The Phantom General

Dayan rode back to the valley at full speed after receiving an urgent message from Dash. His father awaited him at Bart's cottage.
"Father, what did your message mean?" Dayan asked anxiously, leaping off his horse. "What has happened?"
Dash threw up his hands. "You are alone? Where are the others?"
"They went to call in other mountain units for training. There is no way to contact them. What has happened?"
"Romelle and her father have disappeared. No one has seen them for several days. Rebel is gone, too, and the horses."
Dayan frowned. "What about Doctor Chavadzy?"
Dash started. "I thought he went with you!"
"Oh, no, I asked him to stay. to leave for Europe with Doctor Bart. I asked Chavadzy to stop them. He must have failed."
"Impossible, son! None of them, certainly not Bart, would have left without advising me. Their things are still here. Something terrible has happened. I know it!"
Dayan sat down heavily on the steps of the cottage, covering his face with his hands.
"It cannot be, Father," he said in a muffled voice. "It cannot be that my golden poppy is....."
"Dayan, you have not fallen in love with Romelle, have you?"
Dayan sighed. He dropped his hands away. His eyes were red from silent weeping.
There was no need of words for Dash to know the answer.
He touched his son's shoulder encouragingly. "She could not be dead. God would not have it so. He has spared her again and again, I thought, for the sake of the ruby. I see now that destiny has not given its final twist. Come, let us try to divine what fate has in store."
Dayan stood up, inspired by his father.
"I left two of my best men at the gate of the compound," he said, strength returning to his voice. "No one could have gone past them. Let's have a look out front."
Both men mounted their horses and proceeded to the gate. Dayan had only to glance down to discover an indication of mayhem.
"There is a track of heels dragged though the dust to that point behind the wall, Father. The flat bottoms of Mongol boots would not leave such a trail. No, these were high-heeled, in the Western style. The Living Buddha threw a pair out of his palace window on a Giveaway Day a few months ago. My man caught them. He was very proud of them."
Dismounting, Dayan traced the trail to an inside corner of the compound. Dash followed. "Why would they take time to drag him in here, son? They doubtless attacked at night, struck both of your men down, and may have left substitutes to deceive Bart. I should think they would have loaded their victims on horses and quickly taken them away."
Dayan reflected for a moment. "The boots, Father! I'll wager one of them dragged my man out of sight in order to steal his boots unobserved. There's always traffic this close to the caravansary. It would have looked odd to a passerby. It might have aroused suspicion."
"Excellent, son! I shall thank God for giving us a good start!"
Dash took a prayer wheel from his sleeve and whirled it, singing the mantra, "Om mani padme hum, Ah, the jewel is in the lotus!"
"And that evil Manchu's feet are in a godly man's shoes!" declared Dayan. "I can find him now! He will wear those boots to show off, thinking no one will know where they came from. Thank you, Father, for your prayer. You were right. God is still with Romelle. My darling is alive, and I shall find her somewhere near the vain fool who is wearing those American cowboy boots! I am convinced of it!"
He sprang upon his horse.
"Wait for me, son," begged Dash.
Dayan shook his head. "No, Father, I can't allow it. You are too precious to the country. If something were to happen to me, I could be replaced, but you....."
"Let me get you some help," Dash insisted. "It's obvious there were several assailants. Look how the grass is trampled all around the gate. The Manchus probably pretended to be shepherds drunk on koumiss, rowdies who knocked each other about while your unsuspecting guards looked on with tolerant smiles. And then....."
"I can't wait, Father," protested Dayan. "God has given the clue quickly for a reason. He has called me to this mission. Pray for me. Pray for our country. Perhaps He is calling us to war now that the Golden City has been found. Perhaps I am to engage in the first real battle for our independence. Have I not been called to save the Lady Tara, our blessing of God?"
Dash sighed. "I see that I cannot stop you. Let God lead you, son. I shall pray for you."
Pulling the hood of his lama's robe forward to conceal his face, Dayan rode out to the road.
He looked in both directions.
If I were these Manchus with a precious cargo of humanity to hide, he thought, where would I go? Damba's family occupies the entire southern quarter of the valley. His sister is married to a Manchu prince. There are many collaborators there. Is that where they went? No, or Damba's spies would have gone to my father with the news.
He rode slowly to the caravansary and tethered his horse by the road. He wandered among the stalls as if looking for something to buy.
He feigned admiration of a woman's bejeweled headdress, an elaborate affair.
"How much?" he asked the seller, furtively glancing at the man's boots.
The seller laughed. "Three hundred horses, Holy One! A bit steep for a priest, I should say! What would you want with a woman's headdress anyway? Now, here is something you can use - a two-horse snuff bottle of red crystal. It will make a grand souvenir of the ruby ray, very suitable for a holy person like yourself."
The man twisted off the cap of the chunky bottle and lifted it to Dayan's nose. Not addicted to the popular Mongolian habit, Dayan sneezed violently, waving it away in desperation.
Realizing he had gone too far, the seller became contrite. "Oh, forgive me, Holiness. That was very rude. Please, sir, take it. No horses required. In exchange, just give me your blessing. I admit it's very strong snuff, but the bottle is beautiful. You can always give it to some deserving person."
He would not be dissuaded. Dayan finally accepted, and slipped the snuff bottle into a pocket.
He made his way through the crowd milling about the caravansary bazaar until he found himself standing before the stone Foo Dogs that marked the entry to China Town. The ferocious-looking creatures stood guard on either side of an elaborate peilou, or ceremonial gate. Their grimaces made it clear that anyone not Chinese would be tolerated only as a visitor in the block-long street.
Dayan felt drawn to the settlement.
He strolled along a wooden walkway in the shade of roofing that extended to the street, a concession to certain Chinese ladies who affected pale complexions sheltered from the sun. Several such women dwelt in a traditional House of Flowers midway down the street.
It was there Dayan was attracted as if to a magnet. He was passing it when a surly customer shouldered through the swinging doors, allowing him a glimpse inside.
He suddenly imagined he heard his father's voice chanting, "Ah, the jewel is in the lotus!"
Yes! They have brought her here! Where better to hide the jewel than amongst these pale lotus blossoms, where a woman's cry of fear or pain might be mistaken for a bout of lovemaking?
He stepped in.
In that instant, he saw the boots. The man wearing them sat at a mah-jongg table near the door.
A small Chinese woman, plump as a peach, rushed to greet Dayan. Her smile sparkled, but her eyes were hard. She addressed him in flawless Mongolian.
"Ah, Your Holiness, we seldom see one of your kind in here. In Urga, it is another story. Why, you would be surprised at the number of churchmen received privately there. Our girls are very discreet, even here in the country. We have one young flower just out from our main house in Peking. She's a Soochow beauty! Truly a treasure, sir."
Her sharp little eyes noted his furtive glances at the gambler in the stolen boots. "Our players use only Chinese cash. We do not take horses, or even blessings, here!"
He shrugged. "I have no cash. I am just a simple priest."
She looked outraged. "What are you doing in here, then? How dare you waste my time! Get out!"
The swinging doors opened, and a man entered from outside.
Dayan drew a sharp breath. He recognized the Manchu captain with the long, ugly scar.
The man gazed directly into Dayan's face, and stopped. He stared. His brow knitted with the frown of a provocative question, until the answer lit up his eyes. His reaction was swift. He took flight toward a stairway leading downward from the rear.
With equal swiftness, the gambler sprang toward Dayan. He had read his leader's signal well. He had armed himself in an instant, but Dayan's foot left the floor at the same time and smashed the gambler breathless against the wall. With a furious cry, Dayan brought the edge of his hand down on the gambler's skull. The man crumpled to the floor.
Only a fraction of time had passed. The Chinese woman had not yet screamed.
She did, however, when Dayan bounded toward the stairway, stripping off his lama's robe as he went. Under it, he wore the traditional Mongol warrior's suit of leather and mail. She saw him reach into his breastplate and extract a knuckle-cover bristling with spikes, as deadly a weapon in hand-to-hand combat as ever was conceived. Before he disappeared down the staircase, he had made of himself a machine of certain death.
Another armed Manchu met him halfway down. Too quick for him, Dayan leapt past as the weapon fired. The last thing the would-be killer saw was the fury on Dayan's face and the knuckles of spikes aimed at his eyes. Dayan picked up the gun.
An eerie silence fell.
A long corridor of closed doors confronted him. He moved slowly along the row, his senses primed for an attack from any direction.
Abruptly, words erupted from his brain to his throat without warning.
"Romelle, where are you?" he shouted. "I love you! You are my life!"
A door flew open at the other end, facing into the hall. The scarred Manchu leered at him from inside the room. Romelle, her bandage askew and fresh blood seeping from her wound, stood clasped against him. His revolver pointed to her temple.
"If you love her, you do not wish to see her die," he said. "Drop that gun."
Dayan obeyed.
"All we want is the ruby and the meaning of the red ray," the captain continued. "I warn you, there are soldiers on the way to this valley. We are determined to accomplish our goal. We have the power of the Chinese Empire behind us. The Emperor is only a child, but we have access to his Imperial Seal. If you do not procure the ruby for us, we will issue a Scarlet Decree ordering every one of Dragon's Heart's inhabitants killed. So, you see, thousands of lives are at stake. Does she live, or die?"
Dayan's heart raced. He fought down a raging desire to fling himself at the man and take a chance on saving Romelle, even at the cost of his own life.
Lady Tara, you are the goddess of wisdom. I pray you, make me wise.
As if in answer to his plea, an idea came. "I have the ruby with me," he said.
The Manchu smirked in disbelief. "Show it to me!"
Dayan reached for his pocket.
The captain pressed the gun against Romelle with renewed vigor. "No tricks, or she dies!"
Dayan nodded. He withdrew the snuff bottle of red crystal, praying the distance was great enough and the light dim enough to fool the Manchu.
"Bring it closer," the man grumbled.
Dayan moved forward slowly.
No sooner had he reached the open doorway than a loud whistle rang out.
The Manchu looked away from Dayan, into the depths of the room. It proved to be his last moment on earth.
Dayan left the floor as if he had taken wing. One foot knocked the gun from the Manchu's hand, and the other struck his chin hard enough to break both jaws. The Manchu crashed against the wall, bursting his cranium like an overripe melon. Dayan completed a perfect somersault, landing on both feet.
Romelle had fallen to the floor, but she was conscious.
Dayan still clutched the snuff bottle in his hand.
He held it out to her.
She took it from him with a sigh of relief. "I shall keep this all my life."
"The whistle?" he asked. "Where did it come from?
Bart emerged from the shadows of the room, his childhood whistle dangling from a chain looped around his finger. "My daughter brought the sacred ruby to Dragon's Heart, but this is what she brought to me."
Dayan helped Romelle stand.
"You have been wounded," he lamented.
"I fell the first day, but I was recovering until this dreadful man ran in a few minutes ago and jerked me to his side. But you...what you said from the hallway....I don't understand...a can't...I mean your vows.....and the way you are dressed, like a soldier in the times of Mongol conquest. I simply do not understand!"
Dayan bowed low before her. "I vow to love you for the rest of my days. That is the only vow that matters to my heart. As for the uniform..." he turned to her father, "...tell her, sir. It is time she knew."
Bart cleared his throat and stepped nearer. "Romy, you were not wrong when you saw Prince Dayan as a soldier. Even to the costume, Dayan is an embodiment of his ancestor, Jenghiz, the Great Khan. This man who saved our lives may also be the savior of Mongolia. Dayan is not a lama. That has only been his disguise. The man who stands before you is the Phantom General himself."
Romelle gasped. Added to the horror of the last few days, not to mention the last few minutes, the implications of the discovery were too much for her. For the first time in her life, she fainted.
Dayan caught her as she fell. He carried her up the stairs and into the street. The Chinese hostess, terrified by all she had seen, ran ahead of him screaming and begging for her life. With a glower, Dayan spoke in a thundering voice, "Get out of my country, you whore, and take your flower girls with you, or surely you will die!"
The woman rushed back inside, shouting for everyone to pack.  

Table of Contents · Continue