Shike – Day 119 of 306

Taniko felt a chill of fear. Torluk clearly spoke with the voice of those who were in league against Kublai. Everyone in the hall was watching the khan now, waiting to see how he would meet this challenge.

Chapter Fifteen

Taniko had come to know Kublai well, but she had never before seen him presiding as a khan among his chieftains. Always when they met he had been alone, or at most with a few other people, in his chambers.

She had been utterly terrified the first time she had met him. He seemed, at first sight, a monstrous man. Since she expected that he would want to lie with her, she thanked the Buddha that she had known Jebu as a lover; at least she knew it was possible to couple with a man so tall and heavy and not be hurt.

“Sit here beside me,” he had said in a rumbling voice, patting a cushion with a large hand. “Will you have wine?”

“Thank you, my lord,” she murmured. Wine might make this easier. He picked up a beautiful silver drinking vessel from a low table before him and poured dark yellow wine into an alabaster cup. She took the cup and then held it out to him with her right hand, the left hand underneath to steady it; this was the proper way for a lady to offer wine to a man of rank.

“You must let me serve you, my lord. It is the custom in my country.” He took the cup from her, smiling, and drank. She poured a second cup for herself.

His eyes were very narrow and very black-splinters of ebony. The bones of his face were heavy, like the bones of a horse. It was a strong face, but the alertness of the eyes, the mobility of the mouth, suggested an acute intelligence.

“Your country, the Land of the Dwarfs. You may have heard that I— what is your name?”

“Taniko, my lord. I am the daughter of Lord Shima Bokuden of Kamakura.”

“You may have heard that I am a very inquisitive man, Taniko. I know nothing about the Land of the Dwarfs, and I would like to know everything.”

There could only be one reason why he would ask questions about the Sunrise Land. If she told him anything, she might betray her people. But she dismissed the fear. To get through this night she would have to laugh at everything and be serious about nothing, not even about herself, not even about the Sacred Islands.

“Perhaps, my lord, I can begin by correcting some of the fantastic tales you may have heard. First of all, we are not dwarfs. You and the Chinese are giants. And we do not worship gods with heads of animals. Nor does our Emperor live in a palace made of solid gold. Nor are we cannibals.”

“Not cannibals?” Kublai’s eyebrows went up. “What a pity. I had a fine, fat Chinese sage especially roasted for you. Now I will have to feed him to my hunting dogs. My people are also the subject of many false reports. The stories say we also eat human flesh. They do not say we worship gods with the heads of animals, they say we ourselves have animal heads. We are supposedly not even human, but devils spawned to scourge mankind for its sins. But tell me what is true about your country. What sort of palace does your Emperor really live in?”

The questions went on long into the night. Uneasy about Kublai’s purpose, she stressed that hers was a poor land compared to China. The Emperor’s palace in Heian Kyo would look small and bare beside the house of any rich man in Linan. Always Kublai pressed her for details of law, of custom, of daily life, details that most people would consider too obvious or trivial to notice. Three times during the evening he struck a small gong with a hammer, and the wine was replenished by a Mongol guard armed with a huge scimitar. Kublai showed her a silver table at the entrance to the tent laden with fruit and meat and pitchers of milk.

“Eat what you want,” he said. “No one goes hungry in the khan’s tent.” She helped herself daintily, never forgetting that this giant had the power of life and death over her. His manner might be gentle and pleasant, but his questions assaulted her mind with the relentlessness of a Mongol army storming a city.

But, she reminded herself, knowledge is the one thing I can still possess, even after another has taken it from me. And I am discovering that I know things about my own land that I never thought were important or did not even realize I knew. Her country reshaped itself in her mind under his questioning. She saw its people and events through the eyes of a master of strategy.

After she explained the complexities of the feud between the Takashi and Muratomo, he commented, “How like my own people yours are. Both peoples live on the edge of China. Both learn from China, both are poor compared to China. Both peoples breed fierce fighters, so fierce that we weaken our nations by fighting among ourselves. With us, the feuding was stopped by the Ancestor, my grandfather Genghis Khan. Perhaps this orkhon Sogamori will do the same for your people.”

He stood up, towering over her. Hastily she rose to her feet. He patted her shoulder with a large, brown hand.

“I have had much wine, and I have worked long and hard today. I will sleep now. One of my guards will escort you back to your yurt.”

Taniko was startled. No rape of the body to follow the rape of the mind? Perhaps he thought her unattractive.

He seemed to notice her surprise. “That’s another tale they tell about us, that we take women brutally, without ceremony. It’s not true. Please believe that I find you most attractive. You are an exquisite little creature.”

“Thank you, my lord,” she said, bowing with apparent shyness and seething inwardly at “little creature.”

“If you were to lie with me tonight, you would do so as my prisoner. I know that you are not a courtesan, despite what Prince Horigawa told me when he presented you to me. Bourkina told me your version of the story. It amuses me greatly that giving you to us was the most horrible fate your husband could imagine for you. Tonight, talking to you, I became convinced that you are a lady of rank, as you say. I find you a beautiful and singularly interesting woman. I intend to give you time to become accustomed to me. Go now.”

She had seen him about once a month after that. Since there were over four hundred women in his household, and new women were constantly being sent to him, for him to send for her that often was a mark of high favour. He continued to question her about her homeland, but gradually the range of their topics broadened. She had begun to counter with questions of her own. Kublai’s answers revealed to her the landscape of a world staggeringly larger than she had ever imagined existed. And much of that world, she learned, was ruled by the family of Genghis Khan.

The Ancestor, Kublai told her, had had four sons by his principal wife. These were his heirs. Each son had been given a separate domain within the empire. Genghis Khan had indicated that he wanted Ogodai, the third son, to reign after him as Great Khan. After the death of Genghis Khan, Ogodai had been elected Great Khan at a kuriltai. The orkhons, tarkhans, noyans and baghadurs swore that the Great Khan would always be a member of the house of Ogodai. Ogodai commanded the Banners to ride westwards, where they completed the conquest of Russia begun by Genghis Khan and overran lands beyond called Poland and Hungary. The campaign ended when Ogodai died.

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