That moment of parting from his mother seemed long ago to Ta as he rode ahead of his dragoons toward the Western Hills. The interview with Old Buddha had come and gone. The shock of it remained, but the freshness of the day and a youthful spirit of adventure carried him on along the sandy, stony road leading from Peking to the Long Wall.
For countless centuries, teeming masses of humanity had traveled this road from the civilized kingdom of the south to the barbarian north. Mule trains and camel caravans of the Russian Heavy Mail continued to plod to and from the wastes of the Gobi Desert, the high Mongolian plateau, and the rolling plains of Manchuria. Express mail and passengers no longer rattled along it in carts, holding now to the railway branching south from Siberia across Manchuria to Peking or toward Russia's Pacific ports and the waiting ships bound for Japan and California.
Ta sensed the tiring of his horse and those panting behind. He welcomed the sight of an Imperial Posting Station ahead, a good stopping place to water the mounts and to drink a cup of strong tea. He had been instructed to ride hard and stop little on this mysterious mission, to sleep only when necessary and never too long.
His comrades, not known to him until they had been presented a few hours before, deferred gruffly to his rank as an Imperial Prince of the Second Degree. They had not readily accepted him as their new captain. Each was of noble birth, although not nearly so high as he.
Only one made an attempt to breach the gap.
"Your Imperial Highness, my name is Pao, a lesser relative of the Banner Family called Jung," he began. "I have served longest among those you now command. I offer you my service to help keep them in line. They know you are not a soldier, but you are already earning their respect by the pace you set."
Ta glanced over at him. He saw a round-faced fellow about his age, not tall in the saddle, but sturdily built. He was struck by the earnest, friendly smile.
"I am happy to know you, Lord Pao," he smiled in return. "We are coming to a Posting Station. Tell them to water our horses while we attend to our personal needs. In half an hour, we shall proceed on our way. We have no time to dawdle along the road."
After leaving the station, the party reached Nankow Pass in late afternoon. All but Ta had been there before, so none was overcome by the majesty of the Great Wall.
The mighty structure stood out in bold relief against the sky, clearly seen crossing the mountains above Nankow. This most marvelous work of man presented an awesome sight to Ta who had seen so little of his native land. In his student years, he had stood atop the Eiffel Tower in Paris and had visited the pyramids of Egypt when crossing through Suez on his way home, but he had never imagined such a wonder as this.
"It is like nothing I have ever seen!" he exclaimed to Pao, who often now rode at his side.
"Is it true, Captain, that this is the greatest of all the great things on Earth?" Pao asked in honest innocence, having seen almost nothing of the world.
"I don't know," Ta, as honestly, replied, "but surely it must be so."
The new captain led them through the Nankow Gate in the Wall, its crenelated battlements of bluish brick glimmering in the slant of the late sun's rays. Here, beyond the Wall, a new adventure began for all of them. None of the others had ever been to this far side.
They stopped for the night at an inn typical of its kind throughout North China. A central courtyard, surrounded by small buildings partitioned into rooms or sleeping areas, was used for the animals of travelers, be they mules, camels, or horses. The rooms themselves were windowed with oiled paper rather than glass. The paper served to filter out hot sunlight in summer, keeping the rooms cool, but sand-laden winds from the Gobi shredded and slashed holes in it throughout winter and early spring.
As in all North China, the sleeping rooms featured kang, the heated brick platforms covered with matting that served as a bed. On each communal kang a table was placed, around which the traveler took his meals and drink with the several strangers or friends who would share his bed. There all would sit cross-legged, regaling one another with tales while sipping harsh Chinese vodka or hearty green tea.
The arrival of Ta's obviously official party at the gate of the inn signaled a mad scramble for fresh matting to re-line a large kang. The imperial yellow of Ta's jacket-like cape, appliqued with symbols of rank in black velvet, alerted the staff to his importance. The innkeeper bowed low in welcome and offered him a private room, but Ta insisted upon sharing with his dragoons. The innkeeper personally escorted the party to a spacious room at the rear of the compound, away from roadside noise and the pungent odors of the central corral.
"Welcome, noble sirs," he said in practiced humility, "welcome to my unworthy inn! We will feed and water your horses, sirs, and will serve you dinner, if you wish."
"That is acceptable," replied Ta with the degree of haughtiness he considered appropriate to his rank.
Had the lesser dragoons been dining together at the palace barracks in Peking, there would have been an air of hearty conviviality. As it was, they shared dinner in awkward silence until Pao called attention to the pretty Chinese serving maid.
"Gentlemen, it will be summer soon," he remarked with an exaggerated roll of his eyes toward the buxom girl who leaned over the table while ladling soup. "Already some melons are hanging from the vine!"
Laughter all around the table broke the formality. Conversation flourished. Ta offered a story or two about his time in Europe, but wisely encouraged the others to talk about themselves. They finished dinner with a spirit of friendship for their new leader, but he noted a special spark between himself and Pao. They were meant to be friends.
"We shall sleep now," advised Ta when the meal was done. "Tell the innkeeper that we must be awakened in three hours. Our new horses are to be ready then. Those we leave behind are to be well looked after. We shall collect them on our return."
He selected a solitary place for himself against the back wall. His dragoons fell asleep quickly, but sleep did not come to Ta. His eyes were closed, but his mind dwelt upon the night that had gone before.
How he had trembled upon reaching the gate of the Forbidden City! Anticipation of the unknown had sent shivers up and down his spine despite the warmth of his sable coat. He knew that it was unusual to be invited into Old Buddha's Violet Town at this season of the year.
The Empress Dowager went to the cold halls of reception during winter and spring only for reasons of state. He had half expected to be taken to the Summer Palace outside the city. It had been reconstructed by the Empress Dowager at a cost of fifty million dollars, after its destruction in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. The Summer Palace served as her principal home.
A single lantern-bearer had run ahead of the green sedan chair that carried him through the hutung, or narrow lane fronting the Kang mansion. The only sounds were the heavy breathing of the sedan porters and the slap of their horny feet on the hard dirt and cobbled stones of Peking's streets. He knew they had reached the Forbidden City when he heard the salutations of the guards at the main gate. Ta had not passed through this gateway since childhood when his family had once been received at Court among the Eight Great Clans.
He remembered the turrets and battlements of the Winter Palace from that long-ago day, but could not see them now for the darkness of the night, broken only by the lanterns at the many massive gates and doors which opened to let his chair pass through. Arriving finally at the last guardhouse, Ta's sedan was halted by an officer.
"Would you be so kind as to change chairs, Your Highness?" the officer had requested with a low bow.
Ta complied, leaving the green chair for a red one of the type used in the inner parts of the palace. Porters carried him through still more labyrinthian corridors between high, dark walls. They deposited him at last on the far side of the Court of Honor, two hundred yards in width. From here he was expected to walk alone.
That had been the longest walk of his twenty-six years. He had proceeded with great self-consciousness toward the imposing palace surmounting three marble terraces. Its upper reaches were lost in darkness unpenetrated by the huge bronze bowls ablaze with oil to give light in the predawn. At the base of the stairways leading from the court to the top of the terraces, a guard instructed him to avoid the sacred Spirit Stairway in the center, where even an Emperor dared not set foot without risking offense to the gods.
Ascending, Ta tried to envision his father on these same stairs, passing between the enormous incense burners on either side. Had he looked upward to the great tortoises flanking the door and prayed for the strength they represented? Had he, too, willed himself to face the Dragon Throne with courage and all the other qualities he must display as a Kang prince?
Reaching the immense doorway leading to the Hall of Supreme Harmony, he heard a disturbance behind him. It was the sound of someone arriving in haste. As he turned to look, a woman stepped down from a palanquin to the back of a slave boy who had arrayed himself on all fours as a stool. She was surrounded immediately by palace eunuchs who offered their hands in aid, but she waved them all away save one, on older man robed in scarlet and pale green, who helped her up the stairs.
She was magnificently dressed, in a long Manchu coat of imperial yellow thickly seeded with freshwater pearls in a design of Turk's-cap lilies. The hem brushed the dainty upturned toes of Manchu shoes also embroidered with pearls and mounted on centered heels. Her hair was dressed in the Manchu style, swept up and back and tucked under black silk. Her headdress, coiled like wings on either side of her head, was covered with fresh flowers - white-petaled cosmos with yellow centers. A tassel of pearl strands swung freely beside each ear.
Ta looked around him, not quite sure what to do. The woman was obviously an important member of the Imperial Family and would require obeisance, of that he was sure. At a loss, he resorted to a courtly bow.
"Well, at least you have some manners despite your exposure to foreign dogs!" the woman laughed in a kindly way. "However, if you were older, I would expect to find you lying at full length on the ground at my feet. But we do not wish to dirty such a pretty chao pao, do we, handsome boy?"
Ta realized that the lady could have been none other than Old Buddha herself. Disconcerted, he fell to his knees.
"No, no!" she commanded, raising a hand toward him as if to stop his fall. "Do not prostrate yourself now, young man! Let me look again into those marvelous eyes. Few men, certainly not the young ones, dare to stare at me so directly as you have done, nor with such innocent confusion."
She walked toward him with expert grace, seeming to lean only slightly for balance on the arm of the tall eunuch at her side. She lifted Ta's chin gently upward with a bejeweled artificial fingernail fully six inches long.
He looked back at her squarely, surprised to find her face pleasant, even attractive, in the flickering flame from the urns. She did not show her seventy years in a countenance round and unlined. There were traces of beauty in the fullness of cheeks below long, appealing dark eyes. Elegantly slim, she seemed small even as she loomed above Ta. He saw in her eyes the temptress of legend whose fiery nature had consumed scores of lovers through passionate nights before having them drowned in deep wells the morning after.
The Empress Dowager did not often expose this side of herself anymore, but Ta's male beauty stirred depths she had nearly forgotten she possessed.
The tall eunuch cleared his throat faintly, but enough to break the spell of attraction between the old woman and the young man.
"You look like your father, I would say," Old Buddha said in the manner of an approving aunt, "yet those eyes are your mother's. She was a divinely beautiful child. Of course, I have not seen her for a number of years. Tell me, princeling, does her complexion still compare to mine?"
Ta, resorting to an instinct for diplomacy, replied, "There is no such skin as yours in the Celestial Empire, Majesty, nor, I think, in all the royal Courts of the West."
He sensed at once that his compliment had misfired.
"Ah, yes," she said, her hand falling back to her side, "the West! It was in Europe, I suppose, that you cut your hair? That false queue you wear would look more convincing on the hind part of the horse from which it came."
Ta's cheeks reddened.
"Never mind, child," she laughed. "Your hair will grow long again. You will let it grow, won't you?"
Her voice had the quality of honey dripping from a sharp knife - danger beneath sweetness.
"Of course, Majesty!" He finally fell prostrate at her feet.
Satisfied, she gave him a playful kick on the shoulder. "Up, up, lad! This dried prune of a eunuch is no fit man to be at my side when there is one such as you at hand. Come, help me inside."
Ta was on his feet in an instant. The Empress Dowager cruelly brushed the eunuch aside and snatched at the younger man's arm. The sharp nail guards at her fingertips dug into his flesh like bird talons. Ta dared not look down, but was sure they drew blood.
The great doorway swung open, and they entered the Hall of Supreme Harmony. The room had been constructed in heroic proportions, its roof supported by a multitude of pillars. Each was the trunk of a great tree, lacquered in the Forbidden City's famous silver-red. Brilliant with primary colors and gold, the throne-room-cum-audience-hall was weakly illuminated by two enormous candles placed on the dais which supported the Dragon Throne.
"Depressing, isn't it?" remarked the Empress Dowager. "I would not be here today if there were not an important delegation coming in from Russia. I dislike enormous rooms. I prefer intimate surroundings. You will come soon to my Summer Palace and see what I mean. Nor do you need to wear that silly pigtail when you visit. I know secrets of massage that will make your hair grow so rapidly that I shall myself be able to plait you a proper queue within weeks. And there is also a potion....."
Ta's heart froze in his breast. The Empress Dowager, as well he knew, was famed throughout China for her "potions."
He began to wonder suddenly what her plan for him really might be. Was her gentle beguilement a means to achieve some dreadful end after all? Were he to be used to give pleasure to her body, she had but to command him into her bed. He doubted that he could perform under such circumstances, but he suspected her to be mistress of seductive arts of which he had never dreamed. No, it was something else. This was to be no romantic escapade.
He sensed that she toyed with him, as a cat plays with its prey before slaughter. The realization swept over him quickly. She was indeed a witch. She had, with no apparent effort, filled the brave young man with terror.
She directed him up a short staircase to the dais whereon sat the Dragon Chair. With a show of weariness, she sank on to the red-lacquered throne made exquisite by antique cloisonné. Her feet came to rest on a footstool.
"Sit here beside my stool, beauteous boy," she smiled.
He did so.
"The Russians will soon come," she said. "It is such a trial for a woman to have to do a man's work! One must deal with all sorts of people, you know - like the Mongol chieftains. They are unendurable! I receive them once a year when they come down from those high mountains for a little entertainment in the city. I invite them because I want them to know I am still here! They think of me as an old woman, you see, and, I am sure, expect me to die soon. Such peasants! They swill my finest wines like pigs and gnaw bones like animals of the forest. Still, they are children, and, I suppose, consider me their mother."
She leaned forward from the throne and pulled her robe of state apart at the breast. Pinned against a yellow satin dress she wore underneath was an exquisitely made Swiss watch, its circlet of pink diamonds glittering in the candlelight.
"What time is it, pretty prince?"
Ta leaned closer, catching a whiff of fragrant perfume. "The time is near four, Majesty."
Her expression fell serious. "We must make haste to the business at hand! The Russians are doubtless already at the outer gates, grumbling, I hope, about the early hour. It is a way I have of indirectly slapping Tsar Nicholas the Second on the wrist for his unseemly interest in our Mongolian provinces. I make his men rise early from their late carousal with low Chinese women. The Tsar's revenge on me is that they will stand before me reeking of vodka and the heavy foods they ate while drinking it! There is nothing in life that does not balance out in the end, sweet prince."
She clapped her hands and called, "Li Lien Ying!"
The Chief Eunuch, standing unseen in the shadows of a nearby pillar, came forward with silent steps. His name sent a shiver down Ta's spine, for this eunuch had long borne an unsavory reputation for evil. As he approached, the Empress Dowager spoke sharply, in a tone quite different from that she had used with Ta. "Take Prince Ta-Loong hence and give him the yellow jacket and the rest of the uniform. Send his personal things with a note to Princess Jasmine, saying that his services are required here. He will not be going home."
To Ta, she said gently, "Go with him, Great-Dragon, and do as he says. I have instructed him."
Ta bowed. "Yes, Majesty."
After descending from the dais, he followed the example of the eunuch in backing away toward the great doors. He perceived that the eunuch had not been alone in the shadows of the vast hall. A veritable army of men lurked at every turn. So preoccupied had he been with the Empress Dowager and his own thoughts when he entered that he had seen no one at all.
Her voice, suddenly as strong as a man's, rang out behind them: "Wait! Wait! I had quite forgotten....."
From her sleeve she extracted a scrolled parchment embossed with the Imperial Scarlet Seal. The Chief Eunuch scurried noiselessly to his mistress and accepted the paper into his own hand. Backing away again, he left the Hall of Supreme Harmony with Ta.
The Russians were indeed arriving at the foot of the Spirit Staircase. In the wake of the Chief Eunuch, Ta strode past them, taking note of the overwhelming stink on their frosting breath as they turned to stare with open curiosity from red-rimmed eyes. In this, Old Buddha knew whereof she spoke. It gave him perverse pleasure to think of these rough fellows blowing such foul air into the face of the most powerful, most deadly, woman alive.
The following night at the inn beyond Nankow Gate in the Great Wall, while he pretended to sleep, Ta fingered the parchment the Empress Dowager had withdrawn from her sleeve. It lay folded in a secret pocket of the yellow jacket in use now for a pillow.
What message does it contain? he wondered. Why have I been chosen for whatever this task may turn out to be?
He had been instructed by the Chief Eunuch to proceed at the head of his new command to the Mongolian plateau. The troop would be met there by a certain Mongol tribesman who would know Ta by the jacket he wore. This tribesman would, in turn, lead the dragoons to a place of rendezvous, where Ta would deliver the parchment directly into the hands of a chieftain indicated by the guide.
More than this, Ta did not know.
After what seemed to him only minutes, Ta heard the innkeeper rousing the others from the warmth of the kang. "Up, fine gentlemen! Your three hours have come to an end!"
Ta rose instantly. The others stirred sleepily, then followed him out the door.