King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 11, 12, 13

“They are not People of the Book, then.”

Solomon hesitated. This was no time to explain the doctrines of the Way, its devotion to new knowledge. His prince and his people felt no loyalty to the Caliph, less to the Emperor, were ready for any new alliance that might bring change. There was no need to hinder their acceptance.

“I think they are trying to be,” he suggested. “With difficulty and by themselves. I have seen their own writing. It is developed from a way of cutting signs with knives on bits of wood.”

Slowly the prince pushed himself to his feet. “It is meritorious,” he said, “to assist those who desire to learn. Come. Let us show the king here what a school is like. A school for those who are truly People of the Book, not like the followers of Mohammed, for ever remembering without understanding, nor those of Yeshua, for ever hiding behind languages no one but their priests is allowed to know.”

Shef rose too, not unwilling to follow his hosts’ demands, but increasingly bored with listening to conversations that no one troubled to translate. As Solomon explained the purpose of their visit his eye was drawn against his will to what was going on down in the crowded and sunlit harbor. By the outer mole, where the ships of the Northern fleet rode at anchor well away from shore and from the native craft, they were veering out the kites again. He glanced to see if the old prince was waiting for him, saw that he had gone a few steps inside into the cool dark. Pulled his far-seer from his belt and snatched a quick glance through it. The kite was lifting well in a fresh breeze, Steffi now confidently directing operations. And they’d got Tolman, smallest and lightest of the ships’ boys, standing by the rail! Were the bastards going to try the next experiment without him? It was a good day for it, and Tolman, bred to a fisherman’s family off Lowestoft, was known to be able to swim like a fish.

The Jews were waiting for him. Shef shut the far-seer up, followed Solomon, Skaldfinn, Prince Benjamin and the rest of the escorts and entourage glumly into the dark. To join the People of the Book.

As Shef was led firmly and unwaveringly round the stronghold of the Jewish enclave, planted long ago at the time of the fall of Rome, his sense of strangeness and oppression grew steadily. After the court of the Caliph, he had thought himself ready for any new experience, but the fortress town seemed arranged like no other he had seen in North or South. There was the same crowded and active life that he had grown familiar with in the streets and markets of Cordova, among people dressed in much the same way and talking languages in which he recognized the occasional snatch of Arabic or of some Latin tongue. Yet the sense of sprawl, of activities going on without license or control or physical boundary was missing. The prince led him first on a careful tour of the town’s outer defenses, a stone wall cunningly linking natural cliff and precipice so as to shut in completely the bay and the harbor like a three-quarter circle. The strange thing was that in every other fortress city Shef had seen, whether York or London or Cordova, there was always and as if immune to regulation a second city, an outer huddle beyond the walls of huts and shacks, the dwellings of those not rich enough to come inside the protection of the city yet drawn there all the same by the wealth it grew and slowly dripped from its boundaries. Alert guard-captains were continually tearing them down, driving the inhabitants further away, trying to keep themselves a clear field of view and dart. It never worked. Always the whores and the hucksters and the beggars crawled back and remade their outer village.

Not here. Nothing obstructed the walls, not so much as a kennel for dogs or a private latrine. Nothing grew in their crevices either—Shef saw a party of men on one stretch lowering some of their number over the parapets to grub out weeds from the stone. Though he could see tilled fields and groves in the distance, he could see not so much as a shed for a watchman. The parties he saw moving to and from fields to city carried their tools with them: in both directions, he noted. They did not even leave their heavy plows and grain-baskets outside the walls.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry