Harry Turtledove first came to prominence as a writer of alternate world fantasy with The Misplaced Legion, the first volume in his multibook Videssos series of novels about the experiences of a Roman Legion translated to a world that runs on magic. Since then, he has explored the impact of altered historical events in a variety of works, including Agent of Byzantium, set in medieval times, the acclaimed Guns of the South, in which time travelers manipulate a southern victory in the American Civil War, and the first two volumes of The Great War saga, American Front and Walk in Hell, which envisions an America in which the United States and the Confederacy support opposing sides in World War I. His ambitious Worldwar series—which includes In the Balance, Tilting the Balance, Striking the Balance, and Upsetting the Balance—projects an alternate World War II in which an alien invasion forges alliances between Axis and Allied opponents. Turtledove has also co-edited the anthology Alternate Generals. His many other works include the short-fiction collection Departures, the comic fantasy The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump, and the linked novels Into the Darkness and Darkness Descending, epic tales of empire building set in a fantasy world where cataclysmic wars are fought with magic.
Islam exploded out of Arabia in the seventh century. The triumphant armies of the caliphs overthrew the Persian Empire and took Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa from the East Roman or Byzantine Empire. Muslim forces twice besieged Constantinople, in 674–78 and 717–18. In our history, the Byzantine capital held and the Byzantine Empire survived as Christianity’s eastern bulwark, holding Islam out of Anatolia and the Balkans for centuries to come and converting the Bulgars and Russians to faith in Christ. But what if the Empire had fallen in the eighth century instead of the fifteenth? The still-pagan folk to the north of Constantinople would have had new choices to make. . . .
A.H. 152 (A.D. 769)
The Bulgar border guards had arrows nocked and ready as the Arab horsemen rode up from the south. Jalal ad-Din as-Stambuli, the leader of the Arab delegation, raised his right hand to show it was empty. “In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful, I and my men come in peace,” he called in Arabic. To be sure the guards understood, he repeated himself in Greek.
The precaution paid off. The guards lowered their bows. In Greek much worse than Jalal ad-Din’s, one of them asked, “Why for you come in peace, whitebeard?”
Jalal ad-Din stroked his whiskers. Even without the Bulgar’s mockery, he knew they were white. Not many men who had the right to style themselves as-Stambuli, the Constantinopolitan, still lived. More than fifty years had passed since the army of Suleiman and Maslama had taken Constantinople and put an end to the Roman Empire. Then Jalal ad-Din’s beard had not been white. Then he could hardly raise a beard at all.
He spoke in Greek again: “My master the caliph Abd ar-Rahman asked last year if your khan Telerikh would care to learn more of Islam, of submission to the one God. This past spring Telerikh sent word that he would. We are the embassy sent to instruct him.”
The Bulgar who had talked with him now used his own hissing language, Jalal ad-Din supposed to translate for his comrades. They answered back, some of them anything but happily. Content in their paganism, Jalal ad-Din guessed—content to burn in hell forever. He did not wish that fate on anyone, even a Bulgar.
The guard who knew Greek confirmed his thought, saying, “Why for we want your god? Gods, spirits, ghosts good to us now.”
Jalal ad-Din shrugged. “Your khan asked to hear more of Allah and Islam. That is why we are here.” He could have said much more, but deliberately spoke in terms a soldier would understand.
“Telerikh want, Telerikh get,” the guard agreed. He spoke again with his countrymen, at length pointed at two of them. “This Iskur. This Omurtag. They take you to Pliska, to where Telerikh is. Iskur, him know Greek a little, not so good like me.”
“Know little your tongue too,” Iskur said in halting Arabic, which surprised Jalal ad-Din and, evidently, the Bulgar who had been doing all the talking till now. The prospective guide glanced at the sun, which was a couple of hours from setting. “We ride,” he declared, and started off with no more fanfare than that. The Bulgar called Omurtag followed.
So, more slowly, did Jalal ad-Din and his companions. By the time Iskur called a halt in deepening twilight, the mountains that made the northern horizon jagged were visibly closer.
“Those little ponies the Bulgars ride are ugly as mules, but they go and go and go,” said Da’ud ibn Zubayr, who was a veteran of many skirmishes on the border between the caliph’s land and Bulgaria. He stroked the mane of his elegant, Arab-bred mare.
“Sadly, my old bones do not.” Jalal ad-Din groaned with relief as he slid off his own horse, a soft-gaited gelding. Once he had delighted in fiery stallions, but he knew that if he took a fall now he would shatter like glass.
The Bulgars stalked into the brush to hunt. Da’ud bent to the laborious business of getting a fire going. The other two Arabs, Malik ibn Anas and Salman al-Tabari, stood guard, one with a bow, the other with a spear. Iskur and Omurtag emerged into firelight carrying partridges and rabbits. Jalal ad-Din took hard unleavened bread from a saddlebag: no feast tonight, he thought, but not the worst of fare either.
Iskur also had a skin of wine. He offered it to the Arabs, grinned when they declined. “More for me, Omurtag,” he said. The two Bulgars drank the skin dry, and soon lay snoring by the fire.
Da’ud ibn Zubayr scowled at them. “The only use they have for wits is losing them,” he sneered. “How can such folk ever come to acknowledge Allah and his Prophet?”
“We Arabs were wine-bibbers too, before Muhammad forbad it to us,” Jalal ad-Din said. “My worry is that the Bulgars’ passion for such drink will make khan Telerikh less inclined to accept our faith.”
Da’ud dipped his head to the older man. “Truly it is just that you lead us, sir. Like a falcon, you keep your eye ever on our quarry.”
“Like a falcon, I sleep in the evening,” Jalal ad-Din said, yawning. “And like an old falcon, I need more sleep than I once did.”
“Your years have brought you wisdom.” Da’ud ibn Zubayr hesitated, as if wondering whether to go on. Finally he plunged: “Is it true, sir, that you once met a man who had known the Prophet?”
“It is true,” Jalal ad-Din said proudly. “It was at Antioch, when Suleiman’s army was marching to fight the Greeks at Constantinople. The grandfather of the innkeeper with whom I was quartered lived with him still: he was a Medinan, far older then than I am now, for he had soldiered with Khalid ibn al-Walid when the city fell to us. And before that, as a youth, he accompanied Muhammad when the Prophet returned in triumph from Medina to Mecca.”
“Allahu akbar,” Da’ud breathed: “God is great. I am further honored to be in your presence. Tell me, did—did the old man grant you an hadith, any tradition, of the Prophet that you might pass on to me for the sake of my enlightenment?”
“Yes,” Jalal ad-Din said. “I recall it as if it were yesterday, just as the old man did when speaking of the journey to the Holy City. Abu Bakr, who was not yet caliph, of course, for Muhammad was still alive, started beating a man for letting a camel get loose. The Prophet began to smile, and said, ‘See what this pilgrim is doing.’ Abu Bakr was abashed, though the Prophet did not actually tell him to stop.”
Da’ud bowed low. “I am in your debt.” He repeated the story several times; Jalal ad-Din nodded to show him he had learned it perfectly. In the time-honored way, Da’ud went on, “I have this hadith from Jalal ad-Din as-Stambuli, who had it from—what was the old man’s name, sir?”
“He was called Abd al-Qadir.”
“—who had it from Abd al-Qadir, who had it from the Prophet. Think of it—only two men between Muhammad and me.” Da’ud bowed again.
Jalal ad-Din returned the bow, then embarrassed himself by yawning once more. “Your pardon, I pray. Truly I must sleep.”
“Sleep, then, and Allah keep you safe till the morning comes.”
Jalal ad-Din rolled himself in his blanket. “And you, son of Zubayr.”
“THOSE ARE NO mean works,” Da’ud said a week later, pointing ahead to the earthen rampart, tall as six men, that ringed Pliska, Telerikh’s capital.
“That is a child’s toy, next to the walls of Constantinople,” Jalal ad-Din said. “A double wall, each one twice that height, all steep stone, well-ditched in front and between, with all the Greeks in the world, it seemed, battling from atop them.” Across half a century, recalling the terror of the day of the assault, he wondered still how he had survived.
“I was born in Constantinople,” Da’ud reminded him gently.
“Of course you were.” Jalal ad-Din shook his head, angry at himself for letting past obscure present that way. It was something old men did, but who cares to remember he is old?
Da’ud glanced around to make sure Iskur was out of earshot, lowered his voice. “For pagan savages, those are no mean works. And see how much land they enclose—Pliska must be a city of greater size than I had supposed.”
“No.” Jalal ad-Din remembered a talk with a previous envoy to Telerikh. “The town itself is tiny. This earthwork serves chiefly to mark off the grazing lands of the khan’s flocks.”
“His flocks? Is that all?” Da’ud threw back his head and laughed. “I feel as though I am transported to some strange new world, where nothing is as it seems.”
“I have had that feeling ever since we came through the mountain passes,” Jalal ad-Din said seriously. Da’ud gave him a curious look. He tried to explain: “You are from Constantinople. I was born not far from Damascus, where I dwell yet. A long journey from one to the other, much longer than from Constantinople to Pliska.”
“And yet it is a journey through sameness,” Jalal ad-Din went on. “Not much difference in weather, in crops, in people. Aye, more Greeks, more Christians in Constantinople still, for we have ruled there so much less time than in Damascus, but the difference is of degree, not of kind.”
“That is all true,” Da’ud said, nodding again. “Whereas here—”
“Aye, here,” Jalal ad-Din said with heavy irony. “The olive will not grow here, the sun fights its way through mists that swaddle it as if it were a newborn babe, and even a Greek would be welcome, for the sake of having someone civilized to talk to. This is a different world from ours, and not one much to my liking.”
“Still, we hope to wed it to ours through Islam,” Da’ud said.
“So we do, so we do. Submission to the will of God makes all men one.” Now Jalal ad-Din made sure Iskur was paying no attention. The nomad had ridden ahead. Jalal ad-Din went on, “Even Bulgars.” Da’ud chuckled.
Iskur yelled something at the guards lounging in front of a wooden gate in Pliska’s earthen outwall. The guards yelled back. Iskur shouted again, louder this time. With poor grace, the guards got up and opened the gate. They stared as they saw what sort of companions Iskur led.
Jalal ad-Din gave them a grave salute as he passed through the gate, as much to discomfit them as for any other reason. He pointed ahead to the stone wall of Pliska proper. “You see?”
“I see,” Da’ud said. The rectangular wall was less than half a mile on a side. “In our lands, that would be a fortress, not a capital.”
The gates of the stone wall were open. Jalal ad-Din coughed as he followed Iskur and Omurtag into the town: Pliska stank like—stank worse than—a big city. Jalal ad-Din shrugged. Sooner or later, he knew, he would stop noticing the stench.
Not far inside the gates stood a large building of intricately carven wood. “This Telerikh’s palace,” Iskur announced.
Tethered in front of the palace were any number of steppe ponies like the ones Iskur and Omurtag rode and also, Jalal ad-Din saw with interest, several real horses and a mule whose trappings did not look like Arab gear. “To whom do those belong?” he asked, pointing.
“Not know,” Iskur said. He cupped his hands and yelled toward the palace—yelling, Jalal ad-Din thought wryly, seemed the usual Bulgar approach toward any problem. After a little while, a door opened. The Arab had not even noticed it till then, so lost was its outline among carvings.
As soon as they saw someone come out of the palace, Iskur and Omurtag wheeled their horses and rode away without a backwards glance at the ambassadors they had guided to Pliska. The man who had emerged took a moment to study the new arrivals. He bowed. “How may I help you, my masters?” he asked in Arabic fluent enough to make Jalal ad-Din sit up and take notice.
“We are envoys of the caliph Abd ar-Rahman, come to your fine city”—Jalal ad-Din knew when to stretch a point—“at the bidding of your khan to explain to him the glories of Islam. I have the honor of addressing—?” He let the words hang.
“I am Dragomir, steward to the mighty khan Telerikh. Dismount; be welcome here.” Dragomir bowed again. He was, Jalal ad-Din guessed, in his late thirties, stocky and well-made, with fair skin, a full brown beard framing rather a wide face, and gray eyes that revealed nothing whatever—a useful attribute in a steward.
Jalal ad-Din and his companions slid gratefully from their horses. As if by magic, boys appeared to hitch the Arabs’ beasts to the rails in front of the palace and carry their saddlebags into it. Jalal ad-Din nodded at the other full-sized horses and the mule. “To whom do those belong, pray?” he asked Dragomir.
The steward’s pale but hooded eyes swung toward the hitching rail, returned to Jalal ad-Din. “Those,” he explained, “are the animals of the delegation of priests from the Pope of Rome at the bidding of my khan to expound to him the glories of Christianity. They arrived earlier today.”
LATE THAT NIGHT, Da’ud slammed a fist against a wall of the chamber the four Arabs shared. “Better they should stay pagan than turn Christian!” he shouted. Not only was he angry that Telerikh had also invited Christians to Pliska as if intending to auction his land to the faith that bid highest, he was also short-tempered from hunger. The evening’s banquet had featured pork. (It had not featured Telerikh; some heathen Bulgar law required the khan always to eat alone.)
“This is not so,” Jalal ad-Din said mildly.
“And why not?” Da’ud glared at the older man.
