King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 5, 6, 7

“There is no strong drink anywhere in Cordova,” Hund had objected. “The orders of Muhammad forbid it.”

“There’s some somewhere,” Shef had replied, and supervised the handover of weapons himself.

Then the jackets had gone. A couple of days wandering open-mouthed round the narrow, stone-walled streets of Cordova had convinced even the most conservative Northerners that leather was an encumbrance if not a risk to life. By now all the Waymen were down to hemp shirts and wool breeches, and those fortunate enough to retain a balance of their pay were sporting gaudy cotton. In the sun their silver pendants—no-one had yet been so rash or God-defying as to sell one—gleamed and jerked, marking their owners out yet again from the darker faces and gayer clothes around them.

Last, fear had gone. Shef had expected, given the importance of his mission, to be shown to the great bin-Firnas, the flying man, at once. It had taken days, not—so Suleiman the Jew assured them—out of desire for delay, still less deliberate insult, but because of the veneration here accorded to the wise. The Caliph might indeed have commanded an audience and a demonstration, but preferred instead to send messengers, present gifts, ask for the favor of the wise to be shown to the barbarians drawn from afar by rumor of him, and generally go through the established ritual of Andalusian diplomacy. Bin-Firnas too—Suleiman further assured them—was not making deliberate difficulties in his replies. He was anxious only not to disappoint, to be unable to live up to the doubtless exaggerated tales carried into far lands by hearsay; further, as messages traveled both ways, it transpired that he was waiting for a wind.

Shef and his men had spent the days of waiting wandering with increasing entrancement round the streets of Cordova, seeing for the first time for any of them the hundred thousand details of a developed commercial civilization: the carts coming in each dawn with produce, so many of them that those coming in had one side of the main streets, those going out the other, while there were men of the town Cadi who did nothing all day but ensure that such rules were maintained! The ever-turning water-wheels, or norias, which scooped water out of the river and transferred it to stone runnels, from which even the poor could fetch their water. The rigid regulations about sewage, which even the richest must obey. The houses for treatment of the sick; the public disputations where wise men spoke simultaneously of the Koran, the learning of the Jews, the wisdom of the Greeks; the surgeons, the mosques, the courts where the strict, even-handed justice of the shari’a was dispensed. Something there for everyone to stare at. In a while even the timidest lost their fear of the alien, even the fiercest and greediest ceased thinking of this world as merely another city to sack. If anything the feeling that had been created was one of awe: the word the Vikings used to mean, not fear, but a sense of being hopelessly outmatched. Could these people do everything?

Only a few rose above this to observe weaknesses, inadequacies. Shef, at least, strove to do so, conscious that it might be mere jealousy which drove him. And then the Caliph sent word that it was time to meet the impossible, the flying man.

This is going to be another disaster like the one with the hens’-feather man, Shef told himself as he neared the tower from which the launch had been promised, his companions shoving along behind him in the way they had grown used to in the continuous unbelievable swarm of the city. Probably another disaster. But it has to be said. There are two good things this time that were not so when King Alfred’s man tried to fly from my tower. First, though there is this talk about the wind, as there was last time, no-one has mentioned birds or feathers.

And second: we have met men, truthful-seeming men if I and Skaldfinn can judge their words, who insist that they saw this man fly fifteen years ago. Not heard about it, not been nearby. Saw it themselves. And their stories, if they do not tally on what they saw, agree on when and where.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry