It was a strange name to Mohamed Amine Radi's ear, and as outlandish as the stories told of these foreigners. Yet at the moment, Radi struggled more to fathom the order and cleanliness of the mysterious Americans' incredible city. Even the roads were impossibly smooth, almost as if the entire city was paved with slabs of cut granite.
Beth Van Haarlem, his translator, pulled him from his bemused reverie. "I am sorry, Vizier. What did you say?"
She enunciated her Arabic well despite a heavy Dutch accent, addressing him as she always did by his Diwan honorific. Radi hadn't realized he'd spoken loud enough for her to hear him.
"This town," Radi gestured inclusively at the long, straight lines and crisp angles of the streets and buildings. "It is a wonder. I hope it might become a model for Sallee."
Van Haarlem's pale blue eyes were more rounded than usual, and her head turned constantly to take in the peculiar sights of Grantville and its people. In that one regard, he supposed that the woman looked much as he did. Yet at his mention of Sallee and the republic he helped govern, her eyes narrowed and she turned her attention away from the oddly dressed people around them.
"Sallee," she said, "is a port town. She will always turn her face to the sea."
"Even so. But given time, the Diwan—under the guidance of the Qaid—can create such marvels as these. Finally, we will visit the libraries of Grantville, and you will read for me what the future holds for Sallee."
"What future do you hope to find here, Vizier?"
She had asked him this. Many times in fact, on the ship north from Sallee and during the trip from Hamburg. Radi didn't dare tell her that fear drove him to seek the nearly mystical knowledge rumored to live in Grantville. Neither he, nor the other Andalusian viziers, would give voice to those fears, lest word get back to their Moriscos counterparts in the Diwan. To speak openly of fear would reveal weakness, possibly inviting a return to open bloodshed in Sallee.
No, Radi chose to keep that concern to himself. He replied instead with generalities that had grown comfortable as an answer to her recurring question. "If these Americans truly possess a book that contains the future of all countries, I want that I should know the path of Sallee."
"So that you might rise from the Diwan to rule as Qaid?"
An impertinent question from an employee, and a woman at that. Far more bold than any asked during their travels. She surprised him at the oddest times with small insights into the machinations of the corsair republic. It endeared her to him, but perhaps he indulged her too much.
"The Diwan will endure." Radi was cross, and he let it show in his voice. "A year has passed with no word of the tyrant Janszoon, nearly two since he set foot in Sallee. His Rovers are the tool of the Diwan now."
"How quickly you forget that you and your fellow Diwan were also pirates before turning politician."
She dared to compare him to the barbarous Dutchman, Janszoon. Radi opened his mouth to spit something venomous, when a sputtering roar like a hundred rigging lines snapped in rapid succession sounded from behind him. He spun, pulling a thin and wickedly curved knife from his belt. He had an arm out, moving his translator to safety behind him when a nightmare machine rounded a corner of the strangely smooth streets.
A man sat astride the machine. His arms were brown from the sun, and his legs were bare below the knee. Upon his head, slick and black like the carapace of some enormous beetle, was a helmet. Where Radi expected to see a face was instead an eyeless, mirror-like visor.
Noise from the thing slapped at his ears. It was like cannon fire, but ceaseless with each blast coming more quickly than the last. The machine screamed toward him, and Radi stood transfixed in the center of the road. He stared, unable to pull his eyes away from the faceless rider on the wheeled machine.
Then Radi was moving, pulled from behind and nearly lifted from his feet. He tore his eyes from the man on the thundering machine and stumbled into Van Haarlem. She was a sturdy woman, but even still her strength surprised him. He dropped the knife lest one of them get cut, grabbing hold of her waist to keep them from tumbling to the ground in a heap.
By the time they had righted themselves the machine was gone. A lean woman with close-fitting pants and a man's work shirt hurried toward them. She was speaking quickly and extended a hand to steady them.
"What is she saying?" Radi asked.
Van Haarlem's blonde brows drew down in a concentrated furrow as she listened to a torrent of foreign words from the Grantville woman.
"She is speaking in English, but very quickly. She says she has told the boy once. She has told the boy a thousand times. Not to ride," she hesitated, "the thing so fast in the town."
Van Haarlem's blue-eyed gaze drifted downward and his eyes followed their path to where his arm still encircled her waist. He straightened then, quickly pulling away from her. He rubbed his palms against his camir and suddenly it seemed much warmer near the buildings than it had been out in the street.
The Grantville woman stooped to retrieve Radi's fallen knife. She offered it to him hilt first with a wide, reassuring grin and a series of encouraging nods. Radi returned the weapon to the sheath at his waist and composed himself.
"Thank you, Dame van Haarlem." She acknowledged his gratitude with a quick nod but did not speak. "Ask this woman if she can lead us to the library. I fear we'll never find it if left to ourselves."
While the two women spoke, Radi listened for familiar words. His Dutch was poor and his English was contextually constrained to the taking of slaves and ships. Still, he gathered that the woman's name was Samantha Collins, and she appeared willing to help them.
"We are in luck," Van Haarlem said turning back to him. "This is Miss Collins and she can guide us through the city. She knows the books you wish to see."
Collins escorted them to the library while concern for the fate of Sallee vied with Radi's examination of the city. Once inside, the Grantville woman led them to a small table burdened with books.
The stacks were under the serious scrutiny of a slight young woman, chewing the tortured end of an equally slender pencil. Miss Collins introduced her as Christine Onofrio, and Radi waited as Van Haarlem proclaimed his name and titles.
"Miss Onofrio is a researcher," Van Haarlem said. "Miss Collins will show you to a place where we might work at our leisure. I will gather the books and bring them to you, yes?"
He agreed, although it was discomforting that he should now rely so completely on Dame van Haarlem's support. He wished to thank the Collins woman before dismissing her, but the Grantville women made him uncomfortable with the quickness of their speech.
To misspeak would be an embarrassment and so he took a seat. In a moment, Collins was gone.
It was cool despite the summer heat, and the table where he waited was sturdy and smooth to the touch. The chairs, while precariously lightweight, supported him quite comfortably. He could hear the two women talking softly beyond his sight. He'd never had much need for books, and they stood on shelves with their backs to him.