The Phoenix Scarf
Part Five


 
Princess Jasmine lay awake past midnight on the evening of the Empress Dowager's seventy-fourth birthday. Fragrance usually slept on a pallet on the floor beside the brick kang, but tonight Princess Jasmine had insisted that the maid sleep in her own room on the opposite side of the garden.
"Get a good rest, dear Fragrance," she had said at bedtime. "You serve me too well and too long. I insist that tonight you take care of yourself. If anything should happen to you, what would happen to me?"
Thus it was that she was awake when Wang the gate man, freshly roused from snoring in the gate house out front, came to tell Fragrance that something strange was happening in the hutung which she ought to come and see. He did not know that Fragrance slept in her own rooms this night, and was surprised when Princess Jasmine personally opened the door at his light tapping.
She silenced him quickly when he apologized for his mistake. "No matter, Wang. I shall attend to this myself. Do not disturb Miss Fragrance. She has had a long day looking after me."
Outside in the hutung it was dark except for a small circle of light from the lantern Wang lifted for Princess Jasmine to see by. A palanquin of the type reserved for use in the inner confines of the Forbidden City rested in the narrow unpaved alleyway.
"All is quiet now, mistress," explained Wang, "but someone woke me up with loud knocking and the jangling of bells. Sounded like a whole army to me. Well, when I opened the Moon Gate, there was this hack, sitting just like now, and a group of strange men around it, really odd ones in funny clothes. When they saw me open the gate, they turned and ran. I never saw anything like them before, mistress. Weird! I didn't want to look inside this thing."
Wang had never seen eunuchs in street or court dress, and did not understand the unnatural roundness and softness toward which some were inclined after the operation imbalanced their hormonal structure.
Princess Jasmine made so bold as to lift a corner of the litter's curtain and peer inside. "Hold the lantern higher, Wang. Oh, there is someone here! Wang, it is my daughter-in-law! Get help. Wake the other servants and also fetch Fragrance. Mercy upon this house!"
Terrified, Wang was only too happy to get away into the house where his cries awoke everyone in the entire compound. Fragrance arrived on the run, stumbling over the sill of the Moon Gate as she wiped the sleep from her eyes.
"Heavens, Princess Jasmine, what's going on?"
"Look inside."
Fragrance peered in while her mistress held the lantern. "Luck's downfall! The Princess Shabara! Oh, lady, is she dead? No, no, she moved. She's alive! We must get her into the house."
Other servants came, including the old woman from Pao's household, and four of the men carried Shabara to Ta's rooms.
"What do you make of this, lady?" asked Fragrance. "Is there a note pinned to her gown? Oh, wrapped only in a quilt! She's quite naked. Princess Jasmine, please turn away. Please allow me to cleanse her first. One hundred devils, such a lot of blood!"
Princess Jasmine put her hand to her forehead and leaned against a wall. "I suppose I ought to sit down. Do wash her, Fragrance. I've never seen anything worse. What could have happened to her? Could she have been carved with a knife?"
"I don't know, ma'am. I must wash her to see where the blood comes from."
"I wouldn't wish such a fate on anyone," wept Princess Jasmine.
Fragrance went about her task in silence, grimly wiping Shabara's body with wet towels, unhappy to see that there were no wounds above the waist. In her own hatred for Shabara, she had frankly hoped to find evidence of great suffering, so intense was her desire for Pao's horrible death to be avenged. Busy at the grisly work, she failed to notice that Princess Jasmine had left the room, and when she made the discovery of the source of blood and the state of Shabara's vaginal region, she was so dumbfounded that she could not speak. She felt dizzy and sick. Throughout the cleansing process, Fragrance stooped often to listen for a heartbeat at Shabara's chest. It was faint, but still there.
"Lady, I have an awful thing to tell you," she began to say, but she saw now that she was alone.
Fragrance stepped into the corridor and saw a maid outside the door. "Where is Princess Jasmine?"
"In her own rooms, Miss Fragrance. That old woman you brought into the house several moons ago, she found a box in the litter and took it to Princess Jasmine's apartment. She sent me here to fetch the mistress. You were so busy, Princess Jasmine left without telling you. I was waiting outside here to tell you when you finished."
Apprehensively, Fragrance made her way through the verandahs of the mansion to Princess Jasmine's suite, giving the matter much thought as she walked, her pace becoming faster as mental suggestions of Old Buddha's evil came more rapidly to her until she found herself running. Breathlessly, she burst into Princess Jasmine's bedroom.
Her mistress lay across the kang, her eyes open and glassy, staring at the ceiling, one arm flung out to embrace a wooden box painted yellow, its wrapping of imperial yellow silk askew. The top of the box was partially open.
"Gods of Heaven and Earth, do not let my mistress die!" screamed Fragrance. "Must these evil ones triumph again and again?"
Princess Jasmine moaned and tried to speak, but her lips barely moved. Fragrance crawled beside her on the bed, tears coursing down her cheeks. She placed her ear close to Princess Jasmine's mouth. Her mistress spoke in short gasps:
"...garden door...beautiful garden door..that garden...this box...bury it there...tell no one as long as you live...unless it will serve some good purpose for my son...him, you must not tell...he could not live with this knowledge...pray for Shabara to die...that wil set Ta-Loong free...with this box all debts are paid between the House of Kang and Old Buddha...marry Pao...seek happiness...I beg you to be sister to my son as Pao is his brother...protect him from evil...bless you, dear child...kiss me good-bye."
Drawing one last breath from Fragrance's kiss, Princess Jasmine died, struck to the heart and torn from life by the hideous revelation of her infant grandson's fate.
Although benumbed by shock, Fragrance was vaguely aware that someone had come into the room and stood in the shadows behind the door. When she roused herself, a small figure run into the corridor and turned toward the front of the mansion. Fragrance sprang to her feet and followed, her soft-soled slippers making no sound. She saw the figure vanish into Shabara's room.
Fragrance crept in behind and saw the old woman servant from Pao's household leaning over Shabara's prostrate body, listening to the heart. Hearing Frangrance's heavy breathing from the chase, the wizened hag whirled around and leapt past her through the door. With Fragrance close behind and shouting for her to stop, the woman dashed past a startled Wang and out the Moon Gate.
Fragrance arrived in time to see the woman collide with a tall man in a scarlet robe. He grabbed her by the hand and together they disappeared into the dark hutung, but not before Fragrance had recognized his face. It was Li Lien Ying. She knew him from the banquet of the Mongolian princes. Stunned, she staggered back inside and sat down on the bench near the jade spirit screen.
The old woman, then, had not come from the home of Jung Pao, as she had sworn when she reported his emasculation and agonizing death to Fragrance. She was, in reality, the Chief Eunuch's spy! Thus, a full report of this tragic night would reach Old Buddha's ears within the hour, stealing even the dignity of privacy from Princess Jasmine's death. The bile of bitterness rose in Fragrance's throat, but she fought it down. She had too much to do. She could not afford to collapse now.
She sent word as she returned to Princess Jasmine's suite that all the servants were to retire. None in the household but she knew that Princess Jasmine was dead, and only she and Princess Jasmine had observed the condition of Shabara's body beneath the quilts.
Locking herself into Princess Jasmine's bedroom, Fragrance carefully arranged the corpse of her late mistress in an attitude of repose. She closed the unseeing eyes and kissed each eyelid tenderly, wetting the lashes with her own tears.
Then she turned her attention to the yellow box whose contents she had not yet examined. She recognized it as being of a design exclusive to the use of the Imperial Family, of that shade of yellow so famous in Peking, duplicated even in the yellow silk wrapping which had fallen aside. She did not want to look inside, for she had enough of horror this night. Her woman's heart and the source of Shabara's flow of blood told her a tale she did not want to know.
Still, it was her duty to look.
As she had expected, the box contained a dead infant which she now knew Shabara to have borne. The tiny body was swaddled in the distinctive phoenix scarf which Shabara had worn at the Gathering of the Clans when Fragrance first saw her. Further, the body was bound in an imperial yellow jacket of the type worn by captains in the imperial service. Embroidered under the collar was the name of its owner, Prince Ta-Loong. Old Buddha had left no doubt as to the parentage of this dead child.
Still drawn tightly with a jade plaque, the yellow silk cord which had choked the life from the newborn babe shone like gold around the tiny throat.
Faithful to the wishes of her mistress, Fragrance carried the little coffin to the garden behind the elegant antique door indicated by Princess Jasmine and removed some loose bricks in the hollow wall beside the gingko tree beneath which Ta had been conceived. In the pale moonlight, before closing the box for the last time, she once again gazed upon the contorted face of Ta's first-born, a son of whose existence he might never know. Moonbeams danced across a calligraphic etching on the tablet of flawless jade beneath the tiny chin. Fragrance noted with a start that the etching spelled out "Jasmine Blossom," the maidenhood name of Princess Jasmine!
This, then, overlaid all. It was a story Fragrance knew, told her in bits and pieces by Princess Jasmine during the dark days when her mistress secretly contemplated suicide upon fearing that Ta was dead at the Empress Dowager's hands.
This murder of the innocent babe now stood revealed to the Chinese maid as a terrible act of vengeance by the old harridan of the Violet Town. The jade tablet served as a ghastly reminder of the night long ago when Princess Jasmine had been secretly married to Ta's father in defiance of Tzu Hsi's plan. On that night, the Empress Dowager, according to Kang family spies at the court, had been seen breaking the tablets of the Emperor's Jade Rack in a fury. Her power not yet consolidated in those earlier times, she had doubtless been fearful of discovery by her enemies. It would appear, though, that one jade tablet had found its way into her voluminous sleeve. Tzu Hsi never forgave or forgot. Time had only made her wound fester the more.
Overcome by distress, Fragrance sat on the hard earth and leaned wearily against the gingko tree, weeping silently as she wanted no one to hear. Finally rousing herself before dawn, she labored at burying the box behind the loose bricks. The first rays of morning sun found her covering all traces of the grisly work, wondering sadly if anyone would ever discover the secret crypt. There lay the child whom Fragrance understood might have been born an Emperor of China if things had gone differently long ago. She did not know, however, that he might also have fulfilled the messianic dreams of both Shabara and Mandorva Khan for the future of the Mongolian people if things had gone differently only the night before.
She closed the garden door behind her and locked it with the key that always waited in the latch. This time, she hid it on the narrow shelf above the door.
May no one ever pass through this door again so the terrible secret will never be known, was her silent benediction.
As she went into the corridor, she asked herself if she had the courage, or sufficient spite, to dispatch Shabara to the next world in the wake of Ta's beloved mother. It would take nothing more than a minute or two with a pillow covering the "she-bear's" face.
"Am I capable of murder?" she wondered aloud, as though someone were there besides her conscience to hear.

END OF BOOK ONE
 

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1998 Brockman Morris