King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 14, 15

Just what you were doing this morning, thought Benjamin to himself. When you gave us your opinions on the follies of the ship-barbarians, with their king who tears a book to find out what it is, and asks the price of the paper not of the contents. Nevertheless…

“I shall do as the feeling of the council directs,” said Benjamin formally. He crooked a finger to his guard-captain. “Release the young man. Give him a mount and the food he needs to reach the Caliph, and escort him to our boundaries. Charge the cost against our next payment of the land-tax to his master.”

The young Arab, who had squatted at the side of the room listening without understanding to the Hebrew exchanges that would determine his fate, recognized at last the tone and the gesture. He sprang to his feet, eyes blazing. Seemed for a moment as if he meant to burst out in complaint and accusation—as he had done fifty times already in his short captivity—but then thrusting it back in a transparent rush of policy. It was obvious what he meant to do: rush off to make every bitter denunciation to which he could lay his tongue. Revenge himself with words for every slight that had been put upon him, real or fancied, by the barbarians of whom he was so jealous. Jealous of their flying of kites.

The prince turned his attention to the next case. It was true about the learned, he reflected. They were a strength. And the unlearned were a plague. But worse than both, alas, were the class to whom both the Arab Mu’atiyah and Moishe the learned belonged. The class of clever fools.

Chapter Fifteen

Inside the cool stone basement of the best house in the tiny village, the perfecti discussed what must be done, in whispers.

“He does not speak our language. How can we put him to the test?”

“He has some Arabic, as do we. That will have to do.”

“It is irregular. The test must be given in the words of the test.”

“It is we who make the rules and we who can change them.”

A third voice broke in to the exchange. “After all, he has already passed the one test. And he passed it without knowing he took it.”

“You mean the water?”

“I mean the water. You saw the way his men came over the hill. They were blind with weariness and mad with thirst. They are Northerners from cold lands, and seamen who never walk. The big one was near to death. And the king himself was so dry—we saw it—that he could not speak. Yet he threw the water on the ground.”

Another voice corroborated the third. “And before that, he took it in his mouth. Then he spat it out. That is one of the tests. To refuse the man water till he can think of nothing else, then to give him it. To see if he can take it into his mouth and yet reject it, as a sign of victory over the body. The temple of the Evil One, prince of this world. That is what the one-eye did.”

The first voice continued to complain. “He had not had long enough! In our test the man is kept without water for a night and a day.”

“Sitting motionless in the shade,” replied one of his antagonists. “Our rule says the candidate must be kept till he thinks of nothing else but water. I have seen candidates in better shape than that one when he came over the hill.”

“In any case,” said a voice that till now had not spoken, but now spoke with the tones of one who gave a decision, “we will proceed with the test. For as we speak, the Emperor’s men are tearing stone from stone. Over our holy things and the bodies of our fellows.”

The gray cowls nodded slowly, in the end without dissent.

Outside, his feet dangling over the edge of the near-precipice that shut off the little village to the north, Shef sat with his far-seer in his hand. Once he and his men had drunk their fill, it had been possible to look around, to understand the lie of the land. The village perched high on a slope, in what was a mere terrace in a sweep of baking stone and scrub. From high up, more terraces could be seen here and there, each with its little plot of trees and crops. Shef could see how people could live almost at ease up here. His far-seer had caught dozens of scrawny sheep browsing the grass on far hillsides. Sheep meant mutton, and milk and cheese. And one thing the villagers might count on, and that was that they would not be bothered by tax-collectors. Only very tough and determined ones, and such would find far easier pickings elsewhere.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry