Mu’atiyah did not notice the Caliph’s baleful stare as he recovered his footing and angrily straightened his torn clothes.
“You are the pupil of bin-Firnas,” he said slowly. “We sent you to escort and guide the ferengis of the North, the fleet with its strange machines that was to sink the red galleys of the Greeks. They did not sink the galleys, but fled, or so the survivors told me before they were led to execution. What story is it that you have to tell me?”
“Treachery,” hissed Mu’atiyah. “My story is of treachery.”
No word could better have suited the Caliph’s mood. He settled back on his cushions as Mu’atiyah, fury chafed by days of silence and contempt at sea, days of idleness and imprisonment among the Jews, told his tale: the Northerners’ abandonment of the Arab cause, their cowardly reluctance to close with the Greeks, their ignorant sporting with the secrets of the wise. Most of all, the betrayal of the Prophet and his servants by the treacherous Jews, protected against the Christians by the favor of the Caliph, repaying it only by making common cause with pork-eaters and wine-drinkers. Mu’atiyah’s sincerity was patent. Unlike anyone the Caliph had heard speak for weeks, he gave not a thought to his own safety. His urge was only, so much was evident, to fall upon the enemies of the Shatt al-Islam and exterminate them. Again and again his words veered towards criticism of the Caliph: he had been too lenient, he had let his secret enemies gain courage from his forbearance. It was criticism the Caliph was prepared to hear. The words of an honest man.
“When did you last drink?” he said finally.
Mu’atiyah goggled, became aware through his rage of his own thirst. “Before noon,” he said huskily. “I rode through the heat of the day.”
The Caliph waved a hand. “Bring sherbet for this faithful one. And let others mark his zeal. When he has drunk, let his mouth be filled with gold and a dress of honor prepared. And now, send for my generals and my admirals and the keepers of my maps. Let all be prepared to turn our march against the Jews. First the Jews, then the Christians. The enemy within the gate and then the enemy without.”
Marking the Caliph’s good humor, those who held prisoners to be brought in and condemned to lighten the master’s mood silently withdrew them. They would do, after all, for another day.
The group on the deck of the Fafnisbane stared at Solomon with expressions ranging from doubt to horror. “Tell us again,” said Brand. “He wants us to dismantle the kite, take it and enough material for two more up into the hills, with a mile of rope, Tolman, and two more boys?”
Solomon bowed his head in agreement. “Such are the instructions of your master.”
The eyes shifted to Steffi, standing a pace behind with an air of deep embarrassment. He shuffled his feet, unable to meet the concentrated gaze of his superiors with more than one eye at once. “That’s what he said,” he muttered in confirmation. “Enough for three kites and a guard, load ’em on mules, get it all up in the hills as fast as you can, only faster. That’s what he said, right enough.”
There was no doubt about Steffi’s loyalty, though there might be about his sense. At least these orders were not a trap. The eyes switched to each other, looked back in the end to Solomon.
“We don’t doubt that’s what he said,” offered Thorvin, “but things have happened here while he’s been away. Things he doesn’t know about.”
Solomon bowed again. “Well I know it. After all, my own master has given orders that all our outlying people, our traders and our farmers on the hillsides, are to come in to the city at once, for safety. We have known for weeks that the Emperor of the Romans is too close for comfort, though he seemed completely occupied with his army across the border. But now the Caliph is barely two days’ march away—less for a fast rider. And the Arabs can move fast when they are so inclined, however slow the Caliph himself may be. We could have light cavalry at our gates in the morning. They may be in the hills already.”