A coalition of lions, p.8
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       A Coalition of Lions, p.8

           Elizabeth E. Wein
 
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  “His hair is not so silken as yours, is it, Goewin, little Sheba? But such a color, like the snow of the Simien Mountains! Your brother let me put his own icy hair into plaits once. He looked like a gorgon.”

  She sighed, and smoothed a hand over Telemakos’s head. Then she gave another chuckle.

  “There are the bala heg at last. When they have finished, we can go home. The afa negus must take his turn before them, though, HALEN, you let my son speak FIRST.”

  At her sudden shout, Telemakos raised his head with a jerk and stared at the parade. There, alongside his tutor, was Priamos. When Candake called out to the afa negus, they both looked across at us. Priamos made a bow to his mother, and saluted me like a soldier. He must have been no more than ten feet away from me as he knelt before Wazeb. It was the first I had seen him in nearly six weeks.

  “Goewin, Goewin,” said Telemakos, pulling at my elbow, “you are crying! Look, my lady queen, you’ve made her weep, shouting like that.”

  “It’s the sun,” I snapped at him.

  Turunesh took hold of his hands and held him close against her. She whispered at his ear, “Hush, my love. This is a solemn ritual now. Not another word from you till it is over. Only listen.”

  Candake, in her single minute’s silence of the afternoon, listened as Priamos renewed his vows of service to his sovereign and state, first to Wazeb and then to Constantine.

  “Hum,” she grunted, when he had finished. “Men! They come and go, they snatch at power, they wander off to beat each other over the head. But I stay in one place, and they all come back to me: brothers, nephews, sons. The lioness is the pride’s heart, not the coalition.”

  Priamos joined the ranks of other officers across the square. He was guarded even now. He did not dare to look at me again.

  “Is he well?” I asked.

  “Aye, as may be, girl,” Candake said darkly. “As may be. Losing his temper last month did him no great service.”

  I watched him standing quiet and calm across the square.

  “The best of my sons, he is,” Candake wheezed, but for once she did not laugh. “The best of my sons. Do you hear that, ITYOPIS, you POMPOUS YOUNG LICKER OF ROYAL BOOTS? The best of you all, Priamos is. You might have stopped it—”

  She stopped screaming. Ityopis stood cringing as he waited his turn in the parade, and so did Priamos, both looking as though they hoped the underground tunnels would kindly open and swallow them.

  “You might have stopped it, too, Goewin dragon’s daughter,” Candake said in a normal voice, rocking as though she were chanting. “There was no need for him to be punished like a drunkard in the marketplace. For loosing ten monkeys! He came to eat with me a day after the beating, and his hands were still so swollen he could not feed himself. He sat and wept into his coffee as I have not seen him weep since the night he came back from the Himyar.”

  “Candake,” I said slowly, “you will kill me if you go on.”

  “You did not have to endure it.”

  “I am enduring it now.” I clenched my teeth. “I know, I know it is my fault. I cannot sleep, knowing I have brought him to such disgrace.”

  Candake shifted her weight and consoled herself with another three fried cakes, and then said wearily, “Go home, girl. Go home and take your bridegroom the mosquito with you, as you intended.”

  “I hate my bridegroom the mosquito,” I said vehemently, heedless of who might hear. “How I detest him! To threaten a child of six summers with beheading!”

  Turunesh gazed serenely at the solemn procession of ministers, as each knelt and spoke in turn. She held Telemakos tight and still against her side.

  “Constantine keeps me prisoner, I can barely speak to him civilly; I do not know why he should ever want to complete our union.”

  “Because you are beautiful,” Candake said.

  Telemakos was watching me, not the ceremony.

  “‘Fair as the moon, bright as the sun, terrible as an army with banners.’” Candake wheezed again as she settled herself more comfortably. “So sings Solomon to Sheba in the Song of Songs. You cannot see yourself! ‘Terrible as an army with banners.’ How should dogged Constantine court such majesty? His promised bride is beyond his grasp, and he is eaten up with jealousy.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Silly girl, why do you think he deals so harshly with my gentle son?” she said sadly. “The mosquito is eaten up with envy because Priamos, though he has never courted kingship, has courted you, and owns your heart.”

