Dear readers, tonight we present you with a Mongol chief from the armies of Temujin (whom you might know as Genghis Khan). We witness the chief being questioned by Irle Khan — the king of ghosts.
A deep voice in the gloom. What creature are you?
Jamuqa saw nothing. Nothing was what he had expected. “I’m a Mongol,” he said aloud. “Despite everything. A dead one.” He thought about that. “Dead and proud. Who are you? Irle Khan?”
If you think I am Irle Khan, said the voice, how do you imagine him?
“Oh, as the nursery rhyme tells me.
Throned on black beaver pelts thou suppest, Irle Khan;
The breastbone of a corpse serves thee for platter,
Thy cutlery shriveled fingers, sharpened nails, from a tomb.
Thy great hips girt with thine sword in verdigris,
In iron scales, in ancient braid and epaulet, thou comest stalking,
Thou stretchest forth thy hand to our heroes, to our steeds.
Irle Khan, like a black coal thy countenance glitters,
Like tides in the ocean wave thy waxy black tresses:
Mighty, mighty art thou, lovely art thou, Irle Khan.
Flattery,” said Jamuqa, “obviously, to avert the King of the Dead. But by the end, you were lovely to me.”
My questions begin at the beginning. Answer them, Jamuqa Chief of Jajirat, to see my face.
Exercise your faculties, after your delivery to me. Call up a cherished memory from your childhood. A toy you were attached to?
“If you’re Irle Khan you know I didn’t have a childhood. A toy? My toys were half-sized weapons and my games were soldier’s drill.”
What about that game of knucklebones once on the Tola River’s ice?
“I see. You know the answers already. You mean when I met Temujin.”
Is he the only early memory you like to think of? Talk to me, Jamuqa Chief of Jajirat. I have a list of questions and we go by the rules down here.
“Yes, you have a reputation for inflexibility, but then I was known as a martinet myself. I’ve always been curious to meet you, Irle Khan. I’ll answer your questions.
I grew up in hard years for the Mongols, and my tribe had them hardest. Except for Temujin’s, who lost his tribe. We were both eight years old when I challenged him to knucklebones that day on the frozen Tola. Same day, I took him to see my tree half-burnt by lightning and within the week, we mixed the holy ash in blood out of our thumbs, and drank the drink that made us andas.”
Did you keep that oath of blood brotherhood, the both of you?
“With you to punish oath-renegers? An oath was never so bent and battered as that one between Temujin and me. Yet on the other hand, no oath held so true. You smell out a whiff of a lie, Irle Khan, and you’ll eat a corpse like me for fibs, and the spirit too. Now I challenge you.” He fell silent.
After a moment’s wait the voice went on to its next question. No lie detected, then.
What’s the last thing you remember?
“The hooves. The wild drum of the stallions’ hooves, and my exhilaration. I asked my anda for a royal death and he indulged me. Wrapped up in felt to conserve the blood where lives the spirit. We hadn’t staged a full-on ritual trampling in people’s memory, but my friend Zab said if we’d forgotten how, there’s instructions in the odes. He teased me, because I’d been at most a mock-king. I refused to be ashamed, though. You only go once. Unless you’re a Buddhist, which I’m not.”
Are you a Tangrist?
“Your counterpart up in the sky? Tangr gave Temujin the title Tchingis Khan, so Temujin believes. I never believed in much myself. As a matter of fact I’m more inclined to treat you as real, as seen by this conversation.”
What do you fear?
“Not you. Not this. And not the hooves.” Jamuqa considered the question and squeezed at his eyes with his fingers. “Somehow I acquired an awkward reputation for fearlessness. That’s because I only complained to Temujin about my own brain’s self-inflictions. Ever since I saw most of the members of my tribe hanged on trees, I’d look at a tree in front of me and… see them. Sense them. It never went away. It became tedious, but while I lived it never went away.” He nodded, content with his answer.
Who do you love?
My thirty Jajirat. The thirty of my tribe left alive after Toqtoa’s attempted destruction, and me at fifteen left to be their chief. They stuck with me, no matter what I did or ordered them to do. I’d have sawn my right arm off for any of them.
Who do you hate?
It ought to be Toqtoa, the Merqot shaman-king or wizard as we called him. He escaped me in the war we made on Merqot. Much later, at the Naiman court where Temujin’s enemies had gathered, I sat down to dinner beside him and found him fascinating to listen to, as if you heard an aged tiger talk on his experiences.
Who do I sincerely hate? The Emperor of China. I don’t care who’s in the seat at present. I hate his office. Toqtoa, the old savage, didn’t have a contempt for what we are. The emperor, self-appointed guardian of civilization everywhere, does. It’s his job. He’d stamp us all out if he got the chance, or convert us which is worse.
What do you expect next on your journey?
“In the afterlife? Mongols tell each other nice tales, you know, of your kingdom. They say the dead go to sit with their fathers and their mothers at the shadows or the essences of fires, and presumably drink the ghost of ayrag. Do you have ayrag – fermented milk from the nightmares, perhaps?”
A noncommittal quiet.
“Now, this didn’t sound so great to me,” Jamuqa went on. “My father, chief before me, was rightly murdered by his own tribe as a tyrant. If I saw him I’d turn my back. But you have collected my Jajirat, the thirty I was chief over. They thought they were exempt from death, survivors of a massacre, for nothing and nobody touched a hair of them for twenty years. Until our time ran out and you took us like we were insect life. I am the last. If I can sit at fires with them and reminisce the rest of time away, that’s attractive.
I’ll admit to you what I hoped for,” he said after a pause. “Oblivion was no bad option at that stage, but if I proved to have an afterlife, of course I had ambitions. Twenty years’ hard work by Temujin and me, and we have the steppe united – as its peoples haven’t been since Black Balgasun fell three hundred years ago. I want to watch what happens next. With whatever spirit potency I have I hope to aid Tchingis Khan –”
Irle Khan interrupted him. Even though he had you executed?
“It’s our oath,” Jamuqa told him. “If we didn’t keep our oath we’d have you on our backs. Is that a trick question?”
Continue, said Irle Khan.
“I hoped to aid Tchingis Khan, and he hoped to have my spirit’s aid. Together – one dead and one alive – we can do things we didn’t dream of, and both of us dreamt big.”
You want to act the spy, in my world as you did in enemy camps, in enemy courts? You have confessed you sat down to dinner at kings’ courts hostile to Tchingis Khan, who is your anda Temujin. You sent intelligence to him. You helped him secretly.
“So I did,” Jamuqa agreed, “but what intelligence can I send him from the underworld? Or do you mean I know things, as a spirit? Do I know the future, when you let me in?”
If you knew the future, would you tell its secrets to Tchingis Khan?
Say I can’t let you into my precincts on those terms?
Jamuqa hitched his shoulders. “Then you’d better leave me outside here to rot. With these other rotten bones I begin to smell.” He wrinkled his nose at the new odour. “I told you. Oblivion was a lovely thought. I was tired.”
At least you’re honest. It’s a prerequisite down here.
“Mongols must get in,” he said lightly. Not to lie was a basic principle.
Not all of them. But you.
“You’ll let me walk into your great black gates?” Gates had distinguished their lines in the gloom.
You are dead now, Jamuqa Chief of Jajirat. If you discover a way to aid your Tchingis Khan – Ingenious Jamuqa, as they knew you for your tactics – that’s only fair.
Jamuqa stood up. “I can’t believe the King of the Dead called me ingenious.” He walked towards the gates. “Maybe we’ll have that game of riddles, you and I. Mongols used to tell a little legend about me. I challenged you to riddles, great wit that you are, and I won. The prize? I asked for the lives of my thirty Jajirat. That’s why we were lucky for a while.”
The gates towered above him, and he still didn’t see beyond. Jamuqa cracked his dead knuckles and passed through.
Bryn lives in Ulladulla, a coastal town in NSW, Australia, where she walks by the sea for creativity. She considers herself a one-book writer, if that book includes her Amgalant trilogy (of which the third is a challenge bigger than the rest), associated ideas for future – and much shorter – novels, and the pamphlet on her craft published by Rounded Globe, Voices from the Twelfth-Century Steppe.
You can meet Jamuqa on the pages of the Amgalant series, starting with Against Walls and continuing in Imaginary Kings. (Although he was was executed at the end of Imaginary Kings, the author teases we may hear more of him in the next book, Scavenger City.
Join us next week to hear a governess interviewing one of her new charges. Please follow the site by email (bottom-right) to be notified when the next interview is posted.