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5

When Chen received the Imperial Command, he went to discuss the situation with the others. Master Lu and Wen were worried that the order to go alone could indicate a trap.

"The fact that he calls me back so soon after receiving the evidence I gave him must mean he wants to talk about it," said Chen. "This is the big chance for us to recover China for the Chinese. I have to go no matter what dangers are waiting for me. Second Brother," he added turning to Priest Wu Chen. "If I don't return, please take over command of the Red Flower Society and avenge me."

"Don't worry, Great Helmsman," the priest replied, deeply moved.

"There's no need to wait for me outside the palace this time. If he means to harm me, there is no way you could help me and trying would just cause needless casualties."

By the time Chen re-entered the forbidden precincts of the palace with Bai Zhen, it was already dark. Two eunuchs carrying lanterns led them through webs of tree-branch moon shadows to the Precious Moon Pavilion. This time, they ascended to the fourth floor, and as soon as the eunuchs reported Chen's arrival, Qian Long ordered him sent in. He was seated on a couch in a small room, a far-away look in his eyes. Chen knelt and kowtowed and Qian Long told him to be seated. He was silent for a while. Chen looked around him and noticed a poetic couplet on the wall written by Qian Long himself.

"What do you think?" Qian Long asked, seeing him reading the couplet.

"Your Highness has high aspirations and the spirit of an Emperor of great courage and intelligence. When the Great Endeavour is successfully accomplished, and the Manchus have been driven from China, your merit will far exceed even the Han dynasty emperor who expelled the Tartars or the Ming dynasty emperor who threw out the Mongols, and will be remembered for ten thousand generations."

Qian Long was delighted to hear such praise. He smiled and stroked his whiskers. "You and I may be servant and master, but in spirit we are brothers," he said after a moment's contemplation. "In future, you must assist me well."

Chen was overjoyed to hear these words: From his tone, Qian Long did not appear to be planning to go back on his oath. His doubts dispersed, Chen knelt down once again and kowtowed.

"Your Highness's wise decision is truly a great blessing for the people," he said.

Qian Long sighed. "I may be the Son of Heaven, but I am not as fortunate as you," he said. Chen wondered what he meant. "In August last year, when we were in Haining, I gave you a piece of jade," he added. "Do you have it with you?"

Chen was startled. "Your Highness told me to pass it on to someone else, and I have already done so," he replied.

"You standards are very high. Whoever it is must be one of the world's most beautiful women."

Chen's eyes reddened. "Unfortunately, I do not know if she is dead or alive, or where she might be. When our business is concluded, I will search to the ends of the earth to find her."

"Do you love this lady deeply?"

"Yes," said Chen quietly.

"The Empress is a Manchu, you know that?"

"Yes."

"She has served me for a long time and is very virtuous. If we go ahead with this plan, she will certainly fight to the death. What do you think should be done?"

Chen was unable to answer. "Your Highness's opinions are sacred," he finally said. "Your servant would not dare make any reckless suggestions."

"I cannot allow the nation to be split in two. This consideration has made me very hesitant of late. Also, at present I have a personal problem which unfortunately no-one can help me with."

"I will do whatever Your Highness orders."

"Gentlemen should not snatch prized possessions from others, but this is something decided by Fate," replied Qian Long. "Ah, when one's love is concentrated on one person, what can one do? Go over there and take a look."

He pointed to a doorway on the western side of the room, then stood up and walked out.

Chen was greatly confused by this strange speech, but he calmed himself and pulled aside the thick door curtain. He walked slowly through into what he saw was an extremely sumptuous bed chamber. A red candle burned in the corner, and a girl in a white gown sat staring at its flame.

Suddenly seeing Princess Fragrance in the depths of the Imperial Palace, Chen was dumbfounded. He swayed unsteadily and was unable to speak. Upon hearing the footsteps, Princess Fragrance had grasped the dagger hilt tightly. Then she looked round to see the very person she had been dreaming of day and night. Her angry glare immediately melted into an expression of delight. She cried out and threw herself across the room into Chen's arms.

"I knew you would come and save me," she cried. "I waited patiently, and finally you have come."

Chen held her warm body tightly. "Are we dreaming?" he asked. She looked up and shook her head as tears began to course down her cheeks.

Chen's first thought was that the Emperor had found out she was the lady of his heart and had brought her from the Muslim areas to be with him. He put his arms around her waist and then unself-consciously kissed her on the lips. In the midst of the sweetness of the long kiss, they became oblivious to everything around them.

After a long, long time, Chen finally looked at the pink flush on her cheeks. Behind her on a dressing table, he noticed a broken mirror, and the image of them both embracing in each segment.

"Look," he whispered. "There are one thousand me's, and every one is holding you."

Princess Fragrance glanced at the broken mirror, and then pulled the piece of warm jade from her pocket.

"He stole my jade piece and broke the mirror with it," she said. "Luckily it wasn't damaged."

"Who?" Chen asked, startled.

"That evil emperor."

"Why?" Chen asked, even more astonished.

"He bullied me, but I said I wasn't afraid because I knew you would rescue me. He was very angry and tried to grab me, but I have this dagger."

"Dagger?" he repeated distantly.

"Yes. I was with my father when they killed him. He gave me this dagger and told me to kill myself if the enemy violated me. People who commit suicide are sent to Hell, but if they are girls dying to protect their virtue then Allah makes an exception."

Chen looked down and wondered how many times this weak, naive girl had come close to death in the past few months. His heart was filled with love and pain and he embraced her again. After a while, he steadied himself and began to carefully consider the situation.

He now realized that Qian Long had had Princess Fragrance brought to Beijing because he wanted her himself. He had obviously ordered the construction of a desert in the Imperial Gardens to try to please her. But she had sworn never to give in. He had threatened and cajoled her in every way he could think of, all without effect. That must be why Qian Long had said that he was not as fortunate as himself.

He looked down at Princess Fragrance as he held her and saw she had closed her eyes and was fast asleep. Why did he let me see her? he wondered. He had raised the problem of the Empress and said that if the Great Endeavour was to accomplished, she would have to be discounted, and that a choice would have to be made between family and country. Yes, his meaning is"

He shivered and began to sweat. He felt Princess Fragrance move slightly against him and heard her sigh. A smile appeared on her face like a flower bud opening.

"Should I break with the Emperor for her sake, or ask her to give in to him for the sake of the Great Endeavour?" The thought shot through his brain like a lightning bolt, and he cringed from it.

"She loves me so deeply. She's managed somehow to maintain her virtue for my sake, she believes firmly that I will rescue her. How can I really bring myself to reject her, to betray her? But if I think only of us two, I must break with my brother, and this rare opportunity to recover the throne will be lost. If I did that, would we not be cursed by generations to come?" His brain was in turmoil, and he had no idea what he should do.

Princess Fragrance opened her eyes. "Let's go," she said. "I'm afraid of seeing that evil Emperor again."

"Wait here for a moment. I'll go out for a while then come back." She nodded and took the dagger from his hand, then watched him leave the room with smiling eyes.

He went up the stairs and found Qian Long on the next floor up sitting on a couch, stony-faced and motionless.

"Affairs of state are of more importance than private concerns," Chen announced. "I will urge her to give in to you."

Qian Long jumped up off the couch in delight. "Really?" he exclaimed.

"Yes, but you must swear an oath." Chen stared at him as he spoke.

"What oath?" asked Qian Long, avoiding his gaze.

"If you do not honestly do all in your power to drive the Manchu barbarians out, what then?"

Qian Long thought for a moment. "If that is the case, then no matter how glorious my life may be, may my grave be dug up and my skeleton smashed to pieces."

The grave of an emperor was inviolable. Such an oath was extremely serious.

"All right," said Chen. "I will talk to her. But I will have to do it outside the palace."

"Outside?" Qian Long asked, startled.

Chen nodded. "At the moment, she hates you to her very bones. She won't be able to quietly listen to what I have to say here, so I wish to take her to the Great Wall to explain things."

"Why do you want to go so far?" said Qian Long suspiciously.

"I once promised to take her to the Great Wall. When I have done so, I will not see her ever again."

"You will definitely bring her back?"

"We members of the fighting community consider our word to be worth more than our lives. I will do what I have said."

Qian Long was uncertain of what to do. He wondered how he would ever find this beauty again if Chen escaped with her. But on the other hand, he knew the girl would never give in to him unless Chen could think of a way of convincing her to do so. He was sure Chen was committed to their Great Endeavour and would not give it up just for the sake of a girl.

"All right," he said finally, slapping the table. "Go, both of you."

He waited until Chen had gone, then said to the curtain behind him: "Take forty bodyguards and follow him the whole way. Whatever you do, don't let them get away."

Chen returned to the fourth floor and took hold of Princess Fragrance's hand. "Let's go," The two walked together out of the pavilion and out of the Forbidden City. The guards had already received their orders and made no attempt to stop them. Princess Fragrance's heart was full of joy. She had always believed her knight was capable of doing anything, and was in no way surprised that they could just walk out of the palace gates.

As they reached the outside, the sky was already growing light. Xin Yan was standing close by, the reins of the white horse in his hands, keeping watch, and when he spotted Chen, he rushed over. Seeing Princess Fragrance standing by his master's side, he was even more surprised and delighted.

Chen took the rein from him. "We are going on a trip out of the city for the day," he said. "We won't be back until late evening, so tell the others not to worry."

Xin Yan watched the two mount up and ride off north, and was about to leave when the sound of galloping hooves rose behind him and several dozen palace guards thundered past. He recognised the frail old man leading the troop as Bai Zhen, and returned quickly to Twin Willow Lane to report.

As the white horse left the city, it galloped ever faster. Princess Fragrance, snuggling into Chen's arms, watched the trees on either side of the road zip past, and all the distress and sorrow of the previous few months evaporated. The horse's strong legs carried them quickly past the small villages to the north of Beijing, and as they approached a crossroads, Chen said: "Let's go and see the tombs of the Ming dynasty emperors."

The horse galloped on. Just past the Jade Stone Bridge, they came upon a huge stone monument inscribed with the words: 'The Sacred Tombs of the Great Ming'. On the right-hand face of the monument were several lines of poetry in Qian Long's hand.

"What is it?" Princess Fragrance asked.

"It's a poem written by the Emperor."

"He's vile and horrible. Don't look at it," she urged. She took his hand and they continued on, and soon found themselves walking along an avenue flanked by stone lions, elephants, camels and strange mythical creatures. "I have only this one day left with her so I must make sure she enjoys it," Chen thought. "After today, we will neither of us ever pass another happy day again." So he roused his flagging spirits and smiled.

"You want to ride on the camel, don't you?" he said and lifted her up onto its back and sat behind her. With shouts and calls, they urged the stone camel forward. Princess Fragrance bent over double with laughter, then after a moment she sighed.

"If only this camel could really run and could carry us back to the Tianshan mountains," she said.

"What would you want to do there?"

She looked into the distance. "Oh, I would be very busy. I would have to pick flowers for you to eat, and look after the goats and feed the small deer. And I'd have to visit the graves of my father and mother and brother to keep them company, and think of some way to find my sister"

"What happened to her?" he asked.

"She was ill the night the Manchus attacked. We were split up during the battle and I have heard no news of her since."

Chen was silent as they remounted the horse and started on their way. The road wound upwards and before long they arrived at Ju Yong Pass and caught sight of the Wall, writhing like a long snake through the clusters of hills.

"Why did they waste so much effort to build this thing?" Princess Fragrance asked.

"It was to stop the northern enemies from invading," Chen replied. "Countless people must have died on either side of this wall."

"Men are truly strange. Why don't they all live happily together and dance and sing instead of fighting? I really can't see the point of it all."

"If you ever get the chance, you must tell the Emperor not to make war on the poor peoples of the border areas. All right?"

"I will never see that evil Emperor again," she replied, puzzled by his sudden solemness.

"But if you were able to make him do your bidding, you must urge him not to do bad things, and to do some good for the people. Promise me!"

"What a funny thing to say. Do you really think I would be unwilling to do anything you asked me to do?"

"Thank you," Chen said, and she smiled.

They walked along a stretch of the wall hand-in-hand.

"I just thought of something," said Princess Fragrance.

"What?"

"I am very happy today, but is it because of this beautiful scenery? No. I know it's because I am with you. As long as you are by my side, I would think even the most ugly place on earth was beautiful."

The happier she was, the more uncomfortable Chen felt. "Is there anything you would like me to do?" he asked.

"Oh, but you have already done everything. You have always given me everything I wanted, even without asking for it." She pulled the snow lotus from her pocket. The flower was now dry and withered, but it still possessed a strong fragrance.

"There is only one thing you refused to do," she added with a smile. "And that is to sing me a song."

Chen laughed. "It's true," he said. "I have never sung you a song."

Princess Fragrance pulled a face. "Well, I'm not going to sing for you any more either."

"I remember my mother's maid servant singing several rhymes when I was young. I'll sing one for you now, but you're not allowed to laugh."

She clapped her hands in delight. "All right! All right! Sing!"

He thought for a moment, and then began:

"The light rain falls

The wind blows in squalls

Someone outside saucily calls,

I think it's my loved one,

And softly curse him round and right.

But looking once again

I see it's not, and jump in fright."

After he had finished, Chen explained the words of the song in the Muslim tongue, and Princess Fragrance laughed.

"The lady's eyesight was not too good, apparently," she said.

They explored the top of the wall, which consisted of battlements on the northern side, a stone hand rail on the other and a walkway in between. Every three hundred feet or so, there was a watchtower. They came to a beacon tower, and Chen thought of the time Huo Qingtong had burned wolf dung as part of her plan to destroy the Manchu army. He wondered again if she was alive or dead, and his sadness increased.

"I know what you are thinking," said Princess Fragrance.

"Do you?"

"Yes. You are thinking of my sister."

"How did you know?"

"When the three of us were in the Secret City together, I could see how happy you were in spite of the danger. Oh, you mustn't worry so!"

He took her hand, "What do you mean?" he asked.

She sighed. "In the old days, I was just a child. I didn't understand anything. But every day I was in the Imperial Palace, I thought about the times we were together and realised many things that had not occured to me before. My sister loved you all along, and you love her, don't you?"

"Yes. I shouldn't try to deceive you."

"But I know you truly love me too. And without you, I cannot live. So let's go and find my sister quickly and we can all live happily together forever. Don't you think that would be lovely?"

Her eyes and face radiated happiness. Chen squeezed her hand. "You have thought it out perfectly," he said softly. "You and your sister are the nicest, the best people in the world."

Princess Fragrance stood looking out into the distance, and noticed the sun glinting off a body of water to the west. "Let's go and have a look over there," she said.

They made their way across the hills, and came upon a clear spring bubbling merrily out of a crack in the rocks.

"I will wash my feet here, is that all right?" Princess Fragrance asked.

"Of course," Chen replied with a smile. She took off her shoes and socks and stepped into the water, relishing the coolness as the crystal clear water flowed around her milk-white feet. Chen happened to see his own shadow on the water, and realised the sun was already sinking into the west. He reached into his bag and pulled out some food for them. Princess Fragrance leant against him and wiped her feet dry as she ate.

Chen gritted his teeth. "There is something I must say to you," he said. She turned and put both her arms round him, resting her head on his chest.

"I know you love me," she said quietly. "I understand. You don't have to say it."

He cringed and swallowed what he had been about to say. After a while, he started again: "Do you still remember Mami's last testament that we read inside the White Jade Peak?"

"She is living in Heaven now with her Ali. That's the way it should be."

"You Muslims believe that after good people die, they will live forever in paradise, is that right?"

"Of course that's what happens."

"When I return to Beijing, I will go and find an Islamic Imam and get him to teach me so that I can become a good follower of the Muslim faith," said Chen.

Princess Fragrance was overjoyed. She had never guessed he would be willing to voluntarily join the Muslim faith. "Oh my brother," she said looking up at him. "Will you really?"

"Definitely."

"You're willing to do even that because of your love for me. I never dared to hope for such a thing."

"Because in this life," Chen continued slowly, "we will not be able to be together. So I want to be sure that after death, I can be with you every day."

The words struck Princess Fragrance like a clap of thunder. After a moment's silence, she said in shaking voice: "Youwhat are you talking about? We can't be together?"

"No. After today, we will not be able to see each other again."

"Why?" Her body quivered and two large tears fell onto his gown.

Chen embraced her tenderly. "If it were possible for me to be with you, I would be content even without food or clothing, even if I was beaten and humiliated everyday. But do you remember Mami? The good Mami was willing to leave her true love Ali in order that her tribe would no longer be oppressed and bullied by Sanglaba and was even willing to go and allow herself to be violated by him"

Princess Fragrance's body went limp. "You want me to give in to the Emperor?" she whispered. "You want me to kill him?"

"No, he is my blood brother." He told her everything about his relationship with Qian Long, and the Red Flower Society's plans, about the oath sworn in the Six Harmonies Pagoda, and of Qian Long's demand earlier that day. As he spoke, Princess Fragrance realised that what she had been longing for day and night and thought she had achieved, was slipping from her grasp again. She was overwhelmed by a wave of panic and fainted away.

As she came to, she felt Chen holding her tightly, and was aware of a damp patch on her dress soaked by his tears. She stood up.

"Wait for me here," she said softly, and walked towards a large flat rock in the distance where she prostrated herself in prayer towards the west. She appealed to the True God, Allah for guidance on what she should do. The pale sunlight glanced off her white dress, her back presenting a picture of both great melancholy and warmth. After a while, she walked slowly back.

"Whatever you want me to do, I will do," she announced.

Chen jumped up and ran over to her, and the two embraced each other tightly.

"If I had known we had only today, I would have wanted you to hold me the whole day rather than come here," she whispered. Chen kissed her, unable to answer.

A long time passed. Then suddenly, Princess Fragrance said: "I have not had a bath since I left home. I am going to have one now." She began to take off her outer gown.

Chen stood up. "I'll go over there to wait for you," he said.

"No! No! I want you to watch me. When you saw me for the first time, I was bathing. Today is the last timeAfter you have seen me, I want you to never forget me."

"Do you really believe that I would ever forget you?"

"Please don't go," she pleaded, and there was nothing for Chen to do but to sit down again.

While Chen watched and the mountain spring gurgled, she removed all her clothing piece by piece, until the golden evening sun illuminated one of the world's most beautiful bodies. Chen felt giddy, and hardly dare to look directly at this vision. But he could not fail to notice her innocent, guileless expression, and suddenly thought of her as simply a naked three or four-year-old child. She was so beautiful and so pure.

"To make a body of such incomparable beauty, there must be an all-knowing, all-powerful God in heaven," he thought. His heart was filled with reverence and gratitude.

Princess Frgrance slowly wiped the pearls of water from her body, and then put her clothes back on.

"This body," she thought self-pityingly. "I will never again be able to show it to the one I love."

She rubbed her hair dry and then returned to sit in Chen's embrace.

"I once told you the story of the cowherd and the spinning girl, do you remember?" Chen asked.

"Yes. I remember. You said that although they met only once a year, they still saw each other countless times more than ordinary people."

"Yes. We cannot be together forever, but the True God will make sure we meet again eventually. In the desert, and here, we have been very happy. The time has been short, but we have perhaps had more happiness than many couples who live together for decades."

She listened to his soothing voice comforting her, as the sun slowly sank towards the hills with her heart following it down. Suddenly she jumped up and wailed: "No! The sun is disappearing!"

Chen's heart shattered. "I have asked so much of you!" he exclaimed, taking her hand.

She continued to stare at the point where the sun had gone down. "If only it was able to rise again, even for just a moment," she said quietly.

"It is right that I should undergo hardship for the sake of my people, but you have never even seen them, let alone loved them."

"I love you, so are they not my people too? Do you not love all our Muslim brothers?"

The sky was growing darker. The sun did not rise again, and a wave of coldness touched her heart.

"Let's go back," she said. "I am very happy. My life is fulfilled."

They climbed onto the back of the white horse and started back the way they had come. They were both silent and neither turned back to look at the place of beauty they had just enjoyed.

Less than an hour's ride later, they heard the sound of many galloping hooves in front and several dozen riders emerged out of the evening mist with Bai Zhen in the lead. His face lit up as soon as he saw Chen and Princess Fragrance, and signalling to the others to stop, he leapt off his horse and stood by the roadside. Chen did not even glance at him, but urged the white horse on even faster. Soon after, horses' hooves sounded in front once again, and the Red Flower Society heroes appeared.

"Great Helmsman!" 'Leopard' Wei shouted. "We're all here!"


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