For some reason, the censors at the magazine didn't let this one get by. I think it had more to do with the cover story on Genghis Khan, Man of the Millennium, than with my silly little column. Here it is, though, in original form.
So I was just minding my own business, hauling a cartload of millet as tribute for the local Jurchen grandee when I caught the unmistakable whiff of a Mongol horde. "Oh, shit, not again," I thought, and tried to hide in a sack of millet. But then the horde and its overpowering stench were upon me. Two leathery Mongo bruisers hauled me out by my ears and slammed me on the ground before the man himself. I made all obsequious—Great Khan this and O Man of the Millennium that. I also apologized for soiling myself, something of which I'm not proud, but man, I was scared and you would've done the same.
"Get your Han ass up off the ground and tell me why I shouldn’t just let my men use you for target practice," said Genghis Khan in a voice that was surprisingly high and tinny—not what you’d expect from a legendary butcher of men.
"Mighty Khan, the Empire may be conquered on horseback, but cannot be ruled on horseback," I said, my voice cracking. I was in the throes of puberty, you see. It occurred to me the horde thought I was mocking the Khan’s girly voice. Some drew their swords and snarled. But then this effete-looking Khitan dude with a braided forelock pushes forward and says, all indignant, "Excuse me, kid, but the horseback bit? that's my line, okay? And besides, it was a total non sequitur." It was Yelü Chucai: I recognized him from his campaign posters from when he ran for mayor of Beijing. "Your mama!" I shot back, and for some reason that cracked all the Mongols up, and Genghis Khan most of all. After that the Khan's horsemen chased me around whipping my buttocks for a couple of hours, but in the end Genghis suffered me to live and let me clean up.
Turns out that it really was Yelü Chucai first said that thing about ruling on horseback, and I reckon he was right about it being a non sequitur too. I told him so, explaining that I was scared and it was the first thing that popped out, it being so quotable. Later, he sent his thugs for me, had them pull out a couple of my fingernails and torture my feet with a red-hot poker for a couple of days, and after that Chucai and I were cool—friends, even, and we would privately snigger together at the Mongols when they would leave camp to "go among the sheep."
The Khan had some real hotties for daughters, and in a bid to get close to one, I figured I’d make friends with his sons. The eldest, Jochi croaked early—he went among the sheep and caught something, I’m told—but I was tight with Ogodei and Tolui, the youngest boy. Chagatai was a nasty bugger and even his brothers shunned him. He would hot-box the lot of us in his yurt—he’d seal up the flaps and the smoke hole up top, and fart nasty mutton farts. Then he’d wave his scimitar around and threaten to behead anyone he thought was breathing through their mouth.
Genghis Khan had the dopest of yurts. Whether we were chilling in Karakorum or out in the field on campaign, the man’s decorator knew how to pimp a yurt: the finest wool carpets of Persia and the Caucuses, silk from the lands south of the Yangtze, copper and brass wares from the smiths of Anatolia, the grinning skulls of princes and satraps foolish enough to oppose him. I taught Genghis to play the board game Risk and we often stayed up playing all night in that stylin’ yurt, me and Genghis, Oggie and Tolui, sometimes Chucai and the general Subotai too. We regulars always let the Khan win. But one night, after imbibing a bit too much of single-mare, this general named Jogdach (who was a nice enough guy when he wasn't catapulting rotting corpses into recalcitrant Chinese cities he happened to be laying siege to) attacked the Khan in Kamchatka from Alaska. He rolled a bunch of sixes and took him out. Genghis kicked the board over, and while Tolui and me sorted the armies and put away the game, poor Jogdach was trussed up, rolled into a carpet, and dragged behind horses until he was tenderized to death.
The years went by. We wiped the floor with the Jurchen, who’d gone soft from a high-carb Northern Chinese diet, took out Western Xia, conquered Khwarezmia, and laid waste to the great Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Merv. I started to get the hang of the looting and pillaging. I wasn’t the best rider in the horde, but pretty soon I was as surly and bow-legged as the next guy. I developed a taste for fine, single-mare kumiss, which I’d loot from duty-free shops.
The daughter I was keen on, Magda, seemed to take a shine to me, too, and so after some deliberation I asked her out to view the Mountain of Skulls we’d made after the sack of Samarkand. When I went to pick her up, the Khan was there, and while she got dressed, I had to endure the third degree from her old man. "What is best in life?" he asked in his weird falsetto. Ordinarily I was supposed to answer with some variation on "To kill your enemy, ride his horses, and hear the lamentations of his women," but something told me that wouldn’t work before I took Magda out, so I answered with some half-remembered, goody-goody Han stuff about studying the Four Books and Five Classics and becoming an upright official. He thought about this for a while, then said, "Okay, you may take my daughter out, but if you are set upon by our enemies, you bend your bow, and slay them without mercy." Roger that, O Great Khan, I said, and we rode off.
The Mountain of Skulls was oddly depressing for Magda—lots of flies and carrion fowl, still—and as we trotted back to camp, she said she thought I’d make more money as a Southern Song prefect than as a mere lackey for her dad. She said she’d always wanted to open a tavern where she might profit from the famous hospitality of the Mongolian people. Maggie’s, she’d call it. I thought about Chagatai’s cruel pranks, and poor Jogdach in the carpet, and decided maybe she was right. So we turned our horses south and east, toward the Jade Gate, and rode toward a new future south of the Yangtze.