Shike – Day 126 of 306

“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.

“When the Emperors of China were strong, they warred on my people. When the Emperors were weak, my people took lands and tribute from them. The herdsman and the farmers are not different kinds of men, they are right hand and left hand. Through their constant warfare, each developed new weapons and new strategies.

“Now, for a time, perhaps for all time, we Mongols, are bringing warfare to an end. We have united the cities, the farmlands and the steppes in peace, prosperity, and order. There is no reason why all men cannot dwell under one government, even as the Ancestor said. Combining the foundation my Ancestor laid in the Yassa with the Imperial wisdom of China, we can create a perfect government, a government based on Mongol strength to guarantee that it will endure for ever. We will use the old Confucian system of examinations to find the most talented administrators. It is the best system of government in the world—appointment of the most fit. Of course, we must never let the Chinese get the upper hand. We will take their ideas, use their skills, but never let them rise to positions of power. I will bring in able men from all the countries of the earth—Turks, Arabs, Franks, and Mongols, of course—to rule over the Chinese and humble them. If we allowed the Chinese power, they would corrupt us, weaken us, make us forget who we are, until there were no Mongols left, only decadent Chinese whose ancestors had once been Mongols. I am often accused of wanting to deliver the Mongol empire into the hands of the Chinese, but I am not so stupid as that. I will devour China, China will not devour me.

“After all of China is ours, we will turn west again. With the wealth and wisdom of China, we will go on to the conquest of the Franks. It will not be difficult. We would have swept through Europe twenty years ago, had my uncle Ogodai not died at the wrong moment. You asked me how far we mean to go. Once we have China and Europe, how much of the world will be left?

“We will be the herdsmen of nations. There are many kinds of riches besides animals, besides precious stones and metals. There is the wealth of beauty, the wealth of wisdom, the wealth of comfort. We will possess and enjoy all of it, all the goods this world has to offer.”

“The kind of wealth you speak of is only accumulated in time of peace,” Taniko said.

Kublai eyed her with amusement. “Those islands of yours have never been invaded. There must be a great deal piled up there.”

“You would be surprised at our poverty. Having seen China, I realize that our people have no idea what wealth is.” Don’t overdo it, she warned herself.

“You fear me. That is why you keep telling me how poor your country is.” She realized that he had been sitting beside her for quite a while now.

“Your Majesty is the most powerful man in the world. How could I not fear you?”

His dark eyes impaled her. “You know me better now than you did when we met. Why still fear me?”

She saw what was happening to him. His eyes were heavy-lidded, his breathing quicker. A slight flush crept into his cheeks. Like a bull in springtime, she remembered. Amazingly and almost instantly, she felt a warmth between her thighs in response to his stare. She had not known a man in the two years since Kiyosi’s death.

He is such a big man. I could close my eyes and pretend I’m with Jebu. If he lies on me, though, he’ll crush me.

“Your elephant trainers know their elephants, Your Majesty, but still—and wisely—they fear them.”

“Stop calling me Your Majesty. It reminds me of things I would like to forget for a while.”

“What shall I call you?”

His body lay across the bed like a boulder. He smiled up at her. She put her hand on his silk robe and let it rest there, feeling the beating heart of the most powerful man in the world.

“You must think of your own name for me,” he said. “One that we will share with no one else.”

He is so big, so strong. “I shall call you Elephant.”

Kublai laughed and pulled her down so that she lay on his chest. His hands plucked at her clothes. Gown by gown he stripped her. She was surprised when he didn’t stop until she was completely undressed.

“You are exquisite,” he said. “But you are blushing. Does it bother you to be naked? I prefer it this way.” His thick fingers gently explored her body.

“It’s strange to couple with a man in complete nakedness,” she said. “I don’t like or dislike it.” Then she gasped. “I like what you are doing now. Very much.”

She had forgotten her fears of how he might crush her if he lay on top of her. He never did. When she was ready for him he clasped her waist in his huge hands and lifted her into the air with an easy heave of his muscular arms. Lying on his back, he slowly lowered her over his loins.

She was awakened by the sound of voices arguing.

“I don’t care what you think is proper. If you don’t wake him right now, your head will go the way your stones have already gone.”

A softer voice protested.

She opened her eyes and thought for a moment that she was in a Mongol tent. Then she remembered he had drawn down the curtains around the dais before they fell asleep amid the tumbled cushions and quilts. There was a pleasant ache in her groin, where muscles long unused had been overworked last night. Kublai lay beside her, an enormous dark bulk. Even though he was motionless, she could tell from his shallow breathing that he was awake.

The curtains parted and a fierce young Mongol face framed by braided black hair thrust itself in. Taniko shrank back and pulled a quilt around her. Kublai sat up quickly.

The man spoke an urgent sentence in Mongolian, in which Taniko caught the word Karakorum. She recognized him now. It was the tarkhan Bayan. The general didn’t look at Taniko but stared at Kublai, who asked him a question in the same tongue.

Kublai sighed at Bayan’s reply. He stood up on the dais, naked, towering, and the household eunuch who had tried to stop Bayan from waking him brought a him a robe. He looked down at Taniko.

“What I feared and expected has happened. Even while this kuriltai was electing me Great Khan, Arik Buka’s people were claiming the title for him at Karakorum. Now there will be two Great Khans, and it will be war. It will be years before we can proceed with the conquest of the Sung.”

And even more years before you can threaten my homeland, Taniko thought with faint satisfaction.

Lying with a quilt pulled around her to cover her nakedness, she said, “I grieve for your people, Your Majesty. A civil war is a horrible thing.”

“It’s a wasteful thing,” said Kublai. “To avoid it, I’d almost be willing to yield the empire to Arik Buka and his people. But they wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

The Great Khan and his tarkhan strode out of the bedchamber, deep in excited conversation. It’s a game to them, Taniko thought. They relish it.

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