Once upon time, Alan Gua knew a change must be made. Her five sons had grown up strong and clever, but they had succumbed to suspicion of one another. They were content to dance to the rivalries of the past, when they should turn their eyes to the future. They reminded her of a broken cart, its wheels turning uselessly in the wind. And that simply would no do.
In time she called them to her, handing each man an arrow.
“Break them,” she instructed. During the space of a heartbeat her sons had easily completed the task set before them. They watched her in sullen silence and confusion as they dropped the destroyed weapons on the grass.
Alan Gua produced five more arrows. No matter how much effort she put into the effort, they would not break when held together. Each of her sons attempted the feat, and each of them failed.
“These arrows demonstrate what you must be to one another. Apart you are just one man, with one man’s weaknesses. Together, you can be indomitable. Set aside your distrust and no harm can come to you.”
When unleashed, arrows could only venture forward. It could fall uselessly to the ground, it could stall in the bark of a tree, or it could wound an enemy. But there was no turning back, no stopping, no second-guessing. Once the arrow flew through the air, new horizons began. Alan Gua hoped her children learned that lesson, too.
The assassins had killed Alaqai’s husband and slaughtered many of her friends. They would have gladly slit her throat, had she not been forewarned. Her would-be murderers chased her across the countryside, all the way to her father’s camp. From conquering queen and a wife to hunted enemy and a widow. How fate could turn in an instant.
When Genghis Khan had bid her farewell, sending her forth to reign over the Onggud, she had not envisioned meeting him again like this. When she stood before her father now, it took all she had to not turn away. She felt as though the ashes of defeat had strangled her, and a wounded sense of pride tempted her to demand bloody vengeance. The words rested there in the back of her throat, so close to being given voice. No one would find fault with her, least of all her father.
Instead Alaqai remembered her mother’s face when they had said their goodbyes. She remembered Borte’s voice, and the customs of her mother’s tribe. Strategy, discretion, diplomacy. She thought abouther two step-sons, who had made the perilous journey with her, and forced herself to speak otherwise. “May I have a day to decide the next course of action?”
“Of course,” her father said.
Alaqai passed a sleepless night, spent in prayer and deliberation. She felt her wish for retribution bleed out of her soul like poison. The clouds lifted from her mind the way clouds dispered after a storm. In the morning she should have been bleary-eyed, but she sought her father out with a clear head, clear heart and clear goals.
“I would like to spare all of the Onggud, save for the assassins and their families.”
She could immediately see that Genhis Khan was puzzled, but he would not gainsay her. Not immediately. “Can you tell me why you have come to this conclusion?”
Because the servants who had saved her life despite owing her nothing. Because her husband, though she had spent little time with him, had been kind. Because the walled city she now lived in was so different from her childhood home. Because Alaqai had always had a curious nature. Because she wanted to stay there. Because she wanted to reign.
She thought of the Onngud; their temples, languages, houses, gers, religion, and traders. The whole breadth of humanity settled in one location. She couldn’t face her husband’s children again if she allowed her father to raze their entire life to the ground.
“The city is in a strategic location.” But, of course, a city didn’t always need its original inhabitants. She needed other reasons. “And the Onggud have treated me well, despite having no reason to love me.”
Her father’s silence stretched on. “Very well,” he said, finally.
And when her stepchildren saw her again, there was an increased amount of respect for her in their eyes.
Mercy could be as strong as wrath.
“None of my sons are fit to reign. Not for many years,” Toregene said, her words falling heavily into the silence of the tent she shared now with Fatima. Oh, her tone was casual enough, but no amount of self-deprecation could mask the importance of what she said.
Fatima closed her eyes, weighing what she had heard. Toregene had chosen her for a servant, all those years ago, and now their lives were seamlessly woven together. There had been a sense of serenity about the foreign woman, an intriguing impression of bemused wisdom. In comparison, Toregene was all motion; restless body, vehement words, racing mind. She could outrace nearly everyone on her horse, and that was one of the only ways to escape her very nature.
The other way being through Fatima, of course. Fatima, who was all stillness and placidity. She contrasted with Ogodei’s vociferous counselors, as thoroughly as she complemented Toregene’s ambitions. Her friend could not be cowed in any way, and anyone who made the mistake of thinking so was soon disabused of the notion. Fatima was a servant, but she seemed to have a sense of her role in life that existed well outside the mores and scriptures of mere mortals.
When Fatima answered Toregene’s unspoken question, she kept her hands gently clasped against her knees. “Guyuk could, perhaps, reign. But you would need to prepare him.”
“We would need to discard those who were loyal to Ogdei.” She felt her lips curling in disdain at the thought of her late, un-lamented husband. “And we’ll have to act quickly, because Sorkhokhatani will take action if we do not.”
Fatima blinked rapidly, often the only sign of surprise she would ever make. “’We?’ Did I hear you properly?”
Toregene had not given much choice in her life when it came to her companions. During her nightmares she could still smell her first husband’s blood and hear the screams of the Mongols murdering so many of the Merkid men. Her new husband had been a drunk, and in the last few years of his life had only risen from his stupor to foist foolish counselors onto the realm.
She loved her sons, but Fatima was the only relationship that Toregene had ever picked for herself.
“How do you feel about being chief minister?” She offered, again in a light tone. Again, as if kingdoms wouldn’t rise and fall on the words spoken here.
It was Fatima’s turn to surprise Toregene. She reached over to the Mongol queen and clasped their hands together. “I feel like we can accomplish a great deal.”
Travelers traded in stories as much as weapons, spices and clothe, even if these exchanges never made it into the records. One tale, journeying east, and no doubtless twisted and changed by the distance, struck Ai Yaruq as worth emulating. The central figure, a huntress with no desire to marry, had announced that she would only marry the man who could outrace her. As she was the fastest person in the land, the woman believed she would remain free forever.
Though Ai Yaruq took a liking to this particular myth, she was determined that her own life would enfold differently than the princess from the west. Running was not for her. Instead, she would meet her would-be husbands head on, denying their plans through wrestling matches. And, unlike the end of the story from a far off land, she would never lose.
Her parents laughed at the notion, perhaps thinking it a whim that would fade in time. As the months passed and Ai Yaruq allowed no man to prevail, and the amusement morphed into concern.
“Would it not be better to marry?” her mother coaxed, gently. “Through marriage you gain allies and friends. And it didn’t turn out so bad for me.”
For anyone else, Ai Yaruq would have boasted, sunk into bravado. But, more than anyone else, she loved and honored her parents. She wanted to remain on campaign with her father, advising him on strategy, racing across the step and sending arrows into the hearts of her enemies. She wanted to stay and laugh with her mother. No potential husband currently matched the joy she felt with her family.
“Someday I will. But I’m not ready yet.” It might even be true.
“ What are you waiting for?” Her father asked, not unkindly.
“Someone… impressive.” And then Ai Yaruq gave a lopsided grin. “Someone as impressive as I am.”
Her father roared with laughter at that. “That may be impossible.”
Manduqai had grown up on the very edges of the Gobi desert. It was a dry and boundless land. And when the nights stretched on, long and cold, her family regaled her with tales of their past. Her earliest years had been marked by rebellion, her mother’s relatives slaughtered by Esen Taishi, her father’s decision to turn against the man for whom he had once acted as counselor.
It was some time before a new leader had been found, and memories of unity faded. It seemed to Manduqai that it was a distant dream that had evaporated like water on desert stones. That time belonged to the world of myths and legends. She wanted to see the world her father’s father must have known. She wanted to live in the time when her mother’s clan had reigned. One day she might see it happen, but for now her life was the Choros clan. Her existence centered on this collection of gers around the Hami oasis. She learned to hunt and kill with bow and arrow, or with a knife to the throat. No one would harm her family. No one had the right to kill her.
It should have been a happy time when Manduluun was declared khan. It should have been an even better thing when was declared his wife his second wife. But when the ceremony ended, she felt distant and unsettled. A settled, easy life seemed anathema to her. She couldn’t fathom staying behind walls.
But slowly, over the years, she became accustomed to this new kind of power. She established a friendship with her husbands gentle, but stubborn, first wife. She acquired knowledge of how to rule and reign.
And when she was widowed, so many clamored to gain a kingdom through marriage to her.
But this was her time, this was her moment. Manduqai denied them all. Somewhere, far away, there lived a child who was distantly related to her former husband. Like her, he lived at the edges of a desert. They had never met, but she felt as though she would understand her far better than the generals and warlords that demanded her hand.
Manduqai would find him, and together they would take their place at the heart of the empire.