Shike – Day 108 of 306

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.

A Mongol woman’s round face appeared in the doorway.

“May Eternal Heaven send you good fortune,” she greeted Taniko in Chinese. “I am Bourkina, servant of our lord Kublai Khan.”

Bourkina might be anywhere from thirty to seventy years of age. She wore a yellow Chinese silk robe and a heavy necklace of gold and jade that hung down to her waist. Her stride was long, her gestures commanding, almost mannish. She reminded Taniko of peasant women she had seen, women who worked constantly and lacked the delicate manners of well-born ladies. She might enjoy silk and jade now, but she had surely been born in poverty. Her hair and eyes were dark, and Taniko could see in her no resemblance to Jebu.

Bourkina was solicitous. Was Taniko comfortable? Did she need anything? All Taniko’s belongings would be delivered to her later in the day, as soon as they could be located. Bourkina asked what sort of food Taniko preferred and said she would do her best to see that she enjoyed her meals. In all this concern Taniko sensed little warmth. It was as if Bourkina had been placed in charge of a valuable horse and were seeing to its needs. With the advantage, in this case, that the horse could talk. But this horse wanted to do more than talk.

“May I have writing materials?”

Bourkina looked astonished. “What for?”

“I like to write down what I see and think.”

Bourkina looked at her as if she had suddenly sprouted wings. “How did you learn to write?”

“In my country all people of good family are taught to read and write. Women, of course, write a language different from that of men, but it serves our purposes quite well.”

“Among our people women do not read or write at all, and only a few men do. Our Great Khan Mangu and our lord Kublai Khan and their two brothers are all considered scholars. But they are most unusual men.”

“You speak Chinese. That is a mark of learning in my country.” Bourkina smiled proudly. “It is a necessity for us Mongols. How else could we give orders to our slaves?”

“What has become of Prince Horigawa and his party?”

“Your master delivered his message from the Sung Emperor’s Court to Kublai Khan and left.”

“He is my husband, not my master.” Since Horigawa had told the Mongols she was a mere courtesan, she must try to show that she was a person of consequence.

“Your husband left you with us as a gift?” Bourkina’s face showed mingled shock and disbelief.

“A husband and wife can be enemies.”

Bourkina shrugged. “It does not matter what you were before you came to us. My task now is to determine your present value.”

Taniko felt her face grow hot. “I know what my value is.” I will not be treated like a sack of rice, she thought.

The Mongol woman thrust her face into Taniko’s. “Listen, those who can’t live with us, die. You must realize, if you want to live, that Eternal Heaven has given my people the whole earth to rule as we see fit. Forget what you were before. You will find your proper place among us.”

Taniko sighed and nodded. This woman’s talk might sound like wild boasting, but it was simply the truth as the Mongols saw it. Unless Taniko chose to die at once, she would have to learn the ways of this new world.

“I simply meant that I do not want— I want to be something more than a woman for your men to use.”

Bourkina smiled. “Our lord Kublai Khan requires us to be most careful in determining the value of each person and thing.”

“How will you determine my value?”

Bourkina sat down on the cushions and gestured to Taniko to sit beside her. She snapped her fingers and a Chinese boy hurried in with a lacquer tray bearing blue and white porcelain cups and a pot of Chinese ch’ai—the same beverage the Takashi had been importing into the Sacred Islands.

“Tell me about yourself,” Bourkina said.

Sipping the steaming green liquid, Taniko began the story of her life, not in any orderly way, but taking each fact as it came to mind. She realized that, pleasant as Bourkina seemed, it was her task to pass judgment on the strange woman from across the sea. Therefore, like a calligrapher, concerned as much with the beautiful appearance of each word as with its meaning, Taniko tried to shape each part of her story to present herself to Bourkina in the best possible light. She stressed her breeding and learning, her association with the great men of her own land, her marriage to a prince.

“He said nothing about your being his wife.”

“What did he say of me?”

“In China there are many women who sell their bodies for gold or silver—or for a bowl of rice. The prince said that in your land you were such a woman. He said you were the concubine of a nobleman in your country. The nobleman was killed, and you threatened to make a scandal because he left you no part of his wealth. As a favour to the family, the prince took you away with him on his journey to China.”

Taniko shut her eyes. She felt herself about to cry, remembering Kiyosi and Atsue. But this Mongol woman would only despise her for her tears. She masked her feelings.

“I was, as I told you, a woman of noble family married to Prince Horigawa. He and I were estranged and I did, indeed, become the consort of a man who was not simply a noble, but the heir of the most powerful family on our islands and commander of all our warriors. I had a son by him. When he was killed in battle, I wanted none of his wealth. I only asked to keep our son, but he was torn from me by his father’s family. I was taken out of the country so I could not protest.”

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