Shike – Day 147 of 306

“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.”

Taniko nodded. “To while away the time on our journey to Heian Kyo, Jebu told me a tale of a Mongol warrior who came to our islands to pursue and slay his father. That warrior was red-haired and blue-eyed.”

“Arghun Baghadur,” said Kublai. “Owing to several odd turns of fortune, this Jebu is now part of my army. After our defeat of Arik Buka, Arghun tried to have Jebu killed, and there was very nearly a second battle. The matter was brought to me for judgment. Jebu had served me well, and I withdrew the condemnation of his family pronounced by my Ancestor. The monk then had the colossal effrontery to ask me to give you to him.” He continued to watch her closely.

For the first time in many months Taniko whispered the invocation to Buddha. Kublai’s account of Jebu’s boldness delighted her. But it sounded more and more as if he had brought disaster down on both of them.

“Were you even aware that he was in this part of the world?” Kublai asked her.

Doubtless Kublai knew everything that Bourkina knew, and the two of them had probably guessed at a good deal more. Nor was there any way of knowing what Jebu had told Kublai.

“The night you were elected Great Khan, I saw his stepfather, who told me that Jebu had been at Kweilin and was well. Elephant, Jebu means more to me than I have admitted to you. He was the father of one of my children, a girl. She was killed by Horigawa. Drowned.”

Kublai nodded. “That was your husband’s right.” His voice dropped to an almost-gentle whisper. “Tell me, Taniko, do you wish to leave me and go with this monk?”

Her next words, she knew, might condemn both herself and Jebu to death. So hard did her heart pound that she could scarcely breathe. To deny the truth now would mean spending the rest of her life imprisoned in a lie. She had often wondered why she did not feel drawn to suicide, as so many samurai men and women were. Even now she could never put the dagger to her own throat. But if Kublai wanted to kill her for what she said now, she was ready to die.

Still, there was no need to be rudely blunt about it. She chose her words carefully.

“Elephant—Your Majesty—I have been truly happy with you. When I was brought to you I was terrified, in despair. For five years you have been kind to me. You have been gracious enough to spend hours with me. You have honoured me among the women of your household. If I were to spend the rest of my life with you, I could be content. But, to be truthful, I long to see the monk Jebu more than I desire anything else in my life. If I were to be reunited with him, it would be like being reborn in the Western Paradise of Amida. I cannot imagine that such happiness could ever be mine.”

She paused. Kublai sat looking at her, his dark eyes unreadable. He’s going to kill us, I know it. But I must keep on talking to him anyway.

“I’m not as bold as Jebu, Your Majesty. I do not ask to be restored to him. I make only one request. You may wish to kill Jebu for daring to raise his eyes to a woman of the Great Khan’s household. You may wish to kill me for the longing for Jebu that I cannot help. Let us see each other once before we die. It has been so many years since I saw him last. Grant me this one mercy, if I have ever given you pleasure.”

Still Kublai remained silent. She waited for the death sentence, waited for him to call the guards to take her away. She was no longer frightened. Having spoken aloud her feelings for Jebu, she knew a vast relief and a soaring happiness. Let Kublai do what he wanted.

He reached out and took her small, pale hands in his huge brown ones. She sat beside him with her head bowed. At first he held her hands gently. Gradually the pressure increased until the pain was excruciating. She gasped. Immediately, he let go.

He crossed the room to a silver wine spout in the form of a snake’s head. At his touch a pale stream gushed from the serpent’s mouth into his golden goblet. He drank, walking to the screen.

“When I was eight my grandfather took me campaigning in China. For the first time I saw trees. They looked magical to me, like giants with their arms uplifted to Eternal Heaven. When I went back to the steppes they seemed so dry and empty that I vowed I would never live there. Or, if I had to, I would plant trees everywhere. My Ancestor had quite the opposite vision. He wanted to cut down all the trees in China and turn everything into grassland.

“I love mountains, too. The plains where I spent my childhood are so flat. They almost frighten me with their vast distances. Soon I’m going to build my own mountain here at Khan Baligh. I’ll cover it with trees. I will have one of every kind of tree that grows anywhere in the world dug up carefully and transported to my green mountain to grow on it. At the top I will build a green palace for myself and those closest to me.” He turned away from the screen and looked at her sadly.

“You will not see it.”

She opened her mouth to speak, but he held up a hand to silence her, and she bowed her head in submission.

“My moments with you have given me great pleasure. They have been fewer than I would wish, but I must divide myself among many women. You, I gather, would be happiest if you could spend all your time with one man. I have sometimes wondered what it would be like to want one woman desperately, as the poets sometimes describe it. When a man has many women at his disposal, as I do, he cannot want one of them very much. At least, not for long. I have discovered a little of what it is like to want one woman all to myself, since I learned about you and the monk Jebu. Suddenly, you have become very necessary to me. It is that way with me. If I owned the entire earth except for one little patch of desert, I would not care about anything at all but that bit of land I didn’t possess.

“Before this monk asked me to release you to him, you were even then one of the most interesting of my women.” He paused and clenched his fists. “Now that someone else wants you, it seems impossible to let you go. Never to hear you play and sing your strangely beautiful songs for me. Never to hear your tales of the islands you call sacred. Never to enjoy your special ways of giving pleasure to a man. Never to discuss the business of governing an empire with a woman as wise and witty as you. Impossible to give these things up.”

He came over and sat beside her on the bed, taking her hand gently. “I have tried, with my women, to do something like my green mountain. I want every kind of woman from every land on earth. If I let you leave me, my household will be incomplete.”

Taniko felt all the exhilaration that had followed her admission of longing for Jebu drain out of her, leaving a hopelessness as barren as the steppes where Kublai was born. “I understand, Your Majesty,” she whispered. In truth, she did understand, but she hated him for seeing her as an item to be collected, like a rare tree.

Kublai stood up and went back to the screen. “You may go back to the women’s palace, then, Taniko.”

She bowed low and withdrew from Kublai’s green bedchamber. He stood with his back to her, his hands clasped behind him, studying the trees on the gold mountains.

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