The baggage carts, traveling ahead of the convoy, had arrived before the breakup. The drivers built a fire for warmth. An hour later, they were ready to set off again.
This time, Romelle refused to board any of the vehicles. Shaking her head, she paced back and forth. "Now I know how Marie Antoinette felt in the tumbrel on the way to the guillotine!" she complained.
"Romy, you must join us in a wagon!" insisted Brad, standing ready to help her in. "It may be crowded, but at least we'll be warm this way."
Orlov had no need of English to tell him what was going on. He tossed a blanket of sables over a horse, mounted, and leaned toward Romelle with hand extended.
She understood, opted for the alternative he offered, and took his hand. She placed her foot in the stirrup, and swung up lithely to sit behind him. With a click of his tongue to the mount, he rode off with his precious cargo.
Rebel gave a suspicious bark.
Defeated, Brad lifted the dog into the wagon with him. "It's not far to the border. If it's any consolation, Rebel, that's where we say goodbye to Lieutenant Orlov. The Manchus won't let the Cossacks in. That's one favor we can thank them for."
They rested the night at the posting station in Kiakhta, a surprisingly pleasant town of small houses lined up in neat rows.
"Any bunk would look good right now," sniffled Brad, developing a cold after his dunk in the Selenga.
"Very well, you may have the bed of nails I see in the corner," conceded Romelle, pointing to a narrow bedstead outfitted with open springs, but no mattress. "You'll find me on that sofa."
Oddly, another corner featured a brightly pillowed, fur-covered Turkish divan. Romelle sat on it with a weary sigh, gave the ruby a reassuring squeeze in its hidden pocket of her cape, and instantly fell sound asleep sitting up. Gently, Brad lifted her legs to the divan and stretched her out, covering her with warm sables.
Rising early in the morning, they reached the frontier at nine. At the border station, Tsarist officers welcomed them with vodka-laced hot tea.
Apprehensive about entering territory governed by the Manchus, Romelle was set at ease when the officers informed the party that the Manchu guards on the other side had been called back to Urga, the capital. Chavadzy told her they had been required to attend a memorial service for a member of China's imperial family, who had died in Peking.
Hardly had she relaxed than he called her attention to a group of horsemen galloping toward them from the Mongolian side. She caught her breath at sight of them, recalling Alexis' mention of the savage warriors of Jenghiz Khan.
The six horsemen wore Roman-style helmets of yellow silk with arched manes of white wool. Two red ribbons fluttered from the back, except for one, whose ribbons were bright blue. Loose chamois trousers bloused out of tan leather boots embroidered with yellow symbols. Chamois tunics split at the sides to facilitate riding, and each man boasted a long sash of red silk wound around the left shoulder, crossing the chest to wrap around his waist. Their short chamois capes flapped wildly as they rode. These were also decorated with red ribbons, save the one with blue.
"Lamas!" spat a Russian officer under his breath. "Filthy priests!"
He looked pityingly at Romelle. "Presumably, your escort, Madame."
Chavadzy wheeled on the officer in a fury. "How dare you speak of our allies that way! I shall report you to His Imperial Majesty! We no longer tolerate such bigotry in the service of the Tsar!"
The officer gaped and lost his color.
Chavadzy turned peremptorily on his heel. He strode outside to greet the new arrivals.
The lama wearing blue ribbons dismounted and approached.
Fascinated by their exotic appearance, Romelle followed Chavadzy to the border marker. Not until she stood at his side did she notice that the marker, a metal pole stretching to both sides of the road, was strung with human skulls. She drew back with a cry of horror, falling into the ready arms of Orlov.
Chavadzy introduced himself imperiously. The lama surveyed him coldly, then stared disconcertingly at Romelle. From the protective arms of Orlov, she stared back. She adjudged him to be in his thirties, as tall as Orlov, as broad about the shoulders as Brad.
She shivered. His lips were set in a hard line, as though they might break if he smiled. The face was broad and clean-shaven, with penetrating eyes accentuated by sharply arched, black brows.
Nothing about you suggests monk or priest as I understand those words. Were a woman to come to you for spiritual solace, would those dark eyes probe so deeply? What could you be thinking that you would look at me this way?
She shivered again, pressing closer to Orlov. She felt his heart pounding in his breast.
Chavadzy waited silently.
A second lama rode forward to the one with blue ribbons and, leaning down from his mount, whispered in Mongolian. The man with blue ribbons nodded, never turning his steady gaze away from Romelle. He cleared his throat. Then, he looked at Chavadzy.
"Magic Wine," said the tall lama, pronouncing the words deliberately, as though they were foreign to him.
"Magic Wine," echoed Chavadzy, relaxing from his taut stance, and inclining toward Romelle. "I do not know this man or his companions, Madame. I had expected some lamas of my acquaintance. He knows the password. I suppose that is good enough."
Chavadzy addressed the lama. "Do you speak English, man? Russian? French?"
There was no response.
The second lama dismounted and addressed Chavadzy. "I speak English and Russian, sir, and passable French. I am fluent in all the Mongolian languages, of which my own is Khalkha. I speak three Chinese languages, and Manchu. My name is not too difficult for foreigners to pronounce. It is Damba."
Romelle gasped. "You are hardly a simple priest, sir! How is it that you defer to this...big fellow...who seems to speak very little at all?"
Damba clasped his hands and bowed from the waist. "This gentleman is my superior in the priesthood. You would be, of course, Madame Romelle. Welcome to my country. Your father does not know that you are on your way. There is no telegraph or telephone service to Dragon's Heart."
"How did you know to come?" she asked.
"We were in the Sacred City, visiting the Living Buddha, when he received the Tsar's coded wire. We have waited for you before we return to the valley of Dragon's Heart."
"Ah!" exclaimed the Russian. "You are, after all, from Dragon's Heart! How is it that I do not know you?"
Damba coughed apologetically. "We are not from there in he sense that you mean, but we visit from time to time. A simple traveling band, we dispense spiritual blessings among the mountain people in exchange for our keep. In secular life, I was indeed one of seven sons of the reigning Khan in the region of Dragon's Heart. I was born in the valley, but I have left all that behind me now."
Chavadzy seemed surprised. "The son of Mandorva Khan?"
"Is his daughter not married to a powerful Manchu prince?" queried Chavadzy incredulously. "Was she not close to Old Buddha?"
Damba nodded again, sadly this time. "You have heard of my family, I see. It is because of such unsavory connections, quite frankly, that I entered the priesthood. I love my country. I do not feel that my worldly family serves it well. Thus, in atonement, I serve God."
"Old Buddha!" exclaimed Romelle. "Have I not just heard you speak of a living Buddha? And a Sacred City?"
Damba smiled. "Yes, Madame, Old Buddha was the Empress Dowager of China, ruler at the Forbidden City in Peking. She died more than two years ago. My sister was her favorite at one time. The Living Buddha, however....."
The tall lama with blue ribbons made a gesture of impatience.
Damba bowed to him.
"We must be on our way," he continued. "Please follow."
Two more lamas hove into view beyond those already at the border, driving a tarantass and a cart. They crossed to collect the luggage, returning with it to the cart.
Damba mounted his horse, as did the tall lama. No further explanations were offered.
Orlov was reluctant to separate himself from Romelle, but a stern glance from Chavadzy led the young Cossack to let his hands fall away from her waist.
He stood back, dropped to one knee, and looked up to her with tears glistering in his eyes.
"The lieutenant...teach...little English," he said haltingly. "I wish...good fortune...safe journey."
Touched to her heart by his devotion, she smiled. "You saved me at the Selenga. Spasibo, thank you."
He dismissed it with a wave. "Nichevo, it is nothing. I would give...life...for you, Madame."
He spoke so plaintively that Romelle leaned down and kissed him tenderly on the forehead.
"Au revoir," she said. "That means we shall meet again. Please tell him, Doctor Chavadzy."
Orlov leapt to his feet, beaming.
"Au revoir!" he shouted exuberantly to the heavens. "We shall meet again!"
He rejoined the other Cossacks.
They got on their mounts and rode back into Russia.