All the Beauty in China

by Christine Forte

In the year of our Lord 1295, my first husband Giovanni celebrated his 40th birthday. I remember this because it was the same year that Marco Polo returned to Venice from his travels in Asia. In my husband’s honor, Duke Contarini threw a gala in the Palazzo Ducale, inviting all the most important merchants and politicians from the city as well as whichever foreign dignitaries and merchants were in town. Being only 18 myself, I was too young and naïve to understand that actually the gala was a ruse for the Duke to raise money for the war that he planned to wage against the Genoans. Nonetheless, it was the largest event the newly completed palace had ever seen and people talked about it for many years after. There were silk tapestries made specially for Giovanni, tables and chairs were handcrafted, dozens of musicians hired, gigantic barrels of wine rolled in.

The festivities opened with a feast. No expense had been spared. There were stews, roasts, pastries, breads, exotic fruits and cheeses of every imaginable variety. Elegantly attired waiters brought in course after course as the Venetian aristocracy gorged itself into pledging enormous sums towards the Duke’s military. Four hours later, after everyone had finally tired of eating, and several of the greedier merchants had purged themselves and then eaten again, my husband received his birthday gifts. There were too many to count, each one more impressive than the last. With Venice as the center of the commercial world, he received one, and in some cases two, of some of the most exotic and strange gifts conceivable. There were sparkling jewels, clothing of the softest textures, strange liqueurs, furniture of teak and mahogany, sculptures, and even a giraffe brought to him by an African merchant.

He was presented with each item one by one and expressed his thanks graciously to the guests. Finally only one gift remained. Signor Niccolo Polo, father of Marco, stepped forward with a servant caring a simple box. It was about one meter square and covered with red silk. The silk was clearly of the finest quality but its beauty paled next to some of the other gifts my husband had received. The servant set it down carefully directly in front of my husband and I and then stepped back.

Before I could wonder anything else about it, Niccolo slowly lifted the lid and the sides of the box fell away. Inside was the most exquisite woman I had ever seen. As she slowly stood, her black hair fell in waves around her narrow figure, her heart shaped face bowed. When she lifted it, I found myself staring into two dark almond-shaped eyes, their quivering black lashes the only indication of her fear. I knotted by hands in my lap after they nearly reached up of their own will to touch her porcelain white skin. My husband, who didn’t seem nearly as affected by this creature as I was, thanked Niccolo graciously and turned his attention back to the wine and musicians. Nonetheless, he didn’t summon me to his room that night although I’m certain he didn’t spend it alone.

I instructed our housekeeper to prepare a small room on the fourth floor of our house for the girl. She was simply too magnificent to be made to sleep in the squalor of the attic or cellar like our other servants, and I knew that my husband would want to have her nearby. And the first week that she was with us, this was certainly true. In fact I barely saw either of them that week. When he was not in his office or out on business, he was in his room with her. Which quite frankly was fine with me. My husband was not a bad man but he was often grumpy and short with me and he certainly left something to be desired in the bedroom. So I was happy to be rid of him for a time.

But then he seemed to lose interest. More and more frequently I could hear the girl at night in her own room, which was directly above my own, instead of next door in his room. Not that she made much noise. She rarely ventured outside the little room except to eat. I knew that she was probably terrified both of this new place and perhaps also of me. If she was smart, she knew that I had the power to make her life quite miserable if I so chose. But that was the farthest thing from my mind. On the contrary, I was intensely curious about her and the place that she had come from. What was it called? Did all of the people there look like her? What language did they speak? So one afternoon, I went to look for her.

In Venetian society it was unusual for the lady of the house to go to a servant or concubine’s room. Going to look for a servant was a gesture most nobility considered beneath them and would instead send another servant to find the one being sought or pull one of the ropes attached to an elaborate bell system that many Venetian houses had. However I wanted to seem unitimidating and approachable so up the stairs I went.

“Hello there,” I addressed her softly, so as to express my friendly intentions.

She managed a small smile. She was in fact, a bit afraid of me and it took some coaxing to convince her that I meant her no harm. Once she finally began to speak, I discovered that her name was Qibo and she was from the town of Shang Hai on the east coast of China. It had been Marco Polo’s last stop in his overland journey, at which point he purchased a ship for returning to Italy with the cargo he had acquired. Qibo was the daughter of one of the shipbuilders and Marco had first seen her when she visited the building site one day to speak with her father.

Finding her exceptionally beautiful, Marco had begged her father to allow her to come with him, explaining that it would be a great point of pride for their family as she could be a representative of all the beauty of China. Her father, however, cared not about the pride but instead about some financial compensation and finally a price was agreed. Shortly after, she set off with the Polo contingent. During the return voyage to Venice she claimed, although I doubt she would have had the courage to say otherwise, that the Polo family had always treated her well and had even taken the time to teach her some of the Venetian language.

Over the weeks that followed this afternoon, when I had time and no one else was around, I would sit with Qibo and teach her some more of the local dialect. It was important to me that she feel welcome in my home, afterall it wasn’t her fault that she had been sold as a concubine. I also found her company very enjoyable. Over time, I essentially forgot her status and we grew to be friends. Unlike my husband, who had been enticed at first by her mystery but then quickly grew bored, I found that her appeal only grew with every day that passed.

Four months into her stay with us, on a sultry night at the end of August, the Genoans invaded. We had heard gossip about the possibility of their arrival but nothing had been confirmed to us until Matteo Polo, Marco’s uncle, came banging on our door around midnight. Giorgio, our valet, woke up my husband and brought him down the great hall. Hearing all the commotion, I soon followed.

“Marco has been captured,” Matteo said to Giovanni gravely. “The Genoans claim that he has committed espionage against them during his travels. I will be leaving Venice with my brother immediately from the Benvenuto pier on a boat to Constantinople as we’ve been warned that anyone with ties to him is also in danger of arrest and execution. We’ve decided to take Qibo with us as if she is found here, the Genoans certainly will link her to Marco and kill her. You could also be in danger for any perceived connection to my nephew” he added, giving Giovanni a significant look.

“You must take her and go then,” replied Giovanni, without a moment’s hesitation.

My heart lept into my throat. They couldn’t take Qibo away from me. Aware that I had only a few seconds to act I thought quickly.

“Take me too!” I said, trying to keep the panic out of my voice. “Certainly a city invaded is no place for noblewomen.”

Matteo and I both looked at Giovanni to see what he would say. The storm cloud that passed across his face gave me my answer before I even felt the back of his hand coming down on my cheek.

“Your place is here with me!” he said in a chilling tone that frightened me more than shouting would have. “If you are nearly so noble as you claim, you’ll have enough courage to stand by your husband in times of danger. Besides,” he added as an afterthought, “In a time of attack, you are much safer inside this home. Out there,” gesturing to the door,” you risk kidnap for ransom if anyone recognizes you. Frankly I’ve no interest in losing my fortune because you were too afraid to stay. Now go and fetch Qibo.”

In tears, I once again made the climb to Qibo’s room. I slipped inside and gently shook her awake. “Venice has been attacked by Genoa and they have arrested Marco for espionage. His father and uncle are fleeing. They’ve come to take you with them as they’re afraid that you are in danger for your connection to him.

“Can you come too?” she asked, her black eyes shimmering in the moonlight.

“No,” I said, my heart breaking with the sound of it. “Giovanni has forbidden me to leave. As his wife I am sworn to always stand by him.”

“So I tell you good-bye?”

I nodded, too unhappy to say anything else. I looked at her hard, trying to memorize every curve of her face, the contour of her eyes, her plump red lips, every detail. I feared it would be the last time I saw her. I knew that she was probably thinking the same thing as I saw two twin tears escape the corners of her lovely eyes.

I raised my hand to brush them away and when we leaned forward our lips met. I was at the same time elated and destroyed. Her mouth was sweeter than the most exotic fruit; her soft lips and gentle tongue completely unlike anything I had ever experienced with Giovanni. I wanted to stay in that moment forever, for neither of us to ever move from that spot, to be frozen, like the statues at the Palazzo. But it was interrupted all too soon by a sharp rap at the door.

Valet Giorgio’s hysterical tenor came from the other side of it, “The night watchman has arrived, bringing news that the Genoans will be here within the hour! Signor Giovanni says that Signor Matteo and Qibo must leave immediately from the canal door. If they’re found here, it could be death for all of us!”

Quickly, Qibo jerked from her neck the Chinese amulet that she always wore. I was surprised; I’d never seen her without it. She grabbed my hand and wrapped my fingers tightly around the tiny silver bottle.

“Inside are a few drops of a very potent liquid. Drink it immediately, it will protect you against any destruction that the Genoans may bring,” she said.

“Then you should drink it instead!” I replied in alarm.

She shook her head. “My grandmother made me drink some before Marco took me from Shang Hai and it has protected me so far. She gave me this one in case I found someone that I loved enough to want to protect their life forever.”

Giorgio knocked again, more insistently.

Giving my hand one last squeeze she stood and went to the door. Pausing, she turned and smiled. “I hope you’ll come find me in Shang Hai,” she said and went out.

The Genoans came that night and went again several weeks later when we defeated them in a naval battle somewhere near Pula. But Qibo did not return. I weathered the storm of their invasion just as I’ve weathered many others since then. A few years after Qibo left I began to notice that I wasn’t aging like the people around me were. Slowly I came to realize that the potion she gave me would not only protect me from the Genoans but also protected me from old age and death.

In the years since I last saw her I’ve been all over the world and back many times. It took centuries before I finally was able to enter China to look for Qibo there. Since then I’ve been kicked out and deported on too many ocaissions to count. Every time I would think I’d finally found a lead on her, China would close the door. The Opium Wars, the Japanese invasion of the 1930’s, the founding of the republic. Each time the door was later reopened I’ve been the first one back in. The time in between though, has given me a considerable number of years to do other things and try to forget her.  I’ve had a great many other loves, given birth to beautiful children, been successful in several careers. But every once in a while, when I’m out somewhere and I catch the glimpse of a profile that’s similar to hers my heart leaps, and I begin the search again.