever suspected, you would never be able to face him again. That is the difficulty we women have."

"Well then, I shall never marry," shouted Zhou Qi.

"Shh! Master Xu is just in the next room." Lady Zhou said. "It would be very embarrassing if he should hear."

"Why should I be afraid? I haven't done anything wrong. Why do you want to deceive him?"

When they arose next morning, a servant brought a letter to them.

"Master Xu next door told me to give this to your Ladyships," he said. "The master said he had some affairs to attend to and had to go on ahead. He rode out early this morning."

Zhou Qi snatched the letter from him.

"Dear Lady Zhou and Mistress Zhou," it said. "Mistress Zhou Qi saved my life when I was wounded and I am very grateful to her. You are now reunited and can make your way from here to Kaifeng, which is not far. Please do not be offended that I have gone on ahead. I will naturally never forget how Mistress Zhou saved me, but please rest assured that I will never mention a word of it to anyone. Yours, Xu."

Zhou Qi finished reading and stood dumbfounded for a second. Then she threw the letter away and lay back down on the kang. Lady Zhou told her to get up and eat, but she took no notice.

"My daughter, we are not in Iron Gall Manor now," Lady Zhou said. "What are you losing your temper for?" Zhou Qi still took no notice.

"You're angry at him for leaving, aren't you?" Lady Zhou said.

"He did it for my sake. Why should I blame him?" Zhou Qi replied angrily. She turned over and covered her head with the coverlet.

"Then why do you blame me?" asked Lady Zhou.

Zhou Qi suddenly sat up.

"He must have heard what you said last night. He was afraid other people would gossip and make it impossible for me to marry, so he left. But why worry about whether I'll marry or not? I refuse to marry anyone. I refuse to marry anyone!"

Lady Zhou saw she was crying as she spoke, and realized that she had fallen in love with Xu. She had unwittingly revealed her feelings without fully understanding them herself.

"You are the only daughter I have," Lady Zhou comforted her. "Do you think I don't love you? When we get to Kaifeng I'll speak to your father and get him to take charge of this matter so that you can be betrothed to Master Xu. Don't worry yourself. Your mother will see to everything."

"Who said I wanted to marry him?" Zhou Qi replied hurriedly. "The next time I see someone dying in front of me, I won't do anything to save him, not the slightest thing."


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