In the morning four days before, while dew still glazed the eaves of the Forbidden City, a side gate swung open in its walls. Six horsemen charged out and soon left behind the vast complex of palaces called "Old Buddha's Violet Town."
Hats of black fox trailing long feathers distinguished the young men as lords of high rank. Black silk trousers were tucked into black velvet boots with white felt soles. Five of the dragoons wore cape-style jackets of pale blue. The sixth wore "imperial" yellow, a peculiarly brilliant shade brewed from the gardenia fruit and the wood of the sumac tree. It was a color reserved for members of the Imperial Family or for those in direct service to the Dragon Throne.
Leaning forward in black velvet saddles, the riders gathered speed astride their short-legged Mongolian ponies. The matched set of shaggy-maned grays galloped with the timing of a well-trained team. They dazzled the eye with scarlet trappings and perked up the ear with the jingling of brass collar bells.
Night watchmen sounding the hour of dawn with claps on wooden gongs paused to admire the splendid guardsmen thundering through the dusty streets of Peking. Near a gate tower in the North Wall of the city, a small boy, who had been exercising his pet thrush on a length of string, chased after the horsemen. He lost them among the tangled strands of mule and camel caravans inbound to the public markets.
Reaching the highway, the dragoons breathed deeply of fresh air. It cleansed their lungs of the acrid smoke rising from the capital's charcoal fires. Riding hard toward the Western Hills, they saw the night washed away in a flood of pinks and gold spilling from the rising sun.
All the young men except Yellow Jacket loosened their tight collars against the sudden warming of the day.
The color of his cape brought cries of "Wei! Wei!, Make way!" as the crowd scattered at sight of the luminous yellow bobbing among them on this morning in April 1908. Even now, Manchu power still flowed as undiluted as sunshine from the Imperial Dynasty called Ch'ing. Not for two-hundred-and-sixty-four years had the Chinese ruled themselves, not since warriors from Manchuria stormed the Great Wall of China in 1644 and routed the classical Ming emperors from Peking.
Although at its titular head sat the Emperor Kuang Hsü, everyone knew that absolute authority was vested in his autocratic aunt, Tz'u Hsi, pronounced tsoo-she. "Old Buddha," the Empress Dowager, ruled with unabated vigor and vengefulness despite her seventy years.
None knew better than Yellow Jacket how frightening she could be. He himself had suffered it only an hour before. The memory of those black and humorless eyes followed him along the road, poised like a dagger at the back of his mind.
He had been roused from peaceful sleep at two in the morning. His manservant, Old Fu, came knocking loudly at the door of his suite which bordered a quiet garden in the Kang family mansion.
He had been pleased upon his return to China after several years of schooling in England and France to be assigned his late father's rooms. His mother had accorded him the dignity of manhood by not returning him to the rooms of his childhood. It was a mark of official succession to his father's lofty estate.
For an instant, upon opening his eyes as Old Fu hobbled into the room, he had thought himself back in his dormitory at Oxford. Quickly enough, he felt the heat underneath him and remembered that this was home. He lay on top of the traditional bed of North China, which bore the same name as his family, but with no known connection. The kang was constructed of layers of bricks forming a veritable oven. It enclosed a grate of red embers, stoked low, that embraced him with fingers of warmth through the thick, silken quilts serving as a mattress.
At Old Fu's resounding call of "Prince Ta-Loong, Great-Dragon, arise!", he sat bolt upright. He had so seldom been called by the childhood name in these latter years, it seemed an echo of the past. He smiled tolerantly at the aged servant who flung back the covers as if to lift him off the high kang, another echo from a time when he was small and needed such loving assistance.
Feeling the chill of the springtime night, he welcomed the dressing gown of mottled lynx Old Fu threw around his shoulders. He slid from the brick bedstead and stepped into woolen slippers with soft, thickly padded soles.
The manservant stood wringing his hands. "Oh, she calls! Old Buddha sends for you to come at once to her Violet Town. Sedan bearers wait beyond the Moon Gate. You must dress quickly!"
Despite his suddenly pounding heart, Ta asked Old Fu to bring the finest chao pao from his late father's closet. Instinct told him the sumptuous dragon robe might serve to remind the Empress Dowager of his status as an Imperial Prince of the Second Degree. Even she could not deprive him of this birthright. She could command him to die, as she had his father, but it would have to be done respectfully, as a mark of his rank.
Old Fu scurried to fetch one of the many chao pao folded in the musty closet. Ironically, the dragon robe he brought out was the same worn by Ta's father the night he was summoned to his final, fatal audience with the Empress Dowager.
Passed down through generations of Kang princes, this robe embodied a workmanship unattainable for more than a hundred years. Silver dragons flexing five claws, a number exclusive to Imperials, stormed rampant across a cerulean field. The fabulous beasts were woven directly into the tapestry satin. Embroidered in red, pale blue, peach and bronze were the Twelve Symbols of Authority presumed to invest the wearer with power under Heaven, and over Earth. Among them shone the sun, the moon, a flowery bird, stylized fire, and a constellation of stars, each symbol outlined in seed pearls.
Around Ta's slender waist Old Fu's trembling hands wrapped a dark blue band of silk buckled with white jade, adding a Mandarin's necklace of coral beads which hung to the knees. He touched a gnarled hand to one of the beads colored darker than the rest and cast a tentative glance upward toward his master's face.
A twinge of horror suddenly furrowed Ta's smooth brow as he looked down at the darker bead. It was no jewel, but a capsule containing the virulent ho ting hung, a poison derived from blood found only beneath the red crest of the crane. Such a capsule had been found crushed between the teeth of his father in 1899 on the morning following a similar summons from the Empress Dowager.
Horror was replaced by resolve as Ta's thoughts raced back to that night before he was dispatched by his frightened mother to Europe.
I loved you, Father, and I thought you loved me. But you left me not a word before you took your life. You could at least have penned a note of farewell. Yes, Father, you could have said goodbye. If it should come to the same for me, I shall not join you in the next world without giving my dear mother one final kiss.
At that moment, the hurried tap of wooden stilt shoes on the tiles of the corridor outside the room announced the arrival of Princess Jasmine. Ta's petite, elegant mother entered the room in a swirl of rare kingfisher feathers that comprised her dressing gown. Her Chinese maidservant, in silken blouse and pants, trotted at her heels.
Still blooming with youthfulness and beauty at age forty-nine, Princess Jasmine had arisen at once when Fragrance, her personal maid and granddaughter of Old Fu, had come to inform her of the imperial summons.
Rushing through the corridors to her son's suite, she suffered an agony of fearful anticipation. Memories engulfed her as she thought of the summons that had cost her husband's life.
Would that I could spare you the secrets hidden for the sake of your youth, she thought, but now I must tell them so that you may know the demon you are about to face. Oh, my son, I pray God that you comport yourself with Old Buddha as the man your father and I have taught you to be!
Despite the turmoil of her musings, she allowed no panic of emotion to stir in her eyes. She dared not unnerve her son. Rather, she smiled encouragement as she brushed his cheek with a kiss. She stood back to observe his appearance thoughtfully.
"The sable surcoat with the jade-and-gold clasp at the throat," she said to Old Fu, who fetched it quickly from the dressing room. "Bring a sable hat to match."
She stood back to judge the effect.
"Excellent!" she exclaimed, studiously avoiding a glance at the dreadful capsule of poison she knew to hang among the beads at his waist. "You look handsome and debonair. That will be a plus with an older woman who likes young men. But you need one thing more."
From the wide sleeve of her gown, she brought forth a black braid plaited from horsehair. "Growing that mustache in Europe lent you an air of maturity, my son, but the hirsute adornment which matters here is the queue!"
She passed it to Fragrance. "Attach this to your lord's hat, Missy."
The pretty sixteen-year-old stood on her toes to pin the braid to the back. Her grandfather shook his head.
"Aiiee!" the old man moaned. "If you had maintained yourself as a proper Manchu gentleman while studying in foreign lands, you would never have cut your hair! To cut off the queue constitutes rebellion, Master! No wonder Old Buddha summons you this way!"
He waggled his own gray pigtail before Ta's nose.
Ta looked fresh and ready despite the narrow sleepiness of his eyes. The fur cap was crowned with a coral bead and scarlet silk and trimmed with a long peacock feather. He tipped it slightly back from his forehead so that it sat rakishly on his handsome head.
"No, that is overly casual for such an interview, my dragon son!" Princess Jasmine objected as she straightened the cap. "Walk squarely and maintain your dignity with Old Buddha at all times. Never show surprise, and stand always on your rank as an Imperial Prince." She leaned forward impulsively and kissed him again.
Taking him by the hand, she led him through the verandahs and courtyards of the great house as though he were again a small child. Fragrance, supporting her aged grandfather on her arm, followed at a discreet distance.
Five generations of Kangs had lived and died among the pavilions and willow-edged ponds of these two hundred rooms. They had always been served by a retinue of faithful retainers of whom Old Fu likewise represented a fifth generation, and Fragrance, a seventh. Set in several acres of carefully tended grounds, the princely mansion stood protected by high walls that muffled the noises of the crowded boulevards and byways of a capital considered by many to be the most beautiful city in the world.
How gently the moonlight guided them through the neatly swept halls! Its pale beams danced softly on the famous Kang gardens so deftly interspersed among the courtyard suites that one came upon them in continuous and joyous surprise. Glancing sidelong at her son, Princess Jasmine recalled a statement written in description of Ta's imperial ancestor, Kang Hsi-ti. That seventeenth-century contemporary of Louis XIV of France had been one of the greatest monarchs recorded in Chinese history. The words might, indeed, have been written about her own son: "Of physique taller than most and in good proportion, he is possessed also of features full and finely formed, with spirited eyes wider than is common; his forehead is expansive, his nose aquiline, and his mouth generous. His prepossessing appearance bespeaks a noble heart."
Lost in her reverie, she uttered the words aloud.
"You speak of my father as though he were alive," Ta responded, misunderstanding her use of the quotation.
Princess Jasmine snapped back to reality and stopped short to face him.
"I speak of your father's son!" she declared, her voice strong with determination. "And although the words were written about Emperor Kang Hsi-ti, they were just as true of the great man who was my husband as they are of the great man who is my son. You are a Kang, much richer in noble blood than Old Buddha herself!"
Feeling reduced to the status of a child before his mother's suddenly towering strength, Ta clasped her hands trustingly as he had when a boy.
"Is that why she hates us so much, Mother?" he asked.
Princess Jasmine shook her head. "That's only one reason, my darling. We've had so little time together since you came home from Europe a week ago. I had meant to tell you everything. I never dreamed she would send for you this soon. Oh, Ta-Loong, Great-Dragon, there are things you must know before stepping into that serpent's pit."
As they approached the suite of unused rooms which she had shared with her late husband early in their marriage, she led Ta to an inner room he had never visited before. She opened an ancient door of classical keyhole design beyond which lay a small, but exquisite, garden. It was here, beyond the garden door, where Ta had been conceived.
Fragrance remained in the outer corridor to wait patiently with Old Fu.
The season of flowers had come again after a long winter, painting the darkest nooks with the colors of peach blossoms, lilacs, and peonies against the silvery white of Peking pine. Lilies-of-the-valley scented the air despite the chill of the night.
Leading her son to an elegant bench beside a pool, Princess Jasmine tugged him down to sit beside her. Dark windows stared out upon mother and son, windows which had seen his beginning and were perhaps now witnessing his approaching end.
"I have never explained to you the reason for your father's suicide by imperial command," said Princess Jasmine softly. "You were then too young to be told - just seventeen. Officially, he was ordered to kill himself for complicity with the Emperor in the Hundred-Days Plot of 1898."
"Ah, yes," Ta nodded, "when they tried to depose Old Buddha as regent so that her nephew, the young Emperor, could rule alone in an effort to modernize China. Too bad they failed!"
The Princess continued. "Your father was not directly involved. His was the crime of knowing about the plot, but of not reporting it to her. The conspirators had tried unsuccessfully to enlist him in their cause. Of those implicated, some fled the country, while others foolishly stayed. They were beheaded. We thought for awhile your father had escaped her notice.
"Old Buddha imprisoned the Emperor on a tiny island in a small lake in the Forbidden City. She threw his favorite concubine, Miss Pearl-of-Great-Price, into a deep dungeon and left her there to die."
Ta shook his head in outrage. "To think that such things go on at the top of our government!"
"A year later, Old Buddha sent for your father in the middle of the night, as she has now sent for you."
Princess Jasmine gathered her son into her arms and wept quietly into his hair. His tears flowed, as well.
"You know what happened when he came home," she murmured, "but you do not know why. He stopped at my rooms before going to his. After he explained, I had no choice but to let him go alone to his suite, as he wished. He took the red capsule from among his Mandarin beads, placed it between his teeth, crushed it, and, within seconds, died."
She pushed Ta away from her gently, lifted his chin with her hands, and said, "The poison may have stopped his heart, but it is I who am truly responsible for his death."
Her son stared back at her.
Dropping her hand and looking away, she proceeded with her story. "I was a virgin of fourteen when my family was ordered to take me to the Forbidden City as a concubine for the previous Emperor. Old Buddha, who was at that time known as the Imperial Mother, had chosen me personally. Her inquiries had revealed that I was a malleable girl of quiet disposition. That was what she wanted.
"Her daughter-in-law was a strong-willed, dangerous woman who had sown seeds of rebellion against Old Buddha in the Emperor's heart. The Imperial Mother had decided to eliminate them both and seize power for herself, but she needed a legitimate heir, a baby, in whose place she could rule for many years.
"The Emperor was not only childless, but diseased. He had been debauched in unspeakable ways by his eunuchs. It was thought he could never father a child. So the Imperial Mother chose a man of proven fertility who had produced several sons. He was supposed to impregnate me. The son he gave me would be the issue of an official Imperial Concubine. Such a baby would qualify for succession to the Dragon Throne.
"She had the Jade Rack prepared on the night of my intended arrival at the palace. This was a table bearing plaques of jade inscribed with the names of the Emperor's concubines. Each night, he selected one of these plaques to show his choice for bedtime pleasure, which in his case meant the most disgusting humiliations. The woman was always brought to him naked, so that she could not conceal a weapon. Rightly, he feared assassination. She was carried in over the shoulder of a eunuch and dumped without ceremony at the foot of the Emperor's bed.
"Old Buddha's plan was to bewitch him with pungent wine so he would not realize that every tablet was engraved with my name! I was to ply him with more drugged liquor until he lost consciousness. Then, the man she had chosen to ravish me would emerge from a place of concealment and proceed. This was to be repeated nightly until I became pregnant, as far as the world was concerned, with the Emperor's child.
"My family was secretly informed of this plan by a spy at Court. They feared for me, assuming that I would be murdered after the birth of the child. When the command came for them to deliver me to the Imperial Mother, I was spirited away to this house. I was placed in bed with your father, then a sleepy boy unknown to me, and married to him right in there, on the kang!"
She pointed to the dark windows overlooking the garden. "Those were his childhood rooms. We were still children. We turned away from each other and went to sleep after our parents and the priest left us alone. It was said that Old Buddha flew into a rage upon hearing of the marriage. She beat a poor little boy-eunuch to death with a branch."
Mother and son stared at the windows.
"We grew up together, your father and I," she reminisced. "Both of us remained innocents until finally, some years later, we fell in love. It happened one summer evening while he was reciting poetry to me under that ginko tree by the garden wall. That was our favorite pastime, reading the two great T'ang Dynasty poets, Li Po and Tu Fu. I remember that he was softly declaiming a poem by Li Po about Lady Yang Kwei-fei, the scullery maid who became the mistress of an Emperor. She met a sorry end at the hands of the Emperor's political opponents."
A spark of recollection lit up Ta's face. "Ah, yes, the most beautiful woman in China a thousand years ago!"
Princess Jasmine nodded. "Her death shattered the Emperor. Li Po sang that she was the Emperor's mist through the heart, from the Magical Hill of Wu.'"
"Wu Mountain, where the nymphs and fairies lived?" asked Ta, remembering childhood tales.
"Yes," replied his mother, "from which a fairy queen appeared in an ancient ruler's dream, and when he asked her who she was, she said that she was `morning cloud and evening rain upon the hill of Wu.'"
"Of course!" exclaimed Ta, "`Cloud and rain' is the classical euphemism for passionate love."
"Your father set aside his book of poems and looked at me as if he were seeing me for the first time. `Jasmine,' he whispered, `you are the mist through my heart.' He drew me to him, and together, we ascended the Magical Hill of Wu. I know in my soul that it was that moment when I was filled with you."
Overtaken by emotion, she buried her face in her hands and sobbed. After a moment, she looked up again at Ta.
"Ours was a great love, son. Your father loved you dearly, too. He struck a bargain with Old Buddha on the last night of his life. She threatened him with a public trial for complicity in the Hundred-Days Plot. She would have him convicted and beheaded. But, she told him, the real reason she wanted him dead was for violating me."
Ta drew back in consternation. "I don't understand!"
Princess Jasmine shook her head grimly. "He had committed an ungodly act by invading a womb meant to nurture an Emperor of the Ch'ing Dynasty, the Son of Heaven."
"She is mad!" cried Ta.
"Quite," his mother agreed, "but she is also the most powerful woman in the world. Your father was as good as dead, no matter the reason. Then, he challenged her on her own ground. `If that be so,' he declared, `you must never dare to lift a finger against my son because he was nurtured in that holy place. Nor must you harm my wife, for her womb is therefore under the protection of Heaven!'
"He had won! She granted our lives, in exchange for his."
Ta rose and went to kneel beneath the ginko tree where he had been conceived. "Thank you, my father," he whispered. "Your message has come at last. Whatever happens now, I shall try to bear it as nobly as would you."
He returned to his mother and kissed her.
With a parting gaze full of love for the proud woman who bore him, he left her.
Sadly, Princess Jasmine watched him go.
Through that door, I have seen both my husband and my son leave me by imperial command, the one forever, and the other.....
She looked again at the ginko tree beneath which she had first known love. A zephyr rustled its leaves.
Her husband's voice floated back to her across the years, in lines they had shared from another poem by Li Po: Heaven is high. Earth is wide. Bitter between them flies my sorrow.