Shabara lay awake in her tent of white felt. The sable pelts and thick cushions that formed her bed were soft and warm.
No sounds reached her ears but the neighing of a horse and the soughing of the wind. Neither the call of a cricket nor the song of a nightingale drifted into the yurt to comfort her.
The only reminder of home was the likeness of tiny red flowers woven into the gauze draperies that made a cozy nook of her bed. She had seen nothing so lovely in all the thousand kilometers that lay between her father's encampment and the mountain valley in Outer Mongolia where she was born. There, the red flower bloomed most of the year, blanketing the gray walls of the mile-high escarpment that encircled the valley called Dragon's Heart.
Shabara had never before left Dragon's Heart. Jealously guarded as the only sister among seven brothers, she was the prize of her father, Mandorva Khan.
The Khan ruled over a mountainous province that stretched southwestward from Russia's Siberian frontier toward the Mongols' Sacred City of Urga. At its center was Dragon's Heart, the crater of an extinct volcano. The fertile valley remained difficult of access from the world, a place of eternal spring.
Shabara snuggled deeper into the warmth of her sable quilts. The rich coverlets, at least, were redolent of the valley. They had been carefully packed by her maid Coral with a potpourri of fragrant herbs.
It had taken three weeks to cross the desolate plateau. Shabara had decided that this country through which her father's caravan had passed was truly a foreign land, even if it still was called Mongolia - "Inner Mongolia," according to the map.
She hated it as much as she hated the Manchu overlords who governed them from faraway Peking. Its cold, piercing winds were too unlike the home valley. Even now at Dragon's Heart, fruit trees bloomed on the lower hillsides, and the sweetpeas climbed knee-high.
The candle beside her pillows sputtered in a rush of cold air when Coral crept stealthily through the door flap.
The maid had meant to come in quietly so as not to disturb her mistress, but a loud smack and bawdy giggle preceded her entry. Shabara had seen the guard outside looking in a certain way at Coral earlier in the evening. His message was clear. At the first opportunity, he would have at her in the boldest way. Obviously, he had finally found his chance to slap the maid's plump posterior. Coral's titter was one of delight rather than rage.
Still, the girl made an angry face when she found Shabara sitting up in bed. "These men," she huffed in a pretense of modesty, "are shameless, even toward a good girl like me!"
Shabara said nothing. She knew how typical Coral was of the free-spirited women of her culture. It was a wonder the maid had not got herself with child long since.
"Oh, Milady," cried Coral, attempting to distract her mistress from disapproving thoughts, "I have seen a marvelous thing tonight!"
Shabara lay back against a pillow. "Something marvelous in this godforsaken place? I don't believe you. There is nothing wonderful here!"
The maid parted the gauze curtain and plopped down to sit cross-legged on the bed, a gesture of informality allowable after their long-time relationship.
"But it is true, Serene Highness! A star shot across the sky. It came from the north, I am sure, from Dragon's Heart! It was aimed toward China and fell, I think, just about where Peking must be. Surely this is an omen!"
Shabara could not hold back a disparaging laugh. "An omen of what, foolish girl?"
"The star has gone ahead to light your way, Highness. You are going to the capital!"
Shabara harrumphed. "What nonsense! I have no intention of going to Peking. What is there that I cannot find in our valley? Dragon's Heart is paradise. That is enough for me!"
"Why else would your father have brought you so far, Serenity?" Coral asked, anxious to know, as were all in the camp, why this mysterious trip had been made.
"My father did not ask me to come. I begged him to bring me."
Coral shook her head in bewilderment. "But why, Milady, why?"
Shabara became reflective. "Because there is only one thing in the world outside my valley that I want to see."
She leapt up and slipped through the curtain to the washstand. Splashing her cheeks with icy water, she shivered pleasurably at the shock. In one graceful movement, she yanked her nightgown over her head and flung it across the furs that covered the felt floor.
A whirling pirouette on tiptoe brought her to the standing mirror. She shook out her luxuriant mane of dark hair until it danced against the backs of her knees. She smiled proudly at its sheen in the candle's glow.
"I shall never allow myself to run to fat like you, Coral!" she laughed, pinching her small breasts and stroking her body downward to its slim flanks.
The maid uttered little clucks of worry. "Princess, you'll die of a chill!" She rushed to the side of her mistress and cast a fur robe over the satiny shoulders.
Shabara shrugged it away. It fell in a sumptuous pile at her feet.
She studied her nude reflection in the mirror.
Her body was finely shaped, curved in the right places, no longer angular as a boy's, which had so troubled her until she turned fifteen a few months before. She had seen it begin to happen then - the sudden softening of the lines, the lifting of the breasts.
No mark of imperfection flawed her anywhere. Her skin was as creamy and smooth on her shoulders as it was on her inner thighs. Her legs were long without making her tall. Her torso was in exact proportion to the length of her arms and the size of her hands.
She walked with a sensual grace that called forth sighs from young clansmen. One had swooned from his saddle simply at sight of her strolling nearby. But she rode with the best of them, and shot an arrow farther and faster than most. Yet her arms were not muscular, nor her legs bowed from sitting a horse since childhood.
The Mongol heritage lay most noticeably about her eyes, dark demi-ovals framed by thick lashes exquisitely curled. The smallness of nose, feet and breasts proclaimed her an East Asian, but a wideness across the hips might have been the echo of a Western woman far back in the bloodline. Perhaps it was Hungarian or Russian, this genetic legacy from the past - the body's memory of a girl swept up long ago by the Mongol hordes somewhere on the plains of Eastern Europe. Whatever it was, it added to the harmony of Shabara's beauty.
As she stared at herself in the mirror, an inspiration lit her dark eyes.
"Plait my hair, Coral," she commanded, "and then dress me in white - everything white...the boots, the gloves, the coat, the hat!"
"Whatever for?" Coral cried. "It is long yet till dawn! You cannot be thinking of going anywhere. Your father's guards would never let you leave the camp in this wild country. Bandits, Manchu soldiers, slavers from China - any vermin may be lurking out there. Mercy, Milady, what have you in mind?"
Shabara crossed her arms over her naked breasts and shivered with anticipation. "The Long Wall! That is what I have come to see! When my father told me he was coming this far - for what reason I do not know - he showed me a map. I discovered that a view of it can be no more than an hour's good ride from here. I want to see the sun rise over the Great Wall of China. Wearing white, I shall be as powerful in that moment as Old Buddha, for I shall capture the colors of Heaven as my forefathers captured the world!"
Although clicking her tongue in signals of distress, Coral went quickly about the business of obeying Shabara's command. Having performed such duties since both were nine, Coral knew that even she would not be spared Shabara's imperious wrath if obedience were delayed.
She braided the long hair and knotted it into large wings above the ears. She dressed her mistress in white silk - culottes bloused in her boots and a long blouse split on both sides from the boot tops to the upper thigh. Over these, she draped a knee-length coat of snow leopard with silvery spots. Between the wings of black hair, she placed a white mink hat fringed with pearls. Boots of white leather were topped with ermine.
Shabara went to the jewel chest and chose a bandoleer of white leather encrusted with fire opals the size of pheasant's eggs. From a rack near the entry, she chose a silver rifle with mother-of-pearl stock.
Coral strung the bandoleer over Shabara's shoulder and checked the cartridge loops for an ample supply of bullets before standing back to admire her handiwork.
"You look beautiful, Serenity, but how can I let you go? If your father finds out, I shall suffer the blame!"
"Don't fret, Coral," Shabara laughed. "I can handle my father! Now, you go outside and contrive to draw that handsome guard away from the door."
Coral blushed, realizing her subterfuge about the love pat from the guard had been in vain.
Shabara listened carefully at the flap while Coral whispered with him. She heard the smacking sound again, but Coral accepted it this time with less a giggle than a sigh. The guard's voice grew husky with desire. The soft blend of cooings then faded completely away.
The two were gone when Shabara slipped out. A white pony, its shaggy mane braided away from its eyes, stood ready in the shadows on the far side of the yurt. The beast was never far from Shabara's side.
She mounted him and urged him gently past the clearing in the center of the yurt encampment. She doubted that anyone would notice. This had been a night of festivity to celebrate their arrival at the point of rendezvous set by Old Buddha. Most clansmen and guards lay in the darkness of their yurts, intoxicated by koumiss, the liquor made of mare's milk fermented in rawhide bags hung in the sun. Even the guards on duty slept at their posts.
On the trail, the pony responded to the urging of Shabara's heels against his flanks, as happy as she to be free of the cumbersome caravan. Moving at a snail's pace had made the long journey from the northern mountains beyond the Gobi Desert seem an eternity.
He loved Shabara, as she loved him. It had been she who nursed him with milk from a hand-sewn goat's bladder when his dam died giving him birth. It had been she who taught him all he knew of the race and of the hunt. Together, they had ridden to victories, first among the women and then among the men.
Her voice caressed his ears: "Faster, my darling. Let us ride the wind!"
Soon they left the rock-strewn plain to enter a narrow ravine. It was terrifying in its loneliness, but Shabara thought of the warriors of her race who had ridden through it seven hundred years before in their conquest of China. She thought of him who still lived in her blood - the Grand Khan known as Jenghiz.
How would you feel, Jenghiz Khan, if you were to see me riding alone and unafraid into this dark unknown? Would you be proud of me? Am I not a daughter with as much courage as a son? Are you guiding me toward my destiny? Oh, venerable ancestor, will you show me what my life is to be?
The girl and her horse burst as one creature from the eastern extremity of the pass. The sun had begun to rise over a lower range of hills. She shielded her eyes from its fiery rays.
Momentarily blinded by the vivid glare, the pony whinnied in alarm. He reared up mere centimeters from the edge of a rocky palisade. His hooves scattered pebbles that fell in a shower on the steep trail far below.
Clinging to the reins, Shabara looked out at the spectacle of the Great Wall beyond.
The trenchant sunbeams zestfully chased away the weakened shadows of night. They revealed a gargantuan serpent in stone stretching in indolent majesty as far as the eye could see.
Shabara sat transfixed.
The sun colored her white garments and white mount with the glory of the risen day, rendering
her beauty transcendent by its light.|