Shike – Day 148 of 306

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.

Chapter Twenty-Six

It was kind of the Great Khan, she thought, to let her ride. The wooded parks of Khan Baligh were lightly blanketed with snow, and the wind from Mongolia was piercing. Taniko, Bourkina and Seremeter all wore ermine cloaks and caps. Bourkina, thought Taniko, was along to guard her, of course.

She wouldn’t try to escape. At least here in Khan Baligh she could hope that Jebu was somewhere near by. She could hope that the Great Khan would grant her request and let her see Jebu once before the blow fell. This was where she wanted to be.

The women rode in silence. These dark, snow-dusted cypresses were very like the painted ones on Kublai’s bedchamber screen. They rode along a winding path that emerged at intervals from the trees and gave them a view of the new capital. A few months earlier the marshy plain around them had been uninhabited. Now the marshes had been drained and lakes formed. Walls were rising, encompassing an area three times the size of Heian Kyo. In the centre, wagonloads of earth and boulders were being dumped to form Kublai’s green mountain. Palaces had been built, and the foundations of more were laid. A stream of carts carried lumber and stone to the building sites. Even the war elephants were pressed into work, pulling rough-hewn stone columns for the grand facades.

North of the palace grounds a hastily built town had sprung up, crammed with officials, ambassadors, artisans, missionaries, merchants, courtesans, diviners, thieves and hangers-on. To the west, stretching endlessly over the undulating plain, were the rows of yurts that housed the army guarding the capital and the Great Khan.

“That way lie the ruins of Yenking,” said Bourkina, pointing southward. Taniko did not answer. She remembered Kublai’s description of the sack and burning of Yenking in the year of his birth. His were a cruel people. Right now Kublai and Bourkina were doubtless enjoying her suffering, while she wondered what would happen to her. And what had Kublai done to Jebu?

“There is an interesting new Tibetan lama temple up on the left,” Bourkina said, “but I’m tired of temples. As a Buddhist, I’m sure you’ll want to visit it, Taniko. We can part here. Seremeter can ride with me to see the view.”

“Wouldn’t you like to come with me, Seremeter?” said Taniko, a little catch of fear in her voice.

“Temples make me sad,” said Seremeter. “They only remind me that there is no place here where I can pray to Ahura Mazda.”

“Come, princess,” said Bourkina, and they rode off without giving Taniko any more time to talk.

They’re going to finish me now, she thought. That’s why Bourkina brought me into the park. The executioners are waiting for me.

She hoped it would be a quick death, not some degrading fate such as being sold to a brothel keeper. There wasn’t much chance of that, though. Such houses wanted girls barely out of childhood, not middle-aged women of thirty-three. It never ceased to amaze her that Kublai Khan had found her interesting, ageing as she was. That was what made it hard to understand his need to possess her, his unwillingness to let her go to Jebu.

Above the trees ahead of her towered a circular white pagoda, roofed with a flat sheet of copper from which were suspended a thousand small bells. The bells transmuted the cruelty of the wind from the steppes into music. She could hear them even at this distance. Strange that Kublai would choose this pleasant temple as the place where she would suffer his jealous wrath.

Stranger still, as she thought about Kublai, that her years with him had been happy. Not as happy as those with Kiyosi, not even as happy as her childhood in Kamakura. She had always been aware, with Kublai, of the taint of blood on everything the Mongols did. Still, they had been fascinating years, spent close to a powerful and sagacious man whose decisions affected the rise and fall of kingdoms. She had always known that this happiness hung on a slender thread of Kublai’s favour. That thread had finally snapped.

She rounded a bend in the path and saw a horseman blocking her way. Her heart gave a little leap of fear. He was a tall Mongol wearing a fur cap and a heavy grey cloak. His red moustache drooped down on either side of his mouth, giving him that look of sullen ferocity so many Mongols wore. His eyes were as grey as his cloak.

He went on staring at her without a word. Was he her executioner? Or just some officer to whom she was to be given as a slave?

At last he said, “The waterfowl circles eternally, having found no place to land.”

The waterfowl? He had not spoken in Chinese or Mongol. He had spoken in the language of the Sunrise Land. Words she had not heard in years. She knew the voice. She looked again at the face, and knew it, too.

She sat on her horse with her mouth hanging open foolishly and began to cry.

“He was willing? He permits us to—”

“Yes,” he said softly. “It really is so.”

He gave his piebald pony a jolt with his knees, Mongol fashion, and it leaped forward, bringing him to her side. With easy power he lifted her out of her saddle and set her down in front of him. He slapped her horse on the rump to send it away, and then they were galloping down another of the paths that wound through Kublai’s park.

Her heart was pounding in time to the horse’s hooves. But it was also flying joyfully over Khan Baligh. She was still speechless. She ought to say something to him. So far all she had done was weep and babble incoherently. His words about the waterfowl were so beautiful. But he had had time to prepare. He had known this was going to happen.

Suddenly she was angry at him. She tried to turn in the saddle and speak to him, but he held her too firmly, and she could not turn all the way around. The wind tore the words from her lips.

“Stop, stop.” He heard her and gave the pony another nudge in the ribs. It came to an immediate stop, with the perfect responsiveness the steppe horses were famous for, if you knew how to ride them. Clearly, Jebu did.

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