Shike – Day 140 of 306

Arghun’s eyes were those of a tiger at bay. “You give me no choice. We will go to Kublai Khan for judgment.”

Chapter Twenty-Three

Two samurai lifted Jebu down from Taitaro’s cart and carried him on a litter to join Uriangkatai’s party before the Great Khan’s tent. Taitaro walked beside the litter. Torches tied to tall poles illuminated the area around Kublai Khan’s huge white yurt. The tent was surrounded by a hollow square of guards, one hundred men on a side and four deep. For two of the most prominent generals in the Great Khan’s ordu, the guards immediately parted, but the message sent into the yurt brought no invitation to enter. Instead Kublai Khan’s chief adviser, the Chinese scholar Yao Chow, came out waving his long, slender hands and shaking his head.

“A thousand pardons, son of Subotai,” said Yao Chow, bowing to Uriangkatai. “The Great Khan is holding council. He desires both you and Arghun Baghadur to be present, but not to bring a quarrel to him.”

Uriangkatai said, “Yao Chow, tell the Great Khan war may break out again, here and now, if this matter between Arghun and me is not settled.”

Yao Chow turned a worried eye on the groups of men that had come with the two leaders. “How many of you must enter? The Great Khan’s yurt is already filled to overflowing.”

Uriangkatai said, “For my part, the tuman-bashi Yukio, the monk Jebu and the older monk Taitaro to attend Jebu.” He pointed to Jebu, who lay under blankets in a state of deep exhaustion, barely able to stay conscious. His crushed throat felt as if he had swallowed hot coals. Each breath, each heartbeat, was agony in his chest and back. Taitaro had treated him hastily on the wagon ride to Kublai Khan’s headquarters, stripping off his armour, taping his chest and giving him a hot liquid infused with herbs for his throat. As a boy Jebu had been taught to hang by his hands for hours. The same sort of will now enabled him to cling to wakefulness.

Arghun said, “I need only the tuman-bashi Torluk.”

Yao Chow nodded. “Those of you who are entering the Great Khan’s tent, disarm yourselves and give your weapons to the guards. I will ask his permission again.”

While they waited, Uriangkatai said to Arghun, “Look there, tarkhan. See where Arik Buka kneels in surrender. When we go into the Great Khan’s yurt you must pass the lord you betrayed. Can you face him?”

The wooden door of Kublai Khan’s yurt was open. Above it a flap which could be fastened across the door to seal it against wind and dust was raised on two poles to form a kind of canopy. Under this canopy a man knelt. Even kneeling, he was clearly tall. His head, shaved in the centre, Mongol fashion, was a dark brown. The braids that hung down to his shoulders were black. His belt was draped over the back of his neck in token of submission. Guards with lances stood on either side of him.

Arghun glared back at Uriangkatai. “I have been obedient to the will of Eternal Heaven and the spirit of Genghis Khan. There is no man I cannot face.”

Yao Chow returned with word that they were to enter the Great Khan’s yurt. Uriangkatai went first, followed by Arghun. Arik Buka raised his eyes as Arghun approached.

“I kneel here thanks to your treachery,” Arik Buka said reproachfully. “Of all my tarkhans you were the one I thought I could trust to the end.”

Arghun answered coldly, “My loyalty is to the legacy your grandfather left the Mongols. I believed you were best suited to be Great Khan because you upheld the old ways. But I was wrong. You are a tiger, but Kublai is both tiger and fox. I should have remembered the words of the Ancestor: Kublai is the wisest of his seed. Now I have corrected my mistake.” He turned away and strode through the doorway of the white yurt. Torluk followed Uriangkatai. Jebu, carried by Taitaro and Yukio, brought up the rear.

Kublai Khan, wearing a red satin robe embroidered with jewelled dragons, sat on a golden throne in the host’s quarter of his tent, which was a mobile palace, four times the size of an ordinary yurt, walls and ceiling lined with cloth of gold. In chairs around Kublai sat his orkhons and tarkhans, the officers who had won the day for him. The rest of the yurt was packed with lesser officers, some sitting on benches or cushions, most standing. Slaves passed among them with trays of meat and vessels full of wine and kumiss. It was as much a victory feat as a council. The hum of conversation died as Uriangkatai and Arghun entered.

The men made a space near the centre poles for Jebu’s litter. They watched curiously as Taitaro and the other samurai set him down. The golden ceiling seemed to be rotating slowly around the centre pole. Jebu blinked his eyes hard to make it stop.

Kublai’s round face was flushed, his brilliant black eyes had a wild look. This was the closest Jebu had ever come to him. The family resemblance to Arik Buka was immediately apparent, but Kublai was older and had a good deal more flesh on his bones. He wore his beard and moustache long in the Chinese manner.

“What delayed you, Uriangkatai?” he said in a resonant voice that filled the silence. “And you, Arghun Baghadur? The battle has been over since sunset. I needed you here. And what’s this about a dispute between you? Tonight of all nights I have no time for petty quarrels.”

“This is not a petty dispute, my Khan,” said Arghun in a voice as powerful as Kublai’s. “It concerns a command of Genghis Khan himself.”

“My Ancestor gave many commands,” said Kublai. “Some were more important than others. He said a Mongol should get drunk no more than three times a month. That is a command every Mongol disobeys twenty times a month.” He drained a golden goblet decorated with rubies and emeralds, and his officers laughed. “Do you recognize this throne, Arghun? It is the same throne on which my father, Tuli, Master of War, sat while he directed the siege of Merv. Were you at Merv, Arghun?”

“I was a boy in one of your father’s Banners, my Khan.”

“I found this throne in my brother’s tent when we sacked his camp. What do you suppose he would have done with it, Arghun, if he had won this battle? Was he going to sit on it and watch while the vanquished were brought before him and executed?”

“Your brother loves tradition, my Khan.” Some of the officers chuckled.

Arghun is getting the better of this whole discussion, Jebu thought. Why doesn’t Uriangkatai speak up? If Kublai decides in Arghun’s favour, Arghun will kill me, and no one can stop him. It’s out of my hands now. The Self, working through these Mongols, will decide whether I live or die. Of course, that in me which is the Self will live for ever in any case. I’m so tired, I don’t care what they decide, as long as there is an end to this.

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