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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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5

When Qian Long was told that the Red Flower Society had rescued Wen, he was both surprised and angry. But he decided there was nothing to be gained in punishing the Imperial Bodyguards. He could see from their wounds that they had fought bravely.

A while later, Commander Li also arrived, and was informed by the Emperor that a decision on whether or not he would lose his post would be deferred until later. Li was overjoyed at this unexpected luck.

After Li had left, Qian Long thought about Wen's escape and wondered if his secret would get out. From what Wen had said, it did not appear that he knew, but there was something about his manner which suggested there was still much he could tell. Wen had said there were two important pieces of evidence hidden somewhere and he wondered what the evidence could be. He was already almost certain he was a Chinese and not a Manchu, but what good could come of such knowledge leaking out?

He paced about the room, extremely angry that he, the Son of Heaven, should be out-witted by a band of brigands. If they discovered his secret, would he be forced to submit to them for the rest of his life on pain of having the secret revealed? The more he thought about it, the angrier he became, and he picked up a large porcelain flower vase and threw it violently to the floor.

The guards and eunuchs waiting outside heard the crash clearly and trembled in their boots, not daring to enter.

Qian Long passed most of the day in a state of mental confusion. Towards evening, he heard the sound of gentle music drifting in from outside. The music moved closer and closer, passed by the gates of the Yamen then gradually receded. A moment later, another musical troupe passed by. He had always been very fond of music, and hearing it now, his mood suddenly changed.

"Servants!" he shouted.

A senior bodyguard named He Jia, who had recently come to favour, hurried in. Hearing the Emperor's call, the others had pushed him forward.

"What is that music outside?" Qian Long asked. "Go and find out."

After a while, He Jia came back to report: "Your slave made enquiries and learned that all of the famous courtesans of Hangzhou will gather on the West Lake this evening to choose what they call the 'Top Candidate of the Boudoir', as well as second, third and fourth ranking candidates."

"How dare they make fun of the Imperial Civil Service Examinations in such a way!" Qian Long said, amused. "Ridiculous!"

Seeing the smile on the Emperor's face, he advanced a step and added in a low voice: "I heard that the Four Beauties of Qiantang River will be there."

"And who are the Four Beauties of Qiantang River?"

"Your slave was talking to a local just now who said that they are the four most famous prostitutes of Hangzhou. Everyone out in the streets is trying to guess which one will be the Top Candidate of the Boudoir this year."

"The Top Candidate in the Imperial Examination is chosen by me. Who chooses this Top Candidate of the Boudoir? Don't tell me there is an Emperor of the Boudoir as well?"

"I hear that each prostitute sits in a flower boat on which are displayed the gold and jewels presented by her customers. Then the winner is chosen by some of Hangzhou 's most eminent gentlemen."

"When do they play this game?" Qian Long asked, fascinated.

"It starts soon," He Jia replied. "As soon as it gets a bit darker, the judging will begin. If Your Highness is interested, you could go and watch."

Qian Long smiled. "I'm afraid people may laugh at me," he said. "If the Empress should hear that I chose the Top Candidate manner which suggested there was still much he could tell. Wen had said there were two important pieces of evidence hidden somewhere and he wondered what the evidence could be. He was already almost certain he was a Chinese and not a Manchu, but what good could come of such knowledge leaking out?

He paced about the room, extremely angry that he, the Son of Heaven, should be out-witted by a band of brigands. If they discovered his secret, would he be forced to submit to them for the rest of his life on pain of having the secret revealed? The more he thought about it, the angrier he became, and he picked up a large porcelain flower vase and threw it violently to the floor.

The guards and eunuchs waiting outside heard the crash clearly and trembled in their boots, not daring to enter.

Qian Long passed most of the day in a state of mental confusion. Towards evening, he heard the sound of gentle music drifting in from outside. The music moved closer and closer, passed by the gates of the Yamen then gradually receded. A moment later, another musical troupe passed by. He had always been very fond of music, and hearing it now, his mood suddenly changed.

"Servants!" he shouted.

A senior bodyguard named He Jia, who had recently come to favour, hurried in. Hearing the Emperor's call, the others had pushed him forward.

"What is that music outside?" Qian Long asked. "Go and find out."

After a while, He Jia came back to report: "Your slave made enquiries and learned that all of the famous courtesans of Hangzhou will gather on the West Lake this evening to choose what they call the 'Top Candidate of the Boudoir', as well as second, third and fourth ranking candidates."

"How dare they make fun of the Imperial Civil Service Examinations in such a way!" Qian Long said, amused. "Ridiculous!"

Seeing the smile on the Emperor's face, he advanced a step and added in a low voice: "I heard that the Four Beauties of Qiantang River will be there."

"And who are the Four Beauties of Qiantang River?"

"Your slave was talking to a local just now who said that they are the four most famous prostitutes of Hangzhou. Everyone out in the streets is trying to guess which one will be the Top Candidate of the Boudoir this year."

"The Top Candidate in the Imperial Examination is chosen by me. Who chooses this Top Candidate of the Boudoir? Don't tell me there is an Emperor of the Boudoir as well?"

"I hear that each prostitute sits in a flower boat on which are displayed the gold and jewels presented by her customers. Then the winner is chosen by some of Hangzhou 's most eminent gentlemen."

"When do they play this game?" Qian Long asked, fascinated.

"It starts soon,"He Jia replied. "As soon as it gets a bit darker, the judging will begin. If Your Highness is interested, you could go and watch."

Qian Long smiled. "I'm afraid people may laugh at me,"he said. "If the Empress should hear that I chose the Top Candidate of the Boudoir, she may have something to say about it. Ha, ha!"

"If Your Highness dressed up as a member of the common people, no one would know," He Jia suggested.

"All right, we'll go and have a quiet look and then come back. But tell everyone not to attract attention,"said Qian Long.

He Jia quickly helped Qian Long change into a long silk gown and a closely-embroidered jacket, the attire of a member of the gentry. Then they left for the West Lake together with Bai Zhen and several dozen bodyguards.

Once at the lakeside, a bodyguard steered a boat up to meet them. Music and singing could be heard coming from different parts of the lake, while the multitude of lanterns provided a sumptuous sight. They watched as more than twenty flower boats glided lazily back and forth over the water, each boat draped with silk curtains and lanterns. Qian Long ordered the oarsman to steer close to the flower boats. Some of them were decorated with flowers and animals cleverly constructed out of silk and lit with lanterns. Qian Long sighed in praise for the richness of life in the south of China with which the north could not hope to compete. As many as a hundred other small boats moved to and fro carrying well-to-do pleasure seekers.

A gong sounded and the music from the boats ceased. One rocket after another soared up into the air and burst in a dazzling array of colours before falling into the lake with a hiss. As the firework display ended, the curtains on each flower boat were drawn apart simultaneously to reveal a gorgeously-attired woman seated inside. Thunderous cheers and applause arose from every part of the lake.

Servants produced wine and food for the Emperor to partake of while enjoying the scene. The boat slid slowly over the lake past the flower boats. Qian Long, who kept three thousand concubines in his palace, had seen countless beauties in his time. But now, with the lanterns reflecting on the water, the splash of the oars and the slight waft of perfume, he was completely captivated. They neared the boats of the Four Beauties of the Qiantang River, and saw they were different from the other flower boats. One was decorated entirely with paper water lilies while the second was topped by two pagodas. The third was decked out as the Lunar Palace and lit with lanterns shaped as toads and hares, the animals which are supposed to inhabit the moon.

Qian Long gasped in delight. As they glided towards the fourth, he saw it was decorated entirely with real bushes and flowers, the branches criss-crossing each other and covered with a thick foliage, as simple as nature, and as beautiful as a painting. The courtezan, dressed all in white, was seated with her back to them, but she had an air of other-worldliness about her, as of a goddess.

Overwhelmed, Qian Long could not help but sing out a line from the opera, 'The Western Chamber': "Oh, will you not turn your face to me?"

The prostitute, hearing the snatch of song, did indeed turn and smiled. Qian Long's heart leapt: it was the girl he had met on the West Lake several days before, Beautiful Jade.

He heard the tinkle of a feminine voice as the courtesan on the water lily boat began to sing. At the end of the song, the crowd applauded and a pile of ingots, big and small mounted on the table in front of her. Then the courtesan in the Twin-Pagoda boat picked up a pipa and lightly strummed a tune, following which the third played the flute. Qian Long ordered He Jia to give her ten taels of gold.

The pleasure launches then crowded round Beautiful Jade's boat. She opened her ruby lips, revealing her sparkling white teeth, and began to sing accompanied by a flute.

It was the middle of the eighth month and it was already cool on the lake, but Beautiful Jade's voice suggested warm breezes and fragrant flowers.

"Such talent," Qian Long sighed.

To his great delight, Beautiful Jade's dew-drop eyes constantly looked over in his direction as she sang. Qian Long loved demonstrating his talents in art, calligraphy and poetry and his ministers, not surprisingly, praised everything he did. But for a beautiful woman to favour him not because of reverence for his position as Emperor, but because of his real worth meant she had recognized his ardour, good looks and talent. Famous courtesans are truly discerning, he thought. He immediately ordered He Jia to present Beautiful Jade with fifty taels of gold.

The boats of all the courtesans were piled up with gifts, especially those of the Four Beauties. Midnight approached and the judge began the job of inspecting the gifts. As with the imperial examinations, not only the courtesans, but also the spectators on the lake, were anxious about the outcome.

Qian Long said a few quiet words to He Jia, who nodded and hurried back to the Yamen. He returned a while later with a package.

The inspection over, the boats all clustered round the launch on which the judge sat to hear him announce the winners.

"The gifts presented to Miss Twin Pagodas are the most numerous," he announced. There was a roar from the other boats as some applauded and some groaned.

"Not so fast," someone shouted. "I will present one hundred taels of gold to Miss Water Lily."

"And I present Miss Lunar Palace with a jade bracelet and ten pearls," another wealthy gentleman called out. The crowd saw the green bracelet and the large round pearls sparkling under the lantern light and knew that they must be worth well over a hundred taels of gold. All concluded that Miss Lunar Palace was certain to be chosen at the Top Candidate for the years.

Suddenly He Jia called out: "Our master has a number of items he would like to present to Miss Beautiful Jade!"

A servant carried the package over to the judge, a man of about forty with a lean, handsome face and a wisp of moustache. He opened it to find it contained three scrolls. He turned to the old man on his left and said: "Master Fan, this is indeed a refined gentleman. I wonder what treasures he has presented?" He ordered the servants to unrill the scrolls.

As the first scroll was unrolled, the judge and the others started in surprise: it was a poem written in the hand of the famous cillgrapher, Zu Yunning.

"This is extremely valuable," exclaimed the man called Master Fan. They hurriedly opened the second scroll and saw it was a painting of flowers on the top of which was the Imperial vermilion seal of Qian Long. Yuan Mei was puzzled and turned to ask his colleagues if they knew who the benefactor was. They looked at the scrolls and pondered silently.

"Why don't we go over and meet him?" one finally suggested.

"If we do that, people will accuse us of being unfair," replied another. "With such treasures as these two scrolls, the Top Candidate is obviously Beautiful Jade."

"Let us have a look at the third scroll," suggested a third.

They unrolled it and saw it was a piece of unsigned calligraphy.

"Not very graceful," remarked one of the experts. "The writing style lacks strength."

"Shh! It's written in the Emperor's hand," another whispered urgently. The others all jumped in fright and dared not discuss the matter further.

"The judging of the gifts has been completed," Yuan Mei announced in a loud voice. "The Top Candidate is Miss Beautiful Jade, second is Miss Lunar Palace, third is Miss Water Lily."

Applause arose from all corners of the lake.

Beutiful Jade began to sing again, and her tender voice penetrated Qian Long's bones, making his heart itch unbearably.

"Go and tell that girl to come over," he said to He Jia. "And don't say who I am."

The boat glided over to Beautiful Jade's and He Jia leapt across. After an interval, he returned with a piece of paper and handed it to Qian Long and said: "She told me to give this to you."

Qian Long peered at the note under the lamplight and saw it read: "Tomorrow."

The calligraphy was very poor, but the paper was heavily scented with a fragrance that made his heart quiver.

"Why wait until tomorrow? I am here now," he said. But when he looked up again, he saw Beautiful Jade's boat was already moving off. As Emperor, the concubines of the palace tried every trick they could think of to be favoured by him. When had a woman ever rejected his advances? But the more she kept him at arms length, the more he desired her. He hurriedly issued an Imperial command: "Chase after that boat!"

Qian Long stood silently on the prow, his heart pursuing the boat ahead. The lights on the lake were going out but the music had not yet been extinguished. He indistinctly heard what he thought was the sound of laughter and soft words from the boat in front.

The distance between the two boats gradually closed. Suddenly the curtain on the flower boat parted for a second and a object was flung in the direction of Qian Long. Bai Zhen lunged forward to intercept it, and as it hit his hand he noticed the object was not a dart as he had expected but a red handkerchief with all four corners knotted together. He quickly presented it to the Emperor.

Qian Long untied it and inside he found a lotus sweet and a lily bulb: both were symbols of a well-matched couple. How could he fail to catch the meaning of such a romantic message?

The flower boat reached the bank, and Beautiful Jade stepped off and into a small horse-drawn carriage. She looked out of the carriage window and smiled seductively at Qian Long, then released the carriage curtain.

"Hey! Wait a moment, don't go!" He Jia yelled, but the driver took no notice and with a clatter of horses' hooves, the carriage moved off south.

"Get another carriage quickly!" He Jia called. The bodyguards soon found a carriage and forced its occupants out. Qian Long stepped inside and it raced off after the other carriage.

Bodyguard Bai Zhen saw they were heading towards the prosperous district of the city, and decided everything was all right: the Emperor had obviously decided to spend the night at the home of the courtesan. But having seen her only a few days before with the Red Flower Society men, he had to take precautions against a trap. He quickly ordered Rui Dalin to bring extra men to help protect the Emperor.

Beautiful Jade's carriage passed along several streets, then turned into an alley and stopped in front of a pair of black-painted gates. An attendant on the carriage jumped down and knocked on them just as Qian Long was descending from his carriage. With a long squeak, the gates were opened, and an old woman came out, pulled aside the carriage curtain and greeted Beautiful Jade. She stepped out of the carriage and, seeing Qian Long standing to one side, hurried over to greet him.

"Aiya, Master Dongfang," she said. "Thank you so much for your gifts just now. Please come in and have some tea." Qian Long smiled and walked through the gates.

One of the bodyguards rushed in ahead of the Emperor, his hand on the hilt of his sword, checking for assassins or perhaps a customer of the prostitute who would wish to protest that he was first.

Beyond the gates was a courtyard. A wave of flowery fragrance assailed their noses and tree shadows danced on the ground around two cinnamon bushes which were in full bloom. Qian Long followed Beautiful Jade into a small, elegantly-decorated chamber lit by two tall, red candles.

A maid brought in wine and food. Qian Long looked at the plates of delicacies, including marinated chicken and Thousand-Year-Old eggs, and marvelled at how exquisite they were compared to the heavy food he was served in the Imperial palace. The maid strained two cups of aged, deeply-fragrant rice wine.

Beautiful Jade took a sip and smiled. "Master Dongfang, how can I ever thank you?" she said.

Qian Long raised his cup and drained it in one draught. "Sing a song first," he said, also smiling. "We will discuss at our leisure how you can thank me."

Beautiful Jade picked up a pipa and began to play softly.

While the Emperor drank and enjoyed himself inside, Commander-in-Chief Li arrived with a detachment of troops and encircled the alley with ring after ring of guards. His officers searched every nearby house thoroughly, leaving only Beautiful Jade's room untouched. Bai Zhen ordered a group of guardsmen to patrol the roof tops with bows and arrows at the ready. Countless men have been to brothels over the centuries, but Qian Long's visit was surely the most imposing and awe-inspiring visit of all.

The guards and soldiers were kept busy the whole night, but dawn finally broke without anything untoward having happened. The sun rose, and He Jia tiptoed over to Beautiful Jade's bed-chamber to peek through a crack in the window. He spied Qian Long's boots lying by the bed and retreated. Eight o'clock passed, nine o'clock and ten o'clock and still there was no sign of the Emperor rising. Becoming anxious, He Jia returned to the window and called quietly: "Master, would you like some breakfast?" He called several times, but there was no response.

He went to the door and gave it a push, but it was barred from inside. "Master!" he called out loudly. Still no answer from the room. He Jia was very concerned, but he didn't dare break the door down. Instead, he went to discuss the situation with Commander Li and Bai Zhen.

"Why don't we tell the old house woman to go and knock on the door with some breakfast. His Highness won't be offended," suggested Li.

"An excellent idea, Commander," Bai Zhen said.

The three went off to look for the old woman, but found the whole establishment was deserted. Greatly alarmed at the situation, they began banging frantically on Beautiful Jade's door.

"Force it open!" ordered Li. Bai Zhen put both of his palms on the door, and with a sight push, snapped the door bar.

He Jia went in first and carefully pulled apart the bed curtains to find the bed clothes in disarray but absolutely no sign of Qian Long or Beautiful Jade. He fainted to the floor in fright.

Bai Zhen hastily called in some guards and searched the establishment, but they failed to find so much as half a clue. How could the Emperor have disappeared when the guard they had mounted was so tight that not even a sparrow could have escaped without being noticed? Bai Zhen toured round the room once more looking for a secret door, but he knocked and banged for a long time without finding anything suspicious. The Imperial Guard Commander Fu Kangan and the provincial governor arrived having received news of Qian Long's disappearance, and they all gathered in the middle of Beautiful Jade's boudoir, pale frightened and completely at a loss for what to do.


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