The party packed up efficiently and left the Yorgus in the middle of the night without any adventures. No mishap befell them as they made their planned detour around the Dale of Luugas. Yet, the wariness that had seeped into their minds and permeated into their bones as a result of the affair with the mysterious man and his thought-stone dissipated at the pace of a sluggish torrent. It clung to them like a stubborn coat of grime, falling off their beings one speck at a time.
Astride Bashudai, Bortai was occupied by thoughts of their destination ahead. Borochu had notified them that they would soon arrive at the main Camp of the Neermus, which was the first tribe besides her own which she found bore resemblance to the tribe names of her previous life as a Mongol. And it was the name of a tribe that would become one of the major rivals for Temujin. However, since the Crunalan society on this world was clearly not identical to the Mongolian one she remembered from her first incarnation (the first that she could remember at any rate), she could not be certain that this would be the tribe that they would be stopping at next. Hence, she was more curious than alarmed by the upcoming encounter.
Ahead, she could already see the gers of the Neermu camp, which were resplendent in myriad shades of gold and heavily decorated with ornaments that sparkled in the sun. A fitting abode for their old nemesis Nalan Khan, whose name meant Sun in Mongolian, if this was really his territory.
As at the Yorgus, Bortai and her companions was invited into the chieftain’s ger to converse. There they met the chieftain and his two advisors who happened to have come to pay the chief a social call (otherwise, the Crunalan custom would have the three of them gathered in the Chief’s ger on more formal business). It was so long ago that Bortai could not quite remember whether these two were the same individuals as their counterparts in her Mongolian life. However, she had the impression that they both were practical and good loyal men. It was a pity that they were supporters of Temujin’s foe and came to a bad end as a consequence. Prompted by this thought, Bortai considered these two men at some detail. Both were rather plain- both had average height, the latent strength of Crunalan men in ample and dressed in the same earthen tone. The only difference she noted was that one seemed neater or more careful in behaviour than the other with his clothes bearing less signs of mending. It was small wonder that she could not recall them in a physical way if their Mongolian counterparts had identical looks. Anyway, it tallied with her broad impression of them.
Nalan Khan was exactly as she remembered him: a man of indeterminate age with a golden complexion and a good natured face. Little would anyone guess that underlying the man would be such a strong love of prestige that it permeated across aspects ranging from his taste for grandiosity and glamour, his peacock-like propensity for flaunting to his unmoving stubbornness to never be another’s subordinate regardless of the larger consequences. To be fair to the man, the last point about him would not have been a problem under other circumstances. He was not a bad leader at all. True to his looks, he was good natured as a person, well loved within his own tribe and open-minded enough to work with his advisors to build a prosperous tribe. As a strategist, he was also adept. He had natural cunning and patience in plenty, having an uncanny ability to wait for the best chance to strike at his enemies. It was simply that he had no greater vision to lead to improve the welfare of his people outside of his own gain in status, rendering him somewhat unsuitable for ruling over more than his own tribe. Although he had turned out to be a somewhat main obstacle to Temujin’s unification of the Mongols purely because of the wealth he had gathered for his tribe, Bortai was not particularly worried about him as a foe. Compared to the long and bitter campaign that Temujin had waged against the Tatars, the conflict with the Neermus seemed pale in comparison. Also, as of currently, there was no reason for Nalan Khan to show animosity against them. That would come much later. There was no reason to fret over a none-too-stringent conflict not to come for years.
“Welcome to the tribe of Neermu, the home of Nalan Khan the descendant of Batachikan! Be at ease, my children!” Nalan Khan said in a warm tone. That drew an amused smile from Bortai which she hid deftly. Only Nalan Khan would care to add that last part about the descendant of Batachikan, as if he alone of all of the Crunalan could trace his blood back to one of the off-springs of the Grey Wolf and the White Deer. It was true that Batachikan was the first born and took precedence over his younger siblings. But it was not like the Crunalans, much akin to the Mongolians, believed that a superior bloodline was the ultimate factor in determining a person’s worth. A superior sword is not forged through better iron but better forging, as her Khan-father had taught Bacquder.
As customary, the pedigree keepers were summoned but this time no distant kinship was unearthed by them. Nevertheless, the group talked amiably of many innocuous gossips with their hosts without revealing aught that should not be spoken about. After the encounter at the Yorgus, they had coached Borochu extensively on what ought to be talked about in front of strangers and what oughtn’t. He learnt fast despite his loquacious nature.
In this way, Bortai found herself quickly bored. Then, a passing remark by Nalan Khan caught her attention. “It is never any good to be snagged with the Morghanan, nor even to make guesses of them. Many of those travelling merchants made that mistake. With the announcement that the Morghanan have chosen to come between the Ankalis and the Tatars, those men that were forever hungry for copper disks have thought that the Morghanan would need lots of food. So what do they do? They bring bags and bags of staples, of rice, wheat, corn and all the other types. They think to sell these at high prices. But what do the Morghanan say to the merchants? We need them not, bring them back, that was what they said. Hah, I’ve never seen those merchants’ faces turn so. All smiles and tallying in their faces, that I was used to. But faces white and with moist dropping off their foreheads? The like of which I have never seen before, not on theirs nor any others.”
The news set Bortai spinning in wild circles. What truly is the meaning of this? If the Morghanan truly intended to ally with the Tatars, surely they would not have turned back the travelling merchants so utterly. It was true that many hold the view that the Morghanan are capable of anything but Bortai thought this view ridiculous to say the least. At any rate, Bortai could not believe their reputed abilities included being able to conjure food at such a grand scale within such a short period of time. Even with pre-meditation, it just seemed far-fetched to Bortai. On the other hand, if they had some trickery planned for the Tatars… no, why would they, or rather why have they chosen not to keep to themselves as they have always done? Rather than soothed, Bortai was troubled by this news with a seemingly positive turn for them, more troubled than she would care to admit to herself.
“What do you think of the man?” Temujin made a cautious opening that added to the weight on Bortai’s heart. He spoke in a whisper but it was loud enough for all to hear since he had gotten them to sit so close together in a ring that all their knees were ploughing into each other. “I think Uncle Yesu was right in his warning. I did not like the man.” Borochu replied with a solemn expression seldom seen on his face. Nergei merely nodded.
“What are you three talking about?” Bortai was genuinely puzzled.
“Khan-father had warned us about the Neermu, especially about their chieftain. The two were not on friendly terms. That was why we were cautious at the Chieft’s Ger.” Temujin informed his betrothed.
Bortai was dumbfounded. She had thought their behaviour was merely the aftermath of their adventure with the thought-stone. Instead, it was upon Yesegei Khan’s prior warning that they had acted so. Bortai chided herself for invariably letting down her guard on encountering personnel that she had known in her previous life, acting solely upon the knowledge she had back then. She had never known that their fraction with Nalan Khan had its roots in other than the inevitable conflict that arise whenever an obstacle arises for Temujin's vision of unification for the Mongols. But then Yesegei Khan in that alternate life of hers would have died by now. That raised her caution to a higher level than before. Who knows what series of changes have arisen in this world just because of that single difference of Yesegei Khan still being alive? It would not do for her to make choices and act purely on what she knew to be true of her other life. Cold dread touched her heart when she thought about what disastrous mistakes she could have committed if she had not come awake with the realisation that she had made just now.
“Did Yesegei Khan specify how they have fallen foul of each other?” Bortai enquired. It did not pertain to their main concern but Bortai felt that it would be prudent for her to gather as much information as she could on any possible discrepancies between the worlds that she had lived in and the one she is in now. It was mostly intuition but she had seldom been tricked by it, unless she chose to trick herself.
Temujin shook his head. Jelme shrugged, “It was a minor tussle really. I cannot remember the details now but I think it was a chance remark by Yesegei. He was brutally honest in those days of his youth, still is quite so if you ask me. And you’ve all seen for yourselves the ego of that man.”
Bortai had an odd feeling that Jelme was holding something back. The image Jelme painted of Nalan Khan departed from the view she had formed of him. She did not think it in character for Nalan Khan to hold a grudge for something as innocuous as a chance remark, however brutally honest it was unless it struck at a place deep within him. Acting upon an impulse, she raised the possibility, “May it be that the remark struck at where it was still tender and raw within him?”
Jelme looked surreptitiously towards Temujin. Besides Muwali, all were puzzled by the implied linkage between Temujin and what Jelme was saying about the two Khans of their respective tribes. That only made them more eager to hear the true account about the dispute between the two men. Jelme coughed in embarrassment while Muwali laughed lightly. “There are some things that we find embarrassing to recount to the young,” Muwali offered by way of explanation, “especially if it involves the folly of one’s own youth.” He glanced over to Jelme to emphasise to whom the latter part of his sentence was referring to.
Jelme glared at him but then shrugged, “You can tell the story since you were not involved in this… what you dub as youthful folly.”
“So I shall. Well, there is not much complication to it. A spurned lover and the brother of the woman who spurned him, that is basically how he stands in relation to our own Yesegei Khan.”
“You mean Aunt Odega?” Temujin vaguely remembered that he had an aunt who married into the Jatalin which was a tribe far northern of them but he had never got to know her, her being married off before he was even born.
“No, your other aunt. She was always a queer one and she was as spirited as they come. She had many admirers,” Muwali took a pause to pay Jelme brief scrutiny, “and he was certainly one of the most ardent ones. Who knows why she decided on her choice then but somehow he was convinced that it was because of a chance remark that Yesegei had made about him that belittled him in her eyes. I don’t think Yesegei could even remember the incident now but he had never trusted that other man. I think that was the main reason why Temujin was warned about him.”
Bortai nodded. That was more characteristic of Nalan Khan. It was not the rejection itself that he begrudged but what he thought of as the loss of standing in the eyes of his love that Yesegei’s remark had caused. Still, Bortai did not think he would carry the grudge across generations. However, it did pay to be wary around one as shrewd as Nalan Khan.
Bortai was pleased when her thought was perfectly echoed in Temujin’s words, “No harm in staying cautious.”
To this, all nodded.