Shike – Day 132 of 306

“That may be true,” said Jebu.

“But she is closer to you than you realize, my son.”

“More of your Zinja wisdom about seeing everybody everywhere, sensei?”

“Not at all, Jebu-san. I mean that the Lady Taniko is here in China. She is in the household of Kublai Khan.”

Chapter Twenty

The hot south wind that blew over the steppes of Mongolia all through the night wailed mournfully. The long grasses barely stirred. Eternal Heaven, worshipped by the Mongols, was utterly black, adorned with innumerable stars. Men who had wandered these wastes all their lives, as the Mongols and their ancestors had for generations beyond memory, read the stars easily.

The portents were good. “When the Northern Fish comes near the Great Dog,” said Kublai’s astrologers, “the khan will be mighty and his enemies overwhelmed.” Tonight those two wandering stars were the closest they would be this year.

The wind’s keening was barely audible above the drumming of tens of thousands of horses’ hooves. Birds sleeping in the grass, alarmed by the approaching thunder, took flight. Their cries were the only voices raised over the rumbling of the oncoming horde.

The faces of the riders were bound with cloths against the wind and dust. Officers shuttled back and forth before the long lines of horsemen, checking the order of the formations and passing whispered commands.

Behind the riders, ox-drawn wagon trains groaned along in the darkness, the solid wooden wheels creaking, each wagon bearing its mushroom-shaped yurt. In the centre of the rolling city of yurts lumbered black, enormous shapes. The war elephants padded over the grass, crushing it underfoot, moving more silently, despite all their bulk, than the horses or the oxen.

The host of Kublai Khan was marching northwards towards the Gobi. It was the Tenth Month of the Year of the Rat, four years since the war between Kublai and his brother Arik Buka had begun.

Countless times over thousands of years, armies had clashed on these grassy plains. Hsiung-nu, Yueh-cheh, Turks, Tartars, Mongols, as well as races and tribes whose names were for ever lost, had battled here with one another and with the chariots and legions of China. The steppe grasses had been watered with warriors’ blood and fed with their flesh. The earth was enriched with their bones.

The first pink of sunrise shone in the east. Scouts rode back to the advancing front ranks to report campfires beyond the hills to the north. Coloured lanterns, shielded so they could only be seen from one direction, signalled the Banners to halt.

Arik Buka was caught. His back was to the desert.

The yurts stopped rolling, holy men stepped forth. Shamans sacrificed sheep, Buddhist lamas spun their prayer wheels, Nestorian Christian priests chanted half-forgotten Latin over portable altars, and muezzins called their faithful to prayer. Men of every faith and of no faith at all, men of every nation from the rising to the setting of the sun, prepared their minds and bodies for battle.

In the left wing, so far across the steppes from the centre of the arm that they could not see it, rode the samurai under the command of Muratomo no Yukio, beneath the standard of the orkhon Uriangkatai. As the first sliver of crimson broke the flat line of the horizon, the samurai dismounted and bowed deeply from the waist towards the sun, towards the Sacred Islands, towards the Emperor. Glancing at Yukio, Jebu saw that his friend’s eyes were glistening with tears.

Some groups of samurai performed Shinto rites of purification while others listened to the chanting of Tibetan lamas, whose words meant nothing to them but whose ceremonies gave comfort.

For those who wished, Taitaro held the Zinja equivalent of a service. It was more a philosophical discourse than a religious ritual. Taitaro repeated the sayings that had given the Zinja courage since the founding of the Order. “Your armour is your mind . . . Act, and do not concern yourself with results . . . Death is neither good nor evil.”

Yukio and Jebu went to confer with the general, Uriangkatai. The orkhon was a big man, as tall as Jebu and broader. He had gathered his tuman-bashis under his standard, an iron spear with a collar made of long white horsehairs.

“Our wing will attack first,” said Uriangkatai. “We face their right wing, commanded by Arghun Baghadur.”

Jebu and Yukio looked at each other.

“What is it?”

“We fought Arghun at Kweilin four years ago,” Jebu answered, “when we were serving the Sung Emperor.”

Uriangkatai grunted. “Now you fight for a better master and he for a worse. The Great Khan has chosen to try the tulughma, the standard sweep. It’s a tactic Arik Buka knows as well as we do, but he may be drawn to attack us anyway, because he has the desert behind him and nowhere to go but forward. Also, we’ve taken him by surprise, and he may not be aware of how strong we are. Our right wing under Bayan will lie back while the centre under the Great Khan will strike at Arik Buka’s centre. The Great Khan will retreat, seemingly driven back by Arik Buka’s resistance.” Suddenly Jebu was reminded that Uriangkatai, ten years older than he, was the son of Subotai Baghadur, a companion of Genghis Khan’s youth who became his greatest general, a master of strategy second only to the Conqueror himself.

A tuman-bashi asked, “What if Arik Buka’s right attacks the Great Khan?”

“It’s our job to keep their right wing occupied. When we attack Arghun, we can expect him to retreat. Remember, they’re heavy cavalry. Their bows will have much longer range than ours. We’ll take a lot of punishment before we can give any back. Get them moving away from us, then turn and run yourselves. Get them to chase us. That’s all we have to do. Meanwhile, if Arik Buka’s centre and left wing advance against the Great Khan, Bayan with all the heavy tumans will sweep around Arik Buka’s flank, envelop it and crush it. Then Kublai Khan will hit them with all the strength of his centre, war elephants and all.”

Jebu remembered a battle long ago at the Imperial Palace in Heian Kyo when Kiyosi’s Red Dragon helmet led the feigned retreat.

“The Great Khan has promised that all the treasures piled up in Karakorum will be divided among his horde,” Uriangkatai said. “That’s more than fifty years’ accumulated loot. If we win this, each man will be a khan in his own right.”

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