Read Lilah Online

Authors: Marek Halter

Lilah (8 page)

Regret overwhelmed her now. Aunt Sarah had been right. She had lacked courage when she had seen Ezra. At the first sign of his anger against Antinoes, she had fallen silent. She had broken her promise.

What would she say to her lover when they met again? ‘Be patient. Be patient a while longer . . .'

‘I've been patient for so long already,' he would reply.

Was he asleep at the moment, or awake, like her, his mind in turmoil? Was he up there on the tower, trying to glimpse her through the darkness?

She smiled at her own childishness.

‘Lilah . . .'

The whisper made her jump. She turned, heart pounding.

She could see nothing but the blackness of night.

‘Don't be afraid, Lilah. It's only me.'

She recognized Axatria's voice. A shadowy figure took shape beside her. ‘Axatria, what are you doing here?'

‘I didn't mean to frighten you.'

‘Why aren't you asleep?'

Axatria gave a tender little laugh and took her hand. ‘For the same reason as you.' She lifted their joined hands and pressed them to her cheek, which Lilah realized was damp with tears.

‘Why are you crying?'

‘I've been telling myself I was silly and that I ought to ask your forgiveness.'

‘What have I to forgive you?'

‘My foolishness. My ill-temper. Our quarrel this
morning. I thought of joining you in your bedchamber because I knew you wouldn't be sleeping, but . . .'

Lilah embraced her. ‘I forgive you, Axatria. Of course I forgive you.'

Axatria pushed her away gently, sighed, and wiped her tears with a corner of her tunic. ‘I'm afraid.'

‘Of what?'

‘If you quarrel with Ezra, what's to become of me?'

‘Axatria . . .'

‘Lilah, Antinoes came back to marry you, and because of that, you're going to quarrel with Ezra.'

Lilah looked out at the darkness and said nothing.

‘Ezra will never agree to your becoming Antinoes' wife, and if you marry him without his blessing, he'll never see you again. You won't be his sister any more.'

‘How can you be so sure? Did he tell you that?'

‘There's no need. You know very well that's how it'll be.'

Far away in the royal city, dogs barked. The sound of a horn or a flute rose in the darkness. Then the wind carried away the echo. In some houses the night was a celebration . . .

‘Ezra can't live without you,' Axatria sighed,
‘but he'd rather not see you than share you with Antinoes.'

Lilah knew Axatria was right: she had put into words exactly what Lilah dreaded. ‘Antinoes can't live without me either,' she replied in a low voice. ‘He tells me I protect him in battle.'

Axatria nodded. ‘I believe him.'

Axatria squeezed Lilah's hand until it hurt. They were so close, Lilah could feel Axatria's body shaking with sobs, even though Axatria was trying to control them as best she could.

‘You'll have to choose Antinoes. You're too beautiful and proud to remain in your brother's shadow. But if Ezra won't see you, he won't want to see me either.'

Lilah braced herself not to yield to Axatria's contagious emotion. ‘Nothing has been decided.'

‘I'll lose the little Ezra gives me,' Axatria continued, as if she hadn't heard. ‘I'll lose everything. But who could blame him? He's doing what he thinks is right – that's all he thinks about, doing what is right. He studies to be a just man, listens to Master Baruch. Everything he says and does is in a spirit of justice. He even believes he's right to be jealous of Antinoes. In the law he studies, a Persian cannot marry a daughter of the land of Judaea.'

‘Nothing has been decided,' Lilah repeated, more firmly. ‘We must trust in the Everlasting.'

‘You can! He's your God. But what about me? Shall I make offerings to Ahura Mazda, Anahita or Mithras? I love to hear Ezra talk about the God of heaven. But I'm not Jewish. I have no god and no country. I'm just a handmaid from the Zagros mountains who loves her master – even if he hardly looks at her, which your aunt finds so amusing . . .'

‘Axatria!' Lilah took the handmaid's face in her hands to silence her. ‘Axatria, nothing has been said or done. You, too, must be patient.'

The sun was already high when a loud knocking was heard at the gate of Mordechai's house. Two servants ran to it, grumbling, ready to turn away an impatient customer.

No sooner had they raised the beam that kept the gate shut than it was thrust open from the outside, and a dozen soldiers rushed into the courtyard. They carried spears and wore felt helmets with red plumes, leather breastplates and baldrics decorated with black tassels that held straight daggers. In the workshop, Sarah gave a cry of terror.

The weavers broke off from their work and crowded behind their mistress. The soldiers lined up in double file. A chariot came through the gate and stopped in front of them in the middle of the courtyard.

Mordechai had heard the noise from his own
workshop and came running from the opposite side, wide-eyed with admiration for the elegance of the horses, the high body of the chariot, its serpentine golden handrail, and the lining of the interior with its blue and yellow geometric pattern. The spokes of the wheels were carved in the shape of leaves and the hubs lined with silver. It was an expensive piece of work, and not from his workshop. The customer had strange tastes, but clearly also the means to indulge them. Mordechai walked forward to welcome the visitors but, before he could even bow, he froze.

The gold carving on the front of the chariot was instantly recognizable: the head of a winged man resting on a sun wheel and surrounded on both sides by winged lions.

The emblem of the King of Kings.

God of heaven!

The man standing behind the driver noticed his astonishment. He made a gesture, and two soldiers moved aside to let Mordechai pass.

‘Come closer,' the man said curtly. He had the round body and soft cheeks of a eunuch. He wore a plaited and oiled shoulder-length wig, and was neither tall nor fat, with a surprisingly withered face, and a small mouth framed, like his eyes, by deep lines. His splendid ochre tunic was itself full of folds and pleats.

Mordechai hesitated. Sarah was coming towards him, her face as white as a sheet. The women had retreated into the workshop, clinging to one another.

The eunuch grunted with impatience and waved his hand again. Mordechai walked up to the chariot with as much dignity as he could muster. When he stopped again, the eunuch was looking him up and down as if he were not sure which species of animal he was dealing with.

‘Are you Mordechai the Jew, son of Azaryah, son of Hilqiyyah, Mordechai the chariot-maker?'

It was less a question than an assertion.

Mordechai was normally an imposing figure: tall, with a narrow, angular face, lively eyes and coal-black eyebrows. There was hardly any situation he was unable to face. But now there was a noticeable quiver of fear in his voice as he replied, ‘Yes, I am Mordechai, son of Azaryah.'

Should he bow? Treat him as if he were a lord of the Citadel?

The soldiers around the chariot waited impassively, and the driver was as still as a statue. Out of the corner of his eye, Mordechai noticed more soldiers at the entrance to the house beside a wagon drawn by two mules.

The eunuch gave a half-smile, which seemed to transform his face into a pool of water shivering in
the wind. ‘My name is Cohapanikes. I am the third cupbearer to the Great Queen, mother of the King of Kings, first master of the world. I have come for your niece Lilah, daughter of Serayah.'

Behind her husband, Sarah let out a cry. Other cries could be heard from the workshop. Mordechai's mouth fell open. He was gasping for breath.

The eunuch seemed pleased with the effect of his words. He raised his arm, which was as smooth and pale as his face, and brandished a cane of Egyptian ebony with an ivory and coral tip. ‘It is the Queen's wish! Obey!'

Mordechai found it hard to take this in. ‘The Queen wants Lilah?' he said in astonishment.

‘Are you deaf? It is an order from Queen Parysatis. Your niece Lilah must follow where I lead.' He laughed again. ‘Don't make that face. The Queen is doing you a great honour, chariot-maker. Come on! Hurry up! The Queen is waiting, and the Queen does not like to be kept waiting.'

Sitting in the wagon, Lilah needed the whole journey across the city to recover her composure.

It had been Axatria and Aunt Sarah who had come running and told her, with much rolling of eyes, about the incredible thing that was happening.

‘But why?' Lilah had asked. ‘What does she want with me?'

There had been a gleam of pride in Sarah's eyes, chasing away the terror they had held a short while earlier. ‘She must have heard of your beauty,' she had suggested. ‘Perhaps she wants you in her service.'

The idea had seemed so preposterous to Lilah that she had stood rooted to the spot.

Panic had seized the household. Axatria had tried to dress Lilah appropriately, but Sarah had pushed her away: nothing was suitable – nothing was beautiful enough – and they did not even have time to rearrange her hair.

‘It's because of Antinoes,' Lilah had said at last.

Axatria and Sarah had looked at each other, all pride and excitement gone from their faces. Axatria had grimaced and shrugged her shoulders. ‘That may be so, but
he
won't tell you that,' she had muttered, gesturing to the outer courtyard where the Queen's eunuch could be heard shouting.

The third cupbearer had brusquely refused the wine Uncle Mordechai had offered him while he waited, then had stormed and threatened until Lilah was ready to come out.

At last he had fallen silent. He had screwed up his eyes, and looked her up and down with the same arrogant expression he had previously used for Mordechai. At last, a smile of satisfaction had creased his flabby face. It was not a reassuring smile.

When Lilah had sat down on the bench in the wagon, Uncle Mordechai had looked at her out of his pale face, begging her with his eyes to be careful. Sarah had lifted a trembling hand, tears already down to her chin. Axatria and the handmaids and workers who had gathered by the gate stared at her as if they would never see her again.

The third cupbearer had given the order to depart. The wagon had set off, and Lilah had closed her eyes, trying not to think of what might await her.

Their procession attracted attention as it passed through the streets. Two soldiers ran in front of the third cupbearer's chariot, and the wagon followed, surrounded by the other soldiers.

They had turned on to the royal road, which was so wide that twenty horse-drawn chariots could have passed along it side by side. It started at the southern ramparts of the upper town, crossed into the royal city through a gate surmounted by two huge towers, and ended at the foot of the Citadel. It was straight, lined with trees and rosebushes, and the middle was paved with pink and white marble tiles, as perfect as a woven carpet. Only royal chariots and soldiers during processions, on feast days or when the King of Kings was on the move, were allowed to use it.

A horn blared as they approached the towers of blue-glazed bricks decorated with hundreds of winged lions. Without slowing, they passed through the wall into the royal city. As they did so, Lilah glimpsed rows of guards stationed in front of the two huge leaves of the gate with their bronze carvings.

The cloudy grey light returned as they came out on the other side. The soldiers were running by the sides of the chariot and the wagon stopped, and they were replaced by four horsemen in long tunics who took up position beside the chariot.

The royal way continued, as straight as ever, lined now with coloured walls – ochre, yellow and blue – surmounted by square, crenellated towers. No one walked here, and there were no signs of everyday life. Lilah soon lost her bearings. The walls were so high that they even concealed the cliffs of the Citadel.

The procession veered right abruptly, turning from the royal road into a narrower street with lower walls, and Lilah gave a start. The flights of steps and gigantic walls of the Citadel rose before them, barely half a
stadion
away, closer than she had ever seen them.

She pulled her shawl across her chest. She felt a knot in her throat. Her astonishment and curiosity turned to fear. There were more gates, arches and
courtyards. At last, they entered a huge garden. From here, Lilah could see the ceramic friezes and the multitude of characters decorating the steps leading up to the Citadel.

To her surprise, their escort turned left, away from the Citadel walls, and they entered a copse of pines, palms and cedars. The east bank of the Shaour appeared between the tree trunks. The wheels of the vehicles and the hooves of the horses again echoed on flagstones. In front of them rose a huge palace, built on a terrace at a lower level than the river. The windowless outside wall of white bricks stretched as far as the river's east bank. It had only one gate, coloured scarlet, which opened as the party approached, leaving them just enough time to pass before it closed again with a muffled sound.

The horsemen, the chariot and the wagon came to a halt in a long, narrow courtyard, lined with cowsheds and water tanks. Beyond a porch and a metal gate, Lilah made out a series of smaller courtyards, arches, colonnades and patios. Servants approached, all dressed in green and purple striped tunics. Their smooth cheeks and short hair indicated that they were eunuchs.

The third cupbearer got down from his chariot. ‘Take her to the cleansing room,' he ordered, without looking at Lilah. ‘She needs to be ready as soon as the Queen has finished her meal.'

Lilah could not help recalling the rumours that circulated about Queen Parysatis, stories that, once heard, could not easily be forgotten, of the kind that people whispered to each other, fearing the very words they were speaking.

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