A coalition of lions, p.13
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       A Coalition of Lions, p.13

           Elizabeth E. Wein
 
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  “I do not understand,” I said slowly, “why Caleb did not inspire the same loyalty in you as he did in Priamos. He trained you as his translator, did he not? What difference was there in his treatment of you?”

  “My loyalty lies with Himyar,” Abreha said, “not with any man.”

  “I understand that. But how did your loyalty change?”

  “I cannot speak for Priamos,” Abreha answered quietly. “I became the man I am because I saw what Caleb did to Mikael, my father’s eldest son.”

  His voice fell so low that I could barely hear him.

  “Mikael was younger than Gebre Meskal is now when the command came for him to be put in chains like a bond servant at auction. I was no bigger than that bright fox kit of your brother’s get. I could remember no life before being sequestered; my brother Mikael was mother and father to me. After a week in irons Mikael had dislocated both his wrists, struggling to break free of the fetters. But even while they tried to mend him they kept him bound above the elbows.”

  I had seen those crippled, twisted hands.

  “Why was it done?” I whispered.

  “He had tried to escape Debra Damo. He was Candake’s eldest son, rival to Caleb’s sons by lineage. No other reason that I know.”

  Abreha coughed, and turned his face away. “Pah, I cannot speak of Mikael. It makes me sick to think of him.”

  He stared at the flames.

  “Mother of God, how I have hated being made to war against my brothers! The day our father died, Caleb began pulling his nephews out of imprisonment and training them to send against me. Hector was murdered before I ever met him. His mutinous officers imagined I would thank them for it.”

  Abreha reached for his cup again.

  “The men that slew Hector I sent back to Aksum. Caleb may have punished them himself. I would not accept their fealty, though they pledged to serve me.”

  I did not mean to judge him. But I heard myself ask coldly, “How did you bring yourself to put Priamos in chains when you took him in battle?”

  Abreha swirled his wine in its cup, gazing down into its depths, and for some while did not answer. Then he said seriously, “Let me tell you, Princess, what I saw when my young brother was brought before me, stripped and bruised and bound, after a pointless slaughter of young life that he had initiated in Caleb’s name.”

  Abreha looked up, but his gaze was still directed at the fire and not at me.

  “I saw myself.”

  I murmured, “You are very like.”

  “I did not know who he was, Princess. My first thought was that it must be some kind of sorcery. You cannot imagine. He had not slept for two days; he had just learned how his dearest companion had been betrayed and murdered; he had himself been clubbed senseless with a blunt spear at the end of his battle. And there are fifteen years between us, but when he was dragged before me it was as though I were a boy again and staring at myself in a glass. My officers had prepared him for this meeting, and he obeyed when they made him lie prostrate at my feet: naked, my arms chained behind my back—”

  As though amazed at his mistake, Abreha slapped the carpet at his side so that the dust flew in the firelight. “Behind his back,” Abreha corrected. “His arms chained behind his back.

  “I saw myself, Princess,” he repeated. “I saw myself on the verge of manhood and obeying my king unquestioningly, instead of doubting both his wisdom and his authority. I saw myself barely more than a boy and already utterly defeated by grief and failure, instead of expecting fulfilled ambition. I saw myself forced to lie on my face in the dust before an enemy I had no hope of besting.”

  Abreha drew a long breath to steady himself, as I had seen Priamos do a thousand times.

  “I told him to stand up. And I covered him with my cloak. He ate with me that night and slept in my tent. He was too tired to consider that my kindness might cast him as a collaborator when he returned to Aksum.”

  “But you must have considered it!” I exclaimed, then sighed, and put down my cup. I bent against my knees with my head in my arms, trying to understand how this man whom I liked and admired could have used Priamos so heartlessly, when it was more than I could bear to be denied his companionship.

  Abreha said, “I felt that Caleb had saved Priamos to send me at the last, to be his final, surest weapon against me.”

  He sipped at his wine again. “By the saints, the boy was trained as a linguist. ‘Speak Arabic if you like,’ he told me. ‘You do not need to translate; I am fluent in fourteen languages.’ What madman would make a general of such a one, and risk splitting open a head he had carefully crammed with fourteen languages? All I can believe is that when Caleb first saw how like me the boy was, he changed his mind about how Priamos should best serve him.”

  “But that is not statesmanship!” I burst out.

  “Well, what is it, then?”

  “Trickery, gambling, delusion, I don’t know. What sheer lunacy, to wager the future of your empire on a boy’s face!”

  “Is it any more lunatic than to wager it on the head of your newborn infant son?” said Abreha. “Or that of your nephew? Is that not how your father chose his heirs?”

  I could make no answer. I had done that, too.

  “I did consider how unfavorable a light my kindness would cast over Priamos,” Abreha acknowledged. “Caleb meant to use him as a weapon against me. How better to destroy a sword without breaking it, than to blunt its edge? No man in Caleb’s court would trust Priamos, after the battle at al-Muza. Though Caleb did, still; he sent Priamos to Britain.”

  “It was not meant as exile,” I interrupted, defensive of my kingdom, and of Priamos.

  “Indeed not. It was an important appointment, and I think it was bitterly contested. But four thousand miles is a safe distance. As you know.”

  The najashi smiled. It was the same joyous, childlike smile that Priamos so rarely gave. You serpent, I thought, you are more manipulative than Caleb himself, or Medraut, or even Morgause—there was no one I knew who could so coldly and consciously exploit a young life he or she claimed to hold dear.

  No one but myself, whispered my conscience, and I could not bring blame against him.

  Once more Abreha handed his cup to the young servant. I saw that he carried himself with a serenity and gravity that Priamos lacked.

  “I will send you an ambassador,” I said. “At least, I will see to it that Constantine sends you one.” I rose to my feet. “Will you excuse me now?”

  He rose with me. “With pleasure. And I hope we may speak again, soon, of lighter and happier matters.” He bowed his head to me and kissed my hand again.

  “With pleasure,” I echoed. “Good night to you, najashi, King of Himyar. May God bless your renewed alliance with Aksum.”

  Constantine was waiting for me beyond the firelight; he may have been lurking there all through my conversation with Abreha. He bowed and said, “If you will not come home with me as my queen, at least let me escort you to your tent.”

  I gave him my arm and said nothing.

  “I do not understand how you choose your companions,” Constantine said.

  “I am Britain’s ambassador,” I said. “Did you not also share polite conversation with the king of Himyar, when you were in my place?”

  “For these few days he has the unusual opportunity to speak directly to Britain’s new high king,” said Constantine, “and it is clandestine mischief to approach the ambassador first. Wazeb does well to guard his back.”

  “From me?” I hissed.

  I dropped his arm. I had never known such anger.

  “You dare! I have given you my kingdom. You dare question my loyalty?”

  When he turned to me, I struck him in the face. He stood gaping, and I slapped him again.

  “You, Constantine, you, who have done so much to heal Wazeb’s kingdom for him, how can you not see what a wonder they are working, Wazeb and Abreha? There is more to politics than coinage!”

  “But what r
isk!”

  “Bother to the risk! What courage!”

  We stood before the small tent that I had to myself, as befitted my station as princess of Britain. I took a deep breath and spoke calmly.

  “A king need not be kind, but by my father’s sword, Constantine, my cousin, he must be able to forgive. Cynric the king of the West Saxons had no desire to bring about my father’s death. He wished me to marry his grandson, but he never wished me any ill. You will have to treat with him yourself before a year is out.”

  “What on earth do you know of forgiveness?” Constantine said bitterly, then turned on his heel and left me.

  CHAPTER XIV

  Swifts

  I SLEPT SO LATE the hunt left without me. I lifted the silk covering of my tent and stepped outside; the air was bright and cool and still. Women pounded grain across the camp, and a pair of young porters crouched near them playing gebeta in the dust. How lovely, I thought, to stop being princess of Britain for a moment. I hope they stay away all day.

  I found Telemakos building a city out of bones and twigs and seedpods in the grass outside his mother’s tent.

  “Mean things, to go without you,” he said sympathetically. “Ras Meder wouldn’t let them wake you. He stood in front of your tent shaking his head and waving his gold spear at them.”

  I laughed. “I don’t mind. I was tired last night. Can I help?”

  “You can lay a road. I’m digging a reservoir.”

  His nurse and the cooks and porters must surely have thought me a madwoman, the princess of Britain at play in the dirt. But it was contenting work.

  “When will Gebre Meskal wrestle his lion?” Telemakos asked, without looking up from his excavations.

  “He is not supposed to wrestle it,” I said, tipping handfuls of pebbles along the road. “He is supposed to kill it with a spear.”

  “He is supposed to bring back a lion to the New Palace for a totem,” said Telemakos. “What use is it if he kills it?”

  “More use than it would be chained in the lion pit!”

  “It does not need to be chained.” Telemakos straightened for a moment, and spread his hands open on his knees. “You can keep a thing without tying it up. You know.”

  Then he shook his head and went back to digging in the earth with a pottery dish.

  “Anyway, the emperor had better get going. He missed another chance yesterday, as well as last week. There were three lionesses and twice that many cubs chewing over a zebra in the rocks behind the spring, the last place we camped.”

  The gravel slipped from my palms. I sat back on my heels and stared at my nephew’s shining head, bent in concentration over his miniature reservoir. “Where did you hear that?” I asked.

  “I did not hear it,” Telemakos said with scorn and pride, still without looking up from his work. “I found them myself. I watched them all through the noontide, while everyone was napping. They were lazy, too. It would have been an easy fight.

  “Noon is the best time for exploring,” he added. “Everyone else is too idle to chase you, and the animals are all asleep. You should come with me.”

  “We are going to have to put a guard over him,” I told his nurse.

  Wazeb killed his lion that morning. The hunters came striding back before noon, giddy and triumphant, with Wazeb borne aloft on their shoulders, his customary white bloodstained in their midst. Telemakos was not so wildly disappointed to have missed the grand occasion as I expected him to be; he was scornful of the killing.

  I took his advice and went riding in the heat of that day. I had gone no more than three hundred yards beyond the perimeter of our camp when Priamos caught up with me.

  “Peace to you, my princess.”

  “You’ve been lost,” I answered, and found I was biting back tears, again, again. I looked away from him. “How do you come to be released from your post?”

  “Gebre Meskal has dismissed me for the afternoon. It has been a trying morning, and he thinks I need to rest.”

  His horse seemed skittish, and he had constantly to gentle it and whisper to it as we spoke. The short spear he carried against a sudden meeting with lion or leopard became a hindrance.

  “Tell me of the hunt,” I said. “Was Wazeb heroic?”

  “He did seem fearless, yes. He is fearless. Though so should I be with Ras Meder at my right hand. Sometimes I think your brother has ice running in his veins.”

  “Sometimes I think so, too,” I said impatiently. “Tell me what happened!”

  “We drove a lone male lion for something close to twenty miles before Gebre Meskal wounded him. And then our new emperor had to finish it on foot, face to face with fang and claw. Oh, your brother, I have never seen him happier.”

  “I am sorry to have missed it.”

  Priamos managed to control his mount at last, and we rode some way farther. Before long we found ourselves surrounded by a herd of bushbuck antelope. They moved with us at a leisurely and steady pace, so that they seemed to be escorting us. The females were plain, but the males were deep black with slashes of white at their throats, and crowned with spiral horns.

  “You cannot go anywhere without a following of vagrants,” Priamos said to me.

  He wore the drawn look of exhaustion that I had seen in him after Camlan and during the tribunal. I reached to touch his sleeve, in sympathy, and he glanced at me with a quick look almost of fear—as though he were surrounded by tyrants and expected blows from anyone who came near him.

  “You do look tired,” I said. “You look like you are under interrogation.”

  He smiled ruefully. “That is nothing to do with the hunting. I did not imagine I should ever have to face Abreha’s Lieutenants again.” He sighed. “Tharan, the older man with the handsome mustache, had charge of me before I was brought to Abreha at al-Muza. I am embarrassed to think what he remembers of me.”

  “Abreha told me you bore yourself with great dignity.”

  “I do not remember anything like dignity. I fought like a bull elephant when they bound me, and vomited over Tharan’s feet when it was finished. He told me I had blinded a man in one eye with the end of a chain, fighting them, but I do not remember it.”

  I closed my eyes and swallowed hard.

  Priamos said unhappily, “I should not tell you such things. I am sorry.”

  “I wish you had told me more six months ago! I wish I could bear some of your blows for you!”

  “Never.”

  “Always!”

  He, too, bit his lip, as though he were my mirror. We looked away from each other.

  I shook my head angrily. “I wish you had told me about Abreha. If I had known how like you are, I would have understood the bala heg’s inordinate fear of you.”

  “I did tell you.”

  “So, you said you were alike, but I did not take it to mean you might well be identical twins!”

  “I am not Abreha,” Priamos answered patiently.

  “So I know,” I said. “So I know. You are Priamos.”

  I glanced sideways at his sharp, frowning profile, and it made me ache in heart and body.

  “It is very silly to judge a man by his face,” Priamos said defensively.

  “I don’t.”

  “That is true,” he agreed, and gave a real smile at last. “You do not.”

  He added, “Neither did Caleb.”

  Then I knew why Priamos had served him so faithfully, despite all Caleb’s contradictions.

  “Neither does Gebre Meskal,” I said.

  The bushbuck left us, and my horse fell prey to her companion’s nervousness, so we turned back. We could see men stirring in the camp when we drew neat again. Abreha himself met us, also on horseback.

  “Be warned, Princess,” he said, half in jest and half serious. “You run a great risk in making such escapes from the emperor’s protection.”

  “I did not go far,” I said. “And I have my bow.”

  Priamos said apologetically, “Well, but he is right. It
is outside the bound of protocol. You are not riding with your brother or fleeing a death sentence. You are representing your kingdom in a ceremonial pageant, and I am an inappropriate companion.”

  “A true and brave companion,” I contradicted. My horse startled, as though in great fear, and it was all I could do to stay seated and calm her.

  Abreha dismounted and took his own horse by the head, softly coaxing the trembling animal. Priamos bent low over his saddle to whisper in the ear of his mount and came so near to being thrown that he dropped his spear. He looked frowning over his shoulder at me.

  “What is the matter with these horses?”

  Mine danced in a nervous circle, fighting her reins, and I saw what startled them so.

  Telemakos came toward us out of the bush. He carried a lion cub over each shoulder, two large, squirming, glorious bundles of tawny golden fur spotted with fawn.

  “Idiot child,” Abreha scolded, “don’t carry them like that, the teeth so close to your face!”

  We three were no more able to aid Telemakos than if we had had our hands tied to our terrified horses.

  “Put them down,” I ordered.

  “I will not!” Telemakos said. “These are for the emperor.”

  I hesitated, then let my horse have her way. She ran headlong toward the camp, I dragging her back as much as I dared, so that I was able to slide from the saddle once we were safe within the circle of tents. Constantine caught me.

  “Lady!”

  “Let go of me! Bring Medraut!” I shook him off. “Where is Medraut? Tell him to take a spear and run southeast of here—”

  I had Medraut and Constantine, both carrying spears, on either side of me as we raced back on foot toward the place where I had left Telemakos. I gasped out what was happening as we ran.

  “Only approach quietly,” I managed to say. “The horses are frantic.”

  “There’s a lioness about,” Constantine guessed briefly.

  Abreha, Priamos, and Telemakos were exactly as I had left them. Priamos had managed to dismount also, but neither he nor Abreha could do anything with the frightened horses. Telemakos also had his hands full, and his path blocked. He looked very cross.

 
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