In the third month after Ta's pre-dawn departure for the interview with Old Buddha, Princess Jasmine decided upon suicide as the only assuagement for her despair.
She had received no news of him - only the box containing his clothing, and a crisply worded note of cruel brevity implying he would not be coming home: Your son is required by the Empress Dowager - written in the dreaded cinnabar ink. No questions could be asked. No answers would have been given if they were.
Required? she worried endlessly. Required for what? To fill an empty space in the dungeon where the deposed Emperor is doubtless kept? Or has she killed you, my son, in some secret place and left you to rot undiscovered? Where are you, Ta-Loong?
Only at the insistence of Fragrance had she survived this long.
"No, no, Lady, such a thought!" the maid had cried. "See his body first. Confirm! What if he were to come home tomorrow and find you gone? Have mercy upon those you would leave behind!"
Princess Jasmine had set off a discreet chain of inquiry through friends among the other great Manchu Banner Families descended from the warriors who had carried the clan banners into Peking following the conquest of China in 1644. It eventually reached the circle of those nearest the Dragon Throne. The conclusion was a report that Ta was not visible at the Summer Palace, nor in the Forbidden City. No one had any knowledge of him at all.
If evil has befallen him, she thought, only the eunuchs would know, and none will ever tell.
She waited day after day, until waiting became too painful.
I shall not wait anymore.
The night before the chosen day, she addressed a final letter to her son, in case, by some chance, he might yet be alive. She tucked the letter into her sleeve, where it would be found after her death.
Then, by the light of a kerosene lamp, she ferreted under the rocks of an untended back garden, eventually uncovering six large white scorpions. From these, she brewed a purgative tea in the embers of her kang.
She drank it.
The potion had thoroughly cleansed her by morning, thus satisfying her fastidious nature.
The violently cathartic tea, however, served a second, less prosaic, purpose. Its mild poison had sensitized her vitals in readiness for the gold leaf she meant to swallow as a means to her death. She would die convulsively, but quickly.
She ate nothing for breakfast or for lunch. It was a warm afternoon. She complained to Fragrance of a severe migraine headache.
"I shall rest now," she said. "I should like to be alone. Please do not disturb me for an hour or two."
Fragrance left her, but her unnatural pallor had alerted the maid. The suspicious girl immediately questioned the young man in charge of cleansing the bamboo commodes throughout the house. She discovered that no contribution had been made from Lady Kang's apartment. Such records were meticulously kept for the usage of the so-called nightsoil as fertilizer.
Covertly, Fragrance toured her mistress's own little garden of flowers. She found evidence behind the lavender bushes that Princess Jasmine had avoided the use of her comfort chair. Her suspicions confirmed, an intuitive sense of imminent danger set the maid's feet in motion. At the instant Princess Jasmine was lifting the gold leaf to her lips, Fragrance burst into the bedroom with a cry and struck the lady's hand away from her face.
Had it not been for this, Ta's mother would have died only moments before the arrival of a messenger bearing a summons from Old Buddha.
'Your presence is required at Court on the morrow, when a sedan chair will call for you at nine,' it began ominously, before closing with a line that sent her spirits soaring: 'Your son will be permitted to pay you his respects.'
Despite her weakened condition, she could not sleep at all that night. Fragrance would not leave her and dozed fitfully on a mat laid on the floor beside the kang.
The occasion of the meeting between Princess Jasmine and her son had been timed by the Empress Dowager to coincide with the annual visit of the Mongolian chieftains, called the Gathering of the Clans.
They arrived in a magnificent caravan of camels, horses, and mule carts, preceded by dancers and musicians who began to perform after passing through the Great Wall. The procession included hundreds of retainers and servants, as well as several saffron-robed lamas, most of them representing second or youngest sons given by the clans to the Church, a universal custom among Mongols.
In full ceremonial regalia, Mandorva Khan led the entourage to the Sea Palace, an exquisite residence so named for its setting in a sea of artificial lakes and canals. At his side proudly rode young Chrys, wearing a gold medallion signifying his patronage by the Living Buddha. Five brothers came behind - minus Damba.
Officials conducted them to the banks of a wide canal where members of the Imperial Court were assembled. In their midst, on a marble dais reserved for the most privileged, sat Princess Jasmine in lavender robes. Her hair was interwoven with amethyst strands. On a low stool at her feet sat Fragrance, plainly dressed in peach silk.
"I beg you, Mistress," whispered the maid, "to restrain your excitement. I have hidden your pallor with cosmetics, but you must try to look fresh for our prince. Please, Highness, close your eyes. Rest them."
"Oh, child, not now...look!"
An imperial barge covered with sheet gold and hung with banners of scarlet and yellow came into view around a bend. Colorfully dressed eunuchs pulled it with ropes from a walkway edging the canal.
Beneath festoons of flowers, the Empress Dowager sat on deck in a low-backed chair of pink cloisonné. Her robe of imperial yellow silk was embroidered with emerald-studded dragons spewing rubied trails of fire. Covering her winged headdress were crimson peonies.
A murmur of approval went up from the Mongol chieftains when they caught sight of Shabara standing on the Empress Dowager's right side. Their princess wore a Mongolian gown encrusted with pink pearls, but the long scarf about her shoulders and draped to the waist was Manchu, of pink silk magnificently embroidered with the stylized phoenixes allowed only to princely families of the Imperial Second Degree, as was Ta's. Her hair was braided into shell shapes above her ears, with a cap of pink orchids nestled between. To the left of the Empress Dowager stood Ta, clad in a sumptuous chao pao. His mandarin hat trailed a peacock feather over a queue that fell to the middle of his back. At attention behind him stood Pao in the uniform of an imperial guardsman. Pao had also regrown his queue.
At sight of her son, Princess Jasmine gasped and clutched her breast as if to hold her heart in place. The tears that flowed were of both pain and joy. Fragrance jumped up as if to summon help, but her mistress stopped her by choking out the words: "My medication...quickly! Old Buddha...must never know...of...my bad heart!"
Old Buddha's watchful eyes had already taken in the scene.
Without changing the regal severity of her facial expression, the Empress Dowager gloated with an inner smile. I see that my Chief Eunuch told me the truth about your heart. Does it leap for joy, Mistress Jasmine? Careful! It must not leap so high as to carry you to Heaven. Not yet! We are saving that journey for a later time.
Scarcely noticed - off to one side in chairs placed slightly below hers - sat her nephew the Emperor, and his Empress. A veritable prisoner released only for purposes of display to legitimize the presence of his vicious aunt, it was for this man's folly in rebelling against her that Ta's father had been officially condemned.
A concealed orchestra struck up the Imperial Hymn as the royal party stepped ashore.
Under orders from Old Buddha not to make too great a display, still Ta rushed to his mother. He lifted her hand in the European style. His tears wet her fingers as he pressed them passionately to his lips.
The Empress Dowager immediately lifted her own hand, and the Chief Eunuch went forward to kiss it. Murmurs of consternation rippled through the crowd. Such public intimacy with the Imperial Person normally would have constituted a capital offense.
"As you see, great nobles of the north," she announced loudly, "our Court has become truly international these days. Prince Ta-Loong of Kang has brought us elegant manners from Europe, just as Princess Shabara has infused us with the freshness of a Mongolian spring. They are much beloved of us - these happy newlyweds."
Old Buddha's gaze flashed covertly at Princess Jasmine.
Bent to her hand, Ta was not aware of the change in his mother's face. Her delight faded to horror at the word "newlyweds." Nor did he notice the raging hatred she suddenly focused on the Empress Dowager.
Vixen! screamed Princess Jasmine in her mind. You have soiled my son's progeny! His lineage will never recover its purity!
She turned her head from the Empress Dowager to her daughter-in-law. A remnant of rancor still blazed in her eyes and struck Shabara to the core.
Unfair! cried Shabara in her thoughts. You do not even know me, and already you hate me! I am as noble as your son! Old Buddha has said she must soon select an heir to the Dragon Throne. That child could be mine! I may be the next Imperial Mother! Would you then dare to look at me thus?
Scowling, she moved closer to the Empress Dowager. Shabara had lived for only three months under the wing of that amoral and calculating tyrant, but Old Buddha had wasted no time in coloring the girl's character to match her own dark ends.
Staring in the same direction as Shabara, Pao's eyes had fallen on Fragrance. A bolt from the blue staggered him with the pangs of love at first sight. He stepped forward for balance, his mind plunging abruptly into disorder.
Fragrance caught his ecstatic gaze. It pierced her like a saber. She had never known such a feeling. She felt his soul had collided with hers in mid-air.
We may never fall to Earth again, her thoughts flew airily away before reversing themselves with a clarion call: Your lady needs you! Return your attention to her!
She cast her eyes downward in an attempt to break the spell.
It was too late. She had revealed herself to Pao. The wonder of it calmed his mind and made a couplet of his thoughts, in the spirit of Li Po:
Let us stand on Love's jade staircase,
And together embrace the moon.
Having had her pointed out to him immediately upon his arrival, Mandorva Khan had observed the agony of Princess Jasmine. His eyes narrowed as he shifted his gaze to Old Buddha. Is it possible you have not informed the lady of this marriage until now? You know her heart is bad! You could have killed her this way, you perverse shrew! What is your scheme? Where are you leading us? Oh, that Mongolia could be free of you! I pray God that my daughter's son may be the liberator! Our day will come, thou crone of ten faces and a hundred lies.....
Standing alone, the Chief Eunuch surveyed the principals in the drama unfolding before him. His perception of human behaviour as an outrageous activity had for years made him the most sinister eyes and ears of the Dragon Throne. He seldom directed his malevolent smile at anyone in particular, but those who knew him shivered when he chanced to cast it their way.
Behind that hair-raising smirk were usually thoughts the observed would not have liked to hear.
Ho, Lady Shabara, how your beauty reminds me of Old Buddha's when she was young. If you survive what is to come, you, like her, may harden and turn cruel.....
As usual, Great-Dragon, you see nothing beyond your wife's lovely face, not even the agony of your mother's heart. No matter! Very soon you will be whisked away.....
You, Great-Dragon's mother, what a fool you are! You have not yet learned to control the fury which must one day stop that heart from holding you to life.....
As for you, our handsome Jung Pao, you owe me a great favor after sparing you from execution for cutting your queue. What do I see here? The rockets of first love? How they do light even the daytime sky! Indeed, she is a pretty girl, that Chinese maid. How interesting! Perhaps...my boy...perhaps you can be of more use to us than I had thought you might be.....
Shame, Mandorva Khan! My mistress has made you wildly rich. Her patronage has vastly increased your power. Yet there you stand, slicing our benefactress to pieces with your eyes.....
And you, Old Buddha, beloved of my life, I shall share my thoughts with you while my fingers soothe away the tiredness in your weary bones this very night. Perhaps I can help you fit together the final pieces of your plan.
He caught the Empress Dowager's eye. A look passed between them that only those who had shared much of a lifetime could understand.
She spread her arms expansively and spoke again in a loud voice: "Let the festivities begin! We shall dispense with all formality today, for what has been at other times an occasion of state has now become an intimate family affair!"
The Mongolian noblemen cheered and, in a clatter of sabers and bejeweled raiment, bowed as one man to the Empress Dowager. By pre-arrangement, staff eunuchs paired off the assembly for a processional to the banquet. The Chief Eunuch made a single change - Pao was placed beside Fragrance who, as a mere servant, would ordinarily have been consigned to the staff area at the back of the hall. Surprised by this overwhelming honor, the would-be lovers clasped hands conspiratorially. They knew themselves to have been blessed with extraordinary luck.
For a moment, their eyes met. Their hearts touched. No words, only thoughts, passed between them. God has smiled upon us today. I love thee.
The two were to march behind Ta and his mother. Ahead of Ta, Shabara took precedence, on the arm of her father, in a gesture of political good will aimed at the chieftains. Ahead of them, Chrys would walk alone as representative of the Living Buddha.
On the arm of the Chief Eunuch, the Empress Dowager led the way into the Great Hall of Purple Effulgence, also known as the Hall of the Mongolian Princes for its traditional use in the reception of these clansmen. The vast chamber beneath a vaulted ceiling forty feet high had been decorated in honor of the Mongols as it might have been in the days of Kublai Khan.
"I have been here many times, Ma'am," said Mandorva Khan to the Empress Dowager as they seated themselves together at the principal table - a long slab of pink marble covered with jewel-encrusted cloth-of-gold - "but I have never seen the Great Hall to look like this!"
The walls were covered with panels sewn from the pelts of Mongolian mountain cat in perfectly matched yellow skins. Interspersed among them were lengths of scarlet leather embossed with gilt ideographs proclaiming the unity of Mongolia with China. Black sable and snowy ermine covered the floors, and the chair cushions were embroidered in gold with the name of the clan sitting in that part of the room.
The guests drank rare Chinese wine from golden goblets, and silver trumpets announced the arrival of every new course, the roasted, heavily sauced meats hanging generously from the bones to suit Mongolian taste.
The Mongols, as was their custom, ate with their hands, using their fine silk garments as napkins. The Manchu guests were supplied with exquisite mother-of-pearl chopsticks inlaid with the user's name in coral.
The Empress Dowager herself had made the seating charts, paying careful attention to precedence, toying with rank only in a few special arrangements she had cared to make. To her left sat Mandorva Khan, followed by several Mongol chiefs. To her right sat Shabara, followed by more chiefs. Ta was allowed to sit beside his mother at another table, with Fragrance and Pao. A serving eunuch was in constant attendance upon them. As a spy for the Chief Eunuch, he mentally recorded every word that was said.
Old Buddha scarcely ate at all, pretending to listen to the chatter of Mandorva Khan
She could always depend upon Li Lien Ying to accomplish any purpose whereunto he was sent. The relationship had been a long one, going back more than thirty years, to the time when, as an ambitious young man, he had volunteered himself for castration. Many did this as a means of rising high in the service of the throne and accumulating a fortune. Working his way up through the complex web of court intrigue had earned him many enemies, but they counted for nothing against the unique position he came to occupy at the side of the Empress Dowager.
Only he was permitted to address her before being spoken to. Only he could sit in her presence without being invited to do so. The stories about them were legion, and mostly false, causing them to share a laugh at the gross inaccuracies. Certain things, however, were undeniably true, and these remained cloaked in silence.
Old Buddha's sidewise gaze drifted to Princess Jasmine and Shabara. Gifted with great insight into human character, the Empress Dowager correctly interpreted a scene played out by these two ladies before her eyes. The mother-in-law and daughter-in-law barely spoke; still, it appeared that Shabara was making an effort toward civil conversation, even to the point of lifting a succulent morsel of meat to Princess Jasmine's bowl. The gesture seemed to bring on a moment of softening from Princess Jasmine who suddenly looked the younger woman straight in the face as if to speak, but the maidservant behind her - a ravishingly pretty girl, the Empress Dowager thought - leaned forward quickly to whisper in the ear of her mistress. Suddenly, Princess Jasmine looked down at the morsel with horror and distaste.
Old Buddha chuckled to herself.
If it is to be done, she reflected, it will not be with such simple poison as one may hide in a slice of beef - and certainly not in public! Your anxiety over the last of your line has made you stupid enough to depend upon the advice of a serving woman. No, woman of the treacherous Kang family, there are other ways than this!
None except Li Lien Ying - who was then preoccupied with Pao - could have divined the true reason for the smile on Old Buddha's face as she turned her attention to the dancers who at that moment entered the chamber and fell in kowtow before her. Dressed in a costly array of peacock feathers, the dancers rose to their feet and began to sway among the tables in rhythm to the voice of a Mongolian minstrel seated on the dais usually occupied by a throne chair. The singer's eyes were covered with patches to hide the hideous scars left when his savage Manchu master had burned out the orbs with a hot poker when the singer, as a rebellious slave of sixteen, had attempted to run away. The master had then given him in service to the court, where the ill-starred child had become a eunuch against his will. But a sorrowful revenge was to be his, for the accumulation of agony had sweetened his voice beyond measure and had left him in a state of spiritual resignation to his fate. Beyond fear, he let it be known that he sang only to be heard by his Lamaist gods, without care for the ears of man. All who heard him experienced transports of pity for him, blended with ecstasy in his music.
As his song rose and fell across the vast chamber, the noisy assemblage drifted into quiet, until the room echoed only to the soft swish of the dancers' feathers, the gentle strains of his guitar, and his soul-filled lyrics of a homeland never to be seen again.
At a certain moment, Shabara left her place at table to ascend the dais, where she sat at the singer's side and joined him in a duet that spoke of a Mongolian princess lost forever in a foreign land. They sang together in the style of recitative, wherein he asked questions of her heart, and her heart responded in its sadness. Thus, she sang alone through verses that brought forth tears from every Mongol present. Her voice was natural and clear, all the more moving for its youth and purity.
When they had finished, the Empress Dowager's voice rang through the room: "Let there be such love between our countries that even here, you are still at home!"
She communicated spontaneity, and every Mongolian diner turned on his cushion and kowtowed toward her with forehead knocking on the floor.
None were aware that this scene had been carefully rehearsed, even to the tempo of the song, for its dramatic effect. The Empress Dowager thus hoped to create a memory of Peking that would inspire nostalgia in the future, as a tonic against Mongolian overthrow of Manchu rule.
Now Old Buddha let herself be lifted by strong young eunuchs as a signal that the feast had come to an end. Li Lien Ying, the indispensable companion, was at her side in a flash. Pao came with him, and the Empress Dowager noticed the look the dragoon cast toward Princess Jasmine's maid.
In the way of old friends between whom words are often superfluous, the Empress Dowager exchanged a look of understanding with the Chief Eunuch, which escaped the attention of all save Princess Jasmine. She had also noticed Pao's indiscretion. Ta's mother knew then that there were no secrets from the Empress Dowager anywhere in the kingdom. She felt a stricture in her heart and a dizziness in her head. It was as though a rope had tightened around her breast. Her vision dimming, she saw herself a rabbit pursued by those two great hawks - Old Buddha and Li Lien Ying.
Then she tumbled into darkness.|