Shike – Day 121 of 306

“What about the siege of Wuchow?”

“That’s over. It’s of no importance now.”

“What about Kweilin? Has Kweilin fallen?”

Bourkina smiled. “Ah, that’s where the men from your country are, isn’t it? It will take awhile for a messenger from the tarkhan Arghun to reach us, but at last report Kweilin still held out. There is no more war with China, lady. We have a more important question to settle now, one that will decide the future of Mongolia and China and the whole world. To say nothing of your future and my future. Who is to be the next Great Khan?”

Chapter Sixteen

Now Taniko sat in the gallery of the great hall at Shangtu with the wives and consorts of Kublai Khan, watching as he met an open challenge from those opposing his election.

Kublai seated himself on an ivory chair that had once belonged to the Kin Emperor who reigned in Yenking. His manner was casual, rather than ceremonious, as if he were making himself comfortable in his yurt with a few close friends.

In the same easy manner he said, “You mystify me, Torluk. It has been ten months since my elder brother was taken from us by the will of Eternal Heaven. With great tasks to perform, we stand like tethered horses. How long would you have us wait?”

Torluk, a commander of ten thousand troops, had a voice that carried through the hall. “This is the first time a kuriltai has not been held in our homeland, by the waters of the Kerulan,” he said. “All members of the Golden Family have been present. Why does this kuriltai meet in a pleasure city in a conquered land? And why are there so few of the blood kin of Genghis Khan here? Where is Birkai, khan of the Golden Horde of Russia? Where is Kiadu, Ogodai’s grandson? Where is your brother Hulagu? Where is Arghun Baghadur, the great general of the south-west China campaign? Why are you counselled only by your own officers of the Left Wing, Bayan and Uriangkatai, and by foreigners—Chinese, Turks, Tibetan lamas? Can these men of small account rightfully elect a Great Khan? Will the Mongol nation accept their choice? Above all, where is your brother Arik Buka? It is out Mongol custom that the youngest son inherits. Arik Buka is the youngest son of Tuli, ruler of the homeland, Keeper of the Hearth. Let him call a proper kuriltai in the homeland, O Khan, and you will be keeping faith with the Ancestor.”

One of Kublai’s generals shouted, “The voice is yours, Torluk, but the words are those of the khan’s enemies.”

“Peace,” said Kublai. “Many will attack what we do here for the reasons Torluk gives. It is good that we have this chance to answer.”

Kublai stood up. Most of the Mongols were big men, but he was one of the biggest among them. Taniko had heard that his grandfather, Genghis Khan, was also very tall.

“As to the place of the kuriltai. We are north of the Great Wall here. This country has always been part of the homeland. We were fighting in the south when the news of my brother’s death came. From here we can return to that fighting more quickly than if we go all the way to Karakorum. Let any who would have a voice in ruling the empire come here, where we are building the empire.”

His deep voice, calm at first, grew fiercer as he spoke. When he paused, the assembled leaders cheered until he raised his hand for silence.

“As for those who are not here. The khans of Russia have not attended a kuriltai since my grandfather’s day. They will have to support whomever we choose. My brother Hulagu is just as far away, fighting in the lands of the Arabs. The Mameluks of Egypt press upon him, and he cannot disengage without the loss of everything we have gained in thirty years of fighting there. Hulagu has sent me permission to cast his vote as I see fit. As for Kaidu, Arghun and my brother Arik Buka, perhaps you can tell me where they are, Torluk. Why have the elderly dung eaters who advise my young brother persuaded him to remain in his yurt by the Gobi when he could be my guest, enjoying the delights of Shangtu?”

There was laughter, which died away when Torluk replied, “Let me remind the khan that those who dwell in yurts have always triumphed over those who live in palaces. And this is no true kuriltai while your brother remains in Karakorum.”

A young tarkhan beside Kublai, whom Taniko recognized as Bayan, stepped forward and drew his sabre. Taniko held her breath. In the Sacred Islands when a warrior bared his sword he could not honourably sheathe it again until he had drawn blood. But Kublai rumbled softly to Bayan, who put his sword away and sat down.

“I am at home in both yurts and palaces, Torluk,” said Kublai with a smile. “But I advise you now to have a care.” The smile fell away and the broad, dark face was as stern as the visage of a carved god. “You come close to saying that you will not accept the judgment of this kuriltai. That would be treason.”

Torluk remained on his feet but stood silent, while Kublai stared him down. At last he turned away from the khan and pushed his way through the crowd. Kublai began speaking quietly to the councillors around him. Gradually the huge room filled with the roar of many different conversations.

What a strange way to conduct the business of an empire, Taniko thought. She had never been to a public gathering in which men talked all at once to one another and ignored their leaders, while their leaders ignored them and also talked among themselves. She tried to imagine what it would be like if the Son of Heaven were elected at a meeting conducted by the great men of the realm. It was unthinkable, sacrilegious. But the Emperor of the Sacred Islands, of course, was a god.

Now the tarkhan Bayan was calling for silence. He made a long speech in Mongolian. Taniko had lived with Mongols long enough to understand the drift of it. He called upon the kuriltai to choose Kublai as Great Khan. He gave many reasons. The reasons were all obvious. They added up to one reason: that there was no one else in the world who could govern, maintain and expand the huge Mongol empire. She wondered why Arik Buka and those around him couldn’t see that.

The chieftains responded to Bayan’s speech with a roar of assent. Now Kublai was protesting that he was not worthy. He held out his hands in a gesture rejecting the honour offered him. Bourkina had told Taniko exactly how this part would go, so that even though she understood little Mongolian, she could follow what was happening. Shouts went up from the crowd. They were demanding that he accept the Great Khanate. How rude and strange, subjects shouting orders at the man they had chosen to be their ruler. No more rude and strange, though, than the very idea that people could choose their ruler.

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