ONE A storm growled over Karakorum city, the streets and avenues running in streams as the rain hammered down in the darkness. Outside the thick walls, thousands of sheep huddled together in their enclosures. The oil in their fleeces protected them from the rain, but they had not been led to pasture and hunger made them bleat and yammer to each other. At intervals, one or more of them would rear up mindlessly on its fellows, forming a hillock of kicking legs and wild eyes before they fell back into the squirming mass.
The khan’s palace was lit with lamps that spat and crackled on the outer walls and gates. Inside, the sound of rain was a low roar that rose and fell in intensity, pouring as solid sheets over the cloisters. Servants gazed out into the yards and gardens, lost in the mute fascination that rain can hold. They stood in groups, reeking of wet wool and silk, their duties abandoned for a time while the storm passed.
For Guyuk, the sound of the rain merely added to his irritation, much as a man humming would have interrupted his thoughts. He poured wine carefully for his guest and stayed away from the open window where the stone sill was already dark with wetness. The man who had come at his request looked nervously around at the audience room. Guyuk supposed its size would create awe in anyone more used to the low gers of the plains. He remembered his own first nights in the silent palace, oppressed by the thought that such a weight of stone and tile would surely fall and crush him. He could chuckle now at such things, but he saw his guest’s eyes flicker up to the great ceiling more than once. Guyuk smiled. His father, Ogedai, had dreamed a great man’s dreams when he made Karakorum.
As Guyuk put down the stone jug of wine and returned to his guest, the thought tightened his mouth into a thin line. His father had not had to court the princes of the nation, to bribe, beg, and threaten merely to be given the title that was his by right.
“Try this, Ochir,” Guyuk said, handing his cousin one of two cups. “It is smoother than airag.”
He was trying to be friendly to a man he barely knew. Yet Ochir was one of a hundred nephews and grandsons to the khan, men whose support Guyuk had to have. Ochir’s father, Kachiun, had been a name, a general still revered in memory.
Ochir did him the courtesy of drinking without hesitating, emptying the cup in two large swallows and belching.
“It’s like water,” Ochir said, but he held out the cup again.
Guyuk’s smile became strained. One of his companions rose silently and brought the jug over, refilling both their cups. Guyuk settled down on a long couch across from Ochir, trying hard to relax and be pleasant.
“I’m sure you have an idea why I asked for you this evening, Ochir,” he said. “You are from a good family, with influence. I was there at your father’s funeral in the mountains.”
Ochir leaned forward where he sat, his interest showing.
“He would have been sorry not to see the lands you went to,” Ochir said. “I did not . . . know him well. He had many sons. But I know he wanted to be with Tsubodai on the Great Trek west. His death was a terrible loss.”
“Of course! He was a man of honor,” Guyuk agreed easily. He wanted to have Ochir on his side and empty compliments hurt no one. He took a deep breath. “It is in part because of your father that I asked you to come to me. That branch of the families follow your lead, do they not, Ochir?”
Ochir looked away, out of the window, where the rain still drummed on the sills as if it would never stop. He was dressed in a simple deel robe over a tunic and leggings. His boots were well worn and without ornament. Even his hat was unsuited to the opulence of the palace. Stained with oil from his hair, its twin could have been found on any herdsman.
With care, Ochir placed his cup on the stone floor. His face had a strength that truly reminded Guyuk of his late father.
“I do know what you want, Guyuk. I told your mother’s men the same thing, when they came to me with gifts. When there is a gathering, I will cast my vote with the others. Not before. I will not be rushed or made to give my promise. I have tried to make that clear to anyone who asks me.”
“Then you will not take an oath to the khan’s own son?” Guyuk said. His voice had roughened. Red wine flushed his cheeks and Ochir hesitated at the sign. Around him, Guyuk’s companions stirred like dogs made nervous at a threat.
“I did not say that,” Ochir replied carefully. He felt a growing discomfort in such company and decided then to get away as soon as he could. When Guyuk did not reply, he continued to explain.
“Your mother has ruled well as regent. No one would deny she has kept the nation together, where another might have seen it fly into fragments.”
“A woman should not rule the nation of Genghis,” Guyuk replied curtly.
“Perhaps. Though she has done so, and well. The mountains have not fallen.” Ochir smiled at his own words. “I agree there must be a khan in time, but he must be one who binds the loyalties of all. There must be no struggle for power, Guyuk, such as there was between your father and his brother. The nation is too young to survive a war of princes. When there is one man clearly favored, I will cast my vote with him.”
Guyuk almost rose from his seat, barely controlling himself. To be lectured as if he understood nothing, as if he had not spent two years waiting in frustration!
Ochir was watching him and he lowered his brows at what he saw. Once again, he stole a glance at the other men in the room. Four of them. He was unarmed, made so after a careful search at the outer door. Ochir was a serious young man and he did not feel at ease among Guyuk’s companions. There was something in the way they looked at him, as a tiger might look on a tethered goat.
Guyuk stood up slowly, stepping over to where the wine jug rested on the floor. He raised it, feeling its weight.
“You sit in my father’s city, in his home, Ochir,” he said. “I am the firstborn son of Ogedai Khan. I am grandson to the great khan, yet you withhold your oath, as if we were bargaining for a good mare.”
He held out the jug, but Ochir put his hand over the cup, shaking his head. The younger man was visibly nervous at having Guyuk stand over him, but he spoke firmly, refusing to be intimidated.
“My father served yours loyally, Guyuk. I too am a grandson of Genghis, though I will not be khan. Yet there are others. Baidur in the west . . .”
“Who rules his own lands and has no claim here,” Guyuk snapped.
Ochir hesitated, then went on. “If you had been named in your father’s will, it would have been easier, my friend. Half the princes in the nation would have given their oath by now.”
“It was an old will,” Guyuk said. His voice had deepened subtly and his pupils had become large, as if he saw only darkness. He breathed faster.
“Then there is Batu,” Ochir added, his voice growing strained, “the eldest of the lines, or even Mongke, the oldest son of Tolui. There are others with a claim, Guyuk. You cannot expect—”
Guyuk raised the stone jug, his knuckles white on the heavy handle. Ochir looked up at him in sudden fear.
“I expect loyalty!” Guyuk shouted. He brought the jug down across Ochir’s face with huge force, snapping his head sideways. Blood poured from a line of torn flesh above Ochir’s eyes as he raised his hands to fend off further blows. Guyuk stepped onto the low couch, so that he straddled the man. He brought the jug down again. With the second blow, the stone sides cracked and Ochir cried out for help.
“Guyuk!” one of the companions called in horror.
They were all on their feet, but they did not dare to intervene. The two men on the couch struggled. Ochir’s hand had found Guyuk’s throat. His fingers were slippery with blood and Ochir could not keep his grip as the jug came down again and again, suddenly shattering so that Guyuk held an oval of the handle, jagged and rough. He was panting wildly, exhilarated. With his free hand, he wiped blood from his cheek.
Ochir’s face was a red mash and only one of his eyes would open. His hands came up once again, but without strength. Guyuk batted them away easily, laughing.
“I am the khan’s son,” Guyuk said. “Say you will support me. Say it.”
Ochir could not speak. His throat was closed with blood and he choked violently, his body spasming. A gargling sound came from his broken lips.
“No?” Guyuk said. “You will not give me even that? That small thing? Then I am finished with you, Ochir.” He shoved the jagged handle down as his companions watched, appalled. The noise died away and Guyuk stood up, releasing his grip on the shards of stone. He looked down at himself in disgust, suddenly aware that he was covered in blood, from spatters in his hair to a great slick down his deel robe.
His eyes focused, coming back from afar. He saw the open mouths of his companions, three of them standing like fools. Only one was thoughtful, as if he had witnessed an argument rather than a killing. Guyuk’s gaze was drawn to him. Gansukh was a tall young warrior with a claim to being the best archer in Guyuk’s command. He spoke first, his voice and expression calm.
“My lord, he will be missed. Let me take him away from here while it is still dark. If I leave him in an alley of the city, his family will think he was attacked by some thief.”
“Better still they do not find him at all,” Guyuk said. He rubbed at spots of blood on his face, but without irritation. His anger had vanished and he felt completely at peace.
“As you say, my lord. There are new sewage pits being dug in the south quarter . . .”
Guyuk raised his hand to stop him.
“I do not need to know. Make him vanish, Gansukh, and you will have my gratitude.” He looked at the other men. “Well? Can Gansukh manage on his own? One of you must send my servants away. When you are asked, you will say Ochir left us earlier.” He smiled through the smeared blood. “Tell them he promised me his vote in the gathering, that he gave his solemn oath. Perhaps the fool can benefit me in death as he would not in life.”
His companions began to move and Guyuk walked away from them, heading to a bathing room he could reach without crossing a main corridor. For a year or more, he had not washed without servants, but the blood was itching his skin and he wanted to be clean. The troubles that had enraged him earlier that evening seemed to have fallen away and he walked with a light step. The water would be cold, but he was a man who had bathed in freezing rivers from a young age. It tightened the skin and invigorated him, reminding him he was alive.
Guyuk stood naked in an iron bath of Chin design, with writhing dragons around the rim. He did not hear the door open as he upended a wooden bucket and poured water over his head. The cold made him gasp and shudder, his flesh in gooseflesh and his penis shriveling. As he opened his eyes, he jumped at seeing his mother standing in the room. He glanced at the pile of clothes he had thrown down. Already the blood on them had mingled with the water, so that the wooden floor ran with red-tinged lines.
Guyuk put the bucket down carefully. Torogene was a large woman and she seemed to fill the small room.
“If you wish to see me, mother, I will be clean and dressed in a few moments.” He saw her gaze fall to the swirl of bloody water on the floor and he looked away, picking up the bucket and refilling it from the pink water in the bath. The palace had its own drains, specially constructed in fire-hardened tile by Chin experts. When he removed the stopper, the incriminating water would vanish under the city, mingling with the night soil and filth from the kitchens until no one would ever know. A canal ran by Karakorum and Guyuk supposed the water would empty into that, or into some pit where it could soak. He didn’t know or care about such details.
“What have you done?” Torogene said. Her face was pale as she stopped and picked up his tunic, sodden and twisted.
From the Hardcover edition.