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The novels of Conn Iggulden bring the past to thrilling life, from ancient Rome to thirteenth-century Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Now he delivers the spectacular story of the rise of Genghis Khan’s grandson, a man destined to become one of the most remarkable rulers who ever lived—the legendary Kublai Khan.
CONN IGGULDEN CONQUEROR c DELACORTE PRESS NEW YORK Chagatai Khanate late 13th century Dne pr lga Vo Bl ac Irty k Se sh a a i i a an n S S a e e Aral a Aral ea Sea Se S Lake Balkhash yr Da rya Tigris ss pp Riv a a C Bukhara Tashkent A mu Baghdad Samarkand Kashgar dar I l k h ’ya a n (O Eu a xu ph a te t s) r e Herat s Kabul Per e er e ss ii i i Kandahar an an n n GGu ul lf f Delhi A r a b i a n S e a a Len Ye n isey Am Lake ur Baikal Karakorum A lt n ai h a M Almalik ou Shangdu nta K ins (Xanadu) t Yenking a e (Beijing) r G e h Khotan t f o Y e l l o w e S e a Sultanate r i of p m Delhi E t ze ng Ya 0 200 400 600 800 1000 Miles 0 400 800 1200 1600 Kms Yesugei Genghis Khan 1206–27 Jochi Chagatai Ogedai Khan 1229–41 Batu Berke Guyuk Khan Qashi Kaidu The Golden Horde House of Chagatai The Dynasty of GENGHIS KHAN Tolui Mongke Kublai Khan Hulegu Arik-Boke Khan 1260–94 1251–59 Yuan Dynasty Ilkhanate of Persia PART I a.d. 1 2 4 4 O NE A S TO RM GROWLE D OV E R KARAKO RU M CIT Y, THE S TREETS and avenues running in streams as the rain hammered down in the darkness. Outside the thick walls, thousands of sheep huddled to- gether 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 fasci- nation 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 audi- ence room. Guyuk supposed its size would create awe in anyone more 2 CONN IGGULDEN 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 ceil- ing 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, emp- tying 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 si- lently 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?” CONQUEROR 3 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 gather- ing, 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 dis- comfort 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. 4 CONN IGGULDEN 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 han- dle. 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 CONQUEROR 5 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 van- ished 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. 6 CONN IGGULDEN “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 gather- ing, 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 ser- vants, 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. GU YU K S TO O D N AKE D IN AN IRO N BATH OF C HIN DESIG N, 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 CONQUEROR 7 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. “What I had to,” Guyuk replied. He was still shivering and in no mood to be questioned. “It does not concern you. I will have the clothes burned.” Guyuk raised the bucket again, then tired of her scrutiny. He let it fall back and stepped out of the bath. “I called for fresh clothes, mother. They should have been brought to the audience room by now. Unless you are going to stand and stare at me all day, perhaps you could fetch them.” Torogene didn’t move. “You are my son, Guyuk. I have worked to protect you, to gather allies for you. In a night, how much of my labor have you undone? Do you think I don’t know Ochir was invited here? That he has not been seen leaving? Are you a fool, Guyuk?” “You have been spying on me, then,” Guyuk replied. He tried to stand tall and unconcerned, but the shivering grew worse. “It is my business to know what happens in Karakorum. To know every deal and argument, every mistake, such as the one you made tonight.” Guyuk gave up the pretense, exasperated at her lofty tone of dis- approval. “Ochir would never have supported me, mother. He is no loss to us. His disappearance may even be a gain, in time.” “You think so?” she demanded. “You think you have made my work easier? Did I raise a fool, then? His families, his friends, will know he came to you unarmed and that he disappeared.” “They have no body, mother. They will assume—” “They will assume the truth, Guyuk! That you are a man who can- not be trusted. That alone among the nation, your offer of guest rights cannot make a man safe. That you are a wild dog capable of killing a man who has drunk tea with you in your own home.” Overcome with anger, she left the room. Guyuk barely had time to consider what she had said before she was back, thrusting dry clothes at him. 8 CONN IGGULDEN “For more than two years,” she went on, “I have spent every day courting those who might support you. The traditionalists who might be approached on the grounds that you are the eldest son of the khan and you should rule the nation. I have bribed men with lands, horses, gold, and slaves, Guyuk. I have threatened to reveal their secrets unless I receive their votes at a gathering. I have done all this because I honor your father and everything he built. His line should inherit, not Sorhatani’s children or Batu or any of the other princes.” Guyuk dressed quickly, pulling the deel robe roughly over a tunic and tying a belt around his waist. “Do you want me to thank you?” he said. “Your plans and schemes have not made me khan yet, mother. Perhaps if they had, I would not have acted on my own. Did you think I would wait forever?” “I didn’t think you would kill a good man in your father’s house. You have not helped me tonight, my son. I am so close. I do not know yet what damage you have done, but if this gets out . . .” “It will not.” “If it does, you will have strengthened the claims of every other man in line. They will say that you have no more right to this palace, this city, than Batu.” Guyuk clenched his ﬁsts in frustration. “It is always him. I hear his name every day. I wish he had been here tonight. I would have removed a stone in my path then.” “He would never come to you unarmed, Guyuk. Whatever you said or did to him on the trip home has made it harder for me to bring you your inheritance.” “I did nothing. And it is not my inheritance!” Guyuk snapped. “How much easier would all this have been if my father had named me in his will. There is the source of it all! Instead, he left me to scrabble around with all the others, like a pack of dogs ﬁghting over one piece of meat. If you had not assumed the regency, I would be out there in the gers, looking at my father’s own city in envy. Yet still you honor him. I am the khan’s ﬁrstborn son, mother! Yet I must bargain and bribe to gain what is mine by right. If he was half the man you CONQUEROR 9 seem to think, he should have considered that before his death. He had enough time to include me in his plans.” Torogene saw the pain in her son’s face and relented, her anger vanishing. She took him into an embrace, moving to ease his distress without thought. “He loved you, my son. But he was obsessed with his city. He lived with death on his shoulder for a long time. Struggling against it ex- hausted him. I do not doubt he wished to do more for you.” Guyuk rested his head on her shoulder, thinking sharp and un- pleasant thoughts. He needed his mother still. The nation had learned to revere her over the years of her regency. “I am sorry I lost my temper tonight,” he murmured. He forced a breath like a sob and she gripped him tighter. “I just want it all too much. I cannot bear it, mother. Every day, I see them looking at me, wondering when we will call the gathering. I see them smiling at the thought of my defeat.” Torogene stroked his damp hair, smoothing it with her hand. “Shh. You are not the same as them,” she said. “You have never been an ordinary man, Guyuk. Like your father, you dream of greater things. I know it. I have sworn to make you khan and it is closer than you know. You already have Sorhatani’s son, Mongke. You were so clever to take his oath in the ﬁeld. His brothers will not disobey their mother. That is the heart of our position. Then in the west Baidur has received my envoys. I am conﬁdent he will declare for you in time. Do you understand now how close we are? When Baidur and Batu name their true price, we will call the nation.” She felt him stiffen as she mentioned the name he had grown to hate. “Be calm, Guyuk. Batu is just one man and he has not left the lands he was granted. In time, the princes who look to him will see he is content as a Russian lord, that he has no ambitions for Karakorum. Then they will come to ask you to lead them. I promise it, my son. No other man will be khan while I live. Only you.” He pulled away and looked down into her face. She saw his eyes were red. “How much longer, mother? I cannot wait forever.” 10 CONN IGGULDEN “I have sent messengers to Batu’s camp, once again. I have prom- ised him you will recognize his lands and titles, for his lifetime and the generations to come.” Guyuk’s face twisted into a snarl. “I do not recognize them! My father’s will is not written in heaven! Should I leave a man like Batu to roam free on my borders? To eat rich foods and ride white mares in peace? Should I leave his Golden Horde warriors to grow fat and make children of their own while I ﬁght wars without them? No, mother. Either he is under my hand, or I will see him destroyed.” Torogene slapped him across the face. The blow was heavy and it rocked his head to one side. As a bloom of red grew on his cheek, he looked at her in stunned shock. “This is why I told you not to court the princes on your own, Guyuk. I told you to trust me. Listen. And hear with your heart and head, not just your ears. Once you are khan, you will have all the power, all the armies. Your word will be law. On that day, the prom- ises I have made for you will be dust, if you choose to ignore them. Do you understand now?” Though they were alone, her hissing voice fell so she could not be overheard. “I would promise Batu immortality if I thought it would bring him to a gathering. For two years, he has sent excuses to Karakorum. He dares not refuse me outright, but he sends me tales of injuries or sickness, saying he cannot travel. All the time, he watches to see what will come out of the white city. He is a clever man, Guyuk, never forget it. Sorhatani’s sons do not have half his ambition.” “You are bargaining with a snake, then, mother. Be careful he does not bite you.” Torogene smiled. “There is a price for all things, my son, for all men. I have merely to ﬁnd his.” “I could have advised you,” Guyuk said peevishly. “I know Batu well. You were not there when we rode into the west.” Torogene tutted under her breath. “You do not need to know everything, Guyuk, only that if Batu agrees, he will come to a gather- ing in the summer. If he accepts the offer, we will have enough of the princes behind us to make you khan. Do you see now why you should CONQUEROR 11 not have acted on your own? Do you see what you put in danger? What is the life of one family head compared to this?” “I’m sorry,” Guyuk replied, lowering his head. “You have not kept me informed and I was angry. You should have included me in your plans. Now that I know more, I can help you.” Torogene regarded her son, with all his weaknesses and ﬂaws. Still, she loved him more than the city around them, more than her own life. “Have faith in your mother,” she said. “You will be khan. Promise me there will be no more bloodstained clothing to burn. No more mistakes.” “I promise,” Guyuk replied, his mind already on the changes he would make when he was khan. His mother knew him too well for him to be comfortable around her. He would ﬁnd her some small house far from the city to live out her last days. He smiled at the thought and she took heart from it, seeing again the young boy he had once been. T WO BAT U WH IS T L E D AS HE TRO TTE D ACROSS A G REEN F IEL D toward the small ger in the crook of hills. As he rode, he kept his eyes moving, looking for watchers or scouts. He had not announced his visit to the homeland of the Mongol people and he could name a few who would have been very interested in his presence there. Sorhatani had inherited the birthplace of Genghis Khan from her husband years before. She had brought tumans back to the open plains, tens of thousands of families who wanted nothing more than to live as they always had, in the shadow of mountains, on the open land. There was nothing to excite suspicion around Tsubodai’s ger. The old man had retired without any of the trappings of power, rejecting all the honors Torogene had tried to press on him. Batu was pleased just to ﬁnd him, though the retired orlok did not move around as much as some. He had brought no great herd that had to ﬁnd new grass every few months. As Batu drew closer, he could see just a few dozen sheep and goats, untethered and untroubled as they cropped the grass. Tsubodai had chosen a good spot by a streambed, on what looked like an ancient ﬂoodplain, made smooth and ﬂat by the pas- sage of millennia. The sun was shining and Batu found himself ad- miring the man yet again. Tsubodai had commanded the greatest CONQUEROR 13 army of the nation, more than a hundred thousand warriors who had fought their way to the northern hills of Italy. If the khan had not died and brought them home, Batu thought they would have made an empire from sea to sea. He grimaced at the memories, ashamed that he had enjoyed the old man’s failure once. That was when Batu had thought his generation could put aside the petty politics and bickering that marred the world he knew. Batu kept up his slow approach, knowing it would not be a good idea to surprise Tsubodai. They were not exactly friends, though his respect had only grown in the years since the Great Trek. Even so, Batu needed the advice of one who was no longer part of games of power, one whose word he could trust. Still at a distance, Batu heard a dog barking. His heart sank as an enormous hound came out from behind the ger and paused, raising its head. Batu didn’t like dogs at the best of times and he could see this one was huge and black. He yelled “Nokhoi Khor!” for someone to hold the beast, but there was no sign of Tsubodai or his wife. The dog sniffed the air, turning its head back and forth. It was looking at him over the ﬁeld, then it growled and broke into a run, skimming through the grass. Its face ﬂopped as it charged, so that he could see white teeth and eyes. As it approached, his hand dropped to his bow, but he did not take it up. His chances of a friendly welcome would dwindle somewhat if he shot Tsubodai’s dog. His pony skittered to one side and Batu shouted madly at the hound, trying different words of command. The enormous animal kept coming and he was forced to dig his heels in and canter around in a great circle, with the dog following him. He could see white froth on its mouth as it gnashed and howled at him, no longer silent as it saw him escaping. Out of the corner of his eye, Batu saw a woman come out of the ger. She seemed amused at his predicament and bent double as she laughed. All he could do was ride in circles, avoiding the snapping jaws. “Nokhoi Khor!” he called again to her and she stood up, looking at him with her head cocked to one side. After a while she shrugged 14 CONN IGGULDEN and put her hand to her mouth to whistle two sharp blasts. The dog dropped to the grass at the sound, his dark eyes still focused on the horseman who had dared to enter his territory. “Stay,” Batu said to the animal, giving it a wide berth. He had never seen a dog the size of that one and he wondered where Tsubo- dai had found it. It watched him all the way in and Batu was very aware of it as he dismounted slowly, with no sudden movements. “I am looking for Orlok Tsubodai,” Batu said. He could hear a low growl at his back and it was hard not to glance over his shoulder. A smile twitched at the woman’s mouth as she re- garded him. “Perhaps he doesn’t want to see you, nameless one,” she replied cheerfully. Batu ﬂushed. “He knows me well. I was with him in the west. My name is Batu, son to Jochi.” A shadow passed over her face at that name, as if she had heard it many times. She looked deeply into his eyes, searching for something. “I wouldn’t touch a weapon if I were you. The dog will rip your throat out.” “I’m not here for revenge,” Batu said. “I made my peace a long time ago.” “I’m glad one of you has,” she said. Her eyes ﬂickered behind him and Batu turned, convinced the hound was creeping up on him. Instead, he saw Tsubodai leading a horse on foot, coming out of a straggling stand of trees not far away. Batu was surprised by the feeling of relief that swept over him. Once, he had hated the man, but then in those days he had hated many. In time, he had learned to respect him. Batu did not examine his own feelings in too much detail, but in many ways he thought of Tsubo- dai as a father. It was not something he had ever said. Simply to see Tsubodai alive and apparently well was a ray of light in his current mood. Nothing seemed as hard if you had Tsubodai on your side. If that was true, of course. Batu was still not at all certain how he would be received. Those thoughts passed quickly through his mind as Tsubodai came closer. The old man whistled to his dog and Batu watched as CONQUEROR 15 the savage animal rose and ran to him, suddenly puppyish in its en- thusiasm, so that it wagged its entire body rather than just its stump of a tail. Tsubodai walked with one hand loosely wrapped in a rein and the other reaching out to rufﬂe the dog’s great head. He was not smiling as he looked from Batu to his wife. “Have you offered him tea?” “Not yet,” his wife said. “I thought I’d leave it up to you.” “Good. Be on your way then, Batu. I have nothing to say to you.” Batu waited, but as far as Tsubodai was concerned, the conversa- tion was clearly at an end. Tsubodai walked past him, clicking his tongue to keep the dog close. “I came a very long way to see you, Orlok,” Batu said. “I’ve left titles like that behind me,” Tsubodai shot over his shoul- der. “I am retired.” “I’m not here to ask you to lead, old man, just to ask for your advice.” Tsubodai paused in the action of ducking down through his ger door. “Goodbye,” he said without looking up. Batu watched in frustration as Tsubodai vanished into the gloomy interior, taking his dog with him. Batu turned helplessly to face Tsubodai’s wife, still standing there with the same wry smile. Her childbearing years were surely behind her, but she looked vaguely ma- ternal as her gaze swept over the disappointed young man. “I don’t like to see a visitor turned away with nothing,” she said. “Will you take salt tea?” Batu heard a grunt of irritation from inside the ger. The walls were thin enough for Tsubodai to hear every word. “It would be an honor,” Batu replied. He was still there as the evening came in. Tsubodai didn’t seem too troubled by his presence. The old man had contented himself with a silent glare, repairing a bow while Batu sat making polite con- versation for some hours. He had learned the name of Tsubodai’s wife, at least. Ariuna was a pleasant woman and once she relaxed, she was fascinated by the news he brought. Even Tsubodai snorted when Batu talked of the lands he had been given in Ogedai’s will. At a stroke of an ink brush, Ogedai had awarded him a vast ﬁefdom in 16 CONN IGGULDEN Russia. Knowing Tsubodai was listening closely, Batu told Ariuna that part of it had once been his father’s, after leaving Genghis be- hind him. He had felt Tsubodai’s gaze on him then, knowing the old man’s memories would still be sharp. Batu had not looked up and, after a time, Tsubodai went back to his pots of boiling water, horn, and glue. As the sun set, Tsubodai rose, stretching his back with a groan. “I have to check the animals,” he said to his wife. Batu looked at his feet, and it was not until Ariuna said “Go after him, then!” that he stood up with a grin and went out. Women were sometimes vital when it came to men talking. He found Tsubodai with the dog, which turned and bared its teeth at him until Tsubodai checked it with a word. Together, he and Batu tested the ties holding a small corral together, before going on to feel the womb of a goat very close to giving birth. The silence be- tween them was comfortable, much better than when he had sat in Tsubodai’s home as an unwanted guest. Outside, the old man seemed to relax a little and he gestured for Batu to examine the goat. Batu nodded as he pressed his ﬁngers around the unborn shape. “Not long now” was his verdict. “She seems happy enough.” “She is,” Tsubodai said, straightening up. “And so am I. Life is hard, Batu, but it can at least be simple. It is simple here.” Age had made him thinner than Batu remembered, but there was still a presence to him. No one would ever mistake Tsubodai for a herder, no matter where they found him. His eyes had seen empires rise and fall. They had seen Genghis as a young man. Batu did not reply. After a time, Tsubodai sighed and rested his hands on the wooden bar of the corral. “So tell me what has brought you so many miles. I warn you, I know nothing of the politics in Karakorum. I have no net of spies any longer, if that’s what you’re hoping.” “It’s not. I just want the advice of someone I can trust.” As Ariuna had earlier, Tsubodai searched his eyes with his own and subsided, tension drifting out of him. “Ask, boy. I don’t know if you will like my answer.” CONQUEROR 17 Batu took a deep breath. “You know Guyuk as well as anyone.” Tsubodai said nothing, so he went on. “Did you know the new khan has not yet been chosen?” The old man nodded. “I’m not in a desert. I heard that much, at least.” “It has to be Guyuk, or Mongke, or Baidur . . . or me. We are the only four in reach, and Mongke pledged his word years ago, when he heard Ogedai had died. He will support Guyuk.” Tsubodai scratched the side of his jaw. “It’s done, then. Throw in with Mongke and Guyuk. Baidur will follow along, once he knows you are together. Guyuk will be khan and I will be left alone.” “Is that what you would do?” Batu asked seriously. Tsubodai laughed, an unpleasant, bitter sound. “Me? No. But I am not you and all my choices have already been made, good and bad.” “Then why would you have me support him? In my place, what would you do?” Tsubodai didn’t answer immediately. He stared out over the dark- ening ﬁelds, his gaze roaming over the stream and the distant hills. Batu waited. “I am not in your place,” Tsubodai said at last. “I do not know what drives you. If you want to get the best bargain, then hold on as long as you can and judge the moment when his gifts are likely to become threats. Secure your own lands and perhaps you will survive long enough to enjoy them.” “And what if I care nothing for the best bargain?” Batu said, of- fended. “What if I think Guyuk should not lead the nation?” “Then I cannot help you. If you stand in his way, you will be de- stroyed, without a doubt.” The old man seemed on the verge of saying something else, but he shut his mouth ﬁrmly. “What is it? You speak in riddles, old man. You tell me you would not follow him, but that I will be destroyed if I don’t. What sort of a choice is that?” “A simple one,” Tsubodai said with a smile. He turned to Batu properly for the ﬁrst time. “You have not come to me for answers. You 18 CONN IGGULDEN know everything you need to know. Are you troubled by those who share Guyuk’s bed? Is it that? Do his companions ﬁll you with anger, or is it envy?” Tsubodai laughed. “He could take dead goats to his bed, for all I care,” Batu said with an expression of distaste. “What matters is that he is a small man, a man without dreams of any kind. He has only cunning, where the nation needs intelligence. You cannot tell me he would make a good khan.” “He would be a terrible khan,” Tsubodai replied. “Under Guyuk, we will see the nation wither away, or broken apart. But if you will not stand against him, who will? Anyway, it is too late. You are already on your way to a gathering. You will give your oath to Guyuk and he will be khan.” Batu blinked in surprise. His warriors waited for him in a valley more than a day’s ride away. Tsubodai could not have known, unless he was lying about having no sources of information any longer. Per- haps there were a few old men who still came to share tea and news with the orlok after all. “You know a few things, for a man who claims to be nothing more than a simple herder.” “People talk. Like you. Always talking, as if there is nothing better to do. Did you want me to say that you are making the right choice? Perhaps you are. Now leave me in peace.” Batu stiﬂed his irritation. “I came to ask you what Genghis would have done. You knew him.” Tsubodai grinned at that, showing his teeth. Two were missing at the side of his mouth, so that his cheek was sunken there. It was easy to see the shape of his skull, the skin stretched over the bone. “Your grandfather was a man without compromise. Do you under- stand what that means? There are many who say ‘I believe this,’ but would they hold true to those beliefs if their children were threat- ened? No. But Genghis would. If you told him you would kill his children, he would tell you to go ahead, but realize that the cost would be inﬁnite, that he would tear down cities and nations and the price would never be paid. He did not lie and his enemies knew it. His CONQUEROR 19 word was iron. So you tell me if he would support a man like Guyuk as khan.” “No,” Batu muttered. “Not in a thousand years, boy. Guyuk is a follower, not a leader. There was a time when even you had him trotting around in your wake. That is not a weakness in a carpenter or a man who makes tiles for a roof. The world cannot be full of lead dogs, or the pack would pull itself apart.” He rubbed his dog behind the ears and the animal grunted and slobbered at him. “Wouldn’t it, Temujin?” he said to the hound. “They can’t all be like you, can they?” The dog settled onto its stomach with a grunt, its front legs outstretched. “You named your dog after Genghis?” Batu asked in disbelief. Tsubodai chuckled. “Why not? It pleased me to do so.” The old man looked up again. “A man like Guyuk cannot change. He cannot simply decide one day that he will lead and be good at it. It is not in his nature.” Batu rested his hands on the wooden spar. The sun had begun to set while they talked, shadows thickening and merging all around them. “But if I resist him, I will be destroyed,” he said softly. Tsubodai shrugged in the darkness. “Perhaps. Nothing is certain. It did not stop your father taking his men out of the nation. There was no middle path with him. He was another in the same mold.” Batu glanced at the old man, but he could barely see his features in the gloom. “That did not work out too well.” “You are too young to understand,” Tsubodai replied. “Try,” Batu said. He could feel the old man’s gaze on him. “People are always afraid, boy. Perhaps you must live a long time just to see it. I sometimes think I’ve lived too long. We will all die. My wife will die. I will, you, Guyuk, everyone you have ever met. Others will walk over our graves and never know we laughed or loved, or hated each other. Do you think they will care if we did? No, they will have their own blind, short lives to live.” “I don’t understand,” Batu said in frustration. “No, because you’re too young,” Tsubodai said with a shrug. Batu 20 CONN IGGULDEN heard the old man sigh to himself. “There’s a good chance there are bones in this valley, men and women who once thought they were important. Do we think of them? Do we share their fears and dreams? Of course not. They are nothing to the living and we don’t even know their names. I used to think I would like to be remembered, to have people say my name in a thousand years, but I won’t care if they do, because I’ll be dust and spirit. Maybe just dust, but I’m still hoping for spirit as well. When you’re older, you will realize the only thing that matters, the only thing, is that you had courage and honor. Lose those things and you won’t die any quicker, but you’ll be less than the dirt on our boots. You’ll still be dust, but you’ll have wasted your short time in the light. Your father failed, yes, but he was strong and he tried to do right by his people. He didn’t waste his life. That’s all you can ask.” The effort of speaking seemed to have tired the old man. He cleared his throat and spat carelessly on the ground. “You don’t get long in the world. These mountains will still be here after me, or you.” Batu was silent for a long time before he spoke again. “I never knew him, my father. I never even met him.” “I am sorry I ever did,” Tsubodai replied. “That’s how I under- stand about honor, boy. It’s only when you lose it that you realize how valuable it is, but it’s too late then.” “You are a man of honor, if I understand anything at all.” “I was once, perhaps, but I should have refused that order from your grandfather. To kill his own son? It was madness, but I was young and I was in awe of him. I should have ridden away and never sought out Jochi in the Russian plains. You wouldn’t understand. Have you killed a man?” “You know I have!” “Not in battle; up close, slow, where you can look into his eyes.” Batu nodded slowly. Tsubodai grunted, barely able to see the movement. “Were you right to do it? To take all the years he would live?” “I thought so at the time,” Batu replied uncomfortably. “You’re still too young. I thought once that I could make my mis- CONQUEROR 21 take a good thing. That my guilt could be the force that made me better than other men. I thought in my strong years that I would learn from it, but no matter what I did, it was always there. I could not take it back, Batu. I could not undo my sin. Do you know that word? The Christians talk of a black stain on the soul. It is ﬁtting.” “They also say you can remove it by confessing.” “No, that’s not true. What sort of a man would I be if I could just wipe out my errors with talking? A man has to live with his mistakes and go on. That is his punishment, perhaps.” He chuckled then, re- calling an old memory. “You know, your grandfather just forgot his bad days, as if they had never happened. I used to envy him for that. I still do, sometimes.” He saw Batu looking at him and sighed. “Just keep your word, boy, that’s all I have for you.” Tsubodai shivered as a breeze rushed past them. “If that’s you, Genghis, I’m not interested,” he muttered, so low that Batu could barely hear the words. “The boy can look after him- self.” The old man pulled his old deel robe closer around him. “It’s too late now to ride back to your men,” Tsubodai said a little louder. “You have guest rights here and I’ll send you on your way in the morning after breakfast. Coming?” He didn’t wait for Batu to answer. The moon was showing over the horizon and Batu watched the old man walk back to the ger. He was pleased he had come and he thought he knew what he had to do. T H E YA M S TATIO N WAS A SU RP RISING BU IL DING TO SEE IN the middle of nowhere. Three hundred miles north of Karakorum, it had a single purpose: to work as a link in messenger chains that stretched as far as the lands of the Chin, west into Russia and as far south as Kabul. Supplies and equipment came along the same route, on slower carts, so that it could thrive. Where there was once a sin- gle ger with a few spare mounts, there was now a building of gray stone, roofed in red tile. Gers still surrounded it, presumably for the families of the riders and the few maimed soldiers who had retired 22 CONN IGGULDEN there. Batu wondered idly if one day it would become a village in the wilderness. Yam riders could not move with the seasons as their an- cestors had. He had avoided the way stations on his journey from his new lands. Just the sight of his tuman would have sent a rider galloping down the line. No one traveled faster than the yam riders over rough ground and news of his movements would have been in Karakorum days ahead of him. Even for this message, he had left his warriors in a forest of pine and birch, too far away to be discovered. He had rid- den ahead with just two of his scouts until they came to a ridge where he could tether his horse and send them on without him. Batu lay on his stomach in the sunshine, watching their progress toward the yam station. There was smoke coming from its chimney and in the distance he could see the tiny ﬁgures of horses cropping at the grass. When he saw his scouts enter the building, he turned over on his back and stared up at the blue sky. There had been a time when he wanted to be khan. If he had been offered it in those days, he would have grasped the thorn without hesitating. Life had been simpler then, riding west with Tsubodai. The death of Ogedai had done more than halt the Great Trek into the western nations. The khan had gone out of his way to raise Batu from poverty, forcing him through promotions until he gave orders to ten thousand picked men. It should not have been a surprise that Ogedai had included him in his will, but it had been. Batu had not expected anything. When he had ridden to his new lands, he had found traces of a Mongol camp, with gers falling in on themselves and rough wooden buildings. He had searched them all, and in one he came across a rotting saddle stamped with the mark of his father’s tuman. Ogedai had given him the lands his father had chosen when he ran from Genghis. Batu had held the saddle then and wept for a man he had never known. He knew something had changed in him from that point. As he looked up into the perfect blue, he searched himself for the itch of desire, of ambition, but there was nothing. He would not be khan. His only purpose was to be sure the best of them took command of the nation. He worked his hand into the earth he CONQUEROR 23 lay on and tore out a handful of grass and dirt. In the peace of a warm day, he crumbled it into dust and let the breeze carry it away. Above him, a distant hawk wheeled and then hovered, perhaps interested in the man who lay supine on the grass of the plains. Batu raised a hand to it, knowing the bird could see every detail even from such a height. The sun had moved in the sky by the time his scouts returned. Well trained, they gave no sign that they saw him as they reached the ridge, not until they were out of sight of anyone watching from the yam station. They walked their ponies past him and Batu followed, checking behind occasionally. He did not need to ask them if the message had gone. The yam stations were famous for their efﬁciency. A rider would already be galloping to the next one, some twenty-ﬁve miles toward Karakorum. Torogene would hold his sealed letter in her hands in just three days. Batu was thoughtful as he trotted across the rich green grass. He knew Guyuk would lose face when the gathering fell apart. Batu’s other message would reach Baidur around the same time and if he acted on the promise of support, many things would change. Baidur would be a better khan than Guyuk, Batu was certain. For an instant, Batu felt a whisper of the old voice, telling him that he would also be a good khan, the ﬁrstborn of Genghis’s ﬁrstborn. It would be ﬁtting, as if the nation had been wrenched back on the right path after too long. He shook his head, crushing the voice in him. His father had wanted to ﬁnd his own path, far from khans and herds. Speaking to Tsubodai had given Batu a sense of vast reaches of time, a glimpse of decades, even centuries, through the old man’s eyes. He struggled to hold on to it. Batu tried to think of all the possible futures, then gave it up. No man could plan for everything. He wondered if his pony rode over the bones of long-dead men and shivered slightly at the thought, despite the warmth of the sun. Preorder a copy of CONQUEROR in hardcover or eBook!
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