Shike – Day 161 of 306

Horns sounded. An officer tied a long strip of white cloth to each standard. He brought the other ends of the strips together in the centre of the half circle. Yukio, Arghun and Torluk dismounted and stood on the ends of the cloth strips. A shaman added another ribbon to those under the feet of the leaders. He tied the other end to the thigh bone of an ox and, gesturing with the bone, began a series of incantations in Mongol.

At this moment the ceremony was interrupted. A band of riders in black sable cloaks came thundering down the street that led from the outskirts of Haitsin to the docks. Arghun, surprised, reached for his sabre as the riders swept down on them.

“Prepare! The Great Khan comes!” shouted one of the riders, an officer wearing a gold tablet.

Jebu expected to see Kublai Khan’s elephant-borne tower. Instead a small group of men on horseback approached at a trot. He recognized Kublai Khan immediately, the man in the centre of the group who was taller and darker than the rest. He had never before seen the Great Khan on horseback, but like all Mongols he rode as one born in the saddle.

Kublai Khan rode directly into the centre of the assembly. He wore a long white satin riding coat and sat astride an unblemished white horse. One Mongol tribe of famed breeders supplied him with a thousand head of these horses each year.

Yukio, Arghun, and Torluk immediately fell to their knees. In silence all the warriors dismounted. They knelt and stood nine times, paying homage in the Mongol fashion.

It made Jebu uneasy to see Yukio kneeling to the Great Khan at this moment. True, Yukio was still in the Khan’s service, but he was about to become a new person by crossing the sea. No longer one of the Great Khan’s warriors, but chieftain of the Muratomo clan.

Kublai Khan spoke in a voice that carried along the waterfront. “My hunting led me in this direction, and I remembered that my fierce warriors from the Sunrise Land were about to depart. I came to add my blessing to the shaman’s. Let me not interrupt these ceremonies. Muratomo no Yukio, may Eternal Heaven grant you success in your war across the sea. May you crush your enemies, may you see them fall at your feet. May you know the great happiness of a conqueror.”

Yukio was a tiny figure looking up at the Great Khan on his white horse. Jebu could see that his face was flushed with excitement. Bowls of mare’s milk were brought to Kublai Khan and the three leaders of the expedition. They dipped their fingers in the milk and sprinkled it towards the standards. Trumpets shrilled and drums thundered. Three times the warriors—Mongols, samurai and others from many lands—raised their war shout, shaking the walls of the warehouses nearby.

Kublai Khan waved a hand in farewell and rode his horse slowly across the open space before the assembled horsemen. He smiled and nodded as he passed Jebu, as he did to the other men he recognized.

He passed close to the sedan chair in which Taniko waited. Jebu felt his heart lose the rhythm of its beat. He heard the Great Khan ask a low-voiced question of a kneeling attendant. The man answered, and Kublai nudged his horse over to the chair, reached down and swept the curtain aside. In our land that would be an offence deserving death, Jebu thought. In a cold sweat he heard Kublai exchange a few words with Taniko. Then the Great Khan let the curtain fall.

In a moment Kublai and his escort were gone. Now the warriors climbed down from their horses and left them to servants, to be led down wide gangplanks into the bellies of the junks. The men formed files and began to board the ships.

Yukio stood again beside Jebu on the deck of the junk. “The Great Khan spoke of happiness. It was a happy day when we escaped safely from the Takashi fleet at Hakata. But this is surely the happiest moment of my life, to be going home again.”

Although Yukio’s men boarded with Mongol efficiency, the sun was at its zenith by the time the fleet was ready to cast off. Yukio’s ship was the first to push away from the wharf. The pilot shouted commands, a drummer on deck struck up a steady beat, and oarsmen strained. Slowly the junk swung into midstream, where tide and wind could carry it out to sea. Crewmen hauled on ropes, and sails rattled into place on the seven masts.

Later, Jebu stood alone in the bow of the junk. Yukio, restless as ever, had taken a small boat to visit and inspect the other ships in the fleet. There was a strong salt smell in the air, and sea birds glided alongside the junk. Jebu felt a presence close at hand, and turned. Taniko was beside him.

“Home,” she said, her eyes sparkling. “I thought I would never taste the food of the Sunrise Land again.”

“What did he say to you?” Jebu cut in.

Her eyes clouded over. “I do not like to remember what he said, Jebu.” She stared, not back at Haitsin, now only a grey blur on the riverbank behind them, but ahead at the blue horizon. “He said, ‘Do not forget me, little one. Tell the people of your small country what you know of me and my empire. I shall see you again.’ Jebu, perhaps it is wrong for us to go back. We are carrying a flame with us. When Yukio steps on shore, he will set our homeland ablaze from end to end. We do not know whether the Takashi will destroy us or whether we will defeat them. But all the warriors in the Sunrise Land, Muratomo and Takashi together, would not make one wing in the army of the Great Khan.”

He knew she was right at least in one thing: they were going from one war to another. But he took her hand and said, “We must act as our insight tells us, Taniko. We cannot avoid choice. And every action has its shining side and its shadow side.”

“But, Jebu—” Beneath his hand, her own trembled. “He said he would see me again.”

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