CHAPTER 13

1271 - 1280 VICTORIES AND DEFEATS

 

Traders of all races and creeds continued to take the Silk Road to China. Many of them were Muslims, laden with semi-precious stones such as Jasper and lapis lazuli, much prized by the newly rich Mongol nobility. Hundreds of cartloads per day of silk entered Khanbalic, and the masters of all the long-distance caravans arriving in the city were presented at Kubilai's Court. All were overawed at the splendour they saw there.

During the summer one such Muslim train entered Shang-Tu with over 50 traders anxious to impress the Great Khan. Kubilai was eager to promote as much trade along the Silk Road as possible and to promote friendly relations he laid on a banquet for the traders in the Pleasure Dome. The koumiss flowed like water amongst Kubilai's sons and his Mongol Barons, but was steadfastly refused by the devout Muslims. Slightly offended at this rebuff to his hospitality, Kubilai then offered them meat - the best goat's meat available, freshly slaughtered that day. It was ceremoniously carried in to the banqueting hall and placed in front of the guests. The Muslims looked at each other and a murmur ran around the hall. "Unholy! Unclean! Do not eat, it has not been killed in the proper manner!" Muslim tradition demands that all meat is slaughtered by cutting the animals' throats. This is considered to be a humane way of killing, and any animal slaughtered in any other way is considered unclean.

"What's the matter? You are not eating the food I give you! Eat!" commanded Kubilai.

Reluctantly the Muslims reached out and took the meat in their hands and placed it in their mouths, but their deepseated religious beliefs prevailed and, despite forcing themselves to swallow the meat, their stomachs contracted in revulsion and they vomited the food back up in full view of the Khan.

Kubilai roared in anger as he had never roared before. This was a mortal insult to him and his generous hospitality. "Guards! Arrest them! This is an outrage! Arrest them all and throw them out of Shang-Tu! They are banned for ever from my cities!"

The traders were escorted roughly out of the Palace by Kubilai's personal guards and, knowing they had an ally in Ahmad, travelled to Khanbalic and requested and audience with him. They considered their actions justified. Their leader, a trader called Al-Fazir, was their spokesman. "My Lord Ahmad, what are we to do? We have come all this way with merchandise to sell and the Great Khan has banned us from his cities! Truly, Allah would have consigned us to purgatory if we had eaten unholy meat." The gathering murmured its agreement at the statement. Another Muslim spoke up. "We had heard he was broad-minded of all religious practices. Does he not know about the eating of unclean meat?"

"In all of my years with him I had never considered it necessary to tell him. I thought he knew! I have eaten meat with him many times and suffered no ill effects, gentlemen!"

"But we cannot" We cannot!" they all murmured.

"Give him time!" replied Ahmad, trying to find a solution to the problem. "Let me speak to him, explain our Muslim mores. In time, he will come round to accepting the Muslim way."

"But what of our goods? We cannot take them back with us!" Al-Fazir asked.

"Leave that to me! For a - ah - small consideration, I will contact my fellow Saracens in the city and they will sell your goods for you."

"A - small consideration?" asked Al-Fazir warily.

"Shall we say - one-tenth of the takings over and above, of course, the profit that the local traders make!"

"Preposterous! Outrageous!" the protests echoed throughout Ahmad's Hall of Audience.

Ahmad raised his voice to be heard over the hubbub. "You have no alternative but to accept, gentlemen. It's either that, or return to Persia with all your wares. And remember, I will do all I can to appease the Great Khan and re-open trading as soon as possible."

Al-Fazir and the other traders went into a huddle and, realising that what Ahmad had said was true, reluctantly accepted his offer.

It took, however, another seven years of continuous pressure from Ahmad, on behalf of the Muslim community, before Kubilai relented and again permitted Muslim traders to bring their merchandise into Khanbalic.

---oo0oo---

In 1271 Kubilai proclaimed the foundation of the Yuan Dynasty. His Khanate was, however, by no means secure, as his continuing struggle with the Sung kept General Bayan busy in the south. His Western borders were also threatened by his nephew, Kaidu Khan, one of the Chaghatid princes who waged border warfare against armies sent by Kubilai to quash the threat to his Khanate. The border skirmishes against Kaidu were a source of continual frustration to Kubilai, so he decided to send his third son, Nomukhan, to engage Kaidu's army. Without his closest brother for an ally, Chinkin sought out other courtiers in his battle for supremacy over Ahmad.

An-T'ung, Minister of the Right, was one such ally, as was the Phags'pa Llama. Phags'pa, however, was a man whose Buddhist religion's basis was that of peace, and he would do nothing active to provoke any trouble. Phags'pa was also bound by his loyalty to his principle disciple, Jamui Khatun. One of An-T'ung's remits as Minister of the Right was to maintain a cultural and social liaison between the Chinese natives, who came to him with any of their social problems or disputes. However, when An-T'ung was out of the city on business, it was Ahmad who saw the petitioners. Normally the matters that arose were disputes about land and livestock, which Ahmad was able to solve satisfactorily, but on one occasion a Han Chinese, the final petitioner of the day, marched purposefully into Ahmad's audience chamber late one evening. Ahmad had had a busy day, solving other people's problems. He was tired, hungry, and eager for the pleasures of the night.

The Chinese knelt somewhat reluctantly before Ahmad and awaited permission to speak. "Well?" asked Ahmad despondently. "What is your problem? Speak up!"

"My problem, my Lord Ahmad, is you!"

"What! How dare you speak to me like that! Who are you? What is you name and where are you from?" Beside Ahmad, Aftab drew himself to alertness.

"I am Kao Shau-ji, from Schezewan Province. My Lord, your taxes impoverish my countrymen. You take more and more of our grain, leaving us nothing to feed our children. I demand that you ease your burden of taxation!"

"Demand? You demand? You are in no position to demand anything, Kao. Aftab ..." Ahmad beckoned with his index finger and spoke rapidly in Arabic in order that the Chinese would not understand. "Aftab, take this presumptious man away and - persuade - him that his attitude is unwise. Not too much, mind you, just enough to convince him of his folly, then send him back under armed escort as an example to his rebellious people. Understood?"

"Yes, my Lord." Aftab bowed, summoned his guards and dragged the protesting Chinese away to the torture chamber.

One day shortly after An-T'ung had returned from his journey, a large delegation of twenty Chinese of all walks of life petitioned to see him, demanding complete privacy for the interview. Intrigued by what could be so important, An-T'ung arranged for the meeting to take place outwith the Forbidden City and travelled incognito through the winding alleyways of the Old City to a wealthy merchant's house.

As An-T'ung stepped over the threshold, the animated buzz of voices hushed and a sea of anxious, annoyed and sad faces turned to him with hope in their eyes. Taking proffered hospitality of a bowl of China tea, he sipped it informally as he sat on the bare boards of the wooden floor. The company sat around him. "Well, gentlemen, what is it that you all have to tell me that is so important?"

"My Lord An-T'ung," the owner of the house, elected spokesman, stood. "We wish to complain about the Lord Ahmad."

"Indeed!" An-T'ung felt his heartbeat quicken in anticipation of long-awaited damning evidence.

"My Lord, the evil Ahmad is torturing our people!"

"What! That is outrageous! Under what circumstances?"

Kao, still showing signs of his recent ordeal, stepped forward. "While you were away, Lord An-T'ung, I complained to him about the taxes he is imposing on our people. He would not listen and had his men take me away and torture me. They struck me, put lighted sticks beneath my finger and toenails and in ... other places." He pointed to his genitals. "And there is something else, Lord An-T'ung!" Kao added. "If we are unable to meet his demands, Ahmad sends his men and abducts our daughters and womenfolk to use as he pleases!"

"Ha! Got him at last!" An-T'ung's face was flushed with triumph. "If I arrange an audience with Prince Chinkin, will you testify against Ahmad?"

"We will! We will!" they replied.

"Then all of you, come with me!"

---oo0oo---

Aftab's spies were efficient, and Ahmad knew of the conspiracy within the hour. "Silence them, Aftab!"

"My Lord, I cannot. An-T'ung has them under his protection and the audience with Chinkin is arranged for first thing tomorrow morning!"

"Ah! This is serious, Aftab. They must be stopped!"

However, An-T'ung's security guards were just as effective as Ahmad's and there was no way that the audience could be stopped. The next morning, while Ahmad paced in anxiety, An-T'ung and the Chinese delegation stepped over Chinkin's audience hall threshold, bowed and waited respectfully. Chinkin, seated on an ornately carved wide golden chair atop a raised dias, stood up, arms akimbo, unaware of the purpose of the meeting.

"Well, Minister An-T'ung, honourable gentlemen, what do you want of me?"

"Prince Chinkin, these men all have a mutual complaint, and wish revenge to be taken on their behalf."

"Revenge? Revenge against whom, Minister?"

"Against Lord Ahmad, Prince Chinkin."

"Lord Ahmad! What do these men all have against him?"

"Their daughters have all been taken forcibly from their homes by Ahmad's men to serve his desires, and none have ever returned, Great Prince."

"How do you know they were Ahmad's men?" asked Chinkin, excitement rising within him at the prospect of solid evidence against his enemy.

"All were Saracen soldiers. These men could not pay their taxes and their daughters were taken in lieu of payment, Prince."

"Ha! At last! At last I have proof enough to condemn the accursed Saracen!" Chinkin was excited now. He jumped down from the dias to grasp An-T'ung's arms. "All these men - will they swear it in front of my fath ..." Suddenly Chinkin stopped, a glazed expression in his eyes, his whole body frozen for an instant. Then, with a high-pitched cry, Chinkin's back arched and he fell backwards. As he fell, his whole body was engulfed in violent jerking movements and he foamed at the mouth, his face becoming blue from lack of oxygen. As the fit continued he fouled his clothes. Chinkin's personal guard, as well as Cemile, rushed to his assistance. An-T'ung and the Chinese cried out in alarm. "Aie! He is possessed! The devil has taken him! Quick, flee, flee!" but Chinkin's guards barred the exit, swords drawn. Seeing their escape barred, the delegation ran around in panic, convinced the devil himself was about to overcome them the same way that Chinkin was overcome. The Captain of the Guard knew what he had to do. His orders were precise and immutable. Every stranger who saw Chinkin in the throes of an epileptic fit must die. He ordered his guards to encircle the group of terrified men and sysmetically slaughtered everyone. As Chinkin came to, gasping for breath, he saw the carnage all around the audience hall, and found enough strength to shout "Stop! Stop this instant!" The Captain of the Guard's sword was poised over An-T'ung's heart. "Stop I tell you! Ohhh! My head!" He felt as though his head was splitting open.

The Captain of the Guard held An-T'ung at swordpoint. "What do I do with him, Great Prince? He has seen you and must die."

"No! He is a Government Minister! My father will have your head if you kill him! Release him!" Cemile fussed around him, cleaning his face and covering up his fouled clothing with a large blanket. She ordered two of the Mongol soldiers to bring in a portable sedan chair and they lifted Chinkin into it. Chinkin felt sleepy, very sleepy, but forced himself to stay awake for long enough to say. "An-T'ung, you have seen the unseeable."

An-T'ung was trembling with terror, still sure he was about to die. He prostrated himself before Chinkin. "Mercy, Great Prince!"

"I must tell my father, who will decide on your fate. I will speak to him when I have recovered. Now go, but do not leave the City. My guards will accompany you wherever you go. Captain, see to it. Now take me to my sleeping quarters to rest!"

As Chinkin was carried out on the portable chair, An-T'ung regained his composure, sure that he had received only a temporary stay of execution.

---oo0oo---

While he rested after sleep, Chinkin lay thinking. He knew that his father would be furious with the massacre of the Chinese, just as he was building up good community relations. He also knew that, if he told his father about the reason for his excitement which had brought on the unexpected fit, Kubilai would forbid Chinkin ever holding court again. When he saw his father later, he had decided on deception.

"My father, I am truly sorry. The Chinamen came to me petitioning about Lord Ahmad's unfair taxation, and the Minister of the Right was their elected spokesman. An-T'ung was spared, father, and awaits your decision as to his fate."

"It is most regrettable, my son, that so many innocent men had to die, but your image must be protected at all costs. Send me in The Minister of the Right!"

An-T'ung shuffled in, prostrated himself before Kubilai and stayed there. "Mercy, Great Khan!" he pleaded from his lowly position.

"Minister of the Right, I will spare you because you are my beloved wife Jamui's nephew. She has appealed to me to be merciful and you have served me well in the past. You will, however, leave China immediately to assist my son Nomukhan in his conflict against Kaidu at our Western borders. You will speak of what you saw to no-one, ever. Should you suffer a lapse of memory and say something improper, both you and the person you tell will die. Is that clear?"

"Yes, Great Khan, thank you, Great Khan. I will serve Nomukhan well."

"A detachment of my soldiers is riding out at dawn tomorrow to supplement my son's regiments. You, Minister An-T'ung, will be with them!"

---oo0oo---

Cemile went that night to her father's house. "It was awful, father, all these men slaughtered before our eyes!"

"Is Chinkin pursuing their accusations? Tell me, I must know!"

"No, father. Kubilai is angry at the massacre and Chinkin does not want to cause more trouble. Already Chinese women are searching in vain for their lost husbands. If it is brought out that they died at the hands of Chinkin, an uprising may take place, and Kubilai does not want that to happen. Chinkin did not tell the Khan that they came to accuse you. Kubilai would not have listened, anyway. You are safe, my father."

"You have done well again, Cemile. I will get Aftab to accompany you across the city."

"No, father, it is better that I go alone."

"Allah protect you, my daughter!"

---oo0oo---

The following morning, Ahmad watched from the battlements of the Old City as An-T'ung, surrounded by the detachment of troops, green and white banners flying, armour clinking, rode out. He was rid of an adversary, thanks to Chinkin, of all people. How ironic! And all the time he stood watching, Ahmad was laughing.

---oo0oo---

In October of 1274 General Bayan, commander of the forces fighting the Sung, returned to Khanbalic with one of his regiments.

His return was greeted with great ceremony, his troops forming ranks in the massive courtyard of the Palace as their General walked alone towards Kubilai, who stood atop the steps leading to the entrance of his Palace. Dressed in full battledress of chain mail, helmet and sword with a quiver of arrows on his back, Bayan prostrated himself before his Emperor. Kubilai stepped down to meet his greatest warrior. "What news do you bring, Bayan? Have you not delivered to me the Emperor of the Sung?"

"My Lord Khan, this is the reason for my return. Tutsong, Emperor of the Sung, is dead! Many times I tried to persuade him to surrender without bloodshed, but he refused. On the one occasion I entered his court to parlay I was repelled by his behaviour. My Lord, although Tutsong was married, he - preferred - boys. He had naked boys cavorting for his pleasure, exhibiting them to me! My Lord, I could not treat with such a man, and hastily made my exit. Two months ago he died and his wives and children have fled from their capital, leaving his mother, Empress Dowager Hsieh, in command of his generals. The Empress Dowager is old and ill, and none of his children are old enough to command armies. Only his most loyal generals fight a rearguard action. I have returned, Great Lord, for more armaments and more men. Victory is near, but they fight now from behind trees, from atop houses, their arrows picking off my men, one by one. Soon, Great Khan, we will have conquered them, but I need re-equipping before final victory will be ours!"

"Hm. At least you bring me hope that soon all China will be united under my banners. Tell your compatriot, Ahmad, how much money you need, then go to our armourers and they will construct and make your arms and siege engines. Now go, disband your regiment until you are ready to depart once more."

---oo0oo---

"Money! Money! Always he wants more money, Bayan. Where am I to get it from?" said Ahmad in despair.

"From the Chinese peasants, of course, Brother Ahmad." replied Bayan, taking Ahmad's proffered sweetmeats from a servant.

Ahmad's eyes flashed at the familiarity. "Bayan, we may be fellow countrymen but, behold, my tablet of authority is the Golden Gerfalcon; yours is merely the military gold tablet."

"Forgive me, Lord Ahmad." Bayan bowed deeply, mockingly.

Suddenly, Ahmad laughed. "Don't take me too seriously, Bayan. I merely like to be given my place. Perhaps, when you have at last given Kubilai the Sung banners you, too, will be given a Golden Gerfalcon. In the meantime, I must again consider how to extract more money from the people to finance the monetary monster that the Empire is fast becoming. He needs money to fight the Sung, money to fight Kaidu, money to clothe the Barons in the richest new robes thirteen times a year, money to improve communications, money to build cities, money to feed everyone and every animal within the Palace grounds, including all his beasts in the parks he stocks for hunting, money for banquets and festivals, money, money, money!" As Ahmad paced, harassed, he held his head in despair. "Where am I going to get it from?"

"Try extortion, Ahmad." suggested Bayan.

"Extortion?" Ahmad stopped his pacing in surprise.

"All the rich Saracens in town of our acquaintance. They are rich, but do not contribute nearly enough to the economy. Rich traders, rich merchants. Perhaps there is something they want that you can give them ... for a fee."

---oo0oo---

Every year Ahmad held a banquet in his own Palace to celebrate the end of Ramadan. He invited all the rich Saracens, along with their wives and families of children over the age of 16. It was considered to be the Muslim event of the year by all Saracens in Khanbalic. Ahmad circulated amicably amongst all his guests, gauging their worth by the richness of their, and their wives', clothes. Some of the women were dressed in purdah, but other, more liberal Muslims permitted their wives to dress colourfully. Ahmad's eyes fell on the daughter of Sayid Ajall, a spice trader who had recently arrived in Khanbalic from Akbalic in Yunnan Province.

The seven provinces of Yunnan were administered by Kubilai's sixth son, Hukaji, who oversaw the seven provincial Governors. Once every three years all the governorships were changed by Kubilai's decree in order to keep the administration from stagnating. It was time to fill one of the governorships in Yunnan.

Ahmad took Ajall aside. "How many years have you been living in Akbalic?" he asked.

"Ten years, Lord Ahmad." Ajall replied, curious to know what was in the Vice-Regent's mind.

"So you are familiar with trade routes and Mongol administration of taxes?" Ahmad pursued.

"Of course, I have been subject to them during that time." responded Ajall.

"Excellent." Ahmad eyed the other man, weighing him up. Fat, prosperous, intelligent and - most important of all - with a beautiful daughter. Just the man for the job. "I have a proposition for you. With your knowledge of the area, you would be a suitable candidate for the upcoming Governorship of the province. What say you to that?"

Ajall was caught by surprise. "Governorship of the province? My Lord, that would be beyond my wildest dreams."

"Indeed it would not, should you wish it. The Great Khan is advised by me in these matters. There would, however, be one or two conditions attendant to my placing your name before the Khan for his consideration."

"Anything, Lord Ahmad - anything you desire me to do, I am your servant!"

Got him! thought Ahmad. Aloud, he said "The Great Khan needs large amounts of money to continue his campaign against the nearly-defeated Sung. I can only achieve that by increasing taxes throughout the provinces. At present the commercial tax is 5% of all transactions. I mean to increase it to at least 7%. That need not, of course, be the figure you decree. Do you understand my meaning?"

"I do, My Lord." replied Ajall, a shrewd, calculating expression in his dark eyes.

"Furthermore," continued Ahmad; "the chief products of the Akbalic province are ginger, spices, turquoises and knobbed pearls from the River Yangtse. Correct?"

"Correct, Lord."

"I also want an increase in the amount of these items culled from the annual tribute to the Khan. I want ten sacks of ginger and spices per producer per area, and a personal tribute to me of mined turquoise and cultured pearls. My wives, you understand, like to be dressed in the richest fashion - as I do." Ahmad extended his arms to exhibit the richness of his attire of red brocade robe embroidered with gold thread, the cuffs of the sleeves adorned with rubies. His turban, too, was of cloth of gold with one large ruby at the front. But Ahmad was not finished with Ajall yet. "And, speaking of wives ..."

"Yes, my Lord Ahmad?"

"Your lovely daughter over there -" they both turned to look at her. "I want her, too."

"What? But my Lord, she is spoken for! The son of a Saracen merchant is to marry her next week!"

"No, Ajall, he is not. Not if you want the Governorship of Yunnan. She will be treated well. I will serve her as well as her father serves me."

Sayid Ajall was appointed Governor of Yunnan late in 1274.

---oo0oo---

"I need money for ships, Ahmad! Ships to defeat the Sung, and ships to sail against the Japanese! These impudent Japanese! They will not recognise my sovereignty! They rebuff my envoys and continue trading with the Sung!" Kubilai was pacing, limping heavily from the painful gout in his foot as he addressed all his Ministers during a full Council meeting.

"Great Khan, may I speak?"

"Yes, General Bayan, speak."

"Great Khan, I do not advise you engaging in any kind of conflict against the Japanese, and especially at sea! We are horsemen, not sailors!"

"Nonsense, Bayan. Did we not defeat the Sung at sea?"

"The gods were with us that day, Great Khan, but the sea is fickle. We can fight in rivers and estuaries, but our armies have no experience with naval battles!"

An ancient Chinese astrologer stepped forward. "My Lord Khan! Listen to the voices of the soothsayers! This expedition is ill-omened! No good will come of it! Beware! Beware!"

"No! The accursed Japanese must bow down to the might of Kubilai Khan! I want ships, and I want war! War! War!"

In November 1274 300 large ships and a further 500 Chinese junks set sail across the Yellow Sea to Japan. Contained in this giant armada were 15,000 Mongol, Chinese and Jurchen soldiers together with 8,000 Korean troops.

Surprised by the full-scale invasion of their country, the Japanese offered only a token resistance as the Mongol troops mounted an attack. However, as night fell a violent gale blew up. The Mongol generals called the troops back to man their ships and ride out the storm, but the tempest worsened, the roiling sea's waves grew mountainous. The Mongols were not experienced seamen and were quite unable to control the heaving ships. The wind blew the helpless armada to its doom on the jagged rocks. During that fateful night, 13,000 lives were lost and most of the ships were wrecked. The surviving ships and soldiers limped home to face the Great Khan's wrath.

"Incompetence! Sheer incompetence!" raged Kubilai.

"My Lord Khan, mercy! We gained our military victory, but the seas erupted and there was nothing anyone could do!" pleaded the generals, grovelling at the Khan's feet for their very lives.

But Kubilai would brook no failure. "Off with their heads!" he commanded. However, never again did Kubilai try to subjugate the Japanese.

To try and save face, Kubilai renewed his efforts to crush the Sung nation.

---oo0oo---

In the late summer of 1275 weary travellers crested a hill and saw, spread before them, the vast and fertile plain around Shang-Tu, which was dotted with pagodas and red-roofed houses. It had been a long and arduous journey for Nicolo, Maffeo and young Marco Polo, during which they had experienced many adventures. Marco, a young man of 21, was excited at the prospect of meeting the famous and feared Mongol Khan. He had listened for countless hours during the long journey to his father's tales of his previous visit to the Court of Kubilai and how the Khan had charged Nicolo and Maffeo to bring one hundred Christian wise men and priests to his Court and to bring him back some Oil of the Lamp which burns on the Holy Sepulchure in Jerusalem. Unfortunately the previous Pope had died and it had taken some two years to find a successor.

The Christian priests had been unable to complete the journey, but Nicolo had brought Kubilai the Holy Oil, which was well cushioned from breakage in a Venetian glass bottle, padded all around and placed in a jewel-encrusted silver vase. The Pope had also given them a silver cross as a gift together with a letter in reply to Kubilai, as well as granting Nicolo and Maffeo the right to ordain priests and bishops and to bestow absolution on his behalf.

Now, at last, they approached Kubilai's Summer Palace. The surrounding countryside, enclosed by a wall 16 miles in circumference, was rich in wildlife of all kinds, including wild boar, hawks and gerfalcons, white horses, deer and antelope, all of which were maintained for the Khan's pleasure in the hunt. The dome-shaped palace was built in rose marble and Marco marvelled at its spendour as, on their approach, it glistened in the warm sunshine. Nicolo and Maffeo remarked on how Shang-Tu had developed since last they were there. Now, instead of merely a summer encampment, it was a great city in its own right, with Chinese pagodas and temples near meandering streams and a lake, at the edge of which was the palace dome, which before had been Kubilai's giant yurt but was now, of course, a permanent feature.

Marco was further amazed by the interior of the Palace as they entered to present themselves to Kubilai. The rooms surrounding the circular audience hall were decorated with magnificent and delicate paintings of birds, trees and flowers. The whole circumference of the Audience Hall was surrounded by the Imperial Guard, attired in full battle costume. As they stepped over the threshold of the Audience Hall they kow-towed to Kubilai by prostrating themselves before him. Marco's eyes widened in amazement as he saw that the throne the Khan sat on was golden. Kubilai, with Chinkin standing by his side, was delighted to see Nicolo and Maffeo again. He bade them arise and greeted them warmly, offering them sweetmeats and koumiss while Nicolo introduced Marco to them.

Kubilai was disappointed that the Christian priests had not come with the brothers, but was delighted beyond words with the Pope's gifts and letter of friendship, and especially with the Holy Oil, which he gave to Chinkin, hoping that its goodness would effect a cure for his ailing son.

The Khan was fascinated to hear from the travellers their tales and adventures, and was especially impressed with Marco, who had kept a diary and made maps of the route they had taken. The route map was the most accurate representation of the countries they had passed through that existed at that time, and Marco spent many hours with the Khan, explaining this feature, and that, and what the weather had been like, and the ground, and the apparently insurmountable physical barriers they had encountered and overcome. Prince Chinkin also sat in on these sessions, and a friendship grew between the young Venetian and the heir apparent. Kubilai took Marco on some of his hunting expeditions, stopping over for lunch at the pagoda-shaped Cane Palace, which was constructed entirely of cane, overpainted with varnish to protect the wood against the weather, then covered in gilt. The whole structure was open-air and could be dismantled and reconstructed again very quickly.

Usually accompanying Kubilai on his hunts was Jamui Khatun, who also took to young Marco. Jamui's interests in Marco's travels centred more around the costumes worn by the natives, their skills and craftsmanship.

While Ahmad was in control of Khanbalic during the summer months he commanded the garrison of 12,000 troops guarding the city whilst the Emperor and his family were in Shang-Tu. Every night in the Old City a curfew bell was tolled, and anybody found in the streets by the Mongol patrols after that time was arrested and thrown into prison, then interrogated by the garrison commander, Kogotai, to uncover the reason why they were breaking the curfew. Always aware of the possibility of a Chinese uprising, Ahmad used his authority to sanction torture and beating of anyone suspected of conspiracy against the Khan. Many innocent men were thrown into prison and never seen again. The resentment of the Chinese people against Kubilai and Ahmad grew and festered throughout the latter part of the 1270s.

When Kubilai returned to Khanbalic in September of 1275 with his Venetian ambassadors, Ahmad was wary. He observed that the Khan held all three, but especialy the young man, Marco, in high esteem, and Chinkin's obvious friendship with Marco made it clear to Ahmad whose side the Venetian would be on. The Khan had stored Nicolo and Maffeo's belongings which they had accumulated during their previous visit and had been unable to transport on the return journey to Europe because of their bulk. The Khan now returned these to them, giving them a large house inside the Palace grounds in which to live. This, too, did not please Ahmad, whose palace was located over a mile away in the Old City.

---oo0oo---

When Kubilai held a banquet, the seating plan was quite specific, according to a person's place in the heirarchy of the Empire. The Khan sat facing south at a table raised above all the others. Empress Jamui sat beside him on his left, his other wives arrayed to left and right of them; on the Khan's right, lower down with their heads level with Kubilai's feet were all his sons who could be present, with Chinkin, as Crown Prince, situated first on the right. All his other sons and grandsons sat on the same level, along with their wives and other members of the Imperial family on the left side. Below them were the tribal Barons and their families. The Barons and generals sat at floor level. Everyone was personally granted their seat by Kubilai himself and all were placed to be within sight of the Khan.

At the banquet Kubilai held to celebrate his return to Khanbalic that summer, Chinkin and Marco sat side-by-side beneath the feet of Kubilai, while Nicolo and Maffeo sat at the furthest end of the Baronial row. Ahmad, as Vice-Regent, sat at the beginning of the Barons' row, below the feet of the Khan. Beside him was his first son, Mas'ud, newly returned from his three-year governorship of Yunnan province. Tall, dark and as handsome as his father had been at his age, Mas'ud was a striking figure in his rich robes, but, with all the easy living and rich food at many banquets, Ahmad was now becoming quite fat and his once raven black hair was streaked with grey. At the age of 54, the ravages of his wanton lifestyle and high living were catching up with him.

Mas'ud's curiosity was pricked. "Who is he, father, and where has he come from?"

"Venice, in Italy, along with his father and uncle, who sit along there." Ahmad indicated with a leg of chicken, which he subsequently ate, the grease dripping into his beard.

"See how they laugh together. It seems as though they have known one another for a lifetime!" observed Mas'ud, sneaking a quick look above him.

"It is not good, my son. That young man is intelligent. The Empress told me earlier today that he was most observant and an excellent describer of his experiences, which is just what Kubilai wants. The other two, they are harmless. They will be content with comfortable living quarters and servants while they ply their trades and sell their wares. I think, Mas'ud my son, it might be a good idea to hold an interview with them in the near future."

---oo0oo---

"So, Messer Marco, you like to travel?" asked Ahmad as he bade his guests be seated.

"Yes, Lord Ahmad. I love to see all the different countries with their different ways of living, different crops to reap, different gods to worship. It's all quite fascinating."

"Indeed. I found it so, too, in my youth. Tell me, which was the country you liked best in your journey here?"

"Without a doubt, the valleys of Afghanistan. The air there is so pure and clear. I had been unwell during the early part of the journey, and the fresh air there restored me to fitness for the long trek ahead of us. During our journey we met cave-dwellers and desert-dwellers, Saracens, Uighurs and Mongol khans. It was all wonderful to behold."

"Eloquently said. You would like to see more of China, then?" asked Ahmad, casually getting to the point of the meeting.

"Indeed I would, Lord Ahmad." replied Marco enthusiastically.

"Hm." Ahmad stroked his beard pensively. "Leave it with me, young Marco. I shall have a word with the Khan. Now, Nicolo and Maffeo, tell me of your adventures since last we met!"

---oo0oo---

However, that winter was a long and hard one and Marco, Nicolo and Maffeo spent most of it familiarising themselves with the languages of the area and the rigid customs of their Mongol overlords. Marco grew impatient, feeling like a caged animal eager to be free again.

Eventually the winter loosened its grip on the country and, with the coming of the spring, news came of a great victory for the armies of the Emperor. Under General Bayan, the Sung capital of Hangchow had surrendered. Empress Dowager Hsieh had fled inland to the last remaining stronghold of her nation, King-Tze on the Yellow River.

The port of Hangchow was strategically crucial to the continuance of the resistance of the Sung, as not only was it a commercial port with important trade links with the Japanese and Malaysians, but it was also the principal shipyard for the Sung fleet. Without Hangchow, the one advantage the Sung warriors held over the Mongols, sea warfare, became impossible, and it was now only a matter of time before the whole of Manzi under the Sung surrendered.

Eager to gain a foothold in Hangchow, Ahmad recommended that Kubilai appoint a Darughachi as quickly as possible in order to carry out a census of the region, recruitment and conscription of the natives to the Mongol armies, the establishment of postal communications by way of Yam pony riders, the delivery of local produce and tribute to Khanbalic on a regular basis and, of course, the collection of taxes. As Mas'ud had recently returned from the successful governorship of Yunnan, Kubilai had no hesitation, at Ahmad's suggestion, of appointing him Darughachi of Hangchow. Mas'ud's appointment opened the way to the exploitation of the conquered Sung.

Before Mas'ud left Khanbalic to take up his lucrative appointment, Ahmad spoke to him privately in his palace apartments. "The Sung are a stubborn race, my son. They must be kept down and their spirit quashed. They are a rich people; rich in land produce, rich in trade links with the Japanese, and rich in craftsmanship and culture. You will ensure that they pay somewhat more than adequate tribute to our Lord and Master. Make them poor, keep a stranglehold on them by increasing the tribute and taxes so that they cannot raise the money, or find the strength, to form an effective uprising. Do you understand, my son?"

Mas'ud nodded, his dark eyes glinting in the firelight while Ahmad continued. "And do not, of course, forget to keep yourself, and my grandchildren, in the manner to which they are accustomed!"

"No, father, I will not. Great riches will be ours for the taking whilst lining the Khan's Treasury coffers to his complete satisfaction!"

---oo0oo---

A short time before the Imperial family were due to leave for their summer camp in Shang-Tu, Kubilai summoned Ahmad to attend a meeting of the Grand Council. All the Barons were in attendance, as were the Minsters. Noticeably absent was Prince Chinkin.

"Ahmad, approach me!" commanded Kubilai. Ahmad mounted the golden steps to Kubilai's throne and prostrated himself before the Khan. As Kubilai placed his foot on Ahmad's shoulder he bade him rise to a kneeling position, thus ensuring that Ahmad was not towering over his ruler while Kubilai sat on his golden throne. "Prince Chinkin is again indisposed, Ahmad. I fear for him, he grows weaker every year. Young Marco Polo has been keeping him company and, during one of their hunting trips, my son became unwell. Marco tells me that my son's illness is a sign of greatness, that great rulers of men in the past were similarly afflicted, like Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great. My son has requested that he be made Emperor Elect, but, as this is contrary to Mongol tradition, my Barons have decided against this appointment. Marco, however, has seen my son's disability and, although I have spared him, he must leave Khanbalic and my son as quickly as possible."

"My Lord Khan, young Polo has told me that he is anxious to see all the Mongol lands. For him, travel will be no exile but another adventure."

"Indeed that is true. I have seen him poring over our maps, changing them to include features he knows to exist, asking our wise men questions about this place, and that. I have an idea, Ahmad. General Bayan is at present holding King-Tze in siege. The old Empress Dowager Hsieh's weakened forces cannot hold out much longer, and I have given Bayan strict orders not to kill her, or any of her Imperial family. I wish the Sung to see Kubilai The Merciful. When the Empress surrenders, I would like her to be brought quickly here, and I consider young Marco the best man for the job. He can report to me about the sights he sees during his journey, and how we can best exploit the land and people under our protection. What say you, Ahmad?"

"Great Lord Khan, your idea is quite excellent! I will send a detachment of my most trusted troops to accompany him, thus ensuring safe passage!"

"So shall it be. Make it so!" The Council of Barons nodded their heads in silent approval but the holy men, and especially the Phags'pa Llama stood, stony faced in disapproval. The mission could, in fact, prove to be a highly dangerous one, as guerilla warfare was a speciality of the Sung warriors. However, once the Khan had proclaimed an order, he would never rescind it, so Chinkin's supporters could do nothing once more.

Ahmad, seeing a golden opportunity present itself to him for the permanent elimination of a potential rival, summoned Aftab on his return to his palace. "Aftab, there is a mission I would like you to carry out. It will involve the recruitment of a few of your most rebellious Chinese misfits. This is what I want you to do ..."

---oo0oo---

The detachment of ten Mongol troopers, led by Aftab, surrounded Marco as they wended their way up the Yellow River on the long journey towards King-Tze. The water was shallow at that point and the horses waded cautiously in the slippery mud just below the waterline. Overhanging trees spread their branches from the near bank. Suddenly, Marco was aware of a lack of birdsong and a feeling of expectancy in the air. Without further warning, an arrow zipped past Marco's ear and embedded itself in the chest of the warrior riding beside him. The soldier cried out and fell off his pony into the water. More arrows flew, finding their marks in horses and soldiers. Marco's horse was hit in the flank and it reared and whinneyed in pain, throwing Marco into the water. He lay still, floating as though dead. Seeing Marco unhorsed, Aftab turned and galloped up the riverbank, out of range of the ambush. From a distance he saw two Chinese, dressed in rags, slide down the riverbank into the water, looking at the dead or dying soldiers, ripping the arrows from their bodies. Nearing Marco's floating body, one cried out "Here! This is the one! Make sure he's dead or we'll not get paid!"

Quickly flipping over, Marco grabbed his sword from its sheath and turned on his assailants, running the nearest one through with a powerful lunge. The other one tried to fight, but slipped in the mud and fell. Marco pounced, holding him underwater till he struggled no more. Breathlessly, Marco swivelled around to see if there were any others. At that point Aftab realised the raid had gone wrong. Cursing under his breath at his hired assailants' incompetence, he reappeared from the concealing undergrowth and rode to Marco's side.

"My Lord Marco, you are alive!" said Aftab, circling his horse round his gasping charge.

"No thanks to you, General Aftab! I thought you were meant to protect me! Instead, you and your cowardly Saracens flee at the first assault! What kind of soldiers are you?"

"We serve Allah and Kubilai, as you know, Messer Marco!"

Do you? I wonder ... thought Marco.

Aftab marshalled the seven surviving soldiers and, after Marco had changed into dry clothing, continued on their way.

That evening, when they were making camp, Marco drew Aftab aside. "Why is it, General, that I have the distinct feeling that the attack today was not unexpected by you?"

"I do not understand, Messer Marco." Marco noted that Aftab had difficulty in looking him in the eye.

"Although three of your men were killed, the rest of your company made no attempt to seek out and destroy the raiders. In fact, they turned tail and ran, leaving me alone to face the attackers. Had I not been trained in combat, I would most certainly have been killed."

"My Lord, we were caught unawares ..." Aftab shifted his weight in discomfiture. Marco Polo was too intelligent by half, he thought.

By Aftab's reactions, Marco's suspicions were confirmed. "Who paid you to get rid of me, Aftab? Was it Kubilai? Or was it Ahmad? Yes, of course, Ahmad!"

Aftab did not reply, so Marco persisted. "I suspect it was Ahmad, as Kubilai sent me with all goodwill on this mission. Hm. I have a proposition to make to you and your men, General."

Aftab's attention returned, and he looked at Marco for the first time during the encounter.

"Whatever he paid you, I will equal that amount for you and your men to keep me alive for the duration of this tour." Marco saw the glint of avarice in Aftab's eyes.

"But you have little money of your own. How can you pay us?"

"On my safe return, the Khan will reimburse me all my expenses. Should that include personal protection money, then so be it. It will therefore be in your best interests to keep me alive until I can pay you. Well? What say you?"

The irony of the situation occurred to Aftab. Kubilai was paying Ahmad to run his administration, and Ahmad was paying Aftab to dispose of this potentially dangerous young man. If he accepted Marco's offer, Kubilai would be paying Marco to pay Aftab to keep him alive! A pretty paradox! A broad grin lit the swarthy Saracen's features. "It is a deal, Messer Marco! You have my word of honour that no harm will befall you whilst you are under my protection!" They gripped each other's forearms in confirmation of their agreement. That night, Marco Polo slept soundly.

---oo0oo---

Some time afterwards, Ahmad received a missive from Aftab, curt and to the point. It read "Ambush unsuccessful. Proceeding to King-Tze."

"Allah bestow a thousand curses on the Christian!" swore Ahmad. It was not going to be so easy to dispose of this adversary, he realised.

---oo0oo---

Three months later, when Aftab had delivered Marco into the care of General Bayan at King-Tze, he and his troop returned to Khanbalic and to his master's wrath. "I am sorry, my Lord. There was nothing I could do. The hired Chinese killed some of my troops and Marco's horse, but his Christian God must have protected him. Short of killing him myself, there was nothing else I could do."

"It occurs to me you had plenty of opportunity throughout the journey to do just that, Aftab."

"My Lord, I could not do it. The men - they like him. I like him. He was a good travelling companion ..." Aftab's feeble excuses tailed off into nothing. What Ahmad did not know would not hurt him.

"I am not paying you for liking the man I want you to dispose of, you imbecile! Have your loyalties gone elsewhere?"

"I am yours to command, my Lord!"

"Well, then, I command you to kill him!" Ahmad's face was inches from Aftab's.

Aftab quailed from his master's wrath, but, taking a conciliatory tone, he stepped back and spoke. "My Lord, it is difficult. Consider. He is already well favoured by Kubilai and the Lady Jamui."

At the mention of his Lady's name, Ahmad's anger was quenched. Curious to know what Aftab was implying, he urged Aftab to continue. "Go on!"

"If anything were to happen to him, and were Kubilai somehow to discover who was responsible for his demise ..."

Ahmad's anger returned tenfold. "Are you threatening me with blackmail, you son of a camel?"

"No, no, no, my Lord. Never! I am merely pointing out all the implications of such an action. The whole Muslim enclave would suffer terrible reprisals. No-one, with respect, not even you, my Lord, would escape the vengeance of Kubilai."

Ahmad's memory flashed back to that terrible night so long ago; the cold-blooded murder of his family, the terrified screaming of his mother, all the sights and sounds of death all around him which were still echoed in his nightmares. He shuddered involuntarily. "Go! Get out of my sight, Aftab! I will find somebody else to do the job!"

Straight-backed and proud, Aftab struck his breast in salute, turned and walked away. Thinking quickly, Ahmad realised that what Aftab had said was correct. Maybe Aftab was acting in his best interests, after all. And, more importantly, he could not afford to lose this man's loyalty and protection. "Aftab, wait!" Aftab halted and stood, his back to Ahmad. Ahmad covered the distance between them. "Aftab - perhaps I have been a little hasty!" Aftab turned to face Ahmad. "You are right. There will be other, less drastic ways of disposing of this troublesome young man. Are you still with me, Aftab?"

"For as long as either of us shall live." Aftab replied simply. Ahmad offered his open arms in an embrace, and Aftab returned the gesture, content that the danger of his duplicity had been averted, at least for the time being.

Nursing his frustration afterwards, Ahmad consoled himself with the thought that at least Polo was out of the way for a considerable time, at least until Bayan finally conquered and captured the Sung Imperial family.

---oo0oo---

In April 1276 Empress Dowager Hsieh, exhausted by the siege of her city and tortured by the bloodshed of her loyal people, who were all ill with malnutrition, finally surrendered to General Bayan. The Empress, despite entreaties from her fleeing warlords, stayed but allowed two of her grandsons to escape to Kwachau in the south of Manzi, leaving only herself and her four-year-old grandson, Prince Chaohien, on the throne as titular ruler of the Sung nation. Bayan himself led the occupational forces into the city with much pomp and pageantry, the banners of Kubilai proudly flying over the last stronghold of the Sung. He declined to meet the Empress and her grandson in the Inner Palace, declaring that he knew nothing of Sung court etiquette. Bayan placed Mongol and Chinese officials in government of the city, and they took charge of all documents and public records. Marco observed this Mongol efficiency with admiration whilst preparing for his return journey to Khanbalic with the defeated Empress.

The older brothers of Prince Chaohien, as well as the princesses and other members of the Sung Dynasty, escaped south before the Mongols arrived. Bayan sent one of his regiments in hot pursuit, and an unsuccessful attempt was made at Kwachau to recapture the young princes. The eldest of the two boys who had escaped was proclaimed Emperor of the Sung by the retreating forces at Fuchau, in Fokien province, but they were forced to retreat even further, crossing the sea from Canton to an offshore island, where the young Emperor took ill and died. His younger brother succeeded him, but the remnants of the Sung army were cornered by Bayan's advancing warriors and, in the final, decisive battle of the Sung campaign in 1279, the depleted Sung army were defeated and the young boy king jumped from the cliffs of his island retreat to his death.

Marco Polo escorted the Empress and Prince Chaohien back to Khanbalic, travelling slowly as the old lady and her grandson were very weak from their ordeal. They were carried in style in large and ornately decorated sedans that Kubilai had ordered be made available to his defeated foes. With them, too, came their captured generals. On the day of their arrival at Khanbalic the whole garrison of 12,000 troops formed ranks in the large courtyard, a red carpet laid the courtyard's length from the entrance at the South Gate to Kubilai's elevated golden throne. The Empress Dowager was carried in the sedan towards the throne, her defeated generals in full battledress walking behind her, their regiments' banners flapping in the breeze. General Bayan and Marco Polo brought up the rear of the procession. When the sedan stopped Empress Hsieh alighted from the sedan with the Crown Prince by her side. She was small and frail, but her voice was strong as she stood at the foot of the steps to the throne. "Kubilai Khan, Lord of all Cathay and of Manzi, the Sung bows at your feet and asks for mercy." As she spoke, her generals dipped their banners before the Khan in submission.

Kubilai felt a soaring pride that at last this day had come, fulfilling the promise he had made to his dying brother Mongke Khan, twenty years before. Slowly and proudly he descended the steps from his high throne to ground level, where Ahmad, Chinkin and his other generals stood in attendance. When he reached ground level, he spoke. "Kubilai Khan, Lord of All Cathay and Manzi, welcomes Empress Dowager Hsieh and her grandson, Crown Prince Chaohien, to Khanbalic and promises that all honour will be granted her." Kubilai turned and walked back inside the Palace, with Ahmad and Chinkin behind him, followed by the Dowager Empress, the young Prince and the Sung Generals. As they entered the living apartments in the Palace, Jamui stepped forward to greet her guests and led the Empress and the Prince to their new home, leaving them alone to settle in. Shortly afterwards, she returned with servants, who held towels and soap. Prince Chaohien took one look and burst into tears, gripping the folds of his grandmother's robes.

"No, gran!" he wailed. "Don't let them take me away!"

Jamui was surprised at the little boy's outburst but, instead of addressing his grandmother, she knelt down to be on the frightened boy's level. "What's the matter, little Prince? Tell me, I'm not going to hurt you!"

"Yes you are! You're going to take me away and eat me!" he sobbed. "You always eat people you don't like. I know, my daddy told me!" He dissolved into floods of tears as he trembled in his grandmother's arms. The Empress tried to calm him and looked to Jamui for assurance.

Jamui understood the little boy's fears, but did not try to touch him. Instead, she gestured to one of the servants, who hurried away and returned a few moments afterwards, carrying something white and furry that mewed. The servant gave the Persian kitten to Jamui, who held it in her arms and stroked it. The kitten began to purr, and the little boy suddenly forgot his tears. It was a beautiful kitten, he thought, and, slowly, he moved towards Jamui, tentatively reaching out a small hand to touch the kitten. "Do you like him?" Jamui asked the child gently.

"Y-yes." Chaohien said, sniffing.

"Well, he's yours, if you want him." said Jamui, holding out the contented kitten for the boy to take.

He looked up at Jamui with watery eyes. "You - you're not going to eat me?"

"Of course not, silly. You are our honoured guests in this city for ever and ever. Mongols don't eat honoured guests!" and Jamui stood, gently touching the Empress's arm in reassurance. "We mean that, Empress. You and your family are safe with us." And the old Empress relaxed at last, certain in the knowledge that what this gentle lady said was true. In time, the two women became firm friends, and Chaohien grew up happily with the Khan's sons and grandsons.

---oo0oo---

Marco Polo thought long and hard over the intervening months about how he would handle Ahmad's ill-will towards him. On his return, after all the ceremonies and hubbub had abated, he requested an audience with Ahmad. Ahmad kept him waiting for a week, pleading pressing Government business, but eventually he knew that he had to see him.

On entering Ahmad's presence, Marco prostrated himself in an attitude of humility before him. "Arise, young Polo." Ahmad bent forward and held him by both his shoulders, thus rising him to stand before him. "There is no need of ceremony between us!"

"No, Lord Ahmad? I also hope there is no need for dislike between us!"

"What makes you say that, Marco?" He suspects, thought Ahmad.

"An incident occurred whilst I was being escorted by your soldiers. They did not protect me as they should have, leaving me open to assassination. Fortunately, I am able to take care of myself and killed the raiders. I suspected that someone here in Khanbalic may have been behind the staging of the attack. I wish to take this opportunity, Lord Ahmad, of assuring you, and anyone else you may know of at Court who bears me ill-will, that I have no intention of usurping their position in the eyes and heart of Kubilai. I do not intend to stay here for the rest of my life. My father, uncle and myself wish return to Venice as soon as Kubilai allows us to go. Do I have your trust and friendship, Lord Ahmad?"

"Messer Marco, I regret that you thought that I bore you any malice. Nothing was farther from my mind. I can assure you now that I personally will ensure your safety for the entire duration of your stay at the Court of Kubilai Khan." He is a likeable young man, thought Ahmad as he spoke. Either that, or a very cunning one. "Now, come, take tea with me!" and he clapped his hands twice for a servant to bring the refreshments.

---oo0oo---

The ending of the Sung offensive was a great relief to Ahmad, as he no longer had the burden of finding money from nowhere to finance it. He had continued to introduce paper money throughout the country, forcing its use instead of the traditional barter and causing inflation. Now, of course, through Mas'ud, he was taxing the Sung peoples in the south on a similar basis to those in Cathay. That is, exorbitantly.

Kubilai had decreed that, should any region or district suffer poor crops and harvest through bad weather, flood or fire, then that region was relieved of paying taxes for the next three years. Since the Sung nation had been severely taxed by the Empress's administration in an attempt to feed their own troops, the land was arid from overfarming of the crops. On Mas'ud's orders, however, the small amount of remaining rice, barley and other crops were seized. Should any village fail to reach the quota set by Mas'ud, his troops were sent to ransack the town. Any young girls captured either went to Hangchow for the slave trade, or to Khanbalic for Ahmad's evil uses.

---oo0oo---

Throughout the 1270s many of the men who formed Ahmad's chief opposition in court were eliminated, either by natural death or, on Ahmad's recommendations to Kubilai, by transferring them to other, less contentious, positions.

In 1278 Kubilai became very concerned about the safety of Nomukhan, who was still engaging Kaidu Khan on the Westernmost borders of the Empire. News came that the large army, commanded by a number of Nomukhan's cousins and his younger brother Kokochu, who was Kubilai's ninth son by one of his other wives, had split into factions and quarreled about whether or not it was worth continuing with the frustrating, hit-and-run tactics they were forced to employ on an evasive foe. This was not the way Mongol warriors fought, they claimed. One night, when they were drinking and quarreling and the guards became less vigilant, a detachment of Kaidu's troops made a night-time attack and successfully captured Nomukhan, Kokochu, An-T'ung and some of the other princes. Kaidu sent his captives to Mongke Temur in Bish-Balik and sent a ransom note to Kubilai. When Ahmad heard of one of his principal antagonist's capture, he celebrated.

---oo0oo---

In 1280 the Phags'Pa Llama died suddenly. Jamui Khatun, who had been his most avid disciple for twenty years, was devastated and grieved deeply for her friend and mentor. Ahmad, at the pinnacle of his power, took this opportunity to advise Kubilai to curb many of the other religious cults that were growing like a cancer throughout the city. This included Christianity, as political in-fighting had become rife throughout the Court in an effort to gain supremacy for their particular religion. Kubilai agreed to Ahmad's suggestion and religious factions were forced to continue their practices clandestinely. Should any cult be discovered carrying out a religious ceremony of any kind, especially after curfew time, Ahmad's troops violently broke the meeting up, arrested the participants and confiscated all their icons and idols, either having them melted down and refashioned into jewellery, or to enhance the Khan's, or his own, treasury.

---oo0oo---

Kubilai was very pleased with Marco Polo's report of his journey to Manzi and his adventures there, though he did not mention his doubts about who had organised the attack on the Yellow River. He gave the Khan perceptive descriptions of the estimated population numbers, crops grown and the geography of the area drawing, as he had done before, accurate and detailed maps to illustrate the relative locations of villages, towns and castles.

Marco spent the summer of 1280 with the Khan, travelling north with him to the ancient Mongol fortress of Chagan-Nor. This area was abundant in wildlife that populated the lakes and rivers in the area, such as swans, the beautiful black-and-white Chinese cranes, partridges and pheasants. Marco accompanied Kubilai and Chinkin when they went hawking with gerfalcons. It was whilst he was on one of these expeditions, seated beside the Khan in the houda atop a massive elephant that Kubilai loved to ride during the hunt, that Marco broached the suggestion that, when they returned to Khanbalic, the Khan might send him on another tour of duty.

"Where would you like to go this time, young Marco?" asked the Khan indulgently.

"Great Khan, I have heard much of Hangchow, its shipyards and commerce. I would very much like to see this place for myself."

"Well, then, because you mention it, I think it as good a time as any to tell you my plans. You have performed admirably in your mission with the Dowager Empress and she speaks warmly to Jamui of your consideration of her needs during the arduous journey back to Khanbalic. Your astute observations of the Sung people's lives has given me the idea that I appoint you Assessor of the Privy Council." Marco's mouth dropped in amazement at the high honour and position proposed by the Khan, but Kubilai was still speaking. "In that capacity, you may travel in my name, with the Golden Imperial Tablet as you passport, to all the regions throughout the Empire under my jurisdiction. Many records have been taken over by the Governor of Hangchow. It is a massive undertaking for him and his civil servants to interpret them accurately. I would send you there, as my Assessor, to assist the Governor in his task."

"When may I leave, Great Khan?" asked Marco eagerly.

"Oh, enjoy your holiday here first, and spend a little more time with Chinkin when we return to Shang-Tu. When we return to Khanbalic in September, I will call a full Council meeting to announce your appointment, after which you can make your own time, taking as many men as you wish to assist you in your task."

"Thank you, Great Khan. I have never had an official appointment to such a high financial office before. I hope to serve you, and Finance Minister Ahmad, to the best of my ability."

---oo0oo---

On Kubilai's return to Khanbalic that September, his announcement about appointing Marco as Assessor of the Privy Council came as a bolt out of the blue to Ahmad, but he knew better than to raise open objection to the Khan's decree. The last thing he wanted, however, was this accursed Christian foreigner poking about his, and Mas'ud's, dealings.

He hurriedly dispatched a Yam postal rider down the now well-established route to Hangchow to warn Mas'ud of Marco's coming.

On Marco's arrival that December, he presented his Imperial Tablet to Mas'ud at his headquarters in one of the palaces formerly inhabited by a Sung Prince. Hangchow was a bustling port, with red-sailed Chinese junks plying across the harbour, servicing the larger foreign craft as tenders when they anchored in the large bay.

Marco was not aware of the fact that Mas'ud was Ahmad's son, and Mas'ud had no intention of enlightening him when they sat together for a Chinese banquet. Marco, eager to start his task, quickly got down to business. "Governor Mas'ud, I would like to start my duties immediately. Can you show me the Sung's records?"

"Assessor Marco, I regret that the Sung were not good book-keepers. My civil servants are finding great difficulty in deciphering them. However, I have many men working constantly on this onerous task, and they have assured me that it will not be long before they will be able to present me with a comprehensive breakdown of their findings. In the meanwhile, would you not care to enjoy my hospitality?"

Sensing a delaying tactic, Marco pressed on. "May I then at least see what your men are doing?"

Seeing that Marco would not be easily put off, Mas'ud consented and, after their meal, he led Marco down to the vaults of the old palace. He threw open the massive wooden doors to reveal a huge room, lit only by candles and braziers, and about twenty men poring over giant leather-bound books of figures. Behind the walls of the vaults were passageways filled with even more ancient books and scrolls. Realising that what Mas'ud had said was in fact true and they they were faced with a massive task, Marco retreated from his slightly belligerent position.

"Ah, Governor Mas'ud! I see what you mean! Perhaps it would be better if I return at a later date to peruse your figures, and in the meantime I propose to travel throughout Manzi to see for myself what progress has been made in tax and tribute collection."

Mas'ud did not have the authority to stop Marco, and Marco departed the next day to reconnoitre the nearby area. He quickly realised that unfair taxation was being levied on the already hard pressed people, who were toiling unsuccessfully to grow crops from their overworked soil. When he returned to Hangchow, he faced Mas'ud once more.

"Mas'ud, your taxes are far too onerous on these people! They tell me that, despite the fact that they have little enough grain for themselves, still they are taxed more and more cartloads of vegetables, rice or whatever the local produce is. Why is this happening?"

"I am merely following the orders of Finance Minister Ahmad, which were decreed to him by the Great Khan himself." replied Mas'ud, smoothly.

Without taking the time to look at the written records, Marco returned to Khanbalic.

On hearing of Marco's unexpectedly sudden return, Ahmad wasted no time in visiting him before he could make his report to Kubilai, who was out of the city on a hunting trip.

Marco, exhausted from his long journey back north, was unprepared for Ahmad's unheralded visit. "Lord Ahmad!" Marco's surprise was genuine as the tall, corpulent, richly-dressed Vice-Regent was brought into his presence by one of Marco's Chinese manservants.

"I heard of your return, Assessor Marco, and am interested to hear of your experiences in Manzi." Ahmad said as he seated himself lugubriously, taking the proffered bowl of Yunnan tea and sweetmeats.

"Perhaps it is best that I speak to you first, Lord Ahmad. I observed that the Manzi people are being exploited by Governor Mas'ud and his taxmen. He claims he is acting on the direct decree of the Khan, through you."

"Exploited? In what way?" asked Ahmad innocently as he nibbled the food whilst thinking that it was as he had feared. Marco was too observant and intelligent for his own good. He listened as Marco catalogued the injustices he had seen. When Marco had finished, Ahmad rose to his feet with difficulty from the comfortable cushions. "I think, Assessor Marco, that you greatly exaggerate the situation."

"No, Lord Ahmad, there is no exaggeration. I mean to report this in the morning to the Khan."

"No, Assessor, you will not." Ahmad said flatly, drawing himself up to his full height. Marco sensed a threat in Ahmad's manner. "There are things, Messer Marco, that you obviously do not understand about the administration of the Empire. The Khan demands a great amount of money and tribute from all the conquered lands. The restrictions which he sets me as far as land taxation are concerned are thus impossible to keep. He needs food for his massive armies, food for his own family; he also incessantly demands money for the improvement of communications, trade and such like, whilst still demanding tribute of their merchandise, be it gold, pearls, rubies, jade, silk, salt, or whatever. His demands outweigh his limitations, and he will not settle for a decrease in his living standards. Do I make myself clear, Messer Marco?"

Suddenly Marco realised he was up against an insurmountable barrier. He could tell the Khan what was going on, and the Khan would tell Ahmad, but Ahmad would listen with one ear and continue with his policies in order to supply Kubilai with all the pleasures that he wanted in life. Whatever Marco said would be disregarded, not by Kubilai, but by the men he had appointed to run the administration of the Empire while he pursued his hedonistic lifestyle. Even the animals he enjoyed hunting had to be specially supplied from some region or other. So, despite his good intentions, he realised that Ahmad held sway with the Khan and that there was nothing he could do for the Sung people - at least for the moment.

---oo0oo---

It was summertime in 1280, and Kubilai, Chinkin and all their retinue were again spending the hot summer months in Shang-Tu, leaving Ahmad in total control of Khanbalic.

Ahmad was in his own Palace, lounging on soft cushions and being fed rare, succulent fruits by six giggling concubines, when Aftab entered the room. "My Lord Ahmad!"

"Enter, Aftab." Aftab stepped over the threshold and bowed. "I see by the look on your face that the news is not good."

"Indeed it is not, my Lord. I am receiving various reports from the provinces that rebellion is threatening to erupt again."

Ahmad clapped his hands to dismiss the girls. He wiped the juice of the fruits from his beard and indicated Aftab to sit on the cushion beside him. Aftab sat cross-legged and waited while Ahmad made his decision.

"I do not think it is necessary to inform the Khan about this. Instead, you will take one hundred warriors from the garrison, you will capture and kill the ringleaders in each village, which you will then put to the torch. But, Aftab, before you do, make sure you bring me back every young female you find, unharmed. Should you find one that you desire, feel free but, mark you, keep the best for me!"

"As you command, my Lord!"

Aftab made to go, but Ahmad caught his arm. "No, no, stay awhile, enjoy the sweetmeats, fruit and drink! There will be no more till you return!"

---oo0oo---

Two weeks later the troop of laughing, whooping, shouting Mongol soldiers led by General Aftab returned from their successful foray. The rebellion had been quashed, the ringleaders executed, and twenty maidens had been captured.

Aftab presented Ahmad with his prisoners in the Audience Hall in the Forbidden City. "You have done well, Aftab. These maidens are all comely, for Chinese!" he observed as he circled round the terrified group of girls. Some were openly crying, some looked Ahmad defiantly in the eye, others kept their eyes downcast. Again Ahmad clapped his hands and his wife Fatima crossed the threshold and hurried to her husband's side. "Have them cleaned and dressed, my wife, and bring them to my palace tonight, when I will choose."

Fatima looked at her husband with a mixture of longing and pity, but she was long past her childbearing years and he only visited her once a week, as Muslim law decreed, to continue the marriage contract. Tonight was not going to be one of those nights. She sighed and clucked like a mother hen collecting her chicks as she ushered the group of girls from the Vice-Regent's presence.

---oo0oo---

Ahmad, richly attired in a robe of his favourite colours of red and gold silk, entered the room where all the girls were waiting. Accompanied by Aftab and his major-domo, he once again viewed the girls. One caught his eye. She was taller than all the others, though shorter than himself. Her eyes were not sloe-shaped, but Caucasian. She looked quickly up at him, then looked away. He could see that she was crying. She was slim and stood very straight. He reached out his hand and turned her averted face to him. She gasped in fright at his unexpected touch. "Is this a rebel's daughter?" he asked Aftab.

"My Lord, I captured her trying to escape."

"You didn't ...?"

"No, Lord, I kept her for you, as requested."

"Very well!" he waved his hand to dismiss the others, but Tang interceded.

"My Rord, do not choose this one!"

"Tang, it is not for you to tell me whom I should or should not choose. Now go, bring Fatima and have her prepare the girl."

Tang made to speak again. He had to tell him ... "Go!" Ahmad's command could not be ignored, and Tang shuffled away to do as he was bid, shaking his head in disapproval.

---oo0oo---

The bed chamber was warm, lit by braziers placed in the four corners of the room. Fatima had supervised the girl's bathing, and she now smelled of Attar of Roses. Fatima had also chosen a full-length silken nightgown in Ahmad's favourite colours for her to wear. Designed in the Chinese Mandarin style with high collar and wide sleeves, its side seams were open from hem to waistline. Fatima arranged her alluringly on the luxurious, four-poster bed, on which the drapes of white silk were held open by golden bindings. Satisfied with the girl's appearance, Fatima then left her alone and she lay, shaking with fear, awaiting Ahmad's pleasure.

He swept into the room, his bulk covered by a plain, wrap-around red robe. He cast an admiring eye over his captive. Then he sat on the edge of the bed and slipped his large hand beneath her gown onto her thigh and moved upwards, his fingers exploring her womanhood. "No! You mustn't!" she said, shrinking from his touch.

Instead of being annoyed, he smiled. "I mustn't! Young lady, you are not in a position to tell me what I must or must not do! I have honoured you by choosing you! Do not be afraid - I will not hurt you - much." and, his hand still feeling her, he leaned forward to try to kiss her, but again she shrank in revulsion from him. She needs to be wooed, he thought. The idea appealed to him. "Come!" he said, rising from the mattress and taking her reluctant hand in his. She walked with dragging footsteps behind him. He led her to one of the walls which, she had previously noticed, was adorned with frescoes and friezes. She had not, however, examined what the paintings were. He stood her in front of him. "Look!" She gasped in horror when she realised what she was looking at; what, in fact, the whole room was decorated with. The paintings were of men and women intertwined in the act of love in as many positions as possible, and in some impossible ones. In the flickering firelight the figures seemed to move. As she looked in shocked fascination she felt Ahmad's warm hand slip round her slim waist. "Look at this one - and this!" he said, pointing to a male figure supporting his massive erection as his partner stood before him, her hands to her cheeks in amazement. "See!" Ahmad, laughing lewdly, opened his robe and exhibited himself to her in lurid imitation of the fresco. She averted her eyes at the spectacle. Undaunted, he covered himself over and forced her to look again at the frescoes. Whilst doing so, he stood behind her and began with one hand to massage her belly, the other he slipped inside her gown to cup a breast. He was gratified to feel her nipple tighten to his touch. "How shall I love you tonight?" he asked softly in her ear, pressing and rubbing his hardness against her. "Shall it be this way, or maybe that?" he asked, releasing one hand to point to erotic positions of the flickering figures. "Ah, yes, that one, I think! You feel so soft and sweet - sweet enough to eat!"

"No!" She broke away from his clutches and tried to escape but Ahmad, despite his bulk, was still fast on his feet, and he barred her way. "No! You must not touch me! Go away!" Ahmad laughed softly as she beat her hands against his chest. He gripped her wrists to stop the assault, her resistance stimulating him further.

By Ahmad's side was a small table with an earthenware pot and two cups. Still holding one of her wrists he turned and, with his free hand, poured the contents of the pot into the two cups. "Come, drink this!" he offered one of the full cups to her. "Go on - drink! It will help you to relax! It's nice! Don't you trust me? Look, I'll drink some!" and he took a mouthful and swallowed it. When she saw it had no effect on him she tentatively took the proffered cup and drank a sip. It was nice, sweet smelling and tasting. She took another sip, and another, then he refilled her cup and watched as the potion quickly took effect. She felt relaxed, floating. After another two refills she no longer cared when he took the empty cup from her and gently pushed her to lie on her back on the large table. A bowl of fruit already lay there, and Ahmad set it aside, then opened her nightgown.

His eyes wandered lecherously over her naked body. Yes! He thought. She was soft, pliant, sweet enough to eat! He placed a succulent fruit on her stomach, another between her cleavage, put one in her open mouth and another between her legs. Her eyes rolled in terror. She thought that he was going to eat her alive! She tried to move, but found she was incapable of doing anything to prevent him. He leaned over her and took a bite from the fruit in her mouth. The juice trickled down her chin and Ahmad started to lick the juice away, then returned to remove the fruit and change the bite to a consuming kiss. Next he ate the fruit on her stomach, biting and licking the juices wherever they trickled. He then gorged himself on the fruits and juices of her body, his sensuous, probing tongue quickly bringing her to a state of ecstasy. When he could contain himself no longer he threw off his robe, once more revealing his massive erection. Hurriedly lifting and carrying her, he sat on a sideless, high-backed chair and lowered her onto, and into, him in imitation of the position he had chosen from the frescoes. Impaled, she fought feebly and cried out once at his painful penetration as he thrust and came repeatedly into her.

---oo0oo---

She woke with a start the next morning. She was lying on his bed and he was sprawled all over her. Her head was pounding, she hurt down there and her whole body was bruised and aching. The full horror of her predicament struck her like a mighty blow. She moaned her mental agony and tried to extricate herself from under the fat mound of flesh. He stirred and, waking, moved off her. "Ahhh! What's the matter now, my little one? Want more?" he mumbled sleepily, his hand groping her.

She shot out of bed like a scalded cat, shaking like a leaf. "You - you called me your little one - and that's right! I am your little one - I AM YOUR DAUGHTER! My mother was called Sung-Li!"

Before Ahmad had a chance for his sleep-befuddled brain to grasp the implications, she had fled the bedchamber, sobbing violently, clothed only in her nightgown. It took him a few moments to recover from the shock of the girl's revelation then, realising she was escaping, he ran after her. The corridors were dimly lit by the dying braziers. He looked both ways but could not see her. Allah's curses on her! She must not have her freedom; this affair must be kept secret at all costs. He ran one way, hoping to trap her, as the corridor had a dead end. She was not there. Turning, he ran in the opposite direction. As he turned a corner of the still-dark corridor he heard a scream. He ran in the direction of the sound, outside onto the parapet. He looked over the parapet and saw her broken body lying below. He recoiled in horror at the sight, covering his face with his hands.

She had said her mother was called Sung-Li. "Sung-Li?" he thought. "A Chinese name? When? Oh, Allah! The Chinese serving girl when I arrived in Karakorum! What have I done? What have I done?"

In the fullness of time he was to discover just precisely what he had done because, in this decade of victories and defeats, this tragedy was to prove to be instrumental to his ultimate fate.

---oo0oo---

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