The trees on the hillsides were dense and dark. It was already deep autumn and Heaven's Eye Mountain was covered in fiery-red leaves and yellowing grass. Lookouts sent word of the approach of Chen and his comrades and Zhang Jin and the other heroes came down to greet them.
Luo Bing was not among them, and Chen's heart missed a beat, afraid that something had happened to her.
"Where's Fourth Sister?" he asked. "And how are Brother Wen and Brother Yu?"
"They're fine," Zhang Jin replied. "Fourth Sister said she was going to get a present for Fourth Brother. She's been away two days already. You didn't meet her on the road?"
Chen shook his head. "What present?"
Zhang Jin smiled. "I don't know. Fourth Brother's wounds have healed well, but he spends all his time in bed moping. Then Fourth Sister came up with this idea of going to get him a present. I wonder who will lose out as a result?" The others laughed.
They made their way up the mountain and entered the courtyard of a large mansion. Wen Tailai was lying dejectedly on a rattan couch. They told him briefly about what had transpired and then went to the room next door to see 'Scholar' Yu.
As they stepped inside, they heard the sound of sobbing. Chen walked over and pulled aside the bed curtain to reveal Yu lying face-down on the bed, his back shaking uncontrollably. Even girls like Luo Bing and Zhou Qi rarely cried, and they were shocked and embarrassed by his behaviour.
"Fourteenth Brother," Chen said quietly. "We've come to see you. How do you feel? Are your wounds very painful?"
Yu stopped crying, but did not turn over. "Great Helmsman, Brothers, thank you all for coming to see me. Forgive me for not getting up to greet you properly. My health has improved a lot over the past few days, but my face has been burnt so badly, it's so ugly that I cannot face anyone."
Zhou Qi smiled. "What does it matter if a man has burn marks on his face?" she said. "Don't tell my you're afraid you won't be able to find a girl willing to marry you?" Some of the heroes laughed at her lack of restraint.
"Brother Yu," said Lu Feiqing. "Your face was burnt while saving myself and Wen Tailai. When people hear of this act, do you think there is anyone who would not proclaim you to be a hero? What need is there for such distress?"
"You are right, uncle," said Yu, and burst into tears again.
The heroes returned to the main hall. Chen and Xu talked together in low tones, then clapped their hands and the heroes stood up.
"Brothers," said Chen. "So far, things have gone very well for us. But in the future, we will face even tougher problems. I will now give you your assignments. Ninth Brother, Twelfth Brother, you two go to Beijing and see what you can find out about the Emperor's plans and if he intends to break our pact. This will be extremely difficult to execute. You must both exercise great caution." Wei and Shi nodded.
"Now, the Twin Knights," Chen continued. "Please go to the Southwest and make contact with the fighters in Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou provinces. Eighth Brother, you go to Anhui and Jiangsu provinces, Priest Wu Chen to Hubei and Hunan. Thirteenth Brother and Brother Ma in Hangzhou will contact people in Zhejiang, Fujian and Jiangxi, while I would like to ask Master Lu to deal with Shandong and Henan. I would like Lord Zhou, Master Meng, Brother Xu and Mistress Zhou Qi to handle the northwest provinces. Fourth Brother and Fourteenth Brother will remain here convalescing with Fourth Sister and Tenth Brother to look after them. Xin Yan will accompany me to the Muslim areas.
"I am not asking you to begin preparations for an uprising, but simply to improve relations with members of the fighting community in all areas and to provide a basis on which we can act later," he added. "Absolute secrecy is essential, so do not reveal anything to anyone no matter how close or respected they are."
"We understand," they replied in unison.
"In exactly one year's time we will all gather in Beijing. By that time, Fourth Brother and Fourteenth Brother will be fully recovered and we can begin the great task!"
Cheers arose from the heroes. They followed Chen out of the hall, elated by the prospect of the future.
Only Zhang Jin, assigned by the Great Helmsman to stay at Heaven's Eye Mountain, was unhappy. Wen guessed his thoughts, and went over to speak to Chen.
"Great Helmsman, my wounds are almost healed, and although Fourteenth Brother's burns are serious, he is recovering quickly," he said. "It is a bit much to ask us to stay cooped up here for a year. The four of us would like to accompany you to the Muslim regions. The trip would also help to take Fourteenth Brother's mind off other things."
"All right, we'll do it that way," Chen agreed. Zhang Jin ran joyfully in to tell Yu the news.
Lord Zhou took Chen aside. "Great Helmsman," he said. "The fact that we have discovered through Master Wen that you and the Emperor are blood relations is a matter worthy of great rejoicing. I would like to add to it one more happy event. What do you think?"
"You wish to hold a wedding for Seventh Brother and Mistress Zhou, is that right?"
"Exactly," Zhou replied, smiling.
Chen walked over to Zhou Qi, his face wreathed in smiles, and bowed before her. "Mistress, congratulations," he said.
She blushed deeply. "What do you mean?"
"I should call you Seventh Sister. Seventh Sister, congratulations!" He clapped his hands loudly and the heroes immediately fell silent.
"Just now, Lord Zhou told me he wants Mistress Zhou Qi and Seventh Brother to be married this evening. So we have something else to celebrate!"
The heroes cheered loudly and congratulated Lord Zhou and Xu. Zhou Qi hastily made for her bedroom in embarrassment.
"Tenth Brother!" Wei called to Zhang Jin. "Stop her. Don't let the bride escape!" Zhang made as to grab her and Zhou Qi chopped out with her left hand to fend him off.
"Help!" he cried in mock surprise, dodging to one side. "The bride's attacking me!"
A laugh escaped from her as she charged out of the hall.
Just then, there was the sound of bells outside and Luo Bing ran in carrying a large box.
"Oh good, everyone's here!" she cried. "What's happened to make you all so happy?" She looked enquiringly at Chen.
"Ask Seventh Brother," said Wei.
"What's happened, Brother Xu?" Luo Bing asked, but Xu was speechless for a moment. "Mm? That's strange. Has the Kung Fu Mastermind gone silly?"
'Crocodile' Jiang dodged behind Xu and held up his thumbs and made them bow to each other. "The Mastermind is getting married today," he said with glee.
"Oh, how awful, how awful!" Luo Bing exclaimed, absolutely delighted.
The others laughed. "What do you mean, awful?" asked 'Pagoda' Yang.
"If I'd known, I could have brought a sheep and some nice things back with me. As it is, I have almost nothing to give them as presents. Isn't that awful?"
"Will you let us all see what you've brought for Fourth Brother?" Yang asked.
Luo Bing smiled and opened up the box. Glinting inside were the two jade vases which the Muslims had sent to the Emperor along with their request for a truce.
"Where did you get them?" the heroes asked in astonishment.
"I was chatting with Fourth Brother and mentioned how beautiful the girl on the vases was, but he didn't believe me…"
"I'll bet Fourth Brother said: 'I don't believe she is more beautiful than you.' Am I right?" interrupted Xu.
Luo Bing smiled but did not answer. "Did you go to Hangzhou and steal them from the Emperor?" Xu asked.
Luo Bing nodded, very pleased with herself. "I got them so Fourth Brother could have a look. The Great Helmsman will decide what should be done with them after that, whether we should keep them or return them to Sister Huo Qingtong." Wen examined the vases and tutted in admiration.
"I was right, wasn't I?" asked Luo Bing. Wen smiled and shook his head. Luo Bing started, then realised her husband meant that the girl on the vase could not be more beautiful than she was. Her cheeks flushed.
"The Emperor has many top fighters around him and such precious items as these vases must have been very well guarded," said Priest Wu Chen. "How did you manage to steal them?"
Luo Bing told them how she had slipped into the Yamen, grabbed a eunuch and forced him to tell her where the vases were, slipped poison into the food of some of the guards, and made cat noises to distract the rest, then grabbed the vases. The heroes praised her artistry, all except Lu Feiqing.
"Fourth Sister," he said. "You are very brave, but was it wise to take such a risk alone just for the sake of a remark you made to Master Wen? As it happened, the Imperial bodyguards were fully occupied that particular night searching for the Emperor. If they had been there, things could have turned out differently."
"Yes," Luo Bing replied, then turned and stuck out her tongue at Wen.
The wedding ceremony took place amidst great merriment, and the next morning the heroes made their way down the mountain, wished each other well, and went their separate ways.
Chen and Lord Zhou were both heading for the northwest and Chen suggested they travel together. But Zhou said he wished to take advantage of their presence in the south to visit the Shaolin monastery in Fujian province whose style of kung fu was related to his own. So taking his wife and his assistant Meng with him, he headed south.
Chen, Wen, Luo Bing, Xu, Zhou Qi, Zhang Jin, 'Scholar' Yu and Xin Yan travelled north through Nanking. By the time they had crossed the Yangtse, Wen had completely recovered and Yu was progressing well. As they continued north, the weather became cooler, the grass and trees turned yellow as early winter set in. After passing through Kaifeng, Yu was well enough to ride a horse, and the eight of them galloped together along the highway. The north wind blew angrily, throwing dust and sand into their faces.
Wen, riding the white horse, galloped ahead of the others and stopped at an inn in a small village and told the servants to kill a chicken and prepare a meal, Then he sat down near the door to await the arrival of his friends. He ordered a pot of tea and wiped his face with the hot flannel brought out to him. Suddenly, a figure darted out from a room on the eastern side of the inn but immediately withdrew on catching sight of Wen.
About an hour later, Chen and the others rode up and Wen quietly informed them of what had happened. Xu looked round towards the room and saw a section of the window paper was wet with a black eyeball in the centre which immediately disappeared. He smiled.
"It's a novice," he said. "As soon as he starts, he reveals himself."
"Go over and see him," Chen said to Xin Yan. "If he has financial problems, lend him some money."
Xin Yan went over to the room and said in a loud voice: "All streams under heaven have the same source, Red Flowers and green leaves are all one family."
This was the Red Flower Society members' catch-phrase for identifying themselves to other members of the fighting community. Even if the other party was not an associate of the Red Flower Society, as long as he knew the phrase and asked for help, he would receive it. But all was quiet in the room. Xin Yan repeated his call, and the door creaked open and a figure dressed in black with a large hat pulled down low came out and gave him a letter.
"Give this to your Master Yu."
Xin Yan took the letter and the figure rsn out of the inn, jumped onto a horse and galloped away. He gave the letter to Yu who opened it and found the following written inside:
"What do ugliness and beauty have to do with true love? I will follow you even over a thousand mountains and ten thousand rivers. And tell your Great Helmsman that the Three Devils of Guandong are on their way to the Muslim regions to get their revenge on Huo Qingtong for killing their martial brother." Recognising the calligraphy as being that of Li Yuanzhi, he frowned and handed the sheet to Chen.
Chen studiously ignored the first sentence, which obviously dealt with private romantic affairs. But he immediately informed the others of the news about the Three Devils of Guandong.
"They are tough fighters," said Wen. "I wonder if she can handle them?"
"We once watched Mistress Huo fighting with that Guangdong Devil, Yan Shizhang, and she proved herself to be a little better than him," Xu replied. "But if the Great Helmsman hadn't stepped in to save her, I'm afraid she would have fallen victim to his evil tricks."
"The eldest of the Devils, Tang Yilei, is very strong, a formidable man," said Wen.
"Since the Three Devils are already on their way, it would be best if someone went on ahead on Sister Luo Bing's horse," Xu suggested. "From the look of things, the military situation in the Muslim regions is tense, and Master Muzhuolun and his people must be busy making defensive preparations. We shouldn't let Mistress Huo be caught unawares by the Three Devils." Chen knew he was right, and he frowned silently.
"Great Helmsman, I think it would be best if you went on ahead," said Xu. "You speak the Muslim language, your kung fu is good, and the Three Devils have never seen you before. If General Zhao Wei has not withdrawn by the time you get there, you can also help the Muslims."
"All right!" said Chen after a moment's hesitation.