A great celebration began after the ceremony.
Tables had been set up on the grass for the multitude of clansmen, soldiers, and guests.
Little attention was paid to the wedding couple. Their quiet behavior during the lively feast was interpreted as the height of decorum.
Once the lavish quantities of heady koumiss began to take effect, few remembered that the bride had been trussed up like a sack of rice. No one noticed now that her hands and feet had not been untied.
Following the ceremony, Damba had knelt again to do so, but his father lifted his hand in a gesture signaling him to stop.
"You will seat her beside her new husband," he commanded. "I require her to stay with him for a proper time. I do not want her running away and causing further embarrassment."
Looking directly at the bride, the Khan had added angrily, "Foolish, willful girl!"
Dutifully, Damba carried her to a small table and seated her there. As ordered by his father, he went away.
Only Pao was permitted to remain with them, at Ta's insistence. A hearty eater, he could not help but gorge himself on the barbecued meats, rice, and other foods brought to the table by serving maids. Ta ate sparingly, courteously offering morsels to his bride, which she refused rudely with a cursory shake of the head.
In despair, Ta drank. He was not usually a drinking man, but as he emptied one cup, Pao would fill it for him again, as Pao was also doing for himself.
Gifted with the nature of a true friend, Pao vowed in his heart to protect him. Drink, Brother Ta. Let me tend to the world. I shall carry you to the wedding yurt and stand watch, if need be, so that you come to no harm at the hands of these barbarians. Drink, my friend. Fade away into dreams.
After an hour of drinking in sullen silence, Ta placed his hand over the cup. He was already more than a little drunk.
"No more, Brother Pao," he said in Mandarin. "I have had enough. You have, too, unless you think we ought to toast my brilliant marriage."
His words were slurred, his voice thick with loathing.
"Speak in Court Manchu, brother," replied Pao in that language, "so that this mountain woman will not understand what we say. Many of these people speak Chinese."
"Very well, let us speak in the tongue of the Imperial Mother who makes dog's offal of me," the prince agreed tartly. "I am nightsoil, in the imperial opinion. I fear she may be right. I am no Kang that I have allowed myself to be led to this moral slaughter like a docile calf. If you were my brother by blood, Pao...if I were not alone the family heir...I would kill myself now. Do you have a dagger with you?"
Pao knit his brow in a frown. "Yes, I borrowed one from another dragoon, but I will not give it to you. I won't let you destroy yourself."
"That is what Old Buddha wants," mused Ta. "I am sure she expected me to commit suicide rather than tolerate this shameful travesty of a marriage! Oh, Pao, how I hate the Empress Dowager! How I wish her dead!"
Pao poured them both another cup of koumiss. Ta did not stop him this time.
"That I will drink to," Pao declared, "for if Old Buddha does not die soon, she will be the death of our country! The pity of it, that such a woman should be allowed to rule! Look what that old vixen has done to you! Women are a curse!"
He glowered at Ta's silent bride. "Goatherd's daughter! You are no proper wife for this fine Manchu prince! He has been educated in Europe! He will be a great leader of our country someday! How can such a one as you appear at his side in the corridors of power?"
He downed the drink, and poured another. He downed the second with equal vigor. Abruptly, he reached into his sash and withdrew the dagger.
"I ought to kill you!" he snarled at the bride.
At sight of the weapon, Ta came to his senses and lunged across the table.
"Have I found a madman for a brother?" he chided, grabbing the dagger. "After the murder is done, do you expect to disappear like our goddess at the pass? They would kill you on the spot!"
The bride broke her silence now, turning her veiled face to Ta.
"Manchu scum!" she growled in his own language.
Both men caught their breath in surprise.
"Hear me carefully, husband," she continued in a scornful tone. "You both committed treason when you drank to the death of the Empress Dowager. Then, your bogus brother would have killed me. That may not be treason, but there are men here today who would kill him for it. Shall I stand and shout these accusations to the crowd?"
She made as if to rise. Chagrined, Ta laid his hand on her shoulder to hold her back.
"Don't touch me!" She shuddered.
Ta took it away.
"I will bargain with you, husband," she went on. "If you use that knife to cut my bonds, I will not tell. Yes, it would be easy to do away with you now, but what purpose would it serve? It is too late to undo what has been done. The marriage has taken place before a thousand witnesses. It cannot be denied. No matter what happens henceforth, Mandorva Khan will receive his hundred thousand horses, plus uncountable tael weights of silver and, I suspect, plenty of gold. His selfish purpose has already been served, if not all of Old Buddha's!"
Collecting himself, Ta quickly cut her free.
She stood. The blue veiling still concealed her features. She turned away from the table and stomped off.
Ta started after her.
"Where are you going?" Pao wanted to know.
"To talk with her. To try and resolve the mess that has been made of both our lives."
"I will come with you, brother," said Pao. "I fear she is a dangerous woman!"
Ta waved him back. "No, my friend, thus far I have been a spineless pawn in this affair. The time has come for me to behave as my father's son."
Ta followed her.
They were alone in this part of the camp. Everyone was still at the feast.
He watched her enter a large yurt.
He hesitated for a moment at the doorway. Then, he thought, Is she not my wife?
He went inside.
Despite the growing heat of the afternoon, the yurt was surprisingly cool. His bride did not hear him come in.
She had already removed the veil, but stood with her back to Ta. Sunlight poured through the smoke-hatch at the center of the roof, creating a circle of light beyond which thick shadows played.
Using both hands, she had begun to rip the wedding gown from her body. She clawed at it with her nails, panting in rage as though the dress were the embodiment of the humiliation she had endured. When the gown lay in shreds at her feet, she scattered the remnants with a ferocious kick.
She was still clad in a loose-fitting scarlet chemise, but the demon had been exorcised.
She grunted with satisfaction and leaned forward. Her hands went to the braids wound like large shells above her ears. She worked the plaits loose with her fingers until her raven mane fell to her knees like a shower of dark rain.
Suddenly, her shoulders began to heave. A terrible moan exploded from the depths of her chest. She buried her face in her hands and wept.
Deeply moved, Ta stepped nearer. He made a noise.
She gasped and wheeled around. The brilliant sunlight struck her full across the face.
Ta recoiled in shock.
"Heaven forgive me!" he cried. "You are my goddess of the dawn!"
He fell to his knees and raised his hands in supplication. "Oh, lady of the morning, I thought you had disappeared forever in the ravine! I have prayed to you unceasingly to save me from this fate. Am I dreaming, or has Heaven really sent you to replace the goatherd's daughter?"
Disconcerted, she tilted her head to study him anew. He seemed so vulnerable. His handsome face glowed with hope. His eyes overflowed with unabashed devotion.
No one in her life had ever looked at her quite that way.
Her words came slowly, as if she were speaking gently to a child she did not wish to hurt. "You are not dreaming. I am real. I am...she whom you saw."
"You are my goddess."
"No, I am not a goddess. I am...the goatherd's daughter. I am Princess Shabara, the daughter of Mandorva Khan."
Ta dropped his hands and settled back on his heels. "I do not understand."
"When my father was a boy, having been born to an exalted position, his father made him tend a flock of goats as a lesson in humility. 'Never forget,' my grandfather told him, 'that humble origins do not prevent a man from conquering the world. Remember our ancestor, Jenghiz Khan.'"
"I see," said Ta. "Then Lord Damba is your brother. He has turned against me since I arrived."
She nodded. "My brother hates the Manchu oppressor, as do I. When you came, we did not know the purpose of this rendezvous. He could risk the pleasantries because he was under orders from our father and because it had nothing to do with him personally. That changed when we were informed of this marriage.
"Old Buddha's Scarlet Decree has created a great rift in our family. Damba is unmovable. To him, Mongolia is an occupied land. He cannot bear the thought of his sister being married to a Manchu. My six other brothers are less unrelenting. And I have discovered that my father, whom I thought loved me dearly, was willing to sell me to Old Buddha for horses and for silver and gold!"
Her lovely face took on a great sadness. She joined him sitting on the floor.
"So you have suffered, too," murmured Ta.
He told her the whole story of his family's involvement with the Empress Dowager. She sympathized.
He told her of his life in Europe, of the universities and travel. She told him of her life at Dragon's Heart, of priestly tutors and a happy childhood.
They talked through the night, sitting together in the darkness, exploring the continents of their minds.
When dawn came, a circle of red and gold streamed down upon them through the smoke-hatch. It revealed two people whose lives had been irrevocably changed.
Ta had fallen passionately in love. He stared at her in the morning light. Thou hast become the mist through my heart. Thou art morning cloud and evening rain. I have found my place forever on the magical Hill of Wu.
His soulful gaze caressed her. It filled Shabara with awe. I am loved as I thought I might never be. Yellow Jacket, I like being your goddess of the dawn. Soon, if Heaven wills this marriage to continue, I shall also be your goddess of the night.