In the early mornings, the desert air was chill. A sharp breeze blew down from the mountains. With only her body shield for protection, Doquz shivered as she relieved herself beside the homestead wall. She took a few deep breaths. It was good to be in the open again after the stuffiness inside the peasant dwelling.
Doquz stretched her arms in the air, extending the tips of her fingers as far as they would go. She held them in this position, counted to five and relaxed. She glanced across to the long brick and clay farmhouse where her followers were billeted. Her two sentinels stood as black silhouettes against the approaching dawn. A few locals were about, drawing water and feeding animals, but they gave her a wide berth.
She leant against the house wall and drew up her left knee, pulled her shin and instep firmly towards her body, and held the leg there. She counted to five and repeated the process with her right leg. Next, with her arms low and loose, she swung her trunk from side to side several times from the hip. Feeling fresher now, and less chill, she gave a quick backwards glance through the half-open door. Gaikatu was still unconscious from the effects of the potion she had added to the koumis. To her he had always seemed tall, but he had gained in weight since she had seen him last in Tabriz. He was now a giant of a man. In every way, she said aloud as she thought with revulsion of what had so nearly been the night before.
Doquz had not expected it to go so far, only to tempt him and hold him at bay until the potion took effect. She had wanted him to feel desire and pleasure, as otherwise her plan had no meaning, but without the need to give him satisfaction. Having already tested the mixture on herself, she had increased the opium dosage by half to allow for Gaikatu’s greater weight and muscularity, but had clearly miscalculated. He had been within moments of having his way with her.
She glanced at him again, steeling herself in her resolve. He was certainly a handsome man. His features were clean-cut and boyish, despite his thick moustache. It grew on his upper lip and round the sides of his mouth to meet again in the depression just above his chin. The hair on his head was cut very short except for a single braided pigtail that sprang from the crown and lay across his left ear with its end resting on the curve of his shoulder.
In his slumbering features, there was no evidence of the cruelty that had marked his short reign. In repose, his face seemed almost innocent. But then, Doquz told herself, appearances could be deceptive. He might be a giant, but he was also a monster. She wondered if he dreamed and, if so, whether his dreams were of pleasure or of pain – if he was a man whose conscience, in sleep, did not trouble him, or whether he was a man with no conscience at all.
She closed the door of the homestead, stretched her arms again, took in a few more breaths of morning air and strode over to where the ponies were tethered. There she gave a single, shrill whistle. She retrieved her bow, quiver and saddlebags and slung them round her neck before going to the well. Some empty pitchers lay in the sand beside its broken rim. The bucket was already at the top and half full. She emptied it into one of the pitchers and with the muscles of her slim arms straining under the load, carried it back to the peasant house.
Now just a few months from her seventeenth birthday, Doquz’s early memories were of her father, how he had sat her on her first pony, how he used to toss her in the air and catch her in his huge arms. These pictures had faded. After becoming Il-khan he changed. She had been only five years old, but to her he seemed a different man. Almost all his attention was given to Oljeitu. She became very jealous of her younger brother and often wished she had been born a boy. Boys had all the advantages; they were given freedom, education and training in war – discrimination contrary to the old Mongol way of life, a result of immersion in Persian culture. On the steppes of Mongolia, she had learned from the old women’s tales, all were free and equal.
For a long time she had not understood to what end girls and boys were different. Her stepbrother Hassan’s cunning had changed that. Strangely, she had never felt jealous of him. While Oljeitu had become vain and insufferable, Hassan, though of an over-serious disposition, had always treated her like a true brother and was always been willing to be her playmate. And playmates they had remained until Arghun decided the boy should be trained in arms.
She would have been ten years old, Hassan about a year younger. One day, she had followed her mother all the way to her father’s bedchamber only to be stopped from entering by a burly sentry. Hassan had said he knew another way. They had scrambled in through the window of an anteroom and peeked through an open door. Arghun and Tolaghan were together on the bed, both semi-naked. Arghun was grunting like a wild pig. Tolaghan’s eyes were closed as if resigned to this treatment but deriving no pleasure from it.
Later, her sister Oljei had explained the ritual to them. She made them both remove their clothes and with great glee demonstrated their different parts. Hassan had looked very vulnerable. Oljei seized his small appendage in both hands, lifted her gown and tried to squeeze him into the opening between her thighs. When he cried that she was hurting, she had laughed.
Doquz had not understood and had gone for advice to Hassan’s mother, Nadia, who, unlike her own mother and some of Arghun’s other wives, seemed to love children, boys and girls. Thereafter it was to Nadia that she clung. Only it had all ended four years ago at Baghcha; Hassan and Nadia had disappeared and she had never seen them again.
That winter had begun well. The boys had been excused their lessons in swordplay, and they had all ridden with the hunters. They had fished together on the lake. In the boats they had laughed and splashed one another with water. Even her parents had seemed more carefree than usual and had joined in the fun.
The fun and excitement had ended suddenly. Her father became ill and died, and she was snatched back to Tabriz where Gaikatu told her she would have to stay. She was twelve then – too old, she thought, to be treated as a child, and she had rebelled. Tolaghan had punished her, though she had known it was to pacify Gaikatu that she was beaten until her buttocks were raw.
For six months she was a virtual prisoner in the castle, until her opportunity for freedom came. Gaikatu, enthroned as Il-khan, had gone off to inspect his armies and she took full advantage of his absence.
Her first objective was to learn the art of swordplay and how to use a bow, and she had enlisted Ibrahim’s help. He was the officer in charge of the Tabriz castle armoury, a master swordsman who gave lessons to the royal princes. Girls were not expected to participate in military training, but Doquz had seen Hassan and Oljeitu fight and wanted to be their equal. In her leather jerkin and breeches with heavy padding on arms, chest and knees, she was to all outward appearances a boy, and her lessons had caused no stirrings among the castle servants. Ibrahim had known of course, but he had risen to the challenge.
Next was the training of her mind. Her brothers had been students at Maragha and she decided that she too would go there. She was still underdeveloped for her age and, with her hair cut short, could easily pretend to be a boy of twelve.
Her deception had lasted a few short months only, until her first bleed, but they were among the most wonderful of her life. She grasped quickly the minuteness of the world in which she lived and the shortness of the time span her life occupied, compared to the vastness of the earth and sky, and to the aeons of history. She could work with astrolabe and armillary. She discovered the names of the stars and how to use them to establish directions and distances. Just as interesting were the glimpses she received of the great personages of the past – of Darius and Ibn Sina, Omar Khayyam and Archimedes. More especially, she learned of Cleopatra, Sheba, and Hypatia of Alexandria, women who had engaged with men on man’s terms and had proved their equal – women whom she longed to emulate.
Her affair with Ibrahim had lasted almost a year and from it she discovered what it meant to love and be loved. She had experienced the sheer delight of what it was to be a woman. She had found out what gave men the most pleasure, and had learned which of their many fumbling caresses incited the most pleasure in herself. She knew not only how to use her body to drive a man to madness, but how to check that madness so that they used it to rouse her own.
Doquz remembered the day the sword-master had first touched her. It was six months after she quit Maragha and she was newly fourteen. Ibrahim was twenty-three. She had always been fascinated by his lithe, athletic body, though until then she had always thought of him as old.
She had discarded her padding and he was explaining to her the construction of the Mongol bow, how the skilful welding together of sinew, wood and horn into three layers gave the weapon its latent power. As he passed it to her where she sat, his right hand fell by accident on her thigh. She felt the fingers grip and begin to encircle her leg before, suddenly, they were withdrawn as he realised the enormity of his indiscretion. But the hand had rested there long enough. Its gentle pressure through her breeches had caused her a thrill of excitement. She had looked up into his face. His eyes were wide and fearful like a boy who has misbehaved and expects to be punished. He no longer seemed so old.
‘It’s all right, Ibrahim,’ she heard herself say. ‘We’re alone.’
She had reached up and pressed her lips against his. He had smelt of oil and leather. She took back the hand, brown and powerful compared to hers, and laid it again on her leg, moving it up and down against the fabric of the breeches. She could hear her own violent heartbeat.
‘This is not proper, my Princess.’ Half-heartedly he had tried to pull his hand away. ‘We should not. I dare not.’
‘Dare not?’ she challenged. ‘Dare not, even if I command you?’
‘What would you have me do?’ he asked hoarsely.
Then he was kissing her. His tongue was in her mouth and she was responding to him with rising desire. His left arm encircled her while his right hand, unaided, slid between her thighs.
She was caught then in a frenzy of excitement. Her whole body was on fire. She wanted only to be free of the breeches and to feel Ibrahim’s manhood against her naked flesh.
He had bolted the door of the armoury and they had lain together, that first time, on the matting. In the months that followed, he had taken her to his cramped quarters above the armoury where the mattress was soft. Once, she had smuggled him into her bedroom. Now, though a year had passed and all passion was cold, it seemed as if part of Ibrahim still remained with her. She could still see his eager face and the boyish devotion in his eyes. She could hear his deep-throated moans and wondered whether it would ever be possible to know such tenderness again.
[to be continued]