Telemakos, descendent of British and Aksumite royalty, has been accused of treason by Abreha, ruler of Himyar, and imprisoned on the upper levels of his twelve-story palace. Not only is Telemakos forbidden to see his beloved younger sister, Athena, but he is also forced to reproduce Aksumite maps in order to help Abreha plan an invasion. Lacking any way to communicate with his family in faraway Aksum, Telemakos must use all of his subtle talents to regain his freedom.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Elizabeth Wein including rare images from the author’s personal collection.
About the Author
Elizabeth Wein (b. 1964) is an author of young adult novels and short stories. After growing up in New York City; England; Jamaica; and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, she attended Yale University and received her doctorate in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania. While in Philadelphia, Wein learned to ring church bells in the English style known as change ringing, and in 1991, she met her future husband, Tim, at a bell-ringers’ dinner-dance. She and Tim are also private pilots who have flown all over the world. She lives with Tim and their two children in Scotland.
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The Empty Kingdom
Part Two of the Mark of Solomon A Lion Hunters Novel
By Elizabeth Wein
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2008 Elizabeth Gatland
All rights reserved.
LETTERS TO AFRICA
THE RED SEA HAD never seemed so wide, nor Aksum so far away.
To the Lady Turunesh Kidane, my darling mother, greetings.
I don't think I've told you yet, Mother, for I am ashamed to admit it, but I am once again in disgrace for listening at doors. As punishment I am confined to my workplace for this entire season, and not allowed to see my sister, or any of the other children in the palace. Abreha Anbessa the Lion Hunter, Abreha najashi and mukarrib, king of Himyar and federator of all the Arabs of the Coastal Plains—
Telemakos used the najashi's full formal title, just for effect. Abreha would insist on reading the letter himself before he allowed it to be sent on its long journey home.
—The najashi requires me to wear a bracelet of bells and charms that ring when I move. It's an alarm, to warn people I am there. Grandfather and all the imperial court will say I deserve it, and that it should have been done long ago.
He had worn it for two weeks now, and already it seemed endless.
Telemakos was kept under guard in the Great Globe Room, where he had studied and slept since coming to Himyar eight months ago, and the adjoining scriptorium, where the najashi's maps and books were kept. These rooms were on the highest level of Maharis Ghumdan, the tiered alabaster palaces supposed to have been built by Solomon. The only higher place you could climb to was the narrow parapet around the domed roof of the Great Globe Room, where the ancient water clock dripped and chimed.
Telemakos was allowed to leave the scriptorium for two hours each morning when he joined the najashi's young spearmen for their daily practice in the training grounds. He could see all San'a city from his window, and the al-Surat Mountains that ringed the plain, but all he saw of Abreha's vast palace were its endless flights of marble stairs, twelve stories down and twelve stories back up, taken every day at a forced march under the indifferent gaze of Abreha's guardsmen.
Telemakos could see no end to this season of disgrace. When his imprisonment was over, he would still have to wear the alarm bells, and in case Telemakos should dare to cross him, the najashi had already written out his death warrant—truly, a death warrant, an order for Telemakos's execution. It was real. It was sealed with the ancient star and lion signet of King Solomon and a lock of Telemakos's own distinctive hair, inherited from his British father and pale as bone, unmistakably identifying Telemakos and no one else. Abreha kept the warrant bound in his waistband.
When Telemakos wanted to send a letter to his family, Abreha required him to read it aloud in his presence, to make sure Telemakos was not reporting Himyar's secrets to the imperial city of Aksum. Telemakos feared and hated these sessions in the najashi's study so deeply that the apprehension of them was beginning to corrupt his life. In spite of the warrant that Abreha carried in his sash, Telemakos was determined to send a warning to his emperor through the letters he sent to his mother, and he had a plan for doing it. But his success depended on slow patience. He would be killed if he was caught.
What madness, Telemakos thought, that my parents sent me here to keep me safe.
He had already written a letter each to his mother and his aunt Goewin and mentioned nothing. He was especially careful about anything he sent to Goewin anyway, for she was Britain's ambassador to Aksum and must not be revealed as the emperor Gebre Meskal's private counselor. Queen of spies, Telemakos's father had called her. Before Telemakos's disgrace he had written to her weekly, and he could not suddenly begin to write more often without arousing suspicion. But a fortnight had passed since he had become aware of Abreha's treachery, and Telemakos was beginning to feel that time was crumbling to dust beneath his feet. He could not afford to wait much longer with his warning; it took six weeks, at best, for his letters to reach home.
How did I ever think it was hard being the child of an African mother and a British father? Telemakos wondered. It is nothing compared to living in Himyar and owing allegiance to Aksum. I feel as though I am being dragged to pieces by elephants.
Hide your secrets, Turunesh had told him just before he had come to Himyar. Write to me that you send your love to your aunt, and code your meaning following your greeting to her.
How do I code it? How do I write it? A letter to my mother, nothing could be more straightforward. So how do I hide in it that Abreha the Lion Hunter is plotting against his cousin, the emperor of Aksum? Dearest Mother: The najashi means to infiltrate the emperor's navy with Himyar's soldiers, to create a mutiny, to seize our Hanish Islands for their wealth of obsidian and pearls, to free the exiles and smugglers imprisoned there. Dearest Mother: Your neighbor Gedar is an informer and a traitor to the emperor. How do I say it? Which shall I tackle first: mutiny, invasion, or smuggling? God help me.
Pass on my love to my father, and to Grandfather, and to my aunt Goewin. Our little Athena would send her love as well, if she were old enough to consider such things.
As he wrote, Telemakos pressed so hard on the reed stylus that he snapped off the point. He did this all the time. The narrow strips of palm were inexpensive to write on but practically impossible for him to manage now with his single arm. Athena, nearly two years old, had learned to hold down the tapes for him.
Telemakos rubbed his eyes angrily. He could not write or speak his sister's name without wanting to weep. He did not know how he could endure an entire season of being separated from her, knowing she was there, just one story below. At night he could hear her snoring through the pulley hole in the floor of the Great Globe Room. He could always hear her when she cried, even when he retreated to the scriptorium, even from the roof.
He slept every night on the floor, with his head hanging over the shaft to the nursery. Twice a day he could watch Athena playing, or more usually throwing tantrums, on the terrace below the Globe Room's eastern windows. She spotted him up there once and caused pandemonium by trying to scale the balcony to get to him. When one of Abreha's royal foster children pulled her back, Athena grabbed hold of Inas's face with both hands and tore scratches in her cheeks.
Telemakos let the strip of palm curl up. He would have to practice his message in wax first, so that he could rub out his false starts. He chewed on his knuckles, still wondering where to begin. His fingers tasted of salt where he had scrubbed at the shameful tears: bitter, bitter.
Salt, Telemakos thought. He could start with salt. The salt smuggling was over, at any rate. It was nearly a year since Gebre Meskal had lifted the plague quarantine that the najashi had ignored. Perhaps, Telemakos thought, perhaps this old news is irrelevant enough that Abreha will forgive me if he finds me passing it along.
Telemakos scratched into a wax tablet:
Abreha ignored the quarantine.
He was the smugglers' chieftain and championed the unfair exchange in salt.
He seeks me, Telemakos thought, chewing at his knuckles again. He's hunting down the emperor's spies. The najashi does not know it, but the ruin of his smuggling ring at the Afar mines was all my doing. What shall I say he seeks? One of my code names— sunbird, harrier, python?
Telemakos heard in memory the quiet voice of Aksum's young emperor Gebre Meskal, murmuring at his ear: No man must ever know the true name of my sunbird.
Telemakos could not write his secret name. He could scarcely bring himself to speak it aloud anymore, not since the day when they had found a real sunbird nailed to the gate of his grandfather's house like a curse or a sacrifice; and anyway, Telemakos did not dare to flourish Aksumite imperial code in a letter the najashi would read. He wrote simply:
Abreha seeks Gebre Meskal's secret keeper from that time.
I'll break these phrases apart, he thought, and hide the words among a lot of other nonsense, and give Goewin some clue how to pick up the key words. What if I try to put two words of my message after each mention of Athena's name?
He rubbed out a few words to make his challenge briefer.
And then when I have to read the thing aloud to the najashi, Telemakos decided, I'll make up something outrageous to say at the end that I haven't really written, to distract him from the real message.
Telemakos shivered. For a moment he put his head down on the worktop, resting his cheek against the cool and shining ebony and rubbing at his burning eyes. If Abreha caught on to the damning encoded message, he would bring out the parchment folded in his sash, break the mark of Solomon and discard the telltale strands of Telemakos's thick hair that were threaded through the page, and pass the execution order on to his lieutenant.
Could I argue coincidence if he accuses me of duplicity? Telemakos considered, and read over again his etched words:
Abreha ignored quarantine championed unfair exchange Abreha seeks Gebre Meskal's secret keeper
There is no idiot alive who would believe this is coincidence, once he worked it out, Telemakos thought grimly. I had better get it right.
It took him three days to put it together. All the time he worked on it, he was scarcely able to make himself eat, he was so sick with the dread of having to present it to Abreha.
"Drop that," Dawit Alta'ir, the Star Master, barked at him as Telemakos wrote. Dawit slapped the stylus from Telemakos's grip. The alarm bells chattered. "You are ruining that tablet."
Telemakos had been plowing furrows through the wax, lost in the composition of a sentence that he did not yet dare to write down. Dawit might be nearly blinded by cataracts, but the grooves Telemakos had made in the tablet laid bare the wood beneath, making deep, dark streaks that anyone could have seen from across the room.
"Put your work away. You may wipe the dust off the things in the compass cabinet. That will give you something to do with your body and free your mind to wander." Dawit picked a kat leaf out of his wild beard, nibbled at it, and spat it out. Telemakos swallowed a sigh; it was one of his duties to keep the floor clean.
"Your pardon, Magus," Telemakos murmured, trying to shovel the wax back into place.
They had diplomatically set aside the work of preserving what Abreha called the Plague Tablets, the unfinished maps of the disputed Hanish Islands. Telemakos dreaded being asked, or compelled, to complete the project that would bring about war between Aksum and Himyar. He did not know how he could bring himself to do it faithfully, or without dragging out the work to excessive lengths to buy time, and it was an immense relief when Dawit Alta'ir set him to other tasks.
When his letter was ready, Telemakos rattled downstairs toward Abreha's apartment, in awe at his own resolution. His two guards followed at his heels. What is driving me to tell this to Goewin? Telemakos marveled. I have only to keep it to myself, and I will be safe. Why am I compelled to spill it all? If I get away with it, I will do it again, I'll tell them as much as I can. In every letter I send home now, I risk my life—why am I doing it?
Abreha's doorman admitted Telemakos. Telemakos stood before the najashi. He kept his head bowed, not daring to look the najashi in the face, but he knew that Abreha gazed frowning down at him from beneath his heavy, forbidding brow.
"I want to send a letter to my mother."
The najashi held forth his hand to usher Telemakos into his study. It always shocked Telemakos how like the emperor Gebre Meskal's hands the najashi's hands were, narrow and neat and dark, the palms cool and dry when you touched them. But of course the najashi and the emperor were cousins, countrymen; Abreha was Aksumite by birth, raised on the African side of the Red Sea, like Telemakos. He had been elected to his status as federator of South Arabia, not born to it.
"Let me hear your letter."
Telemakos was so practiced in evasive deception that he did not even pause for breath when his carefully constructed greeting to his mother made its crucial turn.
"Send my love to my aunt. Now I'm going to the window to watch my sister crawling about the terrace below. I watch after Athena whenever she appears, twice every day, in the morning and again immediately after her noon meal; twice each day I follow Athena with my gaze, and silently send her the love that I also send you.
"I haven't told you much about my punishment. It's difficult for the baby as well, indeed for all the household, and I didn't want to worry you. For this entire season I am not allowed near Athena. Abreha ignored my previous small wrongdoings, but this time I explored the contents of his own desk, though I did it only because the baby thought there would be pictures in it that she liked. So now I am separated from Athena, quarantine championed by the najashi to stop me committing any more disobedience on her behalf.
"I knew what I was doing, but she didn't. Poor bewildered Athena; unfair exchange, to ask your brother's help and then be forbidden to see him again! But although I can't come near Athena, Abreha seeks her company and plays with her and ensures she gets plenty of affection and amusement.
"Sometimes I long for home. Will I ever be able to show Athena Gebre Meskal's new lion pit? Will she feel at home there, as I did once? Will she hide among the palms of the Golden Court, as I did, watching the courtiers—will she become, my Athena, secret keeper of all imperial gossip, as I did long ago?
"I read over these questions and to my surprise I find they make me laugh. I hope she doesn't grow up as outrageously behaved as I!
"How I miss you, my dear family: my father, and Grandfather, and Goewin, and you, Mother, more than all.
"The first month of my correction is half finished, as I've written. I apologize for having made so much complaint in this letter, but I am under sentence of death if I tell anyone what I learned from the najashi."
Abreha's censor's brush was poised and dripping.
"Give me that. Our covenant is private between us. That letter will be in the hands of half a dozen couriers over the next six weeks, and you risk all of Himyar learning its contents! You've scratched it in palm, have you? It will show through the ink if I paint over it. You will have to cut that last sentence out, or rewrite it."
Telemakos handed him the letter. He watched as Abreha skimmed quickly through the writing. The najashi's heavy brow and keen black gaze were familiar to him now, but even more so the dark and narrow hands holding the palm strip, for Telemakos never dared meet the najashi's eyes.
Abreha saw that there was no such final sentence. He gave the letter a contemptuous finger flick, rolled it closed with exaggerated disdain, and sealed it deliberately. Telemakos stood breathless, waiting to be told off or struck for the insolence he had committed. He could scarcely believe his bluff had worked, but the letter was sealed.
"Consider yourself fortunate," the najashi commented, his voice expressionless. "The monks on Debra Damo would not afford us pen and parchment, in the sequestered imprisonment that my brothers and I all endured as children, under the tyranny of our uncle Caleb when he was emperor of Aksum." It was almost as if Abreha were talking to himself, he spoke so indirectly to Telemakos. "It was no matter, though, as we had all been taken from our mother so young that we did not remember, and had no need to write to her." Suddenly the najashi looked up. "You still sign yourself Telemakos Meder. What does Meder mean to you?"
The question took him by surprise. "It's my father's name," Telemakos answered.
"It is the Ethiopic name Medraut took when he came to Aksum," Abreha said. "Meder, lord of the land. It is not his real name. Meder is an ancient god of Aksum, abandoned for the Christ two hundred years ago and more. For you, now, it is a name that is ... inappropriate, and pretentious, as if you were to go about styling yourself after your dead uncle Lleu, the prince of Britain. You must sign yourself Athtar of the sky; the Morningstar, the name given you by your Socotran kinsman, your uncle and master the magus Dawit Alta'ir. You belong to Himyar, now."
"But I haven't yet formally pledged you my service," Telemakos murmured bleakly. He did not want to give up his own name. "And Morningstar was only given to me as a jest."
"You are not yet lord of any land that I know of."
Telemakos stood staring down at the patterned carpet. The silk weave was so thick that the najashi's footsteps had left impressions in it. Telemakos remembered how rough it had felt against his lips when he had knelt against it and begged Abreha's forgiveness, the night he had broken into Abreha's writing desk. Now he found himself wishing that he was on his knees rather than standing upright, so he could hide his face.
Excerpted from The Empty Kingdom by Elizabeth Wein. Copyright © 2008 Elizabeth Gatland. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsI. LETTERS TO AFRICA,
II. SUNBIRD IN A CAGE,
III. ADVICE TO THE NAJASHI,
IV. SEASON OF STARS,
V. THE LION'S BONES,
VII. A GAME OF JACOB'S DREAM,
VIII. GIFTS AND SECRETS,
X. THE TREE OF KNOWLEDGE,
XI. THE SEALED AGREEMENT,
XII. A GUARD OF HONOR,
XIV. A HANDFUL OF OBSIDIAN AND PEARLS,
A Biography of Elizabeth Wein,