Shike – Day 225 of 306

Now Yukio and Jebu were close enough to see a figure in a grey fur cloak and hood watching them from the guard tower overlooking the gate. It was Yukio’s wife, Mirusu, who had set the lanterns in the tower to guide them home. Jebu’s feet were numb. His heart felt numb as well. A Zinja, he reminded himself, does not care whether he lives or dies. That was what troubled him. He no longer believed that he should not care. He wanted to die caring.

Three days after Lord Hidehira’s funeral, at the hour of the horse, Jebu was finishing his midday meal of rice and fish when he heard the lookout’s shout from the guard tower. As he ran to the ladder, he saw Yukio in the doorway of the hall where he lived with his family, talking to Mirusu. Yukio’s hall was slightly more decorative than the other buildings in the compound, having walls of rough plaster and a tile roof with upsweeping eaves. It contained a small chapel.

Climbing to the tower, Jebu saw at once a long single file of dark, mounted figures approaching at a leisurely pace up the path from the distant plain.

“I make it about a thousand,” said Jebu when Yukio joined him. Jebu’s heart boomed like a bronze bell in his chest. He had never felt the end of his life to be closer.

“More than enough to finish us,” said Yukio, peering at the line of horsemen that disappeared and reappeared as it wound its way through the hills below the fort. “They’re taller than most samurai and they have a different way of sitting a horse. Mongols, Jebu-san.”

Jebu felt a momentary surge of hope. “Could they be coming to join us?”

“They have been riding under Hideyori’s command for the last seven years. He sent them here.”

As the riders came nearer, Jebu saw that midway down the line porters were struggling to carry a heavily curtained palanquin up the steep, snow-covered path. Some high-ranking person was coming to view Yukio’s death. Jebu unslung his small Zinja bow from his shoulder and made ready to fire as soon as the first of the Mongols came close enough, but they halted out of range. Only two kept coming, one holding up a heraldic pennon, both men without spears, bows or sabres.

“By the gracious Kwannon,” Yukio exclaimed. “The one with the flag, that’s Torluk, and the taller one behind him is Arghun.”

By the time the Mongol leaders had reached the fort, Yukio and Jebu were standing, unarmed, before the gate on a small tongue of stone where the path to the fort ended. Arghun had to ride behind Torluk until they tethered their horses to a crooked pine growing out of the cliff wall, and approached on foot. It was seven years since Jebu had seen Arghun, but the tarkhan looked little changed, except that he now wore samurai armour, a large suit with crimson lacings that must have been built specially for him. His face under the golden-horned helmet was sharp and angular as the mountains around them, his eyes as blue and inhumanly expressionless as the Eternal Heaven the Mongols worshipped. His moustache was now entirely grey. Torluk, a compact figure who still wore Mongol heavy cavalry armour, had grown a short, thick grey beard that made him look more barbaric than ever. He glowered at Yukio and Jebu with undisguised hostility.

“Well, tarkhan and tuman-bashi, have your years in the Sunrise Land been rewarding?” Yukio asked. He spoke the Mongol tongue haltingly and with a heavy accent, not having used it in years. “I hear that two out of every three of your men have fallen in battle. You would have fared better under my command.”

“It was you who placed us under your brother’s authority,” said Torluk sullenly. “He used us ill.”

“As he uses all who serve him,” Yukio said softly.

“Even so, your samurai have learned to speak of the Mongols with dread,” said Torluk.

“You might wish to think so,” Yukio said dryly. “I doubt it.”

“Those of us who lived have gained much wealth,” said Torluk. “This is a poor country compared to China, but there is loot to be gathered.”

“Now you are going back to your homeland?” asked Yukio. “After you perform this last service for Hideyori?”

For the first time Arghun spoke, his voice as heavy as the black rock beside him. He answered Yukio in the language of the Sunrise Land, which he used with more fluency than Yukio did Mongol.

“You need not die, Lord Yukio. You could be restored to your former power and glory. You could see your brother lying crushed at your feet. You could be the mightiest man in these islands. The choice is yours.”

“But there is a condition, isn’t there, Arghun?” said Yukio lightly. “You insult me, Arghun. You think I am the sort of man who would betray his country.”

“That is a foolish way to put it,” said Arghun. “Your people will be harmed only if they resist us. If you lead them peacefully into the fold, you will be your country’s benefactor, not its betrayer.” Arghun stared piercingly down at Yukio, weighing him. What he was proposing was plain to Jebu. The only thing he couldn’t understand was how Arghun could have so misjudged Yukio. Argun’s gaze shifted to Jebu.

“You are his friend, son of Jamuga. You are part Mongol yourself. Persuade him. A tidal wave is rushing towards these islands. Lord Yukio can ride its crest, or he can stand against it and be smashed flat. There are no other possibilities.”

“Why is this choice offered now?” Jebu asked.

“My master’s thoughts move beyond China now,” said Arghun. “He has sent ambassadors to your Imperial Court to invite your Emperor to submit to him.”

“We know that what the Court says to your ambassadors means nothing,” said Yukio. “It is Hideyori’s wishes that count. Why haven’t you made this offer to the Shogun?”

“He would reject it. But even if he did agree to become deputy king of the Sunrise Land under the Great Khan, we could not be sure of him. Of all your leaders, he is the least trustworthy.”

Yukio laughed with a trace of bitterness. “Again you insult me, Arghun. You think my brother would resist you, while I would deliver this land to Kublai Khan. I had not thought you were so stupid, Arghun.”

“Neither do I think you stupid, Yukio,” said Arghun calmly. “Your country has turned against you. From the Emperor down to the lowliest peasant all acquiesce in your destruction. I offer you power. You and your children and your children’s children could rule the Sunrise Land under the protection of the Great Khan until the end of time.”

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