Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Abi of Cyrene, Chapter Four

The Candace’s Secret
To press the memories of the twins into her heart for all the times ahead, it was what Abi needed. Where were Lisimba and Malaika?
Simon took her with him because he didn’t have anywhere else he could leave her. She would arrive at court as an adult—a young woman who had earned special recognition, not the child who had spent time in the presence of the mighty warrior queen, Amantitere.
No matter what he thought of her, she was the cousin of Amantitere, the Candace of the city-state. Waiting in front of the palace, she lifted her head in a regal manner, but should she walk beside him or behind him?
“Come with me.” He escorted her by placing a hand at the back of her waist.
Since he was treating her with respect, she’d play along. She held her mouth in a subdued—almost solemn—expression.
Eventually he’d handle her rough, the way Negasi mistreated the stepmother—what more could Abi expect? Except for her new brother-in-law, who had not been married long and Netekamane, the Candace’s consort, who lived in his brilliant wife’s shadow, all men respected their women less than their cattle.
As the Nile would do in an earthquake, she tried to reverse the course of her thoughts.
Negativity had no part of such a glorious time. This was her moment. Nothing could dampen the joy of entering court with her distinguished man who had chosen her as his wife.
The flow of dread within her refused to change its course.  On the surface she appeared calm, but her thoughts churned like ducks’ feet under water.
Melech, oh yes, Melech was kind, hardly a man though, because he lost his manhood in the process of castration when he was a child. This brawny merchant named Simon would be brutal. Because he was who he was, he would ignore her except when he displayed the beauty Adonai bestowed upon her. He would collect women but never love one. The fact that he took her as his bride proved the point. Yet, one fact didn’t fit into the reference frame—he gave her aurei of value.
When people looked her way, she smiled to belie the sadness of leaving her beloved family and best friend, also to cover her smallness inside.
She shuddered at leaving the goats, her sisters, her brother, and Melech. As she walked into the palace, her eyes shifted with hope from one face to another. Lisimba and Malaika. Where were the twins?
Word traveled fast in Meroe. Amantitere knew about the betrothal ceremony.
“I have a special parting gift for you, Abi Zuri.”
A servant brought a quiver of arrows of the finest quality. Each had a sharp steel point. Next to the arrows another servant laid a bow that reflected skill of craftsmanship.
“Ah.” Admiration sounded throughout the court.
Simon seemed fascinated. For the first time he showed genuine emotion in his face.
Abi ran her hands over the impressive gift and then approached Amantitere. “I am humbled by your generosity.” Abi lowered her head. “This bow I will keep forever.”
“Thank you, my child.” The Candace placed a hand on Abi’s head. Something was different about Amantitere’s touch—a fine tremor. Had Abi imagined it?
“I have a token gift for your highness.” Abi handed her royal cousin the little ornate box full of cinnamon.
“All attendants are dismissed.” The Candace motioned with her scepter to the courtiers. “Close the door and guard it from the other side,” she said to the two servants who remained in attendance.
So the Candace and Simon could discuss private matters, Abi stepped toward the exit. While Simon and the Candace conversed, she would inquire about her missing sisters.
“Stay, Abi.” In response to the royal command, Abi returned to her spot beside Simon.
“Sit here.”
Simon and Abi obeyed.
Amantitere pulled a coin from a little bag hanging from her shoulder. “Did you bring any of this from Cyrene?”
“Yes, I brought coins.”
“Not those.” Amantitere handed the coin to Simon. “The plant shown on this Cyrenaican coin. I know it is a tasty food and that your people use it for seasoning. You use the flowers for perfume. I believe it is called sylphium?” She raised an eyebrow. “Do you have this plant in your possession?”
Simon placed his finger on his chin. “Does the Candace not know sylphium is rare? Too many people have exported it from our land. Little of it remains. I no longer trade it.” He shook his head.
“But I need it for medicine.”
Leaning toward the Candace, Simon sat in silence.
In a low, measured tone, the queen said, “I suffer from seizures.”
Netekamane nodded in agreement. “Many times she has fallen down and flailed about. Her soul leaves her body. Before it happens, she gets a wild look in one eye. I see her start to jerk, and I run everybody out of the room. So far, I have covered for her. Our subjects don’t know.”
Simon gazed at the couple while Abi covered her surprise. Her leader, a woman who appeared perfect in all respects, concealed a weakness. A look of kindheartedness clouded her betrothed’s face when he replied, “I see.”
“Surely a wise man such as you, Simon, would not travel a great distance from Cyrene without bringing sylphium.”
“I carry some for my men when they travel. It stores well, and it keeps us healthy.” He walked toward the door. “Wait here.”
More of the morning passed while Abi waited in pleasant silence with the royal couple. She wanted to ask about her sisters.  
Simon returned with a heavy bag of sylphium grain and a bundle of roots. “Eat one serving each day from porridge cooked fresh. When the supply is gone, use the roots instead. Chew a sliver every morning. Keep it in your mouth a long time. Always follow it with a large drink of water. Too much of the root taken at once is a poison. Instead of chewing it, you may soak the root and make a hot tea. Sweeten it with honey. Whatever you do, take only a small amount each day.”
With trembling hands, the Candace wiped away tears before she grabbed the sylphium roots, which she wrapped in her scarf. Weeping, she laid her hand on Simon’s arm. Then she reached into her little bag. “Take this as a memento of your generosity. May you always remember how grateful I am.” 
Simon raised his palm toward her. “It is a gift. Nothing is required in return.”
“You must.” She placed an enormous yellow diamond in his left palm and pressed his hand between both of hers.

Abi lost her last chance to inquire about her sisters. Such a question would have sounded like a tinkling cymbal against the explosion of information regarding the health of her leader.

(NOTE: The picture of the coin with a picture of sylphium on  the back of it came from an article in Wikipedia: Sylphium . Image is in public domain.)

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