“As Christians they would be dhimmis—people of the Book—and thus granted a hope of heaven. Should they cling to their pagan practices, their souls will surely belong to Satan till the end of time.”
“Satan is welcome to their souls, whether pagan or Christian,” Da’ud said. “But a Christian Bulgaria, allied to Rome, maybe even allied to the Franks, would block the true faith’s progress northwards and could be the spearpoint of a thrust back toward Constantinople.”
Jalal ad-Din sighed. “What you say is true. Still, the true faith is also true, and the truth surely will prevail against Christian falsehoods.”
“May it be so,” Da’ud said heavily. “But was this land not once a Christian country, back in the days before the Bulgars seized it from Constantinople? All the lands the Greeks held followed their usages. Some folk hereabouts must be Christian still, I’d wager, which might incline Telerikh toward their beliefs.”
A knock on the door interrupted the argument. Da’ud kept one hand on his knife as he opened the door with the other. But no enemies stood outside, only four girls. Two were colored like Dragomir—to Jalal ad-Din’s eyes, exotically fair. The other two were dark, darker than Arabs, in fact; one had eyes that seemed set at a slant. All four were pretty. They smiled and swayed their way in.
“Telerikh is no Christian,” Jalal ad-Din said as he smiled back at one of the light-skinned girls. “Christians are not allowed concubines.”
“The more fools they,” Da’ud said. “Shall I blow out the lamps, or leave them burning?”
“Leave them,” Jalal ad-Din answered. “I want to see what I am doing . . .”
JALAL AD-DIN BOWED low to khan Telerikh. A pace behind him, Da’ud did the same. Another pace back, Malik ibn Anas and Salman al-Tabari went to one knee, as suited their lower rank.
“Rise, all of you,” Telerikh said in passable Arabic. The khan of the Bulgars was about fifty, swarthy, broad-faced, wide-nosed, with a thin beard going from black to gray. His eyes were narrow, hard, and shrewd. He looked like a man well able to rule a nation whose strength came entirely from the ferocity of its soldiers.
“Most magnificent khan, we bring the greetings of our master the caliph Abd ar-Rahman ibn Marwan, his prayers for your health and prosperity, and gifts to show that you stand high in his esteem,” Jalal ad-Din said.
He waved Salman and Malik forward to present the gifts: silver plates from Persia, Damascus-work swords, fine enamelware from Constantinople, a robe of glistening Chinese silk, and, last but not least, a Qu’ran bound in leather and gold, its calligraphy the finest the scribes of Alexandria could provide.
Telerikh, though, seemed most interested in the robe. He rose from his wooden throne, undid the broad bronze belt he wore, shrugged out of his knee-length fur caftan. Under it he had on a linen tunic and trousers and low boots. Dragomir came up to help him put on the robe. He smiled with pleasure as he ran a hand over the watery-smooth fabric.
“Very pretty,” he crooned. For a moment, Jalal ad-Din hoped he was so taken by the presents as to be easily swayed. But Telerikh, as the Arab had guessed from his appearance, was not so simple. He went on, “The caliph gives lovely gifts. With his riches, he can afford to. Now please take your places while the envoys of the Pope of Rome present themselves.”
Dragomir waved the Arab delegation off to the right of the throne, close by the turbaned boyars—the great nobles—who made up Telerikh’s court. Most were of the same stock as their khan; a few looked more like Dragomir and the fair girl Jalal ad-Din had so enjoyed the night before. Fair or dark, they smelled of hard-run horses and ancient sweat.
As he had with the caliph’s embassy, Dragomir announced the papal legates in the throaty Bulgarian tongue. There were three of them, as Jalal ad-Din had seen at the banquet. Two were gorgeous in robes that reminded him of the ones the Constantinopolitan grandees had worn so long ago as they vainly tried to rally their troops against the Arabs. The third wore a simple brown woolen habit. Amid the Bulgar chatter, meaningless to him, Jalal ad-Din picked out three names: Niketas, Theodore, and Paul.
The Christians scowled at the Arabs as they walked past them to approach Telerikh. They bowed as Jalal ad-Din had. “Stand,” Telerikh said in Greek. Jalal ad-Din was not surprised he knew that language; the Bulgars had dealt with Constantinople before the Arabs took it, and many refugees had fled to Pliska. Others had escaped to Italy, which no doubt explained why two of the papal legates bore Greek names.
“Excellent khan,” said one of the envoys (Theodore, Jalal ad-Din thought it was), also in Greek, “we are saddened to see you decked in raiment given you by our foes as you greet us. Does this mean you hold us in contempt, and will give us no fair hearing? Surely you did not invite us to travel so far merely for that?”
Telerikh blinked, glanced down at the silk robe he had just put on. “No,” he said. “It only means I like this present. What presents have you for me?”
Da’ud leaned forward, whispered into Jalal ad-Din’s ear: “More avarice in that one than fear of hell.” Jalal ad-Din nodded. That made his task harder, not easier. He would have to play politics along with expounding the truth of Islam. He sighed. Ever since he learned Telerikh had also bid the men from Rome hither, he’d expected no less.
The Christians were presenting their gifts, and making a great show of it to try to disguise their not being so fine as the ones their rivals had given—Jalal ad-Din’s offerings still lay in a glittering heap beside Telerikh’s throne. “Here,” Theodore intoned, “is a copy of the Holy Scriptures, with a personal prayer for you inscribed therein by his holiness the Pope Constantine.”
Jalal ad-Din let out a quiet but scornful snort. “The words of Allah are the ones that count,” he whispered to Da’ud ibn Zubayr, “not those of any man.” It was Da’ud’s turn to nod.
As he had with the Qu’ran, Telerikh idly paged through the Bible. Perhaps halfway through, he paused, glanced up at the Christians. “You have pictures in your book.” It sounded almost like an accusation; had Jalal ad-Din said it, it would have been.
But the Christian in the plain brown robe, the one called Paul, answered calmly, “Yes, excellent khan, we do, the better to instruct the many who cannot read the words beside them.” He was no longer young—he might have been close to Jalal ad-Din’s age—but his voice was light and clear and strong, the voice of a man sure in the path he has chosen.
“Beware of that one,” Da’ud murmured. “He has more holiness in him than the other two put together.” Jalal ad-Din had already reached the same conclusion, and did not like it. Enemies, he thought, ought by rights to be rogues.
He got only a moment to mull on that, for Telerikh suddenly shifted to Arabic and called to him, “Why are there no pictures in your book, to show me what you believe?”
“Because Allah the one God is infinite, far too mighty for our tiny senses to comprehend, and so cannot be depicted,” he said, “and man must not be depicted, for Allah created him in his image from a clot of blood. The Christians’ own scriptures say as much, but they ignore any law which does not suit them.”
“Liar! Misbeliever!” Theodore shouted. Torchlight gleamed off his tonsured pate as he whirled to confront Jalal ad-Din.
“No liar I,” Jalal ad-Din said; not for nothing had he studied with men once Christian before they saw the truth of Muhammad’s teaching. “The verse you deny is in the book called Exodus.”
“Is this true?” Telerikh rumbled, scowling at the Christians.
Theodore started to reply; Paul cut him off. “Excellent khan, the verse is as the Arab states. My colleague did not wish to deny it.” Theodore looked ready to argue. Paul did not let him, continuing, “But that law was given to Moses long ago. Since then, Christ the Son of God has appeared on earth; belief in him assures one of heaven, regardless of the observance of the outdated rules of the Jews.”
Telerikh grunted. “A new law may replace an old, if circumstances change. What say you to that, envoy of the caliph?”
“I will quote two verses from the Qu’ran, from the sura called The Cow,” Jalal ad-Din said, smiling at the opening Paul had left him. “Allah says, ‘The Jews say the Christians are astray, and the Christians say it is the Jews who are astray. Yet they both read the Scriptures.’ Which is to say, magnificent khan, that they have both corrupted God’s word. And again, ‘They say: “Allah has begotten a son.” Allah forbid!’ ”
When reciting from the Qu’ran, he had naturally fallen into Arabic. He was not surprised to see the Christians following his words without difficulty. They too would have prepared for any eventuality on this mission.
One of Telerikh’s boyars called something to the khan in his own language. Malik ibn Anas, who was with Jalal ad-Din precisely because he knew a little of the Bulgar speech, translated for him: “He says that the sacred stones of their forefathers, even the pagan gods of the Slavs they rule, have served them well enough for years upon years, and calls on Telerikh not to change their usages now.”
Looking around, Jalal ad-Din saw more than a few boyars nodding. “Great khan, may I speak?” he called. Telerikh nodded. Jalal ad-Din went on, “Great khan, you need but look about you to see proof of Allah’s might. Is it not true that my lord the caliph Abd ar-Rahman, peace be unto him, rules from the Western Sea to India, from your borders to beyond the deserts of Egypt? Even the Christians, who know the one God imperfectly, still control many lands. Yet only you here in this small country follow your idols. Does this not show you their strength is a paltry thing?”
“There is more, excellent khan.” Niketas, who had been quiet till then, unexpectedly spoke up. “Your false gods isolate Bulgaria. How, in dealing with Christians or even Muslims, can your folk swear an oath that will be trusted? How can you put the power of God behind a treaty, to ensure it will be enforced? In what way can one of you lawfully marry a Christian? Other questions like these will surely have occurred to you, else you would not have bid us come.”
“He speaks the truth, khan Telerikh,” Jalal ad-Din said. He had not thought a priest would have so good a grasp of matters largely secular, but Niketas did. Since his words could not be denied, supporting them seemed better than ignoring them.
Telerikh gnawed on his mustaches. He looked from one delegation to the other, back again. “Tell me,” he said slowly, “is it the same god both groups of you worship, or do you follow different ones?”
“That is an excellent question,” Jalal ad-Din said; no, Telerikh was no fool. “It is the same god: there is no God but God. But the Christians worship him incorrectly, saying he is Three, not One.”
“It is the same God,” Paul agreed, once more apparently overriding Theodore. “Muhammad is not a true prophet and many of his preach-ings are lies, but it is the same God, who gave his only begotten Son to save mankind.”
“Stop!” Telerikh held up a hand. “If it is the same God, what difference does it make how I and my people worship him? No matter what the prayers we send up to him, surely he will know what we mean.”
Jalal ad-Din glanced toward Paul. The Christian was also looking at him. Paul smiled. Jalal ad-Din found himself smiling back. He too felt the irony of the situation: he and Paul had more in common with each other than either of them did with the naive Bulgar khan. Paul raised an eyebrow. Jalal ad-Din dipped his head, granting the Christian permission to answer Telerikh’s question.
“Sadly, excellent khan, it is not so simple,” Paul said. “Just as there is only one true God, so there can be only one true way to worship him, for while he is merciful, he is also just, and will not tolerate errors in the reverence paid him. To use a homely example, sir, would it please you if we called you ‘khan of the Avars’?”
“It would please me right well, were it true,” Telerikh said with a grim chuckle. “Worse luck for me, though, the Avars have a khan of their own. Very well, priest, I see what you are saying.”
The Bulgar ruler rubbed his chin. “This needs more thought. We will all gather here again in three days’ time, to speak of it further. Go now in peace, and remember”—he looked sternly from Christians to Muslims—“you are all my guests here. No fighting between you, or you will regret it.”
Thus warned, the rival embassies bowed their way out.
JALAL AD-DIN SPENT more time before his next encounter with the priests exploring Pliska than he had hoped to. No matter how delightful he found his fair-skinned pleasure girl, he was not a young man: for him, between rounds meant between days.
After the barbarous richness of Telerikh’s wooden palace, the Arab found the rest of the town surprisingly familiar. He wondered why until he realized that Pliska, like Damascus, like Constantinople, like countless other settlements through which he had passed at one time or another, had been a Roman town once. Layout and architecture lingered long after overlords changed.
Jalal ad-Din felt like shouting when he found a bath house not only still standing but still used; from what his nose had told him in the palace, he’d doubted the Bulgars even suspected cleanliness existed. When he went in, he found most of the bathers were of the lighter-colored folk from whom Dragomir and his mistress had sprung. They were, he’d gathered, peasant Slavs over whom the Bulgars proper ruled.
He also found that, being mostly unacquainted with either Christianity or Islam, they let in women along with the men. It was scandalous; it was shocking; in Damascus it would have raised riots. Jalal ad-Din wished his eyes were as sharp as they’d been when he was forty, or even fifty.
He was happily soaking in a warm pool when the three Christian envoys came in. Theodore hissed in horror when he saw the naked women, spun on his heel, and stalked out. Niketas started to follow, but Paul took hold of his arm and stopped him. The older man shrugged out of his brown robe, sank with a sigh of pleasure into the same pool Jalal ad-Din was using. Niketas, by his expression still dubious, joined him a moment later.
“Flesh is flesh,” Paul said calmly. “By pledging yourself to Christ, you have acknowledged that its pleasures are not for you. No point in fleeing, then.”
Jalal ad-Din nodded to the Christians. “You have better sense, sir, than I would have looked for in a priest,” he told Paul.
“I thank you.” If Paul heard the undercurrent of irony in the Arab’s voice, he did not let it affect his own tone, which briefly shamed Jalal ad-Din. Paul went on, “I am no priest in any case, only a humble monk, here to advise my superiors if they care to listen to me.”
“Only!” Jalal ad-Din scoffed. But, he had to admit to himself, the monk sounded completely sincere. He sighed; hating his opponents would have been much easier were they evil. “They would be wise to listen to you,” he said. “I think you are a holy man.”
“You give me too much credit,” Paul said.
“No, he does not,” Niketas told his older colleague. “Not just by words do you instruct the barbarians hereabouts, but also through the life you live, which by its virtues illuminates your teachings.”
Paul bowed. From a man squatting naked in waist-deep water, the gesture should have seemed ludicrous. Somehow it did not.
Niketas turned to Jalal ad-Din. “Did I hear correctly that you are styled as-Stambuli?”
“You did,” the Arab answered proudly.
“How strange,” Niketas murmured. “Perhaps here God grants me the chance to avenge the fall of the Queen of Cities.”
He spoke as if the caliph’s armies had taken Constantinople only yesterday, not long before he was born. Seeing Jalal ad-Din’s confusion, Paul said, “Niketas’ mother is Anna, the daughter of Leo.”
“Yes?” Jalal ad-Din was polite, but that meant nothing to him. “And my mother was Zinawb, the daughter of Mu’in ibn Abd al-Wahhab. What of it?”
“Ah, but your grandfather, however illustrious he may have been (I do not slight him, I assure you), was never Basileus ton Rhomaion—Emperor of the Romans.”
“That Leo!” Jalal ad-Din thumped his forehead with the heel of his hand. He nodded to Niketas. “Your grandfather, sir, was a very devil. He fought us with all he had, and sent too many brave lads to paradise before their time.”
Niketas raised a dark eyebrow. His tonsured skull went oddly with those bushy brows and the thick beard that covered his cheeks almost to the eyes. “Too many, you say; I would say, not enough.”
“So you would,” Jalal ad-Din agreed. “Had Leo beaten us, you might be Roman Emperor yourself now. But Abd ar-Rahman the commander of the faithful rules Constantinople, and you are a priest in a foreign land. It is as Allah wills.”
“So I must believe,” Niketas said. “But just as Leo fought you with every weapon he had, I shall oppose you with all my means. The Bulgars must not fall victim to your false belief. It would be too great a blow for Christendom to suffer, removing from us all hope of greater growth.”
Niketas’ mind worked like an emperor’s, Jalal ad-Din thought—unlike many of his Christian colleagues, he understood the long view. He’d shown that in debate, too, when he pointed out the problems attendant on the Bulgars’ staying pagan. A dangerous foe—Pope Constantine had sent to Pliska the best the Christians had.
Whether that would be enough . . . Jalal ad-Din shrugged. “It is as Allah wills,” he repeated.
“And Telerikh,” Paul said. When Jalal ad-Din looked at him in surprise, the monk went on, “Of course, Telerikh is in God’s hands too. But God will not be influenced by what we do. Telerikh may.”
“There is that,” Jalal ad-Din admitted.
“NO TELLING HOW LONG all this arguing will go on,” Telerikh said when the Christian and Muslim embassies appeared before him once more. He spoke to Dragomir in his own language. The steward nodded, hurried away. A moment later, lesser servants brought in benches, which they set before Telerikh’s throne. “Sit,” the khan urged. “You may as well be comfortable.”
“How would you have us argue?” Jalal ad-Din asked, wishing the bench had a back but too proud to ask for a chair to ease his old bones.
“Tell me of your one god,” Telerikh said. “You say you and the Christians follow him. Tell me what you believe differently about him, so I may choose between your beliefs.”
Jalal ad-Din carefully did not smile. He had asked his question to seize the chance to speak first. Let the Christians respond to him. He began where any Muslim would, with the shahada, the profession of faith: “‘La illaha ill’Allah: Muhammadun rasulu’llah—There is no God but Allah; Muhammad is the prophet of Allah.’ Believe that, magnificent khan, and you are a Muslim. There is more, of course, but that is of the essence.”
“It is also a lie,” Theodore broke in harshly. “Excellent khan, the books of the Old Testament, written hundreds of years before God’s Son became flesh, foretold His coming. Neither Old nor New Testament speaks one word of the Arab charlatan who invented this false creed because he had failed as a camel-driver.”
“There is no prophecy pertaining to Muhammad in the Christians’ holy book because it was deliberately suppressed,” Jalal ad-Din shot back. “That is why God gave the Prophet his gifts, as the seal of prophecy.”
“The seal of trickery is nearer the truth,” Theodore said. “God’s only begotten Son Jesus Christ said prophecy ended with John the Baptist, but that false prophets would continue to come. Muhammad lived centuries after John and Jesus, so he must be false, a trick of the devil to send men to hell.”
“Jesus is no son of God. God is one, not three, as the Christians would have it,” Jalal ad-Din said. “Hear God’s own words in the Qu’ran: ‘Say, God is one.’ The Christians give the one God partners in the so-called Son and Holy Spirit. If he has two partners, why not three, or four, or more? Foolishness! And how could God fit into a woman’s womb and be born like a man? More foolishness!”
Again it was Theodore who took up the challenge; he was a bad-tempered man, but capable all the same. “God is omnipotent. To deny the possibility of the Incarnation is to deny that omnipotence.”
“That priest is twisty as a serpent,” Da’ud ibn Zubayr whispered to Jalal ad-Din. The older man nodded, frowning. He was not quite sure how to respond to Theodore’s latest sally. Who was he to say what Allah could or could not do?
Telerikh roused him from his unprofitable reverie by asking, “So you Arabs deny Jesus is the son of your one god, eh?”
“We do,” Jalal ad-Din said firmly.
“What do you make of him, then?” the khan said.
“Allah commands us to worship none but himself, so how can he have a son? Jesus was a holy man and a prophet, but nothing more. Since the Christians corrupted his words, Allah inspired Muhammad to recite the truth once more.”
“Could a prophet rise from the dead on the third day, as God’s Son did?” Theodore snorted, clapping a dramatic hand to his forehead. “Christ’s miracles are witnessed and attested in writing. What miracles did Muhammad work? None, the reason being that he could not.”
“He flew to Jerusalem in the course of a night,” Jalal ad-Din returned, “as the Qu’ran records—in writing,” he added pointedly. “And the crucifixion and resurrection are fables. No man can rise from the dead, and another was set on the cross in place of Jesus.”
“Satan waits for you in hell, blasphemer,” Theodore hissed. “Christ healed the sick, raised the dead, stopped wind and rain in their tracks. Anyone who denies Him loses all hope of heaven, and may garner for his sin only eternal torment.”
“No, that is the fate reserved for those who make One into Three,” Jalal ad-Din said. “You—”
“Wait, both of you.” Telerikh held up a hand. The Bulgar khan, Jalal ad-Din thought, seemed more stunned than edified by the arguments he had heard. The Arab realized he had been quarreling with Theodore rather than instructing the khan. Telerikh went on. “I cannot find the truth in what you are saying, for each of you and each of your books makes the other a liar. That helps me not at all. Tell me instead what I and my people must do, if we follow one faith or the other.”
“If you choose the Arabs’ false creed, you will have to abandon both wine-drinking and eating pork,” Theodore said before Jalal ad-Din could reply. “Let him deny it if he may.” The priest shot the Arab a triumphant look.
“It is true,” Jalal ad-Din said stoutly. “Allah has ordained it.”
He tried to put a bold face on it, but knew Theodore had landed a telling blow. The mutter that went up from Telerikh’s boyars confirmed it. A passion for wine inflamed most non-believers, Jalal ad-Din thought; sadly, despite the good counsel of the Qu’ran, it could capture Muslims as well. And as for pork—judging from the meals they served at Pliska, the Bulgars found it their favorite flesh.
“That is not good,” Telerikh said, and the Arab’s heart sank.
A passion for wine . . . passion! “Magnificent khan, may I ask without offense how many wives you enjoy?”
Telerikh frowned. “I am not quite sure. How many is it now, Dragomir?”
“Forty-seven, mighty khan,” the steward replied at once, competent as usual.
“And your boyars?” Jalal ad-Din went on. “Surely they also have more than one apiece.”
“Well, what of it?” the khan said, sounding puzzled.
Now Jalal ad-Din grinned an unpleasant grin at Theodore. “If you become a Christian, magnificent khan, you will have to give up all your wives save one. You will not even be able to keep the others as concubines, for the Christians also forbid that practice.”
“What?” If Telerikh had frowned before, the scowl he turned on the Christians now was thunderous. “Can this be true?”
“Of course it is true,” Theodore said, scowling back. “Bigamy is a monstrous sin.”
“Gently, my brother in Christ, gently,” Paul said. “We do not wish to press too hard upon our Bulgar friends, who after all will be newly come to our observances.”
“That one is truly a nuisance,” Da’ud whispered.
“You are too right,” Jalal ad-Din whispered back.
“Still, excellent khan,” Paul went on, “you must not doubt that Theodore is correct. When you and your people accept Christianity, all those with more than one wife—or women with more than one husband, if any there be—will be required to repudiate all but their first marriages, and to undergo penance under the supervision of a priest.”
His easy, matter-of-fact manner seemed to calm Telerikh. “I see you believe this to be necessary,” the khan said. “It is so strange, though, that I do not see why. Explain further, if you will.”
Jalal ad-Din made a fist. He had expected Christian ideas of marriage to appall Telerikh, not to intrigue him with their very alienness. Was a potential monk lurking under those fur robes, under that turban?
Paul said, “Celibacy, excellent khan, is the highest ideal. For those who cannot achieve it, marriage to a single partner is an acceptable alternative. Surely you must know, excellent khan, how lust can inflame men. And no sin is so intolerable to prophets and other holy men as depravity and sexual license, for the Holy Spirit will not touch the heart of a prophet while he is engaged in an erotic act. The life of the mind is nobler than that of the body; on this Holy Scripture and the wise ancient Aristotle agree.”
“I never heard of this, ah, Aristotle. Was he a shaman?” Telerikh asked.
“You might say so,” Paul replied, which impressed Jalal ad-Din. The Arab knew little of Aristotle, hardly more than that he had been a sage before even Roman times. He was certain, however, that Aristotle had been a civilized man, not a barbarous pagan priest. But that was surely the closest equivalent to sage within Telerikh’s mental horizon, and Paul deserved credit for recognizing it.
The Bulgar khan turned to Jalal ad-Din. “What have you to say about this?”
“The Qu’ran permits a man four lawful wives, for those able to treat them equally well,” Jalal ad-Din said. “For those who cannot, it enjoins only one. But it does not prohibit concubines.”
“That is better,” the khan said. “A man would get bored, bedding the same woman night after night. But this business of no pork and no wine is almost as gloomy.” He gave his attention back to the priests. “You Christians allow these things.”
“Yes, excellent khan, we do,” Paul said.
“Hmm.” Telerikh rubbed his chin. Jalal ad-Din did his best to hide his worry. The matter still stood balanced, and he had used his strongest weapon to incline the khan to Islam. If the Christians had any good arguments left, he—and the fate of the true faith in Bulgaria—were in trouble.
Paul said, “Excellent khan, these matters of practice may seem important to you, but in fact they are superficial. Here is the key difference between the Arab’s faith and ours: the religion Muhammad preached is one that loves violence, not peace. Such teaching can only come from Satan, I fear.”
“That is a foul, stinking lie!” Da’ud ibn Zubayr cried. The other two Arabs behind Jalal ad-Din also shouted angrily.
“Silence!” Telerikh said, glaring at them. “Do not interrupt. I shall give you a chance to answer in due course.”
“Yes, let the Christian go on,” Jalal ad-Din agreed. “I am sure the khan will be fascinated by what he has to say.”
Glancing back, he thought Da’ud about to burst with fury. The younger man finally forced out a strangled whisper: “Have you gone mad, to stand by while this infidel slanders the Prophet (may blessings be upon his head)?”
“I think not. Now be still, as Telerikh said. My ears are not what they once were; I cannot listen to you and Paul at once.”
The monk was saying, “Muhammad’s creed urges conversion by the sword, not by reason. Does not his holy book, if one may dignify it by that title, preach the holy war, the jihad”—he dropped the Arabic word into his polished Greek—“against all those who do not share his faith? And those who are slain in their murderous work, says the false prophet, attain to heaven straightaway.” He turned to Jalal ad-Din. “Do you deny this?”
“I do not,” Jalal ad-Din replied. “You paraphrase the third sura of the Qu’ran.”
“There, you see?” Paul said to Telerikh. “Even the Arab himself admits the ferocity of his faith. Think also on the nature of the paradise Muhammad in his ignorance promises his followers—”
“Why do you not speak?” Da’ud ibn Zubayr demanded. “You let this man slander and distort everything in which we believe.”
“Hush,” Jalal ad-Din said again.
“—rivers of water and milk, honey and wine, and men reclining on silken couches and being served—served in all ways, including pandering to their fleshly lusts (as if souls could have such concerns!)—by females created especially for the purpose.” Paul paused, needing a moment to draw in another indignant breath. “Such carnal indulgences—nay, excesses—have no place in heaven, excellent khan.”
“No? What does, then?” Telerikh asked.
Awe transfigured the monk’s thin, ascetic face as he looked within himself at the afterlife he envisioned. “Heaven, excellent khan, does not consist of banquets and wenches: those are for gluttons and sinners in this life, and lead to hell in the next. No: paradise is spiritual in nature, with the soul knowing the eternal joy of closeness and unity with God, peace of spirit and absence of all care. That is the true meaning of heaven.”
“Amen,” Theodore intoned piously. All three Christians made the sign of the cross over their breasts.
“That is the true meaning of heaven, you say?” Telerikh’s blunt-featured face was impassive as his gaze swung toward Jalal ad-Din. “Now you may speak as you will, man of the caliph. Has this Christian told accurately of the world to come in his faith and in yours?”
“He has, magnificent khan.” Jalal ad-Din spread his hands and smiled at the Bulgar lord. “I leave it to you, sir, to pick the paradise you would sooner inhabit.”
Telerikh looked thoughtful. The Christian clerics’ expressions went from confident to concerned to horrified as they gradually began to wonder, as Jalal ad-Din had already, just what sort of heaven a barbarian prince might enjoy.
Da’ud ibn Zubayr gently thumped Jalal ad-Din on the back. “I abase myself before you, sir,” he said, flowery in apology as Arabs so often were. “You saw further than I.” Jalal ad-Din bowed on his bench, warmed by the praise.
His voice urgent, the priest Niketas spoke up: “Excellent khan, you need to consider one thing more before you make your choice.”
“Eh? And what might that be?” Telerikh sounded distracted. Jalal ad-Din hoped he was; the delights of the Muslim paradise were worth being distracted about. Paul’s version, on the other hand, struck him as a boring way to spend eternity. But the khan, worse luck, was not altogether ready to abandon Christianity on account of that. Jalal ad-Din saw him focus his attention on Niketas. “Go on, priest.”
“Thank you, excellent khan.” Niketas bowed low. “Think on this, then: in Christendom the most holy Pope is the leader of all things spiritual, true, but there are many secular rulers, each to his own state: the Lombard dukes, the king of the Franks, the Saxon and Angle kings in Britain, the various Irish princes, every one a free man. But Islam knows only once prince, the caliph, who reigns over all Muslims. If you decide to worship Muhammad, where is there room for you as ruler of your own Bulgaria?”
“No one worships Muhammad,” Jalal ad-Din said tartly. “He is a prophet, not a god. Worship Allah, who alone deserves it.”
His correction of the minor point did not distract Telerikh from the major one. “Is what the Christian says true?” the khan demanded. “Do you expect me to bend the knee to your khan as well as your god? Why should I freely give Abd ar-Rahman what he has never won in battle?”
Jalal ad-Din thought furiously, all the while damning Niketas. Priest, celibate the man might be, but he still thought like a Greek, like a Roman Emperor of Constantinople, sowing distrust among his foes so they defeated themselves when his own strength did not suffice to beat them.
“Well, Arab, what have you to say?” Telerikh asked again.
Jalal ad-Din felt sweat trickle into his beard. He knew he had let silence stretch too long. At last, picking his words carefully, he answered, “Magnificent khan, what Niketas says is not true. Aye, the caliph Abd ar-Rahman, peace be unto him, rules all the land of Islam. But he does so by right of conquest and right of descent, just as you rule the Bulgars. Were you, were your people, to become Muslim without warfare, he would have no more claim on you than any brother in Islam has on another.”
He hoped he was right, and that the jurists would not make a liar of him once he got back to Damascus. All the ground here was uncharted: no nation had ever accepted Islam without first coming under the control of the caliphate. Well, he thought, if Telerikh and the Bulgars did convert, that success in itself would ratify anything he did to accomplish it.
If . . . Telerikh showed no signs of having made up his mind. “I will meet with all of you in four days,” the khan said. He rose, signifying the end of the audience. The rival embassies rose too, and bowed deeply as he stumped between them out of the hall of audience.
“If only it were easy.” Jalal ad-Din sighed.
* * *
THE LEATHER PURSE WAS SMALL but heavy. It hardly clinked as Jalal ad-Din pressed it into Dragomir’s hand. The steward made it disappear. “Tell me, if you would,” Jalal ad-Din said, as casually as if the purse had never existed at all, “how your master is inclined toward the two faiths about which he has been learning.”
“You are not the first person to ask me that question,” Dragomir remarked. He sounded the tiniest bit smug: I’ve been bribed twice, Jalal ad-Din translated mentally.
“Was the other person who inquired by any chance Niketas?” the Arab asked.
Telerikh’s steward dipped his head. “Why, yes, now that you mention it.” His ice-blue eyes gave Jalal ad-Din a careful once-over: men who could see past their noses deserved watching.
Smiling, Jalal ad-Din said, “And did you give him the same answer you will give me?”
“Why, certainly, noble sir.” Dragomir sounded as though the idea of doing anything else had never entered his mind. Perhaps it had not: “I told him, as I tell you now, that the mighty khan keeps his own counsel well, and has not revealed to me which faith—if either—he will choose.”
“You are an honest man.” Jalal ad-Din sighed. “Not as helpful as I would have hoped, but honest nonetheless.”
Dragomir bowed. “And you, noble sir, are most generous. Be assured that if I knew more, I would pass it on to you.” Jalal ad-Din nodded, thinking it would be a sorry spectacle indeed if one who served the caliph, the richest, mightiest lord in the world, could not afford a more lavish bribe than a miserable Christian priest.
However lavish the payment, though, it had not bought him what he wanted. He bowed his way out of Telerikh’s palace, spent the morning wandering through Pliska in search of trinkets for his fair-skinned bedmate. Here too he was spending Abd ar-Rahman’s money, so only the finest goldwork interested him.
He went from shop to shop, sometimes pausing to dicker, sometimes not. The rings and necklaces the Bulgar craftsmen displayed were less intricate, less ornate than those that would have fetched highest prices in Damascus, but had a rough vigor of their own. Jalal ad-Din finally chose a thick chain studded with fat garnets and pieces of polished jet.
He tucked the necklace into his robe, sat down to rest outside the jeweler’s shop. The sun blazed down. It was not as high in the sky, not as hot, really, as it would have been in Damascus at the same season, but this was muggy heat, not dry, and seemed worse. Jalal ad-Din felt like a boiled fish. He started to doze.
“Assalamu aleykum—peace to you,” someone said. Jalal ad-Din jerked awake, looked up. Niketas stood in front of him. Well, he’d long since gathered that the priest spoke Arabic, though they’d only used Greek between themselves till now.
“Aleykum assalamu—and to you, peace,” he replied. He yawned and stretched and started to get to his feet. Niketas took him by the elbow, helped him rise. “Ah, thank you. You are generous to an old man, and one who is no friend of yours.”
“Christ teaches us to love our enemies,” Niketas shrugged. “I try to obey His teachings, as best I can.”
Jalal ad-Din thought that teaching a stupid one—the thing to do with an enemy was to get rid of him. The Christians did not really believe what they said, either; he remembered how they’d fought at Constantinople, even after the walls were breached. But the priest had just been kind—no point in churlishly arguing with him.
Instead, the Arab said, “Allah be praised, day after tomorrow the khan will make his choice known.” He cocked an eyebrow at Niketas. “Dragomir tells me you tried to learn his answer in advance.”
“Which can only mean you did the same.” Niketas laughed drily. “I suspect you learned no more than I did.”
“Only that Dragomir is fond of gold,” Jalal ad-Din admitted.
Niketas laughed again, then grew serious. “How strange, is it not, that the souls of a nation ride on the whim of a man both ignorant and barbarous. God grant that he choose wisely.”
“From God comes all things,” Jalal ad-Din said. The Christian nodded; that much they believed in common. Jalal ad-Din went on, “That shows, I believe, why Telerikh will decide for Islam.”
“No, you are wrong there,” Niketas answered. “He must choose Christ. Surely God will not allow those who worship Him correctly to be penned up in one far corner of the world, and bar them forever from access to whatever folk may lie north and east of Bulgaria.”
Jalal ad-Din started to answer, then stopped and gave his rival a respectful look. As he had already noticed, Niketas’ thought had formidable depth to it. However clever he was, though, the priest who might have been Emperor had to deal with his weakness in the real world. Jalal ad-Din drove that weakness home: “If God loves you so well, why has he permitted us Muslims dominion over so many of you, and why has he let us drive you back and back, even giving over Constantinople, your imperial city, into our hands?”
“Not for your own sake, I’m certain,” Niketas snapped.
“No? Why then?” Jalal ad-Din refused to be nettled by the priest’s tone.
“Because of the multitude of our own sins, I’m sure. Not only was—is—Christendom sadly riddled with heresies and false beliefs, even those who believe what is true all too often lead sinful lives. Thus your eruption from the desert, to serve as God’s flail and as punishment for our errors.”
“You have answers to everything—everything but God’s true will. He will show that day after tomorrow, through Telerikh.”
“That He will.” With a stiff little bow, Niketas took his leave. Jalal ad-Din watched him go, wondering if hiring a knifeman would be worthwhile in spite of Telerikh’s warnings. Reluctantly, he decided against it; not here in Pliska, he thought. In Damascus he could have arranged it and never been traced, but he lacked those sorts of connections here. Too bad.
Only when he was almost back to the khan’s palace to give the pleasure girl the trinket did he stop to wonder whether Niketas was thinking about sticking a knife in him. Christian priests were supposed to be above such things, but Niketas himself had pointed out what sinners Christians were these days.
TELERIKH’S SERVANTS summoned Jalal ad-Din and the other Arabs to the audience chamber just before the time for mid-afternoon prayers. Jalal ad-Din did not like having to put off the ritual; it struck him as a bad omen. He tried to stay serene. Voicing the inauspicious thought aloud would only give it power.
The Christians were already in the chamber when the Arabs entered. Jalal ad-Din did not like that either. Catching his eye, Niketas sent him a chilly nod. Theodore only scowled, as he did whenever he had anything to do with Muslims. The monk Paul, though, smiled at Jalal ad-Din as if at a dear friend. That only made him worry more.
Telerikh waited until both delegations stood before him. “I have decided,” he said abruptly. Jalal ad-Din drew in a sudden, sharp breath. From the number of boyars who echoed him, he guessed that not even the khan’s nobles knew his will. Dragomir had not lied, then.
The khan rose from his carven throne, stepped down between the rival embassies. The boyars muttered among themselves; this was not common procedure. Jalal ad-Din’s nails bit into his palms. His heart pounded in his chest till he wondered how long it could endure.
Telerikh turned to face southeast. For a moment, Jalal ad-Din was too keyed up to notice or care. Then the khan sank to his knees, his face turned toward Mecca, toward the Holy City. Again Jalal ad-Din’s heart threatened to burst, this time with joy.
“La illaha ill’Allah; Muhammadun rasulu’llah,” Telerikh said in a loud, firm voice. “There is no God but Allah; Muhammad is the prophet of Allah.” He repeated the shahada twice more, then rose to his feet and bowed to Jalal ad-Din.
“It is accomplished,” the Arab said, fighting back tears. “You are a Muslim now, a fellow in submission to the will of God.”
“Not I alone. We shall all worship the one God and his prophet.” Telerikh turned to his boyars, shouted in the Bulgar tongue. A couple of nobles shouted back. Telerikh jerked his arm toward the doorway, a peremptory gesture of dismissal. The stubborn boyars glumly tramped out. The rest turned toward Mecca and knelt. Telerikh led them in the shahada, once, twice, three times. The khan faced Jalal ad-Din once more. “Now we are all Muslims here.”
“God is most great,” the Arab breathed. “Soon, magnificent khan, I vow, many teachers will come from Damascus to instruct you and your people fully in all details of the faith, though what you and your nobles have proclaimed will suffice for your souls until such time as the ulama—those learned in religion—may arrive.”
“It is very well,” Telerikh said. Then he seemed to remember that Theodore, Niketas, and Paul were still standing close by him, suddenly alone in a chamber full of the enemies of their faith. He turned to them. “Go back to your Pope in peace, Christian priests. I could not choose your religion, not with heaven as you say it is—and not with the caliph’s armies all along my southern border. Perhaps if Constantinople had not fallen so long ago, my folk would in the end have become Christian. Who can say? But in this world, as it is now, Muslims we must be, and Muslims we shall be.”
“I will pray for you, excellent khan, and for God’s forgiveness of the mistake you made this day,” Paul said gently. Theodore, on the other hand, looked as if he were consigning Telerikh to the hottest pits of hell.
Niketas caught Jalal ad-Din’s eye. The Arab nodded slightly to his defeated foe. More than anyone else in the chamber, the two of them understood how much bigger than Bulgaria was the issue decided here today. Islam would grow and grow, Christendom continue to shrink. Jalal ad-Din had heard that Ethiopia, far to the south of Egypt, had Christian rulers yet. What of it? Ethiopia was so far from the center of affairs as hardly to matter. And the same fate would now befall the isolated Christian countries in the far northwest of the world.
Let them be islands in the Muslim sea, he thought, if that was what their stubbornness dictated. One day, inshallah, that sea would wash over every island, and they would read the Qu’ran in Rome itself.
He had done his share and more to make that dream real, as a youth helping to capture Constantinople and now in his old age by bringing Bulgaria the true faith. He could return once more to his peaceful retirement in Damascus.
He wondered if Telerikh would let him take along that fair-skinned pleasure girl. He turned to the khan. It couldn’t hurt to ask.