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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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3

Midday came and went, but there was no sign of anyone on the road in front. Lu was surprised and wondered if he could have guessed wrongly. Finally, instead of riders approaching from in front, they gradually became aware of the sound of camel bells from behind, and saw a dust cloud rising as a large desert caravan hurried towards them.

The caravan consisted of dozens of camels with 20 or 30 horses squeezed in between them, all ridden by Muslims with high noses and sunken eyes. They had thick beards on their faces and white cloths tied around their heads. Scimitars hung from their waists. Muslim traders were a common sight on the road to the central areas and Lu did not consider it unusual. Amidst the group, he noticed a graceful young girl, dazzlingly beautiful, dressed in yellow robes and riding a black horse.

Lu was impressed, but did no more than glance at her. Yuanzhi, however, stared in open-mouthed wonder. Growing up in the northwest border areas, she had seen few well-groomed girls, let alone girls as beautiful as this one. She was about the same age as Yuanzhi, 18 or 19, with a dagger at her waist and long braids hanging down over her shoulders. She wore a full-length yellow gown, leather boots and a small hat embroidered with gold silk, on the side of which was fastened a turquoise feather. She was an enchanting sight.

As the girl trotted by, Yuanzhi spurred on her horse and followed, gazing fixedly at her. The girl was annoyed at being stared at disrespectfully by a Chinese boy, and she whirled her whip above her head and wrapped it round the mane of Yuanzhi's horse. Giving it a sharp tug, she pulled out a large clump of hair, and the horse reared in pain, almost throwing Yuanzhi to the ground. The Muslim girl cracked the whip in the air and horse hair flew in all directions.

In a fit of pique, Yuanzhi pulled out a steel dart and threw it at the girl's back. But, not wishing to harm her, she also called out: "Watch out for the dart!" The girl leant to one side, and the dart shot past her right shoulder. She waited until it was about ten feet beyond her, then flicked her whip, caught the dart by its tip and smoothly sent it flying back towards Yuanzhi, calling out: "Hey, little boy! Here's your dart!" Yuanzhi caught it neatly.

The Muslims in the caravan applauded loudly at the superb skill with which the yellow-robed girl handled her whip. A tall, thick-set man with a heavy black beard went over and said a few words to her, to which she replied: "Oh, father!" But she took no further notice of Yuanzhi. The dozens of camels and horses moved on and gradually disappeared.

"That girl was impressive, wasn't she?" said Lu.

"These Muslims ride day and night. They ought to be good with their whips. But it doesn't mean she knows any real kung fu," Yuanzhi replied.

Lu laughed. "Really?" he asked.

Towards evening they arrived in the town of Bulongji. There was only one large inn in the town, outside of which was planted the flag of the Zhen Yuan Bodyguard Agency. With two large groups to look after, the inn's servants were very busy.

Lu had a wash, and then strolled into the courtyard of the inn with a cup of tea in his hand. In the dining hall, he saw two tables full of agency men drinking and talking loudly. The lead escort with the Five Element Wheels had put the weapons down but kept the red knapsack on his back.

Taking a sip of tea, Lu gazed up at the sky.

One of the lead escorts laughed. "Brother Yan, once you've delivered this toy to Beijing, General Zhao will reward you with at least a thousand, won't he? You can go and have a good time with that girlfriend of yours, Xibao."

So it really is one of the Yan brothers, Lu thought, and paid even closer attention to what was said.

"A reward?" said Yan. "Ha! Well, everyone will get something."

"Your Xibao has probably gone off with some other man willing to make an honest woman of her," added an effeminate voice. Lu looked over out of the corner of his eye, and saw a man with a sly face and a slight figure, also dressed as a lead escort.

Yan grunted, obviously not pleased.

"You bastard, Tong," added the first lead escort. "You never have anything good to say."

Tong laughed. "All right," he said. "But Brother Yan, fun is fun and serious is serious. Don't think about Xibao too much or you might find someone has stolen that red knapsack off your back. It's not important if lose your head or not, but the agency's reputation has to be maintained."

"Don't worry," Yan replied angrily. "If those Muslims try stealing it back, I'll soon put an end to their nonsense. I am one of the Six Guandong Devils and I got where I am with real kung fu, not like some of the weaklings in the bodyguard agencies these days who can do nothing but eat and fart!"

Lu looked at the red knapsack on Yan's back: it wasn't big, and from the look of it, whatever was inside was very light.

"It's true that the Six Devils of Guandong are famous," Tong said. "It's a pity that Brother Jiao was done in. We don't even know who the murderer was."

Yan banged the table. "Who says we don't know? It has to be the Red Flower Society!"

That's strange, Lu thought, I killed Jiao. What is this Red Flower Society? He walked slowly around the courtyard inspecting the flowers, moving closer to the group of lead escorts.

Tong would not let the matter drop. "It's a pity," he said. "If I wasn't such a weakling, I would have settled things with the Red Flower Society long ago."

Yan shook with anger. One of the other lead escorts broke in to mediate: "Anyway, the Red Flower Society's leader died last month," he said. "They've lost their man in command, so who is there to settle with? And another thing, where is the proof that Jiao was murdered by the Red Flower Society? When you find them and they deny the charge, what are you going to do?"

"Yes," said Tong changing his tack. "We daren't provoke them, but surely we've got enough guts to bully a few Muslims. This little toy we've snatched is as precious to them as life itself. In the future, if General Zhao ever wants money from them, or cattle and sheep, do you think they'd dare to refuse? I tell you Yan, stop thinking about that little Xibao of yours. When we get back to Beijing, you should ask General Zhao to give you a little Muslim girl to be your mistress. Then you can really…"

Before he could finish, a piece of mud brick flew out of nowhere and lodged itself in his mouth. Two of the other lead escorts snatched up their weapons and rushed outside while Yan picked up his Five Element Wheels and looked warily around. His younger brother came running in, and both stood together, not daring to move for fear of falling into some trap. Tong spat out the piece of mud and began swearing.

The two other lead escorts, Tai and Qian, rushed in through the door. "The little bastard's gone," one of them said. "There's no sign of him."

Lu had observed the whole incident and laughed inwardly at the helpless expression on Tong's face. Then he saw a shadow darting across the rafters in a corner of the dining hall, and went slowly outside. It was already growing dark, but he spotted a figure leap off the corner of the roof, land noiselessly, and speed off eastwards.

Lu wanted to know who had treated Tong to a mouthful of mud and, making use of Lightness Kung Fu * (* a type of kung fu that makes extra-fast running and super-human leaps possible.), he followed, the teacup still in his hand. The pace was fast, but the person he was following was not aware of his presence.

Lu's quarry had a slim figure and moved daintily, almost like a girl. They crossed a hill and an ink-black forest loomed ahead. The person ahead slipped into the trees with Lu close behind. Underneath, the ground was covered with dead leaves and twigs which crackled as he stepped on them. Afraid of giving himself away, he slowed down. Just then, the moon broke through the clouds and a shaft of clear light shone down through the branches, covering the earth with jumbled ghostly shadows. In the distance he saw the flash of a yellow gown, and his quarry moved out of the forest.

He followed to the edge of the trees. Beyond was a large expanse of grass on which were pitched eight or nine tents. His curiosity got the better of him, and he decided to go and have a look. He waited until two guards had turned away, then jumped across with a 'Swallow Gliding Over Water' leap and landed among the tents. Crouching low, he ran to the back of the largest tent, pitched in the centre. Inside, he could hear people talking agitatedly in the Muslim language. He had lived in the border areas for many years, and understood some of what was said. Carefully, he lifted up the corner of the canvas and looked inside.

The tent was lit by two oil lamps under which a large number of people were seated on carpets. He recognised them as the Muslim caravan that had passed them that day. The yellow-robed girl stood up and drew a dagger from her waist. She cut the index finger of her left hand with the tip of the blade and let several drops of blood fall into a cup of horse's milk wine. Then one-by-one, every Muslim in the tent did likewise. The tall Muslim that the girl had called father raised the wine cup and made a short speech of which Lu could only understand something about 'The Koran' and 'Our Homeland'. The yellow-robed girl spoke after him, her voice crisp and clear, and concluded by saying:

"If the sacred Koran is not recovered, I swear never to return to our homeland." The Muslims lustily repeated the oath. In the dim light, Lu could see determination and anger on every face.

The group belonged to one of the richest and most powerful of the nomadic Muslim tribes of the Tianshan Mountains, numbering nearly 200,000 people. The tall man was Muzhuolun, the leader of the tribe; a strong fighter, fair and just, he was greatly loved by his people. The yellow-robed girl was his daughter, Huo Qingtong.

The tribe lived by nomadic herding and contentedly travelled the great desert. But as the power of the Manchu court extended into the Muslim areas, its demands for taxes increased. At first, Muzhuolun went out of his way to comply, and worked hard to meet the demands. But the Manchu officials were insatiable and made life impossible for the tribe. On several occasions, Muzhuolun sent missions to the Manchu court to appeal for a reduction of taxes. But far from achieving a reduction, the missions only served to arouse the Court's suspicions. General Zhao Wei was given an Imperial order to supervise military affairs in the Muslim areas and he discovered that the tribe owned an ancient hand-written Koran, originally brought from the sacred city of Mecca, which they had treasured for generations. The General decided to get the Koran to use to blackmail the Muslims into submission and he dispatched a number of top fighters who stole it while Muzhuolun was out on a long journey. The Muslims had organised a group to recover the Sacred Book.

Lu decided that the Muslims' plotting had nothing to do with him, and he carefully stood up to return to the inn. At that instant, Huo Qingtong noticed him.

"There's someone outside," she whispered to her father and shot out of the tent in time to see a shadow running fast for the trees. With a wave of her hand, she sent a steel dart speeding after him.

Lu heard the projectile coming and leant slightly to one side. As it passed, he stretched out the index finger of his right hand and, carefully calculating the speed and direction of the dart, tapped it gently as it passed so that it fell into the teacup he was holding. Then without looking back, he made use of his Lightness Kung Fu and almost flew back to the inn, where he went straight to his room. He took the dart out of the cup and saw it was made of pure steel with a feather attached to it. He threw it into his bag.


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