Shike – Day 292 of 306

Red Tiger was due south. Sakagura ordered Shimmering Light’s steersmen and rowers to point the ship’s bow obliquely into the great waves rolling from south-west to north-east across the bay to keep the galley from being swamped. Jebu’s robe was already soaked and plastered to his skin by rain and spray. Pitching violently, Shimmering Light made painful progress across the bows of the long line of enemy junks, subjected to derisive laughter, insults and curses in Mongol, Chinese and Korean. There was no garbage throwing, probably because after two months there was little left on the junks to throw. Jebu counted on the Mongol rule of the sacredness of an ambassador to protect them from violence.

Red Tiger’s scarlet-painted hull spread before and above them like a wall. Mongol warriors jumped into a longboat moored in the flagship’s lee and rowed to Shimmering Light. Jebu felt a hollow of fear in his stomach. He was in the heart of the invasion fleet, and now the enemy was boarding his ship. Whatever had made him think such a mad plan would work? Crewmen dropped nets to the longboat and helped two Mongol officers over the rails. Their polished steel helmets were ornamented with silver and their exquisitely wrought chain-mail armour was covered by surcoats of light crimson silk. Their fur-clad grandfathers, thought Jebu, would hardly have recognized them. They asked Jebu who he was, who the nobles were, and what they wanted.

Jebu gave his name, thinking it would pique Arghun’s interest, an explained that he was simply an interpreter. He listed titles and offices for the pretended ambassadors.

“As for why we have come,” he said, “we have reason to think a certain distinguished prisoner is aboard Red Tiger. If so, the ambassadors are most anxious to discuss the possibility of his release. They are also willing to open talks with the tarkhan on the subject of the war in general, if he is interested.” The two Mongol officers looked astonished and pleased. Silently they searched Jebu for weapons, running their hands over his wet robe, which he had emptied of its usual deadly contents before coming on this mission. They went among the Former Zinja, fingers probing their silks and brocade. They hefted parasols to make sure there were no sword blades concealed in the handles. The men in Court costume shrank away from the Mongols with little cries of alarm. The contempt on the faces of the Mongol officers deepened with every passing moment. They searched the bridge and the cabin below it. They went below deck and carefully examined the rowers, who sat slumped wearily over their oars. Finally they returned to their longboat.

The enormous prow of Red Tiger rose high into the air with each wave as if it were about to fall upon the smaller gozabune and crush it. High above him, at the rail of Red Tiger, Jebu saw the familiar bearded face of Arghun looking down at him. The flesh between his shoulder blades crawled at the sight of his oldest enemy.

Possibly, Jebu thought, Arghun and his officers were not at all deceived by this spectacle and intended to massacre the lot of them. Even if they did get safely aboard Red Tiger, he had best prepare his mind for the prospect of seeing Sametono’s mutilated body or severed head.

At last there was a hail from Red Tiger and an order to come alongside. The Mongol flagship’s crewmen lowered a scaffold, and at a gesture from Jebu a group of the costumed Former Zinja crowded aboard and were hauled up to Red Tiger’s top deck. Listening to their wails of feigned terror, Jebu smiled grimly, thinking how easily these Former Zinja could have scaled the side of the ship. He waited until the last few of his men were on the scaffold before stepping on himself. He looked around for Moko and realized that the little man was already up above. Jebu had not meant him to go aboard Red Tiger yet, if at all.

He turned to Sakagura. “You stay here. You can lead the oarsmen up when I give the signal.” Sakagura was obviously disappointed, but pressed his lips together and said nothing.

The scaffold lifted Jebu to the deck amidships. The ship’s many masts rose from the deck like a row of temple columns. The after-cabin was like a small Chinese palace. A Mongol officer, his armour glittering with silver ornaments, motioned Jebu to go forward. Jebu looked to the south. The sky was black as night, and the southern arm of the harbour had vanished into the blackness. In front of the foremast a wooden shed occupied most of the bow end of the deck. It was decorated with wind-whipped pennants, their bright colours darkened by rain. In the shed, relaxed in a big cane chair draped with scarlet silk, sat Arghun Baghadur. A group of officers—Mongol tuman-bashis, Chinese generals and Korean admirals—hovered around him. The rear portion of Red Tiger’s huge hua pao was protected from the rain by the shed. The stink of the black powder assailed the nostrils and the smoke burnt the eyes, but Arghun did not seem to mind. He stood so that two of his guards could turn his chair to face the delegation from the Sunrise Land, and he signalled the Chinese hua pao crew to suspend the barrage.

Unlike the other Mongols, Arghun still wore the plain, battered leather and steel armour that had served him on the edge of the Gobi Desert long ago. His once-red beard had turned iron-grey, just as Jebu’s had turned white. I’m fifty-four, thought Jebu, so he must be over seventy. Yet Arghun seemed ageless, his body vigorous and powerful even sitting at ease, his face hard, his blue eyes as always empty of feeling.

“You are far more difficult to kill than your father was,” were Arghun’s first words. “Perhaps your Order does have magical powers. I was sure I killed you in Oshu. Then came word that you were still alive and teaching your Zinja tricks to a new generation of samurai. You have inherited Mongol endurance, son of Jamuga.”

Jebu bowed courteously but did not answer. His eyes searched the shed piled with ropes, racks of spears, bows and arrows and casks of the black powder for the hua pao.

“Have you come looking for the boy?” Arghun asked. “There he is.” He pointed out of the shed in the direction of the foremast. Sametono was hanging from a rope attached to the yard of the forward-raked mast, swinging in the wind, lashed by the rain. Jebu’s men gasped in horror, as much at the insult to a near-sacred personage as to the injury done him. Jebu stepped out of the shed for a closer look. Sametono’s eyes were open and they looked down at Jebu with suffering and shame. He had been stripped of his armour and was wearing a torn crimson under robe. On his head his captors had left a white hashimaki, a headband with a red solar disk, the emblem of the Bakufu. The rope holding him had been passed under his shoulders and around his chest. It was run over the yard and securely tied to the bottom of the foremast. Jebu was torn between relief that Sametono was alive and apparently unhurt and anguish at the pain and indignity he was forced to endure.

“Please observe that I have archers stationed all around the deck,” said Arghun. “At a signal from me, that boy’s body will be filled with arrows.” A semi-circle of warriors stood around the base of the mast, their arrows nocked and trained on Sametono. “Now then,” Arghun went on, “have you come to surrender?”

“We have come to ask what you want in return for the release of the boy.” Jebu wanted to have done with the masquerade and strike as soon as possible, but he needed something to distract Arghun’s men. If only the storm would get more violent.

Arghun laughed, a harsh, brassy sound. “Is he really your Shogun, then? I wasn’t sure, and he denied it, of course, but I know this sword.” He patted the silver-dragon hilt of Higekiri, which lay across his lap. “I kept him alive in the hope that he would be of value to us. Son of Jamuga, do you speak for these officials, or am I to negotiate with them directly?” He gestured contemptuously at the men in drenched silken finery, who backed away from him and spread out over the deck, moving in a planned pattern, as he glared at him. The officers around Arghun laughed at them.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. (To tell the truth I don't even really care if you give me your email or not.)