The Queen of the south
I am no more than memory's echo, but my name is still spoken and so my voice whispers to the living, carried upon the winds of time. For many tales still are told of Abishag the Shunammite, and not all of them to my credit. But this much I can call my heart's truth: I never schemed to become queen. The plots I aided, the intrigues I carried out, all were done to one end only: that Prince Solomon should wear the crown when King David died. That goal I worked towards always, after I was brought to King David's court.
For that--and to win Solomon for myself, to turn his heart to me and to me alone. What was a king, or a crown, compared to that prize?
And I was granted my heart's twin desires, for all the good either did me. For I was denied the one thing that would have paid for all the rest, have redeemed all the deeds that put Solomon on the throne and a queen's crown upon my head: Solomon's son, a prince to be king hereafter. That prize, I was not to win.
But in the end, it did not matter.
Her land of dreams and spices lay beyond the morning; its very name meant "sunrise." Spices and dreams, twin jewels in Sheba's crown--a crown that had smoothly passed from mother to daughter, from aunt to niece, from sister to sister, in a chain of life unbroken for a thousand years.
The ancient treasure rested in a casket created for the circle of gold and gems so long ago that the images carved into the ebon wood had all but vanished, worn smooth by generations of reverent hands. The court's high clerk could recite the details of the design as clearly as if it were new-carved. Upon the ancient wood, Ilat, goddess-mother of Sheba, bestowed the gift of spices upon Almaiyat-Quqnus, Sheba's first queen, herself born of sun and fire.
The goddess's gift had been wealth and peace; Sheba's queens had guarded both, loving mothers to Ilat's land and people.
From sister to sister, from aunt to niece, from mother to daughter. Bilqis lifted the crown from the casket; a circle of flames burned in hammered gold. From queen to queen.
Now she was the only woman living who could claim pure descent from Sheba's royal lineage. I am the last queen. She stared at the crown weighing down her reverent hands. Why? I have been dutiful, devout, dedicated. Sheba's good has been dearer to me than my own life. Always, always, she had cherished her kingdom like a child. She had given it her life. She had given it a daughter, only to see her child die before her.
Now she alone remained. And Sheba's crown waited ... .
Sighing, Bilqis gently set the crown back within its ancient casket, smoothing her fingers over the cool metal flames. I will not betray you, she vowed. The line of Sheban queens would not end with her; it could not.
She closed the crown's casket and lifted the silver mirror from her dressing table. Without vanity or illusion, she studied her face in the creamy light that streamed through the tall windows.
Sunlight through alabaster; softly flattering.
Gently lying. Just as her mirror lied, its burnished silver surface reflecting only her kohl-darkened eyes, her carmined lips. In mirrors, her painted face still claimed youth and beauty.
But someday, someday soon, alabaster windows would no longer soften light enough to deceive, nor would silver lie. She set down the mirror, gently, and turned away.
I must face this truth; I begin to grow old.
That in itself was no tragedy; all that lived aged. But for this Queen of Sheba, it signaled disaster.
If Allit had only lived--! But her only daughter, raised and trained to ruleSheba, to step easily into her mother's place as queen in her turn, now lay entombed with the infant girl Allit had died bringing into the world. Daughter and granddaughter both gone between moonset and sunrise, taking with them to the grave the last precious blood of Sheba's rulers ... .
And I too old to bear another daughter. Though her smooth face and shapely body still denied her true age, she was too old to conceive another child. She had tried, dutifully, after her daughter died, spending many nights in temple pleasure-gardens--all save those of Ilat's Temple--lying with men who never saw her face, seeking a hero strong enough to father another heir so the royal line might continue.
But her efforts failed; her reluctant body bore no new fruit. Now each moon-circle of days made her more certain in her bones that she could no longer create new life.
Yet an heir she must have. An heir Sheba must have. Somehow she must provide Sheba's new queen, the queen who would lift the heavy crown from her own proud head, the queen who would rule after her, caring for Ilat's land and people. And how am I to give them this blessing?The problem could no longer be ignored; it haunted her like a questioning ghost. For I am too old, and there is no other woman of my blood to share this burden. How?
That fatal question haunted her constantly, allowed her no true rest. To what good would all her years of queenship lead if she could not provide a ruler to follow after her?
Even her nights were unquiet now. Sleeping, she wandered through a land barren of hope, of dreams, of life. She woke each dawn drained and weary, unready for her days. By day, she concealed her constant worry as she would any weakness. It was her trouble, and she must not spread her own unrest to others.
But she knew she must provide for Sheba's tomorrows, and soon. Life, even a queen's, was uncertain; the future could not wait.
And after a long night in which she lay and watched the stars rise and set again, she knew she, too, could wait no longer. Rising with the sun, she climbed the stairs to the palace rooftop. There she gazed across the still-drowsing city. Ma'rib, Jewel of the Desert; Ma'rib, Queen of Spices; Ma'rib, beloved of Ilat, Sun of their Days.
The burning sun climbed the arc of heaven; she stared into the brightening day and prayed, dutifully. Grant me an answer, Sun of our Days. Grant me an answer, and I will pay whatsoever price You ask of me. She waited, her arms outstretched to the fiery goddess soaring into the clear sky. But there was no answer, only a land stretching golden and quiet beneath the rising sun. At last she lowered her arms, and sighed, and already weary, turned away to face the day's duties.
I am so weary I shall die of it. Ah, well, perhaps tonight I shall sleep after all. She had walked through the day's hours like a jeweled doll, long habit bringing the proper words to her lips. Now, although she wished only to fling herself down upon her bed, she stood patiently as her maidservants stripped her gown from her body, washed the day's heat and sweat from her skin, spread a cloth over a stool for her to sit upon. And when she sat, Khurrami moved behind her to take down her tight-braided hair, while Irsiya gathered up her discarded finery and began to place the rings and bracelets, the necklaces and earrings and anklets, the gem-studded pins that had fastened her gown, within the sectioned silver box that awaited them.
Ritual, each night the same. Irsiya and Khurrami had tended her since they were maidens new-initiated into womanhood; had been raised to serve her as she had been raised to serve Sheba. And however much she might wish to be alone, it was their duty and their right to tend her. Dismissing them would only hurt their feelings--And not ease mine. If only--
"My queen is troubled?" Khurrami began unpinning the elaborate braids coiled about her mistress's head.
About to deny it, Bilqis suddenly changed her mind. "Why do you say that to me?"
"You seem--changed" was all Khurrami said, her fingers moving deftly over the queen's hair.
Khurrami set aside the twelve crystal-headed pins that had confined the queen's braided hair. "My queen, I have tended you for many years; your secrets are mine. How should I not know when you dream unquiet dreams?" Khurrami began unweaving the close-woven plaits, shaking the queen's hair to lie heavy over her shoulders. "Your mind seeks ease it does not find."
I should not be surprised; no woman holds secrets from her maidservants.
"And those who love you grow troubled," Irsiya added. "We would see you happy."
"That is kind." She weighed the virtues of silence against those of confession, and compromised. "You are right, Khurrami; I am troubled. And, Irsiya, I, too, would rather see me happy!"
Irsiya smiled obediently at the queen's small jest and continued to lay the day's jewelry into its resting place within the silver casket.
Khurrami took up a carved ivory comb and began the long task of grooming the queen's heavy hair. "What would make you happy, my queen?" she asked quietly.
A daughter, Bilqis thought. But that she could not say. Need not say, for Khurrami was no fool. Nor is Irsiya, nor all the rest of my women. Nor are my nobles and my merchants. The succession concerned her people deeply; her spies reported that the question of who would follow Queen Bilqis upon Sheba's throne was growing more common among her subjects. What would make me happy? A queen for Sheba.
Behind her Khurrami stood calm, coaxing the queen's unbound hair to sleekness; the ivory comb swept through the night-dark waves in steady strokes. Bilqis sighed. "It is good of you to ask, my dear, but what I need cannot be granted by any woman."
"By a man, then? Someone who spurns the most beautiful queen in all the world? Shall I chastise him for you, Lady?" Laughter rippled through Khurrami's voice. "Shall I have him dragged before you in golden chains?"
The queen laughed, as she knew Khurrami had intended she should; Khurrami saw life through laughter. "How kind--but no, no man either. Only the gods can bring me peace."
A pause, then Khurrami asked, "And they will not?"
"They have not yet." Although she had prayed and offered at the temples endlessly over the past year--The memories kindled a thought, but it flared too briefly; she could not form its image as it died, emberlike ... .
"God-time is not man-time." A sober, steady girl, Irsiya repeated the platitude with appropriate gravity; the queen knew that, behind her, Khurrami smiled at Irsiya's solemn piety.
"Gods have endless years; queens have not." Queens grew old, and died, eternal only in their daughters' memories.
"Then perhaps," Khurrami said, drawing the comb hard through a tangle of hair, "the queen should remind the gods of that fact."
"Perhaps I should--" Suddenly the smoldering ember burst into flame. She sat silent, barely noticing the comb's pull through her knotted hair, fearing to quench the brilliance flooding her.
Ask the gods--yes, I shall ask again. For a heartbeat her blood slowed, chilled. They have never answered you before; why should they now? This was the great secret she held, the shame that poisoned her blood. She had done all a queen must to please the gods; bowed, devout, before Ilat's image. But never had she received the signs by which the gods made themselves manifest in the hearts of those who served them. Sometimes, when she stood in empty silence before Sheba's great goddess, she wondered if the gods even existed.
No. This is no time for doubt. I shall go to the great Temple, I shall seek Ilat's guidance. And She shall tell me where I shall find the next Queen of Sheba. And if She remains silent--
Sudden confidence flowed warm beneath her skin, burned like hot wine. If Ilat remained silent, Bilqis would know that the gods trusted her to act as she must. Yes. A sense of rightness, of affirmation, warmed her.
"Yes, perhaps I should." She smiled, and patted Khurrami's slim hand. "That is excellent advice, my dear. And this time when I ask, I know that my prayer will be answered."
And I must give thanks for what I have already been granted, Perhaps there were gods after all. For who but Ilat Herself could have put this audacious plan into her head?
Ma'rib was a city of temples; the Shebans were a godly people, their temples jewels in their crown of good fortune. Ilat's Temple was chief among those gems. A precious setting for a most precious goddess, the house of the Queen of Heaven lay at the city's heart.
All were welcome into the Temple's outer courts, whose doors stood open both by day and by night. Anyone might enter the outer courts--woman or man, Sheban or outlander, crone or child. All were welcome there to worship, or to offer gifts, or to bask for a time in Ilat's peace. The outer courts offered the goddess's gifts freely.
But beyond the welcoming outer courts with their smiling priestesses,their cool fountains, their bounty of food and drink and rest, lay another realm. Past the rose trees and the gentle fountains, past the walls painted bright with leopards and lilies, past the shrines and statues given by grateful petitioners, past the glitter and laughter--past all the sweet soft joys bestowed by a loving goddess--lay the Temple's Inner Court.
No one entered the Inner Court lightly. Most never entered that court at all, content all their lives to go no farther than the clear, simple pleasures the goddess offered to all. The Inner Court demanded more than innocent devotion, more than unquestioning worship. It demanded wisdom and courage, and an iron refusal to surrender to illusion.
But for those who were dedicated, or desperate, the Temple's secret heart offered a path to their true desire.
Bilqis had walked that hard true path only twice in her life. The first time had been the day the Morning Crown had been placed upon her head and the clawed scepter in her hand, the day the girl Bilqis became the Queen of the South. That day she had feared her own weakness, and dared the Inner Court to learn her own strength.
The second had been the day her daughter died. That day she had sought peace, and submission to fate's knotted thread. That day she had failed, her own grief and fear overwhelming her until she fell into darkness. She had lain weak in bed for seven days after, slowly mending her shattered self She had not dared return even to the Temple's outer courts since that disastrous day.
But now I must. She held out her hands before her. They were steady. See, I am calm. She rose from her dressing table and turned slowly before Khurrami and Irsiya. "Is it well?" she asked. No idle question, today; her gems and garb must be faultless.
"You are the goddess Herself," Irsiya said.
"Not yet," Bilqis said, and looked to Khurrami, who studied her carefully.
"Yes." Khurrami knelt and brushed her hand over the gown's skirt. "Yes, it is well, my queen."
"Good. Now the veil."
Khurrami and Irsiya lifted the shimmering mass of cloth from its gilded basket and shook it out before tossing the sacred veil over her head. The world turned to golden shadow; the goddess's veil was woven of silk assheer and pale as sunlight. Threads of gold glinted as the veil rippled into place, flowing over her from the crown of her head to her ankles.
Her handmaidens settled the veil with delicate touches of their hands. When they were satisfied, Khurrami nodded. "You are ready, my queen." Khurrami hesitated, then added softly, "Good fortune, Bilqis."
Having overruled the wishes of her chamberlain, her honor-maids, and her guards, Bilqis walked alone through Ma'rib's streets. The occasion was too important to turn into a queen's processional. "In this I am suppliant, not queen. I will not succumb to false pride and vain show."
And she was wise enough to know that the sight of the queen herself walking veiled and alone to the great Temple to plead for Ilat's favor would be remembered longer than any procession, however rich or royal.
There were other reasons for such blatant piety, such humble pride. It was expected, although not demanded, that a petitioner seeking the Inner Court walk, meek and submissive, to the Temple gate. Today such humility was not only pious, but politic as well. All Ma'rib would see the queen sought truth from Ilat Herself, and since none sought such truth lightly or wantonly--
--whatsoever I say our goddess revealed to me, I shall be believed. The thought of such deceit turned her mouth sour. But she must have an answer; she must. And if the Sun of their Days would not unveil Sheba's future--once again Bilqis silently repeated the words she clung to in hope, intangible talismans against a cold future.
If Ilat will not reveal what is to come, then I will know She trusts me to summon what future I will.
The thought was reasoned, logical. It might even be true. If only it were consoling as well ... .
She tried to set all thought aside; it would not do to approach the Queen of Heaven uneasy in her mind. Once past the palace gate, she found it less difficult to control her willful thoughts; long practice granted her forgetfulness as she concentrated on walking smoothly and with grace.
The journey from palace to Temple seemed timeless, endless. But at last she walked across the wide hot square to the outer doors of the great Temple.A priestess greeted her there, as all who came to the goddess's Temple were greeted.
"Welcome to our Mother's House, child. What do you come for?"
This was her last chance to change her mind, to refuse to walk the path she had chosen for herself But already she was speaking the words that would begin the ritual.
"I come for wisdom."
"Many come for wisdom," the priestess said. "Nothing more?"
"I come for the future."
"The future will come for you. Nothing more?"
"I come for myself," she said, and the priestess bowed and backed away. Bilqis walked forward, stepping over the doorsill into the Temple's first lure.
Ilat's great Temple was formed in seven rings circling about its heart. The outer ring housed the courts of love and comfort. Roses scented the air; fruit trees lined paths which wound in aimless coils through the pleasure garden. Those who followed those pretty paths would, in time, return to their beginning, never having ventured farther into the Temple mysteries than that soft, sheltered garden.
For many, that was enough.
I wish it were enough for me. But she had set her feet upon a different path, and she would follow where it led her.
She walked smoothly through the garden, into the second outer court; passed its comforts, too, without a pause. Then the third, and then she was past all comfort, all common human joys. Praying her spirit would not fail her, she looked upon the first of the barriers between the outer Temple and the mystery that lay at the Temple's heart.
All are equal before Her. She looked through the golden shadow of her veil at the gatekeeper, and the gate behind him--the first of seven she must pass through to reach the goddess. The gate was gilded and jeweled, the bar that held it closed carved from a single elephant tusk.
"What do you seek?" the priest guarding the gate asked.
"To go within." She knew all the responses by heart, had learned them long ago. She had never thought to speak them more than once, upon the day she had set the crown of Sheba upon her head.
"Those who go within must walk meek and humble. Will you leave pride and folly at this gate?"
"I will," she said.
"Then leave them here, and enter."
She bent and untied her gilded sandals, slipped them from her feet. Rising, she offered them to the priest, who accepted them with a slight bow before he lifted the ivory bar and swung the gate open. "Enter meekly and humbly, then, and may you find what you seek within."
Heart pounding, she walked through the gate. This marked the true beginning of her journey; from this gate, there was no turning back. The jeweled gate swung closed behind her, leaving her alone to face what lay within.
I have passed the first gate. Surely that is the hardest. The first gate, the first of the seven through which she must pass. Each gate led deeper into the goddess's heart; each stripped one layer of the mortal world away.
Seven gates those who would enter the Inner Court must pass, and at each, a garment or a jewel must be surrendered. Sandals at the first gate, so the petitioner walked barefoot to reach the ultimate sanctuary.
Girdle unclasped at the second gate. She handed the band of woven gold and silver to the priest waiting silently before the gate's smooth panels of polished jade.
Necklace at the third gate; bracelets at the fourth. At the fifth gate, the elaborate gold earrings fashioned to look like flaming suns. At the sixth, she unpinned her gown; the heavy silk slid down her body, hissed softly to the floor. She stepped carefully over the mass of fabric and walked onward.
One thing only remained to her: the goddess's veil. Until the seventh gate, the veil protected her. There, even that illusion must be surrendered.
Silence lay thick about her, the air itself heavy and soft, like warm honey. Emptying her mind of fear and desire was her task now, a goal she knew she failed to attain. I did better the first time I dared this, and the second. What is wrong with me, that I fail now?
You know why. Now the stakes are too high. If you fail, Sheba falls.
The seventh gate was made of wood from the frankincense tree, polished smooth and sheathed in horn. Here there was no priest to ask for and to receive the symbols of her womanhood. This gate she must pass alone.
Beneath the veil she lifted her arms and raised the jeweled circlet from her head. As if pleased to be released, the goddess-veil slithered over her upraised arms and down her back to lie in a glinting heap upon the floor at her feet. She stared down at the abandoned veil, opened her hands and letthe circlet fall onto the crumpled cloth. Now there was nothing between her and the Inner Court but the gate of wood and horn before her.
Now she was ready to stand before the goddess, a supplicant like any other. She set her hand to the bar and opened the seventh gate.
Light flooded over her; she walked forward, into the goddess's Inner Court. There was no idol here, no statue to confine the Sun Herself within its golden skin. There was only a roofless courtyard, gilded walls encircling her, amber floor warm as blood beneath her feet. Sunlight poured into the courtyard, pale and harsh; the walls blazed bright as noon sun. Within that circle of burning light, only goddess and worshipper remained, what passed between them sacred to them alone.
Golden light blazed so hot she closed her eyes against its force. She neither knelt nor petitioned; the Bright Lady required no words to know what was in Her human daughter's heart. Bilqis had come not to speak, but to listen.
So hard, to stand and wait, to be nothing but a cup for the goddess to fill or not, as She chose. In this place of pure white light, nothing was hidden, nothing shadowed. Naked to her goddess. No concealment possible.
Naked to herself
That, even more than her openness to Ilat's sun-eyes, frightened her. Although she had stood here in this circle of gold and light twice before, today she feared more deeply, as if she looked farther into eternity now.
I must not fear. I must not despair. And I must not hurry. I must wait.
Wait and empty herself of all thought, all passion, all desire. Even the worthiest longing must be smoothed into patient acceptance.
Wait. And trust Ilat. Why had she come, if she did not trust the goddess to answer? Look within yourself, to see how you fail, and why. Look within, Bilqis.
The voice was her own, reminding her of what she must do here. Obedient, she looked, her mind spiraling inward, seeking. You know what must be done; why do you fear to do it?
Because the cost of failure was too high to be borne. A cost that would be paid not by her, but by all those to come after. If I fail, Sheba is punished, not I.
There it was, the lump of terror frozen at her heart's core. Her Sheba, her land, her people--all rested easy, certain of her power. Certain of their future.
A future only you can give them, child. The words came from nowhere, written in white fire before her dazzled eyes. Only you.
"What must I do?" she whispered into the blinding light.
You know. Seek and you will find what you seek. How else?
Seek and find--
The answer came, clear as sunlight, so simple she laughed in surprise and relief. If she could not bear a daughter, she must find one.
You must seek a true queen to rule over the sunlight land, the incense land, the land gods love. The words sang clear, revealing a truth she had refused until now to admit. How could I not have understood what I must do?
She had known all along that she must choose a successor. But that was not easy to do, not and leave peace as her legacy. For she could not choose a girl from one of Sheba's noble families to raise up; any choice she made among them would breed quarrels. Quarrels bred war. But now, at last, she had an answer, saw a way to escape the maze of family ties and tangled loyalties.
So our Mother will grant me a daughter--but I myself must seek the child out, and must travel far to find her. She must seek elsewhere, undertake a quest to some far land from which she could return with the next Queen of Sheba. With a girl whose right to rule none can dispute, for she will be my true daughter, a daughter chosen by our Mother Ilat, by the Bright Lady Herself.
Now she knelt, pressing her lips to the blood-hot floor in gratitude for the goddess's aid, for the comforting certainty that flowed through her, easing all pain.
Sheba's crown would pass gently to its next queen; the goddess promised this boon. Now it remained only to learn where, among all the world's kingdoms, the Queen of Sheba must search for the girl the goddess would choose--
Even if that goddess is I.
That night she slept deep and dreamless, awakening to find herself rested in body and easy in mind. And for all her secret doubts of Ilat's true concern for Sheba's future, it was upon that day, the day following her visit to the Temple's Inner Court, that emissaries of a foreign king came to Ma'rib, came to petition the Queen of the South on behalf of a king of whom she had never heard.
The king of a land far to the north of Sheba and its treasures of gold and spices: Solomon, King of Wisdom.
It was not the queen's day to sit in judgment, and so she had claimed the day's hours for her own. Clad only in a skirt of fine linen, she sat quiet in her garden upon a bench carved of rose-red stone; savored the scents of lilies and lilac, the warmth of the sun upon her unbound hair. Such interludes were rare in Queen Bilqis's life, so when Khurrami came soft-footed along the garden path with a message, it was with hand outstretched in apology.
"I crave the queen's pardon for disturbing her peace."
Bilqis sighed. "You would not do so without reason. Speak."
"The chief steward asked me to bring word that a king's emissaries have arrived in Ma'rib and crave audience with the queen."
And this news could not wait? She folded the thought away, struggled to show Khurrami a placid face. "Emissaries? They must be important or importunate indeed--"
"To trouble the queen without delay," Khurrami finished for her, and lifted one smooth shoulder in annoyance. "But we all know what the chief steward is; he swore the matter urgent."
"Ah, well--" Bilqis smiled in rueful agreement; Shakarib was an excellent master of the court--but he did seem to treat all matters as equally weighty. "Tell me of these urgent envoys."
"I will tell what I know, which is that they come from a land far to the north--"
A land far to the north ... . Something in those words kindled the queen's blood, caused her breath to thicken in her throat. A vagrant breeze stroked her, and suddenly she knew it was the Bright Queen's answer to her ardent prayer. These men from beyond the burning sands somehow held the answer she had sought for so long.
"--so far away that their kingdom lies beyond the great desert itself. Although they did not travel over the sands but voyaged down the Red Sea, in a merchant's ship--"
As Khurrami spoke, Bilqis fought the temptation to demand the travelers be summoned at once before her; that would be neither kind nor wise. She held up her hand, and Khurrami fell silent.
"I do not care how they came; they are here now. A far land, you say? A long journey, then; give these strangers all they desire, and then, when they are rested, bring them before me and I will question them, and learn why they have come."
Courtesies satisfied, Khurrami bowed, and Bilqis turned away. Both knew why the men from the north had come so far, and what they would ask. Merchants who dared the journey paid well for Sheban spice--and reaped a hundredfold reward for their daring in their own marketplaces.
Spice lured all the world to Sheba.
A land far to the north--in that far land a queen for Sheba waits. Seek, and find--
Although her very blood craved haste, Bilqis refused to surrender to that pounding urgency. These men have traveled far and long to reach me and petition for the treasures I hold in my gift. They will not flee for an hour's wait--or a week's. Or even a month's, come to that. No, those who came to bargain for Sheba's spices waited patiently upon Sheba's pleasure.
So she made herself wait a day before she told Shakarib that the emissaries from the land to the north might come before the Queen of Sheba's ivory throne.
My mother reared me to be a queen, although I never knew it until long after the crown was set upon my brow--just as I never knew her patience ran deep as a well, her faith strong as stone. I knew nothing of my mother's true worth until I was a woman grown, and married to the man of my heart's desiring.
I first saw him when I was a small child and my family dwelt in Mahanaim, a city east of the Jordan. All I remember of my life in that place is that once King David himself lodged there, during the days of Prince Absalom's rebellion. I remember that when the soldiers marched in, the street was so crowded I looked down from our rooftop and saw bronze helmets moving like a metal stream. And I saw a royal prince, a boy who looked up at me with eyes bright as the sun. I remember that. And I remember that, upon our windowsill, my mother kept a hyacinth in a painted pot.
"A strange thing, to find a land ruled by a woman." Jotham frowned. "I don't like it."
"You never like anything new, Cousin. Why petition to come at all?"Boaz stared around the rooms they had been given--rooms rich enough even for King Solomon himself A generous people, these Shebans--but they are so wealthy gold means little to them, and silver nothing.
"I am the king's brother; it is my right and my duty to serve him. Solomon asked me to deal with the Shebans. He forgot to mention I would have to deal with a woman as if she were equal to the king of kings."
"I forgot you never listen to travelers' tales." Boaz lifted a cup and turned it over in his hands. Ibex leapt about the curves of a goblet formed of silver; the beasts' horns gleamed gold. In most palaces such a costly item would be reserved for the banquet table. "These Shebans must be rich beyond dreams. Look upon this." He tossed the goblet to Jotham, who caught it easily in one hand.
"Fine work" was all Jotham said, after studying the silver cup for a moment. He set the goblet back upon the table. "I don't see why your eyes stretch so wide; if Sheba did not possess what all the world desires, we wouldn't be here."
All the world desired Sheba's fabled spices. Cinnamon, spikenard, pepper; those and others equally precious passed through Sheban hands on their journey from the lands beyond the morning to lusting markets in the kingdoms of the west. But most vital of all was Sheba's frankincense. Incense to summon gods, incense to pleasure goddesses. Even Israel's austere god favored incense. The incense trees grew only in the land of Sheba; smoke of Sheban incense drifted across the wide world, more precious than gold, more coveted than rubies.
"Incense beyond price and a queen guarding Sheba's treasure--is she beautiful, do you think?" Boaz asked.
"I think all men will call her so, whether or not she is fair to look upon. What do I care? I have a good wife waiting for me at home."
"I've heard the queen is a djinn; that no man can resist her. That she chooses men as she does jewels--for a night only. If she beckons to you, do you think you could resist her wiles?"
"I think you should stop guzzling Sheban wine and listening to Sheban gossip. The queen is not important--the spice trade is."
Boaz regarded Prince Jotham with rueful amusement. "Of all the men King Solomon could have chosen, he sends one unmoved by beauty, unin-trigued by mystery, unimpressed by riches."
"We are not here to lust after beauty, unveil mystery, or covet riches. We are here to seal the spice trade for King Solomon." Jotham walked across the soft-woven carpet that covered cool marble tiles until he reached the moon-round window. He pushed aside the drift of silver cloth that curtained the opening. "Come and look, Boaz. Feast your eyes upon Sheba now, for when we go before the Spice Queen, we must go clear-eyed and clear-headed."
Boaz stood beside his cousin and gazed upon a city more dazzling than pearls. Jerusalem, City of David, crowned a rocky hill, an armored guardian of the land around it. But Ma'rib stretched out freely, its houses circled by gardens, its streets lined with trees. Fields green as emeralds surrounded the city, tangible proof of Ma'rib's ability to summon water from the desert.
"The Shebans must be great sorcerers, to force the sand to yield crops," Boaz said, and Jotham laughed.
"The Shebans must be great engineers, to create a dam to channel the only river for a thousand leagues. I may not listen to travelers' tales of gems and djinns, but I do take heed of our agents' reports. Now go ask that sly chamberlain just how much longer King Solomon's envoy must wait before the Queen of Sheba deigns to admit him to her presence."
Despite the wealth of Sheba, the queen's throne was a simple thing, formed so long ago that the ivory itself had grown old. Once pale as bone, the chair from which a thousand queens had ruled shone golden as honey; time-burnished. Before the ivory throne hung curtains sewn of leopard skins and embroidered Cathay silk, hiding the queen from those who waited in the great court. When she lifted her hand, the eunuchs whose task it was to shield her would pull upon golden cords, drawing the curtains back to reveal the Queen of Sheba seated like a goddess upon her ancient throne.
An effective image; created to imbue awe in the beholder--and render newcomers to Sheba's marketplace vulnerable to her merchants. Bilqis had no reason to suppose the waiting men from King Solomon's court would prove less malleable than any others--
One of the eunuchs cleared his throat, pretended to cough; the small noise drew her attention, and Bilqis realized they had been awaiting her signal to pull back the curtains--a signal she should have given long since. But the wild urgency that had driven her since Khurrami brought her wordof the men from the north had deserted her. Passion had chilled to fear.
For if I look upon these men and listen to their words, and still find no answer--what then?
She lifted her hand, and it seemed to her that never had her own flesh weighed so heavy. The curtains that had concealed her swept back, and she looked at last upon the men who had sailed down the Red Sea from the court of a king called Solomon the Wise.
The men from the north neither knelt nor bowed. They stared upon her as openly as if she were not a queen whom they must petition, a priestess whom they must propitiate. She had seen such men before, men from lands of men who looked upon a woman and saw only weakness.
Oh, yes, I have seen you all before. You with your scornful eyes and your rough manners, who think that because I am a woman my word is less than law. Without taking her eyes from the men standing before her throne, she lifted her left hand; as smoothly as sand flowing over a dune, Uhhayat, the royal chamberlain, paced forward and knelt.
"Who seeks the Queen of the South?" Bilqis spoke in the Traders'Tongue, courtesy to her foreign visitors. Ritual must be observed, however roughhewn a guest's conduct.
"I am--" the group's leader began; ignoring his words, the royal chamberlain answered, her voice ringing clear over his.
"O Queen, Light of our Days, Lady of the Morning, those who seek wisdom and favor of the Daughter of the Sun would approach." Uhhayat's face remained as bland as her voice, but her glance at the foreigners cut like a blade. The leader's face darkened; whether with shame at his ill-conduct or with anger at Uhhayat's contempt the queen could not tell.
In the silence that followed Uhhayat's words, Bilqis sat quiet and counted heartbeats. At last, when the men behind the leader shifted, restless, she spoke the time-honed response.
"Those who seek the queen's wisdom and the queen's favor may approach."
Without waiting for Lady Uhhayat to summon them forward, the men strode forward. No grace, and no manners. And their garments were well-woven but lacked style.
Just before the first step to the throne, the group's leader stopped, standing proud and gazing straight into her face. She recognized the gleam of curiosity mirrored in his dark eyes--and the glint of contempt ill-hidden. Well, Sheba would teach him better manners, at least. If you wish my spices, you must bend before my will. So thinking, she smiled, and saw the leader's face change; caution replaced curiosity.
"The Queen of the South greets you, men from the north." She gestured to the three broad steps that led up to Sheba's ivory throne. "Sit, and speak. Tell us all that is in your hearts."
A graceful gesture; a signal honor not to be refused. But once accepted, that honor ensured that the man sat awkwardly at her feet, as if he were a babe playing before his nurse. Now make your speech, little man. Spread your king's demands before us and see us laugh.
But however scornful, the man at least was no fool; seated, he looked up, past her jeweled feet and silk-clad thighs, past the girdle of pearls circling her waist, the ropes of amber falling over her breasts, until he stared once more at her face. "I, Prince Jotham of Judah, thank you, O Queen, for this sign of your favor. May it herald a prosperous outcome to our journey."
Very good, Prince Jotham of Judah. Many men had sat where he sat now, and some could not tear their eyes away from the sheer cloth clinging to her legs, the shadows hinting at the secret garden hidden between her thighs. She smiled again.
"May it herald prosperity indeed. Now tell us where your land may be found, Prince Jotham of Judah, and what men call it, and who rules over it--and you."
"My land lies north, past the great empty desert. My king is Solomon the Wise, son of Great David, who rules all the land from Dan to Beersheba, and more besides."
Much more, apparently; building upon his father's conquests, King Solomon now ruled an empire--or so his envoy claimed. "No man travels between the Great Sea and the Great Desert, between Egypt and Damascus, without paying toll to King Solomon the Wise."
King Solomon the Wise; a noble title. Is he wise in truth, or only in men's flattery? One never could be sure; did not men still call her Bilqis the Beautiful? The true question is whether this King Solomon owns the wisdom to know he is flattered--or whether he is deluded by gilded words.
"A great realm indeed. And what does King Solomon the Wise wish of Bilqis, Queen of the lands of Sheba?"
"Her goodwill and her friendship." Prince Jotham's gaze never wavered. "And her spices."
Unable to resist, she permitted herself to laugh. "Your king has sent an able advocate indeed! It has taken some men a month of audiences before they dared utter those words!"
For a breath, dismay flooded his face, then he shrugged. "What else does a man come to the land of Sheba to gain but her spices? Why not say so?"
"Why not indeed?" Her amusement encouraged her courtiers to smiles and low laughter at this brazen truth. "Tell me, Prince Jotham, does King Solomon the Wise desire nothing more of Sheba?"
This time he hesitated before speaking, but still his words were as blunt as before. "My brother King Solomon would enter into agreements with Sheba. Trade must continue, spices flow safe along the Incense Road. A pact between our kingdoms is what King Solomon desires."
"And what does the king your brother offer that Sheba does not already possess? What does King Solomon own that Sheba lacks?" Something seemed to arouse her as she uttered the words; an intangible caress slid like perfumed smoke across her skin.
"I do not know," Prince Jotham said, "but I have brought scrolls from the king, and a scribe who has memorized all the scrolls say. Doubtless my brother has thought of something."
Does King Solomon know what manner of men carry his words? Still, such crude speech has saved us all endless hours of deference and debate before even beginning our bargaining. In exchange, I will turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to their blunt manner. For did she not also wish something of them--although they did not yet know it?
"Rise, Prince Jotham of Judah, and know you are Sheba's guest. And know also that the Queen of Sheba will speak with King Solomon's scribe, but the queen alone can promise nothing."
As King Solomon's envoy rose ungracefully to his feet, plainly baffled, she raised her hand. "The queen will consult our Mother Ilat in this matter; the queen will act as the goddess advises." With that, she nodded, and the court eunuchs released the heavy golden cords; the curtains of leopard and embroidered silk fell before the ivory throne, hiding her from the court. A good ending, she thought, rising from the throne, and a decisionno one could quarrel with. A decision that committed her to nothing.
Once more veiled from all but her intimates, she beckoned to the chief eunuch. And when he drew near, and bowed low, she smiled. "I have a task for you, Tamrin. Bring Prince Jotham of Judah to my garden."
"At once, Sun of our Days." But however humble Tamrin's words, however deep his bow, Bilqis clearly understood his deep disapproval.
If the gods would grant me one wish--other than a queen for Sheba--I would ask for handmaidens and servants and eunuchs who had not tended me since before I grew breasts! Sometimes their care nearly stifled her--and their meticulous solicitude curbed most wild impulses almost before she uttered them.
"Oh, it need not be at once," she said, restraining her desire to remind Tamrin that she, not he, ruled as Queen of Sheba--even if he had served her mother. "But I must speak with him--I wish to learn more of this King Solomon than I shall hear in a public audience. And whatever you can learn ..."
"Of course, my queen. You may trust me for that."
Smiling, she laid her hand softly upon his bowed head. "I do. I trust you to bring me words that tell what sort of man King Solomon is--or at least, the sort of man his subjects think him."
Pleased still to be of such import, Tamrin bowed even lower, lifting the tassel of her girdle to his lips. "Light of our Eyes, you shall have what you desire. My slaves will glean knowledge from those uncouth barbarians until even King Solomon's own mother shall know him less well than you."
In some acts, haste never prospered; if a Queen of Sheba mastered nothing else as she trained for the day the sun-crown would rest upon her hair, she learned to command patience.
Fools battled life's hungers, and in the end lost all.
So Bilqis had been taught; so she ruled her own life. She had waited three full days, and now she would learn what sort of man King Solomon had sent to plead for him. And I will learn what sort of man King Solomon is--or seems to be to his trusted servant. She smiled, and spread the peacock feathers of her fan across the bench beside her. For this meeting, she had chosen to seem what men of other nations called womanly, and displayed her body like a prize. A gown rich with gold fringe wrapped her; sheer cloth molded thecurves of breast and hip and thigh. A dozen bracelets adorned each wrist, chimed with each movement of her hands. Carmine painted her mouth, so that her lips flamed hot and red.
Unless this man from the north is dead, or a eunuch, he will succumb. A man dazzled by a woman's charms was a man easier to bargain with.
Prince Jotham of Judah seethed with impatience; his mouth was set in a thin line and his body moved stiffly, like a clay doll's. Bilqis smiled as he approached, and extended her hand, palm up, so that her hennaed skin glowed rose in the sun.
"The Queen of Sheba greets King Solomon's emissary. She is eager to speak with him again." Swiftly gauging his temper, she added, "No, do not kneel; you may sit before me."
Plainly Prince Jotham had not even thought of bending his knee to her; her careless dismissal of that protocol seemed to startle him into noticing he should pay her more homage than a scowl. "Thank you, Highness," he said. "But I will stand."
Bilqis laughed softly. "Stand then, but I fear you will grow weary, for I long to hear all you have to tell me of your land and your king. So when you tire of standing, I give you leave to sit at your ease so that we may talk as friends."
King Solomon's emissary regarded her cautiously, as if she were a venomous serpent he had found drowsing before him. Again Bilqis smiled; faced with a woman of power, this man of action found himself at a loss. "Now," said the Queen of Sheba, "speak to me of King Solomon."
"What do you wish to know?"
"Why, whatever you wish to tell me, of course. That he is a great king, wise and powerful--that I will grant. Are not all kings so described?" She lifted the peacock fan and began slowly waving the brilliant feathers, creating the smallest of breezes across her skin. "And that he wishes to gain my spices--that too is common to all kings."
"Then what can I tell you that you do not already know?" Jotham demanded. "Your ministers have read the king's scrolls by now. Have they not told you what they say?"
Gently, Bilqis lowered the peacock fan, rested it across her thighs. PlainlyJotham of Judah prided himself on blunt speaking and held women in light regard. Time, Bilqis thought, to invoke the Mother to rule him, bring him to heel.
"I have read the scrolls, young man, and yes, I know what they say. Now I shall give you some advice, Jotham. It would be wise of you to remember that you are here not for yourself but for your king. And it would be even wiser of you to remember one thing more."
"And what is that?" he asked after a moment, filling the silence, as she had known he would.
She noted with satisfaction that his face had flushed with chagrin and rising anger. Ah, and now he expects me to fling my power in his face, to threaten. She smiled, and once again lifted her peacock fan.
"That not only am I a queen, I am old enough to be your mother--or at least your aunt," she added, laughter rippling beneath her words. "Now come and sit before me, Jotham of Judah--there, upon that cushion--and tell me what I wish to know."
So easy. Bilqis continued to smile as King Solomon's brother capitulated, sitting upon a cushion at her feet as if he were her son, or her harper. Obtaining obedience from men was a skill; like any other craft, it must be not only learned but honed with constant practice.
"Never utter an order you know will be disobeyed, Bilqis. Never give a man a chance to disobey, to show less than respect. Grant him what he does not yet think of taking." Her mother's voice whispered down the years to her, imparting women's wisdom. Yes, Mother, Bilqis replied silently, I remember. See how this proud hard man now bends before me, and does not even know he has surrendered.
As she had anticipated, once he had begun to speak, Prince Jotham gradually revealed far more than he thought; certainly far more than he had intended when he strode into her presence. The chance to boast of the virtues of his monarch and the greatness of his kingdom inspired him to long-winded praise.
And if I believed even half of what he says of his wise king, I would have to fall down and worship Solomon! To hear Jotham of Judah tell it, King Solomon was more god than man.
"Handsome, generous, and wise in everything; your king is a true paragonof all the virtues." Smiling, Bilqis plied her peacock fan, sending a warm breeze over Jotham's sweat-damp face. The movement of the heavy air carried the scent of her perfume to him, a tantalizing fragrance of frankincense and roses. She noted that, without realizing it, Jotham leaned towards her, instinctively seeking to draw nearer.
"Solomon is a great king indeed--almost as great as his father, King David. Do you know how exalted our king is, in what regard he is held by the kings of all the world?"
"In most high regard?" Bilqis asked the question lightly, as if she jested; Jotham sprang to his ruler's defense.
"So high his wives are kings' daughters--yes, and his concubines too. Even Pharaoh gave a daughter to King Solomon, and sent her to him with the city of Gezer as dowry." Jotham spoke as intently as a suitor seeking to impress his beloved's mother.
And although she revealed no emotion other than amused interest, Bilqis was impressed. Royal Egypt did not grant its daughters lightly. To send a Daughter of the Two Lands to an alien kingdom to wed an outlander king had been unheard of--until now. That King Solomon could be granted such a wife spoke more clearly of his influence than an hour's effusive praise by his loyal brother.
"King Solomon is favored by the Lord as well, for all his wives bear him only sons."
The poor man! Bilqis lowered the peacock fan and ran her fingers over the iridescent feathers as if to smooth them. "Nothing but sons? How unfortunate."
King Solomon's emissary stared at her, plainly baffled; she laughed softly.
So, Prince Jotham, you have forgotten that, in Sheba, it is the mother who weighs heaviest in the scales. It is good to know I can still bedazzle an outlander. I am not yet useless.
"So great, so favored a king--with so loyal a servant, so faithful a brother. And so astute a king; did you not speak of him as Solomon the Wise?"
"So he has been called since he became king. On his first night as king, Solomon prayed to the Lord our god for wisdom to rule well and justly. And the Lord was pleased with Solomon, for he had not asked for riches or power for himself. And so the Lord granted the king the wisdom he had desired. Solomon has ruled wisely as king ever since that day."
How pious--and what a clever tale to plant; what sweet fruit it produces! Perhaps this Solomon is truly wise.
"So now I know something of the king who desires Sheba's spice." Bilqis regarded Solomon's advocate with a tolerant smile. "A wise man born under fortunate stars. It must be hard to refuse such a king anything he might desire."
"Why refuse? Grant King Solomon what he desires, and he will repay you with friendship."
"I have not said Sheba will refuse--but Solomon will need to give more than friendship for Sheba's spices. Does he offer nothing more, this god-favored king?"
Before Prince Jotham could summon an answer, Bilqis laughed softly to assure him that she had taken no offense at his words. "No, do not answer; this is not the time or place to discuss trade and treaties. Come walk with me in the gardens and I shall display our finest flowers to you--and you, Prince Jotham, shall tell me how our blooms compare to those of Solomon's kingdom."
But by the time the sun rose towards midmorning, Bilqis abandoned the attempt to stroll the garden paths with the visitor. The man plainly cared nothing for gardens and even less for spending an hour discussing flowers. Alone, she bent and cupped a small fragrant rose between her hands and closed her eyes to inhale the blossom's dark perfume.
What manner of men does King Solomon rule? Harsh men, rough and much burned by sun. What sort of land breeds such men? What sort of king rules such fierce subjects?
A king owning all a man's virtues and all the world's wisdom. Has he no weakness, then?
No man lived free of fault; the trick was to divine that defect, to turn that weakness into a weapon. A weapon held in reserve, perhaps a weapon never wielded. But a weapon nonetheless.
Opening her eyes, Bilqis stared into the rose's crimson heart. Can any man be so great, so wise? Perhaps, a voice seemed to hiss, the word echoing silently in her ears, perhaps you should go and see for yourself ... .
A command. An answer. A promise.
Bilqis straightened; her fingers slid over the velvet petals of the rose. Atlast she saw a path, a bridge to Sheba's future. A road that led north.
North to the court of King Solomon.
"I do not like these men from the north. They--" Rahbarin hesitated, seeking the right word to describe the unease troubling his mind. He stared into Ilat's eyes, hoping to find inspiration in their jeweled depths. "They are--rude," he said at last. "They lack respect. I do not like the way they look upon my mother's sister. I do not like the way they look upon Your Mirror on Earth. Can she trust them, and their king?"
The alabaster image never altered; the goddess's lapis eyes glowed serene in the lamplight, gold flecks glinting in the deep blue like stars at midnight. Rahbarin did not know whether that meant Ilat did not listen, or that She did not care. An idol was but an image; a form the goddess could inhabit, if She chose. This evening, She did not choose to reveal Herself. The statue remained merely a mirror in which to reflect upon the goddess it portrayed.
Rahbarin set another nugget of incense into the crystal bowl at the idol's feet, bowed, and backed away. Tonight he would receive no answer. I must ask again later. Another time, he might elicit an answer from Ilat--or he might not. If She and the queen already wove a net of their own devising, neither would reveal as much to him.
That thought forced him to admit what he had been denying, that his aunt plotted something--something she knows I will not approve. And if that were true, he had a better chance of coaxing an answer from his goddess than he did from his aunt.
I must go north. That much was clear enough, goddess-granted. How she was to achieve this journey, and explain it to her councilors and her subjects--that apparently was to be left up to her own ingenuity.
But like any good ruler, Bilqis possessed a bountiful store of cunning. The answer came swiftly; she would announce that Ilat Herself had spoken, had commanded the queen's obedience. That she must submit to Ilat's wishes concerning the northerners and their king's desire to trade with Sheba. All know I have consulted our Mother in Her Inner Court. Now I need only proclaim Her commands.
She kept King Solomon's men waiting for a week before summoning them again to her presence. During those days she spent many hours praying before the public altar within the great Temple, for she had no intention of there being the least doubt that what she would do was the will of Ilat Herself So when the leopard skins were drawn back, revealing her upon Sheba's throne, she smiled upon Solomon's emissaries and told them she had carefully weighed their words, and those of their king.
"I have laid your words before our goddess Ilat. You are fortunate men; our Mother smiles upon you and your king." Bilqis noted that Prince Jotham's expression reflected distaste; she shrugged inwardly and continued. "Sheba will grant King Solomon's request--and the queen herself shall carry this word of our Mother's favor to him."
A low susurrus of whispers began among her courtiers; Bilqis raised her hand for silence. "You all know I have dared the Inner Court to receive Ilat's wisdom. You know that I have spent the last seven days in prayer and fasting. I have been granted knowledge of Her wishes; I will not dispute them."
She glanced around the court, noting who looked shocked, who disapproving, who pleased. Then she turned her attention back to King Solomon's embassy. "You have told us much of your king, and of his wisdom, and of his golden city. Now I will travel north with you, that your king and I may come to agreement together."
The court was silent; Bilqis heard the soft insistent buzz of a bee against one of the alabaster windows as the insect vainly tried to fly free. Gauging the moment, she went on before any of her ministers could speak.
She smiled at Prince Jotham. "At Ilat's command, I shall accompany you to see this golden city for myself--and to test the wisdom of King Solomon."
She had too much experience ruling men and women to permit her audience a chance to consider her words, or to question them. A nod to her attentive eunuchs, and the leopard-skin curtain fell, concealing her from those in the courtyard. Bilqis rose, and stretched, and stopped as she saw her nephew waiting for her beside her throne.
"Is that truly our Mother's answer? That you journey north with theseuncouth men?" Rahbarin frowned even as he held out his hand to steady her as she descended the steps from the ivory throne.
"Did I not say so?" Bilqis set her hand upon Rahbarin's, and sighed inwardly. He was going to be difficult. For her nephew was nothing if not single-minded in defense of Sheba's crown and queen, willing to protect her even from herself if necessary. Prince Rahbarin was strong, loyal, intelligent--if only he had been born a girl!
Yet even as Bilqis sighed over that useless wish, she knew Ilat had not erred in creating Rahbarin male instead of female. For Rahbarin also was gentle-natured and amiable, as good as a desert spring--and as transparent as that spring-water. Guile and subtlety he lacked. And guile and subtlety a ruler must have, to rule well and wisely. Rahbarin owned all the virtues of a good man; those very virtues would be disastrous in a ruler.
For a queen must be able to speak false as well as true, with no one the wiser. To rule--to nurture a country and its people--a queen must veil her true nature, her true self. Only one thing must count with her: her people's welfare.
Not her own wishes, or her own happiness--or her own good. Theirs.
And the pause to speak with Rahbarin had permitted others to gather. Now the court chamberlain, the chief steward, the vizier, and the chief eunuch stood before her, all demanding to know whether the Queen of the South had gone mad. Only the captain of the queen's guard, Nikaulis, remained silent.
"O Queen, your vizier has heard not a word of this journey." Mubalilat's tone plainly indicated that he wished he had not heard a word of it now. "It is impossible--absolutely impossible--"
The chief eunuch interrupted him, only to continue the protest. "Of course the Lady of the Morning may do as pleases her, but to undertake such an endeavor--"
"It is too risky," Uhhayat finished; the court chamberlain could be counted on to counsel prudence above all. "We know nothing of this king or his land; his emissaries are barbarians who never smile."
Bilqis held up her hand, and her courtiers fell silent. "And the captain of my guard? Has my Amazon nothing to say?"
Nikaulis regarded her queen, eyes gray and hard as iron. "Only what others have said; that such a journey is folly. But I am the queen's captain. What she commands, I will perform."
This is the outcome of training officials to speak their thoughts freely, unafraid of reprisals if their ruler dislikes their words! So thinking, Bilqis laughed softly, watching the puzzlement on her officials' faces at her amusement.
"The queen has heard your words, and thanks you for your concern for her safety and the kingdom's. But you must know that I go at Ilat's bidding and at Her promise. From our land, I shall bring King Solomon gold and spices. And from his land I shall return bringing the queen who will wear Sheba's crown of fire when I am gone."
For a heartbeat they stared at her in silence. Then Mubalilat asked, "This is what the Sun of our Days revealed?" The vizier's voice held an odd mixture of awe and doubt.
"Yes," said Bilqis, "it is what She revealed to me. There will be a queen to follow after me; a queen granted us by Ilat Herself."
"A queen from the north?" The chief eunuch, Tamrin, shook his head so hard a jeweled pin fell from his tight-curled hair. "How is that possible?"
Her most trusted and most loyal ministers stared at her, awaiting her answer. Only truth would serve; they deserved nothing less.
"I do not know." Bilqis held out her hands, as if in supplication. "I only know that I humbled myself before our Mother and this is how She has answered my prayers. I ask that you trust Her, as I do. Now you have the queen's permission to leave her presence."
They obeyed, bowing themselves off with reluctance. Uhhayat and Tamrin walked together; already Bilqis knew they were forging an alliance whose intent would be to keep her here in Sheba. The chief officers of her court and the lesser dignitaries doubtless would spend the next hours grumbling to each other, unable to comprehend such an unheard-of journey.
Nikaulis remained, her iron eyes blade-keen, questioning. "My queen?"
"Speak, Queen's Captain."
"Cannot another journey north in your stead?"
Bilqis shook her head. "No. I must go myself. Who else can choose Sheba's next queen?"
For a moment Nikaulis seemed to hesitate, as if about to speak again. The moment passed, and the Amazon merely bowed her head, as if accepting the queen's words as final. Then Nikaulis, too, retreated, leaving Bilqis alone with her nephew.
"You, too, may leave me, Rahbarin." But Bilqis was not surprised whenhe regarded her steadily and said, "I wish to talk to you, my mother's sister, if you will permit it."
Bilqis sighed inwardly; she had hoped to avoid an immediate confrontation with Rahbarin and his principles. Still, as well now as later, I suppose. Bowing to the inevitable, she permitted him to accompany her to her own chamber. There she sat before her dressing table, and Irsiya began to unpin her hair.
Rahbarin waited; knowing he would silently wait until next moonrise, if necessary, Bilqis sighed, and said, "Speak, Nephew."
Rahbarin looked at Irsiya. "Send your maidservant away."
"No; there is nothing either of us can say that is secret." And a witness might prove useful; who better than the queen's most intimate servant? "Now, what have you to say to your aunt and queen?"
Given permission to speak, Rahbarin hesitated, then said, "I know you have spoken with Ilat Herself, but--but to leave Sheba and journey north, to a far land none has ever seen--is this wise, Bright One?"
"Not wise, perhaps--but necessary." She stared into the polished silver mirror; her face was still a fortune in men's eyes. "Our Lady Ilat has promised me a daughter from the north; I cannot expect the winds to blow the girl across the desert into my arms!"
Rahbarin regarded her with that steadfast, stubborn devotion that made him such a good follower, and would make him an equally poor ruler. "It is too far, and too dangerous. Send me in your stead."
"What, will you bear a child for me?"
"You are too old for that. Whatever the goddess means, She cannot mean you are to bear a child yourself! You would die birthing the babe."
No one could ever accuse Rahbarin of empty flattery--always he would say plain truth, whatever the cost. "Who can say what She means? A daughter, She promised--and one of my own body and blood would be best. If I die bearing an heir to Sheba--why, I die. I trust you to raise my daughter up to be a great queen; she could have no better counselor or truer friend."
"I don't like it," Rahbarin said.
"You don't need to like it, Rahbarin; you need only obey. Her will is clear: I must go. And you must stay, and guard Sheba while I am gone."
"And if you do not return, Aunt? Then what?"
Trust Rahbarin to spot each weak point and take careful aim. "Then,Sister's Son, you must consult Ilat for yourself, and act as She directs--and as seems best to you."
Knowing that order could not be improved upon, Bilqis dismissed her nephew and braced herself to face her handmaiden; Irsiya was sure to be as disapproving as Rahbarin.
"You have heard what I told the prince. So you may begin packing, my Irsiya--we leave when the Israelite merchants sail north."
Irsiya stared at her round-eyed. "The queen is serious?"
"Irsiya, do I sound as if I jest? Ilat has spoken, remember; I must obey, however far I must journey in Her service."
"But to King Solomon's court? That lies at the other end of the world--the merchants travel months and months only to reach the Silk Road, and Jerusalem is farther still!"
Bilqis laughed, deliberately making light of Irsiya's protest. "Oh, Jerusalem is not so far as that. Damascus lies beyond Jerusalem, and yet our merchants trade often in the City of Roses. And the Silk Road, like the Spice Road, crosses many lands, including King Solomon's. Be easy; I shall not waste half a year in travel."
Not when the sea lay beside the desert, its waters a swift road to the north. By sea, the journey would last weeks rather than months. Bilqis smiled and patted Irsiya's hand. "I shall journey north to King Solomon because our Mother Ilat bids me do so. I may trust Her to smooth my path."
"Of course," Irsiya said, but Sheba sensed her handmaiden's pious agreement was less than wholehearted. But then Irsiya was a true daughter of her bloodline: cautious and conservative as a cat. Irsiya's world was bounded by the golden sands ringing Ma'rib; her desires centered upon home and temple. So long as she trod a path laid out precisely for her careful steps, there was no better servant than Irsiya. But ask her to contemplate change, even in so little a thing as the colors of the flowers to be placed within a vase, and she became worried; worried, Irsiya became stubborn, clinging to the pattern she knew.
She will loathe journeying to unknown lands, but she is one of the queen's ladies. I cannot leave her behind, for she would hate that quite as much. There will be no pleasing Irsiya in this quest.
But so long as she returned from King Solomon's lands bearing Sheba's next queen with her, Bilqis did not care who objected now.
When my father died, my mother packed all vve owned and took me to dwell in Shunem. In those days Shunem was a prosperous town, a decent place for a widow to raise her daughter. Shunem stood at a crossroads; the King's High Road ran past the town's walls. So as well as a good marketplace, there was also a temple to comfort foreign travelers, and a Grove,
My mother need not have remained alone after my father died, for she was beautiful still, and my father had left her enough to dower her well. But she turned away all men who came seeking her favor.
"You do me too much honor," she told those who sought her as a wife. And to me, when we were alone, "Never again; I have had enough of men. Now I may live my own life and ready you for yours."
"But I thought you happy with my father," I said, and my mother smiled and wiped tears from my cheek with her slender fingers.
"That is because I was happy with him, Abishag. He was a good man, and kind, and he fathered you, for which I would forgive him much. But no more men for me--at least, not here, where they all smell of grapes and of sheep!"
Then she laughed, and when my mother laughed, it was impossible not to laugh with her.
After he left the queen, Prince Rahbarin headed straight for the great Temple, seeking solace and guidance. Easy enough for his aunt to say "Stay, and guard Sheba--" As if he had the knowledge or the cunning to do so, need only lift his hand to accomplish wonders, to replace the Queen of the Morning at a word.
Sometimes he thought his aunt was too confident of others' abilities. She herself was fearless and wise, and believed others as skilled as she herself. Witness her placid instructions to him!
"Act as the goddess directs"; that was simple enough. But for the rest of it--
How am I to know what is best to do? Not for the first time, Rahbarin wished that his aunt would not place such faith in him. Someday he knew he must disappoint her, and that would be hard to bear. But if the queen wished him to guard Sheba in her absence, he would obey.
And he would try to have faith in her mission--hard though it was to believe that such a journey was the goddess's wish, and not the woman's. But if the queen did not hear the goddess truly, then what hope was there for her, or for Sheba?
Goddess-sent or no, I pray she finds a new queen on this quest. For if she does not--Without an undoubted heir, Sheba would succumb to the same disease that ravaged so many surrounding lands. War. War setting family against family, brother against sister. In such conflicts, there were no victors.
To avoid that fate, the queen would fight any battle she must. And if he could do nothing more to aid her, he could at least follow her orders to the best of his ability.
As he stood before the image of the goddess, Rahbarin opened his heart to Ilat and prayed that he would rule well in his aunt's absence--and that the queen's prayers would be granted.
And failing that, Rahbarin prayed for peace, and for his aunt's safe return.
The men from the north stalked grimly through Ma'rib's streets, hard and cold. Rahbarin could not imagine them ever smiling, laughing, enjoying life's soft pleasures. Nor could he envision a land full of such men welcoming the Queen of Sheba warmly and with pleasure.
Let her go and return safely, he begged the silent image of Ilat. Let her return unharmed to Sheba--with or without an heir.
"Another chest? Stow it aft, with the others--no, not there, fool! Do you want to unbalance the ship?" Swearing in half-a-dozen languages, Hodaiah, captain of King Solomon's merchant fleet, grabbed the confused porter's tunic and thrust him towards the right section of the deck.
I don't like this. I don't like it at all. Sailing was unchancy enough without adding a foreign queen and all her finery, her slaves and her servants and her endless treasure chests, to the cargo. But no one had consulted him; no, he was simply expected to provide accommodation for the woman and all her chattels and goods. No matter that the Tarshish ships were designed for slow, steady transport of bulky cargo, not the swift conveyance of royalty. The Queen of Sheba commanded, and even foreign captains must obey. Hodaiah spat, clearing his throat, and continued his vigilant supervision as the loading continued.
Chests of gold and cages of apes; bolts of fine cloth and jars of spices; if pirates spot us, we'll be slaughtered like wingless ducks. And then there are the women--
And such women! Flaunting themselves like harlots, striding about like men--Hodaiah had sailed from Tyre to Troezen, Knossos to Massilia, and never had he seen such women as dwelt in the land of Sheba.
"You there--take those bales of cloth to the other ship! No more on this one!" Idiots, fit only to feed to the sharks. Hodaiah turned to the flagship, Jael. Upon Jael's deck, slaves were erecting a pavilion, a sanctuary for the Queen of Sheba and her handmaidens during the voyage north.
As if the sea cares she's a queen! If anything, the sea, always a harsh mistress, would be twice as jealous of a queen as of a common woman. It would be a chancy voyage, with women aboard, with the sea lying always ready to claim her rivals.
But master of ships or no, his opinion didn't count, not laid in the balance against a queen's whim. And what did it all boil down to but another woman for King Solomon--as well send a honeycomb to a beehive!
And here was the queen herself, riding down to the dock on a horse--a woman sitting upon a horse, whoever heard of such a thing? Beside her rode a warrior; an Amazon--long years since I've seen one of them. She'll not like sailing; her kind doesn't favor water. A gaggle of women followed, all aflutter in bright garments of cloth so fine the wind from the water pressed the fabric against their bodies close as a second skin.
There were some men as well--eunuchs, guards, grooms--but mostly there were women. Too many women.
At the foot of the gangplank, the Queen of Sheba dismounted, handing her horse's reins to the nearest sailor, who was so startled he took them. Followed by a slim pale hound, she walked up the planks to Jael's deck.
"The Queen of the South greets you, Captain, and thanks you for your care and kindness." She caressed her hound's long silky ears. "The journey will go well."
"With luck," Hodaiah added hastily; it didn't do to let the sea think you scorned her power. "And with Yahweh's aid." Sailors lived and died on the lift of fortune's waves; Hodaiah clung to the old way of calling upon his god by name, that there might be no question whom he petitioned.
"Always with the favor of the gods."When the queen smiled, lines creasedthe skin at the corners of her eyes; in the bright sunlight, you could see she was not young.
But it didn't matter. Young or not, the Queen of Sheba's smile kindled a slow fire in a man's blood. Hodaiah hoped the queen's own blood ran cool, or the voyage up the Red Sea would be endless trouble.
"Almost everything's aboard," he said. "The pavilion's nearly ready for you and your women."
"I--and my women--thank you. Now we have only to load my servants and my courtiers, and my horses, and then we may begin our journey as soon as wind and tide are propitious."
Even as he agreed, Hodaiah's heart sank. Asherah's eyes, I forgot about the damned horses!
"Do not look so dismayed, Captain." Laughter rippled through the queen's voice as sunlight danced over waves. "All will go well, and our voyage will prosper. Can you doubt that the gods look with favor upon this enterprise?"
"I can doubt anything," Hodaiah said and strode down the gangplank to the dock, to find his quartermaster and begin the process of loading the queen's horses upon the ship that had been prepared for them.
Horses and hounds and harlots. When I turn this voyage into a tavern tale, no one will believe me. He only hoped that when the Tarshish fleet at last docked at the port of Ezion-geber, the city governor there would be put to even half the effort and expense Hodaiah himself had been.
And that King Solomon found the Queen of Sheba's visit worth its cost.
So much water. Until now, the greatest expanse of water Nikaulis had ever seen had been the Goddess's Mirror, the lake that lay at the feet of the Shining Mountains. The Mirror was pure and cold as ice, a daughter of mountain streams. Nikaulis had grown to womanhood beside the Mirror, played games of the hunt and the quest upon its shores.
But the Mirror was a small thing; even a child standing upon the Mirror's edge could see the far shore across its smooth water. The sea was different.
The ship floated upon water as changeable and restless as clouds. Water rippled about the hull, flashed phoenix-bright as wavelets shifted and danced in the sun. To the east, Nikaulis could watch the land as the ship slid past,but to the west, water covered all the world, shimmered and glinted to the far horizon. She knew there was land beyond this sea; the kingdoms of Cush and Egypt. But staring out across the expanse of restless water, it was hard to believe.
"A pomegranate seed for your thoughts."
Almost startled--the water's constant slap against the wooden hull, the creaking of boards and rustle of canvas hid lesser sounds; she had not heard Khurrami approach--Nikaulis swiftly turned, her fingertips just touching her knife's hilt.
"Peace, Nikaulis," Khurrami said, "it is only I."
Nikaulis inhaled slowly. "I did not hear you, that is all." I am too tight-drawn. I must ease myself, or I shall snap as hard as a dry bowstring.
Khurrami moved closer, smiling, and put her hands upon the rail. "What do you think of the sea? Is not so vast a quantity of water a miracle? And salt too--I tried a mouthful, and the water truly is salt enough to poison one. I wonder how the fish survive it?"
"Doubtless they are accustomed to the salt."
"Perhaps they find it pleasant." Khurrami stared down into the lucid water. "So many fish, and so pretty; do you think the queen would like some for the palace fountains?"
"They would die there." Nikaulis watched a school of fish swirl past. Blue and red and yellow--an invisible signal sent the fish flying back the way they had come, dashing beneath the ship. Forward and back, side to side, a pattern as explicit as dance ... .
"Perhaps." Khurrami leaned forward; a bead slipped from her braids and fell into the sea below. A dozen fish broke ranks, converging on the sinking bead. An instant's flurry, then the fish merged into the larger group once more. "Do you suppose they ate it?" Khurrami asked.
"Perhaps." Nikaulis glanced sidelong at Khurrami. The queen's handmaiden was teasing another bead from her elaborate braids, plainly willing to lose a second bauble for the pleasure of teasing the hopeful fish. Khurrami freed the bright bead and tossed it overboard; again a small group of fish flashed toward it, tested the offering, abandoned it as inedible, vanished among their brethren. Then Khurrami said in a low, steady voice, "What think you of our queen's quest, Nikaulis?"
Is this a test? Everyone knew Khurrami was the queen's eyes and ears--Soeven she must know her idle queries carry much weight. And test or no, courtesy demanded an answer.
"It is not my place to think anything. It is my place--"
"To guard and to obey. Yes." Khurrami's fingers twined in the end of her long plait of beaded braids, fretting the prisoned hair free. She glanced sidelong at Nikaulis. "Nothing more than that, Queen's Guard?"
Something in Khurrami's tone--a subtle undertone of mockery, barely sensed--rasped harsh as salt on skin. "What more should there be? The Queen of the Morning commands we journey to a far land so she may face the King of Wisdom. We journey."
"Our Mother commands."
Khurrami's correction pricked light but sharp; Nikaulis countered with a query of her own. "And you, Queen's Lady? What do you think of this venture?"
"I?" Khurrami's painted eyelids swept down like glittering green wings, hiding her cat-pale eyes. "Oh, I think nothing--save the journey is long and the sea wide--and the men from the north coarse and strange. I wonder what their king is truly like; his servants are uncouth, unsubtle. Can their king be better?"
"Even if he is not, Ilat Herself has commanded our queen to seek him out."
"To ask his aid?" Nikaulis heard the question underlying her words, betraying the fears that troubled her dreams. It is time to ask plainly. Odd how speaking out could be the greatest fear of all. "My lady Khurrami--do you think this journey wise?"
To question her queen's command, her goddess's oracle--Truly I am uneasy in my heart. Danger lies ahead. Am I the only one who foresees evil at journey's end?
Apparently enchanted by the water dancing below, Khurrami did not move. At last she said, "Do you think it folly, that our queen should obey Ilat's will and court the King of Wisdom?"
"And when we enter the realm of this wise king? What then?"
Without looking up, Khurrami shrugged; sunlight rippled over her skin, supple as the water below her. "Why, then the queen will do as she must, and so will we." Then she glanced slantwise at Nikaulis. "Do you think I know the goddess's mind, or the queen's?"
"I think you know." Nikaulis stared into the crystal water. Fish flashed bright, fleeing a larger shape; danger lurking in the shadow of the ship. "And I think you will not tell."
Until she stood upon the ship's wooden deck and looked out upon the sea's glass-smooth surface, Bilqis had remained the queen, had refused to listen to her own longing heart. Always, always since she was ten years old, always she had obeyed the dictates of duty. Duty to blood, duty to land, duty to temple. Never had she wavered from that narrow pathway; never had she hesitated over a choice.
Duty, always duty. Such devotion had not come easily to her; she had been the youngest of three royal daughters, late-born, a true love-child, born to the man her mother had taken only for pleasure. Born when her two sisters were already women grown.
She had been the favored child, the indulged and pampered child. The daughter my mother could claim as all her own. The daughter who could choose her own way in life. The eldest for the throne and the second for the temple, and the youngest--the youngest for freedom.
Such indulgence had seemed safe enough; her mother's duty to land and to heaven had been done. Both her sisters had already chosen consorts, already begotten children for Sheba. Indeed, her eldest sister had already bestowed two girls upon the royal family. The ancient line of queen's blood assured, her mother had taken pure joy in her last-born daughter, rearing her with all the liberty any Sheban child might know. Chains bound her sisters, invisible bonds of tradition and honor--
"But you, my Bilqis--you will fly where the winds blow wild, swim where the sea swirls high. The Sun of our Days has promised you a bright life, a life that shines forever, shines like the Morning Star--"
But her mother had been wrong. Plague had swept over Sheba, death on silent wings. And when those dark wings lifted, her sisters and their children lay dead, and all that remained of the bloodline of the ancient queens was a ten-year-old girl. Between sunset and sunrise, death bequeathed Bilqis an unsought crown.
"You are my heir now." Her mother's words fell flat against her ears, like blows. "You must learn new skills and put away old. And I--I must--" Her motherhad not finished; her words faltered and she fell silent. But Bilqis knew life had forever altered. Wild winds could not carry one bound to earth by a crown's weight.
From that moment, she no longer ran free; duty lay before her, and she had accepted the burden. As had her mother; a queen with only one heir to offer the land placed the future at risk. So, despite her age, Bilqis's mother had devoted herself to conceiving another daughter--a hard task and one that, in the end, cost her life.
But she succeeded in providing a sister to Bilqis. Sahjahira. In duty and love, Bilqis had raised Sahjahira to womanhood, only to see her younger sister, in her turn, die in the attempt to grant Sheba a daughter.
My poor 'hira. She did her best--as did I. For as soon as permitted, Bilqis had chosen a consort and striven to create security for Sheba, daughters for the crown. Daughters she had conceived and borne--only to watch them die before they cut their first teeth. Only Ilat Herself knew what it had cost Bilqis to persevere, what deep unhealed scars marred her heart. But she endured and persisted, and at last she had borne a daughter who cut her teeth, and walked, and learned to say "Mother."
Allit. Oh, my dear child--
Allit, born of a full moon spent at the Temple, of a father never known. Goddess-child, golden and perfect; reared to follow proudly in the footsteps of all the queens before her. She, too, had enslaved herself willingly to her duty--
More willingly than I wished to let her. Fearful, Bilqis had been reluctant to permit her only daughter to take a consort, to risk herself in childbirth. But she had consented at last, forced to bow to necessity. "For how will you ever have a granddaughter, Mother, if I never bear a daughter? You worry too much over me; trust Ilat, as I do."
Allit had lived and died in that trust; Bilqis had sat beside her, holding her hand, as Allit's life bled away, and lied to ensure her daughter's faith never wavered.
"Don't cry, Mother. I've given Sheba a girl. I told you to trust our Lady Ilat," Allit's fingers squeezed hers, a pressure soft as a butterfly landing upon a flower. "Is she all right?"
Bilqis smiled at her daughter. "Yes." She bent and kissed Allit's cold forehead. "Your daughter is perfect, Allit. Perfect."
"I knew she would be. Baalit ... my goddess-child. Sheba's queen, Mother ... ."
Allit died never knowing her newborn daughter had gone before her into the night beyond the sunset. Bilqis prayed that Allit's shade would forgive her for the lie.
With Allit dead, only two remained who carried the royal blood of Sheba in their veins: Sahjahira's son, Rahbarin--and Bilqis herself
We hold the future in trust, Rahbarin and I. We will not fail those who will come after. So Bilqis had vowed.
But now, as she stared out over the slow rise and swell of the pale green water, a weight seemed to lift from her heart. As if the waves wash away my years, the sea-wind blows away my burdens. For the first time in many years, she permitted herself to remember her dream as a girl: To wander the wide world, seeking wisdom--
But duty had bound her; she had set such girlish hopes aside, locked them deep within her heart as she had laid her toys within a wooden chest and closed the lid upon them. And now, at last, she had been bidden to unlock her heart and follow her long-buried desire.
So much water. So much sky. Stare at either--sea or sky--for long and the eyes dazzled, the mind shattered into a myriad jeweled infinities.
So much sky. So much water. So much temptation. But always she dragged herself back from the edge of the abyss; sea or sky enticed, promised sweet unending rest, in vain. I cannot. Whatever temptation lay before her, she must cleave to her covenant with her land and her people. I am their mother, their queen. I cannot abandon them. I must give them their next queen; their future. Without a queen to come after me, what is Sheba? Nothing! Another kingdom of the weak, prey to those who watch with greedy eyes.
For the Land Beyond the Morning, the Kingdom of Spices, was a prize beyond the riches of kings. Only strength kept that prize safe. Let but a single crack show in the wall that kept out the world, and Sheba's treasures would be ravaged by the fierce, the savage.
A hundred generations of queens have not held Sheba safe only to lose all through my weakness. No matter what I must do--
No matter what she must do to bring the next queen to Sheba's throne, she would do it.
I do not care what I must do; if I must walk barefoot to the world's end; if I must humble myself before King Solomon and all his court; if I must lie to my people and my gods. Whatever the test, that I will do.
She would pay the price for Sheba's future without flinching. She would live without love, without joy, without hope. She would pay with her life, if that were the sacrifice she must make. Only one thing was unthinkable, only one fate unendurable.
WISDOM'S DAUGHTER. Copyright © 2004 by India Edghill. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.