Shike – Day 146 of 306

Perhaps it would have been better if Arghun had managed to kill him.

Chapter Twenty-Five

From the pillow book of Shima Taniko:

I have not seen Elephant since he went away to fight Arik Buka three months ago. He had more time for his women during the war than he does now that he has won. No one has mentioned to me the troops from the Sunrise Land, who must have fought in the great battle against Arik Buka at the edge of the Gobi. I wish the kami would send that white-haired monk to me again with news of Jebu’s safety. Or Jebu himself. I seem to have spent most of my life wondering if Jebu is alive or dead.

Kublai spends most of his time moving his armies about on his western frontier. He may have new wars to fight soon. His dream of a universal empire is fading. When his brother Mangu was Great Khan he ruled unchallenged from the China Sea all the way to Russia and Persia. But during the civil war between Kublai and his brother Arik Buka, the empire started to break up. A cousin named Kaidu, who rules a desert khanate north-west of here between the Tarbagatai mountains and Lake Balkash, refuses to acknowledge Kublai as Great Khan and is threatening war. Another cousin, Berkai, who is khan of a Mongol nation called the Golden Horde in faraway Russia, is making war on Kublai’s brother Hulagu in Persia. Kublai cannot intervene in that war because he can’t go through Kaidu’s territory without fighting him. So now the Mongol empire is really four separate khanates.

Perhaps because of this, Kublai has abandoned Karakorum, Genghis Khan’s old capital in Mongolia. He is building a new capital beside the ruins of Yenking, which was the capital of northern China under the Kin Tartars. He calls his new city Khan Baligh, City of the Khan. The idea of a city built by Kublai himself has everyone bursting with anticipation. Nothing he does is dull.

-Twelfth Month, seventh day

YEAR OF THE RAT

Kublai was in a strange mood tonight, Taniko thought. “Are you troubled, Your Majesty? Would you like me to play for you?” During the years of the war with Arik Buka, Taniko had learned to play the Chinese thirteen-stringed lute. She always brought it with her wher she visited Kublai.

“I am not troubled.”

“I am happy to hear that, Your Majesty.”

“You may play for me.”

Taniko plucked out a tune called The Fisher Boy Urashima, singing in her own language, which Kublai did not understand but enjoyed hearing. This was the first time she had seen him in months. They were in his bedchamber in the Great Khan’s palace in the new city, Khan Baligh. Kublai had just moved his women down from Shangtu for the winter. Taniko had been longing to see him and was delighted when he sent for her, but since her arrival he had sat sipping golden wine, staring at a painted screen and hardly speaking.

The song finished, she tried to make conversation. “Many of your people are said to be shocked at your building a new capital in China instead of reigning in Karakorum. As for me, I am happy to be in a new palace in a new city. Is it true that the buildings in Karakorum are made of mud?”

Kublai smiled faintly. “To a Mongol, a mud building is a very solid and permanent thing.”

Taniko shook her head. “I cannot imagine that the Emperor who dwells here would be pleased with a mud palace.” The room they were in was similar to his bedchamber at Shangtu, but larger. Green silk draperies hid the walls and made a tent of the ceiling. Most of the cushions on the bed were green. And in one corner of the room there was a screen as tall as Kublai depicting a range of golden mountains, one behind the other, topped with clusters of dark green trees.

“I am sure the houses in your homeland are all quite beautiful.” He was forever teasing her about the supposed superiority of things in the Sacred Islands. It always made her uneasy. Tonight she did not feel like parrying him.

“They are mostly of wood and paper, Your Majesty. But they are very beautiful, yes.”

“Do you miss your homeland very much, Taniko?”

“Yes, Elephant, I do.”

“I could send you back.”

Her heart stopped. She stared at him, unable to speak. What was he hinting at? Did this have anything to do with his strange manner tonight? Or was he just toying with her?

“I don’t think there is any place for me in the Sacred Islands,” she said. “Horigawa brought me all this way to get rid of me, and my family is doubtless thoroughly ashamed of me. Has Your Majesty grown tired of me?”

“Far from it. But I find myself wondering how you feel towards me.”

That was a surprise. How could a man like Kublai Khan ever concern himself with the feelings of just one of his hundreds of women? True, he had always been considerate. He had been careful in the beginning not to lie with her until he felt she would receive him with pleasure. She had enjoyed their occasional unions over the four years since then. She had even started to hope that she would conceive, knowing that under Mongol custom he would then have to make her a wife, improving her status among his women and guaranteeing her a secure place in Mongol society.

“If you talk about sending me away, it must be that I no longer please you, Elephant.”

“I only pointed out that I could send you back to your homeland, if you wish. After all, you were brought here against your will.”

“Why this sudden concern for my happiness?”

“Do you know a monk named Jebu?” He was leaning forward, his face thrust so close to hers that she could feel his breath hot against her forehead.

At first Jebu’s name was a meaningless sound, it had been so long since she had heard it uttered. It sounded doubly strange on Kublai’s Mongol tongue. Then it penetrated her consciousness. Jebu. He was asking about Jebu. Her body went cold from head to foot.

Kublai said, “It’s hard to tell under that powder you wear, but I believe your face has gone white.”

Her heart was hammering and her hands were trembling. It was not only fear of Kublai. Not only that. It was Jebu suddenly becoming real for her again, when for so long he had existed in her imagination.

But it was fear of Kublai, too, that possessed her. The memory of her first sight of the Mongols rose in her mind. The maid raped and beheaded on the road to Wuchow. Kublai’s talk of massacres. The children who would only starve to death if they hadn’t been killed, too. A Mongol officer had tried to kill Jebu when he was only an infant.

She stared at the huge form beside her. Cruel, unpredictable, vengeful. She was in his power, and so was Jebu. Perhaps Jebu was dead already.

“It is startling to hear a name from one’s distant past,” she said, trying to sound noncommittal. “Yes, I knew the monk Jebu. He is a member of the Order of Zinja. About twenty years ago, when I was a very young girl, he escorted me from Kamakura to Heian Kyo for my wedding to Prince Horigawa.”

All those years I have known he was somewhere in this land of China, she thought. To protect both of us, I have been careful to avoid seeing him or even trying to find out anything about him. And what good, has it done? It has only brought us to this moment. We were probably both doomed from the moment his stepfather, Taitaro, spoke to me in front of Bourkina.

“The monk Jebu is partly of my race,” said Kublai. “That accounts for his red hair and grey eyes. My grandfather, Genghis Khan, had the same hair and green eyes. I did not inherit them. Mongols who have that colouring are known as the Borchikoun, the grey-eyed men. Jebu’s father, Jamuga, was a Borchikoun. He was Genghis Khan’s cousin, his blood brother and his enemy.”

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