Daughter of Xanadu Part 22
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"I command you."
Maffeo Polo's brow wrinkled with concern but he bowed his head. He offered me his arm in the Western way, and I took it. We walked out of the city and into the foreigners' quarter. Seeing me with a male escort, the guard did not stop me.
I had thought the streets of Khanbalik were chaotic, but they were nothing compared to the ragged alleyways outside the city gate. Dirty, half-naked children ran about. Toothless beggars thrust their hands into my face. Poor women sold scraggly vegetables on blankets. Young women waved at men to lure them into brothels. I saw men with beards, hook noses, dark skin, and leering grins. The stink of urine and garbage was everywhere. Was this how foreigners lived just outside the greatest city in the world? I had seen nothing like it in my six months of travel.
Maffeo kept a firm grip on my elbow and steered me around aggressive beggars and vendors. Fortunately, he soon ducked into a wooden doorway and shut the door behind us. We stood in the murky, stinky hallway of an inn for foreigners. Several men lounged on pillows on the floor, smoking a long pipe. Maffeo led me into a small empty sitting room. It was clean but simple. I sat down hard and took a moment to catch my breath. My senses had all been assaulted at once.
The old man sent a servant to fetch Marco from his room. I wiped the grit from my face and smoothed down my braids. Stay calm Stay calm, I told myself. But how could I? I had not seen Marco for more than two months. Would he be distant again in this setting?
When Marco arrived, his bearded face and green eyes were the most welcome sight in the world. He had an eager look that matched my own feelings.
My whole body leaped toward him. It was unseemly. I had not planned it. But months of separation from him had made me hungry to touch him. A look of surprise and pleasure crossed his face before he folded me in his arms. Along with that smell of spice, I breathed in love and trust and confidence. How had I ever thought he was frightening?
Nothing else in life mattered more than being with Marco now. I did not know what would happen. But at that moment, I knew that we could not be separated again. He would help me find a way.
Marco's uncle-so different from mine-quietly stepped out of the room and closed the door.
After a long embrace, Marco pulled back and examined my face. "You've changed."
I smiled. Yes, after talking to my father, and to Chabi, and even to Tara, I had changed. I was calmer, more confident. Of course Marco would notice.
"Did you hear?" Marco grinned. "The Khan's medicine is working!"
I nodded happily. "I saw him, too, recently. His feet are not so swollen."
We sat down in the Chinese chairs. "The Khan said he was pleased with me. Right in front of my father and uncle. He promised us excellent goods to take home."
"That's the news you've been awaiting. Your father and uncle must be thrilled," I said.
"They are." Marco's face turned serious. "But I've made up my mind. You said there was no way for you and me to be together. I understand that. Even so, I cannot leave you here. I will not return to Venezia. I have told my father and uncle already."
I could see in his somber eyes his determination to stay here with me.
"Wait," I said, remembering how I had pushed the Khan to let Marco return home. "You haven't heard my idea." I told him about my conversation with the Khan and my request to have him send me as an ambassador to the Pope.
Marco leaned toward me as I spoke, as if drinking in every detail. His eyes misted when he heard my proposal. "You would be willing to leave Khanbalik? And travel all the way to Christendom, to make sure that your homeland and mine can live in peace?"
"That is my highest dream," I said.
"I am astounded." Marco sat back. "What of that plan to invade Christendom?"
"The Khan is still in discussions with his kinsmen in Persia and Russia." It was wrong of me to divulge such information, but I wanted to be completely honest with him this time.
Anguish showed on Marco's face. "I wonder if the Tartar troops will get there before we do." I knew he was imagining his beloved Venezia in ruins. After witnessing a battle, that image was even more vivid in my mind.
At that moment, though, instead of feeling despair, as I had so often, I could think only of hope and possibilities. There had to be some way we could prevent the Khan from sending our army to Marco's homeland. "The Khan did not reject my plan. He said he would consider it. We need to think of a way to convince him."
Marco's forehead furrowed. "I have done everything I could," he said. "With every word I have said to him, every action I have taken, I have tried to prove to him that we Latins are a friendly people, not a threat to the Empire. We're not like the Burmese, who sent an army to invade your country."
I moved from my chair and sat on his armrest, wrapping my arms around his shoulder. Normally, Marco had such an easy laugh, a ready smile, a clever idea. This time he was relying on me.
"We must think clearly," I said. "We need to make a plan."
He sat back and smiled at me, though his face was still sad. "I wish that the Khan would send the army to Burma instead of Christendom. It's a much richer land than Christendom-and closer."
I nodded. He was right. That made more sense.
"Maybe," Marco said, "after the Khan hears my story about the battle of Vochan, he will decide to do that. After all, he would want revenge on the king of Burma for attacking the empire and killing his beloved grandson."
Revenge. The word jumped out at me. This plan was attractive, but it did not seem right. Saving Christendom at the expense of Burma? It was hardly compassionate. "Remember the people of Little Li's tribe, in the dragon village?" I said. "They looked a lot like the Burmese."
Marco nodded, chastened.
Thinking of the dragon hunt reminded me of Suren. I felt his dragon tooth, hot on the skin of my chest. I pulled it out.
"Suren," said Marco, shaking his head in sadness.
"Suren," I said, fingering the smooth surface of the tooth. "You know, I think the happiest moments of his life were hunting those dragons, with you and Little Li. You were like brothers."
Marco smiled with his eyes. "He loved that."
"Suren would not have wanted the Khan's army to do harm to your people."
"Did he say that?" Marco asked, his green eyes wide.
"No, he never questioned the Khan's orders. But he would be horrified if our people attacked your homeland."
"Yes," I said, trying to think as I spoke. "It would be a testament to him, a lasting legacy, if we could find a way of living together in peace."
Marco looked skeptical.
"Marco, you always have good ideas. What can you do to convince the Khan to send me to Christendom as his ambassador?"
Marco shook his head in wonder. "I will do anything I can to help. I can tell the story of the battle, and I will, in a way that makes you look strong and heroic-which is the truth. But you are the one who needs to show the Khan that you can do this, that you can be forceful and persuasive as his representative. You must say something dramatic and convincing."
He was right. But words had never been my strength.
Before I left, he held me close. His lips touched mine in a bacio bacio that I had long anticipated. His gentle touch convinced me that somehow we would find a way. I didn't want to leave him. I promised to see him at the Khan's hunting camp after he told his story of the battle. that I had long anticipated. His gentle touch convinced me that somehow we would find a way. I didn't want to leave him. I promised to see him at the Khan's hunting camp after he told his story of the battle.
All the way back to the palace, that night, and the next day and the next night, I thought until my head hurt. This idea seemed even more improbable than my request, a year earlier, to join the army. But it was the only way Marco and I could be together.
I hoped that Chabi was persuading the Khan about my future. But it was up to me to prove my worthiness for this assignment. If I did not, Marco might have to return to his homeland without me, whether he chose to or not. One day I might hear that a Mongol army-one the Great Khan did not directly control-had destroyed Christendom. That image made me shudder.
41 The Khan's Hunting Camp
My breath caught in my throat. On horseback, at the top of a rise, I looked out over a sight I had heard about but never seen: the ocean.
The water stretched along the horizon, as broad and endless as a Mongolian steppe, but blue-gray and glinting in the late sunlight. It was in constant motion-not like grasses in the wind, but like an earthquake, heaving up and falling back, crashing against the beach in white-capped waves. I searched the distance for the far shore and could see none. It was like no lake I had ever seen-roiling and alive, stretching to the end of the earth. I couldn't believe anyone would ride on a boat of wood and trust such a seething mass of water. Baatar tossed his mane and whinnied, as if threatened.
The Great Khan's hunting camp sprawled along the seaside at an area called Beidaihe, Northern Dai River, not far from the Chin Emperor's Island. It was the largest encampment of tents I had ever seen, a sea of white dots stretching from the water's edge over hill after hill to the horizon. The Khan's imperial flags fluttered lazily. Guards stood on duty around the perimeter of the camp. Within, the mood was high with the excitement of the hunt and the thrill of being away from home. It was a great escape for the men of the court, most of them military men. The end of this two-month hunting season was the highlight of each year for them.
The smell of fresh meat cooking over fires wafted up the hill and drew me down into the camp. Bare-chested men, their arm muscles bulging, wrestled in the warm sand. A pack of men howled and chased each other across our path. One man, his jaws working and his chin greasy, looked up at me from a fleshy bone he held in both hands.
Here in the Khan's hunting camp, steaming in their male juices, with no wives or children around, men could boast of the hunt, overeat, and burp, free of the restrictive rules and majesty of the court.
The only women other than me were those who had been brought for the pleasure of the men. They were laughing, loose-haired women. I had heard of such women and seen a few on the road, but I had never seen so many flaunting their bodies openly in one place.
My cousin Temur had escorted me from Khanbalik, two days' journey to this hunting camp by the seaside. We traveled with a small group of his friends from the army, sons of young officers, and a maid from the court to attend me. I had heard tales of the rowdiness of the Khan's hunting camp, but I did not know until we arrived how unusual it was for a royal woman to visit it. Not only was I out of place here, among the Khan's men, but I realized I had no desire to be part of this man's world. I was certain they didn't want me here, either.
I was happy to retreat to my own tent with my maid, as well as two guards. Even after six months with the army, I was glad to have the guards. I had no idea where Marco was staying and did not dare wander about the camp on my own to find him.
During the journey, and alone in my tent, I took time to think. Confused and worried, I wanted to be prepared and not act on impulse.
That evening, I felt sure, my fate would be decided. Perhaps my grandmother had spoken to the Khan and he had already made up his mind. Perhaps not.
This would be my last chance to state my case. Marco would tell his story about the battle of Vochan and praise me as a hero. I was no longer proud of killing all those men and horses in battle, and I hoped he would not exaggerate my role. But if all went well, his story would validate the Khan's decision to let me join the army, and help me appear worthy in the eyes of his men. As one who had helped achieve victory, I would have a voice worth hearing.
Fingering the dragon's tooth, I thought about Suren. That night would be his funeral oration, shaping the way Suren would be remembered. Saddened, I wondered what advice he would give me if he were here. What legacy would he really want? Suren was a loyal Mongol soldier. He represented everything that was finest about Mongol ideals.
I needed greater strength than the memory of Suren could give me. I took out the Tara amulet, which fit easily in my palm.
Tara, Tara, I thought. What should I say? What should I say? She looked out of the amulet, her sweet face emanating compassion. I felt certain she would approve of my taking a message of peace from the Khan to Christendom. I wished she could speak to the Khan through me. She looked out of the amulet, her sweet face emanating compassion. I felt certain she would approve of my taking a message of peace from the Khan to Christendom. I wished she could speak to the Khan through me.
Compassion. I remembered the faces of the Burmese soldiers I had killed. The soldiers of the Burmese army were good men like Suren, obeying their king. How had I looked to them, hacking and slaying? Questions of war and peace were beyond me. The Khan of all Khans, at the age of sixty, had far more wisdom than I did about such matters. But whatever small role I could play, I wanted it to be for peace.
I could not solve the problem of Burma. But distant, weak Christendom, and its leaders, might be open to a different resolution. Exchanging letters could not solve all the problems of the world, but it might work in the case of Marco's homeland. How fine it would look to Marco's people if the Khan sent not an army but a maiden!
Marco and I could be partners in this effort. He could explain my mission to the Pope, in their language. As a representative of the most powerful ruler in the world, I would be welcomed and treated well.
But how could I prove to the Khan that I was mature enough, skilled and articulate enough, to be taken seriously as an ambassador? How could I convince him that I wanted to do this not for my own glory, or simply to spend more time with Marco, but for a greater purpose, a mission of which Tara would approve?
In one hand, I held Suren's dragon tooth, still on its leather thong. He had won it by bravery, not on the battlefield but in service to the Khan's healing. It was also a symbol of his friendship with the foreigners Marco the Latin and Little Li, the villager from a tribe near the border with Burma.
In the other hand, I held the amulet. I had once scorned Tara but now treasured her as a symbol of my aspirations. I looked closely at her picture. In her hand, she held a large flower. She was known as the Great Protectress, yet she did not carry any weapons.
Next to me, beside my sleeping fur, were my bow and arrows. I ran my finger along the smooth surface of my bow. It had served me well in battle. It was the symbol of my status as a Mongol warrior. I had worked hard to be accepted as a soldier. But I could not stand for both war and peace. Whatever came to pass, I would no longer fight with weapons. Instead, I would pour my fighting energy into something more worthwhile.
I wanted to show the world that we Mongols were not just fierce fighters, the conquerors of Chinggis Khan. We had evolved into wise rulers, heirs to his grandson, Khubilai the Wise.
Looking at these objects, at last I figured out what I needed to do.
42 Becoming a Legend
That evening was Marco's big opportunity to tell his best story to the Khan.
The Khan and his men gathered outdoors, in a grassy meadow not far from the sea, on a warm spring evening that felt like summer. The Great Khan sat on a wide wooden throne-chair halfway up the hill, behind a coarse plank table loaded with freshly cooked meat from the hunt. Everyone else sat on the ground, grabbing meat off platters passed by servants, eating with their hands, licking juice off their fingers, tossing bones onto the ground, drinking airag airag from greasy silver cups. from greasy silver cups.
The meal was an orgy of excess: the usual venison, but also bear, wildcat, wild boar, and various birds. There was not one fish dish, though we were by the ocean, and there were no unappetizing vegetables, rice, or grain. The meat tasted even better for the smell of smoke and aromas from the cooking fires and the crispness of the night breezes off the sea. Overhead, stars spattered across the clear sky.
Men mingled easily. I wished I could find Marco and sit with him, but I did not see him. I wondered if he was in his tent, rehearsing his story.
Temur introduced me to more of his companions, who peppered me with questions about the battle.
"I hear the Burmese fought with elephants, is that true?" one man asked me.
"Yes, they brought at least two thousand of them!" I said.
The men murmured their amazement.
Temur looked away. "Her role was very small," he said.
I smiled and shook my head. The others would hear the story soon enough.
When it was time for the entertainment, Temur and I sat down near the Khan, on a blanket. On the Khan's right sat Chimkin. Near them sat many of the Khan's other sons, and just below Temur sat a group of princes from his generation. Although an outsider might have thought we were sitting casually on the ground, the strict hierarchy of the court prevailed.
After the feasting was over, I finally saw Marco. When his moment came, he appeared in the area where we of the Golden Family were seated, and he bowed to the Khan.
At a signal from the Khan, Marco climbed up on a table and held out his arms to quiet the crowd. From that place, not far from where I was sitting, he could be heard by hundreds of men. Marco looked stunning in a blue del del with silver threads. He ran his eyes over us, lingering a moment on my face. He had known where I was all along. with silver threads. He ran his eyes over us, lingering a moment on my face. He had known where I was all along.
"Great Khan of all Khans, generals and commanders, princes and kings, dukes and marquesses, counts and knights!" He spoke loudly and clearly. I noticed how much improved his accent was after he had spent nearly a year in our land. Still, he had a slight lilt to his voice, softening the harshness of our tongue.
"I have traveled the length and breadth of this great Empire, and I can tell you that there is no city in the world as grand as Khanbalik! No garden as fair as Xanadu! And no meal as delicious as the freshly killed game I have eaten tonight!"
The men cheered and stomped. Flattery works everywhere in the world.
Marco held up his silver cup. "There is no wine as delightful as this fresh springtime airag airag! And no ruler as powerful, as wealthy, and as wise as the Great Khan Khubilai, Son of Heaven, founder of the Yuan dynasty, Great Khan above all Khans, ruler of the Mongol Empire, which stretches from the lands of the rising sun to the lands of the setting sun!" His voice rose in a crescendo to a peak of intensity.
The Great Khan had a big smile on his broad face, under his sloping mustache. His eyes disappeared into thin slits above his ruddy cheeks. The Son of Heaven rose from his throne. Several aides rushed to his side, but he gestured for them to move back. He stood on his own, balancing easily on his feet. The Khan lifted his jewel-studded golden cup, and the music struck up. All the men raised their cups, watching the Khan drink before they followed suit. After they swallowed, they let out a loud cheer: "Long live the Great Khan! May he live ten thousand years!"
Marco began with the story of the dragon hunt. He exaggerated the dangers and played up each moment of bravery. He knew better than to make a hero of himself, and he did not mention my role. But he made a hero of Suren, eldest grandson of the Great Khan. At the first mention of Suren's name, the men fell quiet. Marco made it sound as if Suren, with minor help from local villagers, went stalking the beasts deep in the jungle and captured them with a lasso. When he described the dragons, he did not need to exaggerate their length, their ferocity, their sharp teeth, their spiny scales.
The men cheered at the ending of the story and helped themselves to more intoxicating airag airag. Marco knew his audience and played it like a zither.
Finally, with his audience drunk on dragons and danger, Marco waded into bloodshed. He told the story of the battle of Vochan with such skill that he brought the Great Khan and all his men to suspenseful silence, then whipped them into a fury of cheering. Marco did not need to embellish the story much. He told of the glory of Burma, with its legendary towers of silver and gold, a country rich beyond imagining.
The Burmese troops were menacing, their numbers overpowering, the elephants mighty and fearsome. Marco captured the nervous apprehension before the battle. The Mongol troops attacked with courage. The elephants bellowed; the horses whinnied in terror; the woods loomed dense and ominous. General Abaji showed brilliance with his mid-battle shift in tactics, using explosions to scare the wits out of the elephants. Marco did not mention that he had suggested this tactic.
Finally, Marco came to my role. He portrayed me as tall and strong, lean and supple, renowned for fine archery skills, braids flying, bow held high as I charged into battle. Then he described Suren as gallant and fearless, strong and determined, stirring up the enthusiasm of the troops with his war cries, advancing boldly into the fray.
Daughter of Xanadu Part 22
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Daughter of Xanadu Part 22 summary
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