Shike – Day 258 of 306

It suddenly occurred to Moko to wonder whether the shiké had ever known a moment of unalloyed joy. Moko found himself aware of an emotion that made him acutely uncomfortable. It was disgraceful for one so humble to feel pity for one so exalted.

Chapter Ten

Hundreds of banners of the Shima family bearing the clan crest fluttered in the breeze from the great ocean all along the seemingly endless line of samurai snaking down the Tokaido. In the centre of the procession a silver palanquin bobbed, preceded and followed by officers on horseback with golden-horned helmets that gleamed in the light of the setting sun. A cousin of Regent Munetoki was travelling to Heian Kyo to occupy the Rokuhara and represent the Bakufu at the capital.

Three men on foot, travel boxes strapped to their backs, stood on the landward side of the road to let the parade pass. Two were bearded Zinja monks in long grey robes, the third a short, cross-eyed man in a handsome brocaded scarlet jacket and trousers. Behind the travellers a broad plain divided into rice paddies stretched to the distant mountains. In the nearest paddy a row of peasants standing in water up to their shins transplanted rice sprouts to the beds where they would grow to maturity. Ignoring the gorgeous procession of the Shogunal deputy, they were racing against the setting of the sun to get all thei plants into the earth before dark. In just the way that the foot soldiers tramped down the road to the beat of drums, the backs and conical straw hats of the peasants rose and fell in unison as they pushed the tender roots of the rice plants into the mud to the age-old chant of “Yattoko totcha, untoku na!”

“Those peasants are lucky not to get a whipping or worse for failing to bow to that great lord,” Moko whispered.

“The great lord ought to get down from his palanquin and bow to them,” said Taitaro. “There is more nobility in planting a rice field than there is in leading an army. The lives of these peasants are tales of misery that have never been written. They and their children eat wild roots so they can pay their tax of rice. Millions of them labour to feed the thousands of warriors and rulers who consider themselves so important. The peasants are truly the nation.”

He pointed to a high, forest-covered hill some distance up the road, overlooking the sea. “With this army in the way we will get no further before sunset. That hill seems as good a place as any to spend the night.”

Jebu was in no hurry to get to Kamakura. He was sure he was more serene now than he would be when they arrived. By the time they had climbed the hill and enjoyed the soup and rice he cooked over a small fire, the rumble of the army had faded into the south, the peasants had gone home from the rice paddies, the stars were appearing over the boundless ocean to the east. The seaward side of the hill on which they were sitting was a sheer cliff, dropping straight down to a jumble of spray-wet rocks. The rhythmic boom of the waves was soothing, reminding Jebu of the peasants’ chant.

The lines in Taitaro’s face were deeply etched by firelight. “Jebu,” he said, “tonight I want to tell you and our good Moko here a few things. Final things. Please bring forth the Jewel of Life and Death.”

The same sense of foreboding Jebu had felt three days ago, on the morning of his initiation, gripped him now. Several times Taitaro had seemed to be hinting at some serious illness. Yet, aside from looking very old—Jebu was not sure of Taitaro’s age—the abbot seemed in good health. Jebu took the Jewel out of a hidden pocket in the sleeve of his new robe and held it up.

“Let your mind drift and your body relax,” said Taitaro. “Let sleep overtake you. The Jewel is an instrument like a mirror, that reflects another world. In that world dwells a kami, a great spirit. In contemplating the Jewel, one can at times become one with this kami.”

I felt I had become one with a kami, thought Jebu, when I stood on that cliff in Oshu, protecting Yukio from the Mongols. Now the Tree of Life appeared in the tracery on the Jewel, expanded, entered into his eyes and seemed to be growing in his mind. A complex tracery of drooping branches formed a structure around him.

“Listen to me, Jebu, but do not hear me,” the old abbot went on in a soft voice that seemed to grow out of the muffled roar of the breakers. “Sink into the world of the Jewel. Go where I send you.”

Jebu saw Moko’s wide eyes, staring through the branches of the Tree, full of concern, the crossed brown pupils reflecting the fire. Then Moko was transformed into a fur-clad giant with green eyes and a red moustache that drooped past the corners of his mouth. Jebu had seen this giant once before in a vision and had not known him. Now he knew that the red hair and light-coloured eyes were the stamp of the Borchikoun, that strain of Mongol men and women from which his own father, Jemuga the Cunning, had sprung. And this was Genghis Khan, founder of the Golden Family, grandfather of Kublai Khan, he who had sent Arghun in pursuit of his father and himself. The giant smiled his merciless smile and extended his vast arm. They were on top of a mountain, standing with their feet buried in snow. Below, in all directions, Jebu could see the countries and people of the world as clearly as if he were on a high hill looking down at peasants in a rice paddy.

As he had seen once before, armies of men on horseback, doll-sized from this height, galloped over the Great Wall and rampaged through China, burning cities, slaughtering the masses of troops sent against them. As the horsemen completed their conquests they seemed to change. Their arms and armour became more elegant, and they were joined by hundreds of thousands of Chinese infantrymen, as well as contingents of special troops with fire-spitting hua pao, great siege machines, and elephants. The conquering army was now many times larger than it had been. The troops piled up at the edge of the sea. They boarded Chinese junks and crossed the barrier of water to the Sunrise Land. Jebu wept and cried out helplessly as he saw the samurai overwhelmed, first Kyushu taken, then the Home Provinces. The Mongols burned Heian Kyo, put all its people to the sword, and drove the Emperor into the east, just as the Takashi and their Emperor had once been driven into the west. The last stand was at Kamakura. Jebu watched in agony as Taniko herself stood on the battlements of the Shogun’s castle, shooting arrows into the waves of invaders. When it was hopeless she turned and threw herself into the flames consuming the stronghold.

The leader of the conquerors, Arghun Baghadur, turned his craggy face towards the mountain where Jebu stood and held out his arms, offering up his triumph. Looking up, Jebu saw that the giant beside him was now his old master, Kublai Khan.

Now the defeated people of the Sunrise Land began to work for the Mongols. New cities appeared on the ruins of the old. Ships were built, sailing ships after the Chinese manner but bigger and more seaworthy. They set out from the ports of the Sunrise Land, and from China and Korea. With hua pao mounted on their decks, they were able to demolish enemy fleets from a great distance, just as Mongol horsemen destroyed enemy armies with clouds of arrows. The huge new vessels transported the Great Khan’s armies to the shores of the islands and jungle kingdoms to the south. Where mountains or jungles impeded the onslaught of the Mongol cavalry, the Great Khan sent forth troops adept at other styles of fighting, experienced with other kinds of terrain. A new generation of samurai now fought under the banners of the Great Khan, devastating his enemies. The flotillas turned westwards, attacking and conquering lands and peoples of whom Jebu had only vaguely heard.

“My cavalry of the sea,” Kublai Khan rumbled.

Wonderingly, Jebu turned and looked in the Four Directions. The world was no longer a patchwork of countries. Ruled by the Great Khan, the Central Kingdom was now the centre of an empire stretching from ocean to ocean, and the oceans were patrolled by the Great Khan’s ships.

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