  I opened my mouth to protest that no man should ever own my heart or any part of me. No words came. All I could produce was a small, quiet spate of bewildering tears, which I swiped at angrily. I stared across the square at Priamos Anbessa.

  So he does, I realized. So he does.

  “He wept when they told him you were no longer allowed to see him. He WEPT. How much weeping have you done on his account, girl?”

  “I wake up screaming every night on his account,” I said fiercely, and scrubbed at my eyes. “My God! What hope is there for either of us?”

  “Go home, girl.” Candake closed her eyes, as though she were so tired of it all. “I do not want my wise and noble son to spend his life prisoner to a mosquito.”

  “I will not leave Aksum until I see Ras Priamos go free,” I said through my teeth.

  “He will never go free while you are here.”

  Ityopis had made his pledge, and Kidane Danael was finishing his. I took Candake’s hand, leaned in over her enormous bulk, and kissed her painted cheek.

  She was more like my aunt Morgause than I had realized. Not in that she was cruel, for she was not; but in that for all her loud and acrid talk she was without authority, she was helpless. Her sons’ fate was utterly beyond her control. She could not even walk without assistance.

  I said at her ear, “Dear lady, Queen of Queens. Might not your brother’s word override my cousin’s? Or the emperor’s override the viceroy’s? If you will tell me where to find him, I will seek out Caleb instead of going home, and bring your nephew his golden head cloth.”

  Candake sighed. She traced the track of a tear across my cheek with a large, soft fingertip, and sighed again.

  “Ah, proud little Sheba,” she said. “Nor should you be made to spend your life prisoner to a mosquito, either.”

  PART III: FLIGHT

  CHAPTER VIII

  The Tomb of the False Door

  WAZEB PAID A VISIT to Kidane’s mansion, a day later. He came with his own retinue, which he left at the gate along with Constantine’s escort for me, so that it looked as though there were rival factions preparing for a small battle on Kidane’s doorstep. Wazeb wore his customary simple white cotton kilt and head cloth bound with grass, though on this occasion the ends of his shamma were pinned with a great clasp of gold and emerald.

  He came upstairs to share imported wine with us, to the joy and terror of Kidane’s servants. He had a disconcerting habit of rewarding the attendant women by feeding them sweets out of his hand. He was most at ease in Kidane’s house.

  “Have you heard any of our old stories?” he asked me. “Will you understand if I speak in my own language?”

  “Please do. I’ll try.”

  “I have a favorite story. It is of Menelik, the queen of Sheba’s son, and tells of his visit to Solomon, his father. When Menelik returns to his mother, he steals the Ark of the Covenant from Solomon. And Solomon discovers him. But instead of punishing him, Solomon gives him the Ark and lets him go free.”

  Wazeb stopped speaking for a moment, and everyone in the room waited in expectant silence.

  “Solomon is remembered for his wisdom,” Wazeb said. “But when I am shown his likeness in the pictures, I do not make note of his wisdom. It is the face of forgiveness that I see in him.”

  He raised his head a little, proudly. It would be another year and more before his beard began to grow.

  “I should like to be wise enough to grant forgiveness,” h
e said, “like Solomon; like Christ.”

  I nodded, slowly, staring at him. I had not got in the habit of lowering my eyes in the presence of authority, and as the emperor’s heir, neither had he; so when he raised his head, for a moment we looked into each other’s eyes.

  “When I am emperor, I will take the name Gebre Meskal,” he said. “The servant of the cross.”

  “You have noble ambitions,” I said, thinking to glance away, then astonished that I had done so.

  Wazeb beckoned to his footman. “My aunt Candake sends you a present, Princess Goewin,” he said in lighter tones. “She knows you have trouble sleeping, and is so kind to give you a book to read. She thinks you will like this. Your nephew told her you like maps.”

  He put into my hands Priamos’s Red Sea Itinerary.

  “The queen of queens tells you to study these,” said Wazeb. “She thinks you will find them entertaining. Here, let me show you.”

  He turned the pages carefully until he came to the stylized church on the cliff, with the dragon at its foot.

  “Here is one. This shows you the road to the hermitage at Debra Damo, among the amba plateaus, where the emperor’s nephews are sequestered.”

  “How did the queen of queens come by this book?”

  “It was a gift,” Wazeb answered blandly. “Look, here are marked all the villages along the way, and the distances between them. Even the turnings are numbered.”

  And so they were, in Greek and Latin.

  The Greek notations had been made by the artist who drew the pictures, the script small and elegant. But the Latin translations had been written out by another hand, in bold, straight, careful capitals like an inscription on a monument, as though the writer were not entirely at ease with an unfamiliar set of letters. The last in the list of names and numbers was “Solomon VIII XIV.” It did not appear in the Greek text, but only in the scrupulous Latin.

  “This is not a turning, is it?” I said slowly. “This name Solomon, and these figures?”

  Wazeb laughed. “It is more likely a biblical text. Though I do not know why it is marked here.”

  “Can you tell me the text?”

  ‘“Make haste, my beloved.”

  I stared at the page, then raised my eyes to look at Wazeb.

  He chanted softly, with his serene smile. “Make haste, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young stag upon the mountains of spices.’

  “It is the end of the Song of Songs,” he said. “Solomon to Sheba, perhaps.” He bent over the book again, and remarked, “The writing is very fine.”

  “It’s beautiful,” I said.

  Turunesh unlocked a door in one of the recesses at the base of Kidane’s house. It was night, and we moved without a light. Telemakos squeezed my hand in fits and starts, presumably because his mother’s hands were busy and it was the only thing he could do to keep himself from hopping from foot to foot in giddy excitement.

  None of us spoke until Turunesh had closed the door behind us and lit an earthen lamp. We stood on a narrow landing; a steep stair led below the house. The walls were laid with the same granite blocks as the house itself until halfway down the stair, and from there the way was cut into solid rock.

  Turunesh passed the lamp to me and drew Telemakos close against her.

  “Now listen, my hero. You are to obey the princess as you would obey me. As you would obey Grandfather. You will have to wait for me at the other end, and it will be dark, and maybe days before I am able to let you through.”

  “I’m not afraid of the dark,” Telemakos said, fearless and careless, just the way he said in my dreams, I’m not afraid of lions.

  Turunesh lit our way with the oil lamp and carried a bag of food over her shoulder; I carried water flasks, blankets, and my bow. Telemakos carried his own small canvas satchel. The tunnel was narrow, but clean and bare and dry. You could not have guessed where it led, or why it was there.

  “How old is this?” I asked.

  “Not very old. A hundred and fifty years, perhaps. Our house is older. The tunnel was built when the new family tomb was built, to connect them. Look, here is one of the older passages. The city is riddled with them.”

  She put a shielding hand over the flaming wick of her lamps as we passed a low opening in one of the walls.

  Our passage turned twice, and crossed five other ways, but generally it was straight. It sloped gently downward for perhaps three quarters of a mile to a wooden door. Past this, Turunesh led us up another stair and through a hall whose arched ceiling was laid with brick. We came at last to a wide chamber where the floor was a ledge of stone slabs surrounding a flight of steps leading into darkness below. Halfway up the wall across the pit was another door, this one cut into solid granite and set between stone lintels.

  “It’s false,” said Turunesh. “Even the hasp, carved into the stone. It’s the door to the spirit world. This court used to be open to the sky; my grandparents sealed it not long after my father was born. The stairway to the left leads you out. We will put the lamp out now, because the chamber below this level is built so that it draws in winds that suddenly quench a burning flame.”

  She raised the lamp to her lips to blow it out.

  Telemakos cried out softly, “Oh, Mother, bring the light down so we can watch the wind put it out!”

  “You mad creature,” she laughed. “All right. I’ll hold the light; you and the princess go down first.”

  It was dim even with the light above us. Telemakos and I crept down the stairs, brushing the wall with our fingertips. We stood at the bottom and watched Turunesh make her careful descent; you could feel the sudden winds—light, gently rippling over the back of your neck. Turunesh’s lamp winked out without warning.

  “You can be sure my cousins and I nearly died of fright when first this tunnel blew our lights out,” came her calm voice out of the dark.

  Telemakos laughed.

  “Hold the lamp and I’ll hold your hand, child. Princess, take my other hand.”

  Her hands were steady. We walked forward in the darkness.

  The true entrance to the tomb of the false door was sealed with an iron lock. Telemakos leaned against my waist while Turunesh unfastened the lock and opened the stone door. A smell of herbs and damp earth hit us. It was not a foul smell, but a strange smell to find in the still air of the stone underground.

  “No one will come here,” Turunesh said. “The vaults are locked against robbers, and the cemetery is patrolled above-ground. I will have to bribe the warden, I think, before I will get in to you from the other side.”

  “Do you mean for us to shut ourselves in the vault?” I said, as lightly as I could.

  “Stay in the corridor unless you need to hide. I can’t believe anyone will come down here, but all the wealthy villas have access to these tunnels, and I don’t know who else. The door to the vault will not open from the inside, though, so do not shut yourself in unless you are very frightened. Will you be all right without a light? You will have no means to keep one aflame in this corridor.”

  I sensed her moving close to me and felt her brush against my skirt as she took her son in her arms. She whispered something at his ear, and he laughed again.

  Turunesh stood, and reached for my hand one last time. “Princess, all will be well. Our household will soon discover you missing, but Ferem knows you are with me and will keep them hushed. I packed the boy’s nurse off to visit her mother. There is no one else who could guess.”

  “Wazeb,” I said. “He brought the map.”

  “I think the tame lion is something more than message bearer in this intrigue,” Turunesh said carefully. “I think he would sooner cast dust on your trail than send dogs after you. He has reason to hope you succeed in your quest. He awaits the advent of his own kingship. He knows what he is doing.”

  Turunesh squeezed my hand a final time.

  “‘Love is strong as death,’” she said. “‘Jealousy is cruel as the grave.’ If I cannot leave you light, I le
ave you the Song of Songs.”

  She went away up the stairs. For a moment we watched the glow as she lit her lamp in the upper hall, and then it was dark again.

  Telemakos did not allow me to brood. He rummaged in the food bag and chattered and demanded that I tell him stories. He had invented a game, remember? Where you traced a picture of an animal in the palm of the other person’s hand and tried to guess what it was. He was astonishingly good at this, his invisible sketches quick and simple, focused on the most important characteristics of a thing: whiskers, fins, wings; a giraffe’s long neck; an elephant’s long nose; a lion’s mane.

  He was good at guessing, too. I bent over his hand and drew a strange shape there.

  “Winged serpent,” he said immediately. “Cheater. That’s not a real animal. What’s this—”

  His design lost me in its complexity. “I give up.”

  “Map of the world.”

  I burst out laughing.

  Eventually Telemakos fell asleep, suddenly sagging against my side in the middle of a story. I folded a blanket over his small shoulders, and over my lap. I slept well when I slept at last.

  But I woke suddenly with the strongest, strangest sense of loss and betrayal I have ever felt. It was like the lingering of a nightmare, except I had not been dreaming, that I could remember. I sat up in the dark.

  “Telemakos?”

  There was no light at all. He had been sleeping with his head in my lap, but he was not there now. I brushed my hands blindly over the cool stone on either side of me.

  “Telemakos!” I hissed. I did not dare to shout. Suddenly I did not like the sound of my voice in that still, closed place.

  He was gone.

  A warren of tunnels, he had said. One of them was supposed to lead to a city eighty miles away. Where in blazes had he gone—I did not even have a light. If I set out after him, we would both be lost.

  “Telemakos!” I called in panic.

  I called and called, softly, as I had called hopelessly to his father in the caves of Elder Field, half a year and half the world away. The memory of it was so vivid that for a time I did not know where I was. I stood again deep in the high king’s copper mines, my family lying still and shrouded at my back, calling and calling my brother’s name into the unanswering earth.

 
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