Later that morning, Ta found Pao asleep at their banquet table, collapsed from an excess of koumiss. Even Mandorva Khan snored loudly in his great chair, surrounded by cohorts and retainers. Those who had wakened were calling for more of the potent liquor.
With some effort, Ta shook Pao awake. The bleary-eyed dragoon pressed his palms against his temples upon opening his eyes.
"Blood of a duck!" he whimpered. "I am a very sick man."
"They say that more of the same is the only tonic that heals," suggested Ta. "Here, I have brought a fresh supply."
Pao drank greedily from the proffered cup, then sat back and sighed. "Thank you, brother. I may recover after all. Well, what news of your bride?"
Pao shook his head. "She has bewitched you! I can see that you are resigned to your fate."
Ta sat down beside him. "Truly, brother, I am in love."
Pao harrumphed. "A Kang prince in love with a goatherd's daughter? Indeed, you are bewitched!"
"Perhaps, but let me tell you the story of a goatherd descended from Jenghiz Khan, and of his daughter, the goddess of the dawn....." Ta began, and proceeded with his tale.
When Ta had concluded his narrative, Pao asked, "Why was she bound hand and foot?"
"She objected when her father told her she was to be married," Ta explained. "She threatened to return at once to the home valley. He had to hobble her."
"What did her brother say that calmed her down just before the wedding, after he lifted her off the horse?" Pao asked, nipping at the koumiss slowly.
Ta's expression soured. "He reminded her of a Mongolian law that allows a divorce after three days if the union is a failure. The decision can be made by the bride or the groom. In either case, it is binding. Women are considered the equals of men in this society."
Pao set down his cup. "Do you think she will divorce you?"
"It worries me. We have not...well, we have not consummated the marriage."
Pao frowned. "Why?"
Ta looked embarrassed. He took a sip of koumiss.
"I think...she is...frightened...of the honeymoon couch. She has asked me to give her time."
Pao peered at him askance. "She has not been instructed in these things as Manchu and Chinese, even Japanese, women are? She has been given no Pillow Book?"
Ta shook his head. "Her mother died when she was very young. She has no aunts, only brothers. And they have protected her fiercely from the world."
Pao clicked his tongue. "Tsk! Tsk! Unfortunately, my experience with women is limited to the Soochow beauties in the cribs of Peking. I cannot be of help to you in this. Perhaps you should talk to Coral. She speaks some Chinese."
"Coral is her maid."
"Ah! You see? My instincts ring true! Coral is very knowledgeable in these matters, I can tell you. She will know what you should do."
The two searched throughout the camp. They found her in the blue laundry yurt, slaving over a washboard.
She reddened when she saw them, but dried her hands and bowed respectfully as she brushed away sweat-drenched strands of hair from her eyes.
"Milords, forgive the way I look!"
"What is this, my dumpling?" queried Pao. "Those soft hands will be spoiled!"
Tears welled in her eyes. "I am being punished by Mandorva Khan."
"For what?" asked Ta.
"For helping Her Highness escape to see the Great Wall," she wept. "The Khan is very angry with me. He says she could have been kidnaped or killed. He is right. I did a terrible thing."
Pao placed his arm around her shoulders. "Come, my dumpling, we shall see that this punishment ends. Prince Ta-Loong will arrange it with the Khan. Right now, we need to have a talk."
She went with them to a quiet place under a small tree near the sweet-water spring. They sat down on the grass.
Ta spoke to her of his predicament.
She mulled it over, then replied: "Milord, the Princess Shabara is a willful girl. Everyone knows that. We have all heard the Khan shout at her, 'Are you a woman, or a mule?' Men do not understand women such as she. Oh, they look at someone like me - no great beauty, a trifle fat, a girl who enjoys a good joke, a girl who can hold her koumiss with the best - and they are not surprised that I ride well, and shoot well, and like to make love. They say, 'She's a good fellow, like us.'"
Pao squeezed her knee with a knowing grin. She flipped a hand at him playfully.
She continued: "Not so with my mistress. She is as beautiful as a dream. She seems to float on the air. Men are surprised when they catch glimpses of her strength. I have asked myself of her sometimes, 'Truly, is she a woman, or a man?' We are not alike. I appear hearty and brash, but I am really a yielding girl."
Pao stroked her cheek. "That is true."
"My mistress, on the other hand, is not."
"What, then," asked Ta with a pout, "am I to do?"
Coral looked him squarely in the eye. "You must remember that you are the man. You must be the one to take command. Do not force her. She is a virgin still, and an ignorant one, at that. Her brothers have never even allowed her to witness the siring or the birthing of a foal! Take her in your arms. Kiss her. Caress her gently. Speak to her heart. Worship her. If she becomes frightened, soothe her. Be patient. Her inner fire will ignite, and then she will want you. She will need you. But have a care, Milord, for once her passion is lit, it may consume you. Stay in command. If you weaken with such a woman, you may not lose her, but you will surely lose yourself."
Ta, heretofore straining to hear every word, leaned back against the tree. "Do you think she would divorce me? We have satisfied the terms of the Scarlet Decree. Old Buddha's demand has been legally met. Mandorva Khan has won his horses, silver, and gold. They have, in essence, bought these first three days for themselves. By marrying against our will, we have paid our share. If we divorce in three days, our debt is paid. They are powerless to stop us, by ancient Mongolian law. However, if we stay together, the marriage becomes ours, by our own choice - not by theirs. I want it so, but I do not know about Shabara. She refuses to say."
Coral shrugged. "I do not know what she will do. I have shared most of her waking moments since we were nine, but I cannot yet divine her thoughts. Remember, too, that her eldest brother, Lord Damba, has a strong influence on her. It is already known he hates this marriage. Still, if you can awaken her womanhood with your love by the morning after tomorrow, there may be hope she will want to stay with you. Let her feel your strength. Where is she now?"
"We did not use the wedding gerr," Ta answered. "She is in her own yurt. She said she wanted to sleep."
"You haven't slept, either!" exclaimed Pao.
"Yes, you should rest," Coral said. "Go to her. Slip into her bed. Just lie quietly at her side. This has been a time of war for her. Her once beloved father has become an enemy. Let her know that with you she can find peace."
She turned to Pao and took his hand. "As for you, my kind and gentle boy, you, too, need a rest. Come with me. We shall dream awhile together."
When Ta went back to the yurt alone, he found that Shabara was not there. Her bed had not been disturbed. He went back outside. Her shaggy white pony was gone.
She lied to me! he thought in a panic. She has fled from me! She must be on her way to Dragon's Heart, a thousand kilometers to the north! She will send word that we are divorced! I shall never see her again!
He rushed inside in a frenzy and flung himself on her bed. I would have been tender, beloved. I wouldn't have hurt you at all. Come back to me, Shabara. I shall never rise from this bed till you come.
Shabara had fled no farther than her father's yurt. While Ta wept into her pillow, she stood before the Khan.
"I want to know why you betrayed me," she snapped through clenched teeth. "You deceived me when you brought me the maps at Dragon's Heart and told me you were going away. 'Here,' you said, 'is where Old Buddha tells me to rendezvous, and here,' you said as you moved your finger across the map, 'is the Great Wall of China...so close, my dearest, to where I shall pitch camp.' You knew I would take the bait. You trapped me like a stone marten in a cage. That is how you got me to come. In innocence, I followed you like a lamb!"
Her eyes fell on the unsheathed scimitar leaning against the divan. Before Mandorva Khan could stop her, she had snatched it up and swung it at his head.
"I am your father, girl!" he cried out, ducking, and raising his arms to ward off a blow.
Her lips curled contemptuously. "Yes, and I thought you loved me! I ought to kill you for a cheat! All my life I've trusted you. Then you sell me like a slave!"
She brought the weapon, point down, hard by her side. Its curved tip pierced the felt flooring and drove into the ground. She stood with legs widespread, one hand on the hilt and the other arm akimbo at her waist.
She glared at him, then spat at his feet.
He smiled weakly. "Oh, my son who is not a son, my daughter with the vigor of ten thousand men, my treasure, my prize - no woman in the world is more beautiful than you in your rages! I never love you more than when I see you thus."
He patted the divan. "Come sit by my side. Your father needs you near him. We may never be alone together again."
She said nothing, nor did she make a move toward him.
Belatedly, he realized that her rage ran far deeper than a childish tantrum. He addressed her then in an uncharacteristically wheedling voice bordering on a whine.
"I have made a noble marriage for you. This prince of yours is the best there is. Old Buddha first proposed the match to me two years ago at the Gathering of the clans in Peking. He is almost alone in the world, and very rich. His mother is quite young, but she has a bad heart. Not even he knows that. He is an idealist with a valuable foreign education. Doors will open for him no matter what takes place in China, and you will be at his side.
"He is directly descended from Emperor Kang Hsi-ti, as you are descended from Jenghiz Khan. Your son will combine these great bloodlines. There are elements in our country which would rejoice at such a birth. It could signal a renascence of Mongolian power. Your son would be qualified to sit on the Dragon Throne and to rule here as well. Think of it, Shabara - you could become a mother of nations!"
Her silence was absolute.
Mandorva Khan was stunned. For the first time since this affair had begun, a heaviness of spirit weighed him down. I have miscalculated. I have made a mistake which has brought me great riches, but which has cost me the one thing that truly mattered to my heart - my daughter. I am a grasping fool! He knew it was too late to speak these words aloud.
She stared back at him coldly, a bitter thought running through her mind: I realize from all you have said that you would exploit my son as you have exploited me!.
She turned away from him and went to the doorway.
There, she turned back and said: "Neither you nor Old Buddha can touch us if we decide after three days to divorce. I shall let you know my decision at the proper time."
She left him with his mouth agape.
She mounted her pony, tethered outside.
Come, my darling, let us once more ride the wind. We, too, may be parting soon.
They rode together across the plain and came to the ravine again. She guided him through. She dismounted and stood at the edge of the palisade to view the Great Wall.
Coral saw a star racing toward Peking. She said it was sent to light my way. Is it Heaven's will that I go there? I cannot go back to the valley. I could never, would never, live with my father again...but, like my father, my husband, too, is a man. How can I trust him? What am I to do?
The sun had begun to set. Shadows danced among the towers and battlements along the Wall.
You have been called the Longest Cemetery on Earth. They say that one laborer died for every foot of your length and was buried where he fell. Come, spirits, I conjure you forth. Come, show me the way that I should go.
She felt a chill. She shivered. Her pony neighed and moved closer to her side. From above, she heard a disquieting noise. She looked up.
A great boulder had worked loose from the hillside. It catapulted down and rushed past her. It should have gone over the edge, but struck a mound of earth instead, and veered to the side. It rolled onward and out of sight - rocketing along the trail leading to Peking.
Thank you, spirits. Return to your rest.
When she returned to her yurt, it was long after dark. No one saw her ride through the camp.
She found Ta sleeping on his side. She lit a lamp and set it beside the bed. His face was streaked with tears. Even in sleep, misery was written there.
She undressed quietly, down to her chemise, and went to lie beside him.
He wakened then.
She looked into his eyes. She watched them flood with love.
He started to speak. She lifted her fingers to his lips to silence him.
He kissed them one by one.