Kublai was different from other Mongols in the pleasure he took at traveler’s tales. He encouraged people from all over the world to come call on him, tell him where they were from and what the customs were like there. He liked to hear about their families, too, and the more extended, the better. And Kublai had a whole wing of his palace out aside for hospitality to strangers. This wing was arguably the world’s first luxury hotel where people were welcome without a reservation and without money. Just a story.
There were beggars in the Khan’s palace as well as ambassadors. But they were not ordinary beggars. In the Khan’s estimation, a beggar was one with an insufficiency of stories. All the beggars in the Khan’s palace were persons who, for one reason or another, were or could be considered storydead. The Khan supported these unfortunates as a public charity.
Not only were there luxurious rooms for travelers, there was also the special wing for the wandering spirits of poets and storytellers. For it was the Khan’s belief that the spirits of poets live forever, in a special celestial kingdom that had been constructed for them alone by the Powers That Be. And these spirits sometimes went a-wandering back to the Earth, for poets draw inspiration from revisiting the scenes of their former triumphs and defeats. And in their peregrinations around their old-time countrysides and city streets, sometimes these spirits were susceptible to outside influences. At such times, the Khan believed, a man could perform a certain ritual, lay out certain offerings, and these would attract such spirits, and they would come to the Khan’s palace, for they knew they were welcome. Once there, they would find all the things that a spirit might crave: bits of soft fur, shiny shards of mirror, pieces of amber, antique silver coins, curiously colored pebbles. These were some of the things that were said to give pleasure to the spirits of dead poets, and the Khan had collected many of them. These were laid out in the chambers where the spirits were invited to visit. Incense was burned around the clock in these chambers, and candles were kept lit. And sometimes, a spirit would come to such a place, enjoy the feast of memory that had been laid out for him, and, when he left, deposit a dream in the Khan’s head as a gift.
Due to this, the Khan had many remarkable dreams, for he had been visited by spirits telling of savage white whales, of conspiracies in the Roman forum, of great armies moving across a frozen white landscape. He had dreamed of journeying through a dark wood, gone from the path direct. He had dreamed of choosing between a lady and a tiger. Thus the Khan piled up a treasure of stories and dreams by day and by night, until he no longer knew which was which, and he worked on his own secret dream, which was to be an audience for dead poets after he had left this life.
—Roger Zelazny and Robert Sheckley, If At Faust You Don’t Succeed