The swarm of seabirds fighting over the dead whale had been interesting. But now they’d sailed out of sight, sound, or even smell, of it, and absolutely nothing new had happened for almost fifteen minutes. In such desperate circumstances, there was only one thing to do.
“Whose turn is it to ask him?” inquired a grandchild.
“Mine,” volunteered another grandchild. “Grandpops? Hey, Grandpops. GRANDPOPS!!!!”
Graying now but as lethal as ever, the former Imperial commander scowled his signature scowl. This very scowl had caused grown men to wet their pants from the Caspian to the Mediterranean.
It didn’t seem to intimidate grandchildren at all. Perhaps that was because they already wet their pants several times a day.
“What?” Baiju Noyan barked. “Kid! What?”
“Are we THERE YET?”
* * *
So far, the locals living on the seemingly endless string of islands had all been hospitable. They were agreeable to merging with Greater Mongol if it brought more trade and protected them from enemies (such as those jerks on the next island over) and the taxes were affordable. They signed treaties over big dinners and sometimes assigned Baiju Noyan a local wife to visit when in port. Baiju was all about the visiting.
Increasingly, though, he was also spoiling for a good battle. He’d had to give up warfare cold-turkey so suddenly. Daily training matches with wooden weapons weren’t satisfying him anymore. His family members’ repertoire was getting too familiar. Maybe the next island’s village would at least have a bar; the leap from having a bar to having a bar brawl was so short one's feet never had to leave the ground.
A northerly breeze kissed the sails and didn’t quite blow the napkins off the table. Baiju looked up from his cup of salted orca-milk tea. He had milked the orca himself that very morning. “You know who I miss?” he mused aloud. “Ertugrul.”
Wife One looked up from their cartographer’s map of the previous island, which she was annotating in a graceful Uighur script, and raised her eyebrows. In a voice as dry as the Gobi she asked, “That Turkman Ghazi who hated your guts but still wanted to hang them up for public display? That Ertugrul?”
“I’m serious. He was the best enemy ever.”
“Yes, I remember. You nailed his sword-hand to a post. Then he nailed yours to a tree. Good times.”
Most people who talked sass back to Baiju Noyan were burrs under his saddle, to be removed with the nearest sharp object. Wife One’s constant stream of sass-back, though, was honey in his porridge.
Baiju’s Wife One made friends easily. She had a great multitude of friends, even if one discounted all the people she’d talked him out of killing, such as those infuriating ass-hats from the Vatican (her words). She’d even made friends with those among his backup chorus wives and emergency spare girlfriends who realized, before it was too late, that they really didn’t want her as an enemy.
Thanks to the combined efforts of her friends and his, he was not presently chained in Hulegu Ilkhan’s dungeon. Nor was he queueing for reincarnation in the Upper World while wolves gnawed his carcass here below. Instead, he was on an extended island-hopping jaunt with his equally extended family.
This was better, he repeated to himself several times a day, and even more at night, when the grandchildren on board challenged various Arctic canids on shore to impromptu operatic duets.
* * *
One day in the recent past, Baiju’s youngest son, a record-breaking high-speed equestrian messenger, disappeared from a way-station outside Erzurum. The station attendants were found unconscious with no memory of what had happened.
After a closed-carriage ride so rough it made him sick into the black bag over his head, Son Seven was hustled into a stuffy, malodorous building. Someone said “Wait here, lads; you won’t want to watch this,” shoved him into a more confined space, slammed a door behind them, and sat him down on an uncomfortable chair.
When the bag was snatched off his head and his eyes adjusted to the light, he found himself facing a tall, rangy, grizzled Turkman in a Seljuk officer’s uniform who handed him a towel and began speaking softly and rapidly: “Here, kid, clean up a little. Sorry about the black-bag treatment, but I can’t greet you as a friend when I’m wearing my Seljuk hat, and this is urgent. I’m an old friend of your dad’s. My name is Sungurtekin. Did he ever mention me?”
After a few puzzled seconds, enlightenment dawned on the young man’s face. “Uncle Sun?” he exclaimed with a delighted smile, although sotto voce because of Sungurtekin’s hurried shushing motions.
“The men outside think I’m interrogating you, so let’s make it convincing. Get ready to yell.” Sungurtekin cupped one hand and punched it very loudly with the other.
“Ahhh! Bastard!” Son Seven yelled. He even made his voice thick, as if with a split lip. The kid was good.
“We intercepted a death warrant for your dad this morning.” Sungurtekin muttered urgently. “Signed by Hulegu Ilkhan. Where’s Baiju now, do you know?”
Sungurtekin slapped his own thigh loudly three times. Son Seven responded with perfectly-timed loud grunts of pain, then answered “Tabriz, I think.”
“Good,” Sungurtekin nodded, looking at something in the distance only he could see. “He should catch a boat on the Caspian to a port outside the Ilkhanate. Any other relatives need to get out too. Can you let him know without alerting anybody who might tip off Hulegu? This is probably as much as I can do from here, but I’ll keep eyes open. Oh, make sure your mom knows too; she’ll have plans made and feelers out by the time he’s done… reacting.”
“True that,” the young man chuckled. “You do know my folks. I’ll figure something out.”
“Good lad.” Another palm-punch, another shout of pain, this time accompanied by a chair toppling to the floor. “I’d hate for all those times I had to shoot at your dad for show and just barely miss at point-blank range to go to waste. Now go limp and I’ll drag you out. Put the bag back on so they can’t see your still-pretty face.”
* * *
A little while later, a front flap opened in Baiju Noyan’s private tent in his troops' encampment near Tabriz.
“Pffft,” the Noyan scoffed as he strode in. “It’ll blow over. This kind of stink-fight always does.”
“Not this time, Pops,” insisted Son Seven. “You need to evade.”
“Futter that in flames, son.”
“But you always escaped when the Turkmen - ”
“When the enemy plans my funeral, yes, I’ll happily skip it. But if my own side thinks I need to die, I’ll gods-damn well show them how it’s done.”
“Hulegu isn’t ‘your own side,’ my Noyan,” a new voice said. Wife One came up off the divan like a trout after a dragonfly. Her bitter diatribe continued even as she wrapped Son Seven in a fierce maternal hug. “He’s a kid Khan born with a silver chip on his shoulder. He didn’t feel superior enough after demoting you, micromanaging you, and alienating your allies, so now he’ll kill you! If the late Genghis Khagan, may he ride forever in the sky, knew what his grandson was up to, he’d expel him like a nostril-full of snot in the snow.”
“Moms!” Son Seven gasped in shock gesturing wildly around the tent. “Walls!! Ears!! You’re the one who taught us that!”
“Oh, what can that pissant do if he hears me? Hm?” Wife One flapped her apron down with a pop. “Order my husband’s execution?” Noyan and son stared back dumbstruck, as if the ground under their feet had suddenly turned to wet saddle glue.
Recalling herself --- or, rather, what the men in her life had come to expect of her --- she breathed slowly in and out of her nose nine sacred times, connecting herself firmly to the earth. “Ah, my Noyan, ah! You’ve given your whole life to the Khans,” she said with a soft sadness. “You’ve given them victory after victory, even after that camel-shit demotion five years ago. You never complained, and until today neither did I. If you had died in battle, well, that’s what we signed up for. But not this. You don’t owe anyone this.”
“I Won’t. Run. Away,” Baiju declared, each word an adamant shovel rammed into half-frozen graveyard dirt.
Wife One took his face in both hands and gave him a kiss so intense it nearly buckled his knees, though with the benefit of long practice he hid it well. Coming up for air as serenely as a swan, she nipped his earlobe gently and murmured “Of course not, my bravest. No one would ever suggest that. Hold that thought.”
She went to the supply chests and rummaged in the rice box and triumphantly withdrew a sealed scroll. Then, with a scalpel retrieved from the medical kit by the door and heated briefly in the fire, she carefully peeled off the wax seal perfectly intact.
Should it worry me, the Noyan wondered, that it looks as though she’s done that a hundred times?
She briskly unrolled the scroll and handed it to him. His movements temporarily slowed by bafflement, he took it. After a moment of examining the writing, stamps, and border illumination, he gestured at her with it and adduced: “This is…”
“A commission for you from Batu Khan.” Smug, but in kind of a cute way. “A back-burner project he wants done, but it isn’t time-critical.”
“It says ‘time is of the essence’ ---” Baiju scowled as befit one of the Mongol Army’s very best scowlers.
“Of course! That’s just to scare the functionaries who read it into hustling us through. Otherwise they just fanny around forever.”
“--- but there aren’t any fixed dates on it ---”
“The Khan said to fill them in when we used it.”
“--- and there’s a big blank space under “Seconded Personnel.”
“You know Hulegu’s not coming after just you. He’ll snap up anyone who might make a good hostage or want to take revenge later. We should get the whole Baiju Dynasty out of the way.”
Still scowling, Baiju silently debated whether to voice his next question. “Do I want to ask if this document is…”
“Real as a horse going to the bathroom to spoil its rider’s dramatic pose,” Wife One attested. “Batu Khan likes you. Visiting him in Sarai when Great Khan Guyuk decommissioned you was well worth the saddle leather.”
Baiju raised his eyebrows and nodded to himself as he reviewed the plan in his head, then shut the scroll, handed it back to Wife One and took her by the shoulders as carefully as if he stood on ice. “What a highly polished idea to think of right on the spur of the moment like that, Mrs. Me,” he smirked, leaning back to look her in the eyes.
“Are you kidding?” she scoffed. “I’ve been weighing contingencies for this day ever since the camel-shit demotion. I knew your first impulse would be to ‘honorably’ roll yourself in the nearest rug and wait for the stampede, unless you had a Khan-approved alternative.
“My first idea was to go to Kara Koram and petition Great Khan Mongke for a formal hearing on actual evidence, but now Mongke’s dead and we won’t have a new Great Khan until the next Kurultai. Even fairly famous people can disappear in the rains of frogs an interregnum sets off. Hulegu’s probably counting on tipping over the whole game board and hoping no one notices your piece went missing until it’s too late. Well, chaos serves best whoever grabs it first, and thank Tengri and Sungurtekin it’ll be us. As the boy said, though, all of our buttocks need to be on a boat right now. You can’t be insubordinate to an order you never get.”
Once, long ago, Baiju had sampled and discarded this woman as he had hundreds of others. No one was surprised. Everyone knew him as a man with no heart. Yet something had broken, hard and jagged, and plunged him into a bottomless well of shock and disorientation when he’d thought she was lost to him forever. When the mercy of Tengri brought them together again, he awoke a changed man. The mighty Noyan of stormy Mongol blood had begun, sparingly and cautiously, to experiment with mercy himself. And a fat lot of good it did you, his former personality sometimes grumbled in his head. Letting Anatolia and other protectorates mostly self-govern. Giving Batu’s people, who’d been helping out, some breathing space to regroup after Hulegu summarily ejected them. Letting foreign emissaries come in, behave disrespectfully, and walk away on their own functioning legs, merely banned from Greater Mongol for life. All that slack! That’s why Hulegu wants you dead.
That might be what Hulegu says, the new Baiju replied, but he also wanted me to give him credit for battles I won before he even got here. It made him nervous that the local leaders looked to me before talking to him. And I don’t regret any of it.
During Baiju’s brief reverie, luggage had seemed to pack itself. Horses seemed to find their own way to those strictly local working docks routinely ignored by the Port Authority, and a fisherman was spontaneously, perhaps divinely, inspired to discreetly carry his favorite lady customer’s entire household to the nearest port outside the Ilkhanate. Soon, messages were flying (some quite literally, as they were attached to birds’ legs) all over Greater Mongol. To any casual reader, the messages concerned themselves with surprise parties, Dead-Goat-Polo matches, and recipes for fried smelts. Their collective effect, however, was to gather all Baiju’s children and their families to meet the apex patriarch’s party on the eastern shore of Lake Hulun.
* * *
The so-called “Baiju dynasty” included seven sons, their brides, and a swarm of grandchildren so abundant and roiling that, as with schools of minnows, it was difficult for the eye to follow any single individual. At the sight of the new arrivals, they whirled as one and stampeded toward them. “Grandpops! Grandmoms!”
“It’s been forever and ever and ever!” yelled a grandchild.
“Since I was just a little kid!” shouted another (aged about five).
After making sure he’d exchanged a hug and a sniff with each one (telling himself he couldn’t be bothered with the racket and tears and snot everywhere if he missed anyone), the Noyan lifted his parade-ground voice: “Hey! Hey! Remember, pups? Last time I left! What did I say?”
The grandchildren stopped careening and caroming, gathered into a smaller shapeless clump, and settled down to fidgeting. “Smell you later,” they chorused obediently.
“And did I keep my word?”
“Ye-e-s,” they admitted grudgingly, as if they’d been hoping for a reason to lecture him.
There were three seconds of silence. Then: “What did you bring us?” one of them challenged him.
Meanwhile Bride One, an experienced military wife accustomed to de-facto quartermastering, hurried forward with a bundle of herbal wreaths and placed one around each of the newcomers’ necks. “Keeps the mosquitoes off,” she explained.
“Oh, Tengri bless you,” Wife One effused as Baiju’s scowl lifted. In that short time, Wife One’s face (its filigree of delicate lines unmasking her as a frequent smiler), her hair (its raven blackness shot through with white swirls like frost-rime on desert cliffs at dawn) and her clothes (to become redundant at the first private opportunity) had been covered in small, grimy, sticky hand- and lip-prints. But then his attention was swept away by the bear-hug of Son One and their traditional unannounced game of Who Can Pound Harder on Whose Back. It seemed strange to meet with neither one of them in uniform or armor.
“So. Everyone made it?”
“Family luck came through again,” Bride One grinned.
“Also known as ‘bollocks the size of a barn,’” Wife One rejoined.
“Bollocks!” crowed a grandchild.
“Bollocks, bollocks, bollocks!” the rest of them chimed in.
“Oh, shite!” Wife One covered her mouth, chastened. “Sorry, I forgot.”
“Shite, shite, shite!” chorused the grandchildren, dancing out of reach of parental hands.
“Moms,” Son Four asked under his breath, “Batu’s Khanate is to the west. What’s his interest in a chain of islands that starts all the way east of the Great Khanate?”
“I gathered there’s more travel and communication across the Arse-Freezing Lands to the north than even the Great Khans imagine, and Batu’s subjects are the ones with existing ties. Batu heard about the island chain and started wondering what was on the other end. Whoever’s elected the next Great Khan at the Kurultai can take it up with Batu if he wants. Of course, the next Great Khan might be Batu. He almost got it last time.”
“He would be good. Maybe the best of the current bunch, but he never comes to Kara Koram and the KK insiders disdain anybody from outside the Stone Turtles. Nah, it’ll probably be the next Toluid brother… what’s his name? Kublai.”
“So… When are we cooking the smelts?” Bride Two wondered, not sure where the messages’ code had ended and literal content begun.
A grandchild pelting by at top speed came to a skidding stop in front of her to solemnly announce, “Whoever smelt it, dealt it.”
* * *
In the morning they all took the Ergune River to one of the trailheads leading to the hidden valleys of Ergunekhun and performed a Tengri ritual at an ovoo shrine of incalculable age. Here in the legendary birthplace of the Mongol people, the smoke of incense and food offerings in the air, drums booming and mouth-harps twanging and horse-head fiddles wailing and khoomei voices making eerie harmonies, with arms stretched out and faces turned up to the Eternal Blue Sky, turn and turn and turn again, the three generations danced.
Baiju’s Turkish mother had told him long ago that her people originally came from these same valleys. Ertugrul's family should really see this one day, came the unbidden thought.
The sons' brides had swiftly, and even in reasonable silence, loaded the collection of dugout canoes on the riverbank. “Family! Are we ready?” Baiju called out.
“Tengri willing,” said Bride Three.
“And we don’t run out of pine-nut butter,” said Bride Four.
“Or cloudberry jam,” said Bride Five.
“Or vinegar wipes,” said Bride One.
“Ey Gok Tengri,” all the women intoned, sweeping their arms upward like shamans offering ladles of milk. Wherever children were, so very many things always needed a wipe.
* * *
Unlike some of the tangled waterways of the Home Steppe that could never choose a direction and stick with it, the Black River (or Black Dragon River, depending on which bank you stood on) knew exactly where it was going and brooked no opposition. Nevertheless, the small fleet of dugout canoes pulled up and stopped frequently to trade goods and gossip with local villagers and to provide potty breaks for those unnerved by the unreasonably large, ugly. toothy fish following, sometimes ramming, the boats. One grandchild had told all the rest that when she’d “hung it over the side like a warrior,” a fish twice the size of the canoe came right up underneath and sang her a song that went kind of like this:
“I see your hiney
It’s bright and shiny
You’d better hide it
Before I bite it!”
After that, it was Khutulun-bar-the-door.
* * *
At the mouth of the river was anchored a three-masted sailing vessel --- Chinese-built, by the look of it --- large enough for everyone and then some. Son Three gave out a low whistle. "Now that's a lot of junk."
* * *
Mountains rose out of the sea with their tops a-smolder like the smoke-holes of enormous tents. Most were cone-shaped like tents used in snowy places, but a few were squat and dome-roofed like tents in dry climates. Red liquid light, like molten bronze in a smith’s shop, trickled down the side of one. At home there were hot springs and fumaroles with the same sulfur smell, but nothing like this.
Son Six, who was presently settling into the Age of Speaking Meaningfully to Parents Again, dropped into the seat his father had vacated. “Hey Moms, this Ertugrul guy: How’d he manage to stomp on Pops’ threshold so hard?” He put down his steaming cup and produced a handful of paper twists containing whatever the currently beautiful generation put in its tea. “I mean, all that stuff happened before we were even born. And it isn’t like nobody’s tried to kill Pops off since. Case in point,” he waved vaguely at the ship and the passing landscape.
Wife One raised her ink-brush and thoughtfully nibbled its dry end. “It was a prophecy thing,” she finally said in a faraway voice. “We might never understand. Your father’s shaman, Ulubilge, predicted that unless Ertugrul was murdered, Anatolia would be his and his descendants would rule the world. After that, I think your father concluded that it was his personal duty to keep Greater Mongol together by ending Ertugrul’s line, and he couldn’t manage it. Even now, when it’s starting to look like our own homemade sin is the biggest immediate threat, he still broods.”
* * *
The ship pitched and rolled and occasionally yawed, but the hanging beds in the cabins hung in there unaffected. Baiju Noyan, unable to sleep, tried but failed to interest himself in the construction of the clever pivot-jointed hooks overhead that isolated the bed from the outside world. Time was not on his side; it was halfway past the middle of the night, when all kinds of unfriendly spirits come out to torment any human still awake. Fine, he thought, rolling out from beside whichever backup chorus wife he’d been visiting. Let’s see if those spectral pests can stand the cold on deck as well as I can.
I did everything wrong with Ertugrul, he reflected gloomily as he leaned on the stern rail and watched the phosphorescent wake. He knew that now. What’s more, he felt bad about it! For that, he had only himself to blame. The Eternal Blue Sky and Great Mother Earth had originally made him regret-proof --- a wonderful survival trait for a warrior --- and he’d had to go and second-guess them. Why had he ever made himself learn to imagine other people’s feelings?
He knew why. Well into a regret-free adulthood, he’d heard that there was supposedly ‘something wrong’ with people who couldn’t (a) guess how others were feeling and (b) reproduce those feelings in themselves. When he’d first aspired to keep Wife One around without needing to physically lock her up, he’d decided that there wouldn’t be anything wrong with him if he could help it. The woman in charge of his camp’s “Corps of Laundresses” (women who went into his men’s tents at all hours and made them take off their dirty clothes) listened sympathetically and suggested some tactical approaches:
- Look for signs that another person is having a feeling (she’d been kind enough to make him a rudimentary chart of facial expressions to watch for, although she’d drawn them all on bunnies for some reason).
- Try to guess which feeling it is, then ask the person which one they actually feel.
- Get the other person to describe what the feeling is like. While you listen, imagine you feel the same way.
- See if they will tell you why they feel that way. (She’d provided a list of questions to use. Nowadays he skipped “Is it my fault?” when the other person was female. The answer was almost always “yes”).
Over time, he’d gotten good at it. When he realized he was better at it than he wanted to be, he couldn’t figure out how to reverse it. As it turned out, most people, most of the time, felt bad! Especially in wars. And the new "improved" Baiju Noyan ended up feeling bad right along with them! Poke that with a poker. A red-hot one.
He had underappreciated, and then lost, the ability to wade through incarnadine floods of rage, sorrow, and pain without getting any on him. In hindsight, he should have stopped after the initial guess-the-feeling part, or at least curtailed the further investigation to a simple “Do I care, or not?” If he’d been able to read reactions better when he’d met Ertugrul, he might have woken up and started ignoring Sadettin Kobek’s advice earlier.
Freakin’ Sadettin Kobek.
The Grand Viziers of the Near Eastern sultanates used to be famous for their kindness, honesty and, above all, transparency. Never a devious or self-interested bone in their bodies. Everyone, whether citizen or visitor, could always trust a Grand Vizier. And then came Sadettin Kobek.
Looking back, Baiju admitted that perhaps it had been a little suspicious for an acquisition-target country’s high official, on his own initiative, to cozy up to a Mongol Noyan in the first place. Empire-builders seemed to have that endemic blind spot: an inability to imagine why anybody wouldn’t want to join them.
Especially considering the alternatives…
Great Khan Genghis’s way, may he ride forever in the sky, was to first try to get the acquisition target to take a “carrot,” such as political marriage, blood brotherhood, protection, infrastructure, or trade. Only if none of these worked should one actually use the “stick” of killing them all and sorting it out with their next incarnations. Some of the kid Khans didn’t have the patience for that. Sooner or later it would cost them.
Baiju Noyan had looked forward to meeting the Oghuz Turkmen. He’d been a child when his Turkish mother had passed away; this could be a second chance to learn about his roots. He expected his heritage to help him persuade them to join Greater Mongol voluntarily. After all, the Mongols were fellow nomadic herders, and Greater Mongol’s army included more Turkic peoples than ethnic Mongols by that time. Who knew; he might even get one or more high-born wives out of the deal.
Much to Baiju’s perplexity and dismay, the Turkmen Beys had no interest in carrots or any other vegetables. They were also confident of an ability to bite any brandished stick in half, regardless of size or composition. They didn’t care whether they died. In fact, it seemed they’d rather die than have to pay any taxes or come into regular contact with dissimilar people. Without an influential friend in the tribes, the Noyan was getting nowhere on a very fast horse.
He remembered that his old friend Sungurtekin was from one of these tribes. Sungurtekin had spoken of a wildly popular younger brother Ertugrul: a brave and talented fighter with a larger-than-life presence that commanded attention. Also a show-off madly in love with himself --- but then, such had been the larval form of many a charismatic leader. A banner boy like that might win some of the tribes over, or at least their warriors, which at the end of the day came out the same.
With Ertugrul as an ally, perhaps even a friend, Baiju knew he could win the tribes over, perhaps without wasting any of their formidable warriors. How to approach him, though? The Turkmen mindset was opaque to him. The best “people person” he knew, his lifelong friend Ogedei, could have solved it in seconds. Unfortunately, Oggy was thousands of miles away and busy being Great Khan at the time.
Enter Emir Sadettin Kobek,with his velvets and brocades, his jeweled ornaments and smoky fine beard and unnervingly long-lashed eyes that could look as soft and patient as a cow’s just before they went dead-flat and merciless as a snake’s. He insisted he understood the Turkmen and would help Baiju befriend Ertugrul. In return, Baiju only needed to deliver Greater Mongol’s support for Kobek to become the new Seljuk Sultan if, Allah forbid, anything should happen to the old one.
Over roast pheasant stuffed with couscous, almonds, and tart cherries, he explained that the Turkmen were proudest of their strength. Therefore, their attention would only be gained by a decisive display of strength greater than their own. Until they were sufficiently shocked and awed, Kobek told him over spring lamb chops braised slowly in garlic-mint yogurt sauce and served over chilled cucumber slices, they would continue smirking, sneering, and sniggering behind Baiju’s back. But if Baiju’s men successfully cut Ertugrul out of the herd and took him prisoner, Sadettin proposed over salt-baked sea bass and a caramelized melange of shallots and fennel bulbs, it would drive home the point that they could take complete control of his life at any time.
Between bites of a crisp-crusted venison-and-wild-mushroom pie, the Emir admonished the Noyan not to be shy about bringing the pain to break down Ertugrul’s resistance. This would not only showcase the strength of Ertugrul’s prospective comrades-in-arms; it would also satisfy Ertugrul’s own pride that he had not given in too easily.
(And the next evening, Kobek had treated Baiju’s third-in-command, Bortlu, to sharbat and date-nut marzipan while persuading him that Baiju would be impressed by his initiative if, while the Noyan was traveling and Tangut was busy securing Ertugrul, Bortlu took it on himself to mount a gratuitously nasty little raid on the Kayis camp).
Baiju, Tangut, and Bortlu had all been military men raised in military families to whom food was nothing more than fuel. To such a mentality, nutritional quality and portability are paramount, while flavor and texture are irrelevant. Exposure to the sublime heights of ecstasy available to the gourmand had played holy hell with their gastronomic resilience. The prospect of living on stewed salted mutton for months at a time, once acceptable, became almost unbearably depressing. Though not the greatest of Kobek’s cruelties, Baiju mused in the stealthily waxing pre-dawn light, it was far from the least.
“Nokhoi khor!” a grandchild said somewhere nearby. The Noyan, still submerged in gloom, ignored it.
“Hey, Grandpops! Nokhoi khor!” the grandchild said, placing small grubby hands on Baiju’s knees.
Baiju looked up, uncomprehending. “You don’t have to say ‘Hold the dog’ out here,” he said. “That’s what you say when you want to come into a ger when the door is closed. We’re not in a tent. Not to mention we don’t have any dogs along.”
“No, Grandpops,” the small boy explained with exaggerated patience. “It’s a nokhoi-khor joke. When I say ‘nokhoi khor’, you’re a-sposed to say ‘Who’s there?’ All right, now let’s start over. Nokhoi khor!”
“Who’s… there?” Baiju responded warily.
“Ed Zachary,” replied the grandchild.
Baiju furrowed his brow and stared at the grandchild, waiting to see what would happen next.
The grandchild stared back expectantly, for five or six heartbeats, then rolled his eyes, sighed, and instructed, “Now you say ‘Ed Zachary who?”
“All right. Ed Zachary who?”
“Your sister’s face looks ‘Ed-Zachary’ like a horse’s rear end!” the grandchild crowed, dissolving into giggles.
Baiju looked uncomprehendingly at the nearest adult, Son Three, who shrugged helplessly. “Last year it was all musk-ox jokes. Be glad you missed it… Come on, squirt, let’s see if the big black-and-white bitey fish catches any more birds… No, don’t be disappointed. You were funny. It’s just that your Grandpops can’t smile or laugh. During the war, a guy named Ertugrul shot an arrow through his funny bone. It was very sad."
A minute or so later, Wife One walked by and remarked offhandedly, “The coast is clear; your reputation is safe.” With that, Baiju let his chin drop to his chest and covertly grinned behind his enviable scowl-enhancing mustache. “Ed-Zachary like a horse’s rear end,” he repeated under his breath, his shoulders shaking with furtive mirth.
* * *
“First thing I did when I met Ertugrul was fake his death for him,” Baiju recollected later as he and a couple of his sons trailed fishing lines off one of the ships. “Tried to give him some breathing space to step back and consider his future. Every leader needs that. Turns out the timing was bad because his wife was pregnant.”
“Did she have a boy or a girl?” asked a grandchild, bringing her father a mug of airag and settling at his feet.
“Believe she had a boy.”
“Did she ever have any girls?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did you ever want your wives to have girl babies?”
“Why not? Don’t you like little girls?”
“Of course I like them, erdene,” he reassured her. “But if I had daughters, I’d feel like I had to kill all the men who paid attention to them.”
“In case… in case one of them turned out to be another me.”
A musical giggle; “You’re funny, Grandpops. You don’t have to go and kill everybody all the time.”
After several silent moments one of the sons said, “Didn’t you once tell Ertugrul you wanted him to be your dog?”
“Was he very fuzzy? Was that why?” asked the little girl.
“Yes --- no --- I mean, he was very fuzzy. But that wasn’t why. And he completely misunderstood... because he didn’t know how we treat our dogs, and I didn’t explain it right. You see, some Muslims consider dogs to be unclean lower animals. They don't let them in their tents or houses. They lock them up in pens or tie them up on leashes almost all the time. Traditional Tengri Mongols don’t treat dogs like that. They’re our respected friends because they have the same kind of soul we do. They almost always run loose. They get names when even our horses don’t get names. They just have to bring us a bird or a rabbit every once in a while, or guard the camp, or watch the sheep. When I invited him to be like a Mongolian dog, he must have thought I would treat him like a Muslim dog… Besides, I once told him I was his hellhound, so in a way I was his dog too.”
Several more silent moments passed. Then:
“Can we get a dog? A really, really fuzzy one? Then if Grandpops wants to, he could name him Ertugrul.”
“You know,” Baiju said, oblivious to the exchange, “I bet Ertugrul also thought I insulted him when I said I’d leave his body out for the wolves. He probably didn’t know that in Mongolia, wolves only eat the bodies of heroes.”
* * *
The next morning when Heaven’s door first opened a crack of dawn, Baiju crawled, exhausted, out of his newest trade-agreement wife’s snow-house. Any other man his age might have at least briefly considered allocating some of the commercial-marital duties to his grown sons, As they kept suggesting. Repeatedly. But the Noyan had never shirked such obligations before and was not about to start. Relegating any prized daughter of a proud village to the care of a mere underling might, after all, cause offense.
He stepped into a small stand of struggling trees and, among other things, hurriedly scrubbed his skin with snow and drew his robe tight around him. Seen only by a disinterested wading bird poking around the estuary shallows, he stole silently back onto the main boat. He let himself silently into the stern cabin and crept into the hanging bed beside Wife One like a heat-seeking reptile made wary by experience. Soon, regardless of where the rest of the world had gotten to, he was exactly where he wanted to be.
* * *
Beyond a narrow strait, a wide land mass began looming out of the mist. Baiju Noyan stood, looked for a few seconds to be sure, and smiled like nobody was watching. “Kids!” he barked in his parade-ground voice. “Pups! Whelps! Squirts!”
They streamed out of every hatchway onto every deck. “What, Grandpops? What?”
“We. Are. THERE.”
There was an awed silence.
For almost five seconds.
“Nokhoi khor!” a grandchild piped up.
“Who’s there?” another one responded.
“Not that one again. We’ve all heard it enough,” pleaded a Bride.
“But this is a new one! Really!”
“All right then. Go ahead."
"Ed Zachary who?”
“Why do they call this the ‘New’ World? It looks ‘Ed-Zachary’ like the old one!”
”Ey Gok Tengri, Baiju exhaled into the following wind. All right then, Ertugrul. You and your family, rule the Old World if you must... and if you can. We’ll make do with this one.