Taifa of Tuluz

Spring 1194

Isaac the Blind dreamed of armies.

He stood on the highest tower of the city wall and saw them—in dreams, he still had the sight he had lost as a child in the waking world. Their pavilions surrounded the city, and the fields where they paraded were bright with banners—of the Angevin kingdom, of France, of Aragon, of the Occitan lords that followed the cross and those that followed the crescent. The ground beyond the wall was thick with knights and men-at-arms, archers and spearmen, great siege trains of catapults and rams.

Past them Isaac saw others: the turbaned horsemen of Salah ad-Din riding toward Tuluz from the east, and with them, compact men in leather coats and fur hats carrying fire-lances and strangely curved bows. From the south, tall black men with cowhide shields and iron-tipped spears; from the west, soldiers feather-clad and shielded with weapons of obsidian; from above, broad-winged creatures with barbed tails that were not of this world.

There were others coming from still farther. There were worlds and universes of others. But in the Ayn Sof, the stuff of which God was made, all things are connected, and what is far from the farthest is sometimes closest of all.

Suddenly Isaac was no longer on the tower, and the armies that besieged Tuluz were no longer parading in the fields. He was behind a parapet as arrows flew and fire-lances boomed; men-at-arms with the three lions of the Angevin surcoats had thrown ladders against the wall. “Return what is ours!” they cried as they led the assault, and the armies who followed repeated the call in every language known to Ribono Shel Olam, the Master of the Universe.

And now Isaac was inside the city, running through the narrow streets that in life he had never seen. Others were running with him, but all around him were rising flames; the clash of arms; the screams of the wounded and dying. A soldier was in Isaac’s path, his sword bloody and his face a mask of hatred; “return what is ours!” he shouted, and thrust the sword forward.

Isaac cried out, and woke to darkness.

It took a long moment for Isaac to remember where he was—the last part of the dream had been so vivid, and the smell of blood and smoke seemed to linger. But Isaac’s house was outside Tuluz’s walls, so if the city had been besieged and sacked, he would already be dead or a prisoner. Slowly, the smell of camphor and musty paper replaced the smoke, and Isaac’s body registered the feel of the bedclothes, the reverberating melody of muezzins calling fajr from the minarets, and the morning song of the birds in the garden.

He rose from the bed and dressed quickly –starting the day’s work would surely be the best way to dispel the remnants of his dream. He avoided the loose stone at the threshold as he always did, felt the freshness in the air as he stepped into the courtyard, and picked up his tools where he had left them the day before. Pruning shears, a shovel, posts to support the vines and string to tie them—and the most important tool of all, a hardwood carving in the branched shape of the Hebrew letter ayin. Isaac had carved it himself and spent a month imbuing it with sorcery, and now it was his eyes.

Ayin was the Hebrew word for eye, and the letter ayin in the Hebrew alphabet was also the number seventy. The letters that made up the word for wine, yayin, added to seventy as well, as did those of behiyn, examination, and behiyn was a fitting word to invoke the sefira of Gevurah, the divine emanation of dedication and discipline. And so, when Isaac was with his grapevines, his awareness and senses were preternatural; he could smell blight before it spread, hear the movement of insects and know which ones were pests, and tell by smell and touch which vines needed to be pruned and which ones bore strong stock for grafting. He knew each vine as if it were an extension of his body, and he felt in each grape the wine it would become, the dedication to Ribono Shel Olam that it would be.

That, at least, was the way it should have been. But this morning, it wasn’t. The dream wouldn’t leave him—it kept intruding even as he ran his fingers along the vines, and it held him with a closeness that even Gevurah couldn’t fully overcome. His concentration kept slipping, his sublime senses were a distraction rather than an aid, and it came almost as a relief as well as a shock when he heard a knock at his gate.

His sorcerously enhanced senses fell away at the sound, becoming merely keen rather than preternatural. He wasn’t expecting anyone; the children who he taught and the young man who read to him didn’t come until afternoon, and the Gascon widow from whom he rented the house hadn’t told him about any prospective clients. But then he heard the voice calling his name. Mansour’s voice—Mansour, who always came unexpectedly.

“It’s isn’t locked,” Isaac said, and he heard the gate creak open and footsteps cross to the garden bench. He listened to those footsteps with some pleasure. His guest was reputed to be elegant and, although that quality was lost on present company, he could sense a swordsman’s grace in his movements.

“Some wine?” Isaac asked, but he was already reaching for the earthen jug; most Muslims in Tuluz, unlike their sterner counterparts in the Almohad domains, paid little heed to the prohibition against alcohol. He poured two cups, handed one to his visitor, and sat on the edge of the stone fountain.

He waited for Mansour to speak, but the silence lengthened, and it was time again for him to wonder. Mansour ibn Talal al-Arbuni—the last indicating that his family was originally from Narbonne, fallen to a Christian lord a century ago—was many things: soldier, poet, alchemist, and, some said, an aspiring sorcerer, and he usually came calling to study or simply to talk. But he was also the son of a member of the Majlis, the junior of Tuluz’s two senates, and the silence made Isaac suspect that today he had come on his father’s behalf rather than his own. There was something about his silence, and the measured seriousness of his steps, that suggested business, and serious business at that.

“Yes, I’m here for my father,” Mansour said—was Isaac that easy to read, or was Mansour a sorcerer in truth? “You know of his connection to the university?”

Isaac nodded. The al-Arbuni family was among the university’s great patrons, and many of them had lectured or studied there; Talal al-Arbuni was one of the councilors to whom the students—or the rectors—might go if they had trouble.

“There has been a kidnapping,” Mansour said. His voice was suddenly taut; this, Isaac divined, was his reason for coming. But why? The students at the university, hailing as they did from all nations and being young men away from home, formed factions at a moment’s notice and were often riotous. Fights, raids, vandalism, kidnappings all were daily fare in the streets that enclosed the university buildings. Mansour himself, in his days as a student, had been notorious for such dealings—why, then, would news of a kidnapping make him sound as if an enemy had breached the city walls?  

“A kidnapping at the university,” Isaac repeated. “And it is also, I believe, Tuesday. Why is this kidnapping different from all other kidnappings?”

The merest trace of a laugh passed from Mansour to Isaac—something barely heard, more a sense of movement or vibration in the air than a sound. Yes, Mansour understood the reference—“why is this night different from all other nights” was one of the questions asked at Passover, and he knew that he was to explain why this kidnapping had a difference of similar magnitude.

“The victim has been missing for two days,” Mansour said. “And he is the son of the Seneschal of Gascony.”

Now Mansour had Isaac’s attention. For kidnappers to hold their hostage for two days was rare enough—the victims were usually released within a day or so, after their faction either rescued them or paid a “ransom” of food and wine or public humiliation—but if the son of a great man among the Angevins had been abducted, that could have repercussions far beyond the university or even the city—unrest, riots, or even invasion. Since the siege forty years past, Tuluz had acknowledged the overlordship of the Angevin king as duke of Gascony and was sworn to protect his vassals. And with the seneschal’s family related to Eleanor of Aquitaine, and therefore to Richard...

“This could mean war,” Isaac murmured, and he felt a chill despite the midday sun’s warmth. “Burning and slaughter, armies at the gates.” He could hear again the clashes of arms and cries of pain that had echoed through his dream and smell the burning and the blood. Maybe the dream had been in truth a prophecy, and this conversation and its aftermath would determine whether it came to pass.

“Yes,” said Mansour. “The rectors have kept it quiet so far, but they can’t for much longer, not with the way rumor travels.”

“And you think I can find him?”

“You find things. It is said about you, and you have proved it.”

“Not me,” Isaac said. “It isn’t me. But all things are connected in the Ayn Sof. Maybe I can help him be found.” He put both hands on the edge of the fountain and lifted himself carefully upright. “Hochmah and Binah. Wisdom and understanding. Seventy-three and sixty-seven—a hundred and forty.” He felt a change in the air and knew that Mansour, too, had risen; he turned to the house to get the things he would need before they went to the university.

The smoke of burning Tuluz came to him one more time, and his familiar home had the smell of death.

It was half a mile from Isaac’s house on the west bank of the Jaruna to the Nazarene Gate, and the dream stayed in his mind the whole way. The city started well outside the wall—the district inside the gate had itself only been walled for a hundred years—and at this time of day, the road was well-traveled, but several times, only the pull of Mansour’s hand on his arm kept Isaac to the path. The sound of guards arguing with a farmer about the toll for his cart told Isaac that they were finally approaching the gate; he braced for a challenge, but he and Mansour were well-known in the city, and no call came as they entered.

The neighborhood inside rang with the sounds of the weavers’ market and the pungent smell of the fullers’ shops.   Voices bargained over wool, most in the Arabic-laced Occitan that was the common language of Septimania—faranji, the Muslims called it, although it wasn’t really—but a few haggled in Sabir and one in pure Catalan.

“Surely it isn’t Aragon behind the kidnapping, is it?” Isaac mused aloud. “That would be bad news indeed.” The Crown of Aragon competed with the Angevins and the Capets for influence in the region; Foix and Rousillon were their vassals, the great Catalan trading houses had offices in Tuluz, and a faction in the Majlis supported them. The arm of Aragon’s king was long, if he chose to wield it, and if that arm now stretched toward the Angevins’ kingdom, Tuluz would be directly in its path.

“It could be.” Mansour too spoke faranji; the days when pure Arabic was spoken outside the university and the mosques were long past. “It could also be one of the others, or a feud that has nothing to do with any of them.”

Isaac nodded—a reflex he still had from when he was a child and still had his sight—even though he could no longer tell if anyone nodded back. If the culprit were obvious, Talal al-Arbuni would have had no need of his sorcery. But the more possibilities he knew of, the greater the chance that the sefirot—the emanations of the divine—would lead him to one of them. Knowledge required knowledge; that was one of the paradoxes of the Ayn Sof.

The muezzins were calling asr as they crossed the Jaruna on the New Bridge; here in the city proper, most of the citizens were Muslim, and the sounds of commerce stilled in favor of prayer. Isaac expected Mansour to halt and produce his prayer-mat; instead, he gripped Isaac’s arm and urged him onward. That as much as anything made plain the gravity of the situation.

The Roman forum and the castle were to the south, Isaac knew, as was the quarter where most of the city’s Jews lived. Mansour and Isaac’s path was in the opposite direction, through streets fragrant with rose-madder and alum from the dyers’ shops, past the murmurs of prayer from the grand mosque and the chatter of clerks’ gossip in the halls of the Majlis and Hurras al-Waqf, and through the rough-cobbled gate that marked the boundary of the Roman city. Beyond that, in the new town, were the precincts of the university.

Here, Isaac did hear Arabic and Latin as well—no student would ever demean himself by speaking in the vernacular. Their voices came from taverns on the side streets; at this time of day, they were full and riotous, with students arguing about God, the earth and stars, women and wine, and anything else that caught their fancy. They weren’t fighting yet—that would come later, when they’d had a few more cups—but anything was game for laughter, whether or not it should be. Isaac remembered well. This place, and this city, had been kind to him in his eleven years of exile—it was a dream in itself almost, a commonwealth like none other in Europe, and the dread of it coming to a sudden end was again sharp in his mind.

On the next corner, one of the students called upward to the attic of a rooming-house, hailing someone in Homeric Greek; from his words , it was obvious he was speaking to a prostitute. Isaac knew this game too; the students would have their fun bargaining with the prostitute in a language she didn’t understand and would then taunt her with the fee she’d lost. But this whore answered with a mocking eis korakas—“to the crows with you,” in the same tongue—and the young man who’d called to her became the butt of his comrades’ laughter in her stead.

“Even the whores here are scholars,” said Mansour, amused, but Isaac wondered if what he’d just heard was something more than scholarship. Wisdom and understanding were the sefirot Isaac intended to invoke, and while wisdom was a male principle, understanding was female. The students had thought they were wise; but the prostitute—God watch her, whoever she was—had seen through them. I must remember her voice, Isaac thought—an odd notion, it seemed, for a scholar of Torah to have about a whore, but before he could think on the implications further, they had reached the studium itself.

Isaac had seen the university once in a dream—a gift he had been given for no other place in the city, even his own house. He knew that the great hall of the university senate was in front of him, with its buttresses and stained glass and carved oaken doors. The courtyards and timbered houses where lectures were held were to either side; a few sounded still in progress for those students willing to pay for afternoon classes rather than repairing to the taverns.

The house where Mansour led them was one where Isaac himself had lectured. Forty years ago, at the peace of Tarbes, the Angevins had forced Tuluz to charter the university and allow Catholics the same freedom to lecture that Muslims had; the Majlis, with little choice in the matter, had ratified that freedom—and then extended it to Jews and Cathars as well. The priests had railed at that—they still did—but it had made the university unique in Europe, and for forty years it had drawn students seeking learning they could find in no other studium.

It had drawn the ill-fated son of an Angevin seneschal.

“Shouldn’t we be going to the victim’s rooms?” Isaac asked.

“We are,” said Mansour. A moment later, as Isaac made his way cautiously up the narrow stairs of the lecture hall, he understood; the son of an Angevin seneschal would be one of the few who had the privilege of living in the university rather than taking rooms in the surrounding streets. Now Isaac wondered who could abduct a man from such lodgings and go unnoticed.

The human mind is beyond such things, he murmured, but all is connected in the Ayn Sof. He knelt, felt for the floor of the room they had now entered, and put a small purse in a hollow where the boards had warped. There were a hundred and forty silver Angevin deniers in the purse, sixty-seven of them Poitevin coins minted by Eleanor of Aquitaine; they would stand in for the female principle of Binah, as well as the kidnapped man’s family ties to the Rannulfid dukes. He scribed a triangle around them with chalk— his hands remembered where the points were— and at them, he wrote the letters lamed, mem, and ayin. Those letters, too, added to a hundred and forty, and scribed in different order, they could mean youth, labor, or the things that were above. Then he stood and prayed.

He felt the link to the sefirot and felt the letters begin to lead him. A picture was forming in his mind—a sense, as in a dream. As he struggled with this unfamiliar sense of sight, the picture started to take shape...

And then it changed. It re-formed and formed again. The details faded, merged into each other; the shape now seemed like nothing on earth, swirling color and texture, much as the universe might have looked before Ribono Shel Olam brought sense to it. This had happened before—sometimes abstraction was the answer—but what came to Isaac now was an obscurant abstraction rather than a clarifying one. It was as if something were fighting against him—as if someone were invoking the opposite of the sefirot, confusion and ignorance to contend with understanding and wisdom. He felt that the student and the prostitute were there again and saw what he assumed to be their images, but now both of them were laughing—you only think you are wise.

He fought back. He focused on each of his hundred-and-forties in turn, each of the devices by which he had combined Hochmah and Binah, then thought of all of them together, willing the sefirot to impose order on the patterns swirling through his mind. And twice, for a split second, the pattern became clearer—he saw streets that wound in a familiar pattern and a swaying man with prayer-shawl and phylacteries—but then it disappeared, and he was back in everyday darkness.

He had learned little, but he had learned something—in two respects, he was wiser than he had been before. He knew that the seneschal’s son was still in the city. And he knew that one of the kidnappers—maybe more than one—was a Jew.

One of the kidnappers was a Jew. In a way, that was a small thing, because anyone could still be the ultimate culprit. Aragon, France, the counts and emirs of Septimania—all of them had Jews in their pay, and all of them, even those who otherwise valued Jews little, prized Jewish sorcery in their intrigues and their wars. But in another way, it was the greatest of all possible calamities.

The poets who wrote in Shuadit—the Jewish version of faranji, with some Hebrew added to the Occitan and Arabic—called Occitania the last golden land, the home for Jews that al-Andalus had once been before the Almoravids and Almohads had ruined it. But even in such a land, there were sometimes riots against Jews. One such, when Isaac was ten, had cost him his sight. A new one might take his life. And riots there would be, and more than that, if a Jew were the cause of war with the Angevins. If the siege he had seen in his dream came about, in all likelihood he, and many others, would not be there to greet its end.

This was something that could lead to catastrophe beyond anything Isaac had imagined this morning. He could feel the heat of fire being brought to the Jewish quarter and hear the shouts of a mob and the crackling of flames. This was something to keep his counsel about even with Mansour.

“Did you find him?” Mansour asked anxiously.

“No. But I know where to look next. Gather anything you can find of his—clothing, possessions, writings if you can. We are going to the Roman city.”

Isaac could hear, in the sharp intake of breath, that Mansour wanted to ask him where. But he refrained, and after a moment’s rustling as he gathered his belongings, he led Isaac downstairs and outside.

It was later than Isaac realized. He must have spent hours in his sorcery, because he no longer felt the sun and there was a chill in the air. His students and his reader would no doubt be wondering where he was. He, too, wondered what he was doing here, and why the evening brought the scent of fire, the scurrying of rats, and the songs of drunken students.

“What is a woman of Tuluz?” came raucous voices from a tavern. “What is a treasure of a hundred layers, what is a palace of a thousand rooms...” Mansour’s deeper voice sang with them; Isaac recognized the poem as one of Mansour’s own.

Then, of a sudden, Mansour fell silent and whirled at Isaac’s side. He must have seen something, Isaac thought, but with the noises all around, he couldn’t tell which way to shelter.

“Look at the blind Jew!” called voices ahead of him. They spoke Latin. “Do you understand us, Jew? How’d you like a lesson in what happens when Jews go where they don’t belong?”

Could it be known already? Isaac’s mind gibbered. But none of the students had mentioned kidnapping or the Angevins; this was the horseplay of young men who’d had too much wine, not the beginning of a riot. Isaac hadn’t heard the rasp of drawn swords; they likely aimed to beat him rather than slay him. But all things are connected in the Ayn Sof...

Now a sword was drawn, scraping free of its scabbard, but by Mansour at his side, not one of the students in the looming darkness. “This man is on official business for the republic of Tuluz and for Talal ibn Qasim al-Arbuni. Disperse, or you will answer to him, if you survive answering to me.”

From the sound of the footsteps, there were four students, maybe five, and some surely had swords themselves. But they must have known Mansour by reputation, and one of them also murmured something about sorcery and Jewish demons. Mansour took another step forward, and they scrabbled away to find safer fun.

The Roman gate lay around the next corner, and through it was a quieter city, the city of workmen and merchants finished with the day’s labor. Maghrib was over, though it was still an hour before the muezzins would call isha and church bells ring for compline, and even the working men’s taverns and pie-shops were starting to close.

Now, Mansour did ask where the two of them were going. Through the hand that gripped his arm, Isaac could feel the unaccustomed stiffness in Mansour’s movements, the discomfort with the fact that Isaac was the one who was leading. Blind or not, though, these were steps Isaac could retrace from memory, a road he needed no sefirot to find. South to the ancient forum, west through the winding streets that led toward the river, and now he felt Mansour’s surprise at the realization that they were entering the Jewish quarter.

“Who would have brought him here?” Mansour asked, and drew in his breath as the obvious answer occurred to him. “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

Isaac felt a stab of shame at his earlier distrust of Mansour, but again he kept his counsel; this wasn’t a shame he could confess, not here and now. He led them to another corner and around it into the street where the Jewish tenements began. He reached for the package Mansour was carrying, the one with the victim’s possessions. Yesod, he thought, the foundational sefirah, the base of the world—if he let the possessions guide him to this foundation, he might find what he sought.

The package gave him a sense of sureness, as if he were holding a lodestone that would bring him inexorably to his quarry. He felt himself shake off Mansour’s grip and his pace quickened. He moved as if in a dream; he felt that he could see the streets around him as he broke into a run.

The man he was looking for was close—very close. He ran faster, navigating the winding streets as if he could see their path, casting around him for the prize just outside his grasp. It was funny that it didn’t seem to be getting any closer. It was funny, too, that Mansour was shouting for him to stop and that the closeness of the Jewish quarter was no longer in the air. He realized he was on the Old Bridge, with the fast-flowing Jaruna below him and the nightjars’ calls rising from its verge, and still, his quarry was just beyond.

Mansour called again from far behind, raw despair in his voice, and Isaac realized too late that something was wrong. Ignorance and confusion had taken him again, and the Jewish quarter had set other spells on him as well. Not Gevurah—discipline—but the opposite of it, irrational compulsion. Not Malkuth, kingship, but its inverse, tyranny.

You only think you are wise, the anti-sefirot mocked as he took one more step.

And then he fell through night air into sudden icy cold and felt the waters of the Jaruna close over his head.

When Isaac was a child in Posquières, his father had taken him swimming in the ocean. “This is something I must teach you,” he’d said. “In the Talmud, in Tractate Kiddushin—it says that a father must teach his son to swim. And the gift of Ribono Shel Olam is that once you learn, you will never forget, so you can teach your son.”

But that had been thirty years ago, and Isaac had no son, and he hadn’t dared swim since he lost his sight. God’s gift, if one had been given, had been long since laid aside, and his body had forgotten what had been taught it.

His arms and legs flailed and moved at cross purposes; he broke the surface and tried to breathe but got a mouthful of water. The spring runoff from the Pyrenees had made the river ice-cold, and the chill numbed his skin and froze his marrow. He broke the surface again and this time did breathe, but the current was carrying him swiftly downstream, and the banks, far beyond his grasp, were as unreachable as the stars.

He fought harder against the current and the chill, searching desperately for a way to save himself. Yesod again, he thought—a foundation under him, a path to return him from the edge of death. Yesod was eighty. Water, mayim, was ninety—but if the letter yod were taken out, if the male principle were removed as if removing a man from the river’s currents...

He tried to ignore the cold and the lack of air; to imagine himself in a world closer to God than this, in which the emanations of the sefirot were stronger. But the flesh was weak. He went under again as a branch caught his leg and dragged at him, and nothing seemed to matter but the struggle for breath. He willed himself to ignore the burning in his lungs; he sought the Ayn Sof, felt for its radiance...

An arm wrapped around his chest; it pulled him forward; he was borne toward shore with strong strokes.

“Hold on and breathe,” a voice said—Mansour’s voice, Isaac realized. He felt a gratitude brighter than all the suns of the Ayn Sof, but still he heard the chatter in Mansour’s teeth and the flagging strength of Mansour’s strokes. Yesod. Yesod. He concentrated on the sefira—it was easier now—and he made a foundation for both of them, a path of warmth and calm that led to the shore.

He heard cheering from the riverside—the rescue was a fine show for the onlookers, just as drowning would have been. Then his feet scraped on rock and Mansour was hauling him onto the near bank.

He lay there unmoving. He heard the scraping of driftwood that Mansour gathered and the sound of flint striking, then the sudden warmth of a fire. “Stay here,” Mansour said. “You’ll catch your death if you don’t dry out.” His voice sounded at the edge of tears, and not only from the ordeal. Isaac had heard the same in other voices, and recognized all at once what it was: the fear of losing someone loved.

There was something to be learned even from near-drowning—all things, all things were connected.

“Do you still have his things?” Isaac asked. “The seneschal’s son’s?”

Surprise conquered fear, and Mansour burst into laughter; Isaac felt the sound of it like a balm. “You’re thinking about that now?”

“What better time?”

Laughter again, and then the sound of Mansour sifting through a bag, the rustle of clothing and the peeling of wet parchment. “A tunic, a pair of boots, a belt with a silver lion fastener...”

“Writings. Are there any writings?”

“If the river didn’t ruin them.” Mansour’s hands moved through the bag again. “This one is half gone, but it looks like a washing-bill. Here’s a reckoning from the tavern, and a letter home...”

“A letter home? Did he fear something? Did he name his enemies?”

“He needed money. The lament of all students since study began.” Then Mansour’s voice quickened. “This one, though—it’s Hebrew! But I don’t recognize any of the words.”

“Tell me the letters,” Isaac said, and Mansour began reading them one by one. They made no sense—and then suddenly they did.

“That’s Tzarfatit!” he said, and now he was the one laughing.

“What’s so funny?”

“It’s French—the langues d’oïl, the French of Paris, not what we call faranji—written as the Jews do.” Then, surprise fading to puzzlement: “But where would he have learned to do that? Or was it his kidnapper who wrote it? A ransom note, or the beginning of one?”

“No. Not that.” Mansour read aloud from the parchment again, this time word by word rather than letter by letter, giving it the Parisian pronunciation. “It says ‘to the lost,’ over and over. To the lost. And it’s in the same hand as the other writings. The strokes of the pen are the same.”

The mystery grows deeper. “I will need Hochmah and Binah again...”

“No. The kidnapper we’re seeking can fight those—we know that too well.”

“What, then?”

“Something different. Something not of your sefirot at all.”

“Your sorcery, then?”

Laughter, the sound of flowing water, the crackle of the fire. “I may call myself a sorcerer, but at most I’m an astrologer and hedge-diviner. This magic is far beyond my skill. But I am a swordsman, and sometimes, when your enemy has a strong guard, only an oblique thrust will get past it.”

What does he know of such things? Isaac thought, but then he remembered, I only thought I was wise. “An oblique thrust, then. From which direction?” But as he rose, he realized that he already knew. “There are few people more oblique than my landlady, and even fewer who are wiser. I think we will pay her a visit.”

The water-clock in the Tower of al-Khawlani was striking midnight when they reached their destination. The Nazarene Gate was barred at this hour, so there was no returning across the bridges to the outlying settlements where Isaac lived; instead, they’d had to wake a boatman and pay his ruinous price to be ferried to the western shore. But the price had been paid—two of Isaac’s Angevin deniers, and a dirham and half-dirham from Mansour’s purse—and the crossing made, and now they had come full circle to a house three doors from Isaac’s.

Mansour knocked loudly—it seemed all the louder in the stillness of night outside the city walls—and a moment later, amid the alarmed goats’ bleating, there were footsteps and a woman’s voice at the door. “Go away, robbers,” she said in the Gascon speech. “The gallows are waiting for you elsewhere, and I’ve taken measures.”

“Would robbers knock before they broke in?” Isaac answered. “It’s me, Adèle.”

“I don’t suppose you’re paying the rent early for once? No, don’t answer—come in, come in.” The bar scraped, the door creaked, and a breath of warmth issued from the room inside.

The warm air and the smell of lavender and cinnamon were intoxicating, but Isaac still hesitated. Adèle had left Gascony a step ahead of being burned as a witch, and even to a man accustomed to the sefirot, fear of witchcraft ran deep. Stories of women with the evil eye were told even by the sages, and congress with them had been forbidden since the days of the kings of Israel. But her aura was that of Binah, not its opposite, and he overcame his fear and sank onto the cushion that she placed at his feet.

“Now tell me, what brings you at this hour if not to pay the rent?” she said, and then, when they had explained, “So you want truth? The truth of this kidnapper and this victim? If truth is what you want, then go to your house and bring me wine.”

“Wine? And you have none here?”

In vino veritas, no? And Christian wine will not find a Jew. It is good that yours is made with your own hands, because I will know it is pure.”

And Gevurah resides in it, Isaac remembered, and so he and Mansour went three houses westward, and so they returned.

Adèle took the bottle of wine from his hands, and then she took an earthen bowl from a shelf and poured. “They did this in Queen Eleanor’s court—the court of love,” she said. “Sacred wine for sacred bonds—it would tell them if love were true and if lovers were false. But I’ve found that it can be done in other ways, and that it can be useful for other things.”  

All things are connected in the Ayn Sof, Isaac thought, remembering the abducted student’s kinship with Eleanor, and then he wondered, what would Adèle know of the Angevin queen’s court? But she said no more, and the only sound was the bustle and clatter as she gathered the tools for her ritual.

She stirred the wine with a spoon, wood against the earthenware, and began a prayer. She chanted in a surprisingly deep voice for a woman, and her sonorous Latin had a hypnotic cadence; she praised the God who saw all and knew all, the author of mind and spirit, the maker of the wine in which mind and spirit blended.

We say that too, Isaac thought. Boray p’ri hagafen, creator of the fruit of the vine. And as he wondered on that, he heard that Adèle was no longer praying, and that her song had become another thing entirely—a rhyme in Sabir, the traders’ tongue, the one language that nearly everyone in the world that had once been Roman would understand. “Se ti sabir, ti respondir; se non sabir, tazir, tazir.” If you know, answer; if you don’t know, be silent.

Three times Adèle repeated the rhyme, and then, from the wine, came an answer.

Isaac never knew what form the answer took. Nor did Mansour, although he could see it; later, when Isaac asked, he could only say that the patterns that formed and swirled above the bowl of wine were something true. But those patterns said something to Adèle.

“The soul has kidnapped the body,” she said. “And they await you at the Aragonese synagogue.”

So the Aragonese are in this after all, Isaac mused. He remembered his thoughts of that morning when he’d heard the Catalan merchants haggling over wool: the king of Aragon had a long arm, and anything that made the Angevins weak would make Aragon strong. He was reputed, as well, to be a devious man—one who would think nothing of making Tuluz his pawn. The armies in Isaac’s dream suddenly seemed close and very real—unless there was a way to stop them.

Isaac had never been to the Aragonese synagogue—it served the community of Catalan Jews in Tuluz, of which he was not one, and its rabbi was of the same mind as those who had exiled him from Posquières. But he knew well where it was. It was just off the carrièra Josaica, the Jews’ street, the center of the Jewish quarter, and he could find his way there even without Mansour to guide him.

“But I will, of course,” Mansour said. “It’s too late to go to sleep, and you need a strong hand to hold on to you if your foe assaults you with dreams again. And you’ll need me to find another boat.”

“You won’t,” said Adèle. “My land goes to the water’s edge, and I have a dory.”

“It’s dangerous for you,” Mansour said, though his voice was less this will be no place for a woman than I still fear witchcraft. Adèle heard the words behind the words, and she laughed.

“After what I saw,” Adèle answered, “it would be dangerous for me to stay. And this one needs all the protection he can get—he hasn’t paid the rent yet.”

And so it was the three of them, Mansour and Adèle at the oars, who made the day’s third crossing of the Jaruna and tied up at a fishing dock on the island of Touni. From there, a causeway led to the city proper and the winding alleys of the Jewish district.

No dreams came to Isaac as they started down the narrow streets; no anti-sefirot assailed him. Maybe his enemy thought him dead, or maybe that enemy didn’t expect the attack to come from this direction; maybe Adèle’s oblique approach had worked. If so, then let it continue. Isaac, leading the way now in streets where he needed no eyes, where the image in his mind was clearer than any map, where the feel of every cobblestone and the smell of the shops on every streetcorner was graven in memory, took them around to the rear of the Aragonese synagogue rather than the carrièra Josaica and approached it from the alleys.

As he counted his steps and prepared to turn the last corner, Isaac suddenly felt Mansour’s hand on his right arm and Adèle’s on his left, and Mansour’s voice hissed close to his ear. “There are three men at the door. Armed.”

“Aragonese?”

“How can I tell? But two are dressed as Jews and one is not.”

Armed Jews on the streets of a city—would the wonders of the day never cease? But more immediately, they were a barrier to what was inside. “Can we get past them?”

“If I surprise them, maybe—but they are still three. No swordsman can fight three for long. Those aren’t drunken students. And a fight will draw a crowd—if there are bodies in the streets, there will be no hope of keeping the abduction quiet.”

“And if I invoke the sefirot, the kidnapper will know I’m here, and will fight back as he did before.” The oblique approach would have to continue.

“Then it is a good thing that I faced the danger, no?” Adèle said. She took her hand from Isaac’s arm and he heard footsteps and a quick puff of wind; a moment later, she returned. “They won’t see or hear anything, but it only lasts a moment. So go.”

Hands pulled Isaac around the corner, almost faster than he could follow. At the door there was a scent of cinnamon and lavender, a silence as he felt it open, and they were inside. “This way, I think,” Mansour said, and led them off from the sanctuary through a succession of drafty storerooms and then, from the sound of his descending footsteps and the musty air, to a steep staircase to a basement. From below came the sound of pen scratching on parchment, and as Mansour descended, it abruptly stopped.

“It is he,” Mansour called up the stairs, “the seneschal’s son.”

As Isaac felt his way down the stairs in turn, one hand pressed tight against the stone walls to either side, it suddenly occurred to him that he had never learned the young man’s name. But they had found him anyway. The Christian sorcerers said that the name of the thing was the thing, but maybe in the Ayn Sof, names were just labels...

Or maybe names were everything. Because a man at a far corner of the basement said, “No, I am not he. You are speaking to Paltiel of Nemours.” And he said it in Hebrew.

The soul has kidnapped the body, Adèle had said, and now Isaac realized what that meant.

“You are a dybbuk!” he shouted. “You didn’t kidnap the seneschal’s son—you possessed him.”

“I prefer to call myself a revenant,” the spirit called Paltiel said, “a spirit returned for justice.” His voice sounded older and deeper than the seneschal’s son’s voice would be, and something in it was very sorrowful.

“And the men upstairs—they didn’t kidnap you?”

“They shelter me.”

There was mystery upon mystery here. Why would a Jew from Île-de-France possess the body of a Gascon student, and why would the Aragonese Jews—and a gentile—give him shelter? But maybe, one question would unlock all those answers.

“You have returned for justice, you say. What is justice, Paltiel of Nemours?”

There was silence for a long moment—from Paltiel at the far corner of the room, and from Adèle and Mansour at his side as well. Then: “A question for a question, Isaac the Blind. Have you heard of Masada?”

Of course he had. What Jew had not? Long ago, in the Holy Land, Masada had been the last Jewish fortress to hold out against the Romans. At the end, surrounded by fifteen times their number and with the wall breached by the legions’ siege engines, the defenders had killed each other rather than be enslaved.

“Then let me tell you of another Masada. Let me tell you of York in the spring, four years ago when King Richard was on crusade. All over England, people rioted against the Jews, and in York, they laid siege to those who had taken refuge in the castle. The warden would have protected us, but the mob was too strong for his men. The rioters were certain to breach the walls, and what would happen then would be unspeakable. And so each father slew his wife and children, and then himself. I had no wife living, but I had three daughters, blind man—the oldest was fourteen. I lived long enough to see our rabbi set the keep on fire, and I died as it was burning.”

A terrible vision came to Isaac’s mind—as before, it seemed that his gift of sight had been restored, only to see the bodies of children, hear their cries, watch the flames leap up as the dead were immolated. This was what he had feared for Tuluz when he dreamed of armies, what he had dreaded when he learned that the secret to the kidnapping lay in the Jewish quarter. And now he watched helpless as it was enacted on the Jews of another city far to the north.

“But why Tuluz?” he said at last. “What brought you here? Why do you not haunt York?”

“Ask Ribono Shel Olam, Isaac of Posquières.” Paltiel’s voice shifted in a moment; it was almost clinical now, without the deep sorrow it had carried the moment before. “I, a sorcerer, don’t know. When I woke, I was in Nemours—my ashes must have been brought there, or maybe a spirit always arises where it was born. I thought of going to Gascony, taking ship there for the English lands—but in Tuluz, I found a man who was cousin to the house of Aquitaine and who was disappointed in love. Had he been in Poitiers and a woman, he could have taken his grievance to a court of love. Here, he tried sorcery, and he opened his mind and body to me.”

“And now I must ask you to give it back,” said Isaac—was he really bargaining with a dybbuk? “An Angevin nobleman abducted by Jewish sorcery—if people learn of it, the massacre at York will be enacted again here. And every day that passes makes this more likely to happen. I ask you as a Jew, Paltiel of Nemours—let the seneschal’s son go home.”

“But that is exactly where I plan to take him,” said Paltiel.

“To the university?” Mansour said. “Then what have you been doing here these three days?”

Home, I said.” The scrape of a chair and a subtle movement in the air told Isaac that Paltiel had risen. “When I can leave the city safely, my shelterers will take me to Bordeaux, where my—his—father is seneschal. And then to London, where Richard Lionheart will receive me as an honored guest, and where I will slay him.”

Behind Isaac, Mansour hissed sharply, and only the intensity with which Isaac was following Paltiel’s words kept him from doing the same. The killing of a king would mean chaos, and if a Jew were the source of that chaos...

“To Aragon’s gain,” Mansour said.

“Yes,” Isaac said. If King Richard were killed, there would be no clear heir—Arthur of Brittany was weak, and John was a rebel who the English noblemen hated. There would be civil war in the seven Angevin realms, which would weaken them in favor of the Crowns of France and Aragon—and possibly, in favor of Tuluz as well. No wonder the Aragonese had given shelter to Paltiel. Maybe they had even encouraged him...

“But is it to the Jews’ gain?” Isaac said, and he focused on Binah, but he directed it not at himself but on Adèle. Understanding was a female principle, but Paltiel wouldn’t be looking for the sefira to come from a woman. The oblique approach.

“What would happen, Paltiel,” he continued, “when it became known that Richard Lionheart was killed by Jewish witchcraft?” He used the word for witchcraft deliberately—however much Paltiel might think he was seeking justice, the English would consider him purely evil. “There will be massacres of Jews not only in York, not only in Tuluz, but in all the Angevin countries.”

“Why would they think he was killed by Jewish sorcery?” Paltiel said. His footfall came a step closer to Isaac, and then another. “They would think the king was killed by the seneschal’s son. They would execute the seneschal’s son. It would be Gascony that killed him, not the Jews, and the Gascons would be the ones to face England’s wrath.”

For a moment, a terrible temptation coursed through Isaac’s mind—let him do it. King Richard had Jewish blood on his hands—not only for the riots that had taken the lives of Paltiel and his family, but for the massacre in London the year before that, and for the depredations of his crusading armies. And besides, the Angevins’ loss would be Tuluz’s gain as well as Aragon’s.

But Adèle spat on the ground behind him—he had augmented her sense of Binah, and she had sensed that Paltiel was lying. And a moment later, Isaac understood too. A spirit bent on revenge, as Paltiel was, would not be content to let the Angevins think that one of Richard’s distant cousins had assassinated him for reasons of his own. He would want them to know. He would want the world to know.

And as Isaac’s knowledge of the lie became clearer, he realized that Paltiel knew he knew.

There was one more appeal he could make. “The seneschal’s son—he is an innocent in this. He did not cause your death. If he is executed, you will be his murderer—is it not said that if you kill one man, you destroy the world?”

“I have destroyed the world already, man of Posquières.” The sorrow was back in Paltiel’s voice, deeper even than before, and he had stopped advancing. “I slit the throats of my daughters so that the mob would not rape and burn them. To destroy another is nothing to me.”

And hard on Paltiel’s words came a barrage of anti-sefirot. Anti-Gevurah, to make Isaac forget his duty. Anti-Netzach, to show him that his doubts were momentary. Anti-Hochmah and anti-Binah, to erase knowledge of the lie, to bring his impulse back to the forefront.

Isaac fought back. He had not prepared a spell, but the carving he’d made of the letter ayin was still around his neck, and he reached for Gevurah—discipline to fight, discipline to remember. But as he resisted, he knew he would have to do more. It was not enough to fight Paltiel’s blandishments. He would have to expel the dybbuk from the body it had stolen.

His first impulse was to invoke Keter. Never before had he sought the highest of the sefirot—the Crown, the emanation of divine will itself—but what else could exorcise a spirit who was also a sorcerer? The letters of Keter added to six hundred twenty, and he was in a synagogue; the Torah scroll with its six hundred thirteen commandments, and the seven-branched candelabra in the sanctuary, were also that.

But to use the Torah in magic would be unforgivable blasphemy—and if Isaac invoked Keter, then Paltiel could respond with anti-Keter, the distilled will of evil. What might that do, not only to Isaac but to the companions he loved?

The oblique approach. What attack would not seem like an attack? Hesed—kindness. It would come as a gift, and what greater kindness than to send a troubled spirit to its rest?

Hesed—chet, samekh, and dalet—was seventy-two. That was also the sum of belem, to restrain, and kivan, to extinguish. To extinguish through kindness—and for the task at hand, the ordinary kindnesses of the world would not be enough.

He made himself dream. He dreamed of cities of kindness, to the number of seventy-two. Cities without walls. Cities of crystal, soaring to the heavens like the Tower of Babel had been meant to soar. Cities of marble, cities of glass, cities of gleaming black stone shaped like the worlds of heaven. Cities carved into cliffsides, floating on seas, hung from the sky; cities of a single great house and cities of a thousand mansions. Cities of thought, cities of poetry, cities where no one wanted and where dreams were fulfilled for the asking. Cities where creatures undreamed of by any but God mingled together in peace. Cities where hate and oppression were not even words.

Paltiel fought. He sent armies against the cities Isaac had conjured—all the armies that Isaac had dreamed of the night before. The armies advanced as they had in the dream, bloody swords in their hands, and they shouted again, “return what is ours!” But these cities were places where armies simply could not exist. War was against these cities’ nature, and the soldiers and commanders dissolved in the sefira’s light. And the cities joined into the world of Yetzirah, the world where Hesed was visible in all its glory, and from there, a path to heaven was open, shining with a light that Isaac, even in his dream-state, could hardly bear.

But Paltiel saw it too, and it was a path that no restless spirit could resist. Isaac heard Paltiel’s cry of joy and watched him set foot on the road to the divine presence. He saw Paltiel as he had been in life, before he had been forced to cut the throats of his daughters—a man of forty with a thick brown beard and piercing eyes alive with understanding of Ribono Shel Olam. The path blazed with a blinding light, and then both it and Paltiel were gone.

Isaac cried out, and he woke to darkness.

He didn’t know where he was, and then he did—the Aragonese synagogue, the place where he had found both kidnapper and victim. He was alive; he knew that. He wasn’t dreaming; he knew that too. And the dust that hung heavy in the air told him that he was still in the room where he had faced Paltiel.

He was aware of Adèle’s breath above his face and Mansour kneeling beside him, clutching at his hand. How long it had been since he fought, and whether it was day or night, he didn’t know.

“The seneschal’s son?” he rasped. That was important for some reason.

“At the university,” said Mansour. “I brought him back and put him in the care of the whore who spoke Greek. He was disappointed in love, you know—I gave her nine dirhams, and she will say he sought solace with her these past days.”

The prostitute who bested the students. In the Ayn Sof, all things are connected. “Will he remember?”

“He didn’t when I brought him there. I don’t think he will. If he does, it will be as a dream.”

Then it is over, as much as anything can be. “Paltiel...”

“He only thought he was wise,” said Adèle.

“Like all of us.” Isaac realized he was lying on the floor, and he made himself stand. “Is it day or night?”

“It was dawn as I returned,” Mansour said. “The muezzins are calling fajr now, and the Nazarene Gate will be open. We won’t need another boatman—Adèle can take her dory home.”

“Let us go, then.” Isaac had won, he supposed, but the image of Paltiel’s unavenged daughters still hung in front of him. May you forgive me in the name of the Jews of the Angevin lands and all the people of Tuluz, who will not now face the sword. “Let us go. It’s too late to sleep, and my vineyard needs tending.”

That night, labors and lessons done, Isaac the Blind dreamed of martyrs.

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Jonathan Edelstein was born in 1971, is married with cat, and lives in New York City. In addition to BCS, his work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Escape Pod, Intergalactic Medicine Show, GigaNotoSaurus, and elsewhere. He counts Chinua Achebe, Ursula Le Guin and Bernard Cornwell among his inspirations, and when he isn’t writing, he practices law and hopes someday to get it right.

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