Shabara refused Ta's invitation to share the wedding gerr that night.
"I wish to use my own yurt," she explained, "because I need time alone to think. Tomorrow is the day when we may divorce. I ask you, please, to use the wedding gerr yourself. It is quite beautiful."
His heart sank. "It will not be beautiful without you. I beg you to reconsider."
She remained adamant in her refusal.
He was devastated. He was so unhappy he did not even seek out Pao. Mandorva Khan had relented in the matter of Coral and pardoned her. She would no doubt be celebrating privately with her dragoon.
The wedding yurt was lavishly furnished with exquisite Chinese furniture and magnificent Chinese rugs. These had been sent in advance by Old Buddha to an Imperial Posting Station a hundred kilometers farther along the plateau. When Mandorva Khan's caravan had passed there, the pieces were transported to the campsite for placement when the yurt was pitched.
Lamps of fragrant oil lit the yurt softly. There were lovely chairs and a slatted bed boasting a luxurious double mattress covered with silk and stuffed with down.
Heartsick, Ta half-prayed that he would not live through the night.
He snuffed out all the lamps save one on the far side, which gave the room an amber glow reflected in the gilt and vermilion of the tables and chairs.
On a bedside table rested a golden goblet of strong Chinese wine. He disrobed, sat on the edge of the bed, and sipped every delicious drop. It flowed into him like rivulets of cool fire.
Afterward, he lay on his back and closed his eyes.
Everything is done but the pronouncement of divorce. Please, God, take me tonight. Let me fly in spirit to my mother that I may say goodbye. Then let me fly on in eternal darkness. Give me forgetfulness. Let me not remember what I have lost.
His mind chanted these words as a mantra until their rhythm mesmerized him into a trance.
He was there, but he was not.
A cloud came and covered him. It showered dark rain across his face and chest. He thought his eyes were open, but he could not see through the mist. A sensation of moist warmth enveloped him like a sheath. He thought he heard a whimper of pain, but he felt only ecstasy. There was a turmoil of motion. Then he heard another cry he was sure was his own.
When he woke in the morning, he was groggy from the wine. His head throbbed. He sat up slowly, and rubbed his eyes.
What is this? Have I cut myself? What is this dried blood?
He sprang from the bed and examined his lower body in a mirror. He dipped a cloth into cold water from a washstand and wiped himself clean. There were no cuts or bruises.
He looked deeply into the reflection of his own dark eyes. What strange thing has happened here?
After dressing, Ta hurried to Shabara's yurt.
Coral met him at the doorway.
"No, Milord, she will not see you," the maid apprised him. "She is dressing for the public announcement. Lord Pao awaits you in front of Mandorva Khan's gerr, where the ceremony will take place."
Coral hung her head and closed the door flap.
He felt abandoned and alone.
A voice suddenly spoke within him: She is your wife. You do not have to consult the maid before entering here.
He threw back the flap and stepped inside.
Shabara stood facing the mirror. Coral was fastening her dress.
Shabara saw him come in. Their eyes met in the reflection. Her expression was relaxed, her eyes calm. This was a look he had not seen before.
"Leave us," Shabara demanded of Coral.
The maid scurried from the yurt.
Shabara gazed at Ta in the mirror. "You have something to say?"
Sunlight pouring through the smoke-hatch lent an aura to her image in the mirror. Ta could see himself standing behind her.
"I do not want a divorce," he said. "I want this to be the day when we are born into a new life together. I want the two of us to be one, without secrets between us."
"Here is a secret." She watched him through narrowed eyes. "I am not virgin."
Is that why you would not make love to me? he thought. You were afraid I would find out?
Instinct, however, forestalled a change in his expression.
"Nor am I," he noted simply.
She tilted her head curiously. He had surprised her.
"You are not like other men," she observed. "Men like my brothers might have killed me for such an admission. I would not be chattel to you?"
"Chattel? Never! You would be chatelaine of a great house, and of my heart."
They stared at each other in the mirror.
"What do you remember of last night?" she asked abruptly.
He shrugged. "The wedding gerr was beautiful. I drank some wine. I think...I dreamed."
"That is all? Did you like the wine?"
"An unusual vintage. I've never tasted its like."
She nodded. "I am sure you have not. It was mixed with certain herbs."
Ta flushed. "A potion?"
"A love elixir," she corrected.
"It brought about a trance," he murmured. "I floated in mist....."
Shabara turned away from the mirror, approaching him slowly. Her gown of scarlet satin shimmered.
"After you retired, I went to the wedding gerr. I went as your goddess...not of the dawn...but of the night. I found you sexually aroused, as the elixir was meant to do....."
"You settled upon me like a cloud!" he interposed in astonishment as her words lifted the veil that concealed remembrance. "Your long hair showered over me like dark rain. There was blood...and a whimper of pain....."
"Last night, Great-Dragon," she whispered, "I lost my innocence...to you!"
She was so close to him, their bodies almost touched.
"Go!" she said quickly. "Wait for me at my father's gerr."
He dared not speak for fear of breaking the spell cast by her confession.
He left the yurt in a daze.
Pao rushed to meet him when he hove into view at the center of the camp.
"What news, Brother Ta?"
Ta shook himself into reality. "Truly, Brother Pao, I do not know what is to happen."
Shortly thereafter, Shabara appeared, with Coral walking at her side. Everyone stood to applaud. She wore no jewelry. Her tresses fell across her shoulders. Her beauty was unadorned.
She sat down on cushions next to Ta.
Presently, the Khan appeared in the doorway of his yurt, clad in rich garments. A hush fell over the crowd as he descended the hillock to greet Shabara and Ta.
"My children," his great voice boomed, "today, you make your decision in this matter of marriage or divorce."
Young Chrys came out of the yurt followed by five of his brothers. Conspicuously, Damba was not among them.
Chrys carried a long scarf of white silk. He went to stand at his father's side. He smiled lovingly at Shabara, and bowed to Ta.
The Khan inclined himself toward Ta. "Prince Ta-Loong, Great-Dragon, do you elect to continue this marriage to my daughter? If so, please nod your head."
"Daughter," the Khan intoned further, "the white scarf of welcome traditional to our people rests in your brother's hands. If you choose to return to our family, tie it about my waist. I offer you continued sustenance and refuge at Dragon's Heart. If you have chosen, instead, to maintain your marriage, drape the scarf across your husband's shoulders."
Shabara arose without hesitation and took the scarf from Chrys.
The crowd held its breath. Mandorva Khan lifted his arms only slightly away from his sides. Ta sat stiffly erect, staring straight ahead.
Shabara then proceeded to place the scarf around her own shoulders.
The crowd exhaled, bewildered.
"I accept my father's white scarf of welcome!" she declared.
The Khan turned pale. Ta's shoulders slumped.
"Let it become now a symbol of welcome to my new home in Peking," she continued, "You may feel free to call upon me there, for I shall always be your loving Princess of Dragon's Heart. Now I pray that I shall bring Prince Ta-Loong of Kang not only happiness, but also many fine daughters and sons!"
The audience cheered.
Mandorva Khan was jubliant.
Ta stood up proudly and embraced her.
"I love you, my husband," she murmured in his ear. "I shall share life's journey with you."