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

In a cool courtyard not far from the hot shut-in room where the men were sitting, Svandis sat on a bench eying the circle of women who sat with her, round the fountain. Slowly she put a hand up to her veil, pulled it away from her face, threw back her hood. Her copper hair spilled down, framing the pale ice-water eyes. Some of the women around her drew in deep breaths. Others did not.

“You speak English, then,” said one of them. She too dropped her veil, as the others did. Svandis looked at the one who had spoken: realized she was almost as fair as herself, with hair the color of pale ash-wood and green eyes. Realized too that she was a woman of amazing beauty. Since she had grown past childhood Svandis had been used to being the center of all eyes. If this woman were in the room, she admitted to herself, that might not be so.

“Yes,” she replied, in English also. “But not well. I am a Dane.”

The women looked at each other. “Danes took many of us from our homes,” said the first one. “Sold us to the harems of the powerful. Some of us did well—those who knew how to use their bodies. Others not so well. We have no reason to love Danes.” As she spoke there was a continual patter of translation from English into Arabic. Svandis realized that those around her were of mixed race and language. All, though, young and beautiful.

“I know,” she said. “My father was Ivar Ragnarsson.”

This time the expressions moved from fear to rage. Hands moved inside the all-covering cloaks. The ash-blonde girl thoughtfully pulled a long steel needle from her hair.

“I know what my father was. I know what he did. It happened to me too—and worse to my mother.”

“How could such a thing happen to you? A princess of the Danes? Of the Viking woman-stealers?”

“I will tell you. But let me make it a condition.” Svandis looked round the circle of a dozen women, trying to estimate their age and race. Half of them Northerners, she could see, but some olive-skinned like the men of Cordova, one almost yellow-skinned, others—she could not tell. “The condition is that each of us shall tell the others what is the worst thing that has happened to her. Then we will all know we are on the same side. Not English, or Danes, or Arabs. All women.”

The women looked sidelong at each other as the translation pattered out. “And I will begin. And I will tell you not of the day I lost my virginity for a crust of stale bread. Not of the day I buried all my friends at once, in one grave. No, I will tell you of the day my mother died…”

By the time the last woman had finished speaking, the sun had moved off the central courtyard and the shadows were lengthening. The ash-blonde girl wiped the tears from her face, not for the first time, and waved imperiously at the cloisters round the fountain. Silently slave-bodyguards appeared, setting out small tables with dishes of fruit, jars of cool water and sherbet, faded back into the shadows to watch their masters’ property.

“Very well,” she said. “So we are all the same. Even if you are a Dane and the daughter of a madman. But now, tell us what we want to know. What brought you here? Who is the one-eyed king? Are you his woman? And why do you wear the strange robes, like the priests they talk about? Have they made you a priestess, and of which God?”

“There is something I have to tell you first,” said Svandis, her voice dropping even though she was sure none of the men in the shadows could understand her tongue.

“There is no God. Not even Allah.”

For the first time the mutter of translation ceased. The women looked at each other, unsure how to put what she had said into other words. So close to the shahada: there is no God but God. So far apart. And if saying the shahada made man or woman irrevocably a Muslim, saying its opposite—that must mean death at the least.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry