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8

That morning, while the Red Flower Society heroes were discussing the situation in their quarters in Twin Willow Lane, a servant appeared to announced the arrival of the Emeror's chief bodyguard, Bai Zhen. Chen went out alone to meet him. Bai Zhen passed on the Emperor's invitation to all the leading members of the Red Flower Society to attend a banquet in the Lama Temple that evening to be hosted by the Emperor himself. He explained that the banquet was being held outside the palace in order to avoid raising the suspicions of the Empress Dowager and the Manchu nobles. Chen expressed his thanks. He assumed the news indicated Princess Fragrance had already done what had to be done and had given in to the Emperor, and felt an inexpressible mixture of emotions. After having seen Bai Zhen out, he returned to discuss matters with the heroes, who were very excited that the Emperor was keeping his part of the bargain, although they were also painfully aware of the sacrifice Chen had made to make it possible.

They passed the rest of the morning in kung fu training, and Chen showed the others some of what he had learned inside the White Jade Peak. Just as they were in the midst of the practice, they heard wailing and mournful singing outside. At first, they did not take much notice, but the noise gradually increased in volume, as if thousands of people were gathering in an state of extreme grief.

Xin Yan had lived in the desert for a long time and recognised the song as a Muslim funeral dirge. His curiosity aroused, he ran out to find out what was going on, and returned a while later, unsteady on his feet and ashen-faced. He walked over to Chen. "Master!" he exclaimed, his voice shaking.

The heroes stopped their kung fu training, and Chen turned to him. "What is it?" he asked.

"She… Princess Fragrance is dead!"

The heroes blanched. For Chen, everything went black and he collapsed to the ground. Priest Wu Chen dropped his sword and helped him up.

"How did she die?" Luo Bing asked.

"The Muslim I talked to said she stabbed herself to death while praying in the mosque," Xin Yan replied.

"What else did he say?"

"That the Empress Dowager would not let her body back into the palace and had it handed over to the mosque. They are just on their way back from burying her now."

The heroes all cursed the Emperor bitterly for his cruelty in hounding such a pure, innocent young girl to her death. Luo Bing broke down and started to cry. Chen was silent for a while, and then suddenly said to Prist Wu Chen: "I haven't finished showing you all the moves yet. Let us continue."

To their amazement, he walked back out into the middle of the courtyard. Wu Chen decided it would be a good idea to help distract Chen from his grief, so he raised his sword and resumed the training session. The heroes saw Chen's footwork was just as sure as before and his hands moved with the same skill as if the news had had absolutely no effect on him, and they began to quietly discuss it amongst themselves.

"Men have no hearts," Yuanzhi whispered into 'Scholar' Yu's ear. "He thinks only of his great plans for the country, and doesn't care at all about the death of the woman he loved."

Yu said nothing. But he silently praised Chen for his self-control. If it were me, he thought, I think I would immediately go insane.

Aware that a great change had come over Chen, Priest Wu Chen did not dare press him too hard, and in a few moves, Chen had easily gained the upper hand. As the Priest retreated, Chen's hand suddenly shot out and touched his hand. The two leapt apart.

"Good! Excellent!" exclaimed the priest.

"You weren't really trying," Chen replied and laughed. But before the laugh was finished, he vomited a mouthful of blood. The heroes rushed forward as one to help him, but Chen waved them away with a wan smile.

"It's nothing," he said. He walked back into the house, supporting himself on Xin Yan's shoulders.

Chen slept for more than two hours. Upon waking, he thought of all the important things he had to do, including seeing the Emperor that evening, and knew he had to look after himself. But as soon as he thought about Princess Fragrance's tragic death the pain was such that he wanted to end it all. He wondered why she would suddenly commit suicide after clearly agreeing to give in to the Emperor. Could it be that she had changed her mind and decided she could not renounce her love for him? But she knew this was a matter of no small significance. He was convinced that something must have happened, but what? He meditated on the problem for a while but could come to no conclusion, so he took out a set of Muslim clothes he had brought from the northwest and put them on, then blacked his face with some diluted ink.

"I'm going out," he said to Xin Yan. "I'll be back in a while." Xin Yan quietly followed him. Chen, who knew he was simply acting out of loyalty, did not try to stop him.

The streets were full of people and noise, intermingled with many carriages and horses, but in Chen's eyes, all was deserted. He walked into the mosque on the Avenue of Eternal Peace, went straight into the main hall, and threw himself down on the ground to pray. "Wait for me in Heaven," he said quietly. "I promised you that I would be converted to the Islamic faith, and I will make sure that you do not wait in vain."

He raised his head and noticed what looked like an inscription on the floor about five feet in front of him. He went forward to investigate and saw it was several Muslim words etched into the stone with the point of a knife: "Don't trust the Emperor." There was some pigment in the grooves of the words, and Chen started in shock. Looking around, he found a part of the floor nearby that was slightly darker in colour, and thought: "Could this be her blood?" He bent down to smell the patch and caught the tang of fresh blood. In a second, he was overcome with grief and he threw himself on the ground, sobbing.

