Shike – Day 118 of 306

“What has he decided, Bourkina?”

The round-faced woman shrugged. “I don’t know. He whispers his secrets to you ladies under the quilts, if he tells them to anyone at all.”

“He will have himself proclaimed Great Khan tonight,” said Seremeter. “I’m sure of it.”

“I’m not,” said Taniko. “If he makes himself Great Khan, he may wreck the empire of the Mongols. If he doesn’t, whoever becomes Great Khan may destroy him. If I were he, I could never decide what to do.”

“His enemies are many and powerful,” said Seremeter. “What will happen to us if there is a war and he is defeated?”

“You know what will happen,” said Taniko, thinking that if such were the case, Horigawa would have his vengeance on her after all.

“It’s better not to talk about it, ladies,” said Bourkina briskly. “Let’s ride back to the city.”

Taniko and Seremeter sat on silk cushions in a gallery overlooking the great hall Kublai Khan had built for the kuriltai. The hall smelled of newly cut wood and fresh paint. There were hundreds of Kublai’s women in the gallery, including the great lady herself, the principal wife, Jamui Khatun, a serene women who looked a good deal like Bourkina.

Hotai and several other young Mongol women sat near Taniko and Seremeter. Hotai sighed loudly. “These are strange times indeed, when we must share our places with a cannibal and fire worshipper.”

Taniko, who as a good Buddhist had never eaten meat, could not understand how the story had started that her people were cannibals. She wondered what Seremeter’s reply to Hotai would be. To disparage Hotai’s Mongol background would hardly be politic, especially at a

“You know as much about the customs of our lands as a lump of camel dung knows about the sea,” said Seremeter, tossing her head.

Poetry, thought Taniko, sheer poetry. I wish I could teach Seremeter to write tanka. But first she’d have to learn our language.

She turned her attention to the main floor of the hall. In a space as vast as a public square, men from three-quarters of the world were gathered—Kin, Cathayans, Tibetans, Manchus, Koreans, Annamese, Kampuchans, Burmese, Nan Chaoans, Turks, Persians, Arabs, Alans, Kipchaks, Armenians, Bulgars, Russians—, and men of many other nations whose names Taniko had not yet learned. Lording it over all were those of the many northern nomad tribes who now called themselves Mongols—dark Kiraits, broad-shouldered Merkits, talkative Uighurs, tall Kankalis, silent, secretive Reindeer People. The most splendid, in furs, silks and jewels looted from half the kingdoms of the earth, were those whose grandfathers had been Yakka Mongols, the tribe of Genghis Khan himself.

On a raised dais under a cloth of gold canopy was the place, still empty at this hour, where Kublai Khan and his chief advisers would sit. They were meeting elsewhere, Taniko knew, deciding what this gathering of leaders of the Mongol empire should proclaim as its collective decision.

Besides those who had a vote in the kuriltai, there were many who came simply to be present and to observe. There were lamas in red; black-robed monks from the lands of the Franks, the white-skinned people to the west; men with turbans and long white beards from the Moslem countries where Seremeter’s people lived. There was even a sohei from the lands of the Franks—a warrior-monk with yellow hair who wore a white cross-shaped crest on one shoulder of his black cloak. He reminded her a little bit of Jebu.

The kuriltai was the knot that held together the Mongol empire. At the kuriltai all members of the house of Genghis Khan, all Mongol nobles and generals, all the princes of the kingdoms that had submitted to the Mongols came together in council to vote on great decisions. At a kuriltai, Genghis Khan had proclaimed one government for the warring tribes of Mongolia with himself as its head. At kuriltais his successors, Ogodai, Kuyuk and Mangu had each in turn been elected Great Khan. At a kuriltai the Great Khan Mangu had reopened the war against China that had ended in his untimely death.

Now Kublai Khan, Mangu’s younger brother, had called a kuriltai to choose the next Great Khan. Whoever was elected would lay claim to all the lands from Korea in the east to Russia in the west, from Siberia in the north to Burma and Annam in the south. He would rule not only the largest empire in the world, but the largest empire mankind had ever known.

There was a blast of horns and a rumble of drums. Hangings parted, and Kublai Khan, surrounded by noyans, orkhons, and tarkhans, entered the hall. The assembled chieftains, most of whom had been seated on the carpeted floor eating, drinking and talking, rose to their feet.

When Kublai opened his mouth to speak, a total silence fell. “Ten months have passed since my brother, the Great Khan that was, died of his illness at Hochwan.” His voice, deep and powerful, carried to the furthest parts of the hall. “Thirty days ago the summons went out to this kuriltai. Four days we have been meeting here. There has been time for all to come to this kuriltai. The Ancestor said, ‘All they who do not come to a kuriltai shall be as arrows shot into reeds. They shall disappear.’ So let it be with all those who have not come to this kuriltai.”

Though Taniko had by now spent many hours with Kublai Khan, the sight and sound of him appearing before this group of powerful men was breathtaking. He wore robes heavy with gold embroidery, and his shoulders were draped with collars of gold and jade and precious stones; on his head was the jewelled headdress of a Chinese Emperor, making him look even taller than he was. But he would have dominated this gathering physically even without such a display of magnificence. He was a huge man, towering over the Mongol commanders who stood at his side. He was heavy as well, with the build of a wrestler. His broad face was swarthy, his eyes so black they seemed to draw light from the room—light radiated again by his glittering robes.

“I demand the right to speak.”

All heads turned to look for the source of this new voice. Taniko saw a man pushing his way forward, striding from the centre of the hall towards Kublai’s dais.

“I am of the Yakka Mongols, O Khan, and I have served the Golden Family all my life.” The descendants of Genghis Khan were known as the Golden Family.

An orkhon beside Kublai called, “Be silent now, Torluk, if you want to be able to speak tomorrow.”

“This is no true kuriltai if we cannot make our voices heard,” the grey-haired Mongol answered back. Taniko heard a murmur of agreement from other Mongols in the crowd.

Kublai Khan raised a large hand. “The tuman-bashi Torluk is quite right. All men may speak freely at the kuriltai. Torluk’s years of service are three times my own, and his words deserve our respect.”

Torluk walked up to the dais with the rolling gait of a Mongol horseman and turned so that all in the room could hear and see him.

“I urge the Khan to call an end to this kuriltai at once. This meeting has no right to choose the next Great Khan.”

Now there was a shocked murmur. Taniko could see those who did not understand Chinese asking others near them what the tuman-bashi Torluk had said. The orkhon beside Kublai who had spoken before cried, “Treason!”

Taniko felt a chill of fear. Torluk clearly spoke with the voice of those who were in league against Kublai. Everyone in the hall was watching the khan now, waiting to see how he would meet this challenge.

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