Marco Polo recap: 'White Moon'
Who hired the assassins that nearly murdered Kublai?
The clock is ticking for Marco and Byamba to find the traitor before the Mongolian New Year’s celebration of Tsagaan Sar, or White Moon. They have a strong lead—Marco recognized the handwriting on the Hashshashin murder map as belonging to his first friend in the Imperial city of Cambulac, the now-dead tax collector, Sanga. So Marco and Byamba set out to investigate, like two odd-couple beat cops following the crumbs to piece together their case. I almost expected to hear the Law & Order chung-chung sound as they interviewed a multitude of suspects.
As I expressed following episode 5, the finance minister Ahmad seems like the guilty party, based on his belligerence towards the Chinese rebels and his private statements to the Empress about the financial benefits of a wartime economy. Like Iago, he also has been subtly planting seeds in Prince Jingim’s head, so that if Kublai had died, his heir would’ve immediately pursued revenge on the Chinese—erroneously, of course—and given Ahmed the war he craved. In a way, he’s the Mongol mirror to Jia Sidao, the cunning Chinese warmonger.
But Marco doesn’t have the advantage of those insights. He only knows what he knows, which leads him and Byamba back to Sanga’s home, dilapidated since Sanga was executed—by stampede!—for skimming off the top. Marco’s not welcome into the home, and rightfully so—though Sanga’s wife can’t know that it was actually Marco who reported her husband’s malfeasance. While Marco does the talking, Byamba compares the markings on the map to Sanga’s poetry, the written verses of love that he left for his wife during his travels. Looks like a match. And yes, Sanga regularly traveled to Kochkor, the Hashshashin outpost. But could he have engineered this conspiracy all by himself? “Question the man who sent Sanga to Kochkor,” says Sanga’s widow, bitterly.
That man would be Ahmed. But Ahmed is too sly, especially when the two flat-foots come straight at him with their careful questions. He is just a simple bookkeeper—”I tally, I account, I serve”—armed only with an abacus. He easily handles their queries and shifts suspicion on to the King’s spymaster, Yusef, who controls the Imperial guard. “I simply state fact,” he says, explaining his only purpose.
Yusef is a Muslim—like the Hashshashin—and as Vice Regent, he would assume power in the immediate aftermath of the Khan’s death. But he also has the right answers to Marco’s questions, and his spartan monk-like existence illustrates his incorruptible character. He practically shames their suspicions in his retorts. “I speak truth,” he says, describing his value to the Khan.
Hmmm, fact or truth? Which is more meaningful?
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For Marco, Ahmed and Yusef are the only primary suspects. And of the two, he’s more suspicious of Yusef. But there are others still to consider, like lord Kaidu. He didn’t enter a frame this episode, but his warrior daughter, Khutulun, arrives in Cambulac to celebrate the White Moon and volunteer additional security to Kublai. “Kaidu seeks to ensure your safety,” she tells Kublai, who has a benevolent soft spot for her. Could it be a blind spot as well?
The Blue Princess of the Bayaut doesn’t share such affection for Khutulun, whom she calls “that wrestling whore from the west.” Tart language from a royal princess. Oh, wait. Right. She’s not a real princess after all. In an opening flashback that was a little expected, the real Blue Princess commits ritual suicide rather than be captured by the Khan’s army. Her devoted servant quickly switches places with her and survives the pillaging by proclaiming herself to be the Blue Princess. Only Tulga knows her secret.
But Marco is slowly piecing that puzzle together. His obsession with protecting the Blue Princess leads him back to Tulga, who proudly announces that she has been promised to him. “How is it that a peasant weds a princess?” he asks her later, with more than a little jealousy. “I am deceived.”
Deception is everywhere. In Xiangyang, Jia’s recent successes have blinded him to his vulnerability. He is in many ways a commoner, initially welcomed into the Song court by his sister, a concubine. And though he’s outmaneuvered his rivals, intimidated the army, and put the Empress Dowager in a corner, he’s still not royalty. So he’s clueless when he arrives at a meeting to discuss frivolous details related to the imminent coronation of the child Emperor. The Dowager gleefully informs him that he’s been replaced, and that he can “return to the rice paddies” from which he came. A new chancellor has been selected, a true man of the people named Fang Zhen, who can be trusted to faithfully receive peace overtures from the Mongols when the time is right.
Jia’s only hope to hold on to power is the new mission that he assigned to his sister, Mei Lin. She is no longer to be a spy, but an assassin. Failure to comply will only result in greater physical abuse of her child, whose feet were cruelly bound because of her last failure. Dressed for love and armed with poisonous tiger root smeared on her lips, Mei enters Kublai’s sexual-gymnastics pleasure dome intending to kill him with a kiss. Somehow, she grabs defeat from the jaws of victory, opting to take out the Empress instead (or first). But the Empress, consciously or subconsciously, suspects something, and she redirects Mei’s poison pucker on to the unlucky woman pleasing her husband.
The celebratory White Moon festivities are crucial for Kublai to be seen by the public as strong and in charge, following the assassination attempt and his brother’s death. But it is the Empress who showcases her many skills. First, she notes that Marco and the Blue Princess are too close for comfort, and immediately suggests to Kublai that it is time for Jingim to take a new wife. No doubt she has the Princess in mind. Then, after a desperate Mei Lin makes a swashbuckling suicide charge toward the Khan, the Empress is the one to put her down with a bow and arrow. Conclusion: Kublai was dumb and foolish enough to let sexual pleasure blind him to the very real threat of espionage or assassination. And two, even though Mei failed to killed Kublai, her capture virtually ensures that Jia will accomplish what he wanted. You don’t think people will assume that the two assassination attempts are linked? And that Kublai will be forced to exact revenge on the Chinese rebels for this flagrant act of war?
Ultimately, Marco’s investigation into the Hashshashin conspiracy is inconclusive, and he refuses to condemn any of the suspects by naming them to Kublai. “Untrue by an inch, untrue by a mile,” Hundred Eyes had advised him. Little does Marco know that he, himself, is under a cloud of suspicion. Yusef is paid to think and plan for the worst, and he’s always cast a dubious eye on Marco. “Did [Polo the elder] abandon his son to serve his purse… or his pope?” he asks the khan in private. Such an accusation rings hollow in the face of Marco’s worldly naivety.
But it’s not unreasonable that he’s been embedded as a stealth agent for the next round of crusaders who venture east. Think of the crucifix that Marco received from his father, Niccolò, the one that echoes the words of Psalms 72:11: “All kings shall fall before him.” And then there was Niccolò’s strange farewell behavior when he and Uncle departed from Cambulac following their punishment. Niccolò understood how his son had saved their lives, but even though they were now banished, he wore a knowing smile and looked forward to his return. “We will meet again,” he says. If so, will Christian knights be with him?