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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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1

In less than a day, the heroes arrived in Xuzhou. The local Red Flower Society Chief was immediately rushed off his feet making arrangements for them. After a night's rest, they continued on south. Every place they passed through now, big and small, had a Red Flower Society branch, but the heroes maintained their anonymity and sped onwards. They reached Hangzhou several days later and took up residence in the home of the Hangzhou Helmsman, Ma Shanjun. Ma's residence lay at the foot of Lonely Mountain beside the West Lake.

Ma was a merchant who owned two large silk factories. About fifty years old and portly, Ma, in his flowered silk robe and black woollen jacket, was the picture of a wealthy man used to luxury. But the appearance was deceptive: he was also a brave fighter. That night at a welcoming banquet in the rear hall, the heroes told him of their plan to rescue Wen Tailai.

"I will immediately dispatch men to find out which prison Master Wen is in, and then we can decide on a plan of action." He ordered his son Ma Dating to send someone to investigate.

The next morning, the son reported that his men had discreetly asked about Wen at all the prisons and military headquarters in the area, but had failed to find any trace of him.

Chen called a meeting of the heroes to discuss the situation.

"We have brothers in all the Yamens and in the military headquarters," said Ma. "If Master Wen was in an official prison, we would know about it. I am afraid the authorities are guarding him secretly."

"Our first step is to find out where Brother Wen is," said Chen. "Please continue to dispatch capable men around all the Yamens, Brother Ma. This evening, I will ask Priest Wu Chen and the Twin Knights to go to the Commander-in-chief's Yamen to see what they can find out. It is important that we don't alert the Manchus to what we are doing so whatever happens, there must be no fighting."

Priest Wu Chen and the Twin Knights set out at midnight and returned four hours later to report that the Yamen was tightly guarded with at least a thousand soldiers with torches on guard duty. Several of the officers on patrol were second and third level Mandarins wearing red caps. The three had waited a long time, but the troops did not drop their vigilance in the slightest and they had no option but to return.

"The patrols have been particularly strict around Hangzhou over the past few days," Ma said. "Yamen officers have visited every gambling den and every brothel, and many people have been seized for no reason at all. Could it have something to do with Master Wen?"

"I don't think so," replied Xu. "The local people must be making an extra effort to impress some high officials visiting from Beijing.

"I haven't heard of any high officials coming here," Ma said.

The next day, Zhou Qi asked her parents to take her to see the famous West Lake. Lord Zhou agreed and asked Xu to accompany them. Xu had lost his parents when he was very young and had been alone ever since. To be suddenly treated as a son by Lord Zhou and his wife and to have such a lovely fiancee moved him greatly. He was very happy, and the brothers were happy for him.

Great Helsman Chen also went to the lake for a stroll with Xin Yan. They walked for a while, then sat alone on a bridge and gazed at the depths of the lake and the mountains. The forests of bamboo and wood on the hillsides were dark and dense, a myriad leaves glistening brightly. The air was moist and hazy and the beautiful mountain peaks were wreathed in clouds. Chen had been to the West Lake several times in his youth, but had been unable, then, to appreciate its beauty.

As he gazed out at the scene, he spotted a carriage heading towards the Hidden Spirit Temple on Flying Peak, five hundred feet above them.

"Let's go up there," he said to Xin Yan. There was no road straight up to the peak, but the Lightness Kung Fu of both was excellent and they reached the top quickly. They gazed up at the sky, enjoying the peace and seclusion of the forest.

Suddenly, they saw two large men wearing blue gowns walking towards them. The two weighed up Chen and Xin Yan as they passed, expressions of surprise on their faces.

"Master, they're Kung fu experts," Xin Yan whispered.Two more men appeared walking towards them dressed exactly the same. They were discussing the scenery, and from their accents, it appeared they were Manchus. All the way along the path, they kept passing the blue-gowned fighters, perhaps thirty or forty in all, who all looked surprised when they saw Chen.

Xin Yan was dizzy at the sight of so many obviously top-ranking fighters. Chen was curious.

"Could it be that some secret society or martial arts school is holding a meeting here?" he thought. "But Hangzhou is Red Flower Society territory. If there was something of that sort, we would surely have been informed. I wonder why they all look so surprised when they see me?"

They rounded a bend and the sound of a lute accompanied by a chanting voice and the soft tinkle of a waterfall drifted across towards them. The voice recited:

"All is peace throughout heaven and earth,

Politics unsullied.

Fortunes and good fortune mount over four reigns.

The people wait to greet the Emperor

The banners of prosperity and wine fly in every village.

As the Imperial attendants appear."

They strolled across in the direction of the music, and saw a man dressed in the manner of a noble seated on a rock playing the lute. He was aged about forty. Two strong fighters and one stooped old man, all wearing blue gowns, stood beside him.

Chen suddenly shivered. He was struck with a vague feeling of recognition as he looked at the lute player. The man had an aristocratic bearing, and the more Chen looked at him, the more he seemed familiar.

The group eyed Chen and Xin Yan warily. The lute-player's fingers performed a final swirl over the strings and the lute was silent.

Chen saluted with his fists. "I could not help overhearing the song you just played, sir," he said. "I have never heard it before. Did you write it yourself?"

The man smiled. "Yes. It is a recent composition of mine. Since you are a music lover, I would be grateful of your opinion."

"Excellent, excellent," said Chen. "I especially liked the phrase 'The banners of prosperity and wine fly in every village.'"

An expression of delight appeared on the man's face. "So you remember the words. Please come over here and sit down, sir."

Chen refrained from adding that he disapproved of the way the song flattered the Emperor. He walked over, bowed and sat down.

The man studied Chen carefully and with curiosity.

"While coming up to the peak, we met a large number of other strollers all of whom looked surprised when they saw me," said Chen. "You now look at me in the same way. Is there something strange about my face?"

The man laughed. "You wouldn't know," he said. "I have a friend who bears a remarkable resemblance to you. The people you met on the path are also my friends, so they were naturally puzzled."

"So that's it," Chen smiled. "I also find your face very familiar, as if we had met before, but I can't remember when. I wonder if you can?"

The man laughed again. "Well that really is strange," he said. "What is your honourable name, sir?"

"Lu Jiachen. And you, sir?"

The man thought for a moment. "My name is Dongfeng. I am from Hebei Province. From your accent, I would guess you are from around here."

"That is correct," said Chen.

"I had long heard that the scenic beauty of the south was incomparable," continued the man who called himself Master Dongfang. "I can see today that it is true. Not only is the scenery superb, but the area is also obviously blessed with much talent."

Chen could tell from his speech that this was no ordinary man. He watched the reverential way in which the old man and the other two attendants treated him, and wondered just who he was.

"Someone with such outstanding knowledge of music as yourself must certainly be a virtuoso," Dongfang said. "Why not play a song for us?" He pushed the seven-stringed lute in front of Chen.

Chen stretched out his hand and lightly strummed the strings and found the lute's tone to be matchlessly crisp and clear. It looked liked an antique of great age.

"I am not worthy of playing such an instrument," he said. He checked the tuning, then struck up a tune, named 'The Goose Lands on the Flat Sands'.

Dongfang listened, engrossed. "Have you ever been to the border regions?" He asked when the tune finished.

"I have just returned from there," Chen replied. "How did you know?"

"Your playing conjures up the vast emptiness of the great desert. I have heard that tune many times in my life, but never have I heard it played with such feeling." Chen saw he indeed had a great knowledge of music and was very pleased.

"There is something I would like to ask you," Dongfang continued.

"Please feel free to ask."

"I would guess that you are from the family of an official," he said. "What post does your respected father hold? And what is your rank?"

"My father has unfortunately passed away. I myself am a man of mediocre abilities with no official rank," Chen replied.

"But you are obviously greatly talented. Could it be that the examiners failed to appreciate your abilities?"

"No, it is not that."

"The Commander-in-chief of Zhejing province is a friend of mine. If you went to see him tomorrow, you could have an opportunity."

"Thank you for you kind thought, but I have no wish to be an official," Chen replied.

"But do you intend to hide yourself away like this forever?"

"I would prefer to live in seclusion than oppress the common people."

Dongfang's expression suddenly changed and the two blue-gowned attendants both took a step forward. He was silent for a second, then laughed out loud. "You are indeed a man of noble character," he said. "Simple folk such as myself cannot be compared with you."

The two weighed each other up, aware that there was something special about the other.

"You must have heard much news on your long journey from the Moslem regions," Dongfang said.

"When I arrived at the Yellow River, I found great flooding and many homeless people. I had no heart for appreciating the scenery after that."

"I am told that the refugees in Lanfeng looted grain stores meant for the western army. Did you hear anything about that?"

Chen started in surprise and wondered how he could have known. They had hurried south after the Lanfeng incident without resting. "I understand there was such an incident," he said. "The refugees had no clothes and no food and the local officials did nothing to help them. They were forced to break the law in order to survive, an action which under the circumstances is pardonable."

Dongfang was silent for a while. "I understand it was not quite simple as that," he said nonchalantly. "I heard the Red Flower Society incited the refugees."

"What is the Red Flower Society›" asked Chen, feigning ignorance.

"It is rebellious underworld society. Have you never heard of it?"

"I am afraid that between my lute and my chess board, I have little time for the affairs of the world."

"There's no need to be ashamed. These people are in any case no great problem."

"What basis do you have for saying that?"

"The Emperor is on the throne and the administration of the country is enlightened and orderly. Once one or two men with talent are assigned to the job, the Red Flower Society will be destroyed in no time at all."

"I know nothing of administration, so please do not laugh if I should say something stupid. But in my humble opinion, most court officials are drunkards and guzzlers. I doubt if they would be able to accomplish such a mission."

As he spoke, Dongfang and his three attendants turned pale.

"That is simply the view of a scholar," Dongfang replied. "These friends of mine here are of more than mediocre ability. If you were a student of the martial arts, you would know that I was not exaggerating."

"I lack even the stength to tie up a chicken, but I have always had the greatest respect for heroic fighters," Chen said. "Are these your pupils? I wonder if you could ask them to perform a demonstration of their abilities?"

"Show this Master Lu one of your tricks," Dongfang said to the attendants.

"Thank you," said Chen.

One of the attendants stepped forward. "That magpie in the tree is too noisy," he said. "I'll knock it down so we can have some peace."

With a wave of his hand, a sleeve dart shot off towards the magpie, but just as it neared the target, it suddenly veered off to one side and missed.

Donggang looked surprised and the attendant's face went red with embarrassment. He threw another dart. This time everyone was watching closely and saw a piece of earth knock the dart off course.

The old man noticed Xin Yan's hand had moved slightly and realised he was responsible. "This young brother's kung fu is excellent. We must get to know one another," he said and grasped for Xin Yan's hand with fingers of steel.

Chen was surprised to see the old man was using Great Eagle's Claw kung fu. "There are only a handful of men as good as that," he thought. "Why would such a man agree to be Dongfang's servant?"

He flicked open his fan in front of Xin Yan as the old man lunged at the boy, and the old man quickly withdrew. As his master was treating Chen in a friendly manner, it would be extremely disrespectful to damage one of his possessions. He glanced at Chen, wondering if he knew kung fu. Chen began fanning himself lightly, completely relaxed as if the move a second ago had been a pure coincidence.

"This boy's kung fu is very good despite his youth," said Dongfang. "Where did you find him?"

"He doesn't know kung fu," replied Chen. "But he has been throwing things at insects and birds since he was small, and he's become quite good at it."

Dongfang could see this was untrue, but did not pursue the matter. He looked at Chen's fan.

"Whose is the calligraphy on your fan? May I look?" he asked. Chen handed the fan over to him.

"A man who was not of such noble character as yourself would be unworthy of this object. Where did you get it?"

"I bought it in a bookstore for ten gold pieces."

"If you had paid ten times as much, I would still consider it a bargain," Dongfang replied. "Possessions such as this are usually passed down from generation to generation in the great families. It is certainly amazing that you were able to buy it so easily in a bookstore."

Chen knew Dongfang didn't believe him, but he didn't care. He smiled lightly.

"I like this fan very much," Dongfang said. "I wonder if I could ask you to sell it to me?"

"If you like it, I would be pleased to give it to you," Chen replied.

Dongfang accepted the fan and lifted up the ancient lute and presented it to Chen. "Just as an heroic fighter should be presented with a treasured sword, so should this lute belong to you."

Chen knew the lute was extremely valuable, and he wondered why the man wanted to exchange gifts so soon after they had met. But as the son of a high official, he had seen many treasures and was not dazzled by them. He saluted Dongfang with his fists in thanks and told Xin Yan to pick the lute up.

"If there is anything I can ever do for you in the future, please come to Beijing with that lute and just ask for me," Dongfang said. "Why don't we walk back down the hill together?"

"Fine," said Chen, and the two started off, holding hands.

As they reached the Hidden Spirit monastery, several people came towards them, led by a handsome-faced man wearing an embroidered gown. The man bore a striking resemblance to Chen and was even about the same age, but he lack Chen's imposing air. Chen and he started in surprise as they looked at each other.

"Isn't he like you, Brother Lu?" Dongfang said. "Kang, come and meet Master Lu."

Kang bowed towards him, and Chen quickly returned the courtesy.

All of a sudden, they heard a girl call out in surprise. Chen turned and saw Zhou Qi with Xu and her parents emerging from the monastery, and knew she must have struck with surprise at the sight of two Great Helsmen Chen's. He saw Xu hustling her away and turned back.

"Brother Lu," Dongfang said. "We seem to have become good friends on our first meeting. We will meet again. Goodbye." They bowed to each other and Dongfang walked off guarded by several dozen of the blue-gowned men.

Chen turned and nodded slightly in Xu's direction. Xu hurriedly made his apologies to Lord Zhou and to Zhou Qi and followed after Dongfang and his companions.

Towards evening, he returned to make his report. "The fellow spent a long time floating about on the lake and then went to the Provincial Commander-in-chief's Yamen," he said.

Chen told him about his meeting with Dongfang, and the two decided he must be a very senior official, either an Imperial Inspector-General or a member of the Emperor's close family. From his appearance, he did not look like a Manchu, and so they concluded he was probably an Inspector General.

"Could his arrival have anything to do with Fourth Brother, I wonder," Chen mused. "I think I will go over to the Commander-in-chief's Yamen personally this evening to investigate."

"It would be best to take someone with you just in case," Xu replied.

"Ask Brother Zhao," said Chen. "He's from Zhejiang province so he should know something of Hangzhou."


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