Shike – Day 149 of 306

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.

“What is it?”

“You were waiting for me. You knew long before I did. All the time I was dying over and over again for both of us, you knew.” She struck her fist against his chest.

He smiled down at her. “Until just this morning, I, too, was dying again and again.”

Now she was laughing, still turned in the saddle, her hands gripping his cloak, melting against him. “Jebu, I’m going mad, I’m so happy.” Jebu said, “In the Order we are taught that those who pursue happiness are pursuing an illusion. Those who think they have found it have found an even greater illusion. Now I think the Order is wrong. For what I feel this moment I would gladly trade all of my life up to now and all that is to come.”

Taniko was faint, dizzy with astonishment and joy as she felt his body—real, solid, there for her to lean against.

“You are no illusion.”

She turned completely around to him. They held each other tightly, ignoring the slight, nervous dancing of the horse. He bent down and put his lips on hers. His mouth felt strange to her. She had not expected that. The bristles of his moustache scratched her lips. For all these years she had been living with a memory. This was a real man, a man in many ways completely new.

They were not the same people any more. It was hopeless. She had been deceiving herself. The Jebu who had lived in her heart all these years was no more real than the Buddha of Boundless Light.

But was not the Buddha a reality? Then she should not lose faith so quickly in this man, whom she had found again after so long. She must not lose him again.

All these thoughts raced through her mind in the interval of the kiss. She drew away from him and looked up into his grey eyes. They had not changed.

“What will we do now?”

He smiled. “Whatever we like. I’ve had no time to plan. This morning the orkhon Uriangkatai sent for me and told me that the Great Khan had decided to grant my request.”

“The Great Khan. He never even bade me farewell,” said Taniko, feeling a strange disappointment in the midst of her happiness.

“I saw, when I asked him to reunite us, that it would not be easy for him to do it. Until this morning I didn’t believe he would. We have much to talk about, you and I. We can’t talk very well on the back of a horse.”

“No.” She nestled against him. He had not changed so very much after all. He was Jebu.

“If it pleases you, we can go to my yurt. It is in the army encampment.”

“It pleases me,” she said, squeezing his hand tightly.

They rode slowly down the path under the cypresses. Quail hiding in the underbrush darted away with a thrumming of wings. The trees were full of birds attracted to the woodlands because they were not hunted there. Deer and smaller animals whispered through the trees. Only the Great Khan and those he invited to accompany him were permitted to kill any animals here. He had not chosen to hunt since the park was enclosed, so the birds and animals felt safe.

They spoke no more as they rode out of the woods and down the road to the army camp. Thousands of horses grazed on the gentle, grassy hills.

Riding with Jebu along the rows of yurts, Taniko remembered her first entry into Kublai’s camp five years ago. There was the same quiet, orderly buzz of activity. But the camp she entered today was a peacetime camp, and there were many women and children about. Taniko saw them staring at her. Some of the men greeted Jebu with a shout and a wave, eyeing her and turning away with small smiles.

It was hard to believe that he lived in a yurt like any Mongol warrior, but he was opening the wooden door to his round grey felt tent.

“There will be others to greet you in a while,” he said. “But I asked them to give us some time alone. Please honour my miserable tent, Lady Shima Taniko.”

She smiled, walking daintily through the door. She did not have to stoop to enter a yurt, as most Mongols did. When she was inside she burst into tears again. He was beside her quickly, closing the door. Lamps were already lit.

He held her in his arms. “What is it?”

“It’s just that it’s been so long since anyone has spoken to me in our language, addressed me so politely as we do at home. I never knew how much I missed it. I would not let myself know. And to think that of all people, the first one to speak to me in my own language after five years should be you, Jebu. It’s too much of a blessing. I can’t believe my good fortune. Help me to sit down. I feel dizzy.”

Jebu took her arm to steady her as she dropped to her knees on the carpet. She looked down and saw that the design in the rug was as elaborate and colourful as any she had seen in Kublai’s palaces.

“Let me make ch’ai for you,” he said. He lit a charcoal fire and placed a cast-iron pot of water on a tripod over it. He brought a low black jade table out from the wall and set it before her. He sat across from her, waiting for the water to boil.

Taniko looked around the yurt. The floor was covered with layers of rugs as rich as the one on which she was sitting. Silk hangings divided the domed chamber into several small rooms. A statue of a Chinese goddess smiled benignly at her. It appeared to be made of solid gold and was decorated with jewels.

“You seem to have forgotten your austere Zinja ways,” she said with a small laugh.

“I had also forgotten how beautiful your laughter sounds,” he said, looking at her with shining eyes. “Yes, I’ve accumulated a great quantity of treasure. I do not plan to keep it. The Great Khan was most generous to his victorious troops. Especially to me.”

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