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“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 carved 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 until 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 backward 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 a rather 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 then 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 and 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. Furthermore, Telerikh had not attended; some heathen Bulgar law required the khan always to eat alone.

“That 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 northward 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, and 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 then 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.