Later that morning, Mandorva Khan bade farewell to Shabara and Ta privately in his yurt.
"I ask you both to forgive me," he said. "Ta-Loong, I should have told you myself of the wedding plan rather than have you discover it in the Scarlet Decree. Nonetheless, Old Buddha wanted it done that way. I could not disobey her without risk to my family and, perhaps, even to my country.
"That virago in Peking has an unaccountable interest in you, son. You may have wondered that all this has taken place within little more than days since you returned to China."
Ta nodded. "I have, indeed."
"Old Buddha arranged it with me two years past," the Khan continued. "Shabara was then too young. It was necessary to wait. You will recall that after graduation from Oxford, you were invited to the Sorbonne to read for a diploma in international relations and to learn French."
"That is true, Sire," acknowledged Ta. "It came as a surprise."
"The Empress Dowager arranged that. She told me that she wanted to insure that you stayed away until Shabara was of a seemly age to marry."
"Old Buddha's influence extends even to Europe?" Ta marveled.
The Khan chuckled grimly. "She has had you under surveillance the entire time you were away. I was notified to start our caravan from Dragon's Heart while your ship from Europe was calling in at Singapore en route to Tientsin! I tell you these things because your destiny is now tied to my daughter's. You have become one."
The newlyweds touched hands.
"No matter where you are," the Khan told them, "you will not find yourself beyond Old Buddha's range."
He got up and walked to the doorway. "Come, children. It is time to go."
He stood back with the door flap in his hand. Ta went to him and fell in a kowtow. "Thank you, Father-in-law, for bestowing upon me the greatest gift since I was lucky enough to be born to my loving parents - a wife whom I cherish and whom I shall endeavor to protect from all harm."
He rose from the floor and stepped outside.
Her father dropped his gaze self-consciously when Shabara came to face him.
"Look at me, Father."
He did not raise his eyes.
"Look at me...please!"
Her voice suddenly broke.
He responded this time.
Their eyes met. She was crying.
"I have been wrong, Father. Forgive my harsh words. I love this man. I belong with him now."
Mandorva Khan embraced her tearfully. "I shall be an empty shell when you are gone. My soul travels with you."
After they clung to each other for a moment, she pulled away.
"I must talk to Damba," she said. "I want the entire family to share in my happiness."
The Khan shook his head. "It's too late, child. Damba left camp early this morning without a word of farewell to anyone but Chrys. He told our little lama that he is going to Japan and will not return to our country until it is free of the Manchu yoke. We may never see him again."
She winced. "It gives me pain that he did not say goodbye."
"Divine grace will bring forgiveness to your brother's heart as it has to yours," promised the Khan.
Another parting took place outside, when Coral refused to accompany her mistress to Peking.
"No, Milady," the maid informed Shabara sadly, "Heaven has settled it for us. Last night before I slept, I looked up at the sky. 'Will a star light my way, too?' I wondered. All of a sudden, a star shot across the northern sky. 'Here it comes!' I thought. Do you know what happened? It fell...but over Dragon's Heart! No, Milady, there will be no Peking for me."
Shabara was crushed. "I shall be all alone with no one from home! With whom shall I speak our dialect? Who will serve me that understands my needs? Coral, you must come!"
Coral remained obdurate despite Shabara's entreaties. "I am only a mountain girl without any desire to see the world...not even the Great Wall. Go, Lady. Then come home someday and tell me what you have seen."
Shabara especially dreaded her last moments with Chrys, but he surprised her with a beaming face and encouraging words. "I cannot allow my sister to pass through the Wall without her favorite brother to wave her on. I am coming with you that far. The lamas who brought me have agreed to it. We will return to my lamasery from there!"
The other five brothers bade her a safe journey and good fortune. They were in charge of breaking up the camp for the caravan to Dragon's Heart.
The noontime sun rode high in the sky when the party bound for Peking departed.
Shabara and Ta thought of the next few days as their honeymoon, uncaring that the inns were primitive and none too clean. It was a time of getting to know one another, and of sharing moments they would never forget.
As they rode along at a leisurely pace, Chrys entertained everyone with stories of his life as a boy-lama.
"The Living Buddha seems to like me very much," he laughed. "I have deceived him into thinking I have a brilliant mind! I am being tutored to become a shaman-priest."
"A witch-doctor?" Pao's eyes grew wide.
"Oh, no," objected Shabara, "shamans are holy people who heal the sick with herbs and potions. The most spiritually minded are good at divination, which some might call magic. I am sure the Living Buddha has recognized in Chrys the intuitive perception that makes a great shaman!"
That night at a caravansary in the hills above the Great Wall, Shabara spoke again of Chrys when her head lay cozily cradled in the crook of Ta's arm.
The heavy scent of night-blooming jasmine floated in through the torn-paper window.
"The elixir you gave me," Ta remarked dreamily, "had an aroma similar to that."
His wife snuggled closer. "It was my wedding gift from Chrys. It is one of the specialities of the lamasery where he studies. If the bride ingests it, the pain of losing her virtue is greatly reduced. When a man drinks it, his potency increases. It lends him endurance."
Ta raised himself up on his elbow. "I heard you whimper in pain.....!"
Puzzlement filled his voice.
"I gave it all to you, my husband."
"But, my darling....."
She sat up and shook out her hair. Moonbeams creeping through the window softly bathed her naked breasts in light. Bending her legs at the knees, she leaned forward to clasp them together with her hands.
She looked down over her shoulder at Ta. "I placed the wine on the bedside table early in the evening. I had thought we would drink it together. Then, when you asked me to spend the night with you in the wedding gerr, I lost my courage. I was ashamed of myself later, and went to you. There was no more elixir. You had drunk it all!"
Her eyes gently accused him, but she smiled.
Guilt etched his expression anyway.
"I was thankful when it was over that you were befogged," she went on, "for I have never been so frightened and...embarrassed...in my life."
His fingers traced the ripples of her spine. "Does it embarrass you to be with me this way now?"
She sighed and stretched at full length beside him, throwing the coverlets aside. "Come to me, my Great-Dragon, and decide for yourself."
At Kalgan, Chrys left them after an emotional farewell. He rode off in tears with his party of lamas, promising Shabara they would somehow meet again.
At Nankow Pass, a contingent of imperial troops awaited them with the ponies Ta had left behind at the first inn en route to Mongolia. Ta and his dragoons were instructed to mount them. A seventh pony was provided for Shabara. The officer in charge gave the commands brusquely.
"Follow me," the leader ordered as soon as they were ready.
"We need a rest stop," Ta began. "My wife....."
The new commander glanced at him coldly. "My orders are to take you to the Summer Palace immediately."
Ta harrumphed. "I wish to continue first to my home in Peking, after we stop here awhile."
The officer twisted in his saddle and stared haughtily. "The wishes of the Empress Dowager supersede those of even an Imperial Prince of the Second Degree. You will do as you are told!"
He set off a gallop. The troops closed in around the wedding party. One struck the rump of Ta's pony to start him off. Other soldiers followed suit with the mounts of Shabara and the dragoons.
The entire company set out apace behind the arrogant captain who was already disappearing in a cloud of dust. A last soldier trailed behind, leading the train of four pack horses carrying gear.
Ta glanced over at Shabara with an encouraging smile, but she saw him also look at Pao. There was confusion, even fear, in his eyes.
This is no proper introduction to my new life, she thought. I believed my husband cut off his queue as a sign of courage and independence. Instead, he blanches with fear of Old Buddha. Is he like my father and elder brothers after all? Are Chrys and I still the only men in this family?