Shike – Day 117 of 306

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.

Chapter Fourteen

Laughing, Taniko kicked her pony into a gallop and quickly left Seremeter behind. Ahead there was a creek still swollen with melted snow. Spring came late to this northern country. Taniko raced her horse through the water, splashing her riding skirt. Behind her, Seremeter dashed through the creek, wincing at the spray.

“How dare a mere consort try to outrun the wife of the khan?” Seremeter had ivory-white skin and fathomless brown eyes. She had bound her long black hair up under a jewelled cap.

“The wife of the khan encourages familiarity by her own undignified behaviour,” said Taniko sweetly.

From the hills through which the creek ran, they could look back at Kublai Khan’s city of Shangtu, newly built on a fertile plain beside a slate-grey river. Shangtu had been erected on territory that had always belonged to the nomadic tribes, about two days’ ride north of the Great Wall of China. The city’s raw wooden palaces were little more than warehouses built to contain the loot gathered from below the Great Wall. Around the permanent buildings clustered the round tents of Kublai Khan’s army. Kublai’s command was called the Left Wing and included one-third of all the Mongols under arms.

Taniko and Seremeter heard the hoofbeats of other horses and turned to see Hotai, a Mongol woman of the Chestnut Horse tribe. She was followed by a servant carrying a wicker cage in which the dark, hunched shaped of a hooded falcon brooded.

“It’s a shame to waste our good Mongol horses on foreign women,” Hotai sniffed. “You treat them like toys. You know nothing about real riding. I cannot imagine what charm the khan finds in women like you.”

Taniko stared at Hotai. She was not joking, as Taniko and Seremeter had been. Kublai Khan’s Mongol wives and consorts deeply resented his interest in women of other lands.

“Perhaps the khan likes us because you Mongol women, being such marvellous riders, are all bowlegged,” Seremeter said.

Hotai’s broad cheeks flushed a dull red. “You have a sharp tongue, but my dagger is also sharp. Take care.” She and her servant rode away.

“Your answer to her was splendid,” Taniko said. “I wouldn’t know how to talk like that to anyone.”

“In my country that would be considered a passing pleasantry,” said Seremeter. “When the people of Persia really insult each other, the earth shakes.”

“In my land men are polite even when they are about to kill each other. Especially then.”

It was amazing, Taniko thought, the freedoms people of other countries allowed themselves. One of the delights of living among the Mongols was the liberty she enjoyed. She did not have to stay cooped up in her house, hiding behind a screen whenever a man appeared. The Mongol women came and went as they pleased in Shangtu; indeed, throughout the Mongol empire women went about without fear. So rigorously did the Mongols enforce their laws that it was said a virgin with a sack of gold could ride from Korea to Russia without being molested. Warriors might rape and loot in newly invaded territories, but where the Mongol peace was established, it was absolute.

Taniko made full use of her freedom. There was so much to be seen. The Persian princess, Seremeter, ten years younger than she and eager for good company, followed Taniko eagerly as she explored the city Kublai Khan was building as headquarters and resort on the edge of the steppes.

Seremeter had been sent to Kublai by his brother Hulagu, campaigning far away to the south-west in the lands of peoples called Persians, Turks and Arabians. She traced her lineage back to Cyrus the Great, founder of her country, but her family was Zoroastrian, she explained, not Moslem. These were two religions, Taniko gathered, but in the West religions did not blend with one another as Buddhism and Shinto did in the Sacred Islands. The Moslems ruled Persia, and families like Seremeter’s, who belonged to a rival religion, had been stripped of their position. Seremeter’s family welcomed the Mongols as deliverers and gladly married their daughters to the family of the Great Khans. Seremeter had lived with the Mongols for three years now and spoke passable Chinese.

“Look.” Seremeter pointed to a procession of mounted warriors winding slowly towards the palace, through the rows of tents. Crowds gathered along the way to cheer them.

“That must be Bayan of the Hundred Eyes,” Taniko said. “I heard that he arrived this morning from Shensi. He and Uriangkatai, the son of the great general Subotai Baghadur, are the best generals in Kublai’s service. But Bayan is much younger than Uriangkatai, and—”

“How do you know so much?” Seremeter interrupted her.

“I ask a lot of questions, princess.”

They turned their horses and started riding back towards Shangtu. “Perhaps that’s why Kublai sends for you so often,” Seremeter said. “Most of his women don’t understand what he does. He can talk to you about it.”

“Oh yes,” said Taniko. “That must be it. I can’t imagine why else he would want to spend time with a withered hag like me.”

Seremeter waved Taniko’s mock modesty away. “In my country we have a story about a sultan who used to behead his wives after spending one night with them. One wife kept herself alive by telling him stories that were so good, he couldn’t bear to kill her. You are somewhat like that. Kublai doesn’t behead his women, but he does forget them. Of course, it is important to be beautiful, too, and you are. But Kublai has his pick of all the beautiful women in the world. Yet you are among the women he sees most often.”

They were closer to the city now, and Taniko noticed a woman coming towards them, riding out on the road they had taken. “He hasn’t sent for anyone in days and days,” Taniko said.

Seremeter nodded. “The kuriltai.”

“Most of the officers and nobles seem to think a kuriltai is a fine time for sport with women,” said Taniko.

“Some men, at times like this, are overwhelmed with excitement and must lie with a woman before they can sleep,” said Seremeter. “If they can sleep at all. Other men put all their powers into thinking and acting. They have no interest in women at such times. Kublai is that kind of man. Once the succession is settled, he’ll wear us all out with his demands.”

Bourkina, lightly dressed in bright blue coat and trousers, galloped up to them. “Ladies, there is to be a great gathering today, starting at the Hour of the Rooster. Everyone will be there, including the wives and consorts of Kublai Khan. You will want to return to our quarters and begin dressing now, if you are to be ready on time.”

“What has he decided, Bourkina?”

The round-faced woman shrugged. “I don’t know. He whispers his secrets to you ladies under the quilts, if he tells them to anyone at all.”

“He will have himself proclaimed Great Khan tonight,” said Seremeter. “I’m sure of it.”

“I’m not,” said Taniko. “If he makes himself Great Khan, he may wreck the empire of the Mongols. If he doesn’t, whoever becomes Great Khan may destroy him. If I were he, I could never decide what to do.”

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