Shike – Day 150 of 306

“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.”

“Do you want to keep me with you, Jebu?”

“My lady, that will be as you wish.”

“You asked the Great Khan to give me to you.”

“I phrased my request that way because it is the only sort of request he would understand. In his world, everyone belongs to someone else. What I wanted him to do was simply to release you from captivity.”

Taniko made herself look at Jebu carefully to see how much he had changed. She had not wanted to do that, because seeing the changes in him would force her to admit the changes in herself.

His face was thin, with a hard mouth and hollow eyes that could have belonged either to a wild desert warrior or a mountain holy man. The chin was sharp, the cheekbones jutting. There were innumerable tiny creases radiating from the corners of his eyes, wrinkles put there by years of squinting into the sun and wind. Thank Buddha, though, he was free of any horrible battle scars such as so many veteran warriors bore. Deep creases ran from the corners of his nose to his mouth, partially buried by the thick red moustache. The moustache itself and the hair on his head, which was shaved in the middle and gathered in plaits behind his ears, Mongol-style, were beginning to show streaks of grey.

He hadn’t aged badly. But what about her? A woman of her age was good for nothing but raising a man’s first children while he went out and got some more children on younger women. He had asked for her because he remembered her and felt sorry for her. It was an act of kindness, nothing more.

Jebu said, “Do you remember, ages ago, how we looked over Heian Kyo from Mount Higashi and I swore to you that I would be yours for ever?”

“Yes,” she whispered. She was crying again, but the tears were flowing gently, like a soft spring rain, not like the storms of weeping that had gone before.

“And you said to me that the lilac branch would always be there for the waterfowl,” he went on.

“I remember that,” said Taniko, thinking sadly how little difference those promises had made. He had not been there when she needed him. He had wandered all over the world seeking battle, after the way of his Order. And though she had not forgotten him, she had been there for other men as much as for him. There had been Kiyosi and Kublai Khan. Truly, compared with those two, with each of whom she had been intimate for years, what did this man who sat across the black jade table mean to her?

He, too, had loved a memory. He had risked all to win that memory from the Great Khan. And now, doubtless, seeing her in the timeworn flesh, he was bitterly disappointed.

“I’ve just been thinking,” Jebu said, “how marvellous it is that we’ve managed to keep those promises in spite of everything.”

“We have?” It was just then, conscious of the tears on her cheeks, that Taniko remembered she was nearly devoid of make-up. The facial paint suitable for a lady of Heian Kyo was just a nuisance on a morning ride. Not only was she aged and ugly, but he was seeing her without the protection make-up might have afforded.

Jebu said, “To think that so many years could have passed and you could be so far from the Sunrise Land, and yet I was able to find you and restore you to your people. To think that after all this time and over all this distance you still wanted to come to me.” He paused and looked at her, troubled. The tea water was bubbling. He poured it into a glossy green bowl over a small heap of finely ground leaves. Setting the bowl on the table between them, he whipped the beverage into a lather with a bamboo whisk and offered it to Taniko. All this time he kept his eyes on her.

“I have wondered—there is something I have feared. I must speak of it to you and set my mind at rest. There was a sound of doubt in your voice when you spoke of how we’ve kept our promises to each other. The thing I fear is that you might have been happy with Kublai Khan, that you might not have wanted to come to me.”

“Didn’t you think that living among the Mongols was the worst thing that could happen to me? Horigawa did.”

“Obviously, he assumed you would be treated as a slave. Did you truly want to go from the palace of the Great Khan to this warrior’s yurt?”

“How can you doubt it, Jebu-san?” This was the first time she had called him by that affectionate term since that night at Daidoji.

Jebu shrugged. “I don’t know what passed between you and Kublai Khan. He has many, many women. The day he triumphed over Arik Buka, Arghun came within a hair’s breadth of killing me. The Great Khan in his triumphant mood wanted to show me some favour to compensate for my suffering. I asked for you. Perhaps he gave you no choice in the matter.”

She dabbed at her tear-stained cheeks with the end of her sleeve. “He asked me what I wanted. I told him I wanted to go to you.” She sobbed. A lady does not weep in front of a man, let her eyes puff up and her nose turn red. This was hideous.

Jebu poured and whisked more tea for her. She took the bowl from him gratefully.

“Why so much crying? Are you sure you don’t wish you were still with him?”

“Perhaps it is you who wants that?”

“I don’t understand.”

“Look at me, Jebu. Do I look anything like the woman you left at Daidoji? I was sixteen then. That was seventeen years ago. I’ve lived another whole lifetime. You wanted me back because you remembered what I was then. Look at me as I am now.”

Jebu frowned, a sadness coming into his eyes. “Are you trying to persuade me to send you back to him?”

“I don’t want to go back to him,” she said violently. “If only I could believe that you want me.”

He put his teacup down and took her hand. “Look into the core of your being and see the Self shining there, as I do when I look into your eyes.”

“You are deceiving yourself.”

“Am I? When Kublai Khan spoke to you of leaving him, did he seem eager to part with you?”

“He was so angry, I thought he was going to kill us both. Jebu, he asked me if I wanted to leave him for you, and I told him the truth. I told him that I had been happy with him. And I must tell you that, too, Jebu. I was happy with Kublai Khan. I did not submit to him unwillingly. But more than anything else in the world, I wanted to be with you. I told him that. He was angry. He sent me away.”

“He was just as angry when I spoke your name to him and asked him to let you come to me. Like you, I thought it might mean the end of our lives. Like you, I was overwhelmed when I discovered this morning that he was going to reunite us. Kublai Khan was deeply unwilling to let you go. We may never know why he decided to. Do you think he was deceiving himself?”

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