After crying for a while, he felt someone tap him lightly on his shoulder. He leapt to his feet ready to fight, then started in surprise: it was Huo Qingtong, dressed as a Muslim boy.

She had arrived that day with the Twin Eagles in the hope of rescuing Princess Frangrance, but had heard almost immediately that her sister was dead. She had come to the mosque to pray for her.

Chen noticed two palace guards enter the mosque, and with a tug on Huo Qingtong's sleeve, pulled her down to the ground where they prostrated themselves in prayer.

The guards walked over. "Get up!" they barked. Chen and Huo Qingtong did as they were told and walked over to a window. Behind them, they heard the sound of hammering as the guards used implements to prise up the flagstone on which Princess Fragrance's message was engraved. They carried the stone out of the mosque and rode away.

"What was that?" Huo Qingtong asked.

"If I had been one step late I would have missed the warning she wrote in her own blood and sacrifed her life for."

"What warning?"

"There are too many eyes and ears here," Chen replied. "Let's kneel down on the floor again and I'll tell you." So they prostrated themselves again and Chen gave her a brief account of all that had happened.

"How could you be stupid as to trust the Emperor?" Huo Qingtong declared angrily.

Chen was mortified with shame. "I thought that because he is Chinese, and also my blood brother…" he began.

"And what if he is Chinese? Do you mean to say Chinese are incapable of doing bad? And what use is he going to have for brotherly love, as Emperor?"

"I am responsible for her death," Chen sobbed. "I…I can't bear not to follow her immediately."

Huo Qingtong saw how heartbroken he was and felt she had been too hard on him. "What you did was for the good of the common people," she said softly to comfort him. "You can't be blamed." After a moment's silence, she asked: "Are you going to go to the banquet in the Lama Temple this evening?"

Chen gritted his teeth in rage. "The Emperor will be there, so I'll assassinate him and avenge her death."

"Yes," Huo Qingtong agreed. "And also avenge my father and brother, and all the people of my tribe."

"How did you manage to escape when the Manchu troops attacked?" he asked.

"I was very sick at the time, but luckily I had my troop of bodyguards with me who managed to get me out and took me to my teacher's home," she replied.

Chen sighed. "Your sister said that even if it meant travelling to the ends of the earth, we had to find you." The tears began to stream down Huo Qingtong's face.

They walked out of the mosque and Xin Yan came up to meet them. He was astonished to see Huo Qingtong with Chen.

"Mistress! How are you?" he exclaimed. "I've been thinking of you."

"Well thank you," she replied. "You've grown a lot since I last saw you."

They returned to Twin Willow Lane to find the Twin Eagles of Tianshan in the middle of a heated argument with the heroes. Chen swallowed his tears and told them of the blood-stained words he had seen in the mosque. Bald Vulture slapped the table.

"Didn't I tell you?" he demanded. "Of course that Emperor means us harm. The girl must have obtained some definite proof of it in the palace before she would give her life to let us know." The others agreed.

"When we go to the banquet this evening, we won't be able to carry swords, so everyone prepare daggers or darts," said Chen. "The food and drink may be poisoned so don't allow anything to touch your lips. We have to kill the Emperor tonight for the sake of revenge but we must also plan our escape route."

"None of us will be able to live in central China again," said Bald Vulture. "We should all go to the Muslim regions."

The heroes had long lived in the south of China, and the idea of leaving their home was not easy to accept. But the Emperor was evil and dangerous and bitterly hated by all of them, and everyone was willing to do what was necessary.

Chen ordered 'Leopard' Wei to go to the west gate of the city with several of the heroes and to kill the guards at the right moment to allow them all to escape. He then ordered Xin Yan to arrange for horses to be waiting outside the Lama Temple. Turning to Yu, he told him to immediately inform all the Red Flower Society's members in Beijing and all other provinces to go to ground to avoid being arrested.

The arrangements complete, Chen turned to the Twin Eagles and Master Lu. "I would like to ask you three elders for suggestions on how the assassination should be carried out," he said.

"Isn't it simple?" replied Bald Vulture. "I go up and grab his neck and give it a good twist. That should finish him."

Lu smiled. "I'm afraid you won't get close enough to grab his neck with all the bodyguards he is bound to have around him."

"It would be better if Third Brother attacks him with poisonous darts," suggested Priest Wu Chen. "Even if just one hits the target, that will be enough."

Lu turned to Luo Bing. "You could dip your throwing knives into some poison too, and I could do the same with my Golden Needles," he said.

Luo Bing nodded. "If we all loose our weapons at once, a few at least will hit him no matter how many bodyguards he has," she said.

Chen watched the heroes as they dipped their various weapons into a pot of bubbling poison on the stove, and thought uncomfortably about how the Emperor was born of the same mother as himself. But then he remembered his cruelty and deviousness and his rage burned up again. He drew his dagger and placed it for a moment in the pot of poison along with the others.


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