King and Emperor. Chapter 14, 15
As the dinghy approached the quayside, Shef realized that there was a considerable reception committee waiting for him. He could not see the prince himself, Benjamin ha-Nasi. But Solomon was there, and men he recognized as members of the prince’s entourage, the captain of his guards. Their faces were grave. Trouble of some sort. Could it be that the flight that they must have seen went against one of their religious rules? Were they about to tell him to take the fleet and go? They seemed to have no aggressive intention. Shef composed his face into a mask of rigid severity. As the boat was pulled up to the steps he leapt nimbly out, straightened, marched up, Skaldfinn the interpreter at his heels.
Solomon did not waste words. “We have found a man dead in the city,” he said.
“My men cannot have done it. They were at sea, or on their ships in harbor.”
“Your woman might have done it. But she is gone.”
Shef’s face paled, for all his forced composure. “Gone?” he said. It came out as a croak. “Gone?” he repeated, more firmly. “If she has gone, it was not of her own free will.”
Solomon nodded. “That may be. This letter was left with a boy from the Christian quarter. He was paid to deliver it to the captain of the city guard, and to say it was for the one-eyed foreign king.”
Presentiment hanging over him, Shef took the paper—paper indeed, he noted—unfolded it. He could read Latin letters, with some difficulty, as a result of his childhood education, ineffective though that had been. Yet he could make little of what he read.
“Nullum malum contra te nec contra mulierem tuam intendimus,” he spelled out carefully. “Skaldfinn, what does this say?”
Skaldfinn also took the letter, read through it, brow furrowed. “It says, ‘We mean no harm against you or your woman. But if you wish to have her back, come at the second hour of the day following this to the tenth milestone on the road to Razes. There we will tell you what we would have of you. Come alone.’ It adds, in different writing—poor writing, it seems to me, and worse Latin—’She killed a man when we took her. Her blood is forfeit.’ ”
Shef looked round at what seemed suddenly to be an immense crowd, all silent, all watching him. The hubbub of the market had ceased. His own men had come up from the dinghy and were close behind him. He knew, somehow, that the men on his ships lying at anchor had realized something was wrong and were lining the sides as well and watching him. Years ago he had decided on impulse to rescue one woman, Godive, from the slavers. But then no one had seen him do it, except Hund, and the thane Edrich, dead long since. He had no doubt in his mind that he had to rescue Svandis now. But this time he had to persuade people that what he was doing was right. He was less free as a king than he had been as a thrall.
Two things he was sure of. First, Brand and Thorvin and the others would not let him go alone. They had seen him vanish too often before. If he did not go alone, would the kidnappers kill their hostage? The other thing he was sure of was that there, in the crowd, there would be agents of the men who had taken her. What he said now would be reported. He had to make it look reasonable to them. Acceptable to Brand and Thorvin.
He turned, looked behind him. As he suspected, other boats had followed him over. Brand was climbing the steps, looking baleful and angry and bigger even than ever. Hund looking puny and anxious. Cwicca and Osmod too. They had cocked their crossbows, had the air of men picking their targets. Some he could rely on. Some to be swayed.
Shef aimed his voice at Brand, but pitched his voice high, to carry if it could even across the water to the watching ship-crews.
“You heard the letter Skaldfinn read, Brand?”