The Phoenix Scarf
Part Two


 
Ta was given no opportunity to see his mother before a hasty departure for Japan two days later. He left with orders attaching him to the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo as an observer of diplomatic procedures and as a student of the Japanese language.
"I want you to study hard, dear Dragon, for however long it takes to learn every shade of meaning in Japanese," the Empress Dowager told him. "I need a man with your brains closer to the throne, and I perceive there are troubles looming with Japan again. We will one day have a greater war with them than any of the conflicts we have yet had! While you study, I also command you to examine the hearts of the Yellow-Dwarf People. All they are today, you know, they owe to the Celestial Empire. More than two thousand years ago, Emperor Ch'in Shih Huang-ti sent out a shipload of five hundred virgin boys and girls to find for him an herb reputed to give eternal life. It was thought to grow only somewhere beyond the Eastern Sea. Those children, of course, could find no such herb, and when caught up in a great storm and blown off course, they feared for their lives if they returned empty-handed to Huang-ti. So they hid themselves in what is now Kyushu Island where they became the forefathers of the Japanese. Their descendants, however, have chosen to forget this true story and tell the tale now that they sprang from the sun. Ingrates! They have hidden their hearts from us ever since. Find them out, my boy. Let us know what they really are.
"I'll arrange some introductions for you at the court of Emperor Meiji. You won't be bored, even though Shabara must stay behind. It's your fault that it must be so! You two charming young things have made yourselves indispensable to me. Letting just one of you go is as much as I can bear. And I'll see to it that your mother is looked after properly. Haven't I been kind in letting you see so much of one another since her stroke? That she's doing so well now is therefore on account of me. Surely you recognize that I am genuinely sorry for the grief I have caused your family? I have tried hard to make amends. You must admit that your marriage has worked out remarkably well, has it not?"
"Yes, Majesty, I can't imagine a life without Shabara. I owe all my happiness to you."
The Empress Dowager smiled. "In this way, then, you repay me. Go now. Jung Pao is taking you to the station."
Both young men were glad that the Empress Dowager allowed Pao to accompany Ta to the train. It gave Pao an ideal opportunity on the way back to visit covertly the Kang mansion and relay the news of Ta's departure. He knocked three times on the Moon Gate to alert Wang to his presence, and went directly to Princess Jasmine's rooms where he knew he also would find Fragrance.
A small girl servant ran noiselessly ahead to announce him, but Princess Jasmine barely had time to throw on a silk pelisse before he arrived at her door.
"Sorry, ma'am, to come in so quickly, but I have important news and very little time."
He told her of Ta's assignment to Tokyo, which Princess Jasmine found most interesting for the fact that Shabara had been left behind.
"There is something afoot here," she commented. "It's one of Old Buddha's tricks. Did my son send any message other than farewell?"
"No, ma'am."
Princess Jasmine paced the floor. "I shall give it thought, Pao, but I pray you to be careful! I'm sure they know about you. You were too obvious in your looks at Fragrance during the banquet of the Mongolian princes. There is nothing unknown to those hawks, Old Buddha and Li Lien Ying. Have a care how you contact me in the future. If you perceive danger to yourself, don't contact me at all. I would rather suffer ignorance than to have anything happen to you, my second son."
"I understand, ma'am, but there is also the matter of Fragrance. Please recognize that I am the man to take her in marriage. My family lives in poverty when compared to the grandeur of this household, but I shall let her serve you as long as you live if she so wishes. China must surely emerge someday soon as a republic, and we shall all be free to make our own way in the world. She will want for nothing, I promise you, and I want no dowry for her. Fragrance herself is all that I want."
Princess Jasmine shook her head. "I cannot decide this for Fragrance. If she wants you, she can have you. But it is foolishness, Pao! Old Buddha would never allow an imperial guardsman to marry a Chinese servant woman, especially not a girl in my service, whatever rights you may have under the new law! I will help in any way that I can, but you must both move with great caution. It would perhaps be better to wait until this new republic comes."
Fragrance sat with them while they talked, but said nothing. When his talk with Princess Jasmine was finished, he took the maid with him into the shadows of the front garden on his way back to the Summer Palace.
"I must tell you, Fragrance," he said, "that I have not been with a woman since the day I first laid eyes upon you. Three years, yet I still cannot bear the thought of entering another woman's body! I have seen clearly that it is only for you that God has made me, but if we do not resolve this soon, my manhood will wither in my loins!"
Fragrance sighed and leaned against him. He took her in his arms.
"I will tell Princess Jasmine that I wish to marry you in secret right away," she whispered, "but that I shall remain with her as long as she needs me. Come back when you safely can, Jung Pao, and I shall resolve this manhood problem for you. I, too, am restless to become fully a woman. It is time that we began our life together."
Pao held her to his heart. He had heard the words he most wanted to hear. Their ultimate union was at hand.
He left the Kang mansion and stepped into the dark hutung, a narrow lane typical of the city, lined with high walls hiding both humble and great homes from view and broken only by wooden gateways and doors securely locked at night. Pao knew his way well, always tethering his horse in a different place and coming and going by the most circuitous and varied ways. Thus, he was greatly surprised when he encountered Li Lien Ying on foot near the Kangs' Moon Gate.
The Chief Eunuch registered equal surprise.
"Beyond expectation!" the eunuch cried. "Jung Pao, the Dragon's shadow! Ah, there is yet hope for a merry evening indeed!"
Seeing that Li Lien Ying was alone, Pao searched desperately through his brain for an excuse to be on his way from this too coincidental meeting, but the eunuch clutched his arm with deadly force and fairly dragged him along, chattering conspiratorially along the way.
"I am bound for a certain place, you see," said the older man, "a place I ought not to go. You mustn't ever tell that you found me here, good Pao, or Old Buddha would take a switch to me for sure! There is a very private tea house near here. I would not like it known that I frequent it. It is, after all, a famous house of women, too, and what would the court think of an old capon crowing there?" He laughed bawdily. "You must join me now. Then we shall have a secret to tell about each other; thus, neither will say a word!" His grip on Pao's arm was more than insistent.
"Just a cup of tea for me, Lord Li," said Pao, suddenly devising an excuse, "and then I must get back to the barracks at the Summer Palace. I have duty tonight."
"Of course, boy," the eunuch agreed.
The brothel was of an elegance Pao had never imagined. He had, in the days before his passion for Fragrance, been a regular customer at those in the Chinese town, some of them no more than cribs along a hutung, but others grand enough for the entertainment of imperial officers. None could be compared to this. It was rich men's country, hung with silks and satins on the walls and coverlets of velvet on the floor. The house mistress knew Li Lien Ying well, and greeted him with intimate familiarity at the door.
The two men were conducted to a large private room and seated in armchairs at a low table placed before an exquisitely embroidered curtain of filmy blue gauze. Pao could see that behind the curtain lay a sort of stage furnished with a long divan almost as deep as a bed, canopied with blue and gold tapestry satin and scattered with thick pillows.
A manservant came into the room behind them bearing steaming cups of fragrant tea. He set them on the table in front of the guests and quickly retired from view. Politely, Pao sipped from the delicate porcelain cup.
"A most unusual tea," he commented to the eunuch for want of better conversation, but being truthful in what he said.
"A special blend for me," Li Lien Ying replied, "as I am often here. I likewise have my own stock of wines on the premises, and excellent Chinese vodka aged fifty years and as fine as the best French brandy. Would you care for some?"
Pao shook his head and continued sipping tea, his thoughts racing ahead to the moment when he might reasonably excuse himself and leave. As soon as his cup was emptied, the servant returned to fill it again. This time, Pao resolved not to drink so fast, but the flavor was compelling, quite unlike any tea he had tasted before. He gradually lost count of the cups while Li Lien Ying seemed to drink nothing and continued to make idle conversation.
At a certain point, the eunuch touched a finger to his lips as a signal that talking was done. The gauze curtain swept back to reveal a beautiful young girl reclining on the divan. She wore an azure silk gown over scarlet trousers, and her tiny feet were bound in the Chinese style eschewed by Manchu women. Her satin shoes were no more than two inches long.
A female voice behind the stage sang an old love song, and a strummed instrument could be heard while the girl on the couch undressed herself so artfully that she scarcely seemed to move. Nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders revealed a patch of white breast as the silk gown fell away. An insinuation of the thighs brought the trousers an inch downward from the waist, while an upward incline of the chin exposed the other breast. The intensity of the music matched the progress of the lovely creature toward total nudity, and when she had completely disrobed, her body rested in precisely the same position as before. Her trousers dangled from the elegant feet. The scarlet gown lay in a heap beside the divan.
To Pao it seemed like a strange dream. A torpor had crept over him which made it difficult for him even to lift the cup, yet his mind remained acute, not in any way overwhelmed. Li Lien Ying's full attention was devoted to the girl. He arose now and joined her on the stage, his forehead glistening with sweat, his eyes afire with anticipation. He leaned over her and applied his nimble fingers to her flesh. Pao watched him touch her in the most ordinary places, but the touches drew from her deep sighs of pleasure. As her eyes grew limpid with desire, she turned her gaze to Pao, increasing his discomfort at witnessing the intimate scene.
The eunuch looked at him too, his extraordinary hands moving like birds over the girl's body. Her sighs became gasps.
"She is ready for you, young friend," he said to Pao with an evil smile. "She will take you to Heaven in her arms, for she has been taught many things. Come, she needs you!"
The girl extended her arms toward Pao who struggled to rise, not for her, but to flee from this place at any cost. In his mind, he sprang to his feet and ran through the dark byways of Peking and flung himself into the arms of Fragrance who kissed him and soothed him with a gentle embrace. His body refused to respond to the picture in his brain.
At that moment, strong arms raised him up from the chair as two men came from behind and dragged him across the floor to the stage. The girl writhed in an agony of lust under the movements of the Chief Eunuch's hands, her arms waving at Pao like tentacles seeking to crush him in their grasp.
The men stripped Pao's lower garments away and forced him over the girl, but he managed to gasp, "No, no, don't make me do this!"
Li Lien Ying suddenly relaxed from his massaging and, in a cruel voice, ordered, "Take this slut away!"
The two men carried her out of the room, leaving Pao immobilized on the floor. When they returned, the eunuch commanded them to dress him.
"Forgive me, Dragon Shadow," said Li Lien Ying in an oily voice. "Perhaps Old Buddha and I have misinterpreted this thing between you and the maid. Perhaps I was right in the beginning. Are you indeed the too-close shadow of our Great Dragon of Kang? Ah, had I listened to my own intuition, this could have been a simpler affair. I had meant to give you a bewitching memory to console you in the long years ahead, boy. Oh, yes, this could have been simpler by far!"
Pao's tongue was too thick for him to speak again. He saw that he was trapped. He knew he had been drugged, doubtless with an opiate to make him powerless to resist, but some supplement had been added to counteract opium's dream-inducing state and to render his sexual member erect against his will. His mind seemed clear, yet he could not stand.
The implication of the eunuch's words rang through him. He longed to cry out that the man was wrong, that it was his love for Fragrance, not for Ta, that rendered unthinkable the thought of "cloud and rain," sexual intercourse, with any woman other than his beloved.
Li Lien Ying had not finished toying with his prey. "Well, dumpling," he said with a leer, "since girls are out of the question, we've one more stop to make."
The two henchmen carried Pao to a litter at the back of the house. In a second such conveyance, the eunuch followed as they set out through Peking's dark streets. Through the swaying curtains, Pao caught a glimpse of the East Flowery Gate of the Forbidden City. They passed beyond it, however, and turned instead into the Eastern Thoroughfare, a long boulevard. At last they came to a halt in front of high brick walls in which a wooden door swung open. Pao's litter was speedily transported inside.
He was taken to a large, bare room, furnished only with a chair at its center and illuminated by a single electric globe. A man stood behind the chair, wearing gloves and a dark blue gown. Pao was carried to the chair, but before they turned him around to seat him on it, he saw a hole in the seat, six inches across, and he saw that the blue-gowned man held a long knife which glimmered in the flickering light.
Pao tried to scream as they lowered his clothing and strapped him into the chair, but the drug had by now effectively separated his body from his mind, so no sound emerged from his constricted throat.
The Chief Eunuch appeared before him then, waving a pair of needles in front of Pao's eyes.
"These will deaden the nerves to insure that you feel nothing during the operation. Before I use them, I want you to know that none of this is being done out of personal malice on my part. I could simply kill you and be done with it. Old Buddha would approve. But I like you, young man, so I am giving you a chance - a fifty-percent chance - to live. If you survive it, as I did, I shall find a place for you on my staff. I could use the kind of loyalty I know you to be capable of. That is very rare these days! Remember, then, that I could have slit your throat, and perhaps you will live to thank me for saving your life. But if, instead, you make your way to Heaven, I beg you to curse neither my name nor that of Tz'u Hsi T'ai Ho. None of this would be happening, you see, were it not for the Mongolian woman."
The Mongolian woman. Shabara! The name burned itself into the core of Pao's being. What had she done to bring this terrible fate to pass? Had she denounced him as a revolutionary? Had she finally told the Empress Dowager of his conversation with Ta at the wedding table? Was she, as he had long thought, more Old Buddha's spy than Ta's wife?
He could not know that Shabara was actually innocent in this matter of anything other than becoming pregnant with Ta's child. Nor could he know that the Empress Dowager was so determined that news of this child should not be shared with the Kang family that Ta would be dispatched to Japan before finding out he was to become a father, and that he, Pao, had to be canceled as a source of information for the Kang household in whatever way the Chief Eunuch chose.
Pao's tortured gaze followed the eunuch's acupuncture needles to their penetration of his groin. They did their work effectively. He never felt the gloved hand of the man behind the chair, that grasped his testicles through the hole in the chair, nor the sharp stroke of the knife which severed them from his body and made of him a eunuch. His system reacted to the shock, however, and Pao lost consciousness while the surgeon tried to stanch the flow of blood with a fistful of herbalized mud.
 

Table of Contents · Part 3

1998 Brockman Morris