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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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6

They galloped for most of the night, and arrived at the Manchu camp at dawn. The envoy ushered Princess Fragrance and Chen into a tent to rest then went off alone to see General Zhao Wei. As he bowed before the general, he noticed a military official seated beside him wearing the uniform of a Deputy Commander of the Imperial Bodyguard.

"My report, General," he said. "I delivered the ultimatum and their reply was perverse. They refuse to surrender and have sent someone to present you with their answer."

Zhao Wei grunted. "These people are truly ignorant unto death," he said, and turned to one of his attendants. "Prepare for an audience," he ordered. Horns blew and drums rolled and all the senior officers of the army gathered in the great tent. Then three hundred armoured troops formed two lines outside and the Muslim envoy was summoned.

Princess Fragrance walked fearlessly in ahead of Chen. The officers recognized them instantly as the two they had seen the day before crossing their lines, and all felt surprised. Zhao Wei had planned to overawe the envoy with a show of military might, and was taken aback for a moment when a beautiful girl appeared. Princess Fragrance bowed before the general, then took out her father's note and offered it to him with both hands.

One of Zhao Wei's bodyguards moved forward to accept the letter. As he neared her, he was overwhelmed by her sweet fragrance and lowered his head, not daring to look at her directly. His eyes lighted on her flawless white hands, and he stood stock still, completely flustered.

"Bring the letter here!" Zhao Wei shouted.

The bodyguard started in fright, then stumbled and almost fell. The Princess placed the letter in his hands and smiled at him. The bodyguard gazed at her, oblivious of all else. Only after Princess pointed at Zhao Wei and gave him a slight push, did he go and place the letter on the table in front of the general.

Zhao Wei was furious at the sight of his bodyguard so spell-bound. "Take him out and behead him!" he roared. Several soldiers ran forward and dragged the bodyguard outside the tent, and a moment later, a bloody head was brought in on a plate and presented to the general.

"Put it on public display!" Zhao Wei ordered, and the soldiers began to retire. But the Princess was heart-broken at the sight of such cruelty and at the thought that the bodyguard had died because of her. She took the plate from the soldiers and gazed at the head, tears falling one after another down her cheeks onto the floor.

The officers in the tent were by now completely carried away by the sight of her, and any one of them would have willingly died for her. "If she cried before my head, would not death be welcome?" they thought. Suddenly, the soldier who had performed the execution, greatly distressed at the sight of her crying, shouted: "I did wrong to kill him. Don't cry!" He slashed his sword across his own neck and fell to the ground, dead.

Princess Fragrance became even more upset. Chen was uneasy about the situation: an envoy should not cry in such a fashion, and he leaned forward to comfort her.

Zhao Wei was a man of great cruelty and brutality, but even his heart softened at the sight of her tears. "Bury these two properly," he said to his attendants. He opened the letter and read it with a grunt.

"Right," he said. "We fight tomorrow. You may leave."

"General," the officer sitting next to him suddenly interrupted. "I think this girl may be the one the Emperor wants."

Chen's attention had been directed entirely at Princess Fragrance, but hearing the officer speak, he looked up and saw it was Zhang Zhaozhong. At the same instant Zhang also recognised Chen, despite his Muslim disguise.

They stared at each other, amazed at finding the other in such a place.

"Well, Great Helmsman," Zhang said, and laughed coldly. "Fancy meeting you here."

Chen grabbed Princess Fragrance's hand and turned to leave, but as he did so, Zhang bounded over and struck out at him with all his might. Chen picked the Princess up in his left hand, deflected Zhang's blow with his right and charged out of the tent with Zhang close on his heels. None of the other officers or soldiers intervened to stop Chen. All were dazzled by the Princess, and considered this Imperial Guardsman was interfering in matters that should not concern him.

Chen ran for their horses, and as Zhang closed in, he threw six chess pieces at him. "I'll keep him busy," he shouted to Princess Fragrance. "You escape on the horse!"

"No, I'll wait for you to beat him."

Chen had no time to explain, and dumped her on the saddle of the chestnut horse as Zhang dodged the projectiles and attacked again. Not daring to face him head on, Chen crouched down underneath the white horse and punched it in the belly. The horse kicked out with its back legs in fright, straight at Zhang, who just managed to jump clear.

"Go!" shouted Chen as Zhang grabbed for Princess Fragrance, and her horse leapt forward just in time. Chen knew he was no match for Zhang on equal terms, so he drew his dagger and thrust out with it. Zhang caught his wrist and the two fell to the ground, rolling together, neither daring to let go of the other.

The officers crowded out of the tent to watch, and the Four Tigers, who had great respect for Chen and were annoyed at the way he was being treated, ran over to help him.

Chen's strength was fading as he grappled with Zhang, and when he saw the four giants running over he thought: "Oh no, this is it." But instead of attacking him, the four grabbed Zhang and pinned him to the ground, shouting: "Get away!" All Zhang's skill was not enough to counter the immense strength of the Four Tigers, and Chen leapt to his feet, mounted the white horse and galloped off after Princess Fragrance. Zhang stared after them helplessly as they disappeared into the distance.

The two horses raced like the wind and were soon beyond the army's furthest guard posts. Chen's fight with Zhang had been short but extremely intense, and after riding on for a while, he gradually felt his control slipping. Princess Fragrance saw he was in difficulty, and noticed his wrist was covered in black and purple stripes.

"They won't be able to catch us now," she said. "Let's dismount and rest for a while." Chen fell off his horse, and lay on the ground, shuddering and gasping. The Princess pulled a container of sheep's milk from her leather satchel and rubbed some onto his wrist. Chen gradually recovered, but just as they were getting ready to start out again, they heard the sound of galloping hooves and saw several dozen soldiers riding after them. They leapt onto their horses without bothering to pick up their belongings and sprang forward. A moment later, Chen noticed a dust cloud rising in front, and cursing their bad luck, galloped on ahead of the Princess. As they rode closer, he saw that there were only seven or eight riders in the group ahead, and his anxiety eased. He reined in his horse and took out his Pearl Strings to prepare for the riders as they closed in.

Suddenly, one of the riders shouted: "Great Helmsman, how are you?" Chen looked through the dust and saw it was a hunchback.

"Tenth Brother!" he yelled, overjoyed. "Come here, quick!" As he spoke, the first arrow from the pursuing Manchu troops flew towards them.


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