Shike – Day 107 of 306

Yukio looked questioningly at Liu. Jebu held his breath, a terrible suspicion of what the box contained sweeping over him. Governor Liu signalled to Jebu to open the box.

Within it lay the pale, bloodless head of Governor Liu’s son, on a bed of straw.

Chapter Ten

“I will not let them crush me,” Taniko told herself over and over again. Not Horigawa and not the Mongols. They might rape and kill her, as they had that poor woman on the road. They might, as Horigawa predicted, enslave her and grind her down until she ended her life as a ravaged old woman. But there was that within her, that which was not Shima Taniko, the vulnerable woman, which no one could destroy. That could be what Jebu meant by the Self.

After she had waited a long time in a felt tent with the other members of Horigawa’s party, two Chinese men beckoned her and escorted her a short distance to another tent. She heard the voices of men singing around the campfires. She couldn’t understand the words, but the songs were plaintive and moving. The Chinese men left her alone.

The tent was dark and reeked of smoke and sweat. It had a cylindrical latticework wall and a flattened conical ceiling whose spokes, radiating from two central poles, reminded her of a parasol. There were layers of thick, soft rugs on the floor, woven in intricate patterns, and she sat on silk cushions. So this was the sort of place in which Jebu’s people lived. Thinking of Jebu reminded her of Horigawa’s prediction that Jebu would be killed by the Mongols. Horigawa had tried to kill him before and failed. She prayed to the Buddha to help Jebu live.

Unable to keep track of the time, she brooded, circling again and again through boredom, fear and hopelessness. She would probably never see the Sacred Islands again. Or Jebu. She threw herself down on the cushions and wept.

She had had chances to kill Horigawa. Why had she never done it? She decided that if she ever met him again she would cut his throat without a word of warning and take the consequences. What a fool she had been to imagine that some good might come of this journey to China.

She sat up. The pillow on which her head had rested was soaked with tears. Her face was ruined. She found a pitcher of water and a basin and washed her hands and face. Her make-up box had been taken from her along with all her other clothes. There was no mirror. She desperately wanted a bath. The air in the tent was warm and close, and she could feel herself sweating. These Mongols probably never bathed. Just as the rumours foretold, they did stink abominably. The entire camp smelled of the greasy, unwashed bodies of meat eaters.

One small oil lamp struggled vainly with the shadows around her in the circular room. Through a round opening in the centre of the tent roof she could see a patch of black sky with a single star in it. It was a warm, windless night.

As the oil lamp flickered lower, she lay in the near darkness and called upon the Lord of Boundless Light. “Homage to Amida Buddha.” After a while she sank into the long, heavy sleep of the despairing.

In the morning one of the Chinese men brought her food, coarse cakes and wine, and put more coals on the fire. She tried to ask him questions, but he would not answer her.

The tent was provided with a porcelain pot for her to relieve herself. She had fresh water now, and she took off all her clothes and washed herself thoroughly. The cool water refreshed her.

After dressing, she went to the doorway of the tent and opened the low wooden door. Bright sunlight and dust assailed her. All around her she had heard the bustle of men and horses. She had not realized until now how quiet the Mongol tents were.

A guard in a silk coat snapped at her in his language and waved her back into the tent. She went back and sat down, and considered how she might escape.

She had as much chance of eluding the Mongol horsemen as a baby rabbit trying to escape a falcon. And even if she did, how could she survive in an unknown, war-ravaged countryside? She was even more likely to meet injury or death if she ran away from here than if she stayed.

She had lost everyone and everything she loved. It scarcely mattered what the Mongols did with her. Again she sat down and buried her face in her hands and cried.

After a time, though, the tears stopped flowing. She was doing precisely what Horigawa would want her to, letting herself be ground between the millstones of monotony and despair until she had no power to resist her fate. She reminded herself that she was samurai. She remembered that she had resolved not to let them crush her. She stood and clenched her fists.

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