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

“At the other end of the Inner Sea?” queried Shef. “In the land where Christ was crucified, whatever they call it?”

Suleiman completed the unwinding of the turban, shook out the long hair it had bound in. On his head now there was only a small round cap, fixed on seemingly with hairpins. Out of the corner of his eye Shef noticed that the young Mu’atiyah had half-risen to his feet, been dragged down again by Cwicca and Osmod, was being restrained none too gently. Something was going on that he did not understand.

“No,” said Suleiman. “At this end. To the north, between the kingdom of the Franks and the Caliphate of Cordova. There, in the mountains, my people have lived, along with others of different religions, for many years. They pay a tax to the Caliph, but they do not always obey him. I think you will be welcome there.”

“If it’s north,” said Brand, “it will be the Christians we have to fear now, not the Caliph.”

Suleiman shook his head. “The mountain passes are difficult, and we have many strongholds. In any case, as the fair princess said last night, my people have much experience in—being a corridor. The troops of the Emperor marched through by permission, never entering a town. It would be a major campaign for him to take our princedom. Septimania we call it, though the Franks among us say Roussillon. Come to Septimania. There you can judge a new faith.”

“Why do you make us this offer?” asked Shef.

Suleiman looked across at Svandis, standing out of earshot by the rail.

“For many years I have been a servant of the book, Torah or Talmud or even Koran. Now you—some of you—have shown me something different. Now I too share your desire for new knowledge. Knowledge outside the book.”

Shef turned his one eye across to the still-struggling Mu’atiyah. “Let him go, Cwicca.” He went on in his simple Arabic. “Mu’atiyah, what you have to say, say it. Say it with care.”

The young man, released, rose instantly to his feet. One hand was on the hilt of the dagger in his belt, but both Cwicca and Osmod were crouched ready to drag him down again if he moved. Shef saw Thorvin slip the hammer he always carried in his belt free. But Mu’atiyah seemed too furious to care for threats. His voice shaking, he pointed to Suleiman.

“Dog of a Jew! For years you have eaten the bread of the Caliph, your people have taken his protection. Now you seek to break free, to leave the Shatt al-Islam, the path of submission to Allah. You will ally yourself with anyone, like some noseless whore in a kennel. Yet beware! If you seek to let the Christians into Andalusia, they will remember you for killing their god—may the curse of Allah rest on those who worship one born in a bed! And if you seek to ally with”—he swept an arm round—”with these, know that they are barbarians, who come and go as the wild sheep defecate, now in that place, now in this.”

Faces turned to Shef and Skaldfinn, waiting for translation. “He’s calling Suleiman a traitor,” Shef observed. “He doesn’t think much of us either.”

“Why don’t we just throw him overboard?” asked Brand.

Shef thought for a long minute before replying. Mu’atiyah, who had not understood the brief interchange, nevertheless sensed from Shef’s immobile face and Brand’s jerked thumb something of what was going on. His face paled, he began to speak, stopped and tried to draw himself up with an appearance of composure.

Finally Shef spoke. “He’s certainly useless as regards knowledge. But I liked his master, bin-Firnas. We’ll keep him. Maybe he can serve as an envoy one day. And he has done one thing for us.” He looked round, met Skaldfinn’s eyes. “He’s confirmed that what Suleiman here said was true. Otherwise we’d have no reason to believe it. A Jewish city, in Spain! Who would believe it? But it seems it must be true. I say that we should sail there. Find a base. Try to frustrate the plans of the Christians. Not the Christians, we have no quarrel with them. Of the Church and the Holy Empire it supports and the Emperor who supports it.”

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Categories: Harrison, Harry