Daughter of Xanadu Part 23
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Marco's words became more extravagant: "Then might you see swashing blows dealt and taken from sword and mace! Then might you see knights and horses and men-at-arms go down! Then might you see arms and hands and legs and heads hewn off! And besides the dead that fell, many a wounded man never rose again, for the sore press there was. The din and uproar were so great that Tengri Himself might have thundered and no man would have heard it! Great was the medley, and dire and perilous was the fighting. The Mongols hacked and slew so mercilessly that it was a piteous sight to see.
"Then Suren, gallant Suren, with the blood of the Great Ancestor Chinggis Khan pounding in his veins, raised his sword and raced directly at the king of Burma himself."
I smiled to myself as Marco veered off into his "embellishments." We had never come close to the king of Burma, who had disappeared after the battle ended.
"Emmajin the Brave, her braids flying behind her head, saber raised high, whipped her horse and raced behind him. Mightily did that king of Burma fight. Mightily did Suren hack and hew. The dust and blood flew up in a whirlwind.
"Prince Suren knocked the hostile king off his horse. The dastardly ruler plunged his sword into Suren's horse, causing the young prince to fly into the air. The prince fell to the ground, wounding his arm. But he jumped to his feet, sword in hand, and engaged the king in direct combat. Wounded though he was, Prince Suren would have killed the king on the spot. But an enemy came from behind and whacked his legs, causing him to fall."
A few of the listeners cried out, as if in pain.
"The king raised his sword to the sky and was ready to bring it down. But suddenly, the Burmese soldier fell to his death. Princess Emmajin, archer supreme, had felled that evil protector with one well-placed arrow, straight to the base of the neck."
"Aaaah!" Their approval was touching, though for something I had not done.
"The king redirected his sword to her horse, and she, too, fell to the ground. Full of rage, the king set upon her with his heavy sword. He would have killed her in an instant. But Prince Suren deflected the blow. The king's sword hit the ground just inches from Emmajin's head. Suren stepped in to protect her. The king raised his sword and sliced the young prince's neck. The gallant prince dropped to his knees, grabbing his wound, trying to staunch the gush of blood. Prince Suren, beloved grandson of the great Khubilai Khan, sixteen years old, fell in battle, under the sword of a mighty king that fateful day."
Marco paused, his eyes cast down, as if in tribute. The men went silent, too, stunned and horrified. Prince Chimkin looked stricken. A tear glistened in Temur's eye.
"The king was about to plunge his sword into the prince's gut. But Princess Emmajin, full of rage, plunged her dagger deep into his back, just below the rib cage. The king staggered and fell to one knee. His sword clattered uselessly to the ground. Emmajin wielded her dagger, ready to slash the king's throat, as well. But his men crowded in to protect their wounded king. She turned to help her cousin. But it was too late. With a sigh, Suren breathed his last. She knelt by his side, weeping inexhaustible tears."
Hundreds of men sat in silence. Mongol soldiers all, they were moved beyond speech. Tears rolled down my cheeks. The facts were false, but the spirit was true. Listening to his words, I had watched the battle happen just as he described it, and so had all the men. I took a jagged breath, remembering the look on Suren's face as he had died.
Temur reached over and put his hand on top of mine. His face was contorted in grief. As much as they had competed against each other, the brothers had been close.
I was glad Marco did not go on to tell how I had slain dozens of enemies in revenge. Perhaps Marco knew that I did not want the men celebrating that.
"Here she is, soldiers of the Khan: your heroine, victor of the battle of Vochan, granddaughter of the Khan of all Khans, first woman to serve in the Mongol army, warrior of legend, your own princess Emmajin!"
Marco gestured at me, and I stood. All eyes were on me, and the men's cheers sounded like thunder. I took a moment to compose myself. Marco reached his hand to me. I climbed up onto the table and stood next to him. He held my hand high and stood a half step behind me, allowing me full glory.
The Khan's wide face glowed with pride, as if he had believed in me from the beginning. His open approval meant the world to me.
My heart nearly burst. Marco's hand was warm, as if pulsing from the exertion of the battle, and its strength leaped into mine. I felt as though I had lived my life for this moment, for this feeling of pride and recognition, these shouts and whistles of admiration. The cheers lifted me and carried me above the scene so that I was looking down on throngs of valiant Mongol men. They were yelling as if their lungs would burst, raising their fists to the sky, declaring to the universe the endless glory of the Mongol race.
I had not known as a child exactly what I was aiming for all those years, racing on horseback and practicing archery, or even as a soldier, riding across the farmlands and mountains of the great Mongol Empire. But at that moment, I knew.
Thanks to Marco and his skill at storytelling, I had become a legend.
The feeling was wonderful. But I knew that the story was false, as perhaps all true heroes do. These men needed a hero, but I no longer needed to be one.
43 The Khan's Decision
Slowly, I pulled at the thong around my neck, till my fingers touched the dragon's tooth that had meant so much to Suren. I slipped it over my head and held it high so that even the men in the back could see it.
The men quieted. I showed it first to the Khan, then to Chimkin, Temur, and the other men. It took me a few minutes to get up my courage to speak.
"O Khan of all Khans, Prince Chimkin, Prince Temur, men of the Khan's court and army!" I began as firmly as I could. "This tooth once belonged to the dragon Prince Suren killed. Suren wore it around his neck until the moment he died in battle."
The men were silent now.
I was not acting in the effort to control my sorrow. But then I recited my well-rehearsed lines, much as Marco had said his. "On the night before he died, Prince Suren stayed in my tent, as he often did, to protect me. That night, he tried to persuade me not to fight in the battle. 'It's too risky for you,' he said."
This much was true.
"Suren did not expect to die in battle. So he did not speak to me of his dying wish. But I knew him well. I watched how he lived, and what he held dear."
All eyes were on me. Chimkin and Temur especially were staring up at me. At last, I had found my voice.
"This, I believe, would have been Suren's last wish: that we Mongols, who have achieved a greater empire than any in history, find a way forward without war. That we find a peaceful way to our God-given destiny of expanding our empire to the ends of the earth. That I, his cousin, help convey this vision, the wise vision of our Great Khan."
The Khan's eyebrows met in a slight frown. The men, half drunk and eager for war stories, murmured angrily. It seemed they had expected me to ask for revenge. The former Emmajin might have done so.
I thought of the Tara amulet tucked in my waist sash.
With both hands now, I held up the leather thong with the dragon tooth, and the men watched. I loved that tooth, but it was time to pass it on. Temur would need the strength and goodness of his brother, Suren.
I gestured for Temur to join me on the tabletop. Without a word, I dropped the thong over his head, around his neck. He immediately grasped the dragon's tooth, his eyes brimming.
"Prince Suren, your brother, loved this Latin, this storyteller, as a brother. He would have wanted harmony between the Mongols and Marco Polo's homeland."
The silence was deafening. No one, man or woman, publicly gave advice to the Great Khan. My only hope was that the Khan had not already finalized the orders to his cousin khans to invade Marco's homeland.
Temur regarded me with suspicion. It would take more than a memento from his brother to convince him of the importance of harmony. Still, I hoped, with that thong around his neck and my words seared into his memory, Temur could not in good conscience join any army that planned to invade Christendom.
My uncle was another matter. He was a careful, thoughtful man, well educated and prudent, not one to take orders from a girl. His eyes were wary. From a young age, as the Khan's favorite son, Chimkin had been pressured to live up to the highest expectations, obey the Khan's every wish, and achieve great victories for the empire. Now he had lost his eldest son, a loss greater even than mine. But his future lay in pacifying the West.
From inside my waist sash, I pulled out the feather from the golden eagle I had shot down in Xanadu. I had kept it all these months. Now it had a purpose.
I stepped off the table and faced my uncle Chimkin. I held the eagle feather with my right hand and put my left hand under my right elbow-the Mongol way of offering a treasure or good wish. Eagles' feathers are great portents in Mongolia.
"This feather is for you," I said to Suren's father. "It is a lasting symbol of Suren's strength and his far-sighted vision. He stood for the future, a realization of the Great Khan's desire for the peaceful unification of all nations."
It was, in Marco's words, an embellishment. But Chimkin's eyes misted over when he took the feather from me.
Then I turned to the Khan, my head bowed.
The Khan, no fool, would never let himself be manipulated. But from what Chabi had told me, I knew that his heart was no longer in military conquest but in the new vision of wise rule. My proposal was consistent with that. I needed to do something bold.
Without a word, I reached for my bow and lifted it high over my head, with both hands, so all could see. Then, slowly and deliberately, I lowered it and placed it at the feet of the Khan. I fell to my knees and dropped my forehead to the stony ground. Every man present knew what this gesture meant: I would never again fight in a battle.
No Mongol man would do this; I felt certain of that. To a warrior, it was a weak, female gesture, giving up my power. Yet I knew it took another kind of courage.
Silence spread from us like ripples in the water. Soon I sensed that all the men were looking at the Khan, to see what he would do.
"Rise," he said at last. "You may continue."
I stood before the Khan. It was true that I desired to travel with Marco. I knew I could not be as good as Tara, but I wanted at least to embark on her path of compassion.
Yes, I was heir to the World Conqueror, Chinggis Khan. But I was also heir to many strong Mongol women. I was heir to Empress Chabi, who preferred mercy to justice. I was heir to my father, Prince Dorji, a man who dared to seek a higher way.
My words came out with calm certainty. "I beg you to make me a messenger of peace. I will do with my life whatever the Khan commands." I bowed my head.
After a long pause, the Khan spoke. This time, it was not in a commanding voice that silenced the men around him. Only those closest to us, including Chimkin, Temur, and Marco Polo, could hear. "Here is my decision," the Great Khan said.
I closed my eyes and held my breath.
"Messer Marco Polo, you have served me well. I would have you stay here and serve me. But if it is your wish to return to your homeland with your father and uncle, you are free to go. You have delivered to me a letter from your Pope. I will prepare an answer to that letter."
Then my grandfather turned to me with a solemn look. My heart pounded even harder.
"Emmajin Beki. You, too, have served me well. You fought hard and helped bring about victory in a battle we might have lost. You suffered a deep loss. I can see the spirit of Suren in you. I have decided to send you to Christendom to deliver my response to the Pope. If he agrees to join our empire, there will be no need for warfare."
My heart soared to the stars in the sky. I did not dare look at Marco. Tears threatened, but I controlled them. I stepped forward and knelt in front of the Khan. I put my forehead on his knees.
He placed his hand on my head. I imagined his wisdom and benevolence flowing into me. I wanted to say, I promise to serve you well I promise to serve you well. But the words did not come.
44 At the Ocean
After the Khan was carried away, men surrounded me, touching my arms, as if my glory would flow to them. They asked questions, unable to understand why a warrior would lay down her bow. Most of them had not heard what the Khan had said to me, and I did not explain. They seemed a blur, the voices, the braid loops, the thick eyebrows, the flush of excitement, the warm glow. Chimkin disappeared, as did Marco, for a time.
Temur stood by my side, fingering the dragon tooth. He seemed to bask in Suren's glory. The tension, the envy, I had felt from Temur was gone.
Still, before he left my side, he leaned toward me and spoke quietly. "Thank you for this. But you need to be careful, Emmajin. That foreigner's words are like honey, meant to trap you. Remember which side you are on, where your loyalty lies."
I nodded. He meant well, but he did not understand. Perhaps he never would.
When the hubbub calmed, servants discreetly took the dishes and the bones away. Men milled around, laughing and drinking. The night was warm, and many of the men removed their shirts. They sang crude drunken songs and danced wildly. The hired women hovered in the shadows.
Clearly, it was time for me to leave. I headed for my tent. Along the path, standing discreetly, was Marco, in his blue and silver del del. As I walked past him, I put out my left hand, inconspicuously, and lightly brushed my fingers over the hairs of his arm. He stepped onto the path and followed me at a distance.
Instead of returning to my tent, I headed straight for the beach, where half-naked men were singing or rolling with the hired women in the moonlight. My boots kept sinking at odd angles in the sand. I veered off to the right, toward a point in the land, where there were fewer people. I walked alone, trying to get my mind around what the Khan had commanded and what my future might look like now.
Marco followed. I did not look at him, but I knew exactly where he was, and was content to know he was following.
The beach narrowed to a rocky strip at the point of land, but the tide was low enough that I could walk around the point. On the other side was a smaller beach, rimmed by trees, quiet and empty. The warm night air was still. The moon, three-quarters full, lit the sky with a shimmering light.
Just after I passed the last couple, I looked back. Marco was no longer walking behind me. I panicked for a moment, then saw him sitting on a rock, removing his boots. He ran across the sand toward me, smiling.
"It's much easier barefoot."
I sat on a drift log, and he pulled off my boots. My toes were moist and rank from spending too much time inside my boots in warm weather. He lifted some sand and dusted my feet with it. It felt cool and soft and refreshing. He rubbed my feet. A jolt of pleasure shot through to every part of my body.
"You did it," he said to me in wonder.
"Now you can show me your homeland," I said.
"Venezia." With his voice, he caressed each of the foreign syllables. He touched his forehead to my foot, as if to say, Thank you for saving Venezia Thank you for saving Venezia.
"Fay-nay-shya," I said. I had often imagined its streets of water and singing boatmen. Now I might see it.
"To Fay-nay-shya!" I shouted. Barefoot, I dashed down the empty beach, away from the others.
He sprinted after me and caught up quickly. He took my hand and angled toward the sea, which was pounding the beach, black and menacing. I tried to divert him. Even the bravest Mongol soldiers fear and distrust water. Venetians, by nature, are drawn to it.
He pulled me to the edge of the ocean, where the sand was wet and soft. My feet sank slightly into it, making footprints. A wave, cold and perilous, lapped at my land-bound Mongolian feet. I pulled away, shrieking, and sprinted along the dry sand, parallel to the water. He ran after me, staying on the wet sand near the waves.
I discovered that it is easier to run on wet sand than on dry sand. It felt good to let loose and gallop. We covered the entire length of the beach, then rounded another small point onto a deserted arc of sand.
Marco caught up to me and took my hand. Again, he pulled me toward the dangerous black void of water. I tugged back. We fell into the wet sand, and a cool wave washed over us, soaking our trousers. I shrieked again, only half afraid now that I saw how confident Marco was in the ocean.
He grabbed both my hands and pinned me to the sand. He hesitated, checking my eyes. The wave moved away. I stopped struggling. His body drew close to mine, lying on the wet sand, and he nuzzled my nose. I opened my mouth and kissed him with all the passion that had been bottled up inside me those many days and months. Another cold wave came up and I jumped.
He laughed and pulled me up to sit beside him. He turned so that our feet faced straight into the water. Lit by the moon, the waves crested with white foam and crashed against my feet. I remembered voices of warning, tales of strong undercurrents ripping people out to sea and certain death by drowning.
I scrambled to stand up, and so did Marco. "You fear not blood, but you fear the sea?" he asked. I looked again at the water. It was calmer here, in a protected cove.
Slowly, deliberately, Marco led me, his hand in mine, into the dark sea.
My mind rebelled, shouting, Danger! Water! Danger! Water! but my heart chose to trust Marco. Marco, who had elevated me to a legend. Marco, who had showed me a new way of seeing the world. There would be danger, yes. But Marco would be my partner as we tried to build peace between our homelands. but my heart chose to trust Marco. Marco, who had elevated me to a legend. Marco, who had showed me a new way of seeing the world. There would be danger, yes. But Marco would be my partner as we tried to build peace between our homelands.
This water felt warm, soft, safe. I could still feel the current, but it was tamer than in the open ocean. Subduing my fear, I followed as Marco pulled me farther into the sea. The water rose above my knees, my thighs, my waist. My body seemed to be disappearing, though I could feel every patch of my skin. I clutched his hand.
He stopped when the water lapped just below our chests. He turned to me in the moonlight, his eyes bright and clear. He caressed my face, embraced me, kissed me, there in the water, in that most dangerous of elements. I relaxed and gave in to him.
He lifted me, and my body strangely floated. I closed my eyes and pretended I was in a dream, secure in his arms. I laid my head against his chest. My legs floated like fishes' tails. My arms clung to him like the weeds in the sea around me.
I tossed my head back and opened my eyes. Marco smiled playfully at me and tugged at my trousers.
"No need to fear the sea," he said.
I smiled back. He gently lifted my legs and wrapped them around his hips. We glided together like creatures of the sea. Our bodies, our destinies, were entwined. Together, we would be heading to the West.
AI-JARUK: Also known by her Mongolian name of Khutulun, daughter of Khaidu. She was famous for defeating her suitors in wrestling. Her dramatic story was told by Marco Polo in his book. Also known by her Mongolian name of Khutulun, daughter of Khaidu. She was famous for defeating her suitors in wrestling. Her dramatic story was told by Marco Polo in his book.
Daughter of Xanadu Part 23
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Daughter of Xanadu Part 23 summary
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