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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. They were content in their paganism, Jalal ad-Din guessed-content to bum 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,” Da’ud ibn Zubayr said; he 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 and 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 forbade 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 stilclass="underline" 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 any 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 if 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.”

Da’ud nodded.

“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.”