After spending the remainder of the day with the Khan, Ta passed the night in a large yurt housing a dozen of the potentate's troops. He noticed that Damba was not among them, nor were his own dragoons.
On a comfortable mound of sable pelts, literally surrounded by watchful Mongol eyes, the physically exhausted and emotionally drained young man slept soundly.
Toward morning, he dreamed.
He found himself standing before the door leading to the garden where he had been conceived. Shaped like a keyhole large enough to pass through, it was tightly closed, but through the glass panels above it, Ta could see clouds, and through the glass on either side, large fish, as if the door were partially submerged in water. From far away, he heard a woman's voice intone, "morning cloud and evening rain upon the hill of Wu," a classical euphemism for passionate love. The door sprang open amid a flutter of ginko leaves. His gaze fell upon the ginko tree beneath which his parents gave him life. Abruptly, a portion of the hollow brick wall behind the tree toppled down. An infant lay inside, swaddled in a silken scarf exquisitely embroidered with the phoenixes reserved for the wives of princes in the days of the Ming Dynasty, from whose greatest emperor Ta was in the line of descent. Around the child's neck hung a jade plaque inscribed "Jasmine," the name of Ta's mother. He took the baby in his arms. The phoenix scarf was very old and fell apart at his touch, revealing that the little one was a boy. The baby smiled. Ta kissed him. Suddenly, the infant changed into a bird, and flew away.
Ta woke up with a start, tears streaming down his cheeks, unsure of what he had dreamed.
The first face he saw was Pao's. The intensity of the previous day's events made it seem an eternity since they had parted upon entering the camp. Ta's heart quickened as if at the sight of a dear old friend.
"What a time I had getting past the guards!" Pao complained, squatting beside the bed. "I had begun to despair of ever seeing you again. Yesterday, they told us you were in conference at the big yurt. Last night, they told us you were `indisposed.' That made me suspicious. Coral, the pretty little dumpling who rode in with me yesterday morning, finally told me where you were. I came to the door, but they drew their weapons. I held up my hands to show them I was unarmed, but it did no good. One of them actually pointed a loaded crossbow at me! I thought I had blundered into the past!"
Ta did not mind Pao's banter. He was grateful the dragoon had taken the trouble to find him. Pao gave him the comfort of not being entirely alone.
He lifted up to lean on one elbow and listened as Pao chattered on. "I went looking for Coral, thinking she might get me past the guards, but I was told she was having troubles of her own - something about shirking her responsibilities as someone's maid. I could not find her this morning, either. So I marched over here, determined to fight my way in. What a surprise! There is no one near this yurt but you! The whole camp is in a stew. People are running about everywhere. I cannot tell if there's going to be a wedding or a war!"
Ta lay back on the sable mound with his hands behind his head.
"It is the former, my friend," he sighed. "I am to be married today."
Pao's eyes widened. His mouth fell agape. No words came.
Ta sighed again. "I must tell someone, or I shall surely explode."
He turned his gaze toward the dragoon.
Pao was rapidly regaining his presence of mind. "You may tell me anything, Captain. I would like to be your friend."
The spark passed between them as it had after dinner the first night on the road.
Still cautious, however, Ta shook his head. "I appreciate the sentiment, Lord Pao, but how do I know that you are not a spy for Old Buddha? Perhaps you will tell all when we return!"
Pao snorted. "That vixen will not live forever! People like us will be the ruling class of a new China - great universities, universal suffrage, railroads, telegraphs, telephones, highways, and cars! We shall even invite the Chinese into the government. There will be no more exclusion on the basis of race. You and I must understand each other better than men have before. Your foreign education makes you more precious than the rest of us. Men of your sort must be protected from Old Buddha so that you can at last lead us into the twentieth century, even if we are a few years late."
"You are speaking treason," cautioned Ta. "For such ideas, the perpetrators of the Hundred-Days Plot were executed."
Pao threw up his hands. "Well, then, if I speak treason, how can I be Old Buddha's spy?"
Ta's natural prudence left him unconvinced. "Still, it is only talk. You could deny having said such things."
Pao stood. With a quick glance around to assure himself they were alone, he extracted a dagger from his jacket. In one quick movement, he cut the queue from his head. He threw it on the floor, and spat.
"So much for only talking!" he muttered. "I have committed a treasonous act. As my superior officer, you have the right to kill me for what I have done. Tell me, Captain, am I a spy?"
Ta arose from his bed and clasped the dragoon by the shoulders. "I also cut my queue. We are brothers now."
He poured tea for them both from a pot steaming on a brazier nearby. "Let us sit together on my bed, Brother Pao, and I shall tell you what has come to pass."
Pao accepted the tea. "Thank you...Brother Ta."
They sat cross-legged, facing each other from either end of the mound of sables.
"For many reasons, my family is not favored by the Dragon Throne," Ta began. "Old Buddha seems determined to humiliate us. I have been ordered in cinnabar ink to marry some Mongol goatherd's daughter. I must take her back to Peking as my First Wife. That title I had hoped to bestow one day upon a Manchu lady of a rank equal to my own, for the glory of my progeny. This will break my mother's heart."
Pao offered a woeful shake of his head. "Oh, Brother Ta, what a terrible thing! But you have no choice. To disobey a Scarlet Decree is death."
Ta nodded grimly. "Well I know. Yesterday...I tried to kill myself...but the Khan...stopped me. We had a long talk. Barbarian though he may be, he made a lot of sense. He suggested that Old Buddha might have hoped I would commit suicide, relieving her of blame. 'Why give her that satisfaction?' he asked, and I agreed."
Pao seemed deep in thought. "Then, if you refused to honor the edict, she could legally have you beheaded, as a simple matter of law. In either case, you would be out of the way - a win for Old Buddha."
"And if I go through with it," added Ta, "Mandorva Khan reaps a fortune in horses...at the expense of my good name. Old Buddha is paying him a hundred thousand to see this done."
"She is paying a hundred thousand horses?" asked Pao incredulously.
"Horses are money here," Ta informed him. "The Khan, who is rich already, will be an even richer, and therefore more powerful, man"
Both men went silent for awhile, turning things over in their minds. Pao was the first to speak.
"This goatherd's daughter...who is she?"
Ta shrugged dejectedly. "I do not know. Mandorva Khan would not tell. I fear the worst. The Scarlet Decree stated simply that I was to marry such a woman. Brother Pao, I really should have killed myself yesterday."
Pao touched the dagger in his jacket self-consciously. "You...would not...really do that...would you?"
Ta waved his hand. "Have no fear. That impulse has passed. The Khan spent the whole day convincing me to stay alive. He foresees a great future for me. Ha! Last night, I believed him. Today, I am not so sure."
Pao leaned forward and touched Ta's shoulder. "Brother, I am not a religious man, but have you prayed?"
Ta nodded. "Yes, I have prayed. I suppose beneath the layers of intellect and education we are all creatures in darkness, looking for a guiding star. I prayed to my goddess of the dawn."
Pao sucked in his breath. "Yes! To her! We must have seen her for a reason. Fairy creatures come that way, from nowhere, and then go back again."
At that moment, Damba burst into the yurt. Several soldiers poured in behind him.
"What is this?" the Mongol prince cried. "You are alone, Manchu? With this dragoon? Search him!"
The soldiers handled Pao roughly and, in triumph, found the dagger. Damba snatched it, tucking it into his sash.
"Your pardon, gentlemen," he said gruffly, "but my father gave explicit orders that you were to be closely watched...until the wedding. I cannot imagine why your guards allowed this to happen, but I shall deal with them later."
The courteous, friendly young man who had greeted them so effusively yesterday scarcely showed in the angry Damba of today.
"Go with my soldiers to your yurt, Lord Pao," he ordered tersely. "Fresh clothing has been laid out for you. You are to participate in the wedding, representing the family of the groom. Go!"
Damba's manner was so stunningly brusque in contrast to the day before that Pao followed the soldiers without protest.
Left alone with Ta, Damba clapped his hands. Three serving girls carried in a wooden tub filled with water.
"You Manchus are a delicate lot, as I understand it, and often take baths," he stated coldly. "This tub is usually used for soaking the wool we use in making felt for the yurts. The girls will help you bathe and then will dress you as a proper Mongol groom."
Ta, who had remained seated on the bed, rose now and bowed respectfully to his obdurate host. "If I have offended you, sir....."
Damba interrupted. "I am here to carry out my father's instructions. In that matter I have no choice, as you have no choice in obeying Old Buddha's command. Let us leave it at that."
He wheeled around and strode out of the yurt.
Despite Ta's resistance, the girls disrobed him in a twinkling. One handed him into the bath.
Ta sat down in the icy water, gritting his teeth to stifle a howl. No soap was offered, but the giggling girls fell on their knees around the tub and took turns scrubbing him on all sides with soft brushes. The sensation was more pleasing than he expected.
Finished, Ta stepped out, and the girls rushed to dry him with lengths of felt.
They dressed him in silken undergarments, then in an overgown and pants of gray satin caught at the waist with a belt of silver plaques. He wore a short vest of white suede embellished with a design of golden poppies. Fur socks slid on easily before he donned large black boots with upturned toes.
The girls marveled at his clipped hair, for even here every man wore a queue, except for Lamaist priests who shaved the scalp clean.
He looked quite handsome. One girl, who had been bolder than the others in choosing the parts of his body to scrub, stood on tiptoe and kissed him on the cheek. Giggling, she ran out, with the others on her heels.
Damba appeared at the doorway, saying, "Come!"
Pao was already waiting outside, dressed in a sky-blue robe. With him were the other dragoons, all still in imperial uniform.
They joined in a stately procession to the yurt of Mandorva Khan.
An altar stood on the grass outside, covered with red satin and adorned with holy objects of the Lamaist faith. Ta was given a seat before it.
Mandorva Khan sat in a chair close by. He took no notice of Ta's arrival. His eyes were trained in the opposite direction.
Pao was brought to a place beside Ta. The four dragoons were grouped behind him.
Damba waited off to one side among six men and boys. He ignored Ta. The others, however, stared at the Manchu with great interest.
The crowd was as colorful as a flower bed. Their hushed remarks while they jostled for good positions sounded like the buzzing of bees.
Directly, there came a clamor of shouts from the direction in which Mandorva Khan continued to stare. Several soldiers hove into view and made their way through the throng. An enormous black horse walked in their midst.
The beast bore a woman sitting sidesaddle. Her head and shoulders were covered by thick veiling anchored to a floppy red hat. Her body was covered by a voluminous cape of red silk.
"Behold your bride!" declaimed Mandorva Khan with an expansive sweep of his arm, at last turning toward Ta. "It is the Mongol custom that the groom may not see her face until unwrapping his little package in the wedding gerr!"
The crowd applauded.
Damba stepped over to the horse. The bride wriggled so vigorously as he lifted her down that the cape fell away. Dressed in a scarlet gown of exquisite design, she was seen to be bound hand and foot. Stunned, Ta and Pao looked at each other in consternation. The audience made a collective gasp of surprise when they noticed as well.
Damba marched briskly to the altar with the bride in his arms. He deposited her in a standing position beside the seated Ta. She grunted loudly, jumping away as if trying to escape. Damba seized her. He whispered to her at length. She seemed to be listening carefully, then nodded her head.
He knelt to untie the rope that bound her feet, but Mandorva Khan sprang from his chair.
"No!" the Khan shouted. "The ceremony first!"
Damba stood up. He scowled fiercely at his father, but obeyed.
Ta drew a deep breath and closed his eyes. Surely I am caught up in a nightmare. Surely this cannot be happening to me. Oh, sweet goddess of the dawn, come back to me. I have loved you from the moment I saw you. Together, we shall find our way to the magical Hill of Wu. Come save me! Take me with you to paradise! He opened them.
Nothing had changed. The unwilling bride still stood at his side.
Ta was required to kneel at the altar. Pao, representing Ta's family, was given a bowl of milk and butter to offer to the bride. It was a symbol of welcome into her new husband's home, where nourishment would always be provided. The bride's bound hands prevented her from accepting the silver bowl. Ta was secretly thankful. He was positive she would have humiliated him further by pouring the libation over his head.
They were now man and wife.