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

“I do not understand,” he said to Solomon. “It is not the calf-skin we use. It has no flesh side, no hair side. Can it be bark?”

“Neither. But it is made from wood. The Latins call it papyrium, from some Egyptian plant or other. But we do not make our papyrium from that plant, only from wood, crushed and felted. We add other things to it, a kind of clay that prevents the ink from running. Knowledge of it came from very far away, from the other end of the Arabs’ empire. There, at Samarkand, they fought a battle with soldiers from another empire far across the desert and mountain lands. The Arabs were victorious and brought back many captives from the land of Chin. They, it is said, taught the Arabs the secret of paper. But the Arabs put little value in it, preferring to teach their boys only enough for them to remember sections of the Koran by heart. It is we who have made the books. With new knowledge.”

New knowledge to make the books, thought Shef. Not new knowledge—Solomon prayed to the Holy One to forbid it—not new knowledge in the books. Yet this explained something. It explained why there were so many books, so many readers. To make a book of vellum might take the skins of twenty calves, even more, for not the whole skin could be used. Not one man in a thousand could expect to own the skins of twenty calves.

“What is the price of a book?” he asked.

Solomon passed on the question to Benjamin, standing watching, his guards and scholars behind him.

“He says, the price of wisdom is above that of rubies.”

“I didn’t mean the price of the wisdom. I meant the price of the paper.”

As Solomon translated again, the look of scorn on the face of the angry reader, still smoothing over his torn page, deepened into open contempt.

“I do not think there is much hope in them,” said Shef to his counselors that evening, watching the sun go down behind the sharp and jagged mountains. Much the same, had he known it, was being said about him among the scholars and learned men who dominated the Jewish court. “They know a lot. But the knowledge is all about rules, either about their God or about themselves. Yet they collect what they need from far afield. They know some things that we do not, like this paper stuff. But when it comes to Greek fire…” He shook his head. “Solomon said we could enquire among the Arab and Christian merchants of the aliens’ quarter. Tell me more about the flying. You should have waited for me.”

“The men said they might be at sea again in a day’s time, and the wind was just high enough without being a danger. So they put Tolman in the harness and let the wind lift him. But they did two things that bin-Firnas did not do…” Earnestly Thorvin went through the details of the day’s launch, when the young boy, still moored but trying to maneuver his great box-kite, had flown out to the end of the longest rope they had been able to splice together, five hundred feet of it. At the far end of the ship Tolman was boasting of his prowess to the other boys and the crewmen, his treble pipe lifting from time to time over Thorvin’s rumble. As the night came down the voices died, men turned to their hammocks or stretched out on the warm sun-retaining decks.

Usually, in his dreams, Shef knew that he was dreaming, could feel the presence of his instructor. This time he did not. Did not know, even, who he was.

He was lying on stone, he could feel the cold of it running into his back. There was pain all around him too, back and sides and feet, and something deep and tearing in his chest. He ignored it as if it were happening to someone else.

What frightened him, brought out the chill sweat racing down his face, was that he could not move. Not an arm, not a finger. He was wrapped round and round in folds of some stuff or other, binding arms to sides and legs together. Was it a shroud? Was he buried, still alive? If it were, he could struggle upward, would strike his head against the coffin. For long moments he lay afraid to make the trial. For if he were buried, he could not move, could not cry out. Surely he would go mad.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry