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The sky gradually became light and Qian Long watched the sun rising from the east as the eunuchs laid out the Imperial breakfast for him. It consisted of many delicacies, but he found it difficult to swallow them. With Chen and Princess Fragrance gone, he felt nervous and unsettled.

That day, he did not grant an audience to his ministers, and spent his time napping fitfully. On several occasions, he sent guards out to search for news, but the sky grew dark and the moon sailed up over the palace walls, and still none of them had returned to report.

He started to become extremely anxious and tried to calm himself by staring fixedly at the desert murals on the walls of the Precious Moon Pavilion.

"Seeing as she likes him, she will certainly like Chinese clothes," he thought. "When they return he will already have convinced her, so why don't I take off these Manchu clothes and put on something Chinese to give her a surprise?"

He ordered his eunuchs to find him some, but where would Chinese clothes be found in the heart of the Manchu court? Finally, one bright young eunuch ran over to the theatre troupe and brought back a theatrical costume, which he helped Qian Long to don.

Qian Long examined himself in front of a mirror, and was delighted by his dashing appearance. Then he noticed a few white hairs amongst his whiskers and urgently ordered the young eunuch to get a pair of tweezers to pull them out.

Just as he was sitting with bowed head to allow the eunuch to remove the offending hairs, he heard the patter of light footsteps behind and another eunuch announced: "Her Highness the Empress Dowager has arrived."

Qian Long started in surprise. He looked up and saw the Dowager's image in the mirror, her face stern and pale and full of anger.

"I trust you are well, Madame?" he said, hurriedly turning to face her. He escorted her to the couch where she took a seat, and then dismissed the eunuchs with a wave of her hand.

There was a moment's silence.

"The slaves say you have not been well today," she began in a deep voice. "They said you did not hold court this morning and haven't eaten, so I have come to see you."

"I am better now," he replied. "It was just that I ate something fatty which made me a little uncomfortable. It was nothing. I would not have dared to have bothered Your Highness about it."

"Huh! Was it Muslim fat or Chinese fat?" she said, to Qian Long's consternation.

"I think some roast lamb I ate last night disagreed with me," he replied.

"That is one of our Manchu dishes. Huh! You seem to be tired of being a Manchu."

Qian Long did not dare to say anything.

"Where is that Muslim girl?" the Empress Dowager asked.

"She was in a bad mood so I sent her out with someone who can talk some sense into her."

"She has a knife, and would clearly prefer to die rather than give in to you. What use is there in getting someone to talk to her? Who did you send?"

Qian Long noticed anxiously how close her questioning was becoming.

"An old guard officer, surnamed Bai," he replied.

The Dowager looked up and let the silence hang for a moment. Then she laughed coldly. "You are the Emperor, the master of all under heaven. You can do whatever you like, and concoct whatever lies you like, too."

Qian Long knew the eyes and ears of the Dowager were many and guessed he probably would not be able to deceive her about this affair. "The other person I sent with the girl," he answered quietly, "was a scholar I met in the south, who is very learned…"

"It's someone from the Chen family of Haining, isn't it?" the Dowager's voice rasped out sharply.

Qian Long hung his head, not daring to utter a sound.

"No wonder you've put on Chinese clothes. Why haven't you killed me yet?" Her voice had become even harsher. Qian Long knelt down in fright and began kowtowing frantically.

"May I be damned by Heaven and Earth if I have been unfilial in any way," he said.

The Dowager flicked up the long sleeves of her gown and walked out. Qian Long rushed after her, then stopped when he realised he was still wearing the Chinese costume. To be seen wearing such clothes would not do at all, so he hurriedly changed back into his usual gown and rushed out after the Dowager. He found her in a side room of the Martial Hero Pavilion.

"Please don't be angry, Madame," he pleaded. "I have committed some errors and would willingly accept your criticism."

"Why have you called that man Chen into the palace several days running?" she asked coldly. "And what happened in Haining?" Qian Long hung his head and was silent.

"Do you really intend to restore the Chinese style of dress?" she shrieked. "Are you going to kill every one of us Manchus?"

"Please don't listen to the nonsense spouted by servants," he replied, his voice shaking. "How could I plan to do such a thing?"

"How do you intend to deal with this man Chen?"

"His society is large and widespread and many of his followers are martial arts masters who would die for him, so I have been polite to him throughout while waiting for an opportunity to deal with them all at once. I want to remove the roots as well as chopping off the grass."

The Dowager's expression softened slightly. "Is this true?"

Qian Long knew the secret had leaked. With no room left to maneouvre, he decided he had no choice but to swear to destroy the Red Flower Society.

"I will see to it that Chen is beheaded within three days," he said.

The shadow of a smile appeared on the Dowager's forbidding face. "Good," she said. "Only then will you be holding to the wishes of our ancestors." She stood up. "Come with me," she added.

She stood up and walked over to the main hall of the Martial Hero Pavilion with Qian Long close behind. As they approached, a eunuch gave a shout and the huge doors were opened. Inside the brightly-lit hall, two files of eunuchs stretched away from the entrance towards eight princes kneeling on the floor to receive the Emperor. The Dowager and Qian Long walked over to two chairs on the dais in the centre of the hall and sat down. Qian Long saw all eight princes were of the immediate Imperial family, including his own brothers. He wondered uneasily what the Dowager was planning.

"When the late Emperor passed away," she began slowly, "he left orders that the command of the Imperial Banner troops should be divided amongst eight members of the Imperial family. But because of the constant dispatch of forces to the Muslim border regions in the past few years, it has never been possible to act on the Emperor's last wish. Now, thanks to the blessed protection of the Ancestors, the Muslim areas have been pacified, and from today, the leadership of the Banners will be divided amongst the eight of you." The princes kowtowed and expressed their great gratitude.

So she has decided to disperse my military strength, Qian Long thought.

"Please make the assignments, Your Highness," the Dowager said to him. He knew he was in a losing position, but he decided that as long as he did not attempt a revolt, a temporary dispersal of military power would be of no great consequence. The Dowager, he could see, had been very thorough, and he guessed that she had also made preparations in case he refused. So he assigned each of the eight princes to be commander of one of the Banners.

Meanwhile, the eight princes, all full of curiosity, were thinking: "Based on the wishes of the founder of our dynasty, three of the Banners should be under the direct leadership of the Emperor, and the other five subordinate to them. The Dowager's action to divide the Banners among us is a serious violation of rules laid down by the Ancestors and is obviously intended to weaken the Emperor's power." None of them dared to directly refuse the Dowager's command, but all decided it would be best to return the command to the Emperor the following day in order to avoid the possibility of execution.

The Dowager signalled with her hand and one of the princes came forward holding a tray on which was placed a small iron box. He knelt before her and she picked the box up and opened it, and took out a small scroll. Qian Long glanced at it out of the corner of his eye and saw the inscription, written in the Emperor Yong Zheng's hand, read "Posthumous Edict." Next to this was a line of smaller characters: "If there should be any political changes, the eight princes who lead the Banners must gather together and open this."

Qian Long's face drained of colour as he realised his father had long ago taken precautions to guard against his secret ever being revealed. If he dared to alter in any way the instructions of his ancestors, let alone attempt to overthrow the Manchus, the eight Banner commanders would be required to dispose of him and set up a new Emperor. He steadied himself.

"The late Emperor was far-sighted indeed," he said. "If I can match even a ten thousandth of his abilities, then you have no need to worry further, Madame."

The Dowager passed the scroll to the most senior of the eight princes and said: "Take this edict of the late Emperor and have it placed in the Lama Temple. Assign one hundred bodyguards to guard it day and night." She hesitated for a moment, then added: "They are not allowed to leave their posts for a second, even if ordered to do so by the present Emperor."

The prince complied with her command and left with the scroll for the Lama Temple. The temple was in the northern part of the city near the Gate of Serenity, and had been used by the Emperor Yong Zheng as his home before ascending the throne. After he died, Qian Long had had the residence expanded and turned into a Tibetan Lamaist temple in memory of his grandfather.

Her arrangements complete, the Dowager yawned lazily. "The achievements of our Ancestors must be safeguarded," she sighed.

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