A Coalition of Lions

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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.’”