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,” one of the envoys said, 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 and 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 and 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 had 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 Quran, 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 until 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, then 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 preachings 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’?”