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Washed Up in Ezogashima

Chapter Text

No Name Girl awoke under the eternal blue sky, bright sunlight stabbing through the gaps between her eyelashes.

Too bright. And it was too windy. And there was a distinct lack of pillows and carpets between her bare back and the scrubby grass. As a matter of fact, the only thing unchanged from when she’d gone to sleep was a certain absence of clothing.

She’d gone to sleep indoors --- yes, that was the right word; it had been a beautiful big solid ger with multiple layers of wall and real doors. What did the Turkmen in warmer Anatolia call the insides of their lightweight tents? she wondered hazily. “Inflaps ?”

No, no, come back, No Name Girl, she commanded herself. Something important happened. You need to focus and figure out what it is.

There had been a game. A vast, noisy one that went on forever. And a party of more or less the same sort.

A wedding?

Possibly her wedding?

Her head began to pound as loud as thunder. She couldn’t look too closely at that one. Not yet.

And she’d fallen asleep at some point inhaling the scents of incense and perfume. In a pile of warm, beautiful pillows and rugs. Silk and fine wool… and wolf skins…

The Yasa laws of Greater Mongol reserve wolf skins for the use of the Altan Urag, the Golden Family...

She let her head turn very slowly to the side. The light became less blinding. She opened her eyes just the merest crack.

The steppe was empty of any human soul, living or dead. But all around her lay the picked-over scraps of a great feast... and also the kind of random detritus people drop in the course of a hasty departure. Maybe someone had dropped something she could wear? But that would have to wait: There were still wolf skins nearby, but the original owners weren’t done with them yet.

She could see ten big gray wolves just in this random direction, nosing expertly through the food scraps. Formidable hunters, to be sure, but not too proud for a free meal when nobody who mattered was looking.

Had they noticed her? If so, it wasn’t obvious. Maybe they’d fill up on the acres of leftovers and go away.

Yeah.

Maybe.

She probably shouldn’t move for a while. They couldn’t see the heat she gave off, thank Tengri, but she couldn’t do much about her scent…

From behind her, an exhalation of nearby breath moistened her cheek. She stopped breathing. Some sniffing, some drooling… then jaws closing on her outer ear.


Chapter Text

The Black Bitey, Baiju Noyan’s Stygian Arab show-off stallion, was getting fractious. He wasn’t a horse that enjoyed being part of a formation or being restricted to a supply-wagon pace. With the merest flex of an ankle, Baiju signaled him to break off and head back to the idle herd. The Sweet Georgian Brown, Baiju’s practical mount and the herd’s lead mare, smelled them coming and ambled over. Tangut, Baiju’s second, also appeared, ready to help with the transition.

Baiju surveyed the herd critically. “Any sign of The Fork-Tongued Son of a Bitch?” The uncanny white Azerdeli was, in economic terms, the prize of the herd. Only Sultans could afford them; in fact, Baiju had acquired his from a Sultan he defeated. They were beautiful, intelligent, and blindingly fast. They were also excruciatingly uncomfortable to ride --- assuming one got that far. It was well known, albeit only to a few, that every Azerdeli ever born hated humans in general and self-important men most of all. The Fork-Tongued Son of a Bitch didn’t miss its old master a bit, but on the other hand, it held a special grudge against the Noyan for being temporarily possessed by a djinn powerful enough to bully it mercilessly.  As a result, Baiju began to wonder that his paranoid-peripheral vision hadn’t picked up the image of a skulking or lurking Azerdeli for a while.

Tangut shook his head. “Last I saw, he took off to follow the Agent’s wagon to the Kayis obasi.” He hated reminding the Noyan of an event that seemed to bother him, but those were the facts.

Instead of lashing out with a sword or dagger, though, Baiju only let out an inflectionless “Hm.”

Orang, the Dargas’ gofer who was helping escort the horses, piped up, “That horse sure did like her.”

Tangut pinched the bridge of his nose in chagrin. “I doubt the Kayis could even get near it,” he hurriedly took over the conversation. “It might catch up with us soon.”

“Made sure she knew about it, too,” said Orang almost under his breath, “before it was too late.”

Baiju froze.

Tangut froze.

The Sweet Georgian Brown let out a whicker that roughly translated as (Oh, for Tengri’s sake!) and, without waiting for instruction, bore the Noyan swiftly away.



Chapter Text

The Fork-Tongued Son of a Bitch had a true name: Summer Cloud Sultan. He knew it. His mother knew it. And he’d told it to his Burden, the human he’d decided to carry voluntarily.

His Burden’s name was Khenbish’s Nerguitani. It translated as “Nobody’s daughter, No Name Girl.” So technically she didn’t have a name. She’d explained to Summer Cloud Sultan that she and her parents were shamans, who were often given “nameless names” to hide them from evil spirits. He’d asked her if that didn’t cause problems for good spirits who came looking for them. She had a good laugh about that. Apparently, blessings didn’t go to the trouble to seek shamans out very often, which was only one of the reasons such people had to be forcibly drafted by the spirits. No one in their right mind would volunteer.

Still, it must have its rewards. For instance, he’d seen the young Mongolian woman change the weather a couple of times. He wished she would do that now. So far, the entire day had been given over to a soggy drizzle intent on making as much mud as possible out of the Yam road back to the Home Steppes. The desultory dripping didn’t quite drown out Nergui’s intermittent sniffles and stifled sobs. Was the weather matching her mood somehow?

(I don’t know everything about your kind,) he finally ventured, (but I would think you’d be happy now). Though Summer Cloud Sultan couldn’t speak human words aloud like his storied ancestor Eid Efendi, he could project them telepathically. (We’re not Baiju Noyan’s toys anymore. You exorcized that Djinn out of him so he’s marginally less monstrous. You died for your country --- without, I must add, taking any horses with you --- so they shouldn’t make you do it again. You were brought back to the same life, which doesn’t happen to everyone. And now you’re going home. On a truly remarkable horse. Yet here you are, leaking tears and snot into my mane.)

“I don’t know why I’m this way,” she admitted aloud, wiping her face with the back of a sleeve. “This isn’t me. At least, not the ‘me’ I know.”

That was welcome news to Summer Cloud Sultan; the Burden he’d undertaken to carry had been cheerful, friendly, and resilient, much more given to singing than sniveling. She still had the marvelously round, firm, cushiony seat that felt so nice on his back, though. Her riding was steadily improving too, although that wasn’t saying much; she’d never been on a horse before a moon or two ago.

“I’ll try some more energy exercises,” she resolved, “but I’ll wait till we stop.” For a wonder, she actually cared that some of the invisible things she did made him feel like his spine had turned into a giant centipede if he was too close to her. “Maybe I’m having some complications from the death-and-resurrection thing. I hope I don’t have to start eating human brains or anything.”

(Probably takes a lot of those to make a meal. Most of them are very small and some are missing entirely.)

When they pulled up at the way-station, the stablemaster paused his shoveling and let out a whistle. “Dang me!” he grinned appreciatively. “Where’d you get that beauty?”

(Anatolia,) the horse answered. (But there aren’t many left.)

The look on the latent Horse Listener’s face was priceless.

Chapter Text

 

Nokhoi khor! ” Nergui called out politely at the door of the waystation reception ger. This was still a largely Muslim part of the Silk Road, so dogs might not be allowed inside, But the Yam network waystations were a Greater Mongol civil service operation, so then again they might.

Receiving no answer, she stepped over (not on) the threshold and found there was a dog inside, just no one to hold it. The Bankhar was of the short-haired variety found in warmer climates, all black, and medium-sized (meaning you couldn't quite ride it in a pinch if your horse got tired). It didn't seem too concerned about her, ambling over unhurriedly with a slow, relaxed tail-wag. She held out her paiza, the Imperial identification badge that entitled her to use government facilities, so the dog could sniff that instead of part of her body. Having recently found out about Dogmen the hard way, she’d resolved to start holding all unknown purported canines to a higher standard of etiquette.

The stableman had invited her to help herself to suutei tsai if no one was in, so she walked clockwise around the ger until she found the teapot, pausing only to poke the hanging milk-sack a few times with the provided stick. Mongolians always walked clockwise around gers . It made one mindful of Tengri. According to some acquaintances from points east, it kept the feng shui combed free of tangles. And, as a special bonus, it allowed an astounding number of people to share a surprisingly small space without bumping into each other.

She plunged the utility ladle (not to be confused with the ceremonial ladle) into the bottom of the pot to see what the surprise was. Surprises, as some children’s parents called them, could transform suutei tsai from a hot, creamy, salty restorative beverage into a meal in itself. Most often it would be millet or some other grain, toasted and cooked until tender with the tea leaves as a seasoning herb. But this time: jackpot! Dumplings.

Maybe it was time for the waystation staff to eat. She’d just take a couple…In her emotionally brittle state, the unexpected extra kindness hit her like ice water on a hot clay pot. She felt her eyes puddle up again.

“I guess Yesu isn’t back yet,” commented the stableman as he walked in a little later. “I’m Boldo, by the way.”

“Nergui,” she responded cordially. Only moments ago she’d been scrubbing the tear-tracks from her cheeks with the cuff of her official jacket in a desperate bid for presentability. Her mom had always drummed into her that she was an appallingly ugly crier. Now the world seemed like a better place altogether. Amazing what a dumpling and a dry seat in front of a warm fire could do.

“Oh!” Boldo realized. “Nergui. Agent Khenbish’s Nerguitani. You’ve got a couple messages! Gimme a sec.”

“Wow, I must be popular,” she quipped as Boldo rummaged in the writing chest.

“Yes, there was a pidge,” he said, holding out a tiny scroll suitable for attaching to a pigeon’s leg, “and this , trying in vain to seem less interested than he was as he handed over a messenger’s full-size scroll case covered in immaculate beige deer hide as soft as a baby’s behind. She decided she’d tell him what it said as long as she didn’t have to kill him afterward, and silently thanked Tengri that someone else had dealt with the pigeon. Birds . Still not part of her skill set.

The pidge was from Chagaanirvys Darga, her boss in the capital. “Received your request for medical leave. Sorry you’re not well, but WPP asks about you so don’t minge about. Get back here ASAP. We’ll take care of you.”

WPP? Oh. World Peace Palace. That’s right, I bet Tori wants Borte‘s pendant back. I wonder if the Khagan knew it was gone?

Nergui had only been in Kara Koram for a couple days, getting processed into the agency, when she met a dazzlingly dressed lady who introduced herself as “Tori” and needed help with some broken feathers on her ridiculously tall hat. Nergui, a former traveling country healer who always had a song in her heart and a sharp sewing needle hidden in her hair, had been glad to oblige. “Tori“ head turned out to be Empress Toregene, the Great Khan’s primary wife. What’s more, when Tori had learned about Nergui’s mission to Anatolia, she lent Nergui her late mother-in-law‘s favorite everyday pendant. The hope had been that such a visible reminder of Palace favor would discourage Baiju Noyan from killing the rookie Agent in one of his random fits of violent pique.

It worked… until it didn’t.

To be absolutely fair, it was within the realm of possibility that the Noyan hadn’t intended her death. He’d simply gotten carried away with trying to stop her from trying to save his life by marrying one of his least-respected enemies. When slandering her as a slut backfired (her teenage suitor had no experience himself but by damn he wanted some) Baiju reasoned that the Turkmen would never marry one of their favorite sons to a spy and weapons smuggler. He’d been right about that. He found out the hard way, and Nergui found out the even harder way, that they executed such undesirables on sight.

Then again, she’d been sent to stop Baiju from getting carried away so much. Before she arrived, it appeared that his boots only rarely touched the ground.

Great. So either he lost his cool, meaning I botched my mission, or I succeeded in cooling off his head and he had me killed on purpose.

She shook her head, trying to clear it.  These didn’t sound anything like her normal thoughts. As a rule, when life gave her horseshit, she dried it out and set it on fire. Perhaps she needed a distraction --- but look, there was one in her hand, in the form of that fancy-looking scroll.

Wow. The niceness of the scroll case was continued in the heavy ivory paper and meticulous, but not overly curlicued, calligraphy.

“To Khenbish’s Nerguitani,” she read aloud, “You will be honored to attend the Kashgar vs. Kabul buzkashi match as a guest of Chagatai Khan ---”

Boldo gasped. “Oh. My. Tengri. Are you kidding me?”

The Great Khan’s older brother Chagatai ruled the land she was traveling through. His Khanate had come with some ready-built cities, each of which could have offered him a palace full of seasoned back-stabbing courtiers, but he preferred the nomadic life. A populace made aware that the Khan could set up camp in any of its backyards the day after tomorrow was a populace that stayed on its toes. Chagatai had also overseen the building of the roads and way stations of the Yam rapid-communication network, thus becoming a living patron saint to all its employees.

That much Nergui knew. But -

“What’s buzkashi? ” she asked.

Boldo looked at her as if she must be as thick as two short planks over a long-drop latrine. “ Buzkashi! You know!   Kök Börü! Kupkari! Ulak tartysh!

The small crease between her brows persisted. Her flatly quizzical gaze was not washed by a wave of comprehension.

“Dead Goat Polo,” Boldo tried finally.

“OHhh. Right.” Some of her dad’s friends could go on and on about Dead Goat Polo matches they’d seen. Small wonder, when the matches themselves could go on for days. It was said that of all the physical pleasures he pursued --- and he pursued all of them --- Chagatai Khan loved sports the most, and Dead Goat Polo most of all.  “So this Kashgar vs. Kabul match ---”

“Is only the best one of the year! They’re bitter rivals. There’s enough money wagered to extend the Great Wall all the way to Bukhara. And guaranteed fatalities!”

“Report to the Girl Guards HQ, Almaliq, the day after the waxing half-moon ---”

“That’ll be the day after tomorrow. Easy, peasy, salwar kameezy. It’s not that far.”

Well, shoot, Nergui thought, it sounds like something to write home about, but I can’t actually go, can I? The Darga’s pidge said to get back to KK soonest. I’d planned to be all the way to Behbalik, maybe past there, the day after tomorrow. If I “minge about,” as she puts it, in Almaliq for even one extra day… and from what I’ve heard, one might not be enough…

“It says it’s from ‘Kafur al-Khadim, Court Eunuch, Journeyman Secretary,’” she said tentatively.

“Oh yeah, those guys do all the Khan’s official writing.”

“But there’s no Khan’s stamp at the bottom. So, at least following KK’s system, this wouldn’t have the force of an order.”

“You --- you're not thinking of refusing?

“Oh, no, not refusing, ” she reassured Boldo. Reputedly, of all the words in any of the languages of Greater Mongol, “no” was Chagatai’s least favorite. “Just… postponing, perhaps.”

Great. A perfectly well-meaning, out-of-the-blue invitation to a popular event gets me stuck between the musk-ox and the mire. So… how to wiggle out gracefully?

Nergui searched her memory for what she knew about eunuchs. They weren’t really a ‘thing’ in the Home Steppes. Human castration was either a regrettable accident or an act of summary revenge, not a career choice. Yet it seemed as if many of the royal courts to the east, south, and west had run on Eunuchs’ operating systems for centuries. Etiquette, she remembered. They’re very big on propriety.

She penned a respectful thank-you, settling on ‘Dear Secretary’ after discarding both ‘Sir’ and ‘Madam.’ Wishing sincerely but not too floridly that she could visit at another time. It all sounded wonderful but she was under orders, blah blah, couldn’t be helped. After some thought, she rummaged in her luggage and produced her only mementos of Anatolia that hadn’t been destroyed with her wagon, a set of beautifully carved wooden spoons she’d picked up on her hurried way out. As a regret-gift, they were the best she could do, but they were very nice and not necessarily easy to find around here.

That should do it. She hoped. After all, Chagatai had probably just instructed some small army of secretaries to invite any civil servants they discovered passing through. Maybe tens of people. Maybe hundreds. After all, who was she, a rookie spy from the greener parts of the Altai, one who was feeling particularly scruffy at the moment, to individually snag a Khan’s attention? Her parents and brothers had a certain measure of fame, but she was just Nobody’s daughter, No Name Girl.

 

Chapter Text

Contents of pigeon-borne messages between Great Khan Ogedei and his older but subordinate brother Chagatai Khan over the past week:

 

Hey Oggy,

You know that shamanic spy chick with the magical healing hoo-hah that you snuck past me into Anatolia a month or two ago? The one who was supposed to bang the sanity back into B-man. If she’s still alive can I borrow her?

Your loyal good sport of a brother,

Tai


 Dear Tai,

Really wish I could say yes. Unfortunately, the Agent in question was drowned by Turkmen shortly after completing her mission.

Sorry to disappoint,

Oggy


Dear Oggy,

Heard a rumor that the shamanic spy lady got a resurrection. On her way back can she give me one too? Every normal woman I bang just makes me crazier lately.

Tai


 

Dear Tai,

Perhaps you can visit her here in a few months if she agrees. She’s been through a lot and needs to be seen by experts here in KK before being assigned anywhere else. We don’t want to lose someone at her level to shaman’s madness too early by exposing her to extended unnecessary roughness. I intend to see to her recovery personally.

I’m sure you remember: When we lived with Dad, everything you borrowed from me came back stretched all out of shape. It was bad enough when it was just my sweaters.

Oggy


 Dear Oggy,

That’s not fair. I’ll be really careful.

Tai


 Tai!

NO.

(No signature, just the Khagan’s seal)


Chapter Text

Woodsmoke. Old leather and battle sweat with a trace of newer blood. Broad shoulders and rangy, hard-muscled frame decorated with scars. A curtain of blue-black hair falling straight and smooth as water. Long-fingered, sword-callused hands roaming over her as if exploring a new country…

Nergui awoke, focusing on the ceiling of the way-station guest ger while she let her heartbeat and breathing return to normal of their own accord.

Vai, vai, vai, as the Turkmen might say. Ain’t this some shit?

Was that why she was so off-balance? Had she gotten attached to her target despite herself? Was she lonely now that they’d parted, probably forever?

Don't tell me I actually miss that sick puppy....?

It has to be fallout from the resurrection. At least the biggest part does. Most people get more of a break between leaving this world and coming back to it. Plus they come back in a new body and, if they’re lucky, no memories. I didn’t have those luxuries. Stands to reason I feel ragged and my sleeping brain wanders everywhere.

After all, it had been vital to her mission that she concentrate on his --- well, “virtues” wouldn’t really be the word, would it? Because the threshold question was: are there enough redeeming qualities to be worth redeeming?

His quick and nimble mind. His hyper-awareness of everything around him. The rough, gratuitously messy manners he sometimes affected when he wanted to be underestimated; even that first night, when he led her to his tent by part of her hair wrapped around his fist, he’d held it with a casual looseness that seemed to say “Play along; let’s give ‘em what they expect to see.” His air of absolute confidence and command, even when sharpening a knife or studying a map.

On the battlefield he was incandescent. He seemed surrounded by a halo of flashing steel tinged by occasional showers of blood droplets.

And if he often seemed to go out of his way to embarrass her publicly or challenge her privately, it had been her assignment to investigate, analyze, and manipulate him. That’d bother most people, never mind a conscious apex predator like him.

So if --- and she insisted on “if” ---  she did miss him, it wasn’t completely unreasonable. It was all sand in the wind now. The crystally kind that glitters in the air but scratches four colors of hell out of any exposed skin. Let it fade with time. Better still, cover it up with some new memories.

That Dead Goat Polo game sounded diverting, she thought as she wrapped herself up and padded quietly out of the ger. Wish I could go.

Even in the solitude of her mind, a prudent shaman should always be careful what she wishes for.

Chapter Text

Her business attended to, Nergui continued walking clockwise around the waystation ger to get back to the entrance and so back to bed. She kept walking. And walking. Then she stopped and looked around suspiciously.

Granted, I’m tired as a camel’s toe after a five hour hump, but this ‘ckin’ ger Had A Door. Otherwise how did I get out?

She looked up. The sky didn’t look quite right. Like it had been cut into pieces and stitched back together a different way. What made it most noticeable was that whoever did it hadn’t been picky enough about matching the edges of the Milky Way at the seams.

Sure, I’ve got time for a game of silly buggers. What else have I got to do?

She hunkered down, watched the sky twitch intermittently, and waited.

Assalamu alaikum, No Name Girl.”

There was a campfire, On a log across it sat a man all in white: turban, coat, robe, hair, whiskers, eyebrows, and a big smile full of sparkling straight teeth that practically glowed in the dark. He was Sheikh ibn-i Arabi of Andalucia, one of the greatest scholars and holiest men in an Islamic world that was having a particularly good century for scholars and holy men.

“Oh,” Nergui answered so coldly the Northern Lights briefly appeared in the unreal sky. “It’s you.”

The Sheikh hesitated, measuring her mien with his shining black eyes. The Khenbish’s Nerguitani he’d met only weeks ago had been cheerful, brave, generous, easygoing and very self-possessed, at least when anyone was looking. This one looked pale, travel-sore, sleep-deprived, and listless. On top of that, unless he missed his guess, she was moderately pissed of at him in particular for some specific reason.

“What’s wrong?” he asked her. “I thought we were friends.”

“So did I,” she answered (the green aurora rippled overhead again). “Right up until you told Hayme Hanim to drown me.” Hayme Hanim, the widow of Suleyman Shah, was acting Bey of the Kayi tribe in Anatolia. Between her and Baiju Noyan, whose life Nergui was trying to improvise some way to save at the time, they’d transformed Hayme’s youngest son Dundar (age seventeen, going on twelve in some respects) from being Nergui’s suitor to acting as her executioner.

“I convinced them not to behead you. Remember?” When she only stared at him with a distinctly underwhelmed expression, he continued: “Drowning is the easiest kind of death to reverse. Which I see someone was kind enough, knowledgeable enough, and quick enough to do for you. On the other hand, I’ve never seen anybody brought back after a beheading. Don’t think I’d want to, either. Ugh.”

“You could have told them to let me go and just never darken their door again. Or maybe put up a ransom for my freedom; everybody knows we Mongols supposedly carry our hearts in our purses. They’d have done anything you advised. You probably could have told them to make me a birthday cake and they would have done it.”

The dervish was already shaking his head: “I didn’t think I could get them to spare you. The tribe was roused up to a pitch only a death could satisfy. If I ran afoul of that their faith might have faltered… But look at it this way: Now that everyone saw you die, you could make a new start. Live a completely different life.”

“My bosses arranged for my resurrection. They know I’m alive. Anyway, I didn’t mind my life. And yes, I’m back now, but I feel like it really messed me up.”

“Messed you up how?” asked the Sheikh. “Just for the… furtherance of medical science, of course. There isn’t much literature about the complications of resurrection, other than Thomas of Judaea’s monograph on the persistence of stigmata.”

“Well,” Nergui relented, “It’s hard to describe precisely from the inside, but I’ll try.” Her investigative bent won out --- as the oh-so-clever Dervish had surely known it would , she grimaced inwardly --- and she swept her sulking grudge under the carpet for the time being. If her information could help other sufferers ( or, now here was an idea, if it reminded the Sheikh of a case that had a cure ), it was worth it. She’d never assume he was on her side again, but he was brilliant and good at putting people at their ease; there was no reason they couldn’t still have good talks.

“Ever since I came back,” she began, “I’ve been uneasy inside my skin. Like they put my soul back in the wrong body, or maybe put it in crooked. And everything’s just perceptibly.... off. Sometimes things look like rippled reflections of themselves. Sounds have echoes like in a cave, but sometimes the echoes come back as much as an hour later. Smells are too strong and don’t match their sources. Intense emotions keep splashing over me like buckets of cold water, with no warning, but they don’t feel like my emotions.”

The Sheikh leaned forward, furrowing his brow. “Why do you say the emotions don’t feel like they’re yours?”

“Well, for one thing, they’re emotions I didn’t used to have very often. I’m crying so much it even bothers the horse. It’s as though almost every day is the day I found out my dad died. For another thing, I can’t point at anything external and say ‘ This is why I feel this way.’ The worst thing that happened all day would be on the order of ‘I was singing while I rode and a bug flew into my mouth.’ Little ordinary things… You know,I’ve seen people get stuck halfway in or halfway out of a spirit possession; it always looks really unpleasant. I wonder if it’s anything like this.”

Ibn-i Arabi thoughtfully twirled a strand of beard. “Do you have the feeling that you’re not alone in your body?”

“Not specifically, no,” she realized. “Actually, I feel more alone in the world than I’ve ever been.” A sob and a sniffle suddenly flew out of her. “See? There it goes again,” she said disconsolately, embarrassed to cry in front of someone she respected but really didn’t trust.

Ibn-i Arabi had traveled widely in his life, all the way from his native Andalucia. He had seen girls and women who wore their tears like jewels, who wept with a quiet dignity that brought out the rescuer in everyone around them. Nergui didn’t appear to be one of those. Instead, her crying face reminded him of a naked mole-rat he’d found asleep in his water-cup one morning near Djibouti.

“Tell me more,” he said, taking care to mask his reaction.

“It’s as though I’m one of those big black crumbly rocks you get near volcanoes, and someone keeps hitting it and pieces keep falling off. Ever since I left my mom’s camp I’ve been alone more than not, and it never bothered me the way I know it does some people. It beat heck out of having someone around who constantly expressed her disappointment in me. I could always find something to learn more about. And anyway, when a shaman craves a conversation there are always plenty of invisible folk around. When I come into a new place and the local spirits find out I can hear them, they’re like surprised chickens having a fluster-cluck: ‘Get me this’ and ‘Tell living person X that.’ I’ll do them a few good turns if I have time but then I have to shut them out before I go berserk and ether-slap them all. Now they’re staying away, as if something about me is putting them off. I feel lonely. It’s new. And it sucks.”

“Tell me, Nergui: Have you given any more thought to converting to Islam? A near-death experience ----”

“A death experience,” she corrected him. She still wasn’t letting him off that easily.

“All right, dying --- or even the immediate prospect of dying --- causes many people to rethink their belief systems. And an organized support community ---”

And there it is, like a big fish flopped in the middle of the table. “Nope; thanks be to Tengri, I’m still pagan through and through,” she said though a breezy smile that didn’t come easily.

Then a sudden thought struck her. She leaned forward, fixing him with her familiar space-flattening neutral amber stare. “Tell me , Sheikh: Am I still the only non-Muslim you ever met that didn’t immediately convert? Does that bother you? I mean, come on, you must have converted hundreds of people ----”

“Thousands.”

“Thousands, oh. Well then. So what’s one stubborn heathen? Not even a fly-size sip out of a whole pitcher of sharbat. And on top of that, I’m female, which --- “

“Affects your value in the eyes of Allah not one bit. I can show you all the places in the Quran where the Prophet intended men and women to respect one another equally.”

“Really? Wow.” Nergui nodded a few times, surprised and impressed. Then: “So-o-o… how come nobody does it then?”

Ibn-i Arabi shrugged. “Leftover regional customs from pre-Islamic days. If you think women in these countries should be treated better than they are now, you should have seen it before.”

“When we take over, that crap ends. You’ll see.”

“You think so?”

“Why not? In Mongolia, women are full-fledged people. In public and all.”

“Among the Sufis, the dervishes like myself, women are accepted. Some have even risen very high and taught famous men. ”

“Too bad there’s not a whole country full of you guys then,” she sighed regretfully. “There isn’t, is there?” He shook his head. “Even if so, I still don’t get the point of separating humans from all the rest of nature, then separating the ‘lower’ aspects of the human from the ‘higher.’ All the Book people do that. We acknowledge that part of us yearns for spirituality, part is caught up in the material, and part wants to destroy everything and start over. And by ‘us’ we mean humans, animals, plants, rocks and invisible things. Because everything under the Eternal Blue Sky has a soul, so we have to be thoughtful about how we treat it.”

The envisioned sky was turning pale. A raucous clamor flapped overhead.

“Looks like the geese are migrating,” the Sheikh observed.

“I take comfort in watching things that know what they’re doing and where they’re going,” Nergui sighed, “especially at times when I don’t.

“Listen: they’re honking. Know why?

“Because they love Tengri.”

 

Chapter Text

It was daylight when Nergui strode, saddlebag over her shoulder, out to the waystation stable. Summer Cloud Sultan was bored and cranky. Nergui surmised he hadn’t slept well. An apple saved from her breakfast mollified him. She pretended it had been for him all along.

The sun was up. The geese were gone,but the high cirrus clouds made the sky look strewn with white feathers. She noticed she was feeling less shitty. Almost, dare one venture… not shitty.

Ibn-i Arabi’s parting words had been benevolent… she thought. There were cures for what ailed her, but she would not be allowed to use them and shouldn’t try. After a while she was due for a blessing; he only worried that she’d be “too clever to recognize it.” Wise man, or wise guy?

After sidling past a couple of slow caravans, she let the horse have his head on the joyfully empty road. The snowdrop-colored Azerdeli, not built for the simple 2/4 or 4/4 gait rhythms of most normal horses, was happy to shift through 5/8 and 7/8 rhythms of the Azeri, Turkish, and Armenian traditions all the way up to a thundering 9/8 karshilama that would have rattled the teeth right out of Nergui’s head if she hadn’t made a quick study of learning songs in those rhythms and moving accordingly.

Eventually, with the sun descending, they slowed down to take a breather. Nergui patted her horse’s neck affectionately and sang one of the strange songs she seemed to pick up in her sleep.

“...Out on the Silk Road midafternoon

I see sweet Altan in the daytime moon

Altan; Almaty Altan.”

(Bring it home), Summer Cloud Sultan urged. Nergui obligingly belted out to the sky:

“Well I been from Konya to Kara Korum

“Kirin Oula to Kathmandu

“I've driven ev’ry kind of beast that's ever been born

“Kept a bow ready to shoot down a bighorn

“And if you give me: Beads, hides and gold,

“Tell me what you need sold

“I’ll be willin’

“To be movin’...”

But then she straightened in her seat and craned her neck forward. “Oh no no no no no…” she protested, “What the Erlik’s going on up there?”

(Don’t ask me), the horse declined. (You’re the predator with both eyes on the front of your head).

“There’s some kind of kerfuffle up by the next waystation. People with weapons milling around in the road.”

A few minutes later. “Well, it’s at least partly official. It’s some of those famous Girl Guards of Chagatai Khan’s. Twigdolls. Like, who with anything better to do would consent to run around this kind of back-of-beyond terrain in a few hand-span scraps of fur-trimmed chainmail?” She snorted derisively. The horse did the same.

Another few minutes of silent pondering, Then: “My Imp paiza shows I’m a national civil servant. Eventually it should convince them to let me get on home where my boss says I have to be. That is, unless it’s one of those kinds of misery that really loves company…” she trailed off.

Two hundred more heartbeats, and then she seemed to reach a decision. “You know what?” she challenged.

(“Camel… butt?”) the horse hazarded.

“Not this time, but good guess. You’ll be fluent in my bizarre patois in no time.” She scratched between his ears with pride. “But how would you feel about a little cross-country run? I don’t know if you’re comfortable in terrain like this.”

(I’ll give it a try. If I don’t like it, though, we’ll have to go through it extra fast.)

“All right then eeny, meeny, miney… to the right!” Nergui clung to the saddle and reins with pure chi energy, so that she could loosen her muscles without falling off. At first they kept to a moderate 7/8 run so as not to look as if they were fleeing, just… going somewhere important off the main road.

(The people at the waystation are mounting up.)

“Eh. It might have just been time for them to go. If they clear out we’ll circle back to the road.”

(And... they’re coming after us. Those mostly-naked women ride a lot better than you do)

Nergui sighed. “ Everybody rides better than I do. I had a strict taboo that only just got lifted. Other than posing for that picture on Noyan’s Black Bitey, you’re the first horse I ever rode. I will work on improving, I promise.” She knew she should probably go back and see what they wanted, like the responsible civil servant she was. Twigdolls or not, the Girl Guards were Chagatai’s royal militia. Chances were she’d have a mission that took her through here again. Making friends, or at least not making enemies, would be prudent.

But something about this land, this air… made her feel reckless.

“Given everything, can you still outrun them?”

Summer Cloud Sultan let out a disdainful snort. (Does Sultan Ale-ad-din rub his magic lamp?) A brief spate of karshilama gallop and… suddenly Nergui found herself believing a horse could fly.

“Oh… my… Tengri!” she shouted, her words snatched away by the wind. “Bless your sire and dam! Are your feet even touching the ground?” It felt like sledding through fresh snow on an undulating velvet cushion. Exhilarating. Even a little… provocative.

(Does a one-legged duck swim in circles? You’re finally experiencing the speed we Azerdeli were intended to run; that’s the difference.)

“Wow! I could get used to this. What about the pursuit?”

(Long gone. Shall I slow back down so you can look for a campsite?)

She patted the side of his neck. “Eventually, I guess.”

Chapter Text

Nergui awoke at sunup after sleeping rough. After making sure no snakes or other irritable creatures had cuddled up to share her warmth in the night, she sat up, took a sip of water, then a sip of airag to banish any noxious miasmas absorbed by the water. As she scrubbed her teeth, she looked around with interest.

Nothing but trackless steppe surrounded her. She recognized no landmarks. She was well off the edge of all her internal maps. She might as well be somewhere outside Fort Bhumfuq in Egypt, except she’d heard that was a lot sandier. She only had an inkling of where she was, where the road was, and where KK was because she’d kept her eyes open long enough to check the stars the night before.

Nor was there any sign of life, other than a family of hares that started from a thicket when Summer Cloud Sultan leaned down to browse on the leaves. She reached for her bow, then decided she hadn’t been quick enough.

“If we go that direction, we should come across the road again right before it crosses into Ogedei’s land,” she explained to the horse after brushing him off, checking his hooves, and situating the saddle and bridle. “Up for another run, my friend?”

(Does the bird who picks flies off your back in the morning shit them back out on you in the afternoon?)

“Uhhh… do I take that as a yes?”

Nergui’s only regret was that at the Azerdeli’s optimal speed --- which was very, very fast --- her eyes watered so much that it was hard to really take in the scenery. She got a blurry impression of a few small camps dotting the middle distance here and there, but no signs of roads or towns. Once they shot right through the middle of a loose herd of cattle, but were far past them before even the widest-awake could utter a moo of protest. Their dust cloud didn’t even begin rising for about fifty yards behind them.

(I smell apples.) Summer Cloud Sultan’s thought-voice was laden with portent. Well, of course it was. Anything remotely horse-shaped was fond of apples.

“Let’s go find them.”

They were more bushes than trees, and the apples were tiny and yellow, but juicy and refreshing. Nergui ate a cautious few and put some in her bag for later as the beautiful horse had his fill.

Wow, this is my second day in a row of no crying. Maybe I’m getting back to normal.

An hour or two after resuming their journey, an odd little rectangular structure hove into view. A person’s head was visible through a hole in the middle. Nergui had heard about these but never seen one: a portable prison called a “jail-in-the-box.” Originally a Chinese invention, it was a convenient way to imprison criminals where towns were few and far between. A prisoner would be locked into a box with a head-sized hole. For the duration of the sentence, it was the responsibility of the prisoner’s family, friends, and other well-wishers to supply food and water. Its location was at the discretion of the judge; boxes for those who “really just needed to learn a lesson” were situated within sight of their clans’ camps or beside a major road, while those who really got on the judge’s wrong side were deposited in the back of beyond and their location was not publicized.

Nergui slowed her mount and looked around. The scenery was pleasant and the box got the shade of a tree for part of the day, but she couldn’t see any human structures nearby.

Pretty place to die, the thought came unbidden, making her slightly nauseous.

“Let’s go see,” she said brusquely.

(Are you sure?)

“Yes,” though really she wasn’t.

As they approached within shouting distance, the prisoner called out. “Oh my Tengri! Nergui! Is that you?”

Nergui was aghast. The voice was familiar, but she couldn’t place it.

“It’s me, Tsolmaa? From Medicine Needles class? In Xingqing?”

“Tsolmaa?” A picture crossed Nergui’s mind of a perky, cheerful fourteen-year-old from the shores of Lake Uvs who wanted to become a midwife. As two of only a handful of Mongol students passive-aggressively resented by the Western Xia locals, they’d been bound to bond.

Nergui remembered Tsolmaa as a sweet, earnest, but seldom-focused goofball who might have done better if she’d come a year or two later, or found a stretch-to-fit apprenticeship instead of a keep-up-or-drop-dead formal classroom. But a criminal ? Surely not? Whose bad side could she have well-meaningly blundered onto?

“Tsolmaa, what in all of Erlik’s hells?” Nergui started in before Summer Cloud Sultan had even come to a full stop. Two teenage classmates, and now one was riding around on an Azerdeli and the other was locked in a jail-in-the-box! Well, so much for the prospect of a whole day without crying.

“Long story,” Tsolmaa sighed. Then she started giggling in spite of herself. “Nergui, don’t start crying! You look like one of the lake monsters from Grandma’s scary stories.”

“Oh, thank you so much,” Nergui jibed, sniffling. This was weird, but as a shaman Nergui was used to weird. Weird things happened to her every day. Weird was her normal. But just happening to meet an old friend while taking a shortcut through such unfamiliar territory?

Suppressing suspicions that refused to take any coherent shape, Nergui rummaged in her bag. “Have some water and airag… and here are some fresh apples… and saddle jerky… and some firestriker cheese, but I wouldn’t advise trying to burn your way out of there.” Firestriker cheese, a Greater Mongol military staple, might just have been the most durable dairy product in the world. There were said to be curds a hundred years old that were still just as edible as the day they were made… which, taking each of the words at its face value and reading nothing more into it, was probably true. Its properties had been discovered by someone who tried slicing one apart with a steel saw after wrecking the edge of his dagger on it. Sparks had flown everywhere and burnt down his tent, but soon Mongols everywhere knew they would never have to buy a piece of flint again.

Nergui though she heard hoofbeats, but too far off in the distance to worry much about. But Tsolmaa suddenly grimaced in consternation. “Sorry, Nergui,” she blurted out, blushing and dropping her eyes.

Nergui barked an incredulous laugh. “For what?” Honestly, if this is about one of my hair ornaments she borrowed back then -

Yoink! ” said a powerful male voice. Nergui tried to gasp as she was hauled into the air by the back of her jacket collar, but the enormous fist had gathered so much of the material that she couldn’t breathe until she was effortlessly plopped down on a horse’s saddle, a thick forearm wrapped around her ribcage with another giant hand landing negligently (but not accidentally, she suspected) on her opposite breast with the horse’s reins looped around the pinky finger, and the collar was finally released to slacken.

“Thank you, Tsolmaa, here’s the key,” he said with an audible grin, tossing the object with unerring accuracy. “And a little extra just for you,” he continued, flinging a small, jingling deer-hide purse after it as they continued to gallop away.

“Now: Greetings, Khenbish’s Nerguitani,” the voice went on with good-natured irony. “I’m Chagatai Khan. And you, by ancient right of capture, are the newest Mrs. Chagatai Khan.”

Chapter Text

“No Name Girl. I can’t have you wandering around without a name,” Chagatai Khan declared. “I’ll call you… let’s see…” Absent-mindedly he switched the reins to his other hand and put the first one back. Exactly where it had been. “Little Rabbit!” he exclaimed at last. “Because you were so hard to catch, but now you’re so-o-o soft to hold.”

When Nergui remained silent, Chagatai continued: “I rename a lot of my wives. Makes their names easier to remember. Sometimes easier to pronounce, too.”

“So how many other Mrs. Chagatais are there?” Nergui asked.

“Oh, four, let’s see… five hundred... Who can keep track? But as long as I remember all the faces, names, and birthdays, I don’t feel like it’s too many.”

Way to make me feel special on my wedding day, she thought. But on the other hand, if I don’t like him, my turn with him should only come up every year or two.

She sighed and leaned her head against what felt like the lower end of his sternum. He was warm and smelled good. Mostly rich black earth and air-after-lightning, with an elusive hint of wild fruit trees. Ogedei smelled nice too, in a different way. Maybe it’s one more of Tengri’s special gifts to the Borjigins.

“Hey.” His finger and thumb unerringly found her nipple through three layers of clothing and gave it a surprisingly gentle squeeze. “Still with me? Did you faint? Some of them do.”

“Nope. Still here.”

"Aren’t you going to squirm and scream and try to escape?"

"Meh. Probably not. Why? Do you need me to? I’m not familiar with bridenapping protocol." Because, for one thing, it isn’t supposed to happen anymore...

“You’re not being sneaky, are you? I’ve never been much for sneaking. First you turned down my invitation. Instead you sent me spoons! I should spank you with those spoons.” He didn’t sound angry, just bemused. “Then my Girl Guards were supposed to bring you in all friendly-like, and you ran them all over half the Khanate on that horse of yours.”

“I’m sorry. I just misread things. I wanted to accept the invitation, but I had orders from my Darga to get back to KK immediately, something about the Palace. Then when the Girl Guards chased me, I thought they were stopping everybody on the road for something that had nothing to do with me, but would still slow me down and ruffle all kinds of Agency feathers. I never imagined that you would take this kind of interest in me personally.”

His thumb on her nipple made thoughtful little circles. “ You personally , Little Rabbit, brought my old friend B-Man back from the bottomless ichor-pits of a Hell spawned inside his head. Everyone expected one or both of you to end up dead, but somehow you both walked away. Why wouldn’t I be interested? And if I’d known you came with that horse, I’d have picked you up back in Anatolia, even if I had to miss a playoff game. Don’t worry about the horse, by the way. I sent a crew to catch it.”

“Oh, may Tengri help them with that…. Forgive me, Khan, but The Fork-Tongued Son of a Bitch” --- here she used the Mongol-style description rather than the secret true name --- “really isn’t a normal horse. I’m sure your crew has excellent skills, but in the unlikely event they can’t catch him, he might follow me by himself anyway.” Maybe. Or not. She really had no idea. “But would you tell me about your horse, Khan?” She assumed the behemoth beneath them was a horse because a musk-ox would have had horns. “How did it sound so far away when it came so close to me? Some kind of spell?”

Chagatai laughed like a man who could always make as much noise as he wanted to. “Not everything is woo-woo, young shaman,” he said. “You must have seen horses with shoes in the West? The Giant Shaggy Roan has learned to run in special slippers that muffle the sound. Horses don’t like losing the feel of the ground, so they have to be trained to get used to it. This one is part of my effort to bring back the old Aranjagaan breed. The originals were said to be half-divine. Ours do seem to get smarter and braver with every generation.”

“I bet a whole troop of those surprise the shit out of the enemy.”

"That they do, Little Rabbit, that they do.... I just can’t get over it: You still don’t seem as upset as you might be. Does your shamanic training make you especially serene?"

"No, but my civil-service experience tells me when I’m in way over my pay-grade. As an Imp --- an Imperial agent --- I can risk a minor beef with local law enforcement like yesterday. That kind of copper-ante stuff happens all the time. But arguing with Khans? Forget about it. If my bosses get mad now, they can take it up with whomever.”

“I asked little Oggy first, of course. Pidged the Palace a few days ago.”

So Great Khan Ogedei had just tossed her to his rough-and-tumble brother like a doggie treat, and this was how she found out? He’d acted so considerate toward her before. Perhaps she’d lost all value now that she was Unsealed? That utterly-deserted-by-everyone feeling closed in on Nergui again. “Ah. Well, then,” was all her suddenly-dry mouth would say.

Chagatai forced his heartbeat and breathing to remain steady while he waited for her next question. When none was forthcoming, he relaxed. Bughra’s blue bollocks, he concluded, she really is young… “And you won’t even lecture me about bridenapping being illegal under the Yasa?” He changed the subject, not giving her time to start wondering about anything.

“You mean, as mandated by your father, Genghis the Great and Wise, may he ride forever in the sky? Because of what happened to your mother the year before your brother Jochi was born? Why would I, when you already know?”

“Well… for me, the Yasa is more a set of guidelines, really.”

Guidelines with a lot of death penalties for the rest of us, she thought but didn’t say.

“I’ve heard there isn’t a true sentence in any language that begins ‘Chagatai the Inevitable would never.’”

Growing up as a Sealed One, she’d been discouraged from thinking about the male of the species any more than was necessary to avoid bumping into them. As a result, she’d never envisioned her wedding day. However this one turned out, she wouldn’t be plagued by pesky comparisons. And the second most powerful man on the continent probably was a pretty good catch for a country doctor and rookie intelligence agent.

Maybe the Khagan meant him to be my doggie treat. Accurate or not, thinking of it that way makes me feel a lot better. I can also stop dreading the thought of my mom will picking out a husband for me, she reflected.

So many adventure stories ended with weddings.

Looked at another way, when you got to the wedding, it meant the adventure was over.

She’d be surprised, though, if life with Chagatai and his multitude of co-wives turned out to be dull.

“Pardon me, Khan,” she humbly inquired, “Would you like me to hold onto that scroll-case for you?”

“Scroll-case?”

“The one in your belt. It keeps poking me under the shoulder-blade.” Ow. I could swear it’s gotten bigger and lumpier since the ride started.

Chagatai leaned down until his whiskers brushed Nergui’s ear and she could hear the rakish grin in his voice. “That’s no scroll case, little one, but you’re welcome to hold onto it anyway.”  

Chapter Text

“Cha-ga-tai! Cha-ga-tai!” people started shouting as the enormous horse walked out of a narrow canyon into a vast basin of what might have been grass before the arrival of all the horses, yaks, sheep, goats, camels, dogs, wagons, tents, stalls, and more people than Nergui had ever seen (or hoped to see) in one place.

Nergui, who had been almost dozing off in the quiet canyon, felt muscles move against her back as her giant captor waved to the adoring crowd. People surged toward them, holding forth in a dozen different languages.

Cha-ga-tai! Cha-ga-tai! ” More and more people heard and joined the chant. The people around them pressed in, trying to touch or kiss the hemline of the Khan’s robe. Nergui, recoiling from an unknown tongue sliming across her calf above her boot, drew her knees up against her chest. Besides putting her feet out of reach of (judging by the smell that several conflicting incense fugs couldn’t quite overpower) the Great Unwashed, it might also hide the Khan’s other hand which had been clamped, not painfully but quite firmly, over her breast for the entire ride.

“You all right, Little Rabbit?” he asked, noticing her sudden full-body clench.

“Could I possibly ask you to move your hand?” she wheedled without much hope.

“Of course! How should I move it: up and down or back and forth?” She let her head fall limply back against him as he guffawed heartily. Maybe he marries new wives when it’s less trouble than learning new jokes.

Suddenly the press of the crowd around them subsided. They were preceded, followed, and surrounded by spear-wielding Girl Guards holding the over-eager admirers back. Although they were dressed in the iconic sparse scraps of chainmail and fur, the mostly-male throng was giving way for them. Storytellers always described the Girl Guards as nubile, doe-eyed specimens, but these were apparent exceptions. The leaders were graying, scarred, and clearly not in the mood for any nonsense. Some of the bigger troops looked capable of sucker-punching a water buffalo. The minority of coltish striplings were scattered among their scarier sisters, practicing their glares and scowls.

A skinny boy of about twelve hopped and waved just outside the circle of spear-points, appearing to focus on Nergui rather than Chagatai. “Goose Girl! Hey, look, it’s Goose Girl!” he shrilled. Her brows came together for a moment, searching for anything that resembled meaning. Finding none, she treated her apparently mistaken young admirer to an elaborate shrug as they went past.

“CHA-GA-TAI! CHA-GA-TAI!”

There didn’t seem to be anyone in the basin that wasn’t chanting as Chagatai steered the horse toward a shallow upward-sloping pitch leading to one end of a natural rock terrace jutting out from a sheer cliff. An enormous, luxurious ger stood there on a head-high wheeled platform. Thirty horses were tied up to one hitch-line, twenty yaks to another. People in court clothing, military armor, well-kept work clothes, and Girl Guard outfits bustled everywhere. Smoke was already rising from cook-fires indoors and out.

“I’ve seen World Peace Palace. It’s very nice,” the Khan said into Nergui’s ear, pitching his voice to be heard over the mind-numbing din. “But this is more… me. If the weather’s bad, I just move the capital to where it’s better.”

 

Reaching the front of the huge ger, Chagatai dismounted and held his hands out for the crowd, whose chant dissolved into a wordless roar from tens of thousands of throats. He plucked Nergui out of the saddle, his hands nearly encircling her waist, and held her up to his eye level. "Here we are, Little Rabbit. Give your Big Man some jaggery," he prompted affably.

Nergui had been contemplating how to medically describe the intoxication-like effects of prolonged immersion in very loud noise. "Some… what?" she surrendered, baffled.

He looked more closely into her eyes and decided: "Ah - you’re gone, aren’t you? We’ll soon have you back with us so you can try some jaggery. It’s something sweet, my girl of the lonesome Home Steppes, something very sweet." Still holding her off the ground, he gave her a deep soul kiss that felt like it thoroughly rinsed out the inside of her skull.

When he lowered her back to the ground she kept a grip on his wrists in case her legs wouldn’t hold her and got her first good look at him. Shaggy and craggy, but in a good way, she decided .  On him, the striking red-gold-black hair of the Borjigins was thick, wavy, and lightly frosted with silver; it blazed in the slanting late-afternoon light. The large bones of his face looked like they could take a battering, and that they had on several occasions. A blade scar ran diagonally through one of the heavy eyebrows. His hair was collar-length and his beard about three inches long and neither looked recently trimmed, but on him it worked to have the ends curl this way and that. His thundercloud-gray eyes were presently good-humored and indulgent, but something about the lines around them hinted at a flat-and-merciless option that was always within reach.

“Where’s Red Panda?” he called over his shoulder, looking around.

“Here, Tai-denka, ” said a voice at his side.

Chagatai shook his head. “How do you always do that? This is Little Rabbit, the new wife. I bridenapped her several hours ago. Now she looks like she’s been ridden hard and put away wet, and I’m not even planning to do that until after the game. Set her up with a dress and a ring and all that; you know the drill. Thanks, dear; that’s my Mrs. Congeniality!”

Nergui wasn’t tall even for a Mongolian, but Red Panda was a full head shorter and quite streamlined. Red Panda bowed, so Nergui bowed back and close to the same way as she could manage. Nergui suppressed the scandalized urge to demand “How the hell old are you?” and instead offered, “I also go by ‘Nergui.’”

“This one is pleased to meet you, Nergui-san. This one also goes by ‘Retsuko’. Welcome to the Wives of Chagatai. Please come in. Would you like tea?” Her voice was like delicate silver chimes rung by a playful breeze.

Actually, what I’d really like is half a bottle of vodka, but ---. “I’d love some, thank you very much.” The inside of the enormous tent was sumptuous with embroidered hanging partitions and carved, lacquered fittings. Red Panda filled and proffered what seemed to Nergui a laughably small cup; certainly too small to need holding in both hands. Nergui was so thirsty she plucked it away with a grateful smile and knocked it back before fully noticing how much steam was coming out. The liquid wasn’t just drinking-hot; it was scalding! Blistering! Was this some kind of cruel new-wife hazing? In acute pain but determined to do Mongolia proud, she compressed her scream into a growl and wrestled the growl, two falls out of three, into a prolonged throat-clearing.

“Whoops! Too late! I see she got you,” said another voice from the doorway. Not only the accent, but the depth of apathy behind the concerned-sounding words identified the speaker as a Khongi --- one of the legendary consorts from Khongirad, trained from birth to please royalty or, if unusually imperfect, at least nobility. “‘Little Rabbit.’ Hm. Not what I pictured. But I suppose having a magical healing hoo-ha makes up for a lot.”

Oh, go bite a pinecone , Nergui felt like saying, but was still panting to soothe her scorched palate. She’d met a retired Khongi back at Dower House Five. They didn’t get more sympathetic with age.

There you are!” burst in a bald, beardless man in an dizzyingly patterned brocade robe. “Is that the bride? Why is she still covered with road dust? You can give her the Nihon Tea Torture later. Right now she needs hot water on the outside of her body. I can’t say this enough: first you bathe them, then you bring them. The tub’s all ready out back. Scoot! Scoot!”

“Yes, Kafur- sama , right away.” Red Panda snapped to attention. “Blue Heron- san, would it be all right if I asked you to measure her first? Then I can send for the ring and the dress while she soaks.”

The hairless man was shouting again. “Chang-er? Chang-er! Is the ink on that paperwork dry yet?”

“Paperwork. Pfui,” the Khongi sneered under her breath.

“I heard that, Blue Heron,” Kafur snapped. “One day you stubborn Mongols will learn: if it wasn’t written down, it didn’t happen! If, in a few scant centuries, people know nothing about your Empire except what they imagine or what your enemies wrote down, it’ll be no fault of mine.” And he bustled away.

“Oh, who listens to someone who cut his junk off on purpose?” Blue Heron produced a ball of string and motioned to Nergui, “All right, off with it. Everything off.” A chilly draft presented itself as Blue Heron measured Nergui’s every bodily dimension, including her ring finger. Then Red Panda presented her with a towel and led her away.

The air out behind the ger was cooling with the approaching sunset. The bathwater was still a bit too hot, but Nergui drew the heat through her body, drawing on the affinity with copper she’d developed while earning her set of copper shaman’s mirrors. As long as a temperature difference wasn’t as extreme and surprising as the tea had been, she could manage. The water had fragrant oils and bubbly soap. “I’ll wash your hair so we can get done faster,” Red Panda offered.

“You really are nice,” Nergui’s voice broke a little. Any little kindness after a long difficult time always got to her.

“It’s because I come from Nihon, where the sun rises, out past the Eastern Sea,” she explained. “It’s the most well-mannered nation on earth.”

“Mmm, sounds fantastic.”

“Everyone there is nice all the time.”

“Wow.” Nergui relaxed under the bubbles and lost herself in the view. Between the cliff wall and the ger wall, a narrow but breathtaking vista of meadows and hills and snowy peaks in the distance.

“Because if they’re not,” Red Panda continued in the same soft, sweet voice, “we cut their who-o-ole family’s heads off.”

“Mmm… wait… what?”

Chapter Text

“Who’s that?” Nergui asked, gesturing at a nervous-looking young woman sitting across the vanity table from her. Through the hole in the partition, she could see that the vaguely familiar stranger sat in a connecting room very much like the one they were in.

Red Panda smiled and leaned in. Someone who looked exactly like Red Panda did the same thing in the other room.  Just as Nergui caught on, she and her counterpart both nodding and smiling gratefully, Blue Heron broke in:

“It’s you, Taiga bunny. That’s a mirror.”

I’d already clued New Girl in. In a way that let her save face, you condescending pig-snout, Red Panda thought as her smile never wavered.

“Wow,” Nergui marveled, ignoring the slight. “I’ve never seen a reflection this bright and flat. Gods, do I really look like such a Bankhar’s breakfast?” Was her skin really so weathered? Her hair so unruly? Her eyebrows so caterpillar-like?

“That’s because it’s HD,” Blue Heron curled her lip. “It takes some getting used to.”

“‘HD’?”

“Han Dynasty. It’s made of polished glass backed with speculum alloy. Lets you see everything, which includes every little flaw.”

“I’ll say. I’m used to looking in water, or the side of a blade, or a smooth piece of stone.” Not her shamanic mirrors; you never knew what would look back at you from one of those things.

“All we Khongirad consorts train with HD mirrors,” Blue Heron said loftily, “but this is one of the only nomad camps in Greater Mongol that has one. They don’t travel well at all. They’re very breakable, and if you do break one it brings seven years of bad luck.”

Gazar Eej! Sounds like way more trouble than it’s worth.” She wondered if she could put a spell on a more durable reflector to crank up its performance. Then again, she’d never worried much about her appearance before and wasn’t overly keen to start now.

“Welcome to harem life, feral child. In the name of beauty, everything is worth the trouble.”

“Let’s get you ready for the wedding, shall we?” Red Panda twinkled, seeing the first penumbra of serious doubt pass across Nergui’s amber eyes.

“We’ll see what, if anything, we can do with that face and hair,” Blue Heron said in a voice of no hope whatsoever. “Show her... the instruments .”

Red Panda whisked the cover off a tray, exposing a variety of scary-looking metal tools of indeterminate purpose as well as pigments in powder, stick, and liquid form. She could sense that Nergui seriously wanted to run for it and Blue Heron seriously wanted to see Nergui dragged back in, struggling and humiliated, by the Girl Guards.

Not on my watch, bitches, she thought.

“This is all new for you, Little Rabbit, but this part is actually sort of fun,” was what she said out loud. “I’ll send for some drinks so we can all relax.”

“Not more tea,” Blue Heron chimed in. “Nihonji might be nice people, but their ideas about tea are just weird. No milk, no salt, no millet or dumplings or anything. Just something to make it slightly light green or slightly light brown. Then to hide the fact that it has no flavor they heat it up to the temperature of a branding iron.”

“Ah-hee-hee-hee,” Red Panda giggled cutely, but with just a barely-perceptible harmonic of strain. That monologue gets more amusing every time I hear it… YOU think. “No, I was thinking we should sample the soma. Make sure it’s all right for the banquet. That would be more… relaxing.”

“Well, aren’t you the hostess with the mostest?” Blue Heron commented with enough irony to attract magnets.

“And aren’t you just as sweet as moles’ asses?” Red Panda gushed.

“It’s pronounced ‘molasses,’ silly.”

I know what I said. Skank.

“Soma? What is that?” Nergui interrupted, seeming not to notice the crossfire. “Will it compromise my focus and perception of reality in any way?”

“That is… kind of what it’s for,” Red Panda explained gently.

“Perfect. Bring it,” Nergui instructed, finally smiling again.

Twenty minutes later all three women were smiling and no one had said anything for a while.

Then Kafur bustled in, with Chang-er swept along in his slipstream. “Isn’t she even dressed yet? What have you been doing?”

“Our very best,” Red Panda beamed while thinking FIne until you got here, you red-assed onsen monkey.

“And who told you to use beeswax candle stubs around the mirror?”

“It’s our usual lighting for wedding make-up.”

“Beeswax is for daylight special occasions, This is a torchlight wedding! Tallow replicates the dark red smokey glow. Chang-er, go get tallow stubs and change them out.”

As the young eunuch left, two Girl Guards came in. One was Tsolmaa, who’d been the bait in the Khan’s trap.

“Hi, Nergui,” Tsolmaa greeted her nervously. “I hope you’re not mad at me. Are you? Mad at me?”

“Oh, no,” Nergui assured her somewhat dreamily, taking another sip from a cup made out of some kind of pottery that glittered. “I’m at peace with the whole universe.”

The other Girl Guard gave a hard shove to Nergui’s shoulder, causing the kohl Red Panda was applying to Nergui’s eyelid to streak across her face. “I owe you an ass-kicking,” the newcomer announced accusingly.

Not less of one than I owe you, fitness wench, Red Panda thought.

Nergui blinked slowly, like a manul taking a break between naps. Convinced that she’d never met this person before in her life, she settled on “Tell me more.”

“I got demoted because I couldn’t catch you yesterday! I’m the best rider in my arban , but you were riding that --- was that thing even a horse ?”

“Yes,” Nergui said, “and no.” Then, after further attempts at thought, “And maybe.” She settled back and motioned to Red Panda to go ahead and repair the kohl streak. “Three things. One: I apologize. I did not think I would make that much trouble for you. I was just under orders to hurry home. Two…” she looked carefully to make sure she was holding up the right number of fingers, “It wasn’t your fault. My horse even complimented your riding. He’s not exactly normal. By now the Khan’s crew will have also failed to catch him. I can use that to plead your case. Three: If you still want a fight, I’m game. We can schedule something after the honeymoon.”

“Can you fight?”

“Not like a professional. I’ve just had a little on-the-job training. Shouldn’t give you any trouble.”

“Well, I just want you to know I like to fight dirty. Anything goes.”

Only Red Panda was sufficiently socially aware to detect, much less interpret, the series of muted expressions that ran across Nergui’s face like fawns from a forest fire. “ Anything…? All right, then... I can do… ‘anything.’”

The two Girl Guards left and Kafur burst back in. “Oh, did you hear about Baiju Noyan?”

Nergui, who had settled back down to blissful stillness, jumped involuntarily. This time it was the lip-rouge that ended up streaked across her face. “Tell me he’s not here?!”

“Oh, no. He loves a good bloody buzkashi match --- in fact, he and the Khan used to play each other a lot --- but he’s far too busy. We just got pidged that he took over Nicaea today. Walked into the capital with less than a hundred dead. Once he wipes up Trebizond, he’ll get a province for sure. Provincial governors get more fanny than a six-armed punkah-wallah.”

“Oh. That’s nice for him,” Nergui murmured without inflection as Red Panda gritted her teeth and wet another cleansing cloth.

“Nice for him? Nice for you. You’re the one who got him back on-form. Some even say better than before, He should put up a statue of you.”

Nergui murmured something under her breath that sounded to Red Panda like “He’d just kill it” before taking another deep drink of soma.

Red Panda quietly left the room. Blue Heron, who’d sipped her soma in silence until then, said a little sloppily “Who left the salt out of her tea?”

Chang-Er came in clutching a parchment to his chest. “Will you sign your picture?” he asked shyly.

“My picture? What?”

“This is you, right? You’re Goose Girl.”

“Goose Girl?” That cryptic epithet again. “Let me see that.”

It appeared to be an ink drawing of a woman with an acutely surprised expression. Next to it was written, in Uighur script, “Goose Girl Has an Arban.

Nergui held it up next to her face and looked in the mirror. She couldn’t conclusively say it wasn’t her… but where had it come from? And why did this kid have it? It certainly wasn’t a bridal portrait.

“Where did you get this?”

“My sister works in Bird Services in the Almalik Yam station. She says all the B.S. interns in KK were putting up copies of it, so she wanted to do it here too.”

Kafur was fussing at her to get into the dress, so she scribbled her signature on the parchment and turned away. She told herself to look into it when she got back to KK. Then it occurred to her to wonder when she was going back to KK. Getting married might make “never” a distinct possibility.

Her lifelong philosophy of “I’ll burn that bridge when I come to it” didn’t seem to have a contingency plan for “what if it’s already on fire?”

At some unknown distance, Nergui only barely heard the singing. It was like none she’d ever heard before; the closest was a pair of very angry leopards fighting.

RA-A-A-A-ARH!!

Inran'na onanī

Inran'na onanī

Anata wa itsutsu no gengo o yomimasuga,

heya o yomu koto wa dekimasen

RA-A-A-A-ARH!!

Kajōna otto

Kajōna otto

Anata wa watashi o tantō matawa kekkonshiki ni iremasu,

Soshite,

Anata wa kekkon suru no o kesshite yamemasen

Itsumo ikutsu ka no kuso atarashī on'nanoko

Kuso atarashī on'nanoko wa tegakari ga nai

RA-A-A-A-ARH!!

Chapter Text

 

In the castle courtyard of Nicaea, a crowd of terrified women wept, wrung their hands, and debated suicide. Five rows of black-armored Mongol soldiers surrounded them, and there were more in the palace and the rest of their city. Many had no idea whether their husbands, fathers, or brothers had survived the battle, but they knew the city had fallen and no help would come from that direction.

They’d all heard stories of the degenerate pagan Mongols and their insanely sadistic general, Baiju Noyan. They knew they were doomed to a fate worse than death (though they’d never actually met anyone with a first-hand basis for comparison. The one person who’d been through both experiences and was still capable of talking about it was at that moment, not quite coincidentally, being dressed for her wedding in the far-off Chagatai Khanate).

A quartet of palace trumpeters, all looking as though they were either about to wet their pants or had already done so, emerged onto the balcony and blew a somewhat scattered fanfare. The Noyan and a lesser officer stepped to the railing and removed their helmets. The officer had an elaborate braided coiffure set off by shaved patches. The Noyan’s long straight hair, whiskers, eyebrows and eyes were the almost iridescent blue-black of liquid pitch, his skin browned by the sun. From so far below it was difficult to estimate his height, but he loomed as only a tall man normally could. He looked out at the huddled, tearful assembly and scowled. It was a frightful scowl, a promise of pain to come.

“You all right, Noyan?” Tangut, the shorter officer, asked without moving his lips.

“Caught a good whack to the helmet from one of the knights’ damned broadswords a couple of hours ago,” his commander replied in the same fashion. “I think it set off a migraine and as far as I know we’re out of bhang tea. Let’s get this over with.”

“For what it’s worth, the Khagan’s going to be really proud of you,” Tangut reassured him. “You hardly killed anybody today.”

“Maybe this stinking headache wouldn’t be so bad if I had.” He had his shaman’s drum, but the thought of beating it in his present condition held no appeal. “Captive women of Nicaea!” he made himself shout.

“Your country is now part of the Greater Mongol State. All free persons have full citizenship provided they behave responsibly. All religions are permitted under Tengri’s blue sky. You may now travel and trade tariff-free from here to Cathay. As well as commerce, our State welcomes women in the army and civil service. Your taxes will improve roads and markets and house those made homeless in the conflict.

“Now: Are there prostitutes, escorts, masseuses, strippers, exotic performers, brothel-keepers, touts, or other sex workers among you? Please come forward.” About a third of the women didn’t so much come forward as get pushed towards the front by everyone else trying to get behind them.

“Troops!” the Noyan declaimed. "Take a good look. These, and only these, will be your party dates for tonight. I know you’re all excited, but remember that if you break them you won’t be able to play with them any more. You’ll pay them their regular rate ---”

There was a suppressed but audible grumbling among the ranks. Less than three months ago the Noyan would have ordered the Dargas to slice the grumblers a new smile. Instead Tangut, barked out "You-just-plundered-their-town-you-unwashed-taints-you-can-afford-it! Be sure to tip if the service is good; you might be stationed here again someday.”

“And, hatuns,” The Noyan went on, “some of our troops may be looking for wives. Their pay is decent, the bonuses can’t be matched anywhere, and we are becoming" --- here he couldn’t suppress a sigh --- “a family-friendly army.” His voice stayed neutral, but his eyebrows independently expressed some skepticism.

"Excuse me?" shouted one of the women who’d tunneled all the way to the back row. "Is it too late to change careers?” At this the ranks broke into good-natured chuckling.

"One last thing!" the Noyan bellowed with what was left of his tolerance. "Any and all nymphomaniacs in the crowd?” He beckoned imperiously. “With me."

Chapter Text

“What-up-a-yak’s-ass is going on out there?” Nergui demanded, so surprised and bewildered that she cast her manners to the four winds.

That’s it! I’ve decided, Red Panda thought. Next life, I’m coming back Mongolian.

The doors of Chagatai’s enormous wheeled ger had been thrown open wide. Drums had thundered for attention. Nergui wondered whether the apparently secular drummers had any clue whether, on shamans’ drums, that same beat would summon Hu Flung-Pu, the fire deities’ immortal Collector of Dried-Dung Fuel.

Clean, fragrant, and only a little drunk, festooned with red-and-gold bridal finery under a sheer and shimmering red silk veil that reached the floor, Nergui’s posture was perfect as she airily descended the stairs from the doorway to the deck. This was partly because if being Chagatai’s bride was to be her lot, she was determined to be a good one, but also partly because her gown was made of a shiny silk so slippery it kept threatening to fall off.

Since it had gotten dark while she’d been getting ready, such gracefulness would not have been possible without the murmured guidance of her train-bearers (except for those of Blue Heron, which Nergui assumed were meant to pitch her headlong down the stairs or land her foot in something repulsive, and therefore ignored).

Chagatai Khan sat on a him-sized divan draped with exotic skins, wearing his dress armor under a royalty-only wolfskin cloak. Six other men in fancy chairs flanked him. His expression was ecstatic. However, he was not watching his bride’s entrance, but looking up at the sky. Between his thighs knelt a dark-skinned young woman with the taut back muscles a dancer, wrapped in colorful cotton that left one shoulder and arm bare, nodding her head repeatedly. Whatever the question had been, her answer was yes. Three other young women stood in a neat line behind her, ready to concur at the first opportunity,

“It’s not what you think,” Kafur whispered hurriedly.

“Really? Because I think my bridegroom is receiving fellatio from another woman right when our wedding is supposed to start.” This is supposed to be my day, something whined in Nergui’s head. Where had that baseless and supremely unhelpful notion come from ? she thought.  Just like every other day, this was everyone’s day. Her day. The Khan’s day too, but he’s been married so many hundreds of times it’s probably no more special to him than laundry day. Her dressers’ day. Her horse’s day, wherever he might be. The buzkashi riders had a claim to the day, too. Since this was a championship match, their claim might be stronger than hers. And it’s those chicken-heads’ day too, whoever they are. Unbidden, her face crumpled behind the veil. Tears stung her eyes while her sinuses prepared to pour forth a river of snot that would dwarf the flooding of the Syr Darya.

Red Panda’s social hypersensitivity picked up on the impending disaster instantly. “No no no no, Little Rabbit! Breathe! Be strong! Don’t wreck my makeup artwork!” she said, making outward gestures of placation while inwardly she roared “KHAAAAAN!”

“It’s the Shiva worshippers,” Kafur whispered urgently. “Shiva the Destroyer is the primary god of masculinity in parts of this Khanate. His temples have a lingam stone, representing Shiva’s generative organ, as the central focus. Many of the Khan’s subjects consider him an avatar or incarnation of Shiva. They were the same about Genghis, may he ride forever in the sky, You sometimes hear people say their bodies are temples? Well, the Khan’s literally is one. They’re praying to Shiva, through Chagatai. It’s nothing personal at all.”

“And our holy Tengri welcomes all religions under his Eternal Blue Sky,” Blue Heron put in, “so our magnanimous Tai Khan wouldn’t feel right turning them away, even if their timing is a little... tacky.”

Nergui gritted her teeth and took a long, shaky breath. This just… is whatever it is, she told herself. The people who know him better say this has nothing to do with me. Suppose they’re right .  Getting her all bathed and painted gift-wrapped had taken quite a while, she reasoned. He’s Khan, for Tengri’s sake. Why shouldn’t he get a little “lip service” from a devoted subject while he waits? Or maybe he needs soothing because he isn’t immune to wedding jitters even after all the dam practice he’s had. She’d heard it was the one time in the marriage when the man’s feet were colder than the woman’s.

Her eyes stung with her first reaction: humiliation. She screwed them shut to hold in the tears. Yes, it would feel good at the moment to yell or throw something at him. But then what would he do? He’d been jovial and indulgent all day, but he hadn’t gotten to rule this huge land --- a harsh land, full of legendary warriors --- just by throwing the best parties. It stood to reason that he must have other possible moods, other sides to his personality. Insulting him in front of this crowd would probably bring down a wrath she wasn’t up to handling.

Ogedei Khagan, why did you bless this mess? If I wasn’t sworn to obey you until death, We Would Have Words about this. Although, come to think of it, I was killed in Anatolia so technically...

Maybe she could get it to rain; if everybody was soaked, it wouldn’t show if she cried. She didn’t have much control over that skill set in the solid world, though.

She supposed she could try leaving, but after he’d gone to the trouble to bridenap her she doubted she’d get very far, unless…

Summer Cloud Sultan? Are you out there?

Nothing. How long did their link stretch? No telling.

The crowd down there was packed nuts-to-butts for what looked like acres and acres. The Azerdeli wouldn’t have any compunction about “putting the hoof in” on anything animate or inanimate that got in his way. In fact, putting the hoof in was right up there with apples, rubdowns, galloping at top speed, and (probably) mounting mares on the list of his favorite pastimes.

There’d be a lot of maimed bystanders. In a part of the world that’s very, very big on revenge. And then what? Go back to KK and explain this to everybody? All the way up to Great Khan Ogedei? That would just be trading embarrassment now for even more embarrassment later.

No, fight and flight were both shitty ideas. She would lose either way.

Mongols don’t lose. Time to Mongol up.

And do what, exactly?

Well, they’ve made this time to pray to Shiva. Among other things, I’m a visiting cleric. Let’s get out the hymnbooks and see if we can bring the lightning.

Chapter Text

Shiva Hara Hara

OM NAMAH SHIVAYA…

So determined was Nergui to rise above her initial irritation that she discovered, as the last few lines in a resonated Three Voice died away, that she’d sung herself right out of her body and literally risen above the entire scene. Chagatai Khan, his face flushed and his posture half-melted, had his face upward toward her but wouldn’t have seen her even if his eyes had been open, which they weren’t. Her own body still stood on the platform steps, perfectly still, as much a nucleus of the situation as if her shimmering red veil had been the only object of color in a scene of browns and grays. The other very bright and highly structured aura, belonging to a senior Shiva priestess standing in the wings, displayed mixed emotions much like Nergui’s own: inclined to be annoyed at the upstaging of her protegee, but since Nergui’s performance had in essence been cheering the young acolyte on, she didn’t feel fully entitled to complain.

The crowd had gone silent, at least by buzkashi-match standards. Now they erupted in shouts of “Om Namah! Shiva Shankara!” This was notable because a goodly portion of them were from other religions and wouldn’t have recognized Lord Shiva if he’d set up a sharbat stand outside their encampments.

Abruptly the Khan gathered himself and stood, causing the girl still kneeling in front of him to tumble onto her back like a beetle. The senior priestess seemed inclined to stay where she was, or at least hesitated to act immediately. Nergui’s medical instincts activated instantly; before she knew how she got there, she was back in her body, down the steps, and across the terrace leaving a wake of floundering functionaries. “Kid! Hey! Kiddo. You all right?” At a glance of her second sight, Nergui saw the young acolyte had tried to absorb too much yang too quickly. Erlik, she thought, was that because my singing amped him up? Tried to direct it all into the cranial pump, too, no wonder. Better open up another gate. She turned the patient belly-down, although the small body stayed rolled up in a ball, and pump-slapped her first at the ta chui and then at the chi chung . The girl coughed a couple of times, then drew in a rasping breath. “That’s good,” Nergui told her. “Inhale, exhale, repeat. Do a hundred Microcosmic Orbits and see me tomorrow afternoon.”

“I can take it from here,” said a dry voice. The stricken girl’s teacher had apparently bestirred herself and come over. “Don’t you have a wedding right now?”

Nergui straightened up and looked around. The two eunuchs were trying to keep her veil from going askew and either exposing her prematurely or tripping her up. The Khan towered nearby, one eyebrow quirked dubiously.

OOhhh, she thought acerbically. Far be it from me to leave my betrothed standing around like a stone turtle waiting for our wedding to start! But she darted up to him, bowed contritely, and said: “Please forgive me, Khan.”

Chagatai the Inevitable gave her a long, unreadable look. Then he looked over at the acolyte, now upright and walking as her teacher hustled her away. Then his forehead smoothed out and he nodded and took his bride’s hand.

“Friends!” he thundered, and the crowd fell so silent that the horses’ fussing and the fires’ crackling were the loudest audible sounds. “This match is taking place on a most auspicious day! I mark it by marrying a new wife!” He scooped Nergui up and sat her on his shoulder as if she weighed no more than a cat. “This is Keshdim Khenbish’s Nerguitani. She will be known as Little Rabbit. With this ring, I her wed.” He took her hand and slid a ring onto her finger.

It fit perfectly, Nergui noticed, then surmised that he probably kept a whole range of sizes around for whenever the felt like getting married.

“...so all the rest of you, paws off unless I say differently…”

Wait, what?

"And what about you, my dear? Would you like to say a few inspirational words to these brave riders, tell them what brings us here today?"

Huh? Nergui, torn between deciphering that “unless I say differently” and trying to hold her skirt down against the wind, hadn’t seen that one coming. She froze like a mammoth in a glacier.

But then her clerical training kicked in. As her father had taught her, she stalled while pretending not to, giving inspiration a chance to burst forth... if it was going to. She cleared her throat. She took a deep breath. She started speaking very slowly: "Because... we..."

And there it was. The sheep’s-ankle bones thrown by her fate landed in the Sign of Salvation. She suddenly recalled something good that she'd said to Gundogdu Bey one long, rainy night when they’d shared a discreet pot of bhang tea from opposite sides of a caravanserai wall. "Because... we want to be free!" she projected with sudden confidence.

Thunderous applause.

"We want to be free to do what we want!" she shouted after the tumult crested and began to die down.

The pandemonium shot back up to an even higher pitch.

"We want to be free to ride our animals without being hassled by The Man!" An even bigger frenzy of noise, into which she suddenly thought, Oops... Uh-oh. Well, if I wrap it up quick...

"Tengri bless Chagatai's Khanate! And Tengri bless Greater Mongol!" As she'd expected, that was a winner. repeated and echoed throughout the crowd until they were all chanting, "Tengri bless Chagatai's Khanate! Tengri bless Greater Mongol!"

Set back on her feet on the terrace again, she looked up at Chagatai with a worried expression. "Sorry, Khan," she began, turning to him shamefacedly. "That didn't come out quite right. I didn’t think it all the way through ---"

"You call me Tai now, Mrs. Khan," he replied, tracing her jawline with a surprisingly light touch, "and it was perfect."

"But... haven’t you become The Man here?"

“That’s my gift from Tengri, Little Rabbit,” he said, sliding a hand down to her waist and pulling her to him. “I’m not lofty like Josh, may he ride forever in the sky, or smooth like Oggy. But all my rough edges suit this place perfectly. I’m their Khan and they obey me; they’ll bleed and kill and die for me. The settled cities’ leaders are The Man. I mostly leave them to whatever it is they do, as long as they don’t embezzle too much. Me, with my ger and my herds and my games and my big battered hands always ready to get dirty or bloody? I’m still not The Man and I never will be. I dream that the bold and the bellicose of these lands will still miss me a thousand years from now.” He led her to his ornate divan and sat her on his knee. “But before I get all wrapped up in this match, lift up your veil for me.”

She turned toward him and did so. She had always considered herself okay-looking as long as she didn’t cry. She privately admitted she could look striking on a good day. But she didn’t know, as a scant handful of others did, that in the right sort of light from exactly the right angle she was skull-bashingly beautiful.

She lifted up her veil. And was illuminated by the right sort of light from exactly the right angle.

The Khan looked bewildered at first, as if she hadn’t been the person he expected, Then a slow, approving smile began to grow as he moved his eyes from her hairline to her chin and downward… but then caught on something that sparkled like a fallen star. A blazing red stone inlaid in rock crystal.

“That pendant,” he said, “Where did you...?”

“Tori --- I mean, Empress Toregene --- arranged for me to borrow it to wear on my mission to Anatolia.Her note said it belonged to Empress Bortë, may she ride forever in the sky,. That Baiju would recognize it, and maybe the memories would make him behave himself a little better.”

“It must have worked. He’s racking up the conquests again. You’re still here.”

“Only by the grace of the Expedient Resurrection Team. I --- I really don’t want to take this pendant off until I can give it back, because I’m scared stiff of losing it. It won’t be weird, will it? Reminding you of your mom when...”

The Khan laughed and threw the edge of his cloak around her shoulders. “Imagine you worrying about that! Of all the Borjigin brothers, I’m the one with no imagination at all. I don’t mind much; it helps with the fearlessness. I have a whole retinue to worry about what this implies or that suggests. You only need to keep making me smile.” He tapped a fingertip lightly on her nose, lifted her off his lap and sat her down beside him, shrugged out of his cloak, and stood up. “Now, where’s that goat?”

 

Chapter Text

Buoyed up by deafening cheers, Chagatai Khan swung the buzkashi goat in circles over his head. The goat, deprived of its own head, dressed-out, and soaked in very cold water overnight, was long past objecting.

“Riderrrs,” he bellowed as he flung it over the playing field, “Get! Your! Goat!!!” The massive crowd’s cheering got even louder. Sand trickled from small crevices in the massif that rose behind the natural terrace where the Khan’s ger stood and all the important people were seated. A few fist-size rocks fell from the edge of the terrace, fifteen feet down to the level of the buzkashi riders’ melée.

From the Khan’s massive hide-covered divan, three of the Khan’s wives watched with interest.  There was Blue Heron, the Khongirad consort, because everyone who was anyone had at least one Khongi, and Great Khan Ogedei’s big brother was certainly someone. There was Red Panda, the young noblewoman from Nihon across the ocean where everyone was always nice --- or else. And there was Little Rabbit, inexplicably called Goose Girl by certain young people, bridenapped that very morning and solemnized with veil and ring only minutes ago. Chagatai had slid her off his lap and left her wrapped in his luxuriant wolf-skin cloak. Which was fortunate, because otherwise, she could have caught a nasty chill in the scrap of slippery silk they’d given her as a dress.

At first, the knot of riders that converged on the goat seemed to get locked together so tightly that none of them could move. Clouds of dust rose around the perimeter as the horses fought for traction. Riders roared and howled and shrieked, drowning out any crackings of knees and elbows and ribs, excitement and anger and pain indistinguishable from each other.

Then another competing uproar approached from one side. Spectators were being shoved and kicked and trampled, which was normal, but by something other than the buzkashi riders and their mounts, which was unusual. The center of this disturbance seemed much smaller than the approved imbroglio, but seemed determined to be more vigorous.

Just as the Khan, intent on the riders’ scrum, turned to see what dared to distract him and his subjects, a blazing white streak broke through the front rows of spectators, rushed downfield, and collided with the deadlocked riders and their horses, scattering them like… well, imagine if there was a game where you aimed something white at a bunch of similar things that were all different colors, and they scattered all over the place, Little Rabbit thought. The white streak resolved into a magnificent riderless horse that burst out of the donnybrook with the scruff of the goat’s neck clenched in its teeth. It ran another fifty yards, then dropped the goat and shook its head,

Inside her brain, Little Rabbit distinctly heard a familiar voice say:

(Pfui! Ew. Why is everybody after this disgusting thing? I don’t get this at all.)

And the horse became a white streak again and burrowed through the spectators toward the exit canyon.

“Blistering bloody boils on a bear’s bollocks!” Chagatai raged like an ignited barrel of firemix, his face almost purple with choler. He wheeled to face Little Rabbit with a foot-stomp that shook loose more sand from the cliff face. “Woman!” he demanded in a voice that gave no quarter. “Was that your gods-damned horse?

She’d been laughing irrepressibly at the sight, but seeing the look on the Khan’s face moved her to repress is as quickly as she could. “Um… maybe?” she hedged. After all, it was debatable (1) whether there might be more than one Azerdeli stallion running loose in the area that, as a descendant of the celebrated talking horse Eid Efendi, formed thoughts as human words, (2) whether his pledge that she would be his “Burden” meant that he, in turn, belonged to her in some sense, and (3) whether Azerdelis, descendants of a wish granted by a Djinn, even qualified, in the strictest, sense, as horses.

“And you think this is funny? Do you?”

The Khan had had to trick her into dismounting to catch her. So far, no one had been able to catch Summer Cloud Sultan, aka The Fork-Tongued Son of a Bitch. By all reports, some of the best racers in the Khanate had been going all round Jelme’s hitching-line after the stubborn stallion, and now here he came and crashed the match! She thought it was chicken-plucking hilarious … but seeing Chagatai’s prodigious knuckles whiten on the handle of his dagger, she quailed. So far this wouldn't have been anything like the wedding of her dreams, if she'd ever had any wedding dreams. Being beaten or stabbed in front of more people than she'd thought the world could hold would just put the urkh right on the toono.

“...A little bit?” she ventured.

The Khan scowled, Ir was a pretty good scowl for someone who was only a part-time scowler. His thundercloud-gray eyes glared down, and her unnerving amber eyes gazed guilelessly up, for a heartbeat. Two. Three. Four. Five.

Beneath Chagatai’s shaggy red-gold-black mustache, a corner of his mouth quirked up as he snorted like a bull. “All right,” he conceded graciously, “it was a little bit funny.”

Red Panda abruptly appeared at the Khan’s side without appearing to cross the intervening distance. “Game-runner- sama, ” she addressed him. “Will you have that goat brought back? Use one of the backup goats? Or shall they play it where it lies?”

Chagatai the Inevitable's smile widened. He enjoyed any opportunity to make up his own rules. They seemed to crop up all the time these days, and it never got stale.

“Play it where it lies, Riders!” he shouted out. “Play it where it lies! After it, you misbegotten marmots!  After it!”