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

“Tell me more later,” he shouted over the rising war-cries. “At dinner. Once the rats are dead.”

Chapter Six

The Caliph of Cordova, Abd er-Rahman, was troubled in his heart. He sat cross-legged on his favorite carpet in the smallest and most private courtyard of his palace, and allowed his mind to sort carefully through its troubles. Water ran continually from the fountain at his side, soothing his thoughts. In a hundred pots placed seemingly at random around the enclosed court, flowers bloomed. An awning defended him from the direct rays of the sun, already hot in the short Andalusia spring. All around, the word was passed in whispers, and servants fell silent, took their work elsewhere. On bare feet his bodyguards padded gently back into the shaded colonnades, watching but remaining unseen. A mustarib slave-girl of his harem, urgently summoned by his major-domo, began very gently to pluck out a faint tune on her zither, so low as to be almost inaudible, alert for the faintest sign of displeasure. None came, as the Caliph sank deeper and deeper into introspection.

The news from his traders was bad, he reflected. There was no question but that the Christians had seized every island that could conceivably be used as the base for a fleet: Malta, Sicily, Mallorca, Menorca, the other Balearics, even Formentera, all gone, and behind them—though this was none of his concern—the Greek islands of Crete and Cyprus. His traders reported that all ship movements even along the African shore were now subject to harassment from Christian raiders. It was strange that they had come so quickly, he mused.

There was a reason, though the Caliph did not know it. For all its size, the Mediterranean is in some ways more like a lake than an open sea. Because of its prevailing winds and the insistent current that pours in from the Atlantic to replace the constant evaporation of the almost land-locked sea, it is far easier in the Mediterranean to sail west to east than east to west; easier too to sail north to south than south to north. The first factor was to the Caliph’s advantage, the second to that of his Christian foes. Once the block of the Arab fleets and bases in the north had been removed, the way was easy and open for every Christian village on the Mediterranean islands that could fit out a ship to send it south and try to reclaim their long losses from the traders of Egypt and Tunis, of Spain and Morocco.

No, thought the Caliph. The interruption of trade vexes me, but it is not the source of my trouble. Spain lacks for nothing. If trade is cut down, some men will become poor, others rich in their place as they supply what we used to buy from the Egyptians. As for the loss of fleets and men, that angers me, but it can be avenged. That is not what perturbs my soul.

The news from the Franks then? The Caliph had no personal feeling for the brigand strongholds that the new Emperor of the Franks was burning out. They paid him no taxes, contained none of his relatives. Many of them were men who had fled from his justice. Yet there was something there to irritate him, it was true. He could not forget the words of the prophet Muhammad: “O believers, fight against the unbelievers who are nearest to you.” Could it be that he, Abd er-Rahman, had neglected his spiritual duty? Had not moved aggressively enough against the unbelievers on his northern border? Had not come to help of those of Islam who obeyed the Prophet? Abd er-Rahman knew why he had left the northern mountains alone: thin profits, heavy losses, and the removal of what was after all a screen between himself and the Franks the other side of the mountains. Christians, heretics, Jews, all mixed together, easier to tax than to rule, he had thought. Yet maybe he had done wrong.

No, the Caliph reflected again, this news angered him, and made him think of changing his policy in the future, but there was no danger in it. Leon and Navarre, Galicia and Roussillon and the other tiny kingdoms, they would fall whenever he put out his hand to them. Next year maybe. He must think deeper.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry