Shike – Day 113 of 306

“It can only be something that affects them in the most profound way,” he said.

The besiegers had stationed a protective screen of heavy cavalry across Lake Rong hu, not far from the pen where the thousands of prisoners who had survived the siege sat on the bare ground. The prisoners, Jebu thought, were probably rejoicing that they were still alive and might return home soon.

A high voice shouted a command to the riders on guard. They formed a long line and began to trot in a circle around the pen. Another shrill order and they were firing arrows into the prisoners. Jebu shut his eyes momentarily and clenched his fists as the screams and pleas for mercy stabbed his ears. The Chinese soldiers on the wall shouted curses at the enemy and prayers for the dying. They tried to shoot at the Mongols, but their arrows would not carry that far. For Jebu, the pain of seeing the killing of so many innocents was like a barbed arrow in his own chest.

Again and again the Mongols circled the slave corral, shooting at any movement.

“They will have their massacre, one way or the other,” Yukio said. Jebu saw that Liu had turned his back on the slaughter and stood with tears trickling down his pale cheeks.

“I do not know which is worse,” he whispered, “to see the severed head of my own son, or to see my helpless people slaughtered.”

Now the Mongols had dismounted and were walking in a line through the pen. They had their sabres out and were inspecting the bodies, beheading or stabbing to death any who were still alive. Auxiliary troops moved behind them, retrieving arrows from the corpses.

Yukio also turned away. “There is no need for this. No need at all,” he said hoarsely. “It is true that the Mongols are less than human.”

And if they are, Jebu wondered, what am I? These are also my people. But I was not reared in their ways. I would sooner die than do what they are doing. To kill poor peasants is bad enough, but how can they kill women and children by the hundreds?

Genghis Khan, Arghun’s master, had commanded the death of all Jamuga’s seed, and Arghun had tried to kill Jebu when Jebu was a baby. That would not seem a task repugnant to a man who could shoot an arrow into a screaming child clinging to its mother’s skirts.

Yukio, his face crimson with rage, said, “We have our prisoners, too. Let us show that we can be as merciless as these Mongols.” In the months of the siege, the defenders had captured over a hundred Mongols and nearly three hundred auxiliaries.

“No,” said Jebu. “I will not shame myself by killing those who cannot fight back.”

“The Mongols always kill their prisoners,” said Liu. “Perhaps, if we were to let our captured Mongols live, even return them to their people, it would show them there is another way. Our Master Confucius said, ‘Do not do to others what you would not want others to do to you.’ If we do not kill Mongols today, perhaps they will spare Chinese lives tomorrow.”

“We always execute captured fighting men in our land,” said Yukio. “To let men live so that they may attack you again is foolish.”

“The few hundred Mongols and their auxiliaries that we captured are no great danger to us,” said Jebu. “I will personally conduct them to Arghun.”

“I’m sorry, Jebu-san,” Yukio said, “but you must be completely mad.”

“I will go as an envoy. The life of an ambassador is, sacred to them.” Liu said, “You put too much temptation before Arghun.”

“He has spent years of his life and made long and dangerous journeys to try to kill me. His very fidelity to his law is my protection.”

Yukio stared at Jebu, large-eyed. “I can forbid you to take those men back to Arghun. I can order you to execute them.”

Jebu nodded. “Yes, Lord Yukio, you can.”

Yukio turned away. “Go ahead. Do whatever foolish thing you like.”

When Jebu entered the Mongol camp, he was able to address an officer in the barbarian language, presenting himself as an envoy from Kweilin and requesting a meeting with Arghun Baghadur. His language practise with the prisoners had served him well.

The tarkhan sat astride a barrel-chested grey steppe pony, one gauntleted fist resting on his hip. His eyes were the colour of a cloudy winter day.

“An envoy, are you? You are viler than a diseased dog to mock the laws of my people.”

“I mean no mockery, tarkhan,” said Jebu, looking back at him calmly. Arghun’s reaction did not surprise him. He must hate me as much as I have been hating him, Jebu thought.

“So, you’ve learned a few more words in the language of your father,” said Arghun with an ironic smile. “Perhaps you’d like to become one of us. Unfortunately, if you submitted yourself to our law, you’d die at once.” His face darkened. “If you are an ambassador as you claim, approach me properly. Off your horse. Down on your face.”

Jebu hesitated. But Arghun was within his rights to demand obeisance from an ambassador. And did not The Zinja Manual say, “Whatsoever role you play, manifest your inner perfection by acting it perfectly.” Jebu climbed down from his horse. The muddy ground had been churned into a brown soup by thousands of hooves. He knelt and pressed his hands and forehead into the mud. He waited there.

At last Arghun said irritably, “Get up, that’s not what I want from you.”

Jebu stood up, wiping the mud from his forehead with the back of his hand. “Will nothing less than my death satisfy you, tarkhan?”

“Nothing less will satisfy the spirit of Genghis Khan. I cannot take your life today, but I will have it one day. Why did you come here?”

“First, to propose, since you seem to be leaving us, a treaty of eternal peace between the Mongols and the City of Kweilin.”

“That is an absurdity. We make peace only with those who surrender. What else?”

“Also, to return to you the men we captured. We do not consider it necessary to murder helpless prisoners.”

Arghun shrugged. “Then you are fools.” Arghun turned to an officer beside him. “Have those men taken away.” The officer shouted orders, and guards led away the men brought by Jebu. The returned prisoners walked with pale faces and downcast eyes.

“It may interest you to know that they will be strangled with bowstrings before we leave here,” said Arghun, smiling.

Jebu’s heart sank. “They don’t deserve punishment. They are brave men. They were all wounded or unconscious when we captured them.”

“It is not a punishment. We must send a detachment of warriors to the next world to serve the Great Khan. It is an honour to be chosen. These men will be part of the Great Khan’s spirit. We have our ways of mourning, monk, which you could not possibly understand.”

Amazed, Jebu saw at once what was happening. “Your Great Khan is dead?”

“He is.” Arghun’s rough-hewn face was bleak. “For now, our war with Sung China is ended, by our own choosing. It is our unalterable law that when a Great Khan dies, all of us shall return to the homeland to bury him and to choose his successor. Tell the people of Kweilin to thank Eternal Heaven for granting them this respite. But let them remember that it is only a respite.”

He fixed his strangely empty eyes on Jebu. “For you also, son of Jamuga, this is only a respite. Three times now I have tried to carry out the command of Genghis Khan that you die. Each time you have been saved, but never by your own power. A man who must rely on others or on chance events to protect him is a poor creature. Destiny will bring you and me together again, and the next time I will surely kill you.”

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