Shike – Day 144 of 306

“I decree that my grandfather’s order condemning the family of Jamuga is rescinded. The monk Jebu is to live. Arghun, you are forbidden to harm him. I issue this command to show the world that I am Great Khan and take orders from no one, not even my most illustrious Ancestor, and certainly not from Arghun Baghadur.”

Kublai Khan’s assembled officers greeted his judgment with a mixture of murmurs of approval and mutterings of disagreement. Arghun stood silent, his head, adorned with greying red braids, held high, his shoulders back. Kublai fixed his penetrating black eyes on Arghun, waiting for the tarkhan to speak.

At last Arghun said, “I have done no wrong, my Khan. For more than thirty years I have kept faith with the Conqueror.”

Yukio whispered to Taitaro, “He should cut his belly open. He has no other choice.”

Taitaro shook his head. “They don’t do that here.”

Kublai said, “Let it be understood that your long and relentless pursuit of Jamuga’s sole surviving offspring is altogether to your honour, Arghun.”

Arghun said, “The spirit of Genghis Khan resides in the banner of the nine yak tails. Who will appease his spirit? He once said, ‘My sons and their sons with clothe themselves in embroidered gold stuffs. They will eat sweet foods and meats, and will ride splendid chargers. They will press in their arms young and beautiful women, and they will forget that they owe all these desirable things to us.’ He spoke truly.”

Kublai Khan shook his head. “You have understood nothing I said, Arghun Baghadur. The spirit of Genghis Khan that lives in the standard of our nation will be appeased because the Mongols have a living leader who does not submit to dead words. I wish I could trust you to serve me faithfully as you served my grandfather. But you turned on Arik Buka, and I know you will turn on me if I fall short of your expectations. Your only loyalty is to the empire itself, not to any man, but to a vision. In that way you are like Jamuga, the man you killed so long ago. That makes you a dangerous man. Perhaps I should have you killed, but I think that I may yet find a way to use you. For now, stop scolding me and get out of my sight.”

Arghun turned, his eyes shining with a cold light, like the sun reflected on ice. He did not look at Jebu, but Yukio and Taitaro tensed themselves as he went by them.

“Bring the monk forward,” Kublai Khan said. “I want to talk with this remarkable Jebu.”

Yukio reached down to grasp the litter, but Jebu held his arm. Sick, exhausted, wounded as he was, Jebu had conceived a plan that pumped new life into his pain-racked body. He would ask the Great Khan to release Taniko.

It might mean death for both of them. It was likely, at the very least, that Kublai would refuse. But Jebu would never have a better opportunity to get her away from the Great Khan than now.

“Help me up,” he whispered to Yukio. He could not approach Kublai Khan as a weakling on a litter. He had to face him standing on his feet.

“You can’t stand up,” said Yukio. Jebu turned to Taitaro who looked back at Jebu and said nothing.

“Help me up, I said.” He pushed against the litter, gritting his teeth against the pain in his broken ribs. Seeing that he was determined, Yukio crouched down, threw Jebu’s right arm over his shoulder, and lifted him to his feet. Taitaro moved in quietly on Jebu’s other side and put his arm around Jebu’s waist. With the man in the middle towering over the other two, they moved forward together.

From the men around him Jebu could hear grunts of approval and words of praise. The Mongols admired strength and endurance.

Kublai Khan’s face wavered in Jebu’s sight. The glitter from the golden throne, lit by hanging lamps, hurt his eyes. To walk the few steps from the litter to stand before the Great Khan seemed as painful an ordeal in its way as Jebu’s initiation into the Zinja, years ago. He started to bend to prostrate himself. Taitaro and Yukio thought he was fainting and caught him. Kublai looked into his eyes and held up his hand.

“No need for you to bow, monk. Come back when you have healed, and you can prostrate yourself nine times, as is our custom. You are a strong, brave warrior. I can well believe your father was a Mongol. If I could not tell it just by looking at you, I would know it from your deeds.” The men around Kublai and Jebu rumbled their agreement.

“If I stand before you alive tonight it is the training of my Order I must thank, as well as my Mongol blood,” said Jebu hoarsely.

“Your Order interests me,” said Kublai. “We Mongols need better answers to the everlasting questions about life and the world and the gods than our shamans can give us.”

Jebu shrugged. “We Zinja do not worship, my Khan.” The torn muscles of his left arm throbbed without respite.

“No gods at all? What a bleak existence. I wonder how you can be such fierce fighters without any gods. The most ferocious warriors we’ve encountered have been the believers in one god, like ourselves and the Moslems and the Christians. But we will discuss religion, perhaps, when you’re better. Tonight I tell you I am sorry I’ve failed to render you full justice.”

“In sparing my life you have been amply just to me, my Khan,” said Jebu. But Kublai Khan’s words gave him hope that the Khan would listen with favour to his petition. Jebu’s heart beat faster.

“Yukio,” said Kublai Khan. “How many men did you lose before Uriangkatai stopped the fighting between your men and Torluk’s?” Yukio bowed. “Nearly three hundred, my Khan.”

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