Started the next historical novel today. It's about Zenobia, but I still don't have a title for it! Anyway, here's the first draft of the first chapter if you want to check it out. Enjoy!
Chapter 1: Purple
The season had changed, and life with it. This was the time when winds came from the east, from Persia, from India beyond, slow and languid and heavy with the odors of spice: the bitter taste of golpar, the bright bloom of coriander; saffron and peppercorn; the low earthy hum of rose. Cinnamon, sweet and compelling as a lover’s voice. These were the odors of wealth, of gold – which was also the odor of blood.
Zenobia leaned across the stone sill of the narrow window, drinking in the scent of spice and change. Her deep breaths calmed the pounding of her heart and warded the sting of tears away from her eyes. She concentrated on the wind, its fragrance of fortune and its tang of power, so that she would not hear the weeping in her father’s palace.
In the baking sun, Palmyra was redolent with the smell of brick, the bones of the city – the hot white fastness of limestone from the fine homes of the merchants, the dry yellow clay blocks that made up the warehouses and market shops and the humble huts crowded along avenues and splaying from the edges of the city like the fringe of a dropped shawl. The heat of the day, reflecting from the carved and painted bricks of Palmyra, beat upon Zenobia’s face, while her father’s store room was dark and cool at her back. Her fingers trailed a length of Serican silk. It was as light and fine as the evening vapors that drifted above the Euphrates, and it reached from the window’s pool of light back into the store room’s dimness, coiling itself like a snake inside the cedar chest where Zenobia had found it.
She rubbed the silk between her fingers, wondering absently at its slippery smoothness while the crying in the palace doubled. Word was spreading among the servants. It pushed out from the mistress’s chambers like ripples in a cistern – out from the place where Zenobia’s mother and sisters keened a grief which was not unexpected, but cut deeply all the same.
“Our good master,” a man’s voice moaned from somewhere in the walled garden. “Cut down by the Tanukh – for shame, for shame!”
“Dead,” a woman’s voice called from a lower chamber. Her voice floated up toward the store-room window like the cry of an evening bird. “Zabbai, dead!”
Zabbai. The sound of her father’s name shattered Zenobia’s studied calm. She turned quickly from the sill, jerking the streamer of silk behind her back so her hot, heