The Tiger and the Cauldron[40]

Chapter 40

On the third evening after his capture of Baidu, Hassan rode with Doquz at the head of two squadrons of Nauruz’s troops through the gates of Tabriz. Word of his victory had travelled ahead of him and she had met and embraced him openly on the Silk Road half a parasang outside the city.

She now had more than two thousand men at her disposal. The day following her arrival in Tabriz, a regiment of light cavalry rode in from Van province; its governor had declared for Ghazan. Another seven hundred arrived the next evening with the news that the district of Arbil was secure, and on the fourth morning three jaguns of archers from Hamadan increased the size of the occupying force even further. She had reluctantly taken Sabbah’s advice to keep her identity a secret as far as possible, consequently it was broadcast throughout  the city that its new commander-in-chief was Prince Ghazan’s kinsman and close friend, General Dokhan.

Hassan had known that he would not be allowed to keep charge of his prisoner without Nauruz’s blessing, and his single worrying moment had come when the General, having scattered Baidu’s remaining followers, confronted him on the eastern bank of the river. He knew Nauruz only by reputation, and had waited apprehensively for him to dismount.

Nauruz was about thirty-five years old, of average height with rugged features and deep-set eyes. Unusual among Mongols, he wore a neatly trimmed beard.

Salaam! May I know your name?’ The voice was soft, but it had the air of authority.

‘Captain Mahmoud Hassan.’ 

‘His Highness’s stepbrother? Aye, I’ve heard good reports of you, Hassan. From General Sabbah and from Ghazan himself. It seems you took Qazvin. Once again, Salaam! You have a prisoner, I think?’

‘He is safe,’ Hassan had replied boldly. ‘Six arbans guard him, and will do so until we reach Tabriz.’

‘Nevertheless, if your prisoner escapes …’

‘He will not escape. You have my word!’

For a moment Hassan had fancied there was a gleam of displeasure in Nauruz’s eye. ‘What do I know of your word? Perhaps you would kill him and deny Ghazan the pleasure.’

‘I have already made a promise to spare him for trial,’ Hassan said, holding the General’s fierce stare. ‘And it is not a promise I would break.’

The General laughed. ‘I’m of a mind to grant your request,’ he said. ‘I like your spirit. We shall need such commanders in the new empire. But I will assign two jaguns to your command, Hassan. There’s still a regiment or two of enemy horsemen on the loose and I would sooner you didn’t fall foul of them. What do you say to that?’

Hassan was barely able to swallow his surprise. To be given command of two hundred seasoned warriors as well as his six arbans was quick promotion indeed, even if the arrangement was only temporary. He laid an arm across his breast in a salute. ‘Thank you, sir,’ he said. ‘You can rely on me.’

His journey had been uneventful. Baidu had given no sign, either by word or look, that he recognised him and had indeed remained silent and sullen throughout. Several times, Hassan had been on the point of confronting him but had resisted the temptation. He was afraid that in close proximity to his prisoner his feelings might prove stronger than the promises he had made.

***

They secured Baidu in a villa, once the property of Gaikatu, while despatches were sent to Ghazan to ascertain his wishes. The house was adjacent to the castle and easily guarded, and had the added advantage of barred windows on all its upper rooms. It had a small courtyard and garden surrounded by a high wall. An arban kept watch inside the gates while twenty picked men of the city garrison patrolled the perimeter. After four hours of duty, all were relieved by another shift, and so on throughout the day and night.

These precautions were necessary not only to prevent Baidu escaping, but to protect him from the people. Crowds gathered daily to vent their bottled-up resentment and frustration in verbal abuse at the prison. When taunts and insults became volleys of stones, Doquz was forced to take action. She sent a dozen troopers armed with staves to break up the demonstration and increased security round the building and adjacent streets.

Sayyid and Mujir, who were given the task of seeing to the prisoner’s needs, reported that Baidu remained sullen. For two days, he accepted food and water ungraciously, demanding only that he be given a supply of mares’ milk liquor – which Doquz had instructed should be denied to him.

‘He should be sober when we confront him, Hassan,’ she said. ‘A week of deprivation will make him reflect more honestly on his crimes.’

On the third and fourth days, Baidu was still subdued. He repeated his demand for liquor, adding another, that he be given an interview with Ghazan. On the fifth morning he went into a rage, threw his breakfast in his gaolers’ faces and insisted on seeing the commander of the city.

‘Let him starve today since that is his wish, Hassan,’ said Doquz. ‘You and I – and Ahmed – will see him tomorrow.’

***

The Il-khan sat on a bench with his elbows on the table in front of him. He was scowling.

In five years he had changed very little superficially, Hassan thought. The crown of his head was shaven with just a fringe of hair at his brow which dipped in the shape of an arrowhead towards his nose. He wore a pigtail at the back. His upper lip and chin were bare, though days of travel without the services of a barber had allowed some growth to appear there as well as on his scalp. His face would have been handsome, had it not been for a cast of the mouth that made it seem he held the whole world in contempt.

Doquz leant her hands on the table and glared down at him. There was a low window seat in the room and Sabbah took it. He drew his daggers and began tossing and catching them casually, as was his habit. Hassan stood with his back to the door, which was left open with Sayyid and Mujir standing guard outside.

 ‘You will not continue to deny me koumis?’ Baidu moistened his lips. He looked up briefly, caught Doquz’s stare and immediately lowered his eyes again. ‘I know there is some in the house.’

‘I will deny you any drink, unless it be water,’ said Doquz. ‘There will be no escape for you into the arms of potent liquor.’

‘Water then,’ said the Il-khan. He threw her a murderous glance.

Doquz signalled to Sayyid. ‘Some water for our guest,’ she commanded. ‘And when we have finished here see to it that any of that mares’ milk brew you find on the premises is poured away into the earth.’

Sayyid brought the water. He slid the cup along the table to Baidu who picked it up and drained it in one gulp.

‘What now, Doquz Khatun?’ the Il-khan asked sullenly. He glanced at his captors one by one without permitting his gaze to linger on any one of them for more than a second or two. His eyes passed over Hassan, still with no sign of recognition.

‘What now?’ Doquz repeated with scarcely a flicker of emotion. ‘Now you are our prisoner – what else? And as our prisoner you will be tried according to the law, found guilty and punished. It is a simple process, one you know well.’

‘The law!’ sneered Baidu. ‘The Il-khan is above the law, Doquz Khatun. The Il-khan is the law.’

‘There is a higher,’ said Doquz, ‘and it is called justice. In any case, you are no longer Il-khan.’

‘By whose authority? Ghazan cannot set aside my right by a single victory. I am ruler by vote of the Mongol council.’

‘Where are the princes who supported you, Baidu … the emirs?’ demanded Doquz. ‘Where are your generals and captains … your Chagatai and half-breeds … your terrified conscripts?’ She drew her scimitar and held the blade menacingly in front of him. ‘You are here alone with three people who have more reason than any in the world to wish you dead. This weapon is the only authority I need, and I wield it with or without my brother’s blessing.’

‘Yet you dare not kill me with it without his permission. Neither you nor the two beside you – the hoary grandfather, and the boy fresh from his cradle.’

Anger welled up in Hassan and he took a step towards the table, reaching for his sword. Sabbah restrained his arm.

‘He is baiting us,’ the Commander said. He resumed his play with the daggers. ‘Let him speak.’

Baidu’s scowl intensified. ‘Perhaps, Mistress, I know Ghazan better than you,’ he went on. ‘He wants Persia for his own and will brook no challenge. Those who defy him or stand in his way will be swept aside, be they brothers, sisters or any other kin. That is politics.’

‘Politics,’ echoed Doquz with derision. She lowered the scimitar. ‘I long nursed my hatred for you, Baidu,’ she went on calmly, ‘and what I saw during these short months of your rule did nothing to lessen it. But now that we are face to face again I feel nothing for you but contempt. You are right; I will not kill you. Not because I dare not, but because by allowing you to escape into death I would turn your defeat into a victory. If, by sparing you, my contempt becomes pity, and my hatred, assuaged by love and friendship, becomes a distant memory, I shall have all the revenge I need.’

‘Your pity I scorn, Doquz Khatun; your hatred and contempt I can endure,’ said Baidu, ‘for, by the gods, I have borne them long enough. Your enmity has caused me no small inconvenience. You have plundered my treasury and my stores. You have fired my property, slain or made fools of my captains and lured away the common ranks. Know that I was unusually fond of those leopards at Daquqa.’ The scowl was no longer so pronounced. ‘Yet I would discover the origin of this enmity. I have never laid a finger on you or yours. Even your mother, whom I might have wed, I released to join the Christian enclave at Khoy.’

Doquz’s grip tightened on her scimitar and she sucked in her breath sharply. Hassan guessed this was news that had not reached her. Even Sabbah seemed affected as he let one dagger slip through his fingers, drawing blood from his thumb. He licked it away.

‘So your intelligence is not perfect,’ Baidu went on. He inspected the backs of his hands. ‘Yes, I let her go. Even she could not explain your distaste of our marriage contract.’

‘A contract in which I wished no part,’ Doquz cried, pouting her lips angrily. She thrust the point of her scimitar within a finger’s breadth of Baidu’s throat and seemed for a moment about to rescind her promise to spare his life. ‘A contract born of politics rather than of affection, nevertheless one you would, on the wedding eve, annul in a drunken stupor by prostituting your affianced bride to the lust of those three animals in your service!’

‘A weakness for liquor I admit.’ Baidu’s voice had softened and his tone was almost contrite. ‘One maybe another Mongol can understand, even a woman.’

It had the sound of an apology, but Hassan was not deceived. He was beset by a memory that caused him an involuntary shudder. In his mind’s eye he stood again on the edge of the pit where once had stood the villa of the old priest, Gobras, and he was looking down on the scene that Djamila had described, of wanton destruction, fire and death. In his anger and disgust he was about to speak but Sabbah forestalled him.

‘Is that forever to be your defence? You merely hide one unpardonable crime with another almost as vicious. Is intemperance your excuse for bestiality, sottishness for rape, and oblivion for murder?’ The Commander was on his feet, a dagger in each hand, and Baidu flinched as he drove the point of each deep into the wood of the table. ‘Allah forgive me, I’ve a mind rip out your heart for your blasphemy.’

‘Ahmed.’ Doquz sought to calm him with a touch of her hand on his. Sabbah’s grim features relaxed. He retrieved his daggers and resumed his place on the window seat. His thumb was still bleeding and a rivulet of red trickled over his palm. He made no attempt to staunch the flow.

‘You see, Baidu,’ said Doquz concentrating her full attention on the Il-khan’ once more. ‘You see what a soft word and a kindly gesture will do. All of my friends have as much reason as I to wish you dead, but they will spare you, not for fear of Ghazan’s wrath but because I wish it. Reflect on that as you go to your trial.’

She turned her back on him and made for the doorway. Sabbah slid his daggers into his belt, licked his thumb and went after her. Hassan stepped aside to let them both pass.

‘Wait!’ Baidu was on his feet, unsteadily. ‘You with the fresh face and serious disposition, toying so nervously with that sword hilt – how can it be that I have offended you?’ He looked fixedly at Hassan, the first time he had paid him any serious attention. ‘Truly, I would learn.’

Hassan was taken aback by the apparent innocence of the question and Doquz answered for him. She spun round and, rather than anger, he fancied he saw amusement in her expression.

‘‘Tis no wonder you do not recognise him when I did not,’ she said. ‘But if you look carefully into that fresh face and serious disposition maybe you will see the features of another.’

  Baidu sat down. He was staring at Hassan now. ‘That he is your lover I can tell,’ he said. ‘I see that in his eyes. But otherwise he is unknown to me.’

Remembering how Doquz had greeted Fakhr ad-Din at Alamut, Hassan said quietly, ‘Yet once, at the court of Arghun, you called my mother a Persian whore. Your companions were Timur, I think … and Nizam.’

Baidu’s expression changed; instead of scowling he smiled. Hassan felt instinctively that in the smile was more malice than he had detected hitherto in the scowl. He knew deep down that Baidu’s façade, his indifference and lack of recognition had been a pretence. The Il-khan’ had known him all along, but for perverse reasons of his own had not wished to admit it.

‘Hassan!’

‘Yes.’ Out of the corner of his eye Hassan was aware that Sabbah had returned to the window seat. Some of his anger was replaced with apprehension. He waited.

Baidu rested his elbows on the table and fixed his eyes on the wall of the room. He flexed his fingers. ‘There is no reason for us to be enemies, Hassan,’ he said.

‘The enmity was not of my creation,’ said Hassan. ‘I was a child … a child who loved his mother. And it was due to you that her husband, Doquz’s father, died. It was you who incriminated her in his death …who made her a fugitive and an exile.’

‘I meant no harm to her. Her incrimination was another’s doing, and he paid the price.’

‘Nizam!’ exclaimed Hassan. ‘Yes, it was he who denounced her as a witch, but the crime of which she was accused had your hand behind it.’

‘Politics, Hassan.’ Baidu glanced up briefly. He narrowed his eyes then turned them back towards the wall. ‘What was Arghun to you – a master, a ruler, a hostage taker? For was that not Nadia’s fate – to be married to him under compulsion?’

‘Arghun treated me as a son,’ rejoined Hassan. ‘He was the only father I ever knew. Should I be grateful to you that his death led me to another, more dear and no less noble?’

‘I’m sorry. It was always politics. You should understand that.’ He spoke with such contriteness that Hassan was almost tempted to believe this apology genuine. He steeled himself against what he was sure was still to come. Baidu sober was surely more treacherous than Baidu under the influence of mares’ milk liquor.

‘Yet you would have had Giovanni assassinated. Was that politics too?’

‘Neither Nadia’s arrest nor the attacks on the Italian were any of my doing.’

‘You’re lying,’ Hassan answered angrily. ‘I overheard your henchmen with my own ears.’

‘So what?’ snapped Baidu. The contriteness was gone. He brought his hands down hard on the table. ‘They were free agents! Am I responsible for everything my followers say and do?’

‘Their implication was clear, but we’ll let that pass,’ said Hassan. ‘These are not the only crimes of which I accuse you.’

‘Name another! What harm have I since done you or Nadia?’ Baidu’s voice rose in pitch and Hassan was surprised to see his fingers had begun to tremble.

‘The rape and butchery of Qazvin.’ Hassan spat out the accusation. ‘Before that, there was the old priest. The Magian!’

‘What gibberish is this? What have I to do with priests?’ the Il-khan’ shrieked. His fingers were trembling even more and he clenched his fists tight to still them. He leaned forward over the table. ‘I want a drink!’

‘There is none of your vile liquor here,’ said Doquz.

‘Some wine then.’

‘No.’

A shiver passed through the Il-khan’’s frame. ‘You will not deny me another cupful of water,’ he said, his voice pleading.

‘You know I will not refuse that. The Tigers are not barbarians.’ She called back through the open door. ‘Oblige me again, Sayyid. Our prisoner is thirsty.’

They waited in silence. Baidu sat with head bowed but once or twice Hassan caught him looking at him out of the corner of his eye. He pretended not to notice. When the water was brought, he took the cup from Sayyid and laid it on the table.

This time Baidu picked it up in his left hand, which seemed less affected by the ague than his right. He drank. ‘Yes, I remember the Magian,’ he said, the soft contriteness returning to his voice. ‘On the hill outside Tabriz. Your mother was a frequent visitor.’

‘He is dead.’

‘He was old … four score years or more. Should I mourn him? Dying is a habit of the old.’

‘There was a witness,’ said Hassan coldly.

‘There was a witness,’ Baidu mimicked. ‘Meaning?’

‘Meaning it was not a natural death. You murdered him cruelly. You burned his house and temple to the ground. Little did you know that you were seen and heard. I wonder – was it Nizam who was savaged by the old man’s dog? A Persian of more than fifty years … with a turban … for so the second victim was described to me.’

Baidu was sipping his water. His hand shook and he seemed distracted, as if he had not been listening and was instead pondering an entirely different matter. For a while he did not speak. Then he raised his eyes very slowly so that they were again fixed on Hassan. The smile was still there, and the malice, but his words when they came, though they made no sense, were soft and beguiling.

‘So she did not tell you,’ said the Il-khan, his smile turning into a triumphant roar of laughter. ‘Yet you are lovers!’

He half rose. Then, without warning, he collapsed on the floor, his whole body shaking violently.

***

‘Restrain him, Sabbah,’ cried Doquz. The bench had fallen over and Baidu was kicking its underside helplessly. ‘Sayyid, Mujir, find some koumis and bring it. Koumis or wine! Anything with alcohol. This is no pretence. I had no idea deprivation could bring about such a condition.’

Sabbah seized Baidu by the shoulders and propped him up. Hassan righted the bench. The Il-khan was not a big man, nevertheless it took the effort of two to sit him on it. His shaking continued. He was trying to speak but his teeth were clamped tightly together and all that came out was a meaningless hiss. What had begun as laughter had turned into a seizure.

There was the sound of feet on the steps outside and Mujir appeared carrying a leather flask. Doquz took it from him, sniffed the contents and screwed up her face. Sabbah tilted Baidu’s head back, prised open his teeth and held him squirming while she poured some liquid into his mouth. Baidu spat it out. She tried again. Some of the koumis trickled out over the Il-khan’’s lips and he made a half-hearted attempt to swallow. A few spots of red from Sabbah’s cut finger fell on his ear.

Her third attempt was successful. The seizure began to subside. Baidu took the flask from her and, his hands still trembling, gulped down the remaining liquid.

Several minutes elapsed before he found his tongue.

‘Don’t expect my thanks,’ he said ungraciously, scowling again.

‘You have something more to say,’ Doquz said shortly. ‘Some matter between Hassan and me that you find so amusing? What is it I have not told him?’

‘Not you, Mistress,’ replied the Il-khan’. He was quite calm now and leaned over the table towards her as if nothing had occurred. ‘I speak now of Nadia … though perhaps it concerns you more than you realise. Nizam had his uses.’

‘You dare to couple the name of that villain with that of my mother!’ exclaimed Hassan. He reached for his sword and this time it was Doquz who restrained him.

‘If there’s something he would tell us then let us listen, Hassan,’ she said. ‘Though if it is a slander we shall cut out his tongue. Thus no promises will have been broken. Well, Baidu?’

‘Though Hassan may not wish to hear my story, or you, Doquz Khatun, it is no slander … no fiction. And if the information is unpleasant to hear then it is his mother he must blame, not I.’ The sly smile returned to Baidu’s face. ‘Tell me, Hassan, who was your real father?’

‘I never knew him. He was named Mahmoud Hassan, like myself.’

 ‘Perhaps.’ Baidu shrugged his shoulders. ‘Let me tell the tale as I know it and we shall see. I note you have the gold medallion – the bent cross?’

‘As you can see.’ For several days now Hassan had worn the gammadion proudly outside his tunic. He fingered its arms. ‘What of it?’

‘I expected that. It is passed, according to legend, only between father and daughter or mother and son, and Nadia would have given you it, I felt sure. It is an ancient symbol, neither Magian, nor Christian, nor Muslim. A powerful talisman!’

‘I know the legend,’ said Hassan. ‘It is meaningless nonsense.’

‘Nonsense,’ said Baidu. ‘Yes. But let us proceed to history. When Genghis invaded Persia he was opposed by a sultan, by name Jalal ad-Din, who led him a merry dance. Eventually this Jalal was defeated, but not before he had sired several offspring, both sons and daughters. The sons were to be slain and the daughters married off. But it’s said two escaped, one boy and one girl’

‘All that I have been told,’ Hassan said, ‘and I weary of it. That I was sired from the seed of some long-dead sultan is of no interest to me.’

‘But you were not!’ snapped Baidu. ‘Nizam gave me the clues, though he did not mean to: how he hated Kartir Ahmed, your grandfather; how he deceived him into accepting a bastard into his household – a child no more a descendant of Jalal than the Great Khan himself! Mahmoud Hassan, your mother’s first husband.’

‘So my father was some poor unknown, and for that you would have had me seized and killed?’ said Hassan quietly.

Again the Il-khan’ shrugged. ‘Politics, Hassan. Always politics! It would have been enough that your birth was thought important – by the Islamic rebels and by the Mamluks who were so keen to recapture Baghdad. A descendant of the Kings, of the Priests of Old Persia and of the Sultans. There were those that would have used you, Hassan, and against my interests. But that was not the reason … not the whole reason. Mahmoud Hassan was not your father!’

‘Then who was it?’

‘So young and naïve!’ Baidu sneered. ‘Can you not guess, Hassan? Is it so difficult? Your father was Arghun himself!’

‘That’s a lie!’ Even as the name was uttered, Hassan drew his sword, sprang towards the table and swung the blade down where Baidu’s arms had rested only a second before. The Il-khan dodged to one side just in time.

Doquz had grown very pale. She retreated towards Sabbah and clutched his arm tightly.

‘Ahmed?’

‘Hear him out, Princess,’ said the Commander with equanimity.

‘It’s no lie, Hassan. No slander,’ the Il-khan snarled. ‘And I will prove it to you. You were born in Tabriz, were you not? Just after the winter solstice in the fifteenth year of Abaqa’s reign?’

‘Yes.’ Hassan pulled his sword out of the table but did not return it to its sheath.

‘But your mother’s home was in Kerman. In the fourteenth year of Abaqa’s reign, a regiment of his army invaded that province. There were rumours of a rebellion. It was late autumn, Hassan, just over a year before you were born. Several prisoners were taken, the men conscripted to fight the Golden Horde, the women sent to Tabriz.’

‘My mother!’

‘Not so! The regiment wintered in Kerman city. Its commander uncovered no plot, for there was none, but in frustration he decided to make an example of the civilian governor. He issued orders for his arrest, only the governor was visiting another province and the order had to be delayed until spring.

‘But when spring came, a second regiment led by Arghun himself arrived in Kerman. Nizam was unable to tell me why, but the governor was spared, and his daughter taken as a hostage.’

Hassan was silent.

‘Mark the two dates,’ said Baidu, ‘for they are the key. Among the first prisoners, fully three months before you could have been conceived, was Nadia’s husband Mahmoud Hassan.’

‘Nizam lied,’ said Hassan desperately. ‘He made a mistake. But even if it’s all true, that does not make Arghun my father.’

‘No, but there is more! Much of it you may have guessed already. Arghun’s death: a box of poison, inscribed with the same design as that medallion you wear, was the means; Nizam’s was the hand that carried it through.  But there was another involved with him, an Indian, and it was he who confirmed it beyond all doubt. There at Baghcha, hidden behind a screen, he heard it all. The words Nadia spoke as Arghun breathed his last. He is your son, My Lord.’

‘It’s a lie!’ Hassan leapt across the table in a passion and seized the Il-khan by the throat. He wrestled with him furiously, upsetting the bench for a second time. Both ended on the floor and it took Doquz and Sabbah acting together to pull them apart. This time it was Sabbah who righted the bench.

As no one was prepared to assist him, Baidu, weakened by the seizure, regained his feet only with difficulty. Having done so, he calmly resumed his seat on the bench. He felt the sides of his neck with his fist, swallowed twice and fixed Hassan with a cold stare.

‘It’s the truth,’ he said. ‘And as brother and sister, you cannot be lovers, for it will be proscribed in the new empire by this creeping morality you call Islam. Do not imagine Ghazan will be a benign ruler. Already he will be gathering round him his imams and mullahs, so twisted in their hatred of Jews and Christians that they will not rest until they wipe them from the earth. Dreaming of fornication in eternity, they will yet deny and punish it by stoning and emasculation in this life.

‘Deny each other fleshly pleasure and your future is no better. For a brother and sister who challenge one empire can easily challenge another. Can Ghazan ever feel secure as long as such a brother is free? A secret brother of the old nobility who hides in the mountains and plots with a sister his overthrow?

‘Do not think Ghazan will not discover your incest, or your kinship, for my Indian knows the truth, and deprived of one master he will seek another in order to live. But even if he is silent, and you believe the truth a lie, you will always doubt. In time, doubt will drive you apart. Flesh will repel flesh. Kin will disown kin.

‘In either case, I will have had my revenge … on you both!’

[to be continued shortly]

FOOTNOTE: The events narrated by Baidu in this chapter – Nadia, Arghun, and the death of the Magian priest are told in The Gammadion. It is now available as an ebook from Apple Books, Barnes and Noble, and Scribd. See https://andrewglockhartwriter.com/magda-green-books/historical-novels/

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