In Cordova itself, as the news arrived, there was shock and horror. No alarm, since clearly the unbelievers could offer no threat to the established civilization of the south and of Andalusia, but fear at the judgment of Allah. The question of succession struck every listener at once. Within days the carts of market stuff and poultry, the herds of sheep and beef cattle, had ceased to stream through the gates, the peasants of the Guadalquivir valley fearing to enter what might be bloody civil war. The few half-Berber half-brothers of the Caliph vanished into their own strongholds, were known to be calling for men, for help from the kinsfolk of North Africa. At any moment a fleet might arrive from Algiers or Morocco, to sail up the river. Or, said the pessimists, the Tulunids of Egypt may take a hand: mere Turks from the steppe.
At that thought, the Christians of the city, and the Jews of the Juderia, the ghetto established for them, also began to reckon their strength. The rule of the previous Caliph had been cruel to those who renounced the shahada or who sought for martyrdom. It would be like a caress compared with the random and profitless cruelties of the Turks or the Berbers, anxious to show their loyalty to the faith because of their recent and doubtful conversion to it.
Better any Caliph than no Caliph, said the wiser heads of the city to each other. Best of all, a Caliph acceptable to all. But who? The young man, Mu’atiyah, pupil of bin-Firnas, had appeared from the wreck and ruin, ridden without ceasing all the way from the moment the Caliph fell back in his arms—or so he said. He called for Ghaniya, the Caliph’s oldest half-brother and trusted emissary to the North, to succeed to the cushion. Ghaniya, he shouted in a score of marketplaces, Ghaniya could be trusted to take up the war. And not only the war against the Christians. Against the majus also, the heathen fire-worshipers who had deluded the Caliph into war and disaster. But most of all, the war against the faithless, the secret traitors. Had he not with his own eyes (and the invention of his master) seen men of the Caliph’s army arrayed against him, eating roast pig between the battle-lines? How many more secret devourers of swine hid in the streets of Cordova? To be rooted out! Along with the Christians who sheltered them, under the mistaken kindness of the former Caliph. Enslave them, send them into exile, impale those who renounced their faith…
“Too much impaling already,” remarked bin-Maymun, once commander of the cavalry in the army of the Prophet, to his cousin bin-Firnas, as they ate grapes in the cool of the latter’s riverbank mansion. “You can’t expect men to fight if some of them are dragged off every day and heard screaming to their comrades every night. He is your pupil of course, son of my mother’s brother…”
“But not a ready learner,” his cousin replied. “It seems to me—eager though I am for shari’a—that a little relaxation may be in order? Other learned men are with me on this, Ishaq, Keeper of the Caliph’s Scrolls for one. Without wishing to go as far as the sect of the Sufi, he remembers that a House of Wisdom was once established in Baghdad, and flourished under the rule of Mu’tazilites. Why should Baghdad have had what Cordova cannot?”
“There are other reports, too, of what happened after the battle, after I and my men had been driven from the field,” his cousin replied. “Some of the Caliph’s women escaped from the Christians who seized them and found their way by ship and horse to Cordova. One a Christian by birth, so her loyalty cannot be doubted if she turned her back on her fathers’ faith. I have taken another into my own harem, a delightful woman from Circassia. They too say that the Caliph’s rigor was too great—a compensation, they say, for certain… inadequacies. They say also that he put too much faith in your pupil.” Bin-Maymun cast a glance sideways to see how his hint was taken.
“He is my pupil no longer,” declared bin-Firnas firmly. “I withdraw my protection from him.” As bin-Maymun sank back, remembering threats and insults and considering which of his men to send to put a stop to Mu’atiyah’s babble, bin-Firnas pressed on. “And will you join Ishaq and my learned Mends later on, for song and poetry, and perhaps, a little discussion?”