-The below story takes place approximately 730 years before Bill The Vampire.
|Shown Here in Non-Period Clothing|
"Enough, Giacomo! You have been given a task to do, so do it. No more of this nonsense. People are starting to talk and not in a kind way."
"Yes, Niccolò," I replied. "I understand my duties, but this..."
He clapped a hand on my arm and sighed. After a moment, the crossness on his face disappeared and was replaced with something else ... understanding. "This is not the grand adventure you were hoping for?"
"How did you know?"
Niccolò laughed and took a seat next to me. "You think I wasn't young and eager once like you? How do you think I came to this place the first time?"
He didn't need to remind me. His earlier journey was the reason I was here. Where my sisters were content with their suitors in Venice, he'd inspired me, ignited a desire to see this great wide world. Listening to the stories of his first voyage had convinced me to throw away my apprenticeship. Upon hearing his intention to set out again, I'd begged for them to take me.
"Your father was every bit the brother to me that Maffeo is, you know that, don't you?" he continued. "It is why I agreed to allow you to accompany us. But you must understand, there is a purpose to our travels. One cannot simply wander the world aimlessly and hope to get far."
"Yes, I understand," I replied. "But eight years and we are little more than prisoners to the Khagan."
"You know that is not true."
"Some days I'm not so certain. I want to see the expanse of his empire, not help manage the books for that godless dog of his."
Niccolò's visage grew stern at my words. "You would do well to mind your tongue, boy. Ahmad holds great influence in the Khagan's court and he is not as forgiving as our host. It would be unwise to make an enemy of him."
After a moment, I nodded. He was right, of course. Despite our station here, we were outsiders far from home. Should fortune turn against us, we would have no one but ourselves to count on.
I glanced at the finery of my room, feeling somewhat foolish in my complaints. Surely, there were men who would stone their own mothers for but one night in a place such as this. Regardless, no matter how gilded the cage, it still felt like a cage. "Perhaps I could ask Marco if he would..."
"Marco may have the Khagan's ear, but it is not to be filled with the foolishness you speak of."
A wiser man would have bitten his tongue and agreed, but I couldn't. "But they say he has a dragon. I only wish to know if that is..."
"I said that is enough, Giacomo." Niccolò shook his head and stood up. "Open your eyes, boy. If one were to believe every tale told to them by a wide-eyed servant girl, then one would think the Khagan himself has eight arms and shoots lightning from his cock."
I couldn't help but grin at the imagery. "How do you know it was a girl who told me this?"
He crossed his arms and laughed. "I may be getting old, but I am not yet blind."
* * *
The days seemed to meld together as I helped calculate the discrepancy in taxes owed versus those paid from the Huguang province. I knew the Khagan's empire was not endless, but one would not guess that from the number of books to be maintained. I had left my home, journeyed thousands of miles, seen such marvelous sights along the way, and for what? To end up with the very tedium I had run from. Exotic as this land might seem to outsiders, behind it all was the same dull monotony.
More and more my thoughts turned to the tales I'd been told. Niccolò was not incorrect. It had all started with a girl I'd fancied for my bed. One night, she'd regaled me with tales of monsters and demons as I drifted off to sleep. Had it been she alone who said such things, I would have easily dismissed it. However, the longer I listened, the more I noticed others speaking of such things as well. It was mostly in hushed whispers and usually only after much wine, but what struck me was they all said the same thing. They spoke of how Kublai's armies and vast wealth were only part of his power. According to the tales, the official history of how he had laid low his brother's insurrection some years back was only the partial truth. In reality, he had done so with assistance ... assistance, they claimed, which had come in the form of a dark power.
I was no child. I did not believe in ghost stories or magic, but I was also not foolish enough to believe I had seen all this world had to offer. As fantastic as the stories were, they ignited something deep inside of me. If there was even a chance such things could exist, I had to know. Who cared if my entreaties were dismissed with a laugh? As emissaries from far away was it not our job to at least ask?
But Niccolò seemed intent that we not embarrass ourselves with such folly. He wished me to stay my tongue. Do not get me wrong, I understood his concern. By staying within the Khagan's good graces, we stood to return home as very rich men ... assuming we were ever allowed to return home.
However, I was no longer sure I even wanted to. The three long years it took to reach this place were the most terrifying of my life, but also the most exciting. It had taught me that I wanted to see more in the short time I was allotted on this world. I...
A noise from behind interrupted my thoughts. Assuming it was one of Ahmad's ministers coming to check on my progress, I quickly resumed my place cataloging taxes. Niccolò was right about another thing too. I didn't want to end up on Ahmad's bad side.
Whoever had entered walked up behind me and stood there for several long seconds before loudly clearing their throat. It seemed they were intent upon getting my attention. I turned, prepared to let them know they were disturbing my work, when the words died in my throat.
It was Kublai, the Khagan himself, who stood before me. Though I had seen him in person on other occasions, it had always been at feasts and other such state functions. Unlike my benefactors, I had never held a private audience with him. I had never even dared to ask, assuming it would not be granted.
Another moment passed before I realized that, in my amazement, I was staring one of the most powerful men in the world straight in the eye. Not wishing to offend the ruler of these lands, I quickly averted my gaze and dropped to my knees before him.
I struggled for a moment with the words. In my nervousness, I almost addressed him in my native tongue before catching myself. "Great Khagan, you honor me," I said at last, the words feeling inelegant coming from my mouth.
I knew enough of his people's language to converse, but was used to the presence of translators when dealing with those of rank, so as to avoid even the potential for insult. Daring a quick look from my prone position, though, I saw no such were present. The Khagan was alone.
"On your feet," he said dismissively, his tone far from formal.
I stood hesitantly, not knowing what to expect. Had he purposely sought me out or was this merely a chance encounter? From the lack of guards present, it suggested the latter. Perhaps the Khagan had been merely wandering his grounds, come across me, and was curious as to what I was doing.
He looked me over once, then said, "My master wishes to meet you."
Almost immediately I rued the lack of a translator. Surely my poor mastery of his language was going to lead to offense as I was certain I'd heard him wrong.
"I am your humble servant, my lord."
"Word has reached my master of your questions."
Again, I must have misunderstood him. Damn my eyes! Too busy looking toward the next hill when I should have been studying the one I was already standing upon.
Kublai grinned as if he found my nervousness amusing. I suppose he had that luxury. Nobody was going to behead him if he accidentally said the wrong thing.
"You have been asking questions about the other world."
There was no doubt that my poor grasp of his tongue was to be my undoing. "Other world?" I asked tentatively.
"They say you wish to be told of dragons. Is this not true?"
"I meant no offense, great..."
"Enough! Are you a prisoner groveling for mercy before my throne?"
"Um ... no, great Khagan." I hoped that wasn't about to change.
"Then speak as a man." Despite his tone, though, the grin never left his face.
I debated for a moment what to say next. This was my chance, the one I had been hoping for. If such things as I'd heard were true, then here was the man who could confirm it. But if not, then I risked being made a laughing stock. For all he had done for me, I would be embarrassing Niccolò with my foolishness, perhaps jeopardizing the position he had obtained for me.
Damn it all, though. We had traveled so far, survived so much. After all of that, could I truly choose to be timid?
No. I could not. I said a silent apology to Niccolò as I replied, "My apologies ... err ... yes. I have asked. I wish to know if the rumors are true. Do you truly have a dragon?"
Kublai studied me for a moment before answering, although whether his gaze held approval or not, I couldn't tell. "I do not."
So, it was a laughing stock I was to be then. "I offer my deepest..."
"The beast in question belongs to my master."
What?! It was true? But the rest? Certainly there was some inflection I was getting wrong.
"Forgive me, mighty Khagan, but my knowledge of your tongue is woefully inadequate. I have surely heard wrong as I know you serve no master."
At this, he laughed. When he was done, he clapped me on the shoulder as if we were old friends. "You know, do you? Your knowledge is indeed inadequate, albeit not of my tongue." He must have seen the confusion which filled my face for he continued. "I have sought emissaries from your lands so that I might know more of your people, your God, the goods you have to trade. So too does my master seek such an emissary ... one who has wandered afar. The others fulfill my needs, but, of them, you alone have dared to question the world around you. I am here to tell you that all you have heard is true."
"Yes, and it is only the very tip of the spear."
My eyes opened wide at this revelation. "There's more?"
He nodded. "So much more, more than even I know ... or wish to know."
I wasn't certain I understood that last part, but I didn't care. Excitement filled my very being at the prospect of what he was saying. It was entirely possible this was some joke on his part, but I was willing to risk it. "I wish to ... know it all, that is."
Rather than laughing at me, though, he smiled. "Very well, but the first lesson you must learn is that there is a price."
"Once you accept what my master has to offer, you can never turn back. There is only forward. Your life as you know it will be over, but what awaits you..." He spread his arms wide as if to emphasize a greater whole.
My life as I knew it? I glanced back at the papers upon my desk, the endless numbers written in the journals. Those would not be missed. As for my family back home, the Khagan had shown little interest in letting us leave these past few years. I did not see any sign that he would change his mind. Was this choice any different?
As for what was being offered, I wanted ... no, needed to find out. I repeated my words. "I wish to know."
He nodded once, then turned away. "Come."
"To Karakorum, the place of power."
"Is where I sit, but not where he sits."
"He?" I asked following.
"Yes. It is time you met my uncle."
The Road To Armageddon: