The Hall of the Candace
Although it was an early hour, the festive dinner commenced. During previous soirees Abi had attended, the Candace took on a tired look early. Parties always began before the sun passed over the mountains, and the guests never lingered.
In the antechamber, ceremonial washings created a stir. The Jewish ritual preceded the elegant banquet in the impressive dining area. Bejeweled guests streamed into the room, where they sat in groups of fours at small tables piled high with figs, flatbread, honey, and salt-pickled vegetables.
The servants served each guest a stuffed pigeon. Obviously the cooks had toiled through the preceding night to prepare such a large feast. Everyone but Abi and Melech must have known the traders would arrive that day.
The aroma of dill and cumin mixed with the smell of roasted birds swirled through the air. Happy chatter filled the room.
Were her sisters in the court? Lisimba and Malaika never came home even when they could. In the past, arguments had broken out between them and their father.
Announcing the arrival of the distinguished guest, a drummer jolted Abi back into the moment. A uniformed guard escorted the traveler who had ridden by the goats on the road that morning. What caught her attention was the enormity of his feet.
Striding across the regal hall, he was conspicuous in his difference from the Nubian guests. His oily rose brown skin glistened like polished African mahogany.
As the attendant showed the stranger to the table of honor occupied by the royal couple, he became vulnerable to the staring maidens, lined up on the left. In a row of onlookers, Abi could look as much as she pleased. Thick black eyebrows with high natural arches accentuated his enormous eyes, which were focused on the Candace and her consort.
His hair, abundant and short, framed his face in ringlets. Both his hair and his well-groomed beard were warm dark brown. His nose had wide nostrils with a slight bridge. Prominent cheekbones and a forceful chin gave his face a strong chiseled appearance.
Servers poured wine into electrum goblets. Each guest also received ceramic pots of liquid brewed from Arabica beans.
|Arabica Beans (See attribution at end of this post.)|
The stranger brought his goblet to his lips, sipped, and returned it to the table. What a splendid mouth—full with expressive lips thick in the middle with a graceful curve thinning toward the edges. How would his exquisite mouth feel in a kiss? The giddy thought surprised her, leaving her face hot and her breaths labored.
Abi knew nothing of techniques a young woman could use to attract a rich man’s attention. Now that her body had taken on a womanly shape, men she didn’t trust had stared at her. Abi inhaled a ragged breath“I will obey Papa, do what is expected.” She mumbled into her scarf.
Abi was merely the Candace’s young cousin no longer belonging in the royal court. If Amantitere ignored her, the chances of attracting the stranger would be slight. Abi resolved to employ all her abilities.
Her heart raced at the thought of performing. Whether or not the Candace asked her, she rehearsed mentally what she would do just in case. Once she arrived at the point of flinging herself into the music, she’d feel better. She would drink in the exhilaration of the moment, if such a time would come. Standing in the row, she visualized each move she’d make.
After her mental rehearsal, she returned to her fretfulness about the man she planned to charm. He had other wives, no doubt. She realized her desire to be a man’s only wife was silly.
“Oh, my head hurts.”
Nobody heard her. Nobody cared.
How rare it would be to become a foreigner’s only woman—how could a woman ever be valuable as a human being to any man? Remaining a virgin a little longer, if not forever, was her desire. Intimacy, she had learned, served three purposes—giving pleasure to a man, providing a woman with financial security, and procreating children. She already had her little brother and sister. Instead of marrying, she’d care for them.
Shivering with memories of the roughness of her father’s hand against the back of her head, Abi worked her way to a place near the table where the royal couple and the man sat.
Netekamane, the Candace’s consort spoke to the foreigner. “What brings you to Meroe?”
“Trading.” The man spoke Meroitic with an unnatural inflection.
Abi smiled, but not too much. She had never seen such a handsome man. He reminded her of traders she’d seen from many cultures—Greek, Berber, East African, Jewish—all in one person. His attire showed he was a son of Abraham.
Amantitere clapped her hands. “It is not an evening when we will conduct business.”
The foreigner acquiesced with a nod. “The palace is elegant.”
Two attendants dressed in yellow kilts, collar necklaces of turquoise mounted in gold, and gold bracelets on their upper arms appeared before her.
“Bring the gifts for Simon of Cyrene.”
Her Highness presented jewelry of gold and shells, a bronze vase, a tunic embellished with golden threads, knives with quality blades, double-edged swords.
Simon summoned two of his men, who were waiting nearby. They presented his gifts to the Candace—jewelry of carved jade and lengths of painted silk from the Far East. He included a gift of purple fabric from Thyatira and perfume oils not found in Nubia.
The royal family gave Simon an ebony platter. The gift exchange was a game the royal household relished.
Since Abi’s early childhood, she’d watched Papa exchange items prized by the wealthy. Also, she’d seen the elegant possessions of the Candace.
While attendants arranged the gifts on nearby vacant tables, Simon ate his dinner in silence. Near the conclusion of the gala, Amantitere summoned Abi with a nod.
“Abi, thank you for bestowing on us the pleasure of your company. I have missed your comely presence.”
Bowing to the floor, Abi spread the skirt of her dress with her arm like a bird opening a wing. Every mood, every sound, every gesture counted in her strategy. From the room full of beautiful young women, Simon could select anyone he chose.
Besides, she had no evidence he was looking for a wife. He most likely had one or two wives with children already awaiting him in his native land. Wouldn’t he select a new wife from his own people?
If he should find someone in Meroe, he and the woman would travel back to his home in disgrace and inconvenience. No women were in his caravan to maintain proper decorum.
If she wanted a better life, she not only had to prepare to face such an inconvenience, but she also needed to make the evening a success. Her insides tightened in uneasiness.
“Abi, please honor us by playing a song.”
“Yes, my Queen. It would be my honor. Please give me a moment.” Abi tilted her head to Simon, then rushed away.
In her chamber, she yanked off her leather sash so her clothing would flow as she danced and so she could breathe deeply as she played. The dress, a filmy shift of premium cotton, hung from her shoulders. She picked up her short open-ended reed flute. Warm-up notes surged from it as she floated back toward the banquet hall.
Back inside the great room, she willed her entire being into instant excitement. Clapping double time to the rhythm in progress, she skipped as the drum continued its persistent beat. Her wide scarf flew as she twirled about. Papa’s golden bands blazed with her constant motion. The other young women, the archers in training, joined her in a spontaneous folk dance and paraded around the guests. Everyone else in the court added to the rhythm.
Finger snaps that sounded like a hundred crickets.
Clucks with tongues.
Crisp slaps on thighs.
Clapping that throbbed throughout the massive room.
All the percussion made by the guests throbbed in flawless rhythm. The tension of the performance energized the dizzying music from within Abi.
As it reached a crescendo, she led the dancers, who now twirled with their arms outstretched, past each guest. She sent a furtive glance in Simon’s direction, but he didn’t make the slightest glimpse toward her.
Abrupt silence punctuated her song. The drum stopped when she did.
Her presentation was having no effect on him. She sought his attention not simply because he was sophisticated, handsome, and Jewish but because he was rich. What she needed—what Papa required—was, however, slipping out of her hands.
After a few more pauses in her performance, Abi reached a final halt. As she tiptoed over to the Candace’s table, where she laid her flute beside Simon, everyone’s eyes turned toward her. Practicing the skill acquired from her warrior heritage, she conquered the turmoil within her heart.
Abi, raising her right hand and snapping her fingers, went to stand in front of the royal table. The other young women formed a line with her in the middle. She hummed a melody, while the others added harmony. Shutting her left ear with her hand, she willed to make her voice sound as pleasant as it could. Her soprano melody penetrated through the complex chords of the rich accompanying voices.
The performers and guests clapped, clucked, and hummed songs of romance and hope for a joyful new season, the close harmony an auditory feast. Loving the music and loving to be a part of it. Abi tried with all her power to express the feelings of each song.
Before the diners could grow tired of the performance, Abi stopped. She grasped the bottom of her flowing dress in her right hand and lifted it outstretched as she gave the Candace a deep final bow. After their bows, the other dancers returned to the line.
Abi took her flute back to the chamber, where she put on her belt. As soon as she could, she returned to a place against the wall, where the other maidens stood. Her heart pounded as she gasped for air. Perspiration glowed on her skin.
The young men danced in a line to the accompaniment of clucking, finger snapping, and hand clapping. They bounced with springy knees. Rapid somersaults completed their performance. After two dances, the Candace signaled to the men. “Enough.”
As the public party ended and the young people filed out, Abi lagged at the end of the line.
Simon rose and turned toward the door.
Amantitere commanded, “Sit down.”
“Certainly,” Simon returned to his chair.
“You and your men will spend the night here.”
“Yes. Your chief servant has shown us to our quarters. Thank you, your Highness.”
“You came here on business, no doubt.”
“I am searching for a man named Negasi. His reputation has spread far from here.”
“Abi, come back,” the Candace called
Abi turned and walked to the royal table.
“Tomorrow when you return home, please serve as guide for this man. Take him to Negasi.”
“Gladly.” Abi kept her face expressionless.“Simon, you will return here to my court tomorrow. I have urgent business I must discuss with you.”
Attribution for Photograph of arabica beans:
Starr 070308-5472 Coffea arabica" by Forest & Kim Starr. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Starr_070308-5472_Coffea_arabica.jpg#/media/File:Starr_070308-5472_Coffea_arabica.jpg
See the following article for more information about arabica coffee: