It was a long, hard crossing of the mountains from Kashgar; a month of trudging ascent and descent, though landscapes more tremendous than any they had yet seen. Ice and snow, barren rock and wasteland, the caravan climbing up, up between broad high peaks, or crawling ant-like across wide table-lands where the very air seemed scant. They camped at night in yurts belonging to shepherding folk, or in tea-houses in villages that seemed to grow out of the hillsides, and the cold was fearsome; but in the day, when the air warmed enough, they saw avalanches plummeting down this mountain or that, and those were more fearsome yet.
One evening early in the crossing as they sat in a low, smoky room, over a meal of flat-bread, curds and tea, Henry said to Jehan, 'My sister Philippa once sent me a book of stories from the far north. There were gods and ice-giants in it, and heroes, and people quarrelling over nothing, and they all seemed to live in a place like this. But this is... so much bigger, and so much harsher even than the lands in the tales.'
'I knew heralds who had been to Norway, and I've crossed the Alps myself. But there are sea-roads or valleys there, and you can go from one to the next in a day or two. This just goes on and on, getting higher all the time... ' Jehan was suffering more than most of them, his tall, narrow frame not being best suited to the piercing cold. At night, Henry, when he was not on guard-duty, was careful to wrap his limbs about him whenever they had a tiny cell to themselves, or to lie back-to-back with him when they shared a communal room.
'People have been making this crossing for hundreds of years. It must be possible.'
'I'd like to know who first thought it would be a good idea.'
Henry had never seen Jehan so dispirited at the mere idea of travel.
It was hard going every day, from the moment they woke up and dragged themselves out of their blankets, to the nights he spent on guard duty among the resting beasts, listening for wolves or bears, and keeping half an eye on the village dogs, ferocious creatures that made alaunts look tame.
There were tales told over their meals of another creature of the mountains away towards India, a legendary beast that walked like a man and that no-one had ever managed to see clearly, let alone hunt. Often while on guard Henry, hunched in a corner away from the wind and the snow-flurries, his sword at his side and his bow ready-strung in his hand, wondered what it would be like to fight one, and almost hoped for the chance to find out; that would ensure his fame in these parts for a long time to come! But no yeti made its appearance, and after a while he would leave the shelter of house and barn to do the rounds, hearing nothing but the sound of pack-beasts chewing the cud, and the sharp yip of a fox, and the ever-present wind.
Once during the day they saw a great cat, maybe the size of a lioness, splotched grey and cream, scaling an impossible slope on the other side of the valley. Too far for a bow-shot, and they never saw or heard one again, but the sight kept Henry on the alert.
But always there was enough fodder for the beasts, enough fuel to keep them alive another night. And one day, the road crested another high snowy ridge, with prayer-flags snapping in the wind on either side, and instead of yet another ridge up ahead, they saw that at last the land sloped away before them, the thread of the road descending in sharp angles between the vast white ranges, into a land they could only guess at.
'God be praised!' gasped Henry, and while some among them turned the prayer-wheels at the side of the road, he picked up a stone and added it to the cairn to help travellers coming after them. He and Jehan grinned at each other in triumph and delight, though tears stung their eyes in the wind that blew up the pass, as if it had blown since time began and meant to do so for ever more.
Below them, an eagle flew along the mountainside, across the line of the road. Another caravan was plodding, plodding up it; Bahram, one of the merchants in their own caravan, gave a yodelling cry, and the tiny figures looked up, and a few of them spared the energy to wave. Beyond them, the giant peaks marched on into the west. But the worst was, finally, over.
They followed a roaring river down through a series of valleys, and as they went, they encountered family after family of herders, packing up and moving down-slope with them. Scrubby bushes began to appear along the brink of the river, then taller trees.
The yaks took them down to the break of the foot-hills. Before them, the Vale of Fergana fell away, its pasture-lands dotted with yurts and horses and cattle, with settled farmlands far below them. They unloaded the yaks for the last time at a caravanserai in the shelter of a grove of cedars. This stood at the junction of their own road, leading back over the Pamirs to the east, and the road coming in from India, weeks away beyond the Hindu Kush; and it was busier than any they had stayed at since Kashgar.
'How's trade?' The standard greeting among travellers on that road.
In the courtyard of the caravanserai, they were eating their evening meal as the light died out of the day. The firelight flickered on the faces of the circle of men as they exchanged their news. There were commiserations as Arun told the story of the loss of Qurgan and the abandonment of the northern route around the Taklamakan, and consternation when Liang told of his Emperor's decree that Cathay be closed to all foreigners.
'That's bad,' said Wasim, one of the Indians, 'but it can't last; a few years at most. Not even Cathay can do without trade. And we've got goods stockpiled back at home,' he jerked his head towards the south, where the Hindu Kush piled up into the sky, 'and we can ride it out. And you'll get good prices in Samarkand.'
Henry, all too aware of the value of the goods stacked in the caravanserai's lock-up, made a mental note not to relax his guard now they were out of the mountains. He did his rounds with his usual care before climbing the steps to the upper floor, and going along the wooden gallery to the tiny slip of a room he was sharing with Jehan.
'Yes. It's a good place, this.'
'We'll be more comfortable from now on. I’m glad to be out of the mountains.' Jehan, at the window, paused in the act of swinging the shutter closed and looked up to where the topmost peaks marched, still glowing in the very last of the sunset, across the road they had travelled. He had suffered in the very highest passes, unable to catch his breath properly, and Henry was mightily relieved to have him safely down in the lowlands again.
Jehan latched the shutter. 'They say there'll be one more crossing this autumn, to take Arabian goods to Kashgar. After that, no more trips this year.'
'It was cold enough this time,' said Henry, unrolling their blankets onto the bed with its rope mattress, 'and I’m cold enough now; come to bed, mignon.'
'I still miss the kongs!' Jehan was wriggling under the blankets and cloaks, and Henry shifted slightly to accommodate the long body.
'One of mankind's better inventions,' agreed Henry, for the heated bed-bases had been an absolute boon a year ago in the north of Cathay. 'But I didn't like the price we had to pay for them.' He remembered the lack of privacy with disfavour. They'd had to sleep in a communal room to make use of the kongs, a dozen or more men packed into the wide, brick-built bed.
But Jehan chose to misunderstand him, commenting, 'You're getting to be more of a merchant every day.' And by now they had found a position in which they could both be comfortable, and drifted slowly down towards sleep.
In the morning, Henry took a flat-bread and a couple of apricots, and a cup of tea, to the forecourt in front of the caravanserai. They were still high enough up that the air was cold, though the sun was bright, flooding down the Vale. He sat on a bench, looking out into the far distance, trying to make out their route. Close at hand, in the folds of the foot-hills, were the scattered yurts, scarcely to be distinguished from the hillside from which they sprang, but with many animal-tracks leading to and from them. Further down were villages, with stone towers to protect them, and the slender spires of minarets. The road fell away, now visible, now lost in a fold of the hills, into the immense bowl of the Vale.
'Who keeps order here?' he asked Liang, who was sitting nearby, enjoying the warm sun.
'There are tarkhans and troops from Samarkand, stationed in the villages. This close to the city they can keep a careful eye on things. They won't risk losing the passes to Kashgar and India. They like to take their toll, some of them, but we're a big caravan, and they won't push us too hard.'
A little way down-slope, the children of the village were leading the yaks out to pasture, calling out to each other and laughing as they did so. Some of the older children, both boys and girls, had the double-curved bows of the region in their hands, ready for whatever might threaten the herds. There were camels and mules out there too, some with heads down, grazing, others resting on the ground – what an odd silhouette a resting camel made! He never ceased to find it amusing.
'Close to Samarkand? How close?' He peered into the distance.
'Oh, a few weeks.'
Henry laughed. It was no use looking down the Vale, trying to see a golden city at the edge of sight. 'I will never quite get used to Asia.'
'No, you never will!' said Liang. 'Twenty years I've been travelling it, and I've barely seen a fraction of it. But this is Tamburlaine's heartland, and they'll defend it well. Lose the passes and you've lost the reason for the city.'
'We feel the same about losing the Narrow Seas, in my own country,' but Henry found it odd to envisage the grey and heaving ocean, here in the centre of a continent that took years to cross.
Henry leaned down and sketched in the dust; a tall triangle, and a blocky shape to its left, and a long sweep of coastline curving up around them. 'This is my country, England. And Jehan's from France, here; and these are the Narrow Seas between them.'
Liang looked down at the map speculatively. 'What do you trade between them?'
'Wool, and wine, in the past, but lately, mostly war,' admitted Henry.
'Waste of a good opportunity. Maybe I should go there, there might be possibilities.'
'Maybe you should!'
'But you and Jehan weren't enemies, were you?' added Liang, knowingly.
'Not any more, but we were, a long time ago.'
'And now you're the best of friends,' and Liang nudged him in the ribs. 'Henry, your kings need their heads banged together,' and Henry snorted with laughter and acknowledged this; and then there was a call from one of the outhouses that the bath-water was hot, and the conversation was forgotten in the general rush.
They were to stay at the caravanserai under the cedars for three days. All the beasts needed to be rested, and the men too, and the equipment over-hauled. The little village close by, with its fort and garrison, had a market with a range of goods out of all proportion to its size. The market was noisy and vivid, and there was a small inn to one side of the market-place. They dropped in once or twice for a drink, but they were tired, and the caravanserai was comfortable, and the day's news always reached them anyway. So they stayed around the caravanserai for the most part, or, when the sun was shining, sat out on the beaten-earth terrace looking out over Fergana, and drank coffee or tea, and recuperated.
Sometimes there was music, sometimes there was drinking and laughter, and there were games to play, dice and backgammon and something that was almost, but not quite, familiar.
'I've seen this before,' said Jehan, looking across to where Arun was sitting opposite one of the Indians, an enormous chequered board between them, on which they were setting out their carven armies. 'In Samarkand, years ago. It was a new thing then; they said Tamburlaine invented it himself, because the normal chessboard wasn't big enough to interest him.'
'Tamburlaine's chess...' said Henry, 'he had all of Asia for his chessboard!' Arun, noticing him looking, invited them over with a courteous gesture, 'You've not seen this before?'
'No, we play the eight-by-eight board. This is what, ten by ten?'
'Ten by eleven. The games can take hours sometimes, but we've got hours and to spare!' Arun was smiling; like Henry, he was glad to be over the mountains. The men of his garrison and Henry's caravan had stuck by each other for long months now, and were old friends. 'Do you want to watch?' He cocked an eye at him.
'I want to learn!' And Henry and Jehan perched on a bench close by, while Arun set out his pieces.
'This is a war machine. A camel,' yes, that unmistakable humped shape. 'A chariot - a rukh; Tamburlaine was playing this game when his son was born, and named him Shah Rukh after it.'
'A rook,' murmured Jehan privately to Henry.
'Oh... And that?' He pointed at a tall and elegant shape.
'A giraffe! Have you seen one? They're a famous beast, from Africa,' said Arun.
'We haven't seen one, but we heard tell of them, in Arabia!' Henry and Jehan were smiling at each other now at the memory, so long ago it seemed! And their wanderings had barely begun then. 'They said it was taller than a house, and that they'd had to put it on another ship. It was bound for Cathay.'
'Yes, the Emperor had one in his menagerie, to bring him luck. But there's one at Samarkand too, in the palace grounds. A gift from the Mamluks to Ulugh Beg. Did you see it while you were there, Jehan?'
'No, that would have been since my time. We saw the elephants at the gates, though; that was a sight!' Jehan was smiling.
'How did they get a giraffe to Samarkand?' said Henry, half-disbelieving. It was such a very long way from the port in Arabia where they had first heard tell of the beasts.
'Oh, they walked it from Cairo. It took about a year, I believe.' Arun was slightly off-hand; immense journeys were part and parcel of his life, after all.
'Poor beast,' said Henry, with a certain amount of fellow-feeling, and settled down to watch the chess-game.
Arun sent a party of men ahead, to report to their commanders in Samarkand, and the caravan followed on with the rest of the troops a few days later. Beasts and men were rested and fresh, and the country grew steadily kinder as they travelled; the harvest was beginning, and there was food and to spare (at a price, though!) and the air was warm at night. It was like a holiday after the rigours of the last month.
They had been moving down the Vale for a week or more, with the mountains stepping a little further away behind them every night, when they came to a town among orchards of apricots and glowing pomegranates. There was a festival of some sort going on here; Henry, surveying the scene from his camel's back, could see that the wide meadow leading down to the river was a sea of tents and yurts; horses, shaggy ponies, beasts of burden, bright flags, and people, people everywhere. There was a ring of people watching what looked like a wrestling-match, and a crowd around someone reciting a story.
Arun came up beside him. 'We'll need to be careful here,' he said confidentially, 'Marghilan's got a reputation as a trouble spot, and there are people here from far and wide.'
'Should we go on, do you think?'
Bahram, overhearing, said, 'Oh, there's opportunities, too. They weave the most wonderful silk here... just be on your guard!' And with that, he wheeled his camel away, and they passed the fringes of the crowd to their pitch, a slope of the meadow close by the river. The caravanserai was full; no chance of a lock-up; they would have to watch their possessions themselves. Henry dismounted, conferred with his men, and set the guard. They would all have to sleep outdoors, but that was no real hardship at harvest-time, and so far down the Vale.
The evening was actually very pleasant; they sat around their camp-fire, eating roast mutton in the light of the flickering flames, and exchanged news with anyone who happened by. Irkud, Henry's second-in-command, was picking out a tune on his pipes. The gathering was noisy, and there was a fair amount of drinking going on, but the feeling was good-natured for now, and they passed the night with few disturbances.
The morning saw a series of horse-races down on the flats by the river; children and young people were racing, dressed in bright and flashing clothes, the young women more than holding their own against the youths. There was much giggling, and kisses exchanged atop the galloping horses; all the watchers were grinning, and some shouted encouragement and made suggestions. Then, after noon, the race-track was cleared, and a crowd of men cantered into the space. Every one of them looked to be capable of holding off a pack of wolves single-handedly, and with them, they carried the headless carcass of a goat.
'What on Earth is this..?' asked Henry, bemused, Bahram looking round said, 'Goat-grabbing! They have to capture the carcass and drop it into the circles,' which were being marked out on the ground even as he spoke. 'The games can go on for days, sometimes.'
The riders sorted themselves into two ragged ranks, one wearing dull red, the other dusty black. A grey-beard in a light-coloured robe rode into the space between and dropped the carcass; held up his whip and quiet magically fell, except for the whinnies of one or two excited horses. Then he brought it cracking down. And the game started, with a series of shouts and a whirl of dust; someone wrestled the carcass from someone else and led a racing knot of horsemen around the pitch. Whips slashed through the air, not all of them aimed at the horses; the goat thudded to the ground and a horseman leaned out of the saddle and scooped it up at a gallop.
Henry experienced a sudden powerful wish to be joining in. It was like football, which successive kings of England had tried and failed to ban; Henry had once seen a game in progress in Derbyshire, and thought it was more like a pitched battle than a game, and this was the same, but on horseback. He grinned fiercely. 'Who should we be cheering for?' he asked Bahram.
'The locals, if you want to sleep quiet tonight!' So Henry let rip with a yell that startled all around him, and Jehan, standing next to him, gave him an amused look, before turning back to the game.
After half an hour, Bahram and Jehan wandered off, to look at the bolts of silks which were stacked on trestles under the shade of the pomegranate trees. Henry was still absorbed in the game. Its sheer physicality fascinated him, and the level of skill involved was astonishing. But he had half an ear cocked for trouble, remembering Bahram's warning, and when a burst of yells broke out behind him he whirled round and was off through the crowd immediately.
The cries had come from the direction of their camp. He had left Irkud in charge, thinking not much could happen on a bright afternoon, but as it turned out he was wrong. There was as struggle going on there, a gang of youths surging around the wide ring of bedrolls in close combat with his men. No weapons that he could see, so he did not draw his sword. He simply waded in. Someone yelled, 'Ferenghi!' - foreigner!
There were no rules to this kind of fighting; he struck out with his fists, hauled on belts, kicked and was kicked. There were shouts, and screams, and a powerful smell of sweating humanity. Savagely he elbowed a youth who had Irkud in an arm-lock with another punching at him. Suddenly his feet were torn from under him and he went down hard on his shoulder. Dust got in his eyes and something slammed into his back. All he could see were scuffling feet; he levered himself back up, caught a glimpse of a fist coming straight at him and an instant later it connected with his eye.
'Oh...' The headache, first; then a bruised back, unfortunate since he was lying on it, and a general sensation of malaise. He tried to open his eyes, but only one would work. It was dark. Memories spilled through him, of various battles; which one was this? Shrewsbury, perhaps? A clutch of fear in his stomach; the aftermath of that had been horrible. No, wait, a lot had happened since Shrewsbury.
'Jehan!' someone close at hand called, and there were hurrying footsteps.
He sorted through more memories. Jehan. Oh, yes... that meant he was in exile. His hand crept out, trying to learn more, and encountered dusty ground, with tufts of trampled grass. Someone crouched down beside him, and caught hold of it in a warm grasp.
'I think so, yes.' He was trying for a light tone, but even to his own ears his voice sounded weak. 'What happened?'
'You were in a fight with a gang from Marghilan. They tried to raid our camp while the goat-grabbing was going on. You came back and laid into them, but there were too many and you went down... Tell me you're all right, mignon!' Jehan's voice trembled, very slightly.
'I’m all right.' His hand returned the grasp of Jehan's, and he tried to sit up. 'I feel sick,' he amended hastily, and sank back down, to more twinges from his bruises.
'A bucket!' called Jehan, and someone came running, and there was Irkud's voice, 'He isn't going to throw up?' which of course resulted in him doing just that; fortunately the bucket was ready.
Jehan held a beaker of water to his mouth, and he rinsed out, spat, and said with heavy irony, 'Thank-you, Irkud.'
'Better out than in,' was the response, and it was true. He was shaking, but the mists were clearing, and suddenly pictures came back into his head; the game, the fight.
'Did they get away with anything?'
'No, some of Arun's men came up and saw them off soon after you went down. You saved me, though – I thought they'd have my arm out of its socket! So I thank you, Henry.' A hand patted his shoulder. 'I've got a stone heating in the fire for you. I'll get it now.' And he went away and was back a minute later with the stone; large, wrapped in cloths, and blissfully warm at his feet. 'Anything else you need, just let us know. Do you still need the bucket?'
'No.' So Irkud picked it up, and took it away to dispose of the contents.
'My head's splitting.' Henry rolled it slowly, and looked at Jehan through his one open eye.
'I’m not surprised; you've been out cold for hours. We were getting worried. But one of the local grannies looked at you, and said you'd be all right, and gave us this for when you came round.' A little flask, and Henry squinted at it, and remarked, 'To be honest, Jehan, I don't care if it kills me,' and Jehan slid a careful arm under his neck, and let him drink from the bottle, and laid him gently down.
A while later, the pain went away. 'Oh, that's better,' he murmured, and Jehan squeezed his hand again, even as he sank back down into sleep.
A few times during the night, he half-woke and stirred, and Jehan beside him asked sleepily how he did, and he replied variously, 'I’m all right,' or 'Go away,' and Jehan murmured something conciliatory in response. As the night wore on towards dawn, the headache grew stronger again, and he greeted the dawn with small enthusiasm, but did his best as the camp woke around him to get up. Jehan looked at him, but made no comment, and after taking a few minutes to relieve himself, Henry admitted defeat and took to his bed again. The granny who had seen him before returned, and he thanked her as best he could, fumbling for the words through the haze of pain, smiling at her with all the charm he could muster. She suddenly smiled back, patted his hand, told him on no account to take more of the draught before sundown, announced she had more broken heads to see to, and left.
'She's seen your sort before,' said Irkud, and Henry had to acknowledge that this was probably true.
The business of the camp went on around him; someone was always within call, and he slept or dozed throughout much of the day. Towards evening he began to feel more himself, and was able to half-sit up to eat with a saddle at his back provided by Jehan. A small bowl of porridge was all he could manage, but he felt better for it, and took a dose of the draught and slept the night through. The next day, he was able to potter around the camp-fire, and the injured eye was beginning to open again.
'What happened to the bully-boys?' he asked Irkud, as he sorted and packed a few smaller purchases into his baggage.
'The local tarkhan picked them up, and they're cooling their heels in the town jail,' said Irkud. 'Marghilan's got a reputation for fist-fights, especially when the new wine's coming in. They'll have to deal with the problem, though; it's bad for trade.' He peered at Henry. 'That's one of the best black eyes I've ever seen,' he observed, grinning. 'That pale skin of yours shows it up nicely.'
Later, Henry privately asked Jehan, 'Tell me the worst. What do I look like?'
Jehan surveyed him critically. 'Azure et gules,' he decided, and smiled at Henry's groan. 'It suits you very well.'
Henry knew he'd been needled, and pulled a face at him, then winced and relaxed his muscles. 'I need to know the worst,' he said, 'where's that silver plate we got in Kashgar?' and when it had been unearthed, he surveyed his reflection in it. A rainbow at sunset hardly did the sight justice. Red, purple and blue; the white of the eye that could be seen through the slitted eyelids was blood-red, and there was a cut across the bridge of his nose. 'Suddenly I feel a lot worse,' he announced, and put the plate away.
But his companions seemed to enjoy reporting on the progress of his bruises, and in the end he got the salver out every morning and groaned theatrically as they progressed through the rainbow, and tried to make a case for the lighter blue matching his eyes, and the yellow going well with his hair. But by that stage, he felt perfectly well in himself, and they were on the road again, and by the time they faded altogether the caravan was passing between hills once more, and coming out onto a wider plain, and clear before them lay the road to Samarkand.
Now they were riding through settled farmlands and vineyards, and the towns grew larger and more frequent. Jehan gazed at one of them in awe. 'That's Alexandria-the-Farthermost!' he said, and Henry stared too, imagining the great king marching up this valley at the head of his Macedonians.
But even that sight was as nothing in comparison with the last day of their journey, when Samarkand itself came into clear view. All that day they watched the city with its astonishing blue domes and minarets growing closer across the flat-lands. They were among market gardens now, with little ditches criss-crossing their route, and tall trees everywhere; there were families in the fields and a steady stream of carts and pack-animals taking produce in to the markets.
In front of the city walls they saw a wide, flat space, surrounded by more trees; 'Tamburlaine's parade-ground,' said Arun; 'he held some wonderful pageants here.' And now they were at the East Gate, among a crowd of people, and there, looming grey against the mud-brick walls, just as Jehan had described them from his last journey here, were two elephants, with archers standing on guard in howdahs on their backs. Henry tried not to stare, failed, and settled for smiling in delight instead. Wonders upon wonders, everywhere they went in Asia.
But they didn't go in through the gate, turning to the left instead, where a substantial suburb sprawled out under the walls.
'Dear Lord, it's changed,' said Jehan, at Henry's side, 'but it's just the same, too. We came past this street on the way to see a pageant. I remember that mosque;' the minaret was close at hand on their left. 'The streets were empty of traffic -' not like now, for there were carts and beasts thronging it, and stalls every so often, and their own caravan, with its multitude of camels, only added to the crush. Jehan's mule was placidly following the rest, for he made no attempt to direct her. 'What an odd feeling... it's me that's changed most of all, of course...'
Henry smiled at him, unused to hearing his beloved so garrulous; but gave most of his attention to the crowds around him. This place was even busier than Kashgar.
They arrived at their destination, a large and prosperous-looking caravanserai, and they filed under the entrance-arch with relief, and looked around them. The wide courtyard was suddenly alive with children, rushing out to take charge of the animals, and the proprietor followed them. Liang hailed him as an old friend, and immediately took charge of the negotiations for accommodation – Henry overheard such fragments as 'last caravan of the season' and 'more people than we've got food for.' But things seemed to sort themselves out quite rapidly, and while more children were sent scurrying to the market for provisions, the workers at the caravanserai, who seemed to be members of one large family, got the visitors settled in.
Henry glanced round for Jehan, and found him at the arched gate, looking up and down the street, still with that expression of amazement on his face. 'Jehan. Dinner,' said Henry, and Jehan shook his head as if to clear it, and followed him back into the caravanserai without words, apparently having exhausted his stock of them in the street.
Arun and Ghazan made room for them at their table, and over the meal, Ghazan said, 'Are you two still thinking of stopping for the winter here in Samarkand?'
Henry glanced at Jehan. 'Yes. We're tired out and need a good long rest. And they say the only way to go this time of year is south to India, and that's a hard road by all accounts.'
'So you'll be looking for somewhere to stay? This place is good, but it's expensive,' and there was wincing agreement around the table.
'You've got somewhere in mind, haven't you?'
'As it happens, I have a cousin in Paris...'
'Paris?' Henry could not quite believe what he had heard.
He glanced at Jehan, who, rather embarrassed, said, 'The Amir Tamburlaine named parts of Samarkand after places he'd conquered... Baghdad, and Damascus...'
'And Paris,' finished Henry for him. 'He was being a little ambitious there, perhaps? I would have had a thing or two to say about that...' and then he realised that Arun and Ghazan were watching him speculatively. He had never told them who he really was; it would have been pointless. But they were no fools, either of them, and had long realised that he was more than just another guard captain. 'A cousin in – Paris, you were saying, Ghazan?'
'Her husband's a paper-maker, and their family's growing up and moving out. They might have a room or two to spare.'
So the next day they went to Paris with Ghazan to see if his cousin still had rooms to let. Sati did not, but had a friend down the street who did, so they all went together further down the narrow lane, stopping every now and then as people greeted Ghazan and heard the bare bones of his news, and turned the corner into the paper-makers' street. Here the smell of glue hung heavy in the air, but after a few minutes they did not notice it, and finally they turned into a narrow entry and came out into a little court. There was a woman sweeping there.
Sati greeted her; 'Oljai! Hard at work as always, I see!'
'And you're slacking as usual, Sati!' The women laughed, and Sati made the introductions – 'Here's my cousin Ghazan, and some friends of his, new in from the Taklamakan.'
'We heard the news! They say the North Road is lost; is that right?'
'Yes, and the oasis towns have been abandoned - '
'Ah, that's bad for trade,' Oljai said, shaking her head.
'Worse yet... The Ming Emperor has closed his borders...'
'More fool him!'
'These two were on the last caravan to come through, and they're looking for a place to stay the winter. Your rooms...'
'Are still to let,' and Oljai looked them over with an assessing eye. 'You don't like like easterners.'
'No, we're from Europe,' said Jehan, 'but we've been travelling a long time.'
'Europe? Franks, eh? Well, you'll be glad to stay a while in civilised parts.'
'They're well-behaved, I can vouch for that,' put in Ghazan with a grin.
'You'd better come up and take a look at the rooms,' said Oljai, and putting her broom against a door-post, and they followed her in and up a narrow stair.
The rooms were small, but cleaner than many they had encountered. There was a tiny lobby at the top of the stairs, and a bigger room leading off it, looking out over the street. It had a brazier, and a table, and a sofa that had seen better days. A smaller room, with a curtain to close it off, held a bed and nothing else.
'The fountain's at the end of the street, and you can wash in the lean-to in the courtyard,' said Oljai, and Henry and Jehan glanced at each other and smiled. This little apartment could be just what they wanted, even though it was so small that the five of them made it seem crowded.
'What are you asking for it? We'd likely stay three months,' and she named a price, and Sati gave a small nod and so did Ghazan; and so it was settled.
They stayed one more night at the caravanserai, to find out where to sell their wares and their mules, and to spend a last uproarious evening with their friends of so many months, before making the move to their new lodgings. Several of their friends had found accommodation close by, and Sati's husband Nawruz hailed them in the street and told them of an inn not far away, and it was with the feeling of having found a home, however temporary, that they climbed the stair to their rooms, dropped their packs on the table, and shut the door on the chilly afternoon air. Oljai had supplied some thick rugs and a square of old carpet, and there was charcoal in the brazier, sending out a steady warmth.
'This'll do,' said Henry, with satisfaction, and set about unpacking, and later, when the light was dying out of the evening sky, 'What about that inn?'
They left Oljai's house, and followed her directions; left at the fountain with its cluster of people, and on towards the main street of the local bazaar. They turned down another street by the cook-stalls, found the inn fifty yards further on, and ducked under the low lintel of the doorway.
Here were several of their friends, for this inn was the closest one to the caravanserai, sitting at a table with their cups before them. There were smiles and greetings, the latter subdued, for up on a podium, a story-teller was telling his tale... something he recognised from the Thousand and One Nights.
'That's a good story-teller,' said Bahram softly, 'I don't know when I've heard it better told.'
'We heard it a year or two ago, in Cairo,' murmured Jehan, 'if I was Scheherazade's husband I would have wanted to hear another story too.'
'Under no circumstances would you have acted like Shahryar,' said Henry, and the others nodded amused agreement.
Liang and Bahram wandered back to their rooms with them at the end of the evening, and while Jehan made tea, Liang said, 'Do you know where to sell your goods? You've got spices, haven't you, and some silks?
'Yes, and some metalwork we picked up in Kashgar.'
'Well, I’m going to the Grand Bazaar tomorrow, so you'd do well to come along with me. I know the men to go to, and they know me. And I've got sapphires to sell.'
'Sapphires? Where did you get those?'
'Picked them up as we came through Fergana,' said Liang, and refused to be more specific.
Henry and Jehan glanced at each other, wondering what kind of opportunity they had missed. Two years and more on the road, and they had barely begun to learn what a trader should know... 'We'll come with you,' said Jehan, and the talk turned to other matters.
The next afternoon they met Liang at the fountain – Nawruz was there too, with his son, for they had paper to sell - and took a wider street to the left which led to the Grand Bazaar. They threaded their way through a throng of people, carts and animals. Ahead, a wall with an arched gateway in it blocked the way, with guards on either side. Passing under the gate, they came out into the bazaar.
'Oh! This isn't what I expected when you said it was covered!' Liang had told them a little of it the night before, but he had anticipated some arrangement of canvas awnings, not what he saw now. It was a long street lined with stalls as he had been expecting, but entirely roofed in with stone, and lit by means of skylights in the roof. The stallholders were lighting lanterns and flambeaux as dusk drew on, which made it warmer than the street outside, and judging by the number of people, this was much appreciated. Golden light flickered on the walls and roof.
Business was going on briskly wherever he looked. Here was a carpet-seller, his shop a glowing cavern of red and blue and ochre, the carpets stacked high in their various sizes, some with their corners turned back to display the ones beneath. Henry caught a glimpse of their designs, geometric or flowing, seeming to swirl together in a mad medley as buyers passed to and fro before them. There was a goldsmith's stall, with a guard standing right next to it, with chains and dishes and plates gleaming in the lamplight. A furrier's full of pelts of all manner of beasts; a perfume-seller's booth with its tiny flasks ranged in rows on shelves behind the seller's head, scenting the air even at twenty paces' distance. And there was a constant buzz of shoppers and stallholders doing business, with a backdrop of music from minstrels with long-necked lutes and double pipes, grouped around one of the pillars.
'Welcome to the Grand Bazaar,' said Nawruz, with some ceremony, 'the merchandise of the whole world laid out before you!'
'We heard about the plans for it last time I was here,' said Jehan, looking up and down it – his height giving him a distinct advantage over Henry – 'but I never thought I would see it when it was finished. It must help trade enormously to be under cover, both summer and winter.'
'I remember when it was built,' said Nawruz, resting his bale of paper for a moment on the edge of a fountain. 'It was a marvel, but frightening, how fast it was done. Twenty days it took, from beginning to end.'
'Twenty days?' Henry gazed up and down the length of it again. It wound out of sight at either end. The roof was all in the same style, to be sure, but... 'How was that possible?'
'When I say days, the work went on day and night. The shop-owners protested, but the Amir Tamburlaine said that he'd bought and paid for the city, and if he wanted a grand bazaar he would have one. So the gangs went through like a conquering army, one set of men pulling the houses down with the owners fleeing with their goods, another following them flattening the ground, and the builders coming along behind. The noise was unbelievable. The southern end was already open for business while they were tearing down the houses at the north. But they got it finished, and everyone kept their heads.'
'Why else would everyone work so fast? '
'Back home, that just couldn't happen,' said Henry, bemusedly. 'The landowners would bring lawsuits, and the common people would riot,' and probably march on the Tower while they were at it. Henry's mind was reeling at the pictures.
'Well, that was the old Amir for you,' said Nawruz. 'Said it was his city, and he could do what he liked with it. His grandson's easier to live with, though, and as great a builder. But the Amir was right, it was good for business in the end.'
Henry caught Jehan's eye. 'In Europe, we'd have to build a complete new town to get something like this!'
'Well, Europe's a backwater, full of infidels and dog-headed men,' said Nawruz tolerantly, 'and this is the centre of the world... But the bookseller's waiting for us, we must be on our way; Baidu, come on...' and father and son heaved up their paper again, and made their way through the press towards the bookseller's shop.
'Sapphires first,' said Liang, and led them off in the other direction, past a shop selling glassware.
Jehan looked at it and said in astonished recognition, 'Venetian glass!' They went past it, craning their necks to look back, but then they reached the gem-merchant's shop, a veritable Ala-ad-Din's cave, guarded by a a fierce-looking Pathan. Liang and the gem-merchant disappeared inside, and Henry and Jehan bought cups of coffee from a nearby stall while they waited for Liang.
'I'd like to take a look at that bookseller's shop,' said Jehan.
'We won't be able to afford anything in it,' said Henry regretfully. 'Or read them, either, come to that!'
'I know... But I must see if Nawruz has any paper he's rejected; I'd like to make notes of all we've seen and done. It would be a shame to forget any of it; to forget this,' and he glanced up and down the incredible street once again.
'You know, a covered market like this would not be so difficult to build,' mused Henry, 'though not under threat of beheading, of course. But it would be good to have somewhere out of wind and weather to do business, maybe in every city eventually...'
They sipped their coffee and waited, each busy with his own thoughts.
Liang emerged from the gem-merchant's shop after a little while, with a pleased expression on his face. 'That didn't go too badly! Now, the spice-merchant. You're lucky to have me with you; he's a tricky devil,' and he led them on to the tiny shop, and true to his word got them a good price on what they wished to sell.
They emerged from their marketing still slightly dazzled by the assault on their senses, and Jehan said, 'Where now?'
'Back to the caravanserai for me,' said Liang, 'they'll look after my takings for a price. You might want to think about doing the same. You've got good lodgings, but they're not secure, and you don't want to carry valuables around with you.'
This was sound sense, and they went back through the East Gate, between its guard-elephants, and turned right towards the caravanserai. Here the owner unlocked his strong-room for them, and they deposited their takings, and since the evening meal was being served they repaired to the dining-hall to consider their next move.
'You're staying in the city all winter, aren't you?' asked Liang, as he tucked into a bowl of noodles and (Henry suspected) horse-meat.
'Yes, and we should find work if we can; that money's enough to last us but we'd do better to have some coming in as well.'
'Hm...' Liang looked a little complacent; he had obviously done better on his transactions than he had let on. 'You've asked Arun or Ghazan?'
'No, we must do that that. Ghazan seems to know everybody.'
'Yes, and Arun can put in a good word for you at the palace. Use your contacts, that's what they're there for!'
'And you, what will you do?'
'South to India in the spring, then back home by way of Mandalay. I've done that journey before and I know the people on the way. I'll be home by next winter.'
'Mandalay,' say Henry reflectively, 'rubies...'
Liang grinned. 'Want to come along with me?'
'At the moment I don't want to stir another step!' He was full of food, among friends; Jehan was beside him, and they had a tidy sum locked in the caravanserai's strong-room. Life was, at the moment, rather good.
As Liang had predicted, Arun was able to find Henry work escorting local traffic, mostly between Samarkand and Kesh, ten miles or so to the south of the capital. Such were the riches that flowed between the two cities that even here in the heartlands the wealthier merchants, dealers in books or precious stones or silks, were safer with an armed guard. Usually Henry could be there and back in a day, and sometimes Jehan went along with them for the ride.
Kesh was a beautiful city, the birthplace of Tamburlaine, and it was worth the visiting. There were gardens full of little canals and fruit trees with scores of workers at the harvest, and parks alive with deer. Jehan, as they rode into the city, said, pointing at one pleasaunce, with late roses nodding over its walls, 'See, that's where we stayed on our way here, in a tent, and the Amir asked us to a feast in the grounds. He lived in a tent himself – hated being stuck inside a building - it was all made of silk, and covered in carpets from Afghanistan. All his wives were there, and we sat on cushions and ate entire sheep and drank cream and sugar from jewelled goblets.'
Henry glanced at him. 'And years later you came to my stone halls and never let on that you'd dined with the Emperor of Asia. Truly a prince among heralds.'
'Why,' said Jehan, 'I found to my surprise that the King of England was more worth the looking at than all the silk pavilions in Asia,' and they smiled at each other, and turned their attention back to the road; but that night (for they stayed in Kesh while the merchant warehoused his embroidered cloth and velvets) they made slow and satisfactory love in their attic room in the caravanserai.
'I should have done this to you, that first night in Westminster,' said Henry a while afterwards, 'come to your lodgings in disguise and seduced you. I kept thinking of you walking up to the throne, all long legs and elegance, when my mind should have been elsewhere. What would you have done, if I'd knocked on your door at midnight, wrapped up in a dark cloak and carrying just a rush-light so you couldn't see who it was?'
It was apparent that Jehan was immediately interested, though he kept his voice even. 'Oh, it depends whether I knew who you were or not... and back then I didn't even know why I liked you so much...'
'I think,' murmured Henry, shifting a little closer with fell intent, 'I think you would recognise me by my voice. And you would have an inkling of why I was there, because you'd seen the way I was looking at you, but you wouldn't quite believe it.'
'Would I not?' asked Jehan, running a slow hand over his shoulder and down his back, gathering him in. A soft kiss. 'So, what did I do, that dark night in the palace?'
'You opened the door a little wider, and stood aside for me to go in. Closed it behind me.' Now Henry's voice was as seductive as he could make it. 'And I knew by that, that I wasn't altogether unwelcome, even though we hadn't exchanged more than a word or two. I put the rush-light on the mantel, where it gave just a very dim glow, and when I turned back again you'd got back into bed – it was a cold night – and you were watching me. Very composed, very assessing. And I felt so young and untried. This was the first time I'd gone to someone else, rather than have them come to me.'
'Your first time, hm? Did I know that?' Jehan whispered the words against his ear.
'No, I didn't let on. And there's no need to sound so smug; you'd never been with a man at all...' Henry poked him lightly in the ribs. 'Anyway, there you were, sitting up against the pillows, and I hoped you were as nervous as I was. So I went and sat on the edge of the bed, and let the hood of my cloak drop a little way, so you could see my face.'
'But your face was in shadow... the rush-light was behind you... and all I could see was your hair – there were strands of it shining golden... and the curve of your cheek. It could have been anyone, really, except for your voice. I knew the voice. But I pretended I didn't.'
'What did I say?'
'Oh, it was very decorous at first. You'd asked if you could come in, and you made some comment about the room being so dark, and I didn't ask why you didn't light the candles because I knew the answer. And when you sat on the bed you said I'd had a harsh welcome even though I was just the Dauphin's messenger. You said you were sorry about that. You hoped I wouldn't think too badly of your King, who could be very stupid at times.'
'Oh, I never said that! I said the King was a model of statesmanship, a new Marcus Aurelius. I remember it distinctly! And I said that he'd sent me to try to come to a better understanding with you – on his behalf – and asked if there was anything I could do to convey his goodwill to the Herald of France.'
'And you put out your hand, and your cloak fell open a little way, and I could just see the line of your throat, and a pulse beating there,' a kiss, on the very place. 'When I took your hand, it was very warm, and your palm was all calloused and rough, but your fingers were gentle. I liked that, liked the contrast.'
'Did you? What did you do then?' Henry was entirely caught up in their fantasy now.
'We sat there for a few moments, holding hands, but it was as though we were on the edge of a precipice. No going back. Then I tugged on your hand, just a little, and you undid your cloak with the other hand, all in a rush, and let it drop on the floor. Now you were just in your nightshirt, and I could just see the outline of your body under it, and I was still afraid, but I couldn't wait a moment longer.'
Henry beginning to feel that he couldn't wait a moment longer himself. 'And then?'
'I sat right up, reached out and got my arms around you. Your body was so warm, and your hair smelled clean, and we were both pretending and it was exhilarating, because we both knew anyway. We were kissing – I can't remember who started that – and you were off the edge of the bed and under the covers with me. I had my hands under your nightshirt before I knew what I was doing, and was getting you out of it, and we got in a bit of a tangle because you were doing the same to me, but then we were naked, skin to skin, and it was glorious.'
Skin to skin, their limbs in a tangle, and Henry scrambled up on top of him. 'Glorious,' he repeated, and kissed Jehan's smiling mouth; and they re-lived that night in Westminster Palace, the night that had never happened except in their own imaginations.
In Samarkand once more, on the day of Epiphany, they attended a service at a tiny church of the Eastern rite; not a thing of which any of their own Popes would have approved. But there was no Catholic presence in the city, and they had long since been used to take the comfort of their religion in whatever form they could. Afterwards, they picked their way homeward through the market in Registan Square. There was a stir at the door of the great madrasa, where a group of riders had arrived; a richly-dressed man of about Henry's age with a small armed escort. It was Ulugh Beg himself.
Jehan looked at him, and said, 'That's a prince to be proud of.' The Beg was being welcomed at the door of his madrasa now; every once in a while he would go to teach the students there. 'And so is his school.'
Many years ago, Henry had dreamed of leading a crusade. That was before he had found refuge among the people who followed the Prophet. Now he looked across at the intricate blue tile-work of the tall faҫade, and the glimpses of fretted stonework within, and agreed without hesitation. 'One of the wonders of the world,' and this from a man who had seen the Pyramids. 'And it's more to my taste than some of the temples we saw in India; do you remember the carvings we saw on some of them? I could hardly credit my eyes.'
'You blushed,' said Jehan. 'I enjoyed the sight.'
They skirted a water-seller's donkey, brushing perilously close to a stall stacked high with bolts of cloth. 'You're a wicked man and I don't know why I love you so much.'
Jehan stopped in his tracks for a moment, staring, and Henry, hearing his own words echo in his mind, realised that he had never actually said the words before. How had he managed not to, in all their wanderings? So he looked away, embarrassed, and said no more until they were back in the street of the paper-makers. They called a greeting to Oljai, climbed the wooden stairs to their rooms, and as soon as the door was closed behind them, he put his arms around Jehan, held him close, and said quietly but distinctly, 'I love you.'
Jehan held on to him. 'I know. I know. But to hear you say it... Henry, I love you.'
'I know that too.' They clung together in their own little world of silence, the great bustling city outside forgotten; their heartbeats and each other's breathing were all they could hear. After a while, Henry mumbled into Jehan's shoulder, 'I don't know why this has taken so long.'
'I meant to tell you, after Qurgan. But the time never seemed quite right.'
'Maybe because we knew it anyway.'
'Maybe because we always knew!'
'Yes. That too.' He laid a hand on Jehan's cheek, and kissed him solemnly.
In his mind's eye, the Registan, the heart of the golden city at the heart of Asia, its market busy with people from the four corners of the earth, its glorious buildings with their blue domes that shamed the sky, and they two coming straight from communion with their God, would always be associated with the simple declaration, I love you. It was as if all earth and heaven were their witnesses.
'I will buy you a ring,' he said.
'There's no need!' laughed Jehan; but he looked pleased at the notion.
'There is need,' stated Henry.
'Then I will buy you one, too.'
And the next morning, as soon as they woke, Henry said, firmly, 'Rings.' And they went to the market of the Registan, and bought them. So simply was their contract sealed.
The inn a few nights later was busy; a famous story-teller was there, and people were gathering in anticipation. He was being given a fine meal on the house, and while they waited, Henry set up the dart-board that he had introduced a while back to the inn (sometimes being too tired to contemplate chess.) He had enlisted the help of a basket-maker, and painted a cotton cover for it himself, and a smith had made the darts; and now, like the archers of his army whiling away their idle moments in taverns at home, he threw arrows at the target in fierce competition with other patrons of the inn. Henry had just scored a bull's-eye – that didn't happen too often! - and marked it on the score-sheet, when the story-teller climbed up to the podium, to the accompaniment of a roll of tabors.
'Hear the tale of King Alexander, when he came to Samarkand very long ago!' There was a hum of appreciation, and the audience prepared to enjoy the show.
'At the head of his barbarian army he came, bringing fire and sword in his wake. He burned Persepolis down to the ground in his drunkenness, him and his generals and their whores with them!' And he picked up a torch, and swished it guttering through the air. How strange it was to hear a story of the hero-king from the other side's point of view. Henry sat back in his seat, and took a sip of wine, determined not to bristle.
'He crossed the great river on floats made of hides, and to Samarkand he came, Maracanda they called it then, very long ago, at the head of his army, slaying all in his path.' He had laid aside the torch, and took up a sword of his own, a long, straight blade, and brought it slowly round in front of him.
The tale of the drunken feast at Maracanda unfolded; Alexander's plans for the year's campaigns, and the anger of Cleitos at his demotion. The tabor picked up a swifter tempo as the story-teller related how the king and his general had quarrelled, how Alexander had thrown the apple (so undignified!), Cleitos' furious belittling of his king, and his sudden death at the hands of his friend and lord... Henry was aware of Jehan not looking at him, apparently absorbed in the story. But his own quarrel with his former friend – his former lover - was a long time ago, and his execution, though hasty, was perfectly legal, a traitor unmasked and confessed. The hurt had cut deep, but it had healed. He listened, with sympathy, as the story unwound to its end; the generals exonerating their king after the fact, Alexander's lasting sorrow, and the putting-aside of that sorrow to plan the next campaign. There was a mutter of disapproval around the room at that; the resentment at Alexander's career of conquest still ran deep after all these centuries. But Henry, as one king to another, approved of Alexander's self-discipline, tardy though it was. It was a hard destiny, to be a king.
After the ending of the tale, the story-teller stepped down, to loud applause, and a babble of talk broke out, and after another hour or two in the convivial atmosphere of the inn, Henry and Jehan made their way homeward. And as they turned down the street of the paper-makers towards their little rooms, they heard in a darkened house a mother calling to her child: 'Go to sleep, or Alexander will get you!'
For so many centuries that name had been repeated, and even the children of this city knew it well. Would Henry's name be remembered even half that long? Probably not... but now, under the golden moon looking down on the streets of Samarkand, with Jehan at his side and their warm bed beckoning, it mattered not at all.
The winter took hold of the city, and the life of the streets became a little subdued, for it was cold, and there was enough rain to drive people indoors. It wasn't too different from winter in England, except that the hours of darkness were shorter.
Henry hurried to the Street of the Paper-makers late one afternoon, through the Friday crowds, calling out greetings now and then to people who were similarly homeward bound, and ducked into Oljai's court. Here he knocked at her door, and when she answered, bought a sack of charcoal from her (this was one of the good things about staying here; she laid in stocks of essentials for her tenants.) He paid her with coins that were cold even to his own hands, and went back out into the dark courtyard, and lugged the sack up the stairs to the apartment. A smell of food greeted him, and Jehan looked up absently from the book he had been studying, and smiled; 'Good, we were running low!' The muckier jobs were Henry's; Jehan's hands had to remain clean for the books he translated for the bookseller in the Grand Bazaar.
'It's going to teem down with rain tonight. I saw the clouds coming over as I came home. Lucky I got here before it started!' Henry shovelled charcoal into the brazier. 'That smells good,' he said, peering at the pot keeping warm on it, 'what is it?'
'Boiled fowl with quinces. A special treat.'
'Mm,' said Henry appreciatively – the cook-stall they usually patronised was excellent – and went back to the wooden lean-to in the yard to clean his blackened hands, came back up to the cold little lobby, and left his coat there.
They ate their meal at the small table in the main room and then Jehan washed up, while Henry brewed tea. Then he positioned the cushions on the sofa for maximum comfort, and settled himself in one corner of it, with the tea-cups ready to hand. Jehan coming back up the stairs smiled at the homely scene.
'An evening in, then, by the looks of it!' He sank down onto the sofa, his shoulder warm against Henry's, and sipped at his tea.
'Yes, and pity poor souls who are out in this.' For by now, the rain was drumming on the roof, and they could hear the swish of water along the gutters in the street. 'How's the translation going?'
'Oh, well enough, though honestly there are times when I'd like to shake Roland...' for he was working on the tale of Roncesvalles at the moment, with certain elisions as to the nature of Roland's enemies.
'Heroes and warriors, every one of them an idiot,' observed Henry.
'Every one,' agreed Jehan, and leaned across and kissed his cheek.
They lay comfortably along the sofa, Henry with his back against the cushions and Jehan leaning against his chest, and considered the section of the chanson that he would translate tomorrow. 'Roland should have listened to Oliver,' said Henry, and Jehan said, 'Yes, but then there would have been no story!' and Henry had to agree that this was so.
'It's always that friendship that people remember, though, isn't it? They were lucky to have each other,' and Henry's arms tightened around his own beloved friend.
Jehan put the book aside for a moment while he picked up his tea-cup, and Henry suddenly said, 'Tonight I am in the mood for a tale of modern times. You've said many times that the city has changed since your day. What was it like, being an envoy to such a man?'
'I was only a pursuivant, of course, attached to the Bishop's legation,' said Jehan modestly. 'Not a very important player in the game.'
'How did they choose you for the post?'
'I was at the negotiations after the crusade on the Barbary coast, and showed some promise at languages. So I was sent on more missions to the world of Islam, and when the Amir's letter came, I was chosen without question. And not many men wanted to go on such a long journey, two years there and back, into the heart of Asia,' he added.
Henry responded, 'Nor would have stood a chance against you, if they had. And I don't doubt that you would have leapt at the chance.'
'Why, yes, to go so far! I read the stories of Marco Polo, and the other travellers, and thought I was prepared.'
'And the reality was far greater than you thought.' Henry remembered the lands they had journeyed through, the temples rising out of misty forests, the fortresses that made the Tower look small, guarded by soldiers in armour that no longer looked strange to his eyes; the smell of spices in the air. But then he looked round their small snug apartment, with its shabby furniture and its brazier giving out just enough heat, and caught up the thread of their talk again. 'Do you know, we in England almost sent an embassy here. My father had a letter from Tamburlaine too. It must have been about the same time. But he had cares at home, and nothing came of it.' Rebellion after rebellion, and a creeping malady, and fighting, always, on the borders.
'Nor did we achieve anything much. He defeated the Turk without our help before we even reached his court. We were in time to see the grand pageant he ordered for his victory, though – that was a sight to remember! All the parade ground in front of the walls was covered in pavilions. There dancers, and girls dressed up as animals – antelopes and foxes and birds - and a procession of real animals led by the elephants of the guard.'
'Any giraffes?' enquired Henry.
'No! But all the Amir's hunting cheetahs were there, a dozen of them, each with its handler, and there were eagles and camels and a real tiger that knelt before him...' Jehan was lost in the memories of that wonderful pageant.
'Where were you, when all this was happening?'
'Oh, we were a few tents away from him, but he sent food and wine from his own table. I think,' and his voice developed a slight laugh, 'we were a part of the display; he told us to wear the finest clothes we had from our own lands. So everyone could see that his writ extended even beyond Asia... But by that time, he didn't need us any more. We were invited to feast after feast, and met with some of his officials, but we began to realise that nothing would come of it, and really, he'd already achieved what we wanted, the defeat of Bayazid. So when it was suggested that we should take our leave, we were glad enough to go.' His voice grew reflective. 'And that was when he surprised us one last time.'
Henry made an encouraging noise.
'He told us that there were three Christian ladies at his court, who had been found in Bayazid's harem.'
'What!' Henry could scarcely grapple with the idea. 'What were they doing there?'
'Given in marriage, when Bayazid was on campaign in Europe. One of them was the daughter of a Hungarian count, one was from Greece, and one from Constantinople.'
'Ladies of rank!' Henry was indignant. 'That's outrageous, for Christian gentlewomen to be so enslaved!'
'They were treated well enough by Bayazid, given high honour by his lights. And Tamburlaine never touched them, after the victory. I think it amused him, to be seen as a protector of the weak.'
'So, tell me of these ladies. Were they fair?'
'Oh yes, and of great dignity in adversity.'
'What were their names?'
'Angelica of Hungary, and Catalina from Greece and Maria from Constantinople.' But now Jehan seemed a little uncomfortable, and went quiet for a few moments. Henry waited patiently.
'Well,' continued Jehan, 'we took them with us when we left, of course. They had maids with them, it was all done properly. We stayed in castles belonging to the Amir's lords, or in the better sort of caravanserai, and he gave us a large escort. We were six months on the road to Trebizond. We all admired the ladies' courage, especially Angelica. She had had a son by Bayazid, and had to leave him behind.'
'No, but he was to be brought up in obscurity. She knew she could not reach him, but also that he was safe. And she found consolation in the practice of her religion.'
'It would be hard for any woman... What of the other two?'
'They left no children behind. They were of lesser rank, and had been younger when given to the Turk. And he had a large harem – they were not called to his bed often.'
'How old were they, then?'
'Eighteen, nineteen when we knew them. They were pleased to be going home.'
'And pretty, you say.' A suspicion had begun to grow in Henry's mind.
'Yes. Dark-haired, and Maria had grey eyes, and Catalina blue. They could sing, and play on lute and zither.'
'They broke some hearts on the journey, I'll wager.'
'Yes,' sighed Jehan, and Henry, gazing into the brazier with its mound of glowing charcoal, preserved a sympathetic silence. 'Lady Angelica married Antoine, the leading knight of the legation, when we reached Trebizond. Catalina was attached to Sir Guillaume, who jousted as her knight at the tournament held to celebrate the wedding.'
'Went fancy-free for a while.'
Henry ducked his head forward and looked at him enquiringly. 'And you..?'
'Loved her, yes. She was light as a bird, had smiles for everyone but wished to go home, she said; her brother would find a good match for her. And indeed she was well-off. Tamburlaine had given generous gifts to them all, and she would never want for suitors.'
'Did she know you loved her?' Henry could not quite believe that anyone would turn Jehan down. He might have been poor, but what did that matter in such a man?
'Why, yes. I told her one evening as we walked in the garden of an Emir's palace. There were roses, and a nightingale singing...' Oh, Jehan, thought Henry. 'And indeed she said that night that she loved me too, and would marry me when we reached Constantinople. But that turned out not to be the case. For we were voyaging along the coast, and had to put in at Sinope, and a galley of Caffa was there too. And there was a man on that galley. Well, he was handsome, and devil-may care...' His voice trailed off.
'Rich, too, perhaps?' enquired Henry; he didn't like this Maria at all.
'He was heir to a title,' said Jehan reluctantly.
Henry slid both arms tight around Jehan, who leaned into him. 'I'd wondered why you never married, even as King of Arms. She broke your heart, didn't she?'
'For a while, yes,' admitted Jehan.
The dark head was resting comfortably against his shoulder now. Henry kissed Jehan's temple. 'I am selfish enough to be glad,' he murmured, 'for if she'd married you, my herald would have come to me,' a kiss to his ear, 'and stolen my heart away without me even realising it,' now he nuzzled his neck, 'and I would never have found it again.'
'So am I glad,' agreed Jehan, and shifted a little in his close embrace to return his kisses.
After a while they wriggled free of their clothes, Henry pulling the faded rug off the back of the sofa to cover them. 'No, stay as you were,' whispered Henry, gently pulling Jehan to lie back against his chest, and applied his mouth once more to his mignon's neck, while his hands crept down under the rug. A while later, Jehan gave a soft gasp; tensed, arched his back and made a sound halfway between a growl and a sigh, and the movement and the sound brought Henry over the edge too.
They dropped towards to sleep at last as the charcoal burned low in the brazier, with Jehan boneless as a cat against Henry's chest, and Henry's arms wrapped possessively around him.
Henry was smiling softly, fondly, as he fell asleep. His last fleeting thought was the hope that he'd conveyed to a nicety both his sympathy for that long-ago young pursuivant, and his conviction that the woman was a complete idiot.
It was only a few days afterwards that they came to the decision to continue their journey back towards Europe and England; the road they had been travelling, without realising it, for over two years. The task ahead of them was enormous, but after all, Henry had undertaken larger ones in another life, and Jehan had made the exact same journey at the same time of year. So word went out at the caravanserais to any who might wish to travel so early in the year, and expressions of interest began to filter back.
Most of their friends would be staying in Samarkand or turning east or south. This was a cause for sadness, but it was part and parcel of a trader's life. To people who traversed continents as a matter of course, a parting might be a matter of months or years but the friendships were forever. So they sat, evening after evening, in the dining-hall of the caravanserai, and drank and talked with their friends.
Henry was playing Tamburlaine's chess one evening with Arun, who had dropped by with a request for certain items to be conveyed, and had just lost one of his giraffes to a combined attack of camel and war-machine, when Liang, peering over his shoulder, said, 'You should go and see the giraffe while you've got the chance. You'll need all the luck you can get on this trip!'
'Thank-you, Liang, for that encouraging remark,' said Henry, glancing up at him.
Liang grinned. 'We all need luck,' he stated irrefutably. 'And if you fell into that trap,' he nodded at the board, and Arun smiled and nodded agreement, 'you might need more than most!'
'You don't know what I've got planned a few moves ahead,' responded Henry, which caused Arun to look again at his men. 'Well, you've got a suggestion to make, I take it?'
'I've got contacts at the Summer Palace, so if you want to see her, I could arrange it. Ulugh Beg is at the citadel for the winter, so the Palace is almost empty. No problem to get into the menagerie and see her.'
'I'd like to do that,' said Jehan, looking round from the group at the next table where he was trying the effect of the story of Roland. 'We've heard so much about them...'
'So, I'll arrange it for you! How about you, Henry?'
'Yes, yes, count me in! I'd like to see the Summer Palace too. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a game to win,' and he turned back to the board, and brought up one of his chariots to threaten Arun's vizier.
It was a few days later when they walked out to the Summer Palace. There had been a light snowfall that morning, just an inch or so, and the road was quiet, thought there were still people on it, bringing produce into the city from their stores. Footsteps and cartwheels sounded quiet in a grey and white landscape.
They struck out north and east of the citadel, past the great observatory high on its hill – no-one would be watching the skies tonight – and came to the fenced parkland surrounding the palace. At the gates, Jehan produced the authorisation that Liang had given them, and the porter let them through. On a slight rise ahead of them, long and low, were the buildings of the palace, their tile-work gleaming against the snowy landscape. There were terraces, and what looked like a parade ground to the left; on the right, and a little behind, were more buildings, and these were their destination; the stables and the menagerie-house.
There were a few servants about, women sweeping the terraces, and grooms exercising horses. Henry was walking confidently, as though he was on business.
They turned down a gap between the palace wall and the stables (these were fine, large buildings, much superior to the ones Henry remembered from his own palaces) and went through an archway to the stable-yard, a wide square which had been trodden partially clear of snow. Through another archway, and there was a compound, with a boy walking across it, a rope in his hand, and at the other end of the rope -
'Oh!' He was smiling, and so was Jehan now. He fell silent, and they both gazed at the improbable best as it followed its keeper across the compound. The stories they had heard had not lied. Its head was high as a rooftop. Neck and legs were yards long, although its body was not much bigger than a horse's, and the whole animal splotched with brown and yellow. And though it was lanky, it moved with a supreme elegance.
Of all the sights they had seen in their travels, this was among the most wonderful.
The keeper greeted them, and brought the beast to its night-time quarters, a tall (of course!) building attached to the back of the stables. Boy and giraffe passed within, and Henry and Jehan made to follow. They were met at the door by a man in rather more formal clothing than the boy.
Jehan said courteously, 'We were sent by Liang, at the Eastgate caravanserai; we're Henry and Jehan,' indicating which was which. 'I think you're Teguder?'
'Yes, that's me; master of the Beg's menagerie. You're the Franks, setting out next week, aren't you?'
'That's us! And we've been hearing about giraffes since Arabia, two years ago, but never seen one. But yours is very beautiful; the stories don't do them justice.'
Teguder smiled. 'Would you like to feed her?'
'Of course!' smiled Henry. 'How..?'
'Ildar has her trained to take treats from the hand. There's nothing but the best food for the Beg's animals, and Ildar doesn't stint them, for all that his family's poor. He's a good lad...'
Henry produced a couple of coins. 'I've been poor myself; maybe these would help him support his family?'
Teguder glanced at them. 'His mother will bless you.' He led them through the doorway, into the sweet-scented gloom.
For a moment Henry was transported back to the small menagerie at the Tower of London. There he, and his forefathers before him, had kept a few beasts – lions, a leopard and a solitary elk, but never a giraffe. This one was pulling at hay held in a rack, some twenty feet above the ground. Ildar, who looked to be about fourteen, was on a little railed platform beside it, emptying a bucket of water into a trough; there was a ladder leading up there.
'Ildar, here are the Franks we were told about!'
The boy looked down at them and grinned. 'You want to feed my giraffe?' No nonsense about the creature belonging to the Beg, Henry noted.
'We would love to!' he called up, grinning in his turn.
'Then come on up!' And Teguder stood aside, and Henry ran lightly up the ladder, and Jehan followed a little more carefully. They crowded together on the platform.
'Does the beast have a name?'
'We call her “Lucky”.' Ildar was cutting an apple into quarters. 'See, this is what to do,' and he held out a piece to Lucky, who took it delicately, and munched it up. He stroked her head. 'Good girl; you like that, don't you? Your turn; here's some more,' and he gave his place up to Jehan, who fed her with a bemused expression on his face. 'Give her some fuss. She likes that,' and Jehan scratched her jaw, under the headstall.
'She likes you!' whispered Henry.
'It's mutual!' Jehan was now smiling dazedly. Lucky put out a long blue tongue – blue! - and licked his hand for the last of the juice, then realising he had no more apple, was turning her head towards Henry. They manoeuvred about on the platform so he could take his turn. Ildar, apparently satisfied that they would do her no harm, went back down the ladder to give them more space.
'Here you are, girl,' said Henry, and held out the first quarter of his apple. She picked it straight out of his palm with her long lips, and crunched it appreciatively. Her head was no bigger than a horse's, but flattened rather than narrow. She had two small tufted horns, and her eyelashes were outrageously long. Entranced, he gave her another quarter. That disappeared too, and she came back for more. Her breath was sweet.
'Isn't she beautiful?' Jehan, still smiling, leaned on the rail beside him.
'She is indeed. Look at those eyelashes; they're even longer than yours!' Henry added in English, and smiled straight at him, and Jehan smiled back; no need for dissembling, there on the platform high up in the gloom. 'Oh, you want more, do you?' as she nudged at his hand. 'Well, perhaps I can find another piece,' and the last quarter vanished.
'Of all the things we've seen and done...'
'Yes. This is one of the strangest. One to remember.'
'And she'll bring us luck, I’m sure.'
'I think she will.' And for a moment, the thousands of miles they had yet to travel, and his brother's usurpation, and the work of organising the caravan, all vanished, and he was back in his own palace of the Tower, watching the beasts in it with a new eye. 'One day, perhaps, I'll have a Lucky of my own!'
She had gone back to her hay-rack now, and they regarded her quietly for a few moments more. Then they turned and descended the ladder, the interlude over, but with an odd feeling of contentment that buoyed them up for the task that lay ahead. For in a few days' time they would take the first steps of that journey that would, with luck's help, lead to the fulfilment of that ambition.