On the third day of November 1908, the Empress Dowager arose early as was her custom. She emerged smiling from behind the satin bed curtains to greet the maids, the ladies-in-waiting and the eunuchs who had gathered there to be among the first to wish the sovereign happiness on her birthday.
A busy schedule called for her to begin by receiving the Emperor in the Throne Room at a quarter past eight. He arrived in a palanquin looking weak and emaciated, suffering, some said, from Bright's disease or, according to others, from slow poisoning at the hands of the Empress Dowager. He made an effort to pay obeisance to her, but was so debilitated that she excused him from further ceremony and sent him home.
Although their relationship had improved in the decade since she had imprisoned him after the Hundred Days of Reform, he still occupied a position of subservience to her. She had cast their roles in reverse. She had become the actual ruler of China, whereas he had become the "usurper." But her reign "behind the throne," where it had to stay for purposes of legality as long as he remained alive, was fraught with irony. He had fought against her for reform in the last decade of the nineteenth century, seeking to prepare China for entry into the twentieth century. He had lost, but she, in winning, had only gained time and in the end had been forced to adopt many of the reforms he had once decreed.
The Emperor having been dispatched to his dismal quarters on an island in the imperial lake, and other business of the day being finished at last, the Empress Dowager did not begin enjoying her birthday until giving over the afternoon to pleasure. At that time the imperial concubines and sundry princesses and the ladies-in-waiting, along with the most favored of the eunuchs, retired to charming pavilions on the shore of the lake for a special celebration in masquerade.
Old Buddha appeared in her favorite costume as the Goddess of Mercy. Shabara was assigned the role of Borjikin, Mongol consort of Emperor Shun Chih in the late seventeenth century. Borjikin had lived a long life, well into the eighteenth century, when, as an old woman, she was much admired for her wisdom by Ta's imperial ancestor, Emperor Kang Hsi-ti, the Sun King of China. This role enabled Shabara to wear an ancient, very full court robe which concealed her swollen stomach. In her representation of an historic personage of exalted rank, she properly remained seated in a chair at the picnic.
On several occasions the Empress Dowager came to Shabara, leaving the dice games she played for high stakes to inquire in conspiratorial whispers after the state of the child. "What signs of his coming do you feel? Today is the day. He must be born today. He is my birthday present from you. If you feel anything urgent, pretend to have a headache. I shall understand and have you transported to my rooms at once. The heavy headdress you are wearing will be a wonderful excuse for a headache. I have planned everything well, have I not, sweet darling? You see, your Mongol maids are clustered under yonder tree awaiting your slightest demand."
The Empress Dowager had long since imported unsophisticated nomad women from Mongolia to attend to all of Shabara's needs. They spoke neither Manchu nor Mandarin and lived under the threat of death if they dared to learn either language or attempted to consort with anyone outside their own circle. Already frightened half out of their wits by the grandeur of court life, they were a good risk to keep the secret of Shabara's pregnancy.
At five o'clock the sun faded from the sky just as the Empress Dowager won a sixth consecutive game of dice, rolling the ivory cubes in a translucent bowl of white jade to decide the moves of ivory chessmen which were propelled across a colorful satin board into either Earth or Fairyland. Following her custom, she accepted no winnings in cash from her fellow players, relishing the extravagant amounts she had won only in her imagination. If the opposing player won, however, the Empress Dowager herself always paid promptly in cash, thus giving a superb gambler a grand opportunity to make a good living at court.
At sundown, she called for crab apples and clotted cream, personally handing a bowl to Shabara in the small pavilion by the lake where the princess was seated. Alone together, the two supped on the delicious fruit.
"Aren't they wonderful?" exclaimed the Empress Dowager. "I adore them prepared in this way although I really ought not to eat anything so rich. They say it's bad for me. And you? How are you feeling, Miss Expectancy? Are you warm enough in that gorgeous phoenix scarf I had made for you?"
"Perfectly warm. Your gifts to me have been thoughtful and kind, Madam, but I fear my child will not arrive on your birthday, after all. He is as contrary as I."
Old Buddha suddenly shivered. "Oh, I have taken a chill. Li! Li," she called to the Chief Eunuch who, as ever, stood nearby, "end the festivities! Everyone is to go away. Bring chairs that the Princess Shabara and I may retire to my rooms. I feel a chill on my bones."
Li Lien Ying scurried away to do her bidding, returning shortly with two sedan chairs and four eunuchs as bearers. The Empress Dowager and Shabara were carried to the imperial apartments where Li Lien Ying was asked to remain with them in the antechamber to the Empress Dowager's bed room.
No sooner had they arrived there than Shabara clapped her hands to her breast. "Oh, I have a piercing pain!" she cried. "Something is happening, Majesty, perhaps a fearful indigestion from eating the crab apples."
"I think not," said the Empress Dowager crisply, her "chill" vanishing in a trice. "I think the child is coming."
"But, Majesty," cried Shabara, in obvious pain, "is it ever thus? So quick to come with spasms that twist the heart so sharply? I feel nothing down below."
"Fear not, mountain woman," said the Empress Dowager in a voice turned as hard as steel. "It is the child." She then nodded to Li Lien Ying. "Make sure that no one enters these rooms but those you can trust. I want this child alive and healthy in all its parts. If anything happens to it, I'll have you sliced in strips, old capon!"
The Chief Eunuch understood the Empress Dowager's seriousness and hastened from the room to fetch two servants, both of whose tongues had been slit after they survived the surgery which had made them eunuchs. They came in with a quantity of gauze rags and steaming hot water. Li Lien Ying secured all doors from within after posting guards outside to ensure that no one could enter the area.
They carried Shabara, now semi-conscious from the agony of constrictions on her heart, into the Empress Dowager's bedroom where they placed her on a long couch thickly covered with satin quilts. One of the eunuchs lifted her head to lay it back gently on a porcelain head rest which served as a pillow for sleeping. Under further instructions from Li Lien Ying, he also bound a silk scarf around her mouth so that it kept her teeth apart. Noticing that he tied it rather loosely, the Chief Eunuch slapped him vigorously across the face and commanded him to tie it more tightly. Only then, in her pain, did Shabara notice that this was the boy eunuch who had taken the Shih Tzu puppy from her on the barge two weeks before. It seemed to her that his eyes were moist, whether from tears at her plight or from the Chief Eunuch's resounding slap, she could not tell.
Shabara offered only the slightest resistance in her semi-conscious state, but even so she nearly strangled until Li Lien Ying, seeing her distress, ordered the boy eunuch to loosen the scarf a trifle. Vaguely realizing that she was at their mercy, Shabara took courage and desperately resolved to bring her mind under control before she drowned in her own spittle. She correctly perceived struggle to be useless.
Calming herself gradually, she tried not to scream when Li Lien Ying began massaging her protruding belly with fingers that brought excruciating pain. She saw Old Buddha sitting nearby observing the scene with the clinical detachment of a consulting surgeon who had already given an opinion and was now interested exclusively in the results.
Gaining more control of her mind, Shabara began to realize that something internal was combining with Li Lien Ying's dexterity to bring the baby into the world. The ache in her heart had spread throughout her body and now centered in her abdomen. A dawn of suspicion lit up her eyes with sudden rage, and she turned the full force of it on the Empress Dowager in an angry glare.
It was as though a spark of fiery communication leapt between the two women at that moment. Neither could doubt what was in the other's mind. Shabara saw in the Empress Dowager's eyes confirmation that the crab apples and clotted cream had also contained a pernicious concoction which had brought on these agonizing contractions which were helping to force the birth in response to the Chief Eunuch's insistent massage. For her part, the Empress Dowager read a message of violent hatred in Shabara's eyes, hatred for the duplicity which had led the Mongolian princess to believe herself the great favorite of the Dragon Throne when all the while the mistress of millions was really plotting this nefarious deed.
