Shike – Day 226 of 306

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.”

“Do you truly expect your Mongol empire to last until the end of time?” Yukio said. “I doubt it will be in existence a hundred years from now.”

“Then you badly underestimate us,” said Arghun. His cold eyes took on a distant look. “Kublai Khan is the first Emperor to rule over all China in over a hundred years, and China is but one province in his empire. Doubt not, Yukio, that he can build an empire that will encompass all lands and peoples and last for all time. Your people can share in the power, the wealth, the peace and order, the arts and wisdom of the Great Khan’s new empire. Of what value is the pathetic independence of your little island kingdom compared to the benefits you can enjoy as subjects of Kublai Khan?

“You know I speak the truth, Yukio, because you have seen the power of the Great Khan. That is, in part, why he wishes you to govern the Sunrise Land on his behalf. He has not forgotten that you served him faithfully and well. And even though Hideyori may persecute you now, the people would flock to you if they thought you could win out over Hideyori. You are a great general, the best among your people. You are the only one we fear. By killing you, we can assure our victory over your people, but we would prefer to have you on our side. Save yourself and your people, Yukio. Join us.”

A movement beyond Arghun caught Jebu’s eye. The palanquin was rocking and bobbing towards them along the path. Warriors pressed their horses and themselves back against the cliff wall to let the gilded box and its bearers by. The person riding in it must be very lazy or very feeble, Jebu thought, to travel in such a precarious conveyance on a road barely wide enough for a horse. He wondered if armed men were concealed behind the heavy purple curtains.

“Arghun,” he said, “whoever is in that palanquin, tell the bearers to stop right there, or this talk ends now.”

Arghun laughed, a short, harsh laugh. “Only an old friend of yours, Jebu. Quite a harmless person.” He turned and raised a gauntleted hand, and the bearers set down the palanquin.

Yukio spoke in a quiet, thoughtful tone. “You have lived among us many years, Arghun, but you still don’t understand the Sunrise Land. I doubt that there is a single man on these islands, no matter how crude or treacherous he might be, who would give your proposal a moment’s consideration. Our Emperor is a god. No mere mortal, such as Kublai Khan, could ever rule over him. Our land is the home of the gods. It could never be seized by foreigners.

“To live a long time is not important. To be exalted above other men is not important. What is important is the beauty of one’s life, like the beauty of a flower that appears one day and is gone the next. To go against nature is hideous, and disloyalty is against my nature. Shake me from the tree whenever you wish.”

Arghun turned to Jebu. “Will you say nothing? You do not share this blind devotion to the Emperor of the Sunrise Land. Your loyalty is to the Zinja, and it crosses the seas, as does the very blood in your veins. Make your comrade see that it is folly to cling to old ties when the Great Khan offers a new age of order and prosperity.”

Jebu smiled grimly. “You once preferred old ties to the Great Khan’s new age, Arghun.”

“I had the wisdom to change my views when I saw that the old ways are doomed to fail and disappear. Because I once made the same error Yukio now makes, I urge him now to follow my example.”

“Do you think Arghun is right, Jebu-san?” Yukio asked mildly.

“No, I think you are right, that he does not understand the Sunrise Land,” said Jebu. “He does not understand the Zinja, and he does not understand you and me. Perhaps we can show him the truth. This day, let us kill so many of Arghun’s warriors that he will tell his Great Khan there are not enough troops in all the world to conquer the Sacred Islands.”

The curtains of the palanquin parted, and a small figure wearing a lacquered silk cap, and swathed in shimmering grey fur, stepped out. He was alone and unarmed, but Jebu felt a chill between his shoulder blades as he recognized Horigawa. The prince advanced towards them with mincing steps, his feet hidden by the long grey coat that brushed the snow. His expressionless face was scaly and scarred with creases like a lizard’s, his eyes sunk deep in his head. His tiny beard and moustache were silver-white. He must be nearly eighty now, Jebu thought. He realized with surprise that if he died this day, Horigawa would outlive him. He resolved that Horigawa should die that day as well.

“I heard your words, Muratomo no Yukio,” said Horigawa in a piping voice like a child’s flute. “You said no one in the Sunrise Land would help Kublai Khan gain rule over these islands. Excuse me, but you are wrong. This aged scholar is just such a man.”

Yukio paled. “I can’t believe that. I have never heard anything good about you, Your Highness, but the Sasaki are one of our oldest and noblest families. They have served our Emperor faithfully for hundreds of years. No one of your lineage could betray the Sacred Islands and the Crown.”

Horigawa parted his lips in a smile. It was impossible to tell whether there were teeth, blackened in Court fashion, in his mouth, or whether they were all gone. What came out of that little orifice was pure venom.

“You know nothing about good lineage, Muratomo no Yukio. Those of your ancestors who were distant cousins of the Imperial family left the capital hundreds of years ago and intermarried, generation after generation, with bandits, peasants and barbarians. The few drops of Imperial blood that may remain in your body no more make you a member of the Imperial family than a few leaves tossed into the ocean could turn into ch’ai. You are common. You and your kind are useful only to do work that is too bloody and dirty for your betters. You samurai tried to rise above your station. In my lifetime I have seen first Domei, then Sogamori, and now your brother presume to give orders to the Emperor himself. I am not betraying my country, because this ceased to be my country when the samurai took control of it.

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