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2

At nine o'clock, Chen and 'Buddha' Zhao started out for the Commander-in-chief's Yamen. Using Lightness Kung Fu, they soon found themselves near the wall of the Yamen. They spotted two figures patrolling on a rooftop close by and crouched down to watch for a while. Zhao waited for them both to turn their backs, then sent a pellet shooting off towards a tree a few dozen yards away. Hearing a noise in the branches, the guards quickly went over to investigate, giving Chen and Zhao an opportunity to slip silently over the wall into the Yamen.

They hid in the shadows and looked out over the Yamen's main courtyard. To their surprise, they found it brightly lit with torches and several hundred troops standing guard. Another strange thing was that so many soldiers could be so quiet. When they moved, they walked lightly on tip-toe, and the only sounds that could be heard were the call of a cicada and an occasional crackle from the burning torches.

Chen could see there was no way of getting in. He gestured towards Zhao and the two retreated, avoiding the rooftop guards. They stopped behind a wall to discuss what to do.

"We don't want to alert them," Chen whispered. "We'll have to go back and think of some other plan."

Just then, a side gate of the Yamen creaked open and an officer emerged followed by four soldiers. The five marched down the street a few hundred yards and then turned back, obviously on patrol.

"Get them," Chen whispered. Zhao slipped out of the shadows and threw three darts, and three of the soldiers immediately dropped to the ground. Chen followed with two of his chess pieces, hitting the officer and the remaining soldier. They quickly dragged the five into the shadows, stripped the uniforms from two of the men and put them on themselves.

They waited once more for the rooftop guards to turn away, then jumped over the Yamen wall and strode nonchalently into the torch-lit courtyard. They passed through into an inner courtyard which was being patrolled exclusively by senior military officials, commanders and generals. Waiting for the right moment, they leapt up under the eaves of one of the buildings, then hung onto the rafters not daring to breathe. Once it was clear they had not been discovered. Chen hooked his legs over a beam and hung down over a window. He moistened the window paper and looked inside, as Zhao kept guard beside him.

Chen found himself looking in at a large hall. Five or six men wearing the gowns of high officials stood in the centre facing another man who was seated with his back to Chen. Another official walked in and kowtowed nine times towards the seated man.

Chen was surprised. "That is the ceremonial form used when entering the presence of the Emperor," he thought. "Could it be Qian Long himself is in Hangzhou?"

"Zhejiang Province Civil Administrator Yin to see your Highness the Emperor," the officer said.

So it was the Emperor, Chen thought. No wonder security was so tight.

"I have sent troops to quell the Muslim regions," the Emperor said. "I hear you object to this idea."

Chen frowned: he found the Emperor's voice strangely familiar.

"I deserve to die, I would not dare," Yin said, continuing to kowtow.

"I asked Zhejiang Province to supply six thousand tons of grain to meet the needs of the army. Why did you disobey my orders?"

"I truly would not dare, your Highness," Yin said. "But the harvest in Zhejiang this year has been very poor. The common people are in great hardship, and it is temporarily impossible to supply such an amount."

"So the common people are in great hardship, are they? The army is in urgent need of food supplies. Shall I tell them to starve out there?"

"I wouldn't dare to say," Yin quavered, continuing to kowtow.

"No, I want you to tell me," replied the Emperor.

"Your Highness's ability to spread enlightenment and civilisation is far-reaching. The Muslim barbarians are in fact not worth such a long trek by Your Highness's armies. As the Ancients said: 'Soldiers are instruments of violence which a man of virtue should use only as a last resort.' Your Highness could cancel the campaign, and the whole world would be thankful for your benevolence."

"The people are discontented because I have decided to wage this campaign, is that correct?" Qian Long replied coldly.

Yin kowtowed even more energetically. His forehead was by now covered in blood.

Qian Long laughed shortly. "You have a hard skull," he said. "If you hadn't, you wouldn't dare to contradict me."

He turned round and Chen started violently: the Emperor was the Master Dongfang he had met earlier that day.

"Get out!" he heard Qian Long shout. "And leave your cap here!" Yin kowtowed a few more times and then retired.

"There must certainly be some irregularities in Yin's affairs," Qian Long said to the remaining officials. "I want the Commander-in-chief to conduct a thorough investigation and inform me of the results. He must not be protected for personal reasons. His crimes must be exposed." The officials assented in chorus.

"Now leave me. And arrange for six thousand tons of grain to be collected and dispatched immediately." The officials kowtowed and retired.

"Tell Kang to come," the Emperor added, and an attendant left and returned a moment later with Chen's look-alike. He stood close to Qian Long with an air of familiarity very different from the cringing manner of the officials.

"Call for Li Keshou," Qian Long ordered, and a military officer quickly appeared, kowtowing his way into the Emperor's presence.

"Li Keshou, commander-in-chief of Zhejiang Province, pays his respect to Your Highness," he said.

"How is that Red Flower Society bandit chief, Wen Tailai?" asked Qian Long.

"He was arrested after a savage battle and he is very seriously wounded," Li replied. "I have assigned doctors to treat him. We will have to wait until his mind is clear before we can question him."

"You must be careful," Qian Long said.

"Your servant would not dare to be the slightest bit neglectful," replied Li.

"Go now," said the Emperor, and Li retired.

"Let's follow him," Chen whispered, but as they dropped quietly to the ground, someone inside the hall shouted: "Intruders!"

Chen and Zhao ran into the outer courtyard and mingled with the troops. Bamboo clappers sounded loudly and the old man Chen had seen earlier that day with the Emperor began directing a search.

Chen and Zhao walked slowly towards the gate.

"Who are you?" the old man shouted at them, and grabbed for Zhao. Zhao deflected his hand, and they made a run for it with the old man chasing. As they reached the gate, the old man lunged at Zhao. Chen ripped off the uniform he was wearing and flung it over the old man's head, then they raced out of the Yamen gate. The old man cast the uniform off to one side and chased after them. But the slight delay had made all the difference.

Two or three thousand troops swarmed out behind the old man like bees from a hive.

"All of you get back!" he shouted. "Protecting the Emperor is more important! You five, come with me." He ran off down the street with the five guards, following the two black shapes flying over the rooftops ahead.

The old man gradually closed the distance between himself and the intruders. Suddenly, the two figures leapt down and stood stock-still in the middle of the street. The old man lunged at Chen.

"I am your master's good friend." Chen laughed, not bothering to retreat or defend himself. "You are an audacious old fellow!"

The old man looked at his face under the moonlight and started in surprise.

"So it's you," he said, retracting his hand, "Come along with me."

"Do you dare to follow me?" Chen asked with a smile.

The old man hesitated, and as the five guards ran up from behind, Chen and Zhao raced off westwards towards the West Lake.

"After them!" shouted the old man. The guards reached the lake in time to see Chen and Zhao jump into a boat and push off from the shore. The boatman punted the craft out several yards from the bank.

"My friends," the old man shouted. "Please tell me who you are before you go."

"I am Zhao Banshan from Wenzhou," Zhao roared. "You, I take it, are a member of the Songyang martial arts school?"

"Ah, so you are the one they call the Thousand Arm Buddha?"

"That's just a nickname. I don't really deserve it. And your name, sir?"

"My surname is Bai, my name Zhen."

Zhao and Chen gasped in surprise. Bai Zhen was a famous kung fu master, but he had not been seen or heard of for years. Obviously, he had become the personal bodyguard of the Emperor.

"So it's you, Master Bai. No wonder your kung fu is so superb," said Zhao.

"I hear you are a leading member of the Red Flower Society, Master Zhao. Who is your companion?" Suddenly, he realized the answer without having to be told. "Oh, of course, it must be Master Chen, the Great Helmsman of the society, is that right?"

Chen opened his fan. "The moon is clear and the wind is fresh," he said. "Why not come and drink a cup of wine with us, Master Bai?"

"You have intruded into the Commander-in-chief's Yamen, and disturbed the official household. You must accompany me to see my master. He is well-disposed towards you, and would not do you any harm."

"Go back and ask your master to come and have a chat with me," Chen replied. "We can have a drink together if he wishes. I will wait for him here."

Bai had seen the concern with which the Emperor had treated Chen earlier, and he dared not offend Chen. But after such an intrusion into the quarters of the Emperor, he was also loath to return without them. There were, however, no other boats nearby, and with no way of chasing after them across the lake, he was forced to return to report to Qian Long.

"It would be quite nice to go to the lake and enjoy the moonlight," Qian Long said after a pause. "Go and tell him I will come immediately."

"These are dangerous bandits," replied Bai. "In my humble opinion, you should not risk such danger."

"Go," said Qian Long.

Bai did not dare to press the matter further, and rode swiftly back to the lake. 'Crocodile' Jiang was sitting at the stern of a boat with his arms round his knees, waiting for him.

"Tell your master that my master will be here soon," Bai shouted.

"Heaven knows what the Emperor sees in this fellow," he thought as he hurried back to resume his guard of the Emperor's person.

Qian Long was in high spirits, and talked and laughed as Commander Li Keshou waited on him. He had changed into an ordinary gown, while his bodyguards had also put on civilian clothes. Once at the lakeside, he gave his orders.

"He probably already knows who I am, but I want everyone still to pretend to be common people."

Imperial guard units had been hidden all around the lake with troops hand-picked by Commander Li behind them. Beyond the flickering lantern light, they saw five boats gliding towards them across the water. 'Leopard' Wei stood on the bow of the middle boat.

"I have been sent by Master Lu to invite Master Dongfang onto the lake to enjoy the moon," he announced, and jumped onto the bank and bowed before Qian Long.

Qian Long nodded slightly. "Excellent," he said, and stepped onto the boat. Commander Li, Bai and thirty or forty bodyguards boarded the boats with him. More than a dozen of the bodyguards were expert swimmers, and Bai ordered them to keep their wits about them.

They started out across the lake, which was a fairyland of lights. Pleasure boats were everywhere, bedecked with lanterns that filled the darkness like stars in the night sky and the sound of music floated across towards them. A small sampan darted into view then turned and led the boats to a flotilla of other craft. Despite the huge number of troops they had stationed around the shore, Bai and the other bodyguards were uneasy at the sight of such a powerful force, and all covertly felt for the weapons they had hidden around their persons.

"So you decided to come, Master Dongfang," Chen called from a nearby boat. "Please come aboard!"

The two boats drew alongside each and Qian Long, Commander Li, Bai, and several other bodyguards jumped across. Bai and the others relaxed as they saw that Chen and his attendant, Xin Yan, were the only other people on the boat. The cabin was spacious, with exquisite murals on the walls. The table in the centre was set with wine cups, bowls and chopsticks and was covered with dishes of fruit, wine and all manner of delicacies.

Chen and his guest shook hands and smiled broadly, then sat down facing each other. Commander Li, Bai and the others stood behind Qian Long.

Chen smiled briefly at Bai and noticed a handsome-faced youth standing behind Commander Li whom he recognised as Lu Feiqing's pupil. Surprised, he wondered what the youth was doing accompanying court officials.

Xin Yan poured some wine, and Chen, afraid that Qian Long would be suspicious, drained his own cup first, then began eating. Qian Long picked at a few of the dishes that Chen had already tried, then put down his chopsticks. He heard a flute on a neighbouring boat playing the tune 'Welcome the Honoured Guest.'

"You are truly a man of culture," he said to Chen. "It is amazing that you managed to arrange things so well at such short notice."

Chen dismissed the praise. "One cannot drink wine without music," he said. "I understand Beautiful Jade has the best voice in all Zhejiang Province. Shall I ask her to sing for us?"

Qian Long clapped his hands in approval. "Who is this Beautiful Jade?" he asked, turning to Commander Li.

"She is one of Hangzhou 's most famous courtezans," he replied. "I have heard that she is very haughty by nature and if it does not please her, she won't even show herself let alone sing, no matter how much she is offered."

"Have you ever seen her?" Qian Long asked.

"I…no I haven't," Li replied, extremely embarrassed.

'Leopard' Wei escorted Beautiful Jade out. Qian Long looked admiringly at the perfect whiteness of her skin and her petite figure, but decided her face was not particularly attractive. Her eyes, however, were full of life, and her glance around the cabin contained an intimate greeting for every person there.

Chen stretched out his hand towards Qian Long. "This is Master Dongfang," he said. Beautiful Jade greeted him, then sat down next to Chen and cuddled up to him.

"I hear you sing very well," Chen said. "I wonder if you would allow us the pleasure of enjoying your talent?"

"If you want to hear me sing, Master Lu, I will sing for three days and three nights continuously. But I am afraid you would tire of me." An attendant handed her a pipa, and with a light strum, she began to sing:

"Outside the window all is quiet

You kneel before the bed eager for some kissing

I scold you, call you heartless, and turn away,

But despite my words I am still half willing."

Chen applauded enthusiastically. Qian Long, hearing her smooth, clear voice, felt a warm feeling rising in his chest. Beautiful Jade smiled, then strummed the pipa and turned to Qian Long:

"I want to beat you,

Don't think I'm joking," she sang.

"I clench my teeth

This time I really will

But you won't fear me

If I hit you softly,

And I cannot bear

To hit you hard.

Oh, my lover

I won't hit you after all."

The Emperor was completely carried away by the song. "If you want to hit me, then hit me," he said.

Qian Long, born and raised in the depths of the Imperial Palace had seen many girl singers, but all of them had been dignified and monotonous, nothing like this southern Chinese courtesan. He was entranced by her eyes and her seductiveness, and the song, the perfumed lake, the moon's reflection, all conspired to make the scene dreamlike, so that gradually he forgot that he was with renowned bandits.

Beautiful Jade poured some wine for Chen and Qian Long and the two drank three cups in succession while Beautiful Jade drank one to keep them company. Qian Long took a jade ring off his finger and gave it to her.

"Sing another song," he said. Beautiful Jade looked down and giggled, revealing two little dimples. Qian Long's heart melted.

"All right," she said. She batted her eyelids at him then struck up a tune on the pipa. This time, the rhythm was fast and light with a complex melody, and Qian Long shouted out his approval.

She sang of a poor man with ambitions who gradually climbs his way up, first obtaining clothes, then a house, a wife and concubines, and then power. Finally, he begins to covet the throne of the emperor himself.

Chen laughed heartily, but as the song progressed, Qian Long's expression became increasingly dour. "Could this girl know who I really am and be singing this song to make fun of me?" he wondered.

Beautiful Jade finished the song and slowly put down her pipa.

"The song makes fun of poor men," she said with a smile. "Both of you, Master Dongfang and Master Chen, are wealthy gentlemen with large mansions, lovely wives and beautiful concubines. You would not think of such things."

Qian Long laughed, and his eyes travelled over her, taking in her softness, her fun-loving spirit. He wondered how he should go about telling Commander Li to have her brought to the Yamen, and how to make sure the affair remained secret.

"The Emperor Xuanzong had a great interest in beautiful women," he suddenly heard Chen say. "That in itself is not important, but he should not have put his weakness for women above the interests of the nation."

"The Xuanzong Emperor was at first a wise ruler, but he became muddle-headed in his later years. He was far inferior to his ancestor, Emperor Taizhong," Qian Long replied.

"Taizong was certainly a very capable ruler," said Chen.

The two men Qian Long most venerated in all the world were Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty and Emperor Taizong of the Tang dynasty. Both had greatly expanded the empire, and their reputations had carried far beyond their borders. Ever since he had ascended the throne, Qian Long had worked single-mindedly to emulate them and had sent armies out on long expeditions to the Muslim border regions with the intention of carrying on their work.

"Emperor Taizong was wise and courageous," he said. "The barbarians cringed in fear at the sound of his name. He was proficient in both letters and war. Such talent would be hard to equal."

"I have read the Emperor Taizong's works," said Chen. "He makes some points which I feel are very true."

"Such as?"

"He said: 'The ruler can be compared to a boat, and the common people to water. The water can support the boat or sink it."

Qian Long was silent.

"Sitting as we are in this boat, the metaphor could not be more apt," Chen continued. "If we row smoothly, we will have a very stable ride. But if we row about frenziedly, or if the water should rush by in a raging torrent, the boat will certainly capsize."

His words contained not only the implication that the people could overthrow the Emperor whenever they wished, but also the threat of throwing Qian Long into the water there and then. Never in his life had Qian Long had such threatening words addressed to him. His anger surged up and unable to control himself, he threw his wine cup at the floor.

The cup flew downwards, but just as it was about to hit the deck, Xin Yan shot out and caught it. He presented it to Qian Long on bended knee. "Master Dongfang, you dropped your cup," he said.

The speed of his move startled Qian Long. Commander Li took the cup from Xin Yan and watched for some sign from the Emperor's eyes. But Qian Long composed himself and laughed.

"Brother Lu, this little helper of yours is very agile," he said, and turned to one of the guardsman. "Play with the little fellow," he said.

The guardsman, who was surnamed Fan, bent down and struck out at Xin Yan with his pair of large swords. Xin Yan somersaulted over backwards and landed on the bow of the boat.

"Let's play hide and seek," he said to Fan with a smile. "If you catch me, we'll say I've lost and then I'll chase you."

Fan was furious at having missed his target and bounded after him, but the boy soared off through the air like a great bird and landed on a small sampan nearby. The two chased each other across more than a dozen boats before Fan finally cornered Xin Yan at the end of a string of three boats. He thrust the sword in his left hand at Xin Yan's chest, and Xin Yan countered by striking out with his fist at Fan's stomach. Fan then leapt up in the air, aiming to fall on Xin Yan from above. But as he jumped, the boatman, 'Crocodile' Jiang, twirled his oar and spun the boat around. Fan shouted in fear as the boat disappeared from under him, and he fell heavily into the lake. Xin Yan clapped in delight.

Two of Qian Long's bodyguards dived into the water to save Fan, who was splashing and clutching at the air in desperation. Meanwhile, Jiang placed his oar in front of Fan, who grabbed it and held on tight. Jiang then swung the oar up, tossing Fan over towards Qian Long's boat, and shouted "Catch!" A bodyguard ran to the bow and caught him. Another bodyguard, surnamed Long, stepped forward.

"I understand this little brother is also very proficient with missiles," he said darkly as Xin Yan moved back to Chen's side. "Let us spar for a while."

"You and I are already firm friends," Chen said to Qian Long. "We should not allow our servants to disturb the pleasant atmosphere with their bickering. As this gentleman is an expert in the use of darts, let us ask him to display his talent on something other than my serving boy. What do you think?"

"Fine, except we don't have a target," Qian Long replied. Xin Yan leapt over onto the boat on which 'Iron Pagoda' Yang was sitting and whispered into his ear.

Yang nodded, waved to Zhang Jin in the next sampan, and pointed to another boat nearby. "Grab the end of that boat," he said, and took hold of the other end himself. "Up!" he shouted and the two lifted the little boat out of the water while their own boats sank lower. The others gasped at this awesome display of strength.

"Master, will this do as a target?" Xin Yan shouted. "Please come and draw a bulls-eye on it."

Chen raised his wine cup and drained it, then flung it at the boat. It sliced into the keel without shattering. The onlookers clapped and cheered. Bai and the other bodyguards frowned at the sight of such phenomenal power: a man whose Inner Strength Kung Fu allowed him to drive a porcelain cup into a boat keel as if it was a steel dart was a formidable opponent.

"Use the cup as the target," Chen suggested, smiling.Bodyguard Long silently pulled five spiked balls from his bag and threw them one after the other. They struck the target with a quick "rat-a-tat" and slivers of porcelain flew in all directions.

Xin Yan slipped out from behind the boat. "Not bad!" he shouted.

Long was suddenly swept with a wave of malice, and he threw another five of the spiked balls at Xin Yan.

A shout of surprise went up from the others, and greatly frightened, Xin Yan lunged to one side, but one of the spiked balls struck his left shoulder. There was no pain, but the shoulder immediately went numb. The heroes edged their little boats forward, all eager to match themselves against Long.

The other Imperial bodyguards were ashamed that Long should use such a low trick against a boy in front of the Emperor. But protecting His Highness was of overriding importance, and they immediately pulled out their weapons. Commander Li gave a sharp whistle, signalling the troops on the shore to mobilise.

"Brothers!" Chen called. "Master Dongfang is my honoured guest. We cannot show any impoliteness towards him. Move back, all of you."

The heroes rowed back several yards. Yang and Zhang Jin had already put the target boat back to the water, and Luo Bing was inspecting Xin Yan's wound. 'Mastermind' Xu also jumped over to see how he was.

"Don't worry, it's not painful," Xin Yan said. "But it's very itchy."

He moved his hand up to scratch the wound and Xu quickly stopped him. He could see the spiked ball had been dipped in a very powerful poison.

"Let go of me," Xin Yan yelled. "It's too itchy to bear!" He struggled powerfully to break free.

"Be patient for a moment," Xu told Xin Yan, trying not to look as worried as he felt. He turned to Luo Bing. "Ask Third Brother to come over."

Another boat moved swiftly up alongside with the Red Flower Society's Hangzhou chief Master Ma standing on the brow. He leapt over next to Xu and whispered: "Master Xu, the whole lake is surrounded by Manchu troops including Imperial Guard units."

"How many altogether?"

"Seven or eight thousand not counting the reserve forces waiting further away."

"Go and call together all the brothers in Hangzhou and surrounding areas. Tell them to gather near the lake and await orders. Also tell them to have a red flower hidden on their persons." Ma nodded.

"How many can you get together immediately?" Xu asked.

"Including the workers from my factories, about two thousand," he replied.

"Two thousand of our brothers should be enough to deal with fifteen thousand of them," said Xu. "And what's more, many of the troops in the Chinese units are society members. Go and make the arrangements." Ma nodded and left.

'Buddha' Zhao's boat glided over. He looked at Xin Yan's wound and frowned deeply. He carefully pulled out the poisonous spiked ball, then took a large medicine pill from his bag and placed it into the open wound. He looked up at Xu.

"There's nothing I can do," he said, desolation in his voice. "The poison is extremely potent. No-one can save him except the man responsible."

"How long can he hold on?" Xu asked, greatly frightened.

"At the most, six hours."

"Third Brother, let's go and get that fellow over here and force him to deliver the antidote."

Zhao leapt in three great bounds over to the boat in which Chen and Qian Long were sitting, with each bound touching down on the deck of a different boat.

"Master Lu," he said. "I would like to ask this gentleman to acquaint me with some of his tricks."

Chen, who was furious at the wonding of Xin Yan, turned to Qian Long.

"This friend of mine is also quite good with projectiles," he said. "It would be interesting to see them matched against each other."

The Emperor was eager to see any spectacle, the more dangerous the better. "Go on," he said to Long. "But don't lose." Long bowed.

"That's the Thousand-Arm Buddha," Bai whispered. "Be careful."

Long knew the name well, and shuddered at the thought of facing him. But he had never yet met his equal in the field of projectiles. "This is just between you and me," he said to Zhao.

"Do you think we would trick you?" Zhao demanded angrily.

"Right. That's what I wanted to hear you say," Long replied, and leapt onto the prow of a boat nearby.

Zhao sent off a flurry of darts and sleeve arrows after him, and Long's heart froze at the sight of such speed. He threw himself down onto the deck and the darts struck the boat with a quick succession of popping noises.

Long jumped up again, and spotting Zhao's figure in the moonlight, flung a dart at him. Zhao dodged to the right to avoid it, and suddenly found three of the poisoned spiked balls winging towards him. He leant over backwards and the spiked balls whizzed passed the tip of his nose. Three more spiked balls followed in quick successsion. Zhao knocked two of them into the water with darts of his own, then caught the third and placed it inside his gown.

Long leapt towards another boat and Zhao threw out a boomerang-shaped blade. Long ducked and watched in surprise as the blade swirled over him and returned to Zhao's hand. Fascinated by the sight of the strange weapon, Long failed to notice two other darts flying towards him which simultaneously struck both his shoulders. His body went limp and he fell to his knees.

The Imperial Guards were astounded at the sight of him falling. Chu Yuan, one of Long's comrades, raced over to defend him, but another swordsman intercepted him. Chu saw in the moonlight that the man was dressed in Taoist robes.

"Who are you?" he barked.

Priest Wu Chen smiled. "Do you mean to say you are a swordsman and you don't know me?" he asked.

Chu attacked with a 'Buddha Ambushing the Tiger' stroke followed by a 'Nine Successions' stroke.

"That's very good," Wu Chen said, still smiling. "Now continue with a 'Gold Wheel' stroke".

As he spoke, Chu did indeed attack with a 'Gold Wheel' stroke. "How did he know?" he wondered, startled. The priest also guessed his next two moves correctly, just as if he was a teacher instructing a pupil. Chu retreated two paces and stared at him, embarrassed.

Meanwhile, Zhao had grabbed Long and was pressuring him to hand over the antidote. Long, however closed his eyes and said nothing. "Just as long as I don't give in, the Emperor will surely reward me when we get back," he thought.

Priest Wu Chen continued his game of forcing Bodyguard Chu to counter with the moves he called out. Qian Long, although a mediocre fighter himself, had a thorough knowledge of kung fu and was amused by the spectacle. But he felt the chill of anxiety too.

" Chu is one of the top Imperial Bodyguards," he thought. "What use are they if these bandits can play with them in such a fashion?" He watched for a few more moves and then decided he had had enough.

"Tell him to come back," he said to Bai.

"Brother Chu," Bai shouted. "The Master asks you to come here."

Chu breathed a sigh of relief. The Emperor's order was like a reprieve from the death sentence, and he prepared to jump away. Priest Wu Chen, however, had other ideas.

"Just a moment," he said. He struck forward with his sword and Chu felt a cool breeze course across his face and body as the sword flashed about him. The courtesan Beautiful Jade suddenly laughed out loud, and Chu looked down and saw that his clothes had been cut to shreds by the priest's sword. Not only that: he felt his head and found his hair and queue had been shaved completely off. As he shook with fear and shame, his trousers suddenly fell down.

"These friends of yours are extraordinarily skilled in the martial arts, Master Lu," Qian Long said to Chen. "Why don't you all offer your services to the court? It is a pity to waste such talent."

Chen smiled. "We would prefer to do just as we please," he said. "But thank you. We are very grateful of the offer."

"Since that is the case, I will take my leave. It is getting late." Qian Long looked meaningfully over at Bodyguard Long in the other boat.

"Brother Zhao," Chen called. "Let Master Dongfang's servant come back."

"Absolutely not!" Luo Bing answered. "Xin Yan has poisoned by him and he refuses to hand over the antidote."

Qian Long whispered some instructions to Commander Li, then turned to Long. "Give him the antidote," he ordered.

"I deserve to die," Long replied. "I didn't bring the antidote with me. I left it in Beijing."

"Brother Zhao, give me two of those spiked balls," said Xu. Zhao pulled them out of his bag and handed them over. Xu ripped Long's gown off his chest and drove the balls into him. Long cried out in panic.

"Master Lu," Xu shouted. "Please send over some wine. We want to drink a toast with our friend here to seal our friendship, and then we will let him go."

"All right," said Chen. Beautiful Jade filled three cups with wine, and Chen threw them one by one over to the other boat. Zhao calmly stetched out his hand and caught them without a drop being spilled.

Xu took one of the cups. "Master Long, let us drink a toast," he said. Long knew that the alcohol would greatly speed up the effects of the poison and clamped his mouth shut.

"Go on, have a drink. There's no need to stand on ceremony," said Xu with a smile. He grabbed Long's nose between his third and little fingers then pressed strongly on his cheeks with the thumb and forefinger, forcing Long to open his mouth, and poured all three cups of wine into him.

Long decided his life was more important than his reputation. "Let me go," he said. "I…I…I'll get the antidote," Zhao laughed and loosened his grip. Long pulled three packets of medicine from his bag.

"The red one should be taken orally, the black one sucks out the poision and the white one closes the wound," he said and fainted away.

Zhao hurriedly poured the red medicine into one of the wine cups, mixed it with some lake water and gave it to Xin Yan to drink, then spread the black medicine onto the wound. A moment later, black blood welled out of the gash. Luo Bing wiped it up as it appeared, and gradually the blood turned red. Xin Yan cried out in pain as Zhao administered the white medicine.

"Please forgive my friends," Chen said to Qian Long. "They are very unrefined."

Qian Long laughed. "It has certainly been an interesting day. I will take my leave now."

"Master Dongfang wishes to go home," Chen called. "Head back to the shore!"

The flotilla glided slowly off, and soon reached the lakeside. Commander Li jumped ashore and helped Qian Long across onto land as the bodyguards formed a protective semi-circle. Li pulled out a pipe and blew three sharp notes on it, and several hundred Imperial troops appeared.

"You insolent wretches!" Li shouted at the Red Flower Society fighters. "You are in the sight of the Emperor and still you don't kowtow?"

Xu gestured with his hand, and Master Ma and his son fired flares up into the air above the lake. A moment later, a huge roar went up from all sides, and men rushed out from the trees, from behind buildings and from under bridges, each one with a red flower on his lapel and a sword in his hand.

"Brothers!" Xu shouted. "The Great Helmsman has arrived!" The society men roared their approval and surged forward.

The Imperial Bodyguards and troops drew their swords, fixed arrows to bows, and the two sides confronted each other, each determined not to yield. Commander Li mounted a horse and waited for Qian Long's order to seize the Red Flower Society fighters.

Chen walked calmly over to an officer of the Imperial Bodyguard and pointed at the horsewhip he was holding. Hypnotised by Chen's gaze, the officer meekly dismounted and handed the whip over. Chen then leapt onto his horse and pulled a red flower from his pocket which he fixed to his gown. The flower was made from the finest silk stitched with gold thread and the green leaves around it were studded with jewels which glittered and sparkled in the torchlight. It was the badge of the Great Helmsman and the Red Flower Socety heroes bowed before him in respect.

Suddenly, a large number of the soldiers broke from the Manchu ranks and swarmed forward despite shouts from their officers. They raced over to Chen, bowed, then ran back to their ranks as another batch ran out to pay their respects. The Red Flower Society's power was so great in the south that many soldiers in the Manchu armies, especially those in units under Chinese command, were members.

Qian Long was flabbergasted at the sight of so many of his own troops breaking ranks to bow before Chen. The Imperial Guard units he had brought with him from Beijing were clearly the only ones he could trust, and considering the danger of his position, he decided a fight had to be avoided at all costs.

He turned to Commander Li.

"So these are your trusted soldiers," he said coldly. "Tell them to retire."

"Yes sir," replied Li, stunned with fear. He ordered the troops back to camp.

"Brothers!" 'Mastermind' Xu shouted when he saw the Manchu troops were retreating. "Thank you all for your trouble. Please go now."

An answering roar went up from the mass of the Society followers: "Great Helmsman, goodbye!" The thunderous cry echoed out over the lake.

Qian Long raised his hands towards Chen. "Thank you for a very pleasant outing on the lake," he said. "We will meet again."


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