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Authors: Gary Jennings

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BOOK: The Journeyer
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IN subsequent days and weeks and months, I was granted audience with every one of the Khakhan’s ministers and counselors and courtiers of whose offices I have earlier spoken in these pages, and with numerous others besides, of high and low degree, whose titles I may not yet have mentioned—the three Ministers of Farming, Fishing and Herding, the Chief of Digging the Great Canal, the Minister of Roads and Rivers, the Minister of Ships and Seas, the Court Shamàn, the Minister of Lesser Races—and ever so many others.
From every audience I came away knowing new things of interest or usefulness or edification, but I will not here recount them all. From one of the meetings I came away embarrassed, and so did the minister concerned. He was a Mongol lord named Amursama, and he was Minister of Roads and Rivers, and the embarrassment arose most unexpectedly, while he was discoursing on a really prosaic matter: the post service he was putting into effect all across Kithai.
“On every road, minor as well as major, at intervals of seventy-five li, I am building a comfortable barrack, and the nearest communities are responsible for keeping it supplied with good horses and men to ride them. When a message or a parcel must be swiftly conveyed in either direction, a rider can take it at a stretch-out gallop from one post to the next. There he flings it to a new rider, ready saddled and waiting, who rides to the next post, and so on. Between dawn and dawn, a succession of riders can transport a light load as far as an ordinary karwan train could take it in twenty days. And, because bandits will hesitate to attack a known emissary of the Khanate, the deliveries arrive safely and reliably.”
I was later to know that that was true, when my father and Uncle Mafio began to prosper in their trading ventures. They would usually convert their proceeds into precious gems that made a small, light packet. Utilizing the Minister Amursama’s horse post, they would send the packets from Kithai all the way to Constantinople, where my Uncle Marco would deposit them in the coffers of the Compagnia Polo.
The Minister went on, “Also, because occasionally something unusual or important may occur in the regions between the horse posts—a flood, an uprising, some marvel worth reporting—I am establishing, every ten li or so, a lesser station for foot runners. So, from anywhere in the realm, there is a run of less than an hour to the next station, and the runners continue by relays until one gets to the nearest horse post, whence the news can be conveyed farther and more quickly. I am just now getting the system organized throughout Kithai, but eventually I will have it operating across the entire Khanate, to bring news or important burdens even from the farthermost border of Poland. Already I have the service so efficient that a white-flag porpoise caught in Tung-ting Lake, more than two thousand li south of here, can be cut up and packed in saddlebags of ice and hurried here to the Khakhan’s kitchen while it is still fresh.”
“A fish?” I respectfully inquired. “Is that an important burden?”
“That fish lives only in one place, in that Tung-ting Lake, and is not easily caught, so it is reserved for the Khakhan. It is a great table delicacy in spite of its great ugliness. The white-flag porpoise is as big as a woman, has a head like a duck, with a snout like a duck’s beak, and its slanted eyes are sadly blind. But it is a fish only by enchantment.”
I blinked and said, “Uu?”
“Yes, each is a royal descendant of a long-ago princess, who was changed by enchantment into a porpoise after she drowned herself in that lake, because … because of a … a tragic love affair … .”
I was surprised that a typically brisk and brusque Mongol should begin stammering like a schoolboy. I looked up at him, and saw that his formerly brown face had flushed red. He avoided my eye and clumsily fumbled to turn our conversation to something else. Then I remembered who he was, so I—probably also reddening in sympathy—made some excuse to terminate the interview, and I withdrew. I had totally forgotten, you see, that that Minister Amursama was the lord who, after his lady was taken in adultery, had been ordered to strangle her with her own sphincter. Actually, a great many of the palace residents were curious to know the grisly details of Amursama’s compliance with that order, but were shy of bringing up the matter in his presence. However, they said, he himself seemed somehow always to be stumbling onto reminders of the subject, and then getting tongue-tied and uncomfortable, and making everybody around him just as uncomfortable.
Well, I could understand that. But I could not understand why another minister, likewise discoursing on a prosaic subject, should have seemed equally distraught and evasive. He was Pao Nei-ho and he was the Minister of Lesser Races. (As I have told, the Han people are everywhere in the majority, but in Kithai and in the southerly lands which were then the Sung Empire, there are some sixty other nationalities.) Minister Pao told me, at tedious length, how it was his responsibility to ensure that all of Kithai’s minority peoples enjoyed the same rights as the Han majority. It was one of the duller disquisitions I had so far endured, but Minister Pao told it in Farsi—in his position, he had to be multilingual—and I could not see why the telling of it made him so nervously falter and fidget and sprinkle his speech with er and uh and ahem.
“Even the er conqueror Mongols are uh few compared to us Han,” he said. “The ahem lesser nationalities are fewer still. In the er western regions, for example, the uh so-called Uighur and the ahem Uzbek, Kirghiz, Kazhak and er Tazhik. Here in the uh north we find also the ahem Manchu, the Tungus, the Hezhe. And when the er Khan Kubilai completes his uh conquest of the ahem Sung Empire, we will absorb all the other er nationalities down there. The uh Naxi and the Miao, the Puyi, the Chuang. Also ahem the obstreperous Yi people who populate the er entire province of Yun-nan in the uh far southwest …”
He went on and on like that, and I might have dozed, except that my mind was busy sieving out the ers and uhs and ahems. But even when I had done that, I found the speech still a dry one. It seemed to contain nothing shameful or sinister that would require concealment in a lot of vocal weeds. I did not know why Minister Pao should be speaking so haltingly. Neither did I know why I was being suspicious of that fractured oratory. But I was. He was saying
something
that I was not supposed to grasp. I was sure of it. And, as it turned out, I was right.
When I finally got loose of him that day, I went to my own rooms and to the closet which I let Nostril use for his pallet chamber. He was sleeping at that moment, though it was only midafternoon. I shook him and said:
“You have not enough work to do, slovenly slave, so I have thought of a job for you.”
In truth, the slave was lately having quite an indolent life. My father and uncle, having no need for him, had relinquished his services entirely to me. But I was so well served by the maids Buyantu and Biliktu that I employed Nostril only for such things as buying me a wardrobe of suitable Kithai-style clothing, and keeping it well stocked and in good order, and occasionally to groom and saddle a horse for me. Between times, Nostril did not do much roaming about or mischief making. He seemed to have subdued his former nasty habits and natural inquisitiveness. He spent most of his time in his closet, except when he ventured as far as the palace kitchens to seek a meal, or, when I invited him, to dine with me in my chambers. I did not allow that often, for the girls were clearly repelled by his appearance and uncomfortable in the role of Mongols waiting upon a mere slave.
Now he came awake, grumbling, “Bismillah, master,” and yawning so that even his dreadful nose hole seemed to gape wider.
I said sternly, “Here am I, busy all the day, while my slave slumbers. I am supposed to be evaluating the Khakhan’s courtiers by talking to them face to face, but you could do even better behind their backs.”
He mumbled, “I gather, master, that you wish me to snoop about among their servants and attendants. But how? I am an outlander and a newcomer, and my grasp of the Mongol tongue is still imperfect.”
“There are many outlanders among the domestic staff. Prisoners taken from every land. The servants’ talk belowstairs must be a Babel of languages. And I know very well that your one nostril is adept at sniffing out gossip and scandal.”
“I am honored that you ask me, master, but—”
“I am not asking. I am commanding. You are henceforth to spend all your spare time, of which you have an ample measure, mingling with the servants and your fellow slaves.”
“Master, to be honest, I am fearful of wandering about these halls. I might blunder into the Fondler’s precincts.”
“Do not talk back or I will take you there myself. Hear me. Every evening from now on, you and I will sit down and you will repeat to me every least morsel of tattle and tale you have heard.”
“About anything? Everything? Most of the talk is trivial.”
“Everything. But right now I am interested to know all I can find out about the Minister of Lesser Races, the Han lord named Pao Nei-ho. Whenever you can subtly turn the conversation to that subject, do so. But
subtly.
Meanwhile, I shall want everything else you hear, as well. There is no foretelling what tidbit may be of value to me.”
“Master Marco, I must make some respectful demur in advance. I am not so handsome now as I once was, when I could beguile even princesses to blurt their innermost—”
“Oh, that imbecilic old lie again! Nostril, you and all the world know that you have always been damnably ugly, and you never once so much as touched the hem of a princess’s gown!”
Undeterred, he persisted, “On the other hand, you have at your command two pretty maids who could easily employ their comeliness for come-hitherness. They are far better fitted for wheedling secrets out of—”
“Nostril,” I said patiently. “You will spy for me because I tell you to, and I need give no other reason. However, I will mention just this. It apparently has not occurred to you, but it has to me, that those two maids are very likely spying on
my
doings. Watching my every move and reporting it. Remember, it was the son of the Khakhan, on the orders of the Khakhan, who gave me the girls.”
I always spoke of them as “the girls” when speaking to others, because to use both their names every time would have been unwieldy, and I did not speak of them as “the servants” because they were rather more than that to me, but I would not speak of them as “the concubines” because that seemed to me a slightly derogatory term. In private, however, I addressed them separately as Buyantu and Biliktu, for I had early learned to tell them apart. Although when dressed they were identical, I now knew their individualities of expression and gesture. Undressed, although still identical even to the dimples in their cheeks, the dimples at their elbows and those especially winsome dimples on either side of the base of their spines, the twins were more easily identifiable. Biliktu had a sprinkle of freckles on the underswell of her left breast, and Buyantu had a tiny scar on her upper right thigh from some childhood mishap.
I had taken note of those things on our very first night together, and of some other things as well. The girls were both nicely shaped and, not being Muslims, were complete in all their private parts. In general, they were built like other mature females I had known, except that they were a trifle shorter in the leg and a trifle less indented at the waistline than, say, Venetian and Persian women are. But their one most intriguing difference from women of other races was the matter of their inguinal hair. They had the usual dark triangle in the usual place—the han-mao, they called it, their “little warmer”—but it was not a curly or bushy tuft. Through some quirk of nature, Mongol women—at least those I have known—have an exceptionally smooth escutcheon; the hair lies as flat and neat there as on the pelt of a cat. When earlier lying with a woman, I had sometimes amused myself (and her) by twining and twiddling my fingers in her little warmer; with Buyantu or Biliktu, I stroked and petted it as I would a kitten (and made her purr like one).
On my first night in my private apartments, the twins had made it plain that they expected me to take one of them to bed with me. When they bathed me, they also stripped and bathed themselves, and most fastidiously washed my and their dan-tian, our “pink places,” our private parts. When they had dusted me and themselves with fragrant powders, they slipped into dressing gowns of silk so sheer that their little warmers were still quite visible, and the girl I would come to recognize as Buyantu asked me, straight out:
“Will you be desiring children of us, Master Marco?”
Involuntarily I blurted, “Dio me varda, no!” She could not have understood the words, but evidently could not mistake the meaning, for she nodded and went on:
“We have procured fern seed, which is the best preventive of conception. Now, as you know, master, we are both of twenty-two-karat quality, and of course are virgins. So we have been speculating all afternoon as to which of us will have the honor of being first qing-du chu-kai—awakened to womanhood—by our handsome new master.”
Well, I was pleased that they were not, like so many virgins, dreading the event. Indeed, they seemed to have been, in a sisterly way, contending for precedence, for Buyantu added, “As it happens, master, I am the elder of the two.”
Biliktu laughed and told me, “By a matter of minutes only, according to our mother. But all our lives, Elder Sister has been claiming privilege on that account.”
BOOK: The Journeyer
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