They were walking back to the main streets, which were becoming quieter as people left for their homes.
Ying Lang trudge with the three, his boots squeaking with water as he went. He shivered and glared at Hua Er and opened his mouth. Hong Yan Su slung an arm over Ying Lang’s shoulder. “You’re quite lucky.”
Ying Lang turned his fierce gaze at Hong Yan Su, “I looked like a wet fool, how am I lucky?”
Hong Yan Su sighed, “Better lucky than dead. This master who threw the dagger at you, threw only a warning shot. Had he really wanted you dead, you would be at the bottom of the pool, instead of what you are now, a laughingstock for the entire city to look at.”
Hua Er smiled at Hong Yan Su, it was true that she had not thrown the dagger to kill, but she had been surprised by how fast Ying Lang had been able to catch it. Hua Er glanced at her mistress, they were still in their male disguises, but with the deepening night, they need to get back to the palace as soon as possible. The only princess and royal child of the king should not be wandering in the city at night.
The celebration was winding down as the moon shimmered in the cloudy sky. Lanterns still glowed brightly as stragglers faded from the streets. Their small group was walking silently towards their mounts when they heard the hard gallop of horses and a retinue of Imperial guards charging towards them. Hong Yan Su and Ying Lang both gripped their swords, their eyes alert.
The captain jumped down and bowed as he reached Hong Yan Su. He took out his imperial badge to show them who he was, “Commander Hong, Captain Shan. We’ve received urgent news from the border. The emperor has ordered that you both see him immediately. You will take these horses and ride back into the palace. My guards and I will see to the safety of your guests.” He gestured to Yu Zhu and Hua Er.
Hong Yan Su hesitated, he did not want to leave Yu Zhu. But Yu Zhu shook her head and told the young men, “Go, if the King is calling you back in such a hurry, something bad must have happened. The royal guards will protect us.” Hong Yan Su nodded. He and Ying Lang leapt onto the horses and galloped off into the night.
The captain turned to Hua Er and Yu Zhu, “We’ve been ordered to take you back to the palace via the secret route, but we can go at a slower pace. I know you have guards of your own; I’ve sent them to scout the route. All my men are the best of the royal guards, you will be safe” Hua Er and Yu Zhu nodded.
They rode out of the town and into the dark bamboo forests, which led to the secret entrance of the palace. Soon, thick clouds covered the luminous moon as their little group trotted down the secret path, accompanied by the sounds of hooves and crickets.
Hua Er was nervous, she didn’t like the thought of having to return to the palace so late. If only Yu Zhu had not wandered off on her own. Perhaps they should have stayed in town tonight. No, she decided, the sooner they get back to the safety of the palace, the better.
Suddenly, a muffled cry and a heavy thud came from their right. An arrow had sprouted out of the captain’s shoulder. Hua Er wasted no time and shoved Yu Zhu’s head lower so that she was crouching on her horse. More arrows flew around them as Hua Er slapped Yu Zhu’s horse into a gallop. They were still too far from the palace. They would have to go back to the city. Swords were drawn as assassin flew from the trees down like giant crows. Swords clanged and metal bit into flesh, the tang of blood invaded the air.
Hua Er and Yu Zhu rode for their lives as screams from soldiers and assassins punctuated the hoof beats of their horses. An arrow whizzed by her head and Hua Er withdrew her sword. Soon black arrows rained thick around their horses, but none reached the girls. They want her alive, Hua Er realized. As they rode on, Hua Er saw the soft glow of light of the city as they neared the exit of the bamboo forest. Her horse faltered and stumbled, it had been hit with an arrow. Yu Zhu grabbed Hua Er, and Hua Er leapt onto Yu Zhu’s horse.
Hua Er glanced back and saw with relief that three of their own guards had followed them out of the forest.
Up ahead, a mile before the city gates, 13 assassins stood in wait for them, arrows trained on their horse. The ground was littered with the bodies of the city guards. Yu Zhu calmly slowed her horse. Their royal guards caught up to Hua Er and Yu Zhu, their faces as cold as ice, their swords flowing with the blood of the assassins.
A masked man on a midnight horse rode forward, his battle ax swinging menacingly by his side, “Princess, we would like to have a word with you. If you come with us, we’ll even let you keep your pretty little servant. The guards, unfortunately, we’ll have to kill.” The assassin gestured lazily to Hua Er. Behind them, seven assassins had followed them out of the forest.
The dark assassin continued, “I have to give it to your guards, they are very well trained, they even killed the men I put in the forest, but no matter. We’ll get what we came for.” He glared at Yu Zhu. “Come quietly, and no one will die.”
One of the three guards whispered to Yu Zhu, “Princess, we will fight to the death for you. When I give the signal, you and your servant must ride for all your worth for the city.” Then in unison, the guards leapt of their horses and charged the assassins.
Hua Er spurred the horse into a gallop as she and Yu Zhu charged for the city gates. Hua Er deflected as many sword blows as she could as they rode past the fighters. An assassin cut into their horse’s leg. Yu Zhu and Hua Er leapt off their horse. Hua Er withdrew a dagger and thrust it into the chest of the assassin who blocked their way into the city. She felt the sudden sharp pain and realized that the dying assassin had left a deep cut in her leg. The three royal guards were blocking most of the assassins from approaching the pair, but they were weakening.
Hua Er felt within the pockets of her robes and found their last hope. She had prepared these in advance should she and the princess meet any trouble.
Hua Er withdrew the smoke bombs from her robes and threw it on the ground. She and Yu Zhu headed into the city in the ensuing confusion.