Li Lien Ying's merciless prodding brought Shabara's attention back to her body. She found herself involuntarily pushing downward, her pain so intense that she thought she would die. Sweat obscured her vision until Old Buddha herself wiped it away with a silken sleeve.
"I am almost sorry about this, obstinate girl," said the Empress Dowager. "I would have given you something to kill the pain if it were not that your body and your mind must be totally alive to bring this child into the world. Only the pain will keep you alert. All must go well, for this child is very important to me. Pray that it is a boy, princess, for if it be a girl, I will personally slit your throat with these." She fluttered her bejeweled nail guards before Shabara's feverish eyes like six-inch daggers.
Distracted again by agony, Shabara felt herself screaming through the gag in her mouth when the Chief Eunuch's hand entered her body as if she were a calving cow and virtually pulled the child from her womb. Her screams might otherwise have been heard halfway across Peking. As her body at last gave up the child, she seemed to float above the couch, drifting away like a feather from the scene of chaos and pain, but just as quickly was she seized by a determination to stop the drifting and return to the couch. Shabara knew that if she did not, she would die.
No, she thought, I must live to take vengeance on this old woman and her kingdom.
She had given birth to a boy. She knew it was a boy when Old Buddha cackled like a hen and clapped her hands in glee.
"My greatest birthday present in many a year," the Empress Dowager cried, taking the babe into her own arms and lifting it to her breast. His mother could see that he was a lovely child, perfect in all his parts, strong and squalling and sturdy-limbed. The Empress Dowager kissed him."And now, Li Lien Ying," she said, "fetch the tablet while I wrap this little one in his mother's phoenix scarf. It will warm him on his way."
The Chief Eunuch, wiping himself clean with gauze and hot water, went to a tall cabinet in the imperial bedroom and opened a drawer. From it he withdrew a small jade tablet on a yellow silk cord.
"Give her the drink," Old Buddha commanded the youngest of the eunuchs. Again, this was the boy who was in love with Shabara. Frequently throughout these proceedings he had made every effort to hide his horror at the terrible things he had beheld this night.
As instructed, he lifted a small bowl from a chest at the head of the couch and placed it against Shabara's lips, at the same time loosening her gag with his other hand. He had watched while the second young eunuch in the room prepared this poison earlier. It looked and smelled like pale tea. Knowing full well that he was condemning himself to death when Li Lien Ying discovered the truth, the boy dribbled the poison into the gag on her chin while appearing to pour it through her lips. His lovesick gaze locked with Shabara's and told her the tale. She remained silent. Then he quickly removed the gag to his pocket. He would place it in his own mouth later that night, suck the poison from it, and die slowly and quietly as it was intended Shabara should do. His consolation while still conscious would be the memory of her beautiful eyes looking into his while he saved her life at the expense of his own, and his prayer would be that he might be reborn into a world where his manhood would not be taken from him, leaving him whole to express physical love with a woman like Shabara.
The drama of Shabara's salvation went unnoticed by the Chief Eunuch, the Empress Dowager and the second young eunuch, all of whom had now turned their attention to the baby.
The Empress Dowager tickled the baby under the chin. "Exquisite creature," she cooed, "the gods have placed thee into my hands to serve a fine purpose. Thou hast entered the world as my instrument of revenge. Now go, little one, and do what thou hast come to do. Hold him steady, boy."
The second young eunuch held the baby aloft before Li Lien Ying, the tiny legs kicking, the red face wrinkled in a frown. The Chief Eunuch raised his hands and deftly dropped the yellow cord around the baby's throat. He drew it closed with the tablet of jade like a drawstring bag. The infant yelped and in an instant was dead.
Now free of the gag, Shabara cried out at the destruction of her child. Having passed beyond mere exhaustion to a state almost drained of life, she fainted dead away.
Old Buddha, satisfied that poison had brought Shabara at last to the doorway of death, prepared to take the next step in her elaborate plan.