King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 19, 20, 21, 22

All three women were discontented, and afraid. Discontented because they had been plucked from the comfort of Cordova and brought out on campaign, with barely half a score of others, to ease the tedium of their master. True, they were carried every step of the way in litters filled with silk and down. True, fans waved over them at night, continually worked by relays of slaves. Yet the hard hot ground of the camp could not be made into the fountains and courtyards of Cordova. Their master might rejoice in the hardships—the very modified hardships—of those who trod dusty ways to fight the unbelievers, but they drew no consolation from that. One had been brought up a Christian, one converted to Islam at the age of ten, one came from a race whose beliefs were so strange that no outsider had ever troubled to learn them. Nothing creates atheism as well as a profusion of contradictory beliefs.

There were two reasons why they were afraid. One, that none of them had yet borne a child. Since it could not be the case that their master’s potency was waning, their barrenness must be their own defect, unless it were the result of deliberate child-murder in the womb. The other reason they were afraid was that the walls of no pavillion could keep out the constant screaming of their master’s victims, still ordered to the block, the bastinado, or the impaling-post at the least whim or setback. They feared the change of er-Rahman’s moods, on which no-one alive was more expert.

“He listens still to that young fool, Mu’atiyah,” said the Englishwoman. “At his ear all the time, encouraging him. He is consumed with hate himself, and jealousy.”

“Could Mu’atiyah eat something that would disagree with him?” suggested the Circassian.

“The Caliph would know it was poison,” said the Frank. “Then who can say where his anger would fall? We have no-one who would not betray us. Not out here.”

“Maybe it is best if he achieves his ends and we can all return home.”

“Home?” said the Englishwoman. “You mean, to Cordova? Is that the best we can hope for all our lives? Waiting for him to tire of us and send the man with the strangling-cord? How many years have you got left, Berthe? Or you, Ouled? I am twenty-three already.”

“What else is there?” asked Berthe, wide-eyed.

The Englishwoman, Alfled, had taken part in many a harem plot. She did not look round or change her expression, but laughed and jingled her bracelets as if discussing some sexual exploit she had planned for the Caliph. “We are out here in the heat and the dust of the campaign. Bad news, and all we want is to return to comfort once the Caliph has won. But what if the Caliph loses? His armies and his fleets have lost before, that is why we are here. And in the confusion of a defeat…”

“We would be taken and raped by half an army if we were free.”

“Maybe. It depends on the army. You heard what the Dane-woman told us, in Cordova. One of the armies here does not take slaves, and it is led by one of my countrymen. Even the Emperor of the Romans’ army is full of your countrymen, Berthe. If we made the cross sign and begged for release from the worshipers of Allah, their priests would be delighted.”

“But once you have turned your back on Allah, revoked the shahada, there is no mercy for you,” pointed out the Circassian.

“We cannot afford to fail, that is so.”

“So what must we do?”

“Press the Caliph to battle, but in such a way that he must lose.”

“And how is that to be arranged? He has generals skilled in the art of war, to advise him much better than we ever could. We do not know even enough to say what is right and what would be wrong.”

“We do not know war,” said Alfled grimly, “but we know men. Pick the biggest fool, and urge on his advice. And the biggest fool in this camp is Mu’atiyah. Let us add our voices to his. Our voices from the pillow to add to the fool’s from the divan. One thing we should add. Our wish to see our master conquer: the strongest of men, the most warlike, the most manly.”

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