Shike – Day 96 of 306

Kweilin had hua pao of its own, which Yukio ordered positioned on the city’s towers, to be manned night and day by shifts of Chinese. Pots of oil were set up along the walls, to be ignited and dropped on the wooden Mongol machines. Within the city people gathered barrels of water on every street, buckets of water in every house. Fire was the worst enemy of a city under siege.

They were as ready as they could be, but there were certain aspects of their situation that mystified Yukio and Jebu.

Jebu said, “We know nothing of siege warfare, we know nothing of these fire-throwing tubes. We are ignorant of Mongol tactics. A wise man would have placed us under a Chinese general, so that we could learn and be used according to our skills. Instead we have been put in command of this city. The Chinese officers here resent us. Is Chia Ssu-tao a fool, that he would risk a city in this fashion?”

Yukio shrugged. “Perhaps he was overly impressed by us. People are often respectful of the strange, and contemptuous of the familiar.”

“Or perhaps he wants this city to fall,” Jebu said.

“But he is of the war party at the Sung Emperor’s Court. It was he who provoked the Mongols by breaking a treaty with them.”

Jebu nodded. “What if the Mongols desired that provocation?”

Yukio’s large eyes opened wider. “Are you suggesting that Chia Ssu-tao is a traitor? And that we are being sacrificed to his designs?”

“All we can do now is play the game out,” said Jebu. “We are learning more quickly than those who sent us here may have expected us to.”

At the time of their meeting with Chia Ssu-tao, it had seemed like the beginning of days of good fortune. For ten days, longer than it took to cross the China Sea, they had sweltered aboard their galleys in the almost tropical heat of the southern Chinese capital, Linan. Chinese troops guarded them. Yukio gave a port official a flowery letter to the Chinese Son of Heaven, offering the services of one thousand samurai, to be used as His Imperial Majesty saw fit. The letter had been written at the Teak Blossom Temple with the help of the Zen monk Eisen. After a time Yukio began to despair of receiving an answer. They would have to choose between rotting aboard these ships, setting sail for some other land where they might be more welcome, or breaking out, to become outlaws in the Chinese countryside.

Then a reply came. A huge red and gold palanquin borne by a dozen men and accompanied by a squad of clanking Chinese soldiers was set on the stone quay beside Yukio’s ship. A Chinese officer invited Yukio and three of his officers to ride in the palanquin to the palace of His Celestial Majesty’s chief councillor, the venerable Chia Ssu-tao. Yukio gaped at the palanquin.

“Back home, only the Emperor would be allowed to ride in a conveyance like that.”

“Things are different here,” Jebu said. “Get your best kimono on and let us visit this venerable councillor.”

Yukio, Jebu and two other samurai leaders rode in the palanquin. Linan seemed to them a city of giants. Its many-storeyed buildings towered over innumerable canals and elaborate stone bridges. Each city block seemed to hold as many people as all of Heian Kyo. The Zinja were taught to memorize landmarks, but before they had gone very far, Jebu realized he was completely lost. It was all too strange.

Chia Ssu-tao’s residence did not cover as much ground as the Rokuhara or the Imperial Palace back in Heian Kyo. Land was obviously precious in Linan. But the buildings were bigger and heavier than those of the Sunrise Land. Chia Ssu-tao’s palace was surrounded by vermilion columns resting on the heads of painted stone dragons. He was guarded by huge soldiers in silver armour. The halls of his palace were covered with heavy carpet, so that not a footfall could be heard.

Chia Ssu-tao received them seated on a throne painted with gold leaf. He was a man in his early forties, tall and lean with a large nose, a pointed chin and a small mouth. He wore a round hat topped by a ball of red coral, the mark of his high office. His welcoming smile was cold.

“Your command of Chinese is good,” he began, “but you write in the style of over three hundred years ago.”

Yukio blushed. “Forgive my blundering efforts, Your Excellency. There has been so little contact between your land and mine that we have not kept up with the progress in your manner of writing.”

Chia Ssu-tao nodded. “The last official embassy from your Emperor visited our Son of Heaven near the end of the T’ang dynasty. I presume you have heard of the T’ang dynasty?”

“Of course, Your Excellency,” said Yukio. “Our system of government is modelled on that of the T’ang. Our capital, Heian Kyo, is a copy of the T’ang capital of Changan.”

“Your people have a gift for aping their betters,” said Chia Ssu-tao with a patronizing smile. “However, it is time you visited us again to acquire a few new skills. The Central Kingdom is always pleased to aid the struggles of barbarian nations towards higher civilization.”

Yukio was good at masking his feelings, but Jebu knew from the tightness around his mouth that he was furious. “It is to help protect your great civilization against the barbarian invaders that we have come here, Your Excellency.”

Chia Ssu-tao nodded. “You show the virtue of filial piety, since our civilization is the father of yours. I shall ask the Ministry of War what role can be found for you. We will provide you and your men with quarters. By the way, do you hold cricket fights in your country?”

“Our children keep crickets in cages as pets, Your Excellency.”

“Indeed your people are backward if they consider such a sublime sport a pastime for children. Here we pit crickets against each other. They strive together like tiny dragons. We place bets on the outcome. You must attend my next evening of cricket fights.”

In the days that followed, Chia Ssu-tao introduced Jebu, Yukio and other high-ranking samurai to the aristocracy of Linan. They even had a brief audience with Sung Emperor Li-tsung, a stout, motionless figure seated on a jade throne. They attended several cricket fights, an obsession with Chia Ssu-tao that preoccupied him more than his duties as the Son of Heaven’s chief councillor. On all these occasions Jebu felt that they were being paraded as curiosities, not taken seriously as fighting men.

So it was a surprise when, after a short stay in Linan, Yukio was given an Imperial appointment as military commander of Kweilin, the chief city of Kwangsi province on the western border of the Sung empire. The Mongols had invaded the independent kingdom of Nan Chao and taken its capital, Tali. Kweilin was their next likely target. If Kweilin fell, the nomads could move on to Changsha, the strongest city in the central region. The fall of Changsha would open the way to Linan. The Chinese rulers had given Yukio a crucial post.

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