This is what happens when you lock Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, and a host of other writers in a room: historical adventure The Mongoliad, out on April 24 from 47 North.
An epic-within-an-epic, taking place in 13th century, The Mongoliad follows a small band of warriors and mystics raise their swords to save Europe from a bloodthirsty Mongol invasion. Inspired by their leader (an elder of an order of warrior monks), they embark on a perilous journey and uncover the history of hidden knowledge and conflict among powerful secret societies that had been shaping world events for millennia.
The story was inspired by Stephenson’s desire to visualize the history and original of current western martial arts. More than just a story, The Mongoliad is an sweeping narrative firmly rooted in history, taking readers back to a time when Europeans thought that the Mongol Horde was about to destroy their world — and it was up to the exploits of one small band of mystics and warriors to turn the tide of history.
Read about how the tale was constructed here or dive straight into The Mongoliad below.
The Mongoliad: Book One
Chapter Six: In the Garden
“On the field of battle, who has the power?”
Lian’s tone implied she knew the answer to the question. Gansukh found this habit of hers irritating but knew if he didn’t answer, she would only repeat the question. She would phrase it differently, or seem to ignore his lack of answer for a short time before suddenly returning to the question. She was like a horsefly: always out of reach, buzzing and biting endlessly, and never landing on the same patch of flesh twice.
“The general,” he replied, mentally swatting her away. “He makes the battle plans and gives the order to execute them.”
Lian nodded. She was framed by the mid-morning sun, and the light tinged her hair red. This was their third time meeting in the eastern gardens. Gansukh liked it much better here, outside, than in his tomb of a room. He could see the sky.
It was only when he couldn’t see the endless expanse of blue that he realized how much he missed it. Not like a sword or a horse, or even one of the other tribesmen who had survived the siege at Kozelsk. Those were all parts of a Mongol’s life that changed: swords would be broken or lost; horses would fall in battle or grow too old to carry a warrior; friends and comrades would die too. This was all part of the cycle of life under the Endless Blue Heaven, and throughout that cycle, the sky never changed. It was always there.
Until it wasn’t.
He hated sleeping in a bed. He was always sore in the morning. Muscles in his lower back and shoulders were knotted in a way that made no sense to him. He had once spent a week in the saddle—riding, sleeping, fighting, pissing, eating—and at the end of the week, he hadn’t been as stiff as he felt after a single night in that bed.
“And here, in Karakorum . . .“ Lian paused until she was sure she had his attention, “. . . who has the power?”
“The Khan, of course,” Gansukh muttered.
The east garden had become Gansukh’s refuge, and after the way the first few lessons had left him feeling even more confused and frustrated, he had insisted they take place outside. The grounds were nothing like the open steppe, but there was some room to wander, enough that he didn’t feel quite as caged.
The garden was huge, extending from the northern wall and the Khan’s private quarters, along the east wall to the gate. There were several paths, courses of river stone laid in winding paths through an endless procession of groves and bowers of trees. Gansukh had tried to count the different types of trees one afternoon, and had given up after several dozen. If the trees were all taken from various places in the Great Khan’s Empire, then it must be far greater than Gansukh could ever imagine. And the flowers: swathes of color on raised beds, tiny blossoms strung like beads on vines that embraced the naked trunks of trees, tall stalks that bore flowers that looked like flaming birds, and long stems that craned overhead to look down on him with their mottled faces.
In the center of the garden was a long pond. Fish as bright as the flowers swam lazily in the clear water. Fat and indolent, they did not fear any predator. Not in the Khan’s garden. Arranged around the pond were a number of stone benches, carved with animals and flowers.
Gansukh rarely sat.
“Yes, of course, the Khan has power.” Lian snapped her fingers. His answer was obvious—of little value to their lesson. “Who else?”
Gansukh flushed. He could stand his ground against an approaching enemy without losing his focus, but this tiny woman with her tongue and her dismissive gestures—treating him as if he were an addled child—made him lose his temper so quickly. He kept his mouth shut.
Sometimes it was better to say nothing than to fill a void badly. He had—grudgingly—learned that much.
Lian returned to her initial question, but with one change. “Who besides the general has power on the battlefield?”
Gansukh exhaled. This was familiar territory. “The captains. They carry out the general’s orders; they are the ones who instruct the soldiers on the battlefield.”
Lian nodded. She stared at Gansukh purposefully, and he felt his cheeks flush again. He’d given her a suitable answer, but there was something else he was missing, some subtlety of this game that he could not follow. What was the connection between the battlefield and the balance of power in the court?
She had rouged her cheeks, and applied some color to the skin around her eyes, a turquoise that matched the pattern of leaves that ran along the edges of her jacket—collar, cuff, and down the front . . .
“Do the captains execute the general’s orders blindly?” Lian asked. “Or do they sometimes offer counsel to their leader?”
Gansukh’s snapped his attention back to her face. “During battle,” he said, “we execute our orders without question.” Yes, familiar territory. When she nodded, he continued. “But before the battle the general often confers with his captains.”
Lian began to smile, and emboldened by this sign of encouragement, he rushed on. “For example, before the siege of Kozelsk General Batu asked me—”
“Please—,” Lian’s smile vanished. “—no more war stories.” She crossed her arms and her hands vanished into the wide sleeves of her jacket. The gesture transformed her into a stern matron, an instructor displeased with her student’s inattentiveness. “Master Chucai did not ask me to be a doe-eyed companion, one who would listen raptly to your boastful tales of combat.”
Growling deep in his throat, Gansukh let go of the tension caused by her interruption. He forced his lungs to move more slowly. This was not the battlefield. This was court, and if he had been raised here, this education would be easier, but he hadn’t. He had been born in a small camp—a few dozen families wintering on the western slope of a mountain—and his only education had been in how to use his hands and his mind to survive. He knew how to hunt, to fight, and to kill. He wanted to show her. He wanted her to see that he wasn’t a helpless child; he commanded respect from other men, and they did his bidding without question.
Why did Chagatai choose me?
Lian was relentless in her focus. “Who else has power in the court?” she asked, reminding him of the point of this . . . torturous . . . conversation.
Gansukh looked away, letting his gaze roam around the garden. There was no escape. He had to learn these lessons; he had to understand how to survive at court. Otherwise . . .
A slight wind touched the trees that bordered the path on the eastern side of the pond. They were well-groomed—Gansukh had counted more than ten gardeners who kept the gardens immaculately manicured—and as the breeze blew through their branches, they moved as one unit. Almost like soldiers, moving in formation.
In a flash, Gansukh saw the answer. “Those close to the Khan,” he said. It was more than physical proximity, though. In battle, a warrior didn’t worry about what happened on his left or right, because he knew he was part of a formation. He knew he was protected by those around him. “It’s about trust,” he said, looking at Lian.
“Yes, good. And who is close to the Khan?”
“His military advisors.”
“Besides his military staff, Gansukh, who can influence the Khan?” Her pleasure at his answer was fading.
Gansukh gave her question serious thought. Who else was there? He looked at the trees again. An unbroken line. Interwoven branches. Only as strong as each individual tree. That was how an army was successful. How it survived on the field of battle. Each man knew his place and held it. “Why don’t you just tell me what answer you are looking for?” he burst out. “I promise I’ll remember it.”
She was silent for a minute, and Gansukh stole a glance at her, and was taken aback by the expression on her face. She wasn’t angry.
“Because,” she said, her tone less charged, “if you reach the answer yourself, you’ll be more likely to remember it yourself. If I watch you shoot arrows, will I become a better archer?”
Gansukh smiled. “Well said,” he laughed. But he pressed once again, instinctively sensing a weak spot in his teacher’s armor. “But give me a hint.”
Lian removed her hands from her sleeves and lightly toyed with the collar of her jacket for a moment before responding. “Does the general have his wife on the battlefield with him?” she wondered.
Gansukh snorted. “Of course not.”
Lian remained silent, and realization dawned on Gansukh. “But the Khan has all of his wives here . . . and they spend more time with him than any general or advisor!”
Lian raised her hand toward her temple and her body trembled as if she was going to collapse. “By the ancestral spirits, I thought we were going to be here all morning!”
Gansukh laughed more readily this time. “I would not mind,” he said, which was not entirely true. But the sight of her pretending to faint had dispelled her stony countenance, and under his direct gaze, Lian blushed. The color in her cheeks only made her more comely.
“Gansukh,” she said, turning and wandering slowly toward one of the stone benches. “You must learn who has influence on the Khan and, just as importantly, what they do to get that influence.”
“What do you mean?” He followed her, well aware that was exactly what he was supposed to do.
“How do captains in the field get the respect of their general?”
“We execute his orders. Successfully. We win battles, and return with the heads of our enemies.” Gansukh forcefully planted an imaginary stake in the ground between them. Lian flinched.
“Charming,” she said. The blush was gone from her face. “In court, you don’t need to bring. . . trophies . . . in order to gain favor. There are more subtle ways.”
Gansukh pondered how he had gone astray again for a few seconds, and then he nodded. “Yes, I see. Sex. Food. Drink. Entertainment. “ He started a count on his fingers. “Information. Counsel: how to deal with the Chinese; how to respond to the matters of the court . . .”
He stared at the spread fingers of his hand, and when Lian prompted him to continue, he didn’t even hear the elation in her voice. He was already up to seven, more than he had fingers on a hand. He shook his head. “Too many,” he said. “It’s too complicated. There are too many people with influence.” He closed his hand into a fist, and nodded grimly at the shape it made. This I understand.
She touched his fist, and he jerked slightly. He had thought she was further away from him, and her sudden proximity startled him. She gripped his hand with both of hers, and with gentle pressure, coaxed his fingers to relax.
“There are different kinds of battlefields,” she said softly. A long strand of her hair hung across her face, and Gansukh wanted to brush it back, but his hand wouldn’t move. “On some of them, you can’t see the enemy as well as he can see you.” She raised her head slightly, looking up at him through the strand of dangling hair. “Is that not true?”
Gansukh nodded. She was still holding on to him, her fingers supporting the weight of his hand.
“And do you not use different tactics for these different battles?” She shrugged, and let one set of fingers release their hold on him. “For some of them, is brute force the best way to win?” She let go completely, and his hand dropped, suddenly heavy. She smiled as he tensed, grabbing at his right wrist with his left hand.
“Everyone can see a fist coming, Gansukh,” she murmured as she retreated a few steps and sat on the bench. “You must learn to hide your intentions better. Use your environment to your advantage. What kind of warrior is the man who rides in plain sight with his sword held in his hand?”
“A dead one,” Gansukh said. He let his hands fall at his side. The muscles in his lower back, the ones that were stiffest after a night in the bed, were starting to tighten. He sat down heavily on the bench next to Lian. “Yes,” he nodded. “That is a good way to think about it, Lian.” His shoulders slouched.
“One last lesson for this morning,” said Lian, and Gansukh unconsciously let out a heavy sigh. “Does the general have favorite captains?”
“Favorites?” Gansukh repeated. It was a strange word to use in reference to battlefield command, and he tried to understand why she had chosen it. “He has captains he trusts more than others . . .”
“And do those favorite captains try to embarrass the other captains in the general’s eyes?”
Gansukh looked at Lian. The bench wasn’t very wide, and he could smell her fragrance, an aroma more musky than the scent of the flowers surrounding them. She was uncomfortably close.
“We gain our general’s respect by winning battles,” he said after taking a deep breath. “We do not concern ourselves by trying to embarrass the other captains. We do not have time for such games, and if we engage in them, we are not concentrating on keeping our men alive. If other captains fail in battle, they do so on their own. That is embarrassment enough.”
Lian clapped her hands lightly. “Yes. Do you see the difference now?” When Gansukh shook his head, she continued, momentarily forgetting her resistance to providing him the answer. “Your general gives you orders and treats you with respect because he knows that you are a capable man, that you will carry out his orders well, and in doing so, enable him to win the battle. He would not give you those orders otherwise.”
She let her hand fall on his forearm. “But, here at court, there are no orders to follow, no battle to win for the honor of the Khan. So how does he know whether you are a worthy commander?”
Gansukh sat very still, as if her hand were a bird he didn’t want to scare away. He nodded, almost imperceptibly. “I would have to tell him,” he said.
“In some ways, the battlefield is more civilized than court,” Lian said, somewhat wistfully. “A man’s worth is exactly how much glory his actions bring to his general.” Her tone hardened. “Here, a man’s worth is calculated by what he says, and by what others say about him. “
Lian removed her hand, placing it in her lap. She directed her attention at the still surface of the pond. “You may have already made enemies, Gansukh,” she said softly, a note of caution in her voice.
Gansukh grunted, acknowledging the truth in her statement.
An expression flickered across Lian’s face, a tightening of her mouth and eyes. She hid it well, and if he’d been looking at her face, he wouldn’t have seen it. “Oh?” she said. “Who?”
She already knows, he thought. “Munokhoi,” he said, and he knew he was right when she didn’t react to the name. He waited for her to turn her head; he wanted to see what her eyes would tell him. Like you are hunting a deer, he thought. Patience will be rewarded. He recalled the way she had looked over her shoulder at him that night in the bath. Knowing he was watching her, making eye contact one last time as she left. She’ll look. I can wait her out.
She did, sooner than he thought she would, and she blinked when she saw the smile on his face. She looked away quickly, but not before he caught a flash of unguarded emotion in her eyes.
“He is threatened by you?” Lian asked, her eyes focused on the pond, as if she was trying to see beneath its placid surface.
Gansukh didn’t see any reason to answer the question, not when she already knew the answer. Not this time.
Lian pushed back her shoulders, collecting herself. “How are you going to deal with him?” she asked, her challenging tone returning, pushing him.
“I’ve been avoiding him,” said Gansukh. “No reason to provoke the man.”
“No.” Lian stood, and looked down on him disapprovingly. “That is the worst thing to do.”
Gansukh reacted as if she had slapped him. “Enough,” he barked. “You will not speak to me like that.”
It was Lian’s turn to react, and she sat down quickly, her shoulder brushing his upper arm. She crossed her arms again, hiding her hands in her sleeves, but the motion was submissive this time instead of domineering. “I . . . I’m sorry,” she said. “I have . . . I didn’t mean to be disrespectful.”
“Why were you?” The question came more harshly than he had intended.
“Gansukh, Munokhoi has the Khan’s ear, and not just because he commands a jaghun of the Torguud. He has become a respected companion. If you avoid the Khagan when Munokhoi is with him, you’ll be giving Munokhoi too many chances to criticize you when you cannot speak for yourself.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Gansukh asked, and he smiled at her confusion. “I thought I could only remember the lessons if I figured it out for myself. Are you afraid for me?”
Lian snorted and shook her head. She plucked at the loose strand of her hair and made to tuck it back into place. “I’m serious,” she said. “You should not treat Munokhoi lightly.”
“I never said I was. “
“You said you were avoiding him.”
“I did, but that’s not the same as not considering him as an enemy.”
“Oh, you are—” Lian stood as if to leave, her shoulder roughly brushing him as she got to her feet. “You will find yourself outside the gates soon enough, horse-rider, as that seems to be your preference.”
“Wait,” Gansukh stood, and laid a gentle hand on her elbow before she could storm off. “Wait, I’m—I’m sorry. I understand what you are trying to tell me—I do—and I appreciate your concern.”
Lian hesitated, though the cant of her body said she was still leaving.
“And your advice.” He released her arm, and sat down again.
She relented, but didn’t rejoin him on the bench. Her attention was directed over his shoulder. “Your initial strategy might work outside the walls of the city,” she said, “but you need to formulate a better strategy now. One that keeps you close to your enemies.” Her eyes flickered toward him. “Yes?”
He nodded, and turned to look behind him.
There was a commotion near the southern border of the garden. Pairs of men were setting up barriers across the paths. Behind them, others were gathering—members of the court, judging by the variety of colorful clothing.
“You need to seek out the situations where Ögedei Khan and Munokhoi are together and make sure you are there.”
Gansukh shot to his feet. “Well then, the lesson is over.”
“What do you mean? Why?” Lian looked at him quizzically, not understanding his sudden reaction.
“Master Chucai invited me to join a deer hunt with the Khan and Munokhoi this afternoon. I had declined, citing my lesson with you, but . . .“
Lian glanced once more at the gathering throng, and then grabbed his arm. “A hunt,” she said. “Yes, that would be a perfect opportunity to impress the Khan.”
“I will need to prepare. I will need my bow,” Gansukh said.
She started walking toward the main building, where his tiny room was located. “Good,” she said, looking back over her shoulder. “Later, it will be my turn.”
“Your turn? For what?” Gansukh asked, hurrying after her.
“We can meet again here before nightfall. You can tell me about the hunt.” She let a smile creep across her lips. “If you were successful in your efforts, then . . .”
Gansukh didn’t leap into the void of her words. Letting her lead, watching her walk in front of him, he had a pretty good idea of what she was suggesting.
The Mongoliad: Book One © copyright 2012 Foreworld, LLC