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5

Mournful dirges played as the Muslims dug deep trenches and buried the bodies of the fallen warriors upright and facing west. Puzzled, Chen asked one of the nearby soldiers why the dead were buried in this way.

"Because we believe in Islam," the soldier replied. "If the body is buried upright, then the spirit will ascend to the heavenly kingdom. They face west because that is the direction of sacred Mecca."

When the burials were finished, Muzhuolun led the entire army in prayer to thank Allah for helping them achieve such a great victory. Then a great cheer went up from the ranks and the commanders of all the units went before Huo Qingtong and presented their sabres to her in respect.

"Inflicting such a crushing defeat on the Manchus also does us a great service," 'Leopard' Wei remarked to Xu, but Xu was deep in thought.

"The Emperor made a pact with us, yet he didn't withdraw his forces," he said. "Could it be that he intentionally sent his troops into the desert to be destroyed?"

"I have no faith in this Emperor," said Wen. "How could he know Mistress Huo Qingtong would win so decisively? What's more, I doubt if he sent Zhang Zhaozhong out here for any good purpose."

As the heroes talked, they noticed Chen gazing at Huo Qingtong in concern. She was seated to one side, her face as white as a sheet, with a wild look in her eyes. Luo Bing went over to talk to her and as Huo Qingtong stood up to greet her, she swayed unsteadily. Luo Bing caught hold of her.

"Sister, what's wrong?" she asked. Huo Qingtong said nothing, but fought to control her breathing. Princess Fragrance, Muzhuolun, Chen and the others ran over. Princess Fragrance led her into a tent and laid her down on a carpet.

Muzhuolun knew his daughter was exhausted after the battle which she had both directed and taken part in alongside the other warriors. She had also had to bear the suspicions of her own commanders. But he was afraid that the thing affecting her most was the relationship between Chen and her sister. Unable to think of anything to say to comfort her, he sighed and left the tent. He went for a walk round the camp, and from all sides heard nothing but praise for Huo Qingtong's brilliant strategy.

That night, he slept badly, worrying about his daughter. Early the next day before the sky was light, he went over to her tent to see how she was, but found her tent was empty. He hurriedly asked the guard outside what had happened to her.

"Mistress Huo Qingtong left about two hours ago," the guard replied.

"Where did she go?"

"I don't know, Lord. She told me to give you this letter." Muzhuolun grabbed it and tore it open. Inside, in Huo Qingtong's delicate hand, was written:

"Father, the war is now over. All that is necessary is to tighten the encirclement and the remaining Manchu soldiers will be annhilated in a few days, (signed) your daughter."

"Which direction did she go?" he asked. The guard pointed east.

Muzhuolun found a horse and galloped off immediately in pursuit. He rode for an hour into the depths of the flat desert where it was possible to see several miles in all directions, but found no sign of any living being. Afraid that she may have changed direction, he decided the only thing to do was to return to the camp. Half way back, he met Princess Fragrance, Chen and the other heroes who were all anxious about her safety. Once back in camp, Muzhuolun sent units out to the north, south, east and west to search. By evening, three units had returned without finding anything, while the fourth brought back a young Chinese youth dressed in black clothes.

'Scholar' Yu stared at the youth in shock: it was Li Yuanzhi dressed as usual in boy's clothes.

"What are you doing here?" he asked, hurrying up to meet her.

"I came to find you, and happened to run into them," she replied, very happy to see him again.

Princess Fragrance was frantic with worry about her lost sister. "What can have happened to her?" she asked Chen. "What can we do?"

"I will go and find her," he replied. "Come what may, I`ll convince her to come back."

"I'll go with you," she said at once.

Chen nodded. "All right. Go and ask your father."

"You all do just as you like anyway," Muzhuolun replied angrily, stamping his foot. Princess Fragrance looked up at her father and saw how bloodshot his eyes were. She took his hand and squeezed it.

Yuanzhi ignored the others, and bombarded Yu with questions about what had happened to him since they had parted.

"That's the boy your sister likes," Chen said to Princess Fragrance, pointing at Yuanzhi. "He will certainly be able to convince her to come back."

"Really? Why has she never told me? She's too horrible!" the Princess replied. She walked over towards Yuanzhi to get a closer look. Muzhuolun, who was equally curious, did the same.

Yuanzhi had met Muzhuolun previously and she bowed before him in greeting. Then she saw Princess Fragrance and was immediately struck speechless by her extraordinary beauty. Princess Fragrance smiled at Chen and said: "Tell this gentleman that we are very pleased to see him, and ask him to come with us to help find my sister."

Only now did Chen greet Yuanzhi. "Why are you here, Brother?" he asked. "How have you been since we last met?"

Yuanzhi blushed and laughed. She glanced at Yu, wanting him to explain.

"Great Helmsman, this is Master Lu's pupil," Yu said.

"I know, we've met several times."

Yu smiled. "She is therefore my martial sister."

"What?" Chen exclaimed in surprise.

"She likes wearing boy's clothes when she travels."

Chen looked closely at Yuanzhi and noticed for the first time how delicate her eyebrows were, and how small her mouth, not at all like a man's. Because of the relationship with Huo Qingtong, Chen had never looked closely at her before, but now he stared in shock.

"I was completely wrong about Mistress Huo Qingtong," he thought. "She told me to go and ask Master Lu about his pupil and I never did. Could she have left the camp because of me? And then there's her sister who loves me deeply."

Luo Bing could see how Yuanzhi felt towards Yu and she hoped that with such a beautiful girl in love with him, he could release himself from the self-torture of his adoration of herself. But he looked as desolate and unhappy as ever.

"Where is Sister Huo Qingtong?" Yuanzhi asked. "I have something important to tell her."

"She's gone. We're looking for her now," Luo Bing replied.

"She went out by herself?"

Luo Bing nodded.

"Where did she go?" Yuanzhi asked urgently.

"She left the camp heading east, but whether or not she changed direction, we don't know."

"Oh, no!" Yuanzhi exclaimed, stamping her foot. They asked her what was wrong. "The Three Guandong Devils are looking for Sister Huo Qingtong to get their revenge on her. You know that already. But I met them on the road. They're behind me. If she is heading east, she might run into them."

"We don't have a moment to lose," said Chen. "I will go and find her."

"Don't underestimate the Three Devils," Xu warned. "It would be better if several of us went. Great Helmsman Chen should go first with Princess Fragrance. Mistress Li, you also know her, but it would be too dangerous for you to go alone. Perhaps Brother Yu could go with you. My wife and I can go and search too, while the others remain here at the camp to watch for Zhang Zhaozhong."

"Fine!" said Chen. He borrowed Luo Bing's white horse and he and Princess Frangrance galloped off with the others not far behind.

At about noon that day, Wen and the other heroes were chatting with Muzhuolun in his tent when a guard rushed in to report that the Manchu general Herda had escaped and the four soldiers guarding him had been killed. They hurried over, and found a dagger stuck in the chest of one of the dead soldiers with a note attached to it which read: "To the heroes of the Red Flower Society from Zhang Zhaozhong".

Wen angrily screwed the piece of paper up into a ball. "Master Muzhuolun," he said. "You maintain the encirclement of the Manchus, and we'll go and find this traitor Zhang Zhaozhong." Muzhuolun nodded, and Wen led the other heroes off into the desert, following the tracks of the Manchu horses.


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