King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 3, 4

The demonstration had gone wrong, Ghaniya realized. He had thought little of their book. They had noticed—or their king had—that Mu’atiyah was a fool, for all the wisdom of his master. This was a moment when his mission hung in the balance. His voice hissed ominously as he whispered to Mu’atiyah and Suleiman together.

“Tell them of the glories of Cordova, you fools. Mu’atiyah, tell that king of theirs something about your master that even he will wonder at. And no tricks for children! He may be a savage, but he is not one to be deceived by toys!”

Both men hesitated. Suleiman was the quicker to respond. “You are a Christian priest?” he said to Boniface. “Yet you serve a king who is not of your faith? Tell your master, then, that so do I. Tell him that it would be wise for all those of us who serve masters like him and like my master to stand together. For whether we are all People of the Book or not—and I do not think his book is like my Torah or your Bible or my master’s Koran—yet we are all people of the blessing. Our blessing is that we do not seek to make others share our belief by force. The Greeks burn or blind those who do not share their creed down to the last word and glossing. The Franks say to each other, ‘Christians are right and pagans are wrong.’ They accept no other book than their own Bible and their own reading of it. For your sake and mine, father, add your own words to what I have said, I beg you! We are the ones who will suffer first. They call me the crucifier of their Lord. What will they call you? A traitor to the Faith?”

Shef listened as Boniface, paraphrasing now rather than translating, repeated the substance of Suleiman’s appeal. He noted the concern on the Jew’s face. His own betrayed no response.

“Ask what the other has to say?”

Mu’atiyah had time to collect his thoughts, but they ran only to a repetition of the many virtues of his master: virtues in the Arab tradition. He had made a machine for counting out the beat of music, so that musicians might play their instruments in time. His courtyard was the glory of Cordova for the glass roof he had made over his fountain. He had found out how to make glass from ashes. His poetry—Mu’atiyah was grasping at straws by now—was famous across the world.

Shef glanced round at his advisers, ready to draw the audience to a close. Ghaniya scowled furiously at the gabbling Mu’atiyah, now shaken by the lack of interest on all faces.

“Shall I sing the one-eyed king one of the poems of my master?” he suggested. “Or one of the poems about my master?”

Shef grunted as he heard the translation, rose to his feet, looked Ghaniya firmly in the eye. As he drew in his breath to terminate the hearing, Boniface broke in, his quiet voice cutting across the gabble of Arabic from the young scholar.

“Pardon, lord. He has said something interesting. He offers to sing you a poem about the time his master flew. Flew from the tallest tower in Cordova. And lived, it seems.”

Shef looked at the young man with deep suspicion. “Ask him what feathers he used?”

Question and answer, and Boniface’s reply. “He says no feathers. He says only a fool would think men can fly like birds. They have to fly like men.”

“How then?”

“He will not say. His master orders him not to speak. He says, if you want to see, come to Cordova and look.”

Hours later, after a closed meeting with his council and an extended feast for his own men and their visitors, Shef headed wearily for his bed. The feast had been a struggle. His visitors had queried every dish set before them, refused pork, ham, sausages, wine, mead, beer, cider and even the “burnt wine” that Udd had learnt to distil, sniffing it suspiciously and then rejecting it. In the end they had eaten little but bread and water. Shef feared for their health. In his world drinking plain water was a risk few cared to take. Water-drinkers died too often of the belly-ache and the running flux.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry