Shike – Day 222 of 306

Holding the Jewel of Life and Death in his hand so that the dying firelight glowed red in its crystal depths, Jebu sat where he was and wept.

Chapter Twenty-Two

Like all buildings in the Sunrise Land, the Shogun’s castle was draughty and cold in winter. Taniko, Hideyori, Bokuden and Ryuichi, dining privately in Hideyori’s chambers, wore many layers of clothing and kept their feet near the charcoal fire burning in the kotatsu, the square well in the floor covered with a low table.

“Taniko-san,” said Hideyori, “you spent many years among the Mongol barbarians. I have just received word that ambassadors from the Emperor of the Mongols have landed at Hakata on Kyushu.”

Taniko’s heart momentarily stopped, then began a frightened thumping. She shut her eyes, touching her fingertips to her forehead, and saw the face of Kublai Khan, huge, commanding, round and brassy as the summer sun, as vividly as if she had left his palace only yesterday. When she opened her eyes Hideyori was staring at her with a penetrating gaze remarkably like Kublai’s.

“I have never seen you appear so frightened, Taniko-san,” he said softly, curiously.

“My fear is of the dreadful suffering this may bring upon our people, my lord. What message do the Mongols carry?”

“They have a letter which they insist they must deliver to His Imperial Majesty. I have ordered the Defence Commissioner for the West to detain them at Dazaifu on Kyushu until we decide what to do with them.”

“If their ambassadors are harmed, I have no doubt that they will make war on us, my lord. To the Mongols an ambassador is sacred.”

“These islands are sacred. If they invade us, the gods themselves will fight on our side.”

“Please excuse me, my lord,” said Taniko politely, “but every nation believes it enjoys the favour of the gods. When I was at the court of the Great Khan I met a princess from a land far to the west, where they worship a god called Allah. Their spiritual leader was a holy man who lived in a mighty city known as Baghdad. He ordered the Mongol ambassadors slain when they came to Baghdad, and announced that Allah had declared war on the Mongols. He called on all the faithful to come to the aid of Baghdad. No one came. Neither god nor man could stop the Mongols from tearing down the walls of Baghdad in a few days. Because their ambassadors had been killed, they took out the people of Baghdad, men, women and children, and they put them all to death. Even babies. Ninety thousand died.”

“What of the holy man?” asked Ryuichi. Taniko’s uncle had grown much fatter in recent years. He had stopped wearing white face powder, but he still dressed in trailing robes.

“They covered him with a pile of carpets, Uncle, then rode their horses over the carpets, trampling him to death. This they did to avoid shedding his blood. The Mongols’ law forbids spilling the blood of a person of high rank.”

Hideyori uttered a barking laugh. “A most lawful people. And merciful.”

“My lord, I do not suggest that we yield to the Mongols. It may be that we will have to fight them. But we should be aware of what would happen to us if we lost a war with them. Picture our beautiful city of Heian Kyo depopulated and our Son of Heaven trampled under carpets.”

Hideyori stared at her, genuinely shocked. “Taniko, never say such a thing in my presence again. It is blasphemy to suggest that foreign barbarians could lay a hand on our sacred Majesty.”

Taniko offered no answer. Hideyori appreciated her intelligence, or so he said, but not when her remarks verged on scepticism.

“Might not the Mongol army that is now on our soil turn against us?” asked Bokuden, stroking his sparse grey moustache with the tip of his index finger.

“There are barely three thousand of them left,” said Hideyori, his hard features relaxing in a small smile. “They lost many in the War of the Dragons. I saw to that. They are at the opposite end of the realm from their ambassadors on Kyushu. I have sent the Mongol army to the land of Oshu to arrest my brother.”

“Have you located the lieutenant, then, my lord?” Ryuichi asked. As if the might of Kublai Khan were not enough to frighten me, thought Taniko, now I must fear for the lives of Jebu and Yukio.

“I’m sure you are aware that title has long since been revoked, Ryuichi,” said Hideyori irritably. “Yes, my rebellious brother has managed to escape to Oshu, where he sought refuge with the Northern Fujiwara. He managed to slip through the barrier fort at Ataka disguised as a wandering monk. I have ordered the fort commander at Ataka to commit hara-kiri to expiate for having let Yukio and his companions through. Yukio is travelling with that big Zinja monk who goes with him everywhere, and with a few other bandits. The Zinja helped us in the early stages of the War of the Dragons, but I have ordered them to withdraw their support from Yukio and they have not done so. I intend to proceed against the Order of Zinja as soon as Yukio has been captured.”

Taniko remembered an afternoon in Oshu, long ago, on a hilltop overlooking the Chusonji Temple, when a few words from Jebu had brought their happiness to an end with the suddenness of an earthquake. Now, seeing in her mind the glitter of that golden roof and the temple pillars, she felt tears coming to her eyes. I must send for Moko and tell him about this at once, she thought. At last we know where Jebu is, and that, for the moment, he is alive.

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