Shike – Day 125 of 306

Taniko wondered if that was how it was for Kublai this night when he was proclaimed Great Khan.

Kublai walked over to the sculptured swan in the centre of the room and beckoned her. He held a goblet under the swan’s beak and struck a bell with a small hammer. After a moment a pale stream of wine spurted from the beak and splashed into the cup. Taniko laughed as he handed the cup to her and tapped the bell for another goblet for himself.

“It’s almost like magic, Your Majesty.”

“No need to have servants running in and out, disturbing us. In his palace at Karakorum my brother Mangu had a tree of silver with four serpents twining up its trunk. From the mouth of each serpent came a different kind of wine, and at the top was a silver angel that blew a trumpet whenever the Great Khan drank.”

Kublai reached out a hand to stroke the silver swan. “Drinking has destroyed many members of my family. Every one of the four sons of Genghis Khan died an early death. My grandfather died at seventy-two, but none of his sons reached the age of fifty. The eldest, Juchi, died before Genghis Khan did, a gout-crippled wreck, in Russia. My father, the youngest of the four, was the next to die, at forty. He was addicted to wine. Chagatai and Ogodai died a year apart. Ogodai was only forty-six. I never saw either of those uncles sober. Once one of Uncle Ogodai’s ministers showed him an iron jug that was corroded because wine had been standing in it. Ogodai promised to drink only half as often as he had been. Then he had a goblet made for himself that was twice as big. My cousin Kuyuk, the third Great Khan, was a drunk. He was already a dying man when the kuriltai elected him. He reigned less than two years.”

Taniko sat on a cushion, looking down at the golden wine in the silver goblet. “But a man getting drunk is nothing to worry about. Men need to get drunk once in a while to relax.”

“That was so among my people before the victories of Genghis Khan. That still seems to be so for my brothers and me. We have escaped the family curse. But in the old days Mongols drank kumiss, fermented mare’s milk, which is not as strong as wine. They drank when they could spare the time, which was not very often. After the wars of Genghis Khan, wine went through our people like a plague. We had nothing else to do. We had servants or slaves to do our work for us. We were forbidden by the Yassa to fight among ourselves. We could not spend all our time with the women. What is left, if you can’t read or write, if you are more ignorant of civilization than the poorest Chinese dung carrier? Water flows downhill, and men prefer to do what is easy. The easiest thing to do is drink. It makes life seem interesting. Now we drink from sleep to sleep. We poison ourselves by the hundreds and thousands, we lords of the earth.”

Again Taniko looked down at the wine. Astonishing, that it should be the death of so many of these hardy Mongols, that they should be, in their way, such vulnerable creatures. Like wild flowers that withered instantly when plucked and brought indoors.

“There are other reasons why many of us drink too much,” Kublai went on. “We’ve seen too much. Often, when we take a city, we kill all its people. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, sometimes.”

Taniko looked at him in horror. “I’ve heard that. I always thought it was just one more of the lies your enemies spread about you.”

He looked at her sombrely. “No. It’s true. I myself haven’t done it, and I don’t intend to do it. It’s stupid and wasteful. We did it more often in my grandfather’s day. We saw no use in cities then. When my grandfather sacked Yenking, the capital of northern China, it burned for more than a month. I was born a year after the destruction of Yenking, and one day I will build my own capital there.

“We felt no regret for the thousands of lives we ended, but neither did we enjoy the killing. It was simply work that we did, as one would butcher sheep, because it seemed necessary. Usually victims would be divided up among the warriors. Give each man five people to kill, and an army of twenty thousand can exterminate the population of a city in moments.”

A city just the size of Heian Kyo, Taniko thought.

“We killed conquered people because we didn’t know what else to do with them,” Kublai said. “Then, too, the policy of annihilating whole cities struck such terror in our enemies that they often gave up in despair. Of course, we had to destroy the cities of those who slew our ambassadors. In Khwaresmia, where they murdered our emissaries, my father directed the storming of Mery from a golden throne set up on the plain before the city. When Mery fell, he ordered all the people brought before him. They were divided into three herds, men, women and children. People submit to death more easily when families are broken up. They were told to lie down, and my father’s troops beheaded every one, to make sure that none might survive by feigning death. The heads of men, women and children were stacked in separate pyramids. Even the dogs and cats were killed. Then the city was burned to the ground and stones pulled down. A few thousand people survived by hiding in the cellars. Later my father sent some of his horde back to hunt them down. In the end there was no life left in that place. So it went with many other cities of Khwaresmia and Persia.

“My father did not escape unscathed, however. He used to have nightmares about Mery and other places where he had ordered massacres. Many of the men who took part in the killings suffered from it later.”

Taniko drained her goblet. Her hands were trembling. Did he actually expect her to feel sorry for his father and those like him? The picture of her baby being swept over the waterfall at Daidoji forced its way into her mind.

“Why the children?”

Kublai took the goblet from her cold hand. She made an effort to get up and pour wine for herself, but he waved her down. As he handed her the full goblet, she looked up at him and thought he seemed like an enormous tree.

He said, “If we let the children live they would only have starved to death.”

She laughed shakily. “So you killed them out of your overflowing compassion.”

Kublai looked irritated. “I have already told you that I never ordered such massacres. Besides, in every country it is the law that when one person commits a misdeed, the whole family is punished, including the children. Is that not so, even in your land?”

“Yes.” She recalled the many questions he had asked her about her country on other occasions, and fear took hold of her. “Why do you go on and on? How many lands must your people conquer before you say you have enough?”

“Our ambitions change. My grandfather did not set out to conquer the world. He wanted to take horses and cattle and women from his enemies and force them to submit to him, to protect himself. But each time he won a war, he made new enemies, who feared his increasing strength. So he had no choice but to go on and fight again. By the end of his life, though, we had won so many wars that we began to feel we had a special destiny. The Ancestor often said, ‘There is only one sun in the sky and one Power in Eternal Heaven. Only one Great Khan should be upon the earth.’ He and those who succeeded him sent messages to rulers all over the world demanding that they come to Karakorum with tribute and offer their submission to the Great Khan.

“Grandfather in his day dreamed of reshaping the world so that all of it would be one enormous pasture. Even so, he didn’t talk, as Arik Buka and his councillors do, of preserving the old ways. He never cared whether a way of doing things was old or new. He cared only for what would make the Mongols great and powerful.

“In the end my Ancestor realized that destroying all cities and killing all their people, reducing farms and manors to wastelands, these things would not keep the Mongols powerful. He saw that there is a power that comes from the cities, from knowledge and wealth, that could be greater than the war-making strength and skills of the Mongols.

“Now the cities are a part of our empire, with the knowledge they hold. When my grandfather’s generation took cities, they were like men who have starved a long time and are suddenly given meat rich with grease. They could not digest it. It made them ill.

“I and my generation are Mongol enough to be able to conquer cities, but civilized enough to know what do with our conquests. To be a nomad is not to be uncivilized, after all. I have read the history of China and its endless wars with my people, and I know what we Mongols are. For as long as men can remember, we have lived on the edge of the civilized world, hounded and harried by its armies, learning from it, sometimes stealing from it, an unrecognized part of it. We did not spring full-grown from the steppes. It was civilized men who first learned to ride horses and camels, to herd cattle and sheep. They developed the law, and it is law that binds our nomad world together like the leather thongs that hold together the frame of a yurt. They invented warfare. Civilized men moved slowly northwards from the fertile plains of China, building their houses, raising their crops and their animals. They came to a land not so fertile, the land where I was born, poor for crops but good for their herds. They cut themselves loose from the land and began to follow their herds with the seasons. They taught the hunters and forest people who already lived in the north, and they intermarried with them. That is how my people came to be.

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