A coalition of lions, p.1
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       A Coalition of Lions, p.1

           Elizabeth E. Wein
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A Coalition of Lions

  A Coalition of Lions

  Elizabeth Wein




  I. Naming the Animals

  II. Ella Amida

  III. Coffee and Frankincense

  IV. Accounting


  V. A Red Sea Itinerary

  VI. The Long Rains

  VII. Prisoners


  VIII. The Tomb of the False Door

  IX. Lord of the Land

  X. Cloth of Gold

  XI. Debra Damo


  XII. All the Wealth of His House

  XIII. Arabia Felix

  XIV. Swifts

  Historical Note

  Character List


  A Biography of Elizabeth Wein

  A Coalition of Lions


  THE EMPEROR’S COUNSELOR stopped reading. He looked up and spoke the next lines off by heart. “‘Love is strong as death,’” Kidane said. “‘Jealousy is cruel as the grave.’” He had been reading aloud from the Song of Songs. “‘Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned.’”

  Kidane rolled the scrolls shut. Turunesh had set a pot of water to boil over the ceremonial brazier, and she and her father were about to drink one last ritual cup of coffee with their young British guest. Tomorrow Medraut’s embassy in African Aksum would end, and he would begin his long journey, four thousand miles across the world, back to his father’s kingdom in Britain.

  “We will miss you deeply, Medraut,” Kidane said. “Our home has become your home. You are not the inexperienced boy you were when you arrived. You have earned your Aksumite name, Ras Meder, Prince Meder, lord of the land. We will miss you more than I can say.”

  The garden court was dark but for the hanging lamps. Turunesh’s doves and parrots were asleep. The white, alcoved walls of the enclosure were full of shadows; lamplight rippled in the black waters of the granite fish pool. Kidane’s face was difficult for Medraut to see, for the light fell over his shoulder, but the counselor’s voice was warm and filled with sadness as he spoke.

  Medraut knelt and lifted his host’s hands from the book to kiss them lightly. “And I will miss you,” he replied in Ethiopic, the language he had spoken for nearly three years and which he took pride in being able to read and write. “You are right: Aksum has made me. I am forever in your debt. I leave you with nothing of myself, and you and your daughter have given of your gifts and affection generously and generously.”

  He turned toward Turunesh, but she sat with her head bent, her attention fixed on the roasting coffee. Medraut quickly looked away from her. Lizards leaped and murdered moths in the thatched awning over their heads. The night air was full of the bitter fragrance of coffee, but also smelled faintly of frankincense, as the scent blew down from the plantation on the neighboring hillside.

  Medraut did not easily speak of himself, and he had never heard any Aksumite make painful confessions about his or her emotional state. But he wanted to explain himself a little, on this last night in the house of the dark, regal girl he had come to love.

  “I had no sense of my own worth when I arrived in Aksum,” Medraut said in a low voice. “Since their birth I have lived in envy of my small half-brother, Lleu, and Goewin, his twin sister. But Aksum has made me. I have become myself here. Why should I envy anyone? If Hector and Priamos can serve their uncle the emperor so selflessly, after a childhood of exile and imprisonment, then so may I serve my own king.”

  Turunesh spoke chidingly as she laid out the earthen cups. “You let a deal of nonsense pass your lips, Medraut son of Artos. You know the sequestering of lesser princes is traditional, and Caleb never planned to keep his nephews at Debra Damo forever. You can be sure your father has a plan for you, as well. Will you follow him as high king?”

  “Not while Lleu lives. Lleu is the queen’s son, I am not. I will serve as Britain’s regent, perhaps, or its steward.”

  “There is no greater service on this earth than stewardship,” said Kidane. “A true king is his people’s steward; their lives, and their faith, are in his hands.”

  Turunesh began to pour the coffee, still berating Medraut. “And that you would call the hermitage at Debra Damo a prison, after your visit there with the emperor Caleb himself as your guide! You were aglow with holiness and delight on your return.”

  “You speak perfect truth, as ever,” Medraut admitted, glowing again with the memory of that visit: the rare, clear air of the amba plateau, the fantastically carved and gilded church there, the reservoirs hewn from the living rock, the twisted strap of leather rope that was the only way up the cliff. He thought of the emperor Caleb’s companionship, of his trust and honor.

  “Now I have become—”

  He hesitated, and Turunesh murmured without looking up from her deft hands: “Warrior, statesman, huntsman. Lion killer.” She raised her head from the coffee at last, and smiled, though she did not meet his eyes. No Aksumite had ever met his eyes. They would have considered it a great insolence to do so; he was the eldest son of Britain’s high king.

  “And Christian,” Turunesh added, smiling still. “You were baptized here. What will Artos your father say to that?”

  “He’ll say, Africa is always producing something new.”

  They all three laughed together.

  Kidane held out his hand again to Medraut. “Get off your knees, you sentimental boy,” he said.

  Medraut took his seat, embarrassed. Turunesh handed him his coffee, bitter and black. He cupped the hot beaker between his hands, breathing in the strong steam.

  “I’ve put a great dose of honey in it,” Turunesh said, “to sweeten it for you. I know you don’t really like it.”

  “I like the smell.”

  “You have to share a cup with us, this last night before you go.”

  “I know.” Medraut sighed again. “If the kingship of Britain were offered to me tomorrow, I would throw it away for the promise that I will share another cup of coffee with you before I die.”

  “Don’t,” Turunesh said softly. “You will set me to weeping.”

  Medraut sipped gingerly at the steaming black liquor.

  “Sweet enough?” she inquired.

  “‘Out of the strong came something sweet,’” he murmured, quoting Samson’s riddle of bees and honey in the carcass of the slain lion.

  “Lion killer,” Turunesh murmured in answer, teasing. “What did you mean, you have left us with nothing of yourself? I shall never pass your lion skin hanging in the reception hall without thinking of you.”

  They drank the coffee. The lamps in the standards that stood about the garden court began to burn low. Turunesh lifted one down.

  “‘Return, return,’” she whispered to the lamp, as though she were weaving an incantation. The flame burned steadily, pale white-gold and smoky blue, the color of Medraut’s hair and eyes. “‘Return, return.’”

  Her father could not have heard her, but Medraut could. Turunesh whispered the words Kidane had read aloud earlier from the Song of Songs. “‘Return, return, that we may look upon you.’”

  She held the lamp high and turned to face the young British ambassador.

  “Come, Medraut,” she said aloud. “I’ll light you to your room.”



  Naming the Animals

  SIX YEARS AFTER MEDRAUT returned to Britain, and a bare season after he and my twin brother Lleu nearly killed each other over which of them should be the high king’s heir, our father’s estate at
Camlan was destroyed in a battle that began by accident.

  Camlan shattered Medraut. He began the battle: he drew his sword to kill an adder at my father’s heel, and the host mustered by Cynric of the West Saxons fell on our own soldiers at the flash of light on metal. When sickness attacked the nearby village of Elder Field in the battle’s wake, and my mother waited on the stricken without stint until she, too, was killed by the fever, Medraut blamed himself for not relieving her. Then Medraut killed our father. Artos asked it of him, rather than lie waiting to die of his battle wounds. Before that final damning act of courage and mercy, Medraut had spent a day and most of a night limping on a broken knee through the frozen, bloody fields around Camlan, searching for Lleu. It was not three months since Lleu had kissed and forgiven him his last winter’s betrayal. Medraut would have given his own life to spare our brother’s. All he found of my twin after Camlan was the golden circlet Lleu had worn.

  Then Medraut disappeared. He lost himself in the caves at Elder Field, where we buried my parents and cousins. When I discovered he was gone, I felt my way in panic down the tunnel that led beyond the crypt, beyond the reach of the little light burning at my father’s head, until I was afraid to go any farther. I stood there, calling and calling my elder brother, until I had to shut up because I suddenly so hated the sound of my own voice in that deep, quiet dark.

  I and my father’s soldiers searched and waited for Medraut for a month. But then came the rumor that the Saxon lord Cynric had offered a bounty for me, and my father’s treacherous sister Morgause announced she would pay my weight in silver for proof that I was dead. I knew she meant it. I had seen the scars she left on Medraut, and he and I had spent half of the last summer battling to keep her from poisoning Lleu. Now only I stood between my aunt and her lost sovereignty. I panicked like a hunted doe. In fear and grief I turned my back on my own kingdom, with all the forethought and resolution of a gazelle flying before a crouching lioness.

  I fled first to Father’s capital in Deva. In the garrison there waited confirmation of Cynric’s bride price; as his messenger he sent me Priamos Anbessa, my father’s African envoy. Priamos, too, had sought for Lleu after Camlan, and had found him torn with spear and ax, and was made prisoner with him. He sat awake with Lleu through the night before Lleu died. Cynric sent Priamos back to me bearing the news of my brother’s death, and the offer of Cynric’s protection and dowry if I agreed to marry one of his grandsons.

  Seriously, quietly, my father’s dark ambassador from the Red Sea kingdom of Aksum delivered me his message from the Saxon lord, then offered me the sanctuary of his own empire.

  As far back as I can remember there had always been an Aksumite ambassador in my father’s court, an aloof, reserved young man with skin the color of peat and eyes that never met your own. They saw to it that we received ivory and papyrus, salt and spices and emeralds from the lands of the Red Sea, and that my father sent their king tin and silver and wool in fair exchange. I knew I could trust Priamos’s offer. My cousin Constantine had long served in Aksum as our own ambassador there, in Medraut’s place. My father had named Constantine as my future husband, and as his heir after my brothers. If I traveled to Aksum I could call Constantine home myself. I let Priamos lead me.

  Three months later I sat in the New Palace in the imperial city of Aksum, at the edge of the big fountain in the Golden Court, seeking sanctuary, and waiting an audience with Constantine.

  It was Constantine who was making me wait. I found, on my arrival, that my cousin had somehow so ingratiated himself with the Aksumite emperor that Caleb had abdicated in Constantine’s favor. Constantine was no longer Britain’s ambassador to Aksum; he was now viceroy of Aksum. So although half my father’s soldiers had got in the habit of calling me queen of Britain since the high king’s death, I had to sit in the Golden Court and wait for my cousin to grant me an audience.

  The Golden Court echoed with the sound of running water and the chattering of colobus monkeys. The monkeys were a strange and beautiful highland breed, with flowing white tails and long fur that draped about their shoulders in a black-and-white cape. They crouched on the floor and in the potted palm trees, tethered by slender gold chains fixed in the sides of the fountains. The sound of the water was soothing; the chattering of the monkeys was not. They shook their chains and screamed whenever anyone walked through the hall.

  “They make me think of that boy we saw in Septem, when you made us change ships a day early,” I said to Priamos, sitting at my right hand. “Do you remember the child servant on the yacht berthed next to ours, that they led on board by his bound wrists?”

  “Except these creatures strain against their bonds,” Priamos answered, “and that boy did not.”

  “I would.”

  Priamos touched the side of my hand, briefly, as he had done at the time. “You would.” His dark, narrow face seemed all sharpness and severity behind his pointed black beard, but I knew that his serious frown hid humor and kindness. He was only a little older than I. “I would, too, Princess.”

  “And they make me think of my aunt.” But everything made me think of Morgause. “She kept a menagerie of exotic creatures, all bound and caged.”

  At my left, Kidane, the counselor who had once been Medraut’s host, held out his hands in a gesture of peace and welcome. “Be at ease, Princess Goewin,” he said. “A death sentence is a chilling burden, and must be especially so for one who is scarcely past girlhood. How unfortunate that a thing so harmless as a pet monkey should remind you of your flight. Try to be at ease. You are safe, here, for a time.”

  All the events of the cold, sad spring just past had led me to this meeting with Constantine, yet the only thing I could think of was my aunt. And what I kept thinking about was not the vicious cruelty she had inflicted on my brothers, nor the harm she wished on me, but with what desperation she battled the men around her who sought to keep her power for their own, who strove to hold her helpless.

  There was a sudden commotion among the monkeys, as four or five of them scampered toward a single point on the other side of the big fountain. The rest stretched out at the limit of their gold chains, screeching with jealous longing. A small person of about six years stood camouflaged among the palms, holding out his hands to the monkeys. In this land of dark-skinned people, his hair was a shocking white-gold blaze, nearly as pale as that of an albino. I stared at him and bit my lip, my heart twisting within me. He had my elder brother’s hair.

  Kidane stood up and turned around, gazing toward the clustering monkeys.

  “Oh, that wretched child,” he said. “He has been told not to feed these creatures.” Kidane strode around the fountain. “Telemakos! Give me that. Come away now, or I will see to it you do not leave the house for a week.”

  Kidane came back to us, with a branch of dates in one hand and the child led cruelly by the ear in the other. The small boy bore this abuse stoically, his lips pressed together in a tight, thin line, his eyes narrowed in contained anger.

  “I thought you were in council all this week, Grandfather,” he protested. “No one else minds if I feed them.”

  “They mind the havoc it creates.” Kidane released the child’s ear and gripped him by the shoulder, as if he expected his grandson to try to slip away from him suddenly.

  The boy was neatly slender, foxlike in his movements. His skin was the deep gold-brown of baked bread or roasted wheat. And his hair, his hair: it was thick as carded wool and white as sea foam, like a bundle of bleached raw silk. It was Medraut’s hair.

  Kidane spoke quietly and severely to him in Latin: “How unseemly! Questioning me before a guest, and she the princess of Britain! Speak Latin so that the princess can understand.”

  The child ducked his head in apology. He spoke in Latin, but only to repeat what he had said in Ethiopic: “Why are you not in council, Grandfather?”

  “The bala heg does not meet until this afternoon. You are an embarrassment,” said Kidane. “Stand still, bow proper
ly, and be introduced. Princess Goewin, this is Telemakos Meder. He is the issue of my daughter Turunesh and our former British ambassador, as you may guess. He takes his second name from his father: Ras Meder, Prince Meder, is how Medraut’s son thinks of him.” He pushed the child forward.

  “Telemakos, this is the Princess Goewin, who arrived in the city this morning. She is daughter to Artos the dragon, the high king of Britain. She will be the queen of her own country when she goes home, though she is dressed humbly enough for traveling; and she also happens to be your aunt. You must treat her with appropriate respect.”

  Telemakos bowed low at my feet, on his knees, with his forehead just touching the ground. His movements were all light and quick and efficient. No one had ever bent before me so submissively.

  “Welcome, lady, welcome to Aksum,” Telemakos said demurely. “I am your servant.”

  “Look up,” I commanded him, because I was wild to see his eyes again. “Look at my face a moment.”

  He raised his head. His eyes were blue, such a deep familiar blue, like slate or smoke. His skin was the color of ale or cider, his front teeth were missing, he was very little; but by heaven, he looked like Medraut.

  He asked me abruptly, “Why are you my aunt?”

  “I am your father’s sister,” I answered.

  “Oh,” Telemakos said, and looked me up and down before lowering his eyes again, still on his knees. He glanced at his grandfather. “You said she is a princess.”

  “Your father was a prince. We have told you that. Ras Priamos is a prince, also,” Kidane hinted.

  Telemakos lowered his head again. It was not so deep a bow as he had made to me; but I sensed that there was more sincerity, or at any rate more intensity, in this reverence. “Peace to you, Ras Priamos,” he said. “I remember you.”

  “You cannot be old enough to remember me,” said Priamos. He had left Aksum nearly a year ago.

  “I do remember you. I remember the parade, after the war in Himyar, when you led your beaten warriors through the cathedral square.”

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