Wolves howled in the woods south of Paris. The wind wailed through bare-branched oaks and chestnuts and elms. That nasty northwest wind carried the threat of rain, or maybe snow. Winter didn’t want to leave in the year of our Lord 2096—or, as it was more widely known in the Kingdom of Versailles, the year 715 of the New Revelation.
Jacques the tailor’s son trotted through those woods. He hoped the howls would come no closer. A sheepskin jacket and baggy wool trousers held out the wind. He was bareheaded, and had to pause every few minutes to shake straw-colored hair back from his eyes. At not quite eighteen, his beard was still scanty—more orange fuzz on cheeks and chin and upper lip than a proper man’s growth.
When a twig cracked not far away, as if trodden underfoot, he slipped off the track and behind the rough-barked trunk of an old oak. His right hand fell to the hilt of his sword. The leather that wrapped the hilt was smooth from much use. The weapon had belonged to Jacques’ father, but he’d been using it for the past three years and more.
Worse things than wolves were liable to lurk in the woods. Scouts from the Berber Kingdom of Berry might be spying out Versailles’ defenses. Muslim slave raiders might be on the prowl, too. When they could, they seized believers in the Second Son and sold them in the great markets of Marseille and Madrid and Naples.
A doe stepped out onto the track, not fifty feet upwind of Jacques. He could see her nose twitch as she tested the air. Then a swirl of the breeze must have brought his scent to her. She snorted. Her liquid black eyes widened. With a flirt of the tail, she bounded away.
He didn’t break cover. He thought she’d stepped on the twig, but didn’t want to take the chance of being wrong. Patience paid. The priests always preached that, and Jacques believed it. People had been patient when God sent the Great Black Deaths, hadn’t they? Of course they had, and their patience had been rewarded. After a generation and more of unending disaster, God sent Henri, His Second Son. And, thanks to Henri’s prayers, the plagues finally stopped. He’d died a martyr like His older brother Jesus, but He’d saved the world.
At last, Jacques decided no scouts or raiders hunted anywhere close by. “Thank you, Henri,” he murmured, and sketched the sign of the wheel on which the Second Son had been broken all those years ago. They followed the New Revelation over in the Germanies, too, but they spun the wheel backwards. Even stupid foreigners like the Germans should have known better than that.
Down the track Jacques went. His rawhide boots thudded on the hard ground. It was packed hard now, anyway. If the wind brought rain instead of snow, everything would turn to mud. Some of the streets in Paris and Versailles were cobblestoned like the ones in the big Berber towns farther south. That showed how modern and up-to-date the Kingdom of Versailles was. The idea of paving a forest track, though, had never crossed Jacques’ mind, or anyone else’s in the kingdom.
How much farther to the fort? The thought had hardly crossed his mind before the forest thinned out ahead of him. There it was, on a swell of ground that dominated the view to the south. Like other forts on both sides of the border, it looked like a many-pointed star. The thick earthen ramparts soaked up cannon balls that would have smashed stone or brickwork.
A sentry on the ramparts spotted him. The sun flashed off the man’s helmet and back-and-breast as he turned. He shouted out a challenge: “Who comes?”
“I’m Jacques. I’m down from Versailles with a message for Count Guillaume,” Jacques shouted back.
“How do I know you’re not one of King Abdallah’s spies?” the sentry said.
He couldn’t have been any older than Jacques. He took his duties very seriously—too seriously, as far as the messenger was concerned. “I’ve been here before,” Jacques answered, as patiently as he could. “Plenty of men in there will know me. The seal on the letter I carry will show I am what I say I am. And if the count decides I’m a spy, he won’t let me go. He’ll bash in my head.”
The sentry chewed on that. After a moment, he shouted to the gate crew. A drawbridge thumped down over the moat that kept attackers from getting too close. Jacques hurried across it. His boots thudded and boomed on the timbers. As soon as he’d crossed, it rose again. Heavy iron chains creaked as it went up.
Stone- and brickwork lined the inside of the passage through the rampart. Heavy iron grates could thud down to block the way. A man at a murder hole set into the roof leered at Jacques. He could pour boiling water or red-hot sand on invaders, and they would have a hard time hurting him. Every other way in was just as strongly warded. Jacques wouldn’t have wanted to try to take a place like this.
But he knew why the sentry had sounded nervous. Treachery could do what strength of arms couldn’t. Up till a few years ago, the frontier had lain on the Loire. Then two of Versailles’ fortresses there fell within days of each other. Nobody fired a shot at or from either place. Now the kingdom had to scramble to find a new southern frontier it could defend.
When Jacques came out of the tunnel through the rampart, he blinked against the bright sunshine—his eyes had had time to get used to the gloom. He waved to an underofficer he knew. “Hello, Pierre,” he called. “You can tell anyone who doubts me that I’m a regular messenger, right?”
“Who, me?” the gray-bearded sergeant said. “How can I do that when I never saw you before in my life?” Jacques’ jaw dropped. Pierre pointed at him and laughed till tears ran down the gullies of his weathered cheeks. “Sweet Jesus and Henri, the look on your face was worth twenty francs—maybe fifty.” He’d never seen fifty francs together in his whole life, any more than Jacques had.
“Funny. Very funny.” Jacques tried to stand on his dignity. Sergeant Pierre thought that was funnier yet. Sometimes Jacques thought the best thing old people could do was dry up and blow away. This was one of those times. “Can you take me to Count Guillaume, please?” He made the last word as sarcastic as he dared.
He could have done worse, because Pierre went right on laughing. But the sergeant nodded and said, “Come on, then.”
The keep at the center of the fortress lay behind a ditch. It was of stone, and looked more old-fashioned and more impressive than the rest of the work. When Pierre led Jacques to Count Guillaume’s office, the commander was writing something. He set down his quill pen. “What’s this?”
“Messenger, your Grace,” the sergeant answered.
“All right.” Guillaume was younger than the underofficer. He had a clever, foxy face made foxier by green eyes and red side whiskers. “What is it, young fellow?” he asked Jacques.
“I bring a letter, your Grace, from the Duke of Paris,” Jacques said.
Duke Raoul was an important power in the Kingdom of Versailles. Some people said he was the power behind King Charles’ throne. Even so, the fortress commander looked unimpressed. He also looked to have practiced the expression, perhaps in front of a mirror imported from the south. After a small yawn that also seemed practiced, Guillaume said, “Well, let me have a look at it.”
“Here you are, sir.” Jacques handed him the rolled-up parchment.
Guillaume did carefully inspect the seal pressed into the wax. He nodded. “Yes, that swan’s Raoul’s, all right.” He used a pen knife to flick off the wax and cut the ribbon that held the letter closed. Unrolling it, he held it out at arm’s length to read.
“Anything the men ought to know about, your Grace?” Sergeant Pierre asked.
“Well, Raoul says he’s got word some kind of way about a Berber plot to take this place.” One of Guillaume’s carroty eye-brows quirked upward. “I don’t know what he was drinking when he got that word, but it must have been plenty strong. Or do you think Abdallah’s getting ready to try to bite us again, Sergeant?”
“I’d say the odds are against it, sir,” Pierre replied. “Things have been pretty quiet lately.” He paused and tugged at his beard. “Too quiet? I didn’t think so, not till now.”
“I didn’t, either.” Guillaume’s gaze swung to Jacques. “What about you, son? See anything strange on the way down from Paris?”
Jacques needed less than a heartbeat to decide he wouldn’t want to be Count Guillaume’s son. He would be richer than he was now—which wouldn’t take much—but a lot less comfortable. To have Guillaume always looking over his shoulder, never happy with anything he did … He shivered, down inside where it didn’t show.
But the count had asked a good question. “Sir, everything was fine till I got close to this place,” Jacques said. “Then I heard a stick break. I ducked behind a tree and saw a deer. No real sign of anything else. The deer spooked when it took my scent. I guess it was my scent, anyway.”
“How far north of here?” Guillaume rapped out.
“Maybe two miles,” Jacques said after thinking about how long he’d needed to get to the fort. “Yes, that’s about right.”
“Send out a patrol, Sergeant,” the count told Pierre. “We don’t want those people sniffing around this place. Tell our boys not just to look for men, but for tracks and any other signs we’ve had visitors we don’t want.”
The underofficer saluted. “I’ll take care of it right now, your Grace.” He hurried away, shouting for men as he went.
Guillaume gave his attention back to Jacques. “I don’t want you heading back till the patrol comes in. If Berbers are prowling around, they might grab you. Or you might scare them off, and that wouldn’t be good, either. Why don’t you go over to the buttery and get some bread and sausage and a mug of wine or beer or whatever suits you? If the cook squawks, tell him to talk to me. That should take care of it.”
“Thanks, your Grace. I will.” Jacques didn’t think the cook would bother the count. He could no more imagine taking Guillaume’s name in vain than he could taking the Lord’s.
As it happened, the cook recognized him from earlier visits. Jacques drank sparkling cider with his food. It wasn’t as strong as wine or as heavy as beer. He didn’t want to curl up and fall asleep under a tree before he’d gone very far. When the cook offered to fill his mug again, Jacques turned him down.
The cook clucked in reproach. “Never say no to anything free,” he advised. “It may not come your way twice.” When Jacques explained why he didn’t want more cider, the cook sent him a sly look. “I’ll give you a mug of water instead, then.”
“Henri on the wheel, no!” Jacques said. The cook laughed—he’d been joking. Oh, you could drink water. People did it all the time. But nobody with any sense did it by choice. Nothing was more likely to give you a flux of the bowels than bad water—and you couldn’t always tell whether water was good by looking or even by smelling. People went around in misery for weeks at a time with an illness like that. Or they died of it—it happened all the time. Little children suffered most, but anybody could come down with a bloody flux. Whole armies had broken up when half the men in them or more got sick.
Pierre’s patrol didn’t come back till late afternoon. They hadn’t found anything out of the ordinary. “Must have just been that deer,” the sergeant told Jacques. “But you made out all right, didn’t you?” He winked. “You won’t want to head north now—too late. So you’ll get supper here, and a bed tonight, and then breakfast in the morning. Not bad, eh?”
“Could be worse,” Jacques allowed. Sergeant Pierre laughed and clapped him on the back. That must have been the right answer. Adults often used a language of understatement and saying the opposite of what they meant. It had baffled Jacques when he was younger—and, no doubt, it was meant to baffle him. Now he was learning it himself. Whether he’d wanted to join or not, he was turning into a member of the club.
In the Paris in this alternate, Annette Klein was known as Khadija the oil merchant’s daughter. She was slim and dark, well suited to play the role of someone up from the south. In the home timeline, she was on the short side. People weren’t so well nourished here—163 centimeters made her taller than average.
In the home timeline, she was Jewish. Here, she played a Muslim. Christianity here was vastly different from what it was in the world where she’d grown up. Even so, the people of the Kingdom of Versailles hated and feared and persecuted the handful of Jews who lived among them. They hated and feared Muslims, too. They didn’t persecute them, though—their Muslim neighbors were too strong to let them get away with it. Islam here wasn’t the same as it was back home, either, but it was less different than Christianity.
And Paris … The Paris she saw from above her veil only made her sad. In the home timeline, Paris was one of the great cities of the world, and had been for hundreds of years. In this alternate, it was the most important town in the Kingdom of Versailles—which wasn’t saying much.
Horses clopped on cobbles or splashed through nasty-smelling mud. Knights in shining—or, more often, rusty—armor rode them. A good back-and-breast would stop a pistol shot, and even a ball from a matchlock musket if it wasn’t fired at close range. Pigs and chickens and stray dogs ate garbage in the gutters. So did rats, some of them almost as big and sleek as the local cats.
Rats … Annette couldn’t look at them without wanting to shudder. Rats had made this alternate’s history split away from the home timeline’s almost 750 years earlier. In the home timeline, bubonic plague—the Black Death—had killed about a third of the people in Europe, starting in 1348.
Here, the plague went on and on and on. By the time it petered out at last, four out of five Europeans were dead. What had been a thriving civilization was mostly dead, too. Not enough people were left to keep the Muslims, who’d almost been pushed out of Spain, from retaking it. They’d eventually conquered southern France, too, and Italy, and the Balkans. The Turks had also conquered the Balkans in the home timeline, but they did a more thorough job of it in this alternate.
No wonder the European Christians, or what was left of them, thought the end of the world was at hand. No wonder God acquired a Second Son here. Henri preached patience in the face of suffering. He promised a better life to come, and gathered a large following. When he said he was God’s Son, the King of France and the Pope—who was living at Avignon, inside the country—ordered him put to death. And so he was broken in front of a large and sorrowful crowd, broken and then burned.
The very next day, the King of France and the Pope went into a church to thank God for being delivered from the sinner. For no reason anyone could see—an earthquake? a crucial beam breaking?—the church collapsed. Both men died in the ruins. So did most of their chief followers. After that, the Kingdom of France was never the same again. Neither was the Papacy.
And the miracle—who then could have believed it was anything else?—made the cult of Henri spread like wildfire across almost all the lands where Christianity still held sway. The Bible here had a Final Testament that spoke of the Second Son’s life and deeds. Churches in this alternate had two steeples, a shorter one in front topped by a cross and a taller one in back topped by a wheel.
Even Notre-Dame de Paris, begun long before the plague broke out, was finally finished in the new style. Above the veil, Annette’s brown eyes swung toward the great cathedral. As far as she knew, it was the only building her Paris and this one had in common, and even it wasn’t identical in the two different worlds. Without the Eiffel Tower, without twentieth- and twenty-first-century highrises in this alternate, the cathedral’s great and soaring bulk dominated the skyline here in a way its sister couldn’t in the home timeline.
“What is it, my sweet?” Annette’s mother asked. Tiffany Klein—here called Aisha—was only a centimeter taller than her daughter. Her eyes were the same warm brown as Annette’s, and full of sympathy now. “Does the veil trouble you?”
“Huh? Oh.” Annette managed to sound as foolish in the Berber-flavored Arabic they were using as she would have in her own English. “No, truly, that was not what was in my thoughts.”
When she first came to this alternate, she’d kicked up a big fuss about going veiled. In the home timeline, the veil was still the symbol of the most backward and sexist parts of the Muslim world. Here,everybody was sexist, Muslims and Christians and Jews and Hindus and Buddhists and the Native Americans on the continents people from the Old World were just now discovering. The Industrial Revolution hadn’t come to this alternate. Women really were the weaker sex here, and they paid for it.
And the veil here was just something to mark Khadija as a Muslim girl, not a Christian one. She’d needed a while to see that, but now she knew it was true. She’d needed even longer to see there might be a blessing in disguise. People didn’t stare at her. What was there to stare at? Eyes, hands, and feet? They weren’t worth the bother. The veil could be shield as well as prison.
Annette could see only her mother’s eyes. They still looked worried. “Something bothers you,” her mother said. “You will not tell me this is not so.” They’d both learned this alternate’s version of Arabic (and French) through the implants behind their left ears. They spoke without a foreign accent that could have raised eyebrows. Because Annette had learned it that way, it felt as natural as English to her unless she thought about it. Then—but only then—she noticed how much more formal the phrasing was.
She had to nod now, because her mother wasn’t wrong. Her wave took in the whole city, especially the great cathedral that wasn’t quite like the one in the home timeline. Her wide, flapping sleeve startled a couple of pigeons that were pecking at something in the muddy street. They fluttered off. When they landed three meters farther away, they cocked their heads and sent her reproachful stares.
“This poor, sorry world,” she said. “It isn’t everything it might have been.” Most people who went out to the alternates on Crosstime Traffic business ended up saying that in one language or another. The home timeline wasn’t everything it might have been, either, but the people born there lived far richer, more comfortable lives than those on most of the alternates. They weren’t always happier—that wasn’t the same thing. But good health, a full belly, and high technology did make happiness easier to come by.
“You speak truth—it isn’t,” her mother agreed. “Still, you should not speak this truth in the streets. More than a few Franks”—the usual Arabic name for any Western European—“know this tongue, and would wonder why you grieve for the world.”
“You are right, and I am sorry,” Annette said. “But the thought comes, and it does not want to go again.”
“Thoughts come as they will. There are times and places to let them free and times and places to hold them in,” her mother said.
Since that was plainly true, Annette nodded again. A local woman came by. She wore a long wool skirt that she held up with one hand to keep it out of puddles, a linsey-woolsey blouse, and a white lace cap whose pattern said what part of the kingdom she came from. She was, in other words, almost as covered up as Annette and her mother. But her face was bare to the world. Like about one face in three in this alternate, it showed smallpox scars. Seeing them made Annette want to shiver again. Except as a bioweapon, smallpox was long extinct in the home timeline.
The hand that didn’t hold up the Frenchwoman’s skirt held on to a three-year-old. The toddler didn’t mind mud. He jumped into every puddle between the cobblestones he found. “Henri on the wheel, don’t do that!” his mother said. When the mud he splashed up splattered her once too often, she let go of his wrist and whacked his bottom. He howled. She wagged a finger in his face. “I told you not to do that. See what you get when you don’t mind?”
Annette had to work hard not to stare. In the home timeline, nobody would spank a child in public. Hardly anyone would spank a child in private. She wondered if this little boy would be warped for life. He hadn’t gone ten meters before he was singing and looking for more mud puddles to jump into.
“Children are tougher than you think,” Annette’s mother said, her voice dry.
“They must be,” Annette answered.
“They are. Our ancestors got spanked, too, remember. They lived. He will, too—or he won’t die from that, anyhow.”
“No.” Annette let it go at that. Somewhere between a third and half of the children in this Paris died before they got to be five years old. Smallpox took some. So did measles and whooping cough and diphtheria. All of those had vaccines in the home timeline. But diarrhea, from one germ or another, was the biggest baby-killer here. Clean water and clean food made those kinds of illnesses almost unknown in the world where Annette grew up.
Nothing was clean here. This Paris had no sewers. It dumped slops in the streets. The stink was everywhere. So were the flies. Not uncovering much of yourself had one more advantage here—you didn’t get bitten so much.
Annette and her mother walked past a butcher’s shop. The meat was out there in the open. It wasn’t refrigerated. No one knew about refrigeration in this alternate. If they wanted to preserve meat here, they dried it in the sun or salted it or smoked it. More flies crawled over the fresh meat on display. The butcher, his hands filthy and his leather apron bloody, brushed them away from a beef tongue as he haggled with a woman who wanted to buy it. When they settled on a price, he picked it up and gave it to her. She put it in a grimy canvas sack along with whatever else she’d already bought.
A shop right next to the butcher’s sold spices. Many of those came up from the Muslim kingdoms. Without refrigeration, meat went bad fast. If you used lots of pepper and cinnamon and nutmeg and ginger, you could keep on eating it for a while even after it started to go off. Of course, you might get sick if you did. But if the choice was between maybe getting sick and going hungry for sure, what would you do? You’d eat, and you’d hope.
And you’d pray. A monk in a black robe sent Annette and her mother a sour stare as he walked past them. He was a Ladnerian friar, an order that didn’t exist in the home timeline. He wore both a wheel and a crucifix on a rawhide thong around his neck. The Ladnerians were reformers. They wanted to keep money out of the churches. That battle went on, and was usually lost, in one alternate after another.
They turned a corner. “There.” Annette’s mother pointed ahead, to a market square next to the Seine. “There is your father’s stall.”
“I see it,” Annette answered. Beyond the merchants’ stalls, men were fishing in the river. They did that in Paris in the home timeline, too. There, as far as Annette knew, nobody ever caught anything. Here, a man drew a trout out of the river. Several more lay at his feet. This Seine was less polluted than that one.
That didn’t mean it was clean. Annette’s stomach did a slow flipflop as she watched a woman dip a bucket into the water and carry it away. Whenever it rained, it washed the filth from the streets into the river. Nobody here had ever thought of boiling water before using it, either, and bad water was at least as big a killer as bad food.
Annette’s father waved to her and her mother. His real name was Jacob. In this world, he went as Muhammad al-Marsawi—Muhammad, the man from Marseille. Here as in the home timeline, Muhammad was the most common men’s first name.
“Fine olive oil!” her father called. “The first pressing! Fine olive oil!” Olives didn’t grow as far north as Paris. Olive oil was an expensive luxury here. People mostly used butter or lard instead. Nobody in this alternate had ever heard of cholesterol, either. It probably didn’t matter. Disease killed most people here before heart attacks or strokes could.
A merchant came up to her father’s stand. Dad had a loaf of bread handy. He dipped it in the oil and offered it to the local. The man chewed thoughtfully. “It’s not butter,” he said.
“No, it’s not,” Dad agreed. They were speaking French. The language was less perfectly polished here than in the home timeline. It also had what would have been a northern accent in Annette’s world. The plagues hadn’t hit so hard there, while they’d almost emptied Paris. Even all these centuries later, you could still hear that in the way people talked. This French had also borrowed many more words from Arabic than French had in the home timeline. Annette’s father went on, “Where I come from, people would say it’s better than butter.”
The merchant bowed. “You will forgive me for saying so, m’sieu, but you are not where you came from.”
“Really?” Dad raised an eyebrow and bowed back. “I never would have noticed.” He and the merchant both laughed. The Klein family was based in Marseille. The transposition chamber that took them back and forth between worlds was there, too. One day soon, there was supposed to be a chamber in Paris. Annette would believe that when she saw it. Crosstime Traffic worked in so many alternates, no one of them got all the attention it should have.
She liked this Marseille better than this Paris. The weather was nicer—warmer and drier. The city was cleaner. The streets there were all cobbled, and had real gutters to get rid of some of the garbage. Marseille didn’t stink as badly. And the people who lived there were a little less backward, or at least more polite about it.
This merchant seemed intent on sneering at the olive oil. “But since this is not butter, my friend, who will want to buy it? Who will want to use it?”
“More people than you can imagine, m’sieu,” Annette’s father said. That was truer than the merchant could imagine. Olive oil from this alternate’s southern France went back to the home timeline. So did olives pickled in vinegar and brine. The locals made them just fine, and had varieties different from the ones in the world where Annette grew up. The oil and the olives both brought Crosstime Traffic good money.
The local merchant was a tougher customer. “If I buy it from you, who will buy it from me?” he asked. “It’s not what people here are used to.”
“Paris has some cobblestones these days,” Dad remarked, seemingly out of the blue. “It didn’t used to.”
“Forgive me, m’sieu, but I do not see how this answers me.” The merchant scratched his head. Annette was tempted to do the same thing.
Dad only smiled. “One of the reasons Paris has some cobbles is that Marseille and other cities farther south have cobbles. Is it not so?” He waited for the local trader to nod, then went on, “The Kings of Versailles want to keep up with what their neighbors do. So do the people here. One thing their neighbors do is use more olive oil than they do. A clever man, as I’m sure you are, would see that his customers remembered it while he was selling them the oil.”
“It could be.” The merchant, being a merchant, tried not to show he was impressed. But he was; even Annette could see as much. Nobody here thought about advertising, not on purpose. You had a product and you cried it through the streets—that was as far as things went. The local added, “You, are a clever man. No wonder you are rich.”
“I wish I were,” Annette’s father said. By this alternate’s standards, anyone from the home timeline was richer than a king. Talking about that not only broke all the rules but was really stupid besides.
Laughing, the merchant said, “However you please.” No one in this timeline would ever admit to being rich. Nothing else could do a better job of attracting tax collectors. Rumors of money drew them the way dead meat drew vultures. The merchant went on, “I will buy five jars from you—no more. I’ll see if I can move them the way you suggest. If they do well, I’ll buy more when I see you again.”
He’s going to try to create demand, Annette thought. The local probably didn’t look at it in those terms, but that was what it amounted to. Annette’s father bowed. He and the merchant haggled. When they reached a price they could both live with, they clasped hands. The merchant went off to get the money and to bring back workers to carry away the jars. Down farther south, the workers would have been slaves. Here, he probably paid them a little something. Slavery wasn’t illegal in the Kingdom of Versailles, but it was uncommon.
After the merchant paid and took his olive oil, Dad let out a sigh of relief. “We’ll be going home soon now,” he said. Anyone who understood Arabic would think he meant going back to Marseille. They would be going back there, all right. But after that, they’d be going back to the home timeline. Before long, Annette would start her freshman year at Ohio State. Along with her high-school diploma, she’d have a year of fieldwork to her credit. She could hardly wait.
Jacques’ feet hurt when he got back to Paris. He could feel every pebble in the roadway through the sole of his left boot. When he found the chance, he would have to see a cobbler and get thicker leather put on there. First things first, though. He needed to get back to Duke Raoul and let him know Count Guillaume had the message.
He paid a boatman a couple of coppers to carry him over the Seine to the right bank. The duke’s castle stood there, not far from the great cathedral. Raoul—or, more likely, one of his clerks—would repay him the boatman’s fee. A lot of boats went back and forth on the Seine. A good many went up and down the river, too. Moving anything heavy was much cheaper by water than by land.
The boatmen shouted and cursed at one another. None of them wanted to give way. They felt less manly when they had to. “Where will you find a cavern dark enough to hide your ugly face?” the man rowing Jacques screamed at a fellow on a barge that threatened to cut him off.
“I would rather be a dog and bay at the moon than a wretch like you,” the bargeman retorted. They paid each other more compliments till the rowboat slipped past. If they’d said things like that on dry land, they both probably would have gone for their knives. On the river, they took insults for granted. If Jacques’ boatman and the other fellow met in a tavern, they were more likely to laugh and to buy each other wine than to brawl.
Boats hardly ever smashed together, either. The system looked—and sounded—odd to somebody who wasn’t part of it, but it worked.
“Here you are, friend,” Jacques’ boatman said as the boat went aground near the riverside market.
“Thanks.” Jacques hopped out. Mud squelched under his feet. The boatman started waving his arms and shouting for a passenger so he could go back across the Seine. For the small fees he got, he worked hard.
People in the market were waving their arms and shouting, too. Nobody ever bought at the first price. You had to pretend you were having a fit to get the seller to lower it. Then he would pretend to have a fit so he didn’t have to lower it too much.
Somebody from the south had just finished making a deal with a local merchant. Jacques knew of the merchant, but wasn’t rich enough to buy from him. The local man looked pleased with himself as his followers carried off five big pottery jugs. The Arab looked pleased with himself, too. That usually meant a good bargain.
Jacques sent the Arab a suspicious stare. Any trader up from the south might be a spy. The traders who went into Muslim countries from the Kingdom of Versailles always kept their eyes and ears open. Why wouldn’t southerners do the same here?
The Muslim merchant had two women with him. Were they wives? Were they daughters? Were they one of each? All Jacques could see of them were their hands and their eyes. He thought one of them couldn’t be much if any older than he was, but he couldn’t be sure. At least with girls from his own kingdom, you could see what they looked like. With these women, everything was a mystery. Did that make them less interesting or more? Again, he couldn’t be sure.
He spoke some Arabic and followed more. He wasn’t fluent, but he could make himself understood. Anyone who spent a lot of time along the border picked up bits and pieces of the language they used on the other side. Plenty of King Abdallah’s men knew fragments of French. The merchant was as smooth in it as if it were his birthspeech. For all Jacques knew, it was. Some who’d been born Christian followed Islam now. Some who’d been born Muslim now reverenced Jesus and Henri, too, but not so many.
“We’ll be going home soon,” the trader said in Arabic. The younger woman and the older one both exclaimed in pleasure. They didn’t want to stay here, any more than Jacques would have wanted to live in their country.
Bowing to them, Jacques said, “May God give you a safe journey,” in their language.
They all exclaimed. Jacques couldn’t hide his smile. Muslims were often surprised when they ran into a Christian who knew Arabic. Some of them couldn’t have been more surprised if their horses had started talking. To be fair, this fellow didn’t seem like that. “The Prophet’s peace upon you,” he said, and then, “Unless I am mistaken, you will be coming home from a journey.”
How did he know that? Jacques looked down at himself. It probably wasn’t hard to figure out. He was splashed with mud up past his knees. His boots were wet—he’d had to ford a creek. His clothes were grimy. His hair probably stuck out in all directions, too. He ran his fingers through it, not that that would do much good. “Yes, you’re right,” he said—why not admit it?
“Where have you come from, and what is the news?” the merchant asked, switching from Arabic to his flawless French.
And Jacques started to tell him. Doing it would have been easier and more natural in his own language. But then he remembered the thought he’d had before. A merchant who was only a merchant might ask a question like that. So might a merchant who was also a spy. Sticking to Arabic—he wanted to practice—Jacques answered, “Not much news, I fear—not for a great lord like yourself. A long, dull way here.” He pretended to yawn. Then he yawned for real—he truly was tired.
“He speaks very well,” the younger (he thought) veiled woman said to the older.
Jacques knew better than to come right out and say something to her. He would have been too familiar if he had. He spoke to the merchant instead: “Your … daughter gives me too much credit.” He put a question in his voice, since he wasn’t sure the woman was a daughter.
But the Arab merchant smiled and nodded, so he’d guessed right. The man said, “No, Khadija is always pleased to hear our speech. And she does not praise beyond what you deserve, for you speak very clearly. You are easy to understand.” He bowed.
So did Jacques. He knew Arabs praised more freely than people from his own kingdom. That was one of the things that made them hard to trust. Even more than Jesus, Henri taught that men should be modest, because most of them had plenty to be modest about. Jacques said, “Tell your daughter I thank her for troubling to understand my words.”
The older woman—Khadija’s mother?—started to laugh. “We had better watch this one,” she said. “He has a flatterer’s tongue.”
If she hadn’t laughed, Jacques would have thought she was angry. As things were, he took a chance and bowed to her, more deeply than he had to the merchant. “How can the truth be flattery?” he asked.
All three Arabs laughed then. Khadija said, “You were right, Father. He is as smooth and slick as the oil you sell.” In a different tone of voice, that would have been an insult. The way she said it, it sounded more like one friend teasing another.
He went on chatting with them, not about things that could matter to a spy, just passing the time of day the way he would have with friends. He had to remind himself he needed to report to Duke Raoul. He wasn’t late enough to make the duke wonder where he’d been, but he would be if he hung around the market square much longer.
All the way to the castle, he wondered what Khadija looked like. Was she pretty? He had no way to know. He’d just seen her eyes and her hands. But he liked her, and so he thought she was.
Copyright © 2006 by Harry Turtledove