Chapter 9: The Ashes of Eden
“Some of it I witnessed first hand” Alexandra began. “Some I read later in my father’s diary, but it all seems like a dream now.” Alexandra’s voice trailed as her eyes became lost in thought. “I used to ride into the city in a flowing gown on my white charger. I knew every street and alley, but things changed and like many evil things, the seed of it was greed.”
King Braeden watched on from his balcony as his daughter sparred with Egan below in the castle courtyard. Egan smiled as he helped her hold the wooden sword in the correct manner. She half curtsied and laughed, as she fumbled with the training tabard that bound around her waist and flicked her sword up to nudge him on the chin.
“She’s enjoying herself but I wonder if diplomacy wouldn’t be a more appropriate skill to master, my Lord.” The Vizier said and nodded as Braeden turned to him.
“She’d need to learn to patience first, I think.” Braeden waved off the counselor. “I’ll not begrudge her some sport. The weight of the bureaucracy will be on her back soon enough.” Braeden turned from the balcony to his desk. Half buried under a pile of scrolls lay his sheathed sword. Braeden brushed the documents aside as he lifted the scabbard and weapon like it was made of glass. He partially pulled the hilt out and let his eyes scan the ancient letters chiseled into the base of the blade. “For now, let her imagine her problems can be vanquished so easily.”
“True, Sire. Speaking of problems at hand, I have our latest storehouse report.” the vizier placed his hand on the King’s arm and Braeden sheathed the sword once again. “I’m sorry to say things have not improved.” He held out his report.
Braeden took the advisor’s scroll of figures and walked away without a word. The accounting needed no explanation. Nine years of famine had left his storehouses empty, his fishing boats rotting on the shore, and his reserves depleted. His people cried out for food and yet Braeden had nothing to give. As he rode through Gilead, he’d seen families begging for bread, and children scrounging after rats.
The following morning King Braeden sat alone in the Great Hall of Judah, the hall of the lion, and looked to the empty throne on his right. Mariam, his wife, would’ve been a succor. Her soft voice would’ve brought some insight, but with the birth of Alexandra, she’d lost her strength and within hours, died.
“Sire,” the vizier’s voice brought Braeden’s attention back. “The envoy to Cormorant has returned.”
“What word? Will our neighbors offer us aid? Can we barter lumber for grain?” Braeden leaned forward. The proposition was a weak one at best, but Gilead had no other allies.
The Vizier studied his expression before speaking. “They no longer wish to support us. Our timber no longer has value to them and our treasury is empty. They say the maker has cursed us, and they don’t want to bring the same trouble to their households.”
Braeden leaned back on his throne. That damn prophecy. Must this old curse still besiege the kingdom?
“Are we not past the days when we huddled around fires and feared every shadow?” Braeden asked. “One man was put to death, however unjustly, over two thousand years ago and yet even now nobles whisper of a coming judgment.”
“I share your sentiment, my lord, yet I have other tidings. We do have an offer, an offer I think you should listen to. A nobleman and his retinue wait at the outer gates. He’s from beyond the western isles and seeks your audience.”
The King’s brow furrowed. Those living beyond Gilead’s western sea were nomads, hunters, and pirates. They worshiped dark gods and in years past had raided his outposts and colonies.
“He has brought a caravan of gifts. Sire, surely you could at least acknowledge his generosity?” The Vizier smiled.
“Call the guards to escort him. I’ll see this man, but he will not have free passage in the city,” King Braeden replied.
Within an hour the grand doors to the throne room opened and a man wearing a gilded cloak was escorted in. His skin was a pale sickly hue and dark bags hung below his small eyes. His sweeping bow was overdone and when he smiled, Braeden saw that his teeth had been filed to that of a wolf’s.
“Great and mighty King Braeden, I bring greetings from the thirteenth house of Talamar. I represent the Amorites. We have heard of your powerful reign and wise leadership, and we bring our . . . adulation.” The man bowed again. He turned towards the doorway and clapped briskly. Thirteen gilded palanquins laden with silver trunks and carried by women in veiled hijabs entered the room. Braeden’s mouth dropped as the servant girls lowered the litters and opened the trunks. Each held piles of gold, diamonds, and precious jewels. “More will come, of course.” The stranger smiled as he gazed at the king.
“What is this thirteenth house that they bring the riches of Solomon to my door?” Braeden asked amazed.
“Your servants, of course. Our ruler would only ask a small boon in return,” the man said, “a small measure to show that we are allies.” His eyes gleamed as his hand ran across the lid of one of the chests, “We ask that your fleet no longer attack our mariners and traders, and you allow us to live peacefully among your people.”
Braeden paused. He feared more was implied in the traveler’s words. “Your mariners have been called cutthroats, your traders, spies.”
“Ignorant terms thrown by those who lack understanding of our ways. We’re no different from you. We simply wish the same liberty that your own citizens enjoy.” The traveler nodded towards the king with respect.
Braeden considered for a moment. Long ago he remembered hearing excerpts from the Logos, some warning of those who bring gifts uncalled for, but times had changed.
“We accept your gift and give you this promise. Our soldiers will not strike your people, as long as they follow our laws.”
“Yes, wonderful,” the stranger said. “I promise you, we will make your laws our own.” He smiled wide, his fangs disquieting Braeden.
“You never mentioned your king. Who rules over this thirteenth house?” he asked. “To whom do we send our thanks for these gifts?”
“Our ruler is but a humble man, of no consequence, but of great means,” the stranger said. “He also offers one more gift, a prize more valuable than all the treasures of Sheba . . . his daughter.”
The stranger clapped again and a litter carried by four male servants was brought into the hall from beyond the great doors. A woman sat atop it. Her face was concealed by a hijab but the burka she wore reflected rows of inset emeralds, sapphires, and rubies. The litter was lowered before the king, and she stood, stepped away from her seat, and walked forward. She unveiled her hijab and allowed her gown to slip off her shoulders to puddle around her feet. Her amber eyes locked onto the king’s and her flawless sun-kissed skin gleamed in the torchlight of the hall. She wore a silk camisole and skirt, both laden with fine diamonds, and her flaxen hair shined as she moved her hips seductively.
“She is skilled in all the arts of nobility and medicine and she will be an asset to your home,” the stranger said.
“I’m honored to serve you,” the woman said as she bowed low. How have we overlooked these people? Why have we never embraced them? Braeden sat enthralled.
“What is your name, my lady?” he asked as he stood and lowered his hand to her.
“Mariselle,” she said and looked up into his eyes as she took his hand.
Braeden felt a near-forgotten hunger grow in him.
“I leave you in peace,” the stranger said and turned from the king. Both the guards and vizier noticed the man didn’t bother to bow before he left. All in the room noticed, except the king himself.
“Five years passed,” Alexandra said. “The gifts came in and our land thrived . . . for a while.”
“There was food though, right?” Colin asked. “And peace, I mean, they kept their word. What was the problem?”
“Yes, with our new wealth we were able to import the sustenance our people needed until the famine ended, but we became entranced by their gold and were seduced by their lies,” Alexandra said. “The strange man never came again, but messengers brought more chests of treasure, and demands, always more demands.”
Braeden came up behind Alexandra and hugged her. “Why does my daughter grieve?” he asked, as she stared from the castle’s balcony, over the courtyard, and toward Gilead’s marketplace. He released her and turned her around to face him.
“Do you know they’ve disrupted Helen’s wedding?” Alexandra said, her eyes red with tears. “They mobbed her and the priest as they entered the southern temple, tore her dress, and ripped his robe because he refuses to teach from their books. I don’t care what promises you made them, how can they do that? How is that right?”
“Helen? Your handmaiden?” Braeden asked.
“Yes,” she said. “These Amorites attack anyone who stands outside of their conviction. They’re zealots acting like martyrs.”
“They would no doubt say the same of our holy men,” he replied. “What is important now is understanding, more than anything. Who can say what teachings are right or wrong these days? We must let go of archaic words that keep us bound to small-minded thinking.”
“Did that, that woman convince you of that?” Alexandra replied, then turned and walked back into the King’s chambers.
Braeden followed her. “Alexandra, Mariselle is my heart’s desire. She’s given me such joy since your mother passed away. I mourned your mother, as is the custom, for years now. It’s time I move on. Mariselle has been patient and asked for so little.”
“Do you think the mob will ambush your wedding tomorrow as well? Will they tear Mariselle’s dress?”
“The people will rejoice tomorrow. I’ve made concessions to ensure it,” Braeden said.
“Concessions?” Alexandra asked.
“Her father’s dowry was promised to be doubled if we married in the customs of her people.”
Alexandra’s mouth dropped. She looked around the room until her gaze fell on the King’s sword, still sheathed and cast on the floor. She walked to it and lifted it to his desk. Her eyes ran across the broken leather strapping of the scabbard.
Braeden sighed. She’s young and brash . . . so full of passion, and rage. “Alexandra,” Braeden said, “you are royalty. You must control your emotions.”
Alexandra wiped tears from her eyes. Braeden took a breath and steadied his frustration. He walked around the desk and sat before his daughter. Her eyes refused to meet his, instead dancing across the sheathed weapon.
“It will be yours one day. When I’m sent on my final voyage, my name will be etched into the blade next to those who came before, and you’ll carry it by your side.”
“You don’t carry it now. Why should I bother?”
Braeden shook his head, her words stung. “You’re right. Teacht Riocht has been in our family for generations. It’s fitting I give it the respect due.”
Alexandra raised her gaze to meet his. “And the Logos?”
“The Logos scrolls are to be stricken from our temples until their teachings better reflect the will of all our people. The treasures of our temple are to be stored until they can be reshaped into images that envision all gods.”
“So, our teachings will be cast down? Our songs unsung? Our heritage erased?” Alexandra whispered, barely able to speak.
“Alex, you must understand these Amorites are our lifeblood. Their gifts keep our nation alive.” Braeden shook his head, frustrated. “You’re almost an adult now! Near the age where you’ll be courted yourself. You know as well as I the famine decimated our reserves, to this day our crops continue to fail, and barely sustain our people. We struggle to keep our borders free from raiders and the kingdoms to the east! Stop acting like a petulant child! They’re just proverbs and names that can be changed. Words can be redefined, teachings can be altered. All that matters are the concepts behind them.”
“And what of the gifts? I see them less and less with each passing season,” Alexandra replied. “Their coffers bring only a little of what they once did. How many came last month, Father? How grand was the gift this time?”
Braeden looked down. “One chest, with thirty shekels of silver.”
“We’ve sold ourselves for a month’s worth of bread?” she asked, disgusted. “What a poor wage for our souls.”
“You don’t understand . . . you’re being stubborn . . . ” Braeden could not look at her face.
“A lion once dwelt in the hall of Judah.” She shoved his sword towards him. “I wonder if he will ever return?” she turned from him and left the room.
Braeden looked out over the city and feared deep in his heart that she was right.