Shike – Day 116 of 306

They returned to Yukio. “You will have to live off the land,” said Liu. “Which means you will take what you need from the peasants. In your baggage train you will find a cart carrying as much gold as I could spare from the city’s treasury. Pay the peasants as much as you can. They suffer abominably when any army passes through.” He reached into his sleeve and took out a scroll. “Here is a map of some of the lands through which you will pass.” He reached up and took each man’s hand. “I doubt that I will ever see you again, but you are sons to me. You saved the thousands of lives that were in my keeping.”

“The fortunate death of the Great Khan of the Mongols saved them,” said Jebu.

Liu shook his head. “Only because you held out so long did the death of the Great Khan make any difference. You fought like—” he smiled up at Jebu—“like devils.”

Liu turned and gestured to the people around him. A hundred red-robed officials of the city grouped themselves in front of the samurai leaders. Liu nodded, and the procession of samurai and their unarmed protectors started off.

The Chinese troops were massed west of the city. Between them and the samurai stood almost the entire population of Kweilin. Led by Yukio and Jebu, like a river flowing between steep banks, the mounted samurai moved slowly along a road that led north-west, the direction Liu had suggested.

In the distance, people were parting to let through a single chariot drawn by two horses. They pressed close around it, and then closed ranks behind it. In the chariot stood a stout man wearing a flowing scarlet cloak. His cuirass was shaped to cover and protect a huge pot belly, and it was plated with gold and decorated with a peacock design worked out in precious stones.

“The general who’s come to take us back to Linan in chains,” said Yukio.

The general drew up his chariot before Liu. The procession of samurai and their protectors stopped.

The general smiled. “A most impressive demonstration of public feeling. I imagine you, esteemed Governor Liu, arranged it?”

Liu shook his head. “I am but one of the thousands who wish to be here. For over three months these men defended us with their lives. Now we protect them with our bodies.”

“Such heroism,” said the general. He smiled at Yukio. “Are you their commander?”

Yukio bowed. “I am.”

“As one military man to another, I’m sure this is all a mistake. Come with us now, and the governor and some of the distinguished citizens of Kweilin can travel with you and testify to your worthy deeds. Doubtless the charges against you will be dropped.”

Yukio smiled back. “We agree to come, as long as we are not disarmed and do not have to wear chains.”

The general looked sorrowful. “I wish I could allow that, but I am forbidden to do so. Your arms will be kept safe and will be returned to you as soon as this unpleasantness is settled. And the chains will only be token chains—children’s toys, nothing more.”

Yukio bowed. “I’m sorry, but we must decline your offer.”

The general turned to Liu, his face darkening. “If you continue to protect these men, you will certainly lose your post and probably your head as well.”

Liu shrugged. “I am disgusted with my government. I am resolved to give up my post. And I may very well end my own life as a protest against this vile treatment of faithful warriors.”

“Good for you,” said Yukio.

“You must not,” Jebu said at almost the same moment. They looked at each other.

“I can command my troops to cut their way through your people,” the general blustered. “Will you let them be destroyed just to protect these ridiculous dwarfs?”

Yukio reddened, and Jebu put a restraining hand on his arm.

Liu said, “I do not know where you and your army were when we desperately needed reinforcements here. Doubtless you have never seen a Mongol. If you cut your way through my people to attack these brave men, a Chinese general will have done what the Mongols could not do. You will have massacred the Chinese people of Kweilin. You will dishonour your ancestors and shame your descendants.”

Yukio said, “We dwarfs, as you call us, will fight to the death, and we will take five of your troops with us for each one of us you kill.”

“And I will make it my business to see that you yourself do not survive, esteemed general,” Jebu added.

The general looked at Jebu, Yukio and Liu for a long, silent moment. His pudgy face was set in a stern military mask, but Jebu could see indecision in his eyes.

He got down from his chariot and approached Liu, saying in a low voice, “It could be reported to the Emperor that the dwarfs got word of our coming and fled before we arrived.”

“The saviours of Kweilin are not to be called dwarfs.”

“Of course. I do not want to fight these warriors. I do not want to kill your people. But I cannot simply let the foreigners go. Chia Ssu-tao would have my head.”

“What tale you tell back in Linan doesn’t concern me,” said Liu.

“But you must swear to support my story, otherwise I might as well cut my throat here and now.” The general thought a moment. “Yes, and you must agree to come to Linan with me, otherwise I will not be able to trust you.”

“No,” Jebu said before Liu could agree. “It is too great a sacrifice. This actor in general’s clothing will take you to Linan to blame you for letting us escape. Chia Ssu-tao will have you executed. Remember, you stopped me from giving up my life for your people.”

Liu shook his head. “If you escape, this general is in as much danger from Chia Ssu-tao as I am. Whether it is my lot to live or die, I am content.”

“If you are not afraid of death, no one has power over you,” said Yukio.

“If you understand that, you understand everything,” Jebu said to Yukio, and Liu nodded.

Again Yukio gave the order to march, and the samurai and the people of Kweilin moved off together, leaving Governor Liu standing beside the general from Linan. Jebu turned n his saddle and made a gesture that was part wave, part a reaching back. He felt he was leaving a father behind, never to see him again, and sorrow filled him.

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