Shike – Day 135 of 306

Kublai passed on to the north. Jebu stopped an officer and asked the whereabouts of the left wing. The officer waved to the west. It was still on the left, where it would never be by this stage in most Mongol battles.

Jebu’s arm no longer pained him. He had sent his mind to the wound and quenched the fire that burned there. But he needed treatment at once. He rode to find the samurai.

Chapter Twenty-One

Most Mongol campaigns ended in a season, but this was a war between two veteran Mongol armies. It was now in its fourth year.

After proclaiming himself Great Khan in the Year of the Ape, Kublai had moved westwards from Shangtu, taking his army through the rich, pleasant countryside south of the Great Wall. Yukio and his samurai were waiting for the Mongols at Lanchow, and Yukio presented himself to the orkhon Uriangkatai as Taitaro had suggested. Kublai Khan made it a policy to have contingents from many different nations in his army, and the samurai were welcomed and attached to the left wing.

Kublai and his brother circled each other around the edge of the Gobi Desert, like samurai duelling with swords, patiently, silently moving, poised to strike instantly at the right moment. Neither of these sons of the brilliant Tuli, grandsons of the immortal Genghis Khan, could outmanoeuvre the other. At last, with winter coming on, Arik Buka withdrew to a camp far to the north of Karakorum.

Kublai left a garrison to occupy Karakorum and moved the bulk of his army south into China for the winter. With the spring floods in the Year of the Rooster, Arik Buka fell upon Karakorum and took it back.

Kublai charged north to drive his brother out of the capital. The two armies clashed on the northern edge of the Gobi and Arik Buka fled. They met again ten days later and parted after a ferocious battle in which each side suffered heavy losses. They went back to their war of patience and manoeuvre.

In the Year of the Dog, Kublai returned to China. Arik Buka turned west, invading Central Asia, where he tried to overthrow the local khans appointed by Kublai and replace them with his own men. During that year and the Year of the Pig, Kublai let his brother deplete his strength against the many enemies he made in Turkestan, Transoxiana and Kashgaria. When Arik Buka and his army returned to Mongolia in the Year of the Rat, Kublai began to move north again.

All through the battles around the Gobi, Jebu had thought of Taniko. He would find some way to spirit her out of China. They would be together at last. But during the years of the Mongol civil war there had been no way for Jebu to get near Taniko. “Kublai Khan does not take most of his women to war with him,” he had told Taitaro sadly.

Taitaro had pieced together the story of how Taniko had fallen into Kublai Khan’s hands, and he had told Jebu what had happened.

Jebu sat with his fists clenched, staring at the carpet of his yurt. “Horigawa and Sogamori,” he said. “One killed my child and tried to destroy Taniko. The other killed my mother. I vow that when I return to the Sacred Islands both shall die by my hand.”

“That is not the attitude of a Zinja,” said Taitaro. “Spend more time with the Jewel. Have you noticed how much the designs in these Persian carpets resemble the Tree of Life?”

Even when there was no fighting, Jebu was nowhere near Taniko. For a time Kublai Khan stationed the samurai in Suchow, south of the Gobi. During the two years that followed, Jebu and Yukio and their men, along with various Mongol tumans and other auxiliary units, were shifted from city to city in the north-west marches of Kublai’s territory, wherever Kublai thought his younger brother might strike next.

Taitaro travelled with the samurai, counselling them as individuals and in groups and helping them with their training. He took to meeting with teachers of other religions and engaging in long discussions with them. The Mongols had opened up vast territories to missionaries of all sects. No longer could a local ruler forbid preachers of a disapproved cult to enter his lands. The Mongols tolerated all religions and required their subjects to do the same. Taitaro enjoyed discussions with Moslems, Buddhists, Taoists, rabbis of the ancient Jewish community of Kaifeng, Nestorians and Roman Christians, as well as holy men of many other sects. Sometimes, as word of the religious arguments spread, they would attract large audiences.

Staging such debates was one of Kublai Khan’s favourite amusements, and on one occasion the old Zinja was invited to Shangtu. The discussion held before Kublai and his entourage lasted several days, and representatives of various sects put forth their claims to possessing the only true religion. Taitaro took a position of absolute scepticism, rejecting the existence of all beings, dogmas and rules asserted by the other teachers, disproving the proofs his colleagues offered and pointing out the contradictions and absurdities in their mutually exclusive claims. His exasperated opponents frequently resorted to threatening him with a horrifying variety of painful fates in this life and the next.

One day an angry Nestorian challenged him. “You’re not a priest, you’re not a prophet, you’re not a theologian. What the devil—and I use that word deliberately—are you?”

Taitaro spread his hands and said blandly, “I am a religious jester.” Kublai Khan, present in the audience, laughed uproariously.

On occasion Taitaro met with other figures more mysterious and, to Jebu, more interesting than religious missionaries. But the old man had nothing to say about his meetings with Christian knights in black cloaks adorned with white crosses, Moslem sages who spoke in whispers and did no preaching, and red-robed Tibetan lamas.

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