"I am instructed to take you at once to my father," said Damba to Ta.
The two dismounted and bowed to each other in a show of respect. Damba led the way up a short incline to the doorway of his father's yurt. He gestured Ta inside and entered behind him.
The interior seemed dim after the brightness of the morning sun, but Ta's eyes adjusted quickly.
He could make out, on the far side, a portable shrine containing the golden image of a Lamaist saint. Spirit lamps, filled with oil distilled from goat's butter, flickered before it in memory of ancestral shades.
On a silky mound of pillows forming a divan sat Mandorva Khan, an imposing man sixty years of age.
Mustachios drooped from his upper lip to a fringe of whiskers on his jaws. His jet-black hair was gathered tightly into a long queue draped forward across his right shoulder. He sat cross-legged.
Beneath a fitted vest of Siberian tigerskin, his long-sleeved azure gown - worn over pants cut from the same silk - shimmered in the sunlight pouring through the large smoke-hatch at the center of the roof. He wore the usual oversize Mongol boots with upturned, pointed toes, but his were not fabricated of black or brown leather. They were white, and were gaily embroidered with small red flowers. At the center of each blossom was a nugget of pure gold.
The showy elegance of his costume was much at odds with the sinewy ruggedness of the man himself. His weathered face stared back at Ta's like an unyielding crag.
The Manchu prince bowed low from the waist. The gesture elicited no response from Mandorva Khan, a potentate more accustomed to the obsequious deference of a full kowtow - a fall to the knees for a knocking of the head upon the floor.
Damba, on his knees behind the Manchu, cleared his throat as if to inform Ta of this disrespect.
Mandorva Khan raised his hand to stifle the reprimand. Damba remained silent.
"I presume," said the Khan slowly in faultless Manchu, "that you are Prince Ta-Loong of the House of Kang?"
"Your presumption is correct, Sire," returned Ta.
His tone was neither haughty nor groveling, but midway between, which he felt suitable for an Imperial Manchu Prince to use in addressing a barbarian king.
After a short period of reflection, the Khan rose from his divan with the wary grace of a mountain lion. Circling slowly, as if examining prey, he studied Ta intently.
While the Manchu stood in embarrassed silence under this assessment, he noted an unsheathed antique scimitar leaning against the Khan's divan. Sight of the weapon made him feel vulnerable. He thought of the dagger the Chief Eunuch had given him to secrete in his boot.
"You may need this sometime," Li Lien Ying had said while Ta changed clothes at the Forbidden City. "There are bandits...and other dangers...where you are going."
Apparently satisfied with what he saw, Mandorva Khan returned to his divan and sat cross-legged again. A sharp jerk of his head toward Damba indicated that he wished to be left alone with the Manchu. Obediently, Damba left the yurt.
Minutes of silence passed. Ta was not sure that he should speak first.
Finally, sharp words from the Khan jolted Ta out of his quandary. "Young man, have you forgotten why you are here? You carry a scroll from Old Buddha!"
Flushing, Ta fumbled at the frogs of his yellow jacket. "Yes, Sire, this document was given to me by the Chief Eunuch." He pulled the scroll from the secret pocket.
Mandorva Khan did not reach for it. "I know its contents," he said. "Read it."
Ta noted with suspicion that the Khan sat tautly, leaning slightly forward as if poised for a leap.
He glanced down at the scroll, his thoughts wild with speculation. Has that old harridan sent me far from Peking to be murdered by this barbarian? Are they slaughtering my dragoons right now? She could say we were attacked by bandits. Is this Old Buddha's final revenge?
He began to sweat. The unbroken seal of red wax took on the look of a clot of blood. Slowly, he crumbled it away and unrolled the single page.
With an involuntary shudder, he saw that it had been written in cinnabar ink. This constituted a Scarlet Decree, an edict direct from the Dragon Throne. Disobedience to such a fiat carried an irrevocable sentence of death.
As its contents unfolded to his eyes, his face lost color. Apprehension gave way to rage.
Ta began to tremble with the fury of a volcano in eruption.
"Never!" he cried, tossing the edict across the yurt. "I prefer to die with honor than to live under the shadow of this disgrace to my family's name!"
He snatched the Chief Eunuch's dagger from his boot, raising it to his belly. But before he could eviscerate himself, the Khan catapulted toward him like an uncoiling spring and struck the weapon away.
The heavier man knocked Ta to the floor and straddled him, pinning down his arms with his knees.
Damba dashed in at the sound of scuffling and aimed a cocked revolver at Ta's head.
"No!" the Khan shouted to stop his son. "The prince intends harm to himself, not to me. I told you to enter here only when called! Go away! I am still the ruler of Dragon's Heart. My word is still the law!"
Chagrined, Damba fled from the yurt.
"Fortunately, I anticipated your foolish pride," growled the Khan from his perch on Ta's chest. "I cannot allow you the luxury of killing yourself. I am a dealer in horseflesh. Alive, you will bring a hundred thousand horses to me. Dead, you would bring nothing but grief to your poor mother's heart. Has Princess Jasmine not suffered enough from your father's suicide? Do you want her to go through that again? Think beyond yourself!"
At mention of his mother, Ta ceased his struggle and stared up at the craggy face with a mournful look of resignation.
The Khan arose lithely and proffered his hand. "Take it, Great-Dragon. Come, sit with me. Let me speak to you as I think your father would."
With some reluctance, Ta allowed Mandorva Khan to pull him to his feet, and joined him on the pillows.