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4

When Chen had gone, Qian Long dismissed the eunuchs and opened the small box. He read the Emperor Yong Zheng's note and the letter written by his natural mother, which said correctly that he had a red birthmark on his left buttock. He sighed. There could no longer be any doubt about his true origins. He ordered a eunuch to bring him a brazier and threw the documents one by one into the fire. As the flames leapt up, he began to feel more at ease, and on an impulse, threw the small wooden box into the flames as well, filling the room with heat and smoke.

He stared for a moment at the jade vases on the table, then said to the eunuch: "Send her up." The eunuch disappeared, and returned on his knees to report: "Your slave deserves to die. The lady refuses to come."

Qian Long laughed shortly and glanced at the jade vases again. Then he stood up and went downstairs. Two eunuchs followed carrying the vase.

One floor down, a maid servant pulled aside a curtain and Qian Long walked through into a room full of fresh flowers. Two other maids servants took the vases from the eunuchs and carefully placed them on a table.

A girl wearing a white gown was sitting facing the wall. With a wave of his hand, Qian Long dismissed the maid servants from the room. He had just opened his mouth to speak when the door curtains parted and two bodyguards came in and stood quietly by the entrance.

"What are you doing here? Get out," he said angrily.

"Your slaves have orders from the Empress Dowager to protect Your Highness," said one of the bodyguards.

"I'm fine. What do I need protection for?"

"The Empress Dowager knows she… that the lady is not… that she is strong-willed, and is afraid that she will inflict injury on Your Highness's precious self."

Qian Long glanced down at his bandaged hand, and shouted: "There's no need. Get out!"

The two bodyguards kowtowed frantically but did not retire. He knew that no matter what, they would not dare to disobey the Empress Dowager's orders, so he took no further notice of them, and turned back to face the girl in the white gown.

"Turn round, I have something to say," he said in the Muslim tongue. The girl took no notice. In her hand was a dagger. She gripped it even tighter.

Qian Long sighed. "Look at what is on the table," he said. The girl ignored him for a moment, but finally her curiosity got the better of her. She glanced round and saw the pair of jade vases, and at the same moment, the Emperor and the bodyguards were dazzled by the sight of her beauty: it was Princess Fragrance.

She had been captured by General Zhao Wei's army and sent to Beijing under special guard to the Emperor. Qian Long thought it would be more interesting to be able to talk to the girl directly, so he called for a teacher to teach him the Muslim tongue. He was an intelligent man and studied diligently, and after a few months he could talk in a halting fashion.

But Princess Fragrance was already tightly bound to Chen. Furthermore, Qian Long had been responsible for the death of her father, making her even more adament in her refusal of his advances. Several times she had been forced almost to the point of suicide, but each time she thought of Chen and restrained herself.

"I will be just like I was when surrounded by the wolves," she thought. "That large wolf wanted to eat me, but my knight finally saved me."

Qian Long watched her becoming more haggard day by day. He was afraid she would die of melancholy, so he called for the capital's best craftsmen and had the Precious Moon Pavilion built for her to live in.

But Princess Fragrance took not the slightest notice. The priceless treasures used to decorate the pavilion were ignored, except for the murals covering the walls. They depicted scenes of the Muslims areas, and she stared at them glassy-eyed, reliving over and over the carefree happiness of the days when she and Chen had been together.

Sometimes Qian Long spied on her secretly and saw her staring into distance, the trace of a smile playing around her lips. One day he could resist it no longer and he stretched out his hand to grasp her arm. There was a flash of a dagger, and only Princess Fragrance's ignorance of kung fu and his own sprightliness saved him. But his left hand had been cut and in a moment was covered in blood. He was so scared by the incident that from that moment on, he did not dare to risk annoying her again. When the Emperess Dowager heard of the matter, she ordered the eunuchs to take the dagger off her, but Princess Fragrance pointed it at her chest whenever anyone came near her and threatened to commit suicide. So Qian Long ordered them to stay away from her and not to interfere.

Princess Fragrance was also afraid they would put something in her food or drink, so apart from fresh fruit she had peeled herself, she would touch nothing. Qian Long had a Muslim-style bath constructed for her, but she refused to use it, and after many days of not bathing, her body's fragrance became even more pronounced. Originally naive and ignorant of worldly affairs, she became increasingly strong and knowledgeable as the weeks went past as a result of her exposure to the evil people who populated the palace.

As soon as she spotted the vases, she started in shock and quickly turned back to face the wall, gripping the hilt of the dagger tightly and wondering what Qian Long was up to.

He sighed. "When I first saw your image on the vases, I was certain that such a person could not exist in this world," he said. "But now I have seen you, I know that the greatest of craftsmen could not capture a ten thousandth of your beauty."

Princess Fragrance ignored him.

"If you continue to worry like this all day, you are going to become ill," he continued. "Do you miss your home? Go and look out of the window." He ordered the bodyguards to open the window shutters.

Seeing the two bodyguards and Qian Long standing near the window, Princess Fragrance harrumphed and turned away. Qian Long understood and walked to the other side of the room and ordered the bodyguards to do the same. Only then did Princess Fragrance slowly walk over to the window and look outside. She saw the expanse of sand and the Muslim tents and her heart twisted in pain. Two tears rolled slowly down her cheeks, and she picked up one of the vases on the table and threw it with all her strength at Qian Long's head.

One of the bodyguards shot forward and intercepted the vase, but it slipped from his grasp and shattered on the floor just as the second vase came flying after the first. The other bodyguard tried to catch it, but it slipped through his hands and smashed beside the first vase.

Afraid that she would try some other way of harming the Emperor, the bodyguards sprang across the room at her. Princess Fragrance immediately turned her dagger round and put it to her throat.

"Stop!" Qian Long shouted frantically, and the bodyguards halted in the tracks. Princess Fragrance retreated several steps, and as she did there was a clinking sound as something fell from her dress to the ground. The bodyguards were afraid it was some kind of weapon and quickly picked it up. Seeing it was a piece of jade, they handed it to the Emperor.

Qian Long took hold of it, and his face drained of colour. He recognised it instantly as the piece of warm jade he had given to Chen on the breakwater at Haining. When he had presented it, he had told Chen to give it to the lady of his heart as an expression of love.

"Do you know him?" he asked, flustered. He paused for a second, then said: "Where did this piece of jade come from?"

Princess Fragrance put out her hand. "Give it back to me," she said.

Qian Long's jealousy flared. "Tell me who gave it to you and I will return it."

"My husband gave it to me."

Qian Long was greatly surprised by this reply.

"Are you married already?"

"I have not married him in body yet, but my heart has long been married to him," she answered proudly. "He is the kindest and bravest person in the world. I know he will rescue me from you. He is not afraid of you and neither am I, even though you are Emperor."

"I know the man you are talking about," he said, his voice full of hatred. "He is the Great Helmsman of the Red Flower Society, Chen Jialuo. He is just a bandit leader. What is so special about him?"

Princess Fragrance's heart leapt for joy at the sound of Chen's name and her face lit up.

"So you know of him too. It would be better if you let me go."

Qian Long looked up and happened to catch a glimpse of his own face in a dressing table mirror. He thought of Chen, his features handsome and cultured, equally versed in scholarship and the martial arts and knew he was no match for him. Full of jealousy and hatred, he threw the jade piece at his image and smashed both it and the mirror, covering the floor in broken glass. Princess Fragrance rushed forward to pick up the jade, which was unharmed, and wiped it lovingly, making Qian Long even more angry. With a stamp of his foot, he stormed out of the room and down the stairs.

He went to the quiet study where he usually read and wrote poetry, and spotted a half-written poem on the desk entitled 'The Precious Moon Pavilion': "The Fairy Princess is in the Pavilion, A vision from the Son of Heaven's dreams of former days."

Now, in a flash of anger, he ripped the poem up, and then sat in silence for a long time.

Slowly, his temper cooled, and he thought: "I am the Son of Heaven, I am all-powerful. So it finally comes out that this barbarian girl's stubbornness is the result of interference by Chen Jialuo. His appeal to me to drive the Manchus out of China is a good idea, but if things do not go as planned, not only will the affair end in failure, but could end my life as well. I've been debating this matter for months now, unable to come to a decision. What should I do?"

And another thought rushed to the fore: "I can do whatever I like already, and if this affair is successful, it could mean I would be controlled by these people. Can I allow myself to become a puppet? Why abandon concrete assets for the sake of improving my reputation? This Muslim girl thinks of nothing but him. All right, we'll settle these two matters together."

He told a eunuch to call for Bai Zhen who appeared shortly afterwards. "Station four top-ranking bodyguards on each floor of the Precious Moon Pavilion and another twenty outside," he ordered. "There must be no slip-ups of any kind." Bai Zhen bowed. "And call for Chen Jialuo again. I have important business to discuss with him. Tell him to come alone."


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