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

“The graduale,” corrected a better-dressed man, grey-haired and grey-bearded. The others looked sideways at him, corrected themselves and returned their eyes to the cloth.

“Two days ago he went all through the city with ha-Nasi,” said the tailor, voice and eyes never rising. “At the librarium he tore a book and asked what was the price of wisdom. The geonim think him an idiot and have asked ha-Nasi to send him away. Yesterday and today he has been with the woman. His eyes never leave her. He cannot keep his hands from her body, or only with difficulty.”

The grey-haired man looked first disbelieving, then sad. “It may be that he is still bound in service to the Evil One. But who is not, when he is born? It is from that that we have to climb. Thierry, do you think he would come freely, if we asked him?”

“No. He knows nothing of us.”

“Can we bribe him?”

“He is a rich man. His clothes would disgrace an onion-grower, but see the gold he wears. They say…”

“What do they say?”

“They say he asks always for new knowledge. His men talk of the Greek fire in the taverns, say openly they seek a way to match it. Every day, when the wind rises, they fly strange kites with boys in them from the decks of their ships. If you could tell him how to make Greek fire he might go with you. Or send another.”

“I know no way to make Greek fire,” said the greybeard slowly.

The shepherd spoke again. “Then it will have to be the woman.”

To cover the silence that fell, the tailor raised his voice in a cry of approval of his own wares and amazement at his prices.

“It will have to be the woman,” said the greybeard heavily. “So it is with men. Their own desires lead them to danger and to death. Their loins urge them to give life. But every life they give is another hostage to the Evil One. God the Father of the Christians.”

“Jehovah of the Jews,” added the shepherd.

“The Prince of this World,” said all the men in the booth together. Ritualistically, each man spat briefly and secretly into his palm.

Shef, the object of so much hidden scrutiny, rose finally from the table where he had been sitting, throwing down a silver penny with his own head on it as payment for the strong resined wine: the Jews had no such prohibition as the Mohammedans against strong drink, though they did not consume it in the everyday fashion of the Latins or the determined drunkenness of the Way-folk.

“Let’s go back to the ship,” he said.

Svandis shook her head. “I want to walk round. Talk to people.”

Shef’s face showed surprise, dismay, alarm. “You did that before. In Cordova. You were away all night. You won’t…”

She smiled. “I won’t treat you the way I did poor Hund.”

“There are no slaves here, you know. What language will you speak?”

“If I can’t find anyone to talk to I’ll come back.” Shef continued to stare down at her. Since they had mated on the deck of the Fafnisbane a bare day and a half before, he had thought of nothing but her. It seemed to be part of his nature that once he was attached to a woman, no other would do, no other thought could enter him. Except what had to be done. Now there was nothing to be done. Yet something told him that this was a woman who could not be held, who would rebel at the suggestion of it. And soon the wind would rise. “Come soon,” he said, and walked away, waving already for the boat and the rowers that would take him back to the Fafnisbane.

As the afternoon breeze began to rise, the kite-handlers prepared for yet another trial flight. A small elite of them had grown up. Cwicca and Osmod had places as of right: they had been companions of the One King in all his exploits. Even more important, both of them now had ground into them the deep belief that there was a technical solution to every problem. Technical solutions had raised both of them from slavery to wealth—first the catapult, then the crossbow, then case-hardened steel, then water-wheels, windmills, the cam, the trip-hammer and the mill-driven bellows. They were used to the immense difficulties of putting ideas into practice, turning imagination into technology. They knew it could be done. Perhaps most significantly, they knew it had to be done by trial and error, by combining the knowledge of many. Failure one day did not deter them the next. Their conviction was contagious.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry