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Ye Lui himself met Psin at the door and walked behind him into the anteroom. Psin looked around at the shimmer of the silk hangings and the gold filigree and sat down. "I'm hungry."
"As the Khan wishes." Ye Lui snapped his fingers at the slaves prostrated behind him. "Would the Khan prefer rice wine or kumiss?"
"Kumiss." Rice wine was a drink for effeminate Chinese. Psin glared at Ye Lui for suggesting it. The slaves pattered away, keeping their eyes averted. Psin undid the laces of his coat and threw it off. He thought of asking Ye Lui why he had been summoned, but Ye Lui would only say that he didn't know. He probably did know. The slaves returned with a dish of meat, and Psin took it and dipped his fingers into it.
"Did you ride far?" Ye Lui said.
Psin chewed and swallowed. "I came by post horse—three days riding." Let him figure out for himself how far Psin had come. He fixed Ye Lui with another glare and stuffed his mouth with meat.
The door from the corridor opened and a great hulk of a man walked in. Psin's hand paused halfway to his mouth, and he stared.
"Sabotai." He looked at the meat in his fingers and put it in his mouth.
Sabotai settled himself down on cushions. He wore silk clothes, and his hair and thin grey beard were neatly combed. "I came as soon as I heard you were here," he said.
Psin tossed the empty bowl to one side. A slave scurried after it. "Everyone knows why I am summoned but me." Sabotai had been with Batu Khan, fighting Alans and Bulgars and other, nameless tribes. "How does the fighting go, in the west?"
Sabotai smiled. "We have some Kipchaks yet to run down."
Ye Lui poured kumiss into two bowls. Slaves brought one to Psin and the other to Sabotai. Sabotai looked into his as if he expected to find a bug swimming there.
"I suppose they mean to send me on campaign," Psin said.
Sabotai smiled at his kumiss. "I shall leave the pleasure of telling you to the Kha-Khan."
"I have been the Khan of my clan for more than thirty years. In all that while I've taken my people to winter pasture only four times. This was the fifth. Would have been the fifth. You could have let an old man—"
Sabotai smiled. "You know the Yasa—if your clan needed you you could have refused to come."
Psin hissed through his clenched teeth.
"As for being an old man," Sabotai said; he stroked his grey beard. "Have more kumiss."
"On your father's grave," Psin said. He lifted the cup. While he drank he did not look at Sabotai.
When he set the cup down Sabotai said, "Insulting me won't get you out of this. Whom did you leave with your people?"
"Tshant." Psin wiped his mustaches on the back of his hand. "He's been the true Khan since he was old enough to walk around a yurt—his father always off on the Kha-Khan's errands."
"Well. You'll have to send for him, the Kha-Khan wants him, too.
Psin squinted at him, thinking. It had to be the western campaign. He wondered how Tshant would like that. "Where am I going?"
"Who are we to question the Kha-Khan?"
"You are." Sabotai smiled. "I am not. You tried that argument with this one's father; do you think it will work any better with the son?"
"Ogodai is no Temujin." He watched a slave pouring him more kumiss. He had run foul of Temujin more than any other man who survived it; he suspected that he had amused Temujin. "You have a minor horde of the Altun with you, don't you?"
Sabotai leaned back. The silk coat rustled over his chest, and against it his vast, gnarled hands seemed rough as old wood. "Several, yes. Quyuk, Kadan, Buri, Baidar, Mongke—"
"And two or three others."
"Your councils must be the awe of the west."
Ye Lui came in from the inner chamber. Sabotai glanced at him, turned back to Psin, and said, "I spend most of my time keeping them from killing one another." He rose.
"The Universal Khan awaits you," Ye Lui said, and bowed. Sabotai bowed; Psin only nodded. Ye Lui led them in.
The Kha-Khan's chamber was huge and round, cushioned in silk and hung with cloth-of-gold, carpeted to muffle all sound. Psin refused to be impressed, but it was hard work. In the middle of it, beneath a yellow canopy, the Kha-Khan sat on his gilt-trimmed dais. Jagatai sat behind him and to one side. They wore the fancy blue coats of the Yek Mongols and the gold collars of the children of Temujin; they both had their father's green eyes.
Music filtered dimly into the chamber, but Psin could see no musicians. When he and Sabotai bowed the gold of the dais reflected their feet. When they prostrated themselves the gold reflected their faces. Sabotai rose, but Psin only rocked back to sit on his heels.
Beside the Kha-Khan stood a table carved of alabaster, so thin the shadow of Ogodai's hand showed through when he reached for the cup there. He lifted the cup and drank, unsteadily.
"Psin Khan looks rebellious," he said to his brother.
Jagatai nodded. "So he does. Rebellion is foul, especially when the rebel is a miserable Merkit. What was it that my father used to say when Psin Khan grew rebellious?"
Ogodai laughed, hiccoughed, and reached for the cup again. "He said, 'Psin Khan, once they called you Psin the Honest. Now they call you Psin the Stubborn. Dead Psin, they may call you, soon enough.'"
Jagatai nodded. "That was it. That was it exactly. What would be an amusing way of—"
"Enough," Sabotai said. "You break the Yasa, growing drunken."
Jagatai blushed vividly. He turned his face away. Ogodai blinked a few times, rapidly, and said, "The Yasa is mine. I can do what—"
"The Yasa is ours," Psin said. "It belongs to your people. You are the Kha-Khan. It's not right for you to act before us like an upland chief on a drunk." He looked at Jagatai. "Nor you."
Jagatai's head turned. Of all Temujin's children he looked the most like his father. His green eyes were dull; he held his chin too high, so that he seemed to look into the ceiling. "I am the greatest of my father's drunken sons. So great am I that I even know when a subchief of the sniveling unhappy Merkits is telling me the truth."
Psin made a gesture with his right hand; his wrist rested on his knee and he did not move it. He smiled. Jagatai saw and swiftly made another gesture.
Sabotai was furious. He said, "Stop casting spells on each other. We're getting farther and farther from the reason for all this. All the way from the Volga River I came, just to sit and listen to you behave like drunken oxen."
Ogodai and Jagatai stared at him, making their eyes round in mock surprise. Sabotai drew himself up very straight, frowning. Ogodai shrieked with laughter and fell over backward. Grinning, Jagatai glanced at him and said, "Sabotai. You amuse your Kha-Khan greatly."
"I am sick over it," Sabotai said, with massive dignity.
Ogodai sat up again. "You sit in the wrong place to see how funny the world is. Yes, I know. Psin Khan, we instruct you to ride with Sabotai to the camp of our nephew Batu and there to serve in the campaign against—" He waved a hand. "Whatever lies west. Wherever you find rebels."
Jagatai nudged him, and Ogodai shouted, "I remember." He glared at Jagatai and swung back to Psin. "You are to take Tshant Bahadur with you."
Psin shrugged one shoulder. "You know that Mongke Khan is with Batu, my Khan."
Jagatai reached across Ogodai's lap for the silver jug of wine. Over his brother's arm Ogodai said, "Mongke and Tshant were both with you in Korea, Merkit. You handled them there. Do it again." He took a deep breath, and his face darkened. "In the name of God, why do you all whine so much about tending to a pack of brats? Are you not both married and fathers?"
Psin pretended to wipe his mustaches so that he could hide his smile. "Why did you send them all to Batu, my Khan?"
"I have better things to do," Ogodai said. "I am the Lord of the Earth and childish pranks and quarrels only annoy me."
Jagatai said, "Do you have someone to rule over your clan while you are gone, Psin Khan?"
Psin nodded. "My son Sidacai."
Ogodai was contemplating the ceiling. Jagatai said, "Sidacai is in the Kha-Khan's guard. He will be released from duty."
"You will serve Batu as you would serve us," Ogodai said to the ceiling.
"As you would have served my father," Jagatai said. He smiled faintly, his eyes on Psin. "As you did serve him will suffice."
Ogodai stared upward. For a while no one said anything, until Sabotai asked, "Are we dismissed?"
"Oh. Yes. Go." Ogodai never looked from the ceiling.
Psin and Sabotai prostrated themselves again, got up, and walked out. In the antechamber, Sabotai heaved an enormous sigh.
"Things are not as they were."
Psin laughed. "No. Things are somewhat better, I think."
"Oh? Even drunk they are both cleverer than Temujin was. Not so fierce, maybe. Not so haughty."
"Less subtle than these."
Sabotai swelled up. Psin gathered his hat and gloves. "When he lived you said as much, often enough—you and Jebe. Does dying improve a man's mind?" He put one hand on Sabotai's shoulder and pushed. "Come along. I must find Sidacai and see how much he remembers of his own people."
Sabotai preceded him out the door. "Batu at least is—"
Psin waited for him to finish, but Sabotai did not, and at last Psin said, "What do you wish of me, in the west?"
They walked along the wide corridor that led to the courtyard. Two men in Turkish clothes passed them; Sabotai glanced after them disinterestedly. The smooth boards of the floor resounded under Psin's boots. Carrying bowls of fruit buried in snow, two slaves ran by, bowing in midstep. At the door, Sabotai stepped to one side and let Psin go first. They passed into the bright sunlight of the courtyard. Psin blinked; it was cold, and he hooked up his coat.
"Batu must have made some reconnaissance."
The courtyard was half-empty. Three camels lay beside the gate. Sabotai stared at them. "Batu doesn't understand such things. I'm suspicious of his findings."
"You flatter me."
Sabotai started down the wide, shallow steps. He glanced over his shoulder at Psin. "You are the master of reconnaissance. No one ever admits it because you are a Merkit, but everybody knows it."
"They don't trust me."
Sabotai lifted one arm, and across the courtyard a groom answered with a wave. "They trusted you enough to send you to Korea. You came by post horse? "
"Was it bothersome?"
"Better than under Temujin." The groom was bringing two horses on lead ropes. "I don't want to fight in this war, Sabotai."
Sabotai laughed; the sound heaved out of his chest like great bubbles in water. He spun to face Psin. "I might have thought so, had you not just said so. I know you well enough, Psin. When you complain you are happy." He swung back to watch the horses coming. "It will be a good war."
The camp of the Kha-Khan's guards lay outside Karakorum, on the west. Psin rode around beneath the walls. Yellow pennants streamed from each tower and cast their shadows rippling over the uneven ground. For the Gobi, the wind was light. Two or three herds grazed south of the city, scattered across the plain: one was the band of white mares who provided the Kha-Khan with his kumiss.
Cities to take. An interesting problem, taking a city. Psin remembered the raid over the Caucasus, more than ten years before. If Sabotai had already beaten the Alans and Bulgars, the Christians were the next target. Psin had seen some Frankish knights in Outremer, when the Mongols fought the great war against the Muslims. The Franks were big, limber men who rode exceptionally strong horses. They fought with swords rather than bows. He wished he'd been more interested, back when they were fighting in the west. Heavy cavalry, the Franks would try to ram into an enemy line. Interesting.
"Hold up," a sentry called. "Declare yourself."
"Psin of the Black Merkits. Let me by."
The sentry jogged his horse over. "Psin Khan. Our camp is honored." The sentry bowed.
"I am honored," Psin said. He rode by. The camp stretched on across the plain toward the mountains, ten thousand yurts, all in rows neat as Chinese writing. The officers' yurts were on wooden platforms, with steps leading up. Men lounged on the platforms before their doors. Psin rode down the central street, trying to remember where Sidacai would be, and immediately got lost. He turned down a side street. A troop of dogs yapped at him. He passed four young children playing in the dust, and they turned to watch him, their eyes narrowed. The smell of meat simmering brushed his nose and he sniffed.
Finally he asked directions from a man loitering at the corner of a street. Sidacai was all the way across the camp. He lifted his horse into a canter. Two great wagons rumbled past, drawn by oxen; they were full of grain. Ahead, he saw his own dark red banner. That would be Sidacai's post, and he galloped up to the yurt beneath the flying banner.
The yurt was of honest felt, at least; some of the others were silk. On the platform, Sidacai lay half naked in spite of the cold. A Hindi slave girl played the sitar in a corner beside the door.
Psin stepped onto the platform from his saddle and walked over to Sidacai, who ignored him. He rolled Sidacai over with his foot. Sidacai sprang up, his hand leaping toward his dagger.
"Forgotten me already?" Psin said. "Your doddering old father, soon meat for the vultures?"
"I didn't know it was you," Sidacai said. He put one hand to his head and groaned. "You might have called out."
Psin grabbed him by his long hair, led him to the edge of the platform, and threw him off. Sidacai howled in midair, landed on his back, and bounced up, his face red with rage.
"Drunken child," Psin said. The Hindi girl was still playing. "Come back up here and see whether I can."
Sidacai spat into the dust. A crowd gathered in the street, laughing and calling to Sidacai. He vaulted up onto the platform again, and Psin caught him before he could steady himself and tipped him off. Sidacai landed, rolling easily on his shoulders. The crowd hissed and booed. Sidacai got up and sprang. He landed in the middle of the platform, scattering bowls and a jug across the planks; he dove at Psin before he was on his feet. Psin sidestepped him, kicked him in the thigh, caught his wrist, and whipped him off into the street. The crowd ducked, and Sidacai this time lay still a moment, flat on his back in the coarse sand.
"Well?" Psin said. He pulled his belt up over his belly.
Sidacai rose. The crowd screamed advice and pelted him with handfuls of sand. His shoulders were slick with sweat, and the sand clung to him. He whirled, glared the crowd into silence, and paced up and down a little, thinking it out. Psin put his hands on his hips and grinned. They were about the same height, but Psin was much heavier through the chest and shoulders.
Sidacai prowled around to the other side of the platform, near Psin's horse. Psin followed him. The Hindi girl got up quietly and crossed to the other side of the door; she went on playing. Sidacai feinted, and Psin dodged to one side. Lunging, Sidacai caught him by the ankle.
Psin sat down hard on the platform. Before he could get up, Sidacai was beside him; Sidacai planted one foot in the small of Psin's back and shoved. Psin flew off into the midst of the mob. He scrambled up and whirled.
"Beloved sire," Sidacai said. "How you've aged."
Psin charged. He hauled himself up onto the edge of the platform, although Sidacai tried to kick him away, and straightened. Sidacai rammed into him shoulder first, and Psin wrapped both arms around his son's chest. He could feel the edge of the platform under the balls of his feet. Sidacai elbowed him, shoved, kicked, and butted him in the jaw, but Psin hung on, throwing his weight forward slightly to balance himself.
"Give up," Sidacai whispered. "These are my underlings, do you want them to see me beaten by a toothless grandfather?"
Psin ducked his head and bit him on the shoulder. Sidacai yelled. His hands flew up, and Psin with a thrust of his elbows knocked him back and away. Blood ran down Sidacai's chest. Psin wiped his mustaches.
Excerpted from Until the Sun Falls by Cecelia Holland. Copyright © 1968 Cecelia Holland. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted August 18, 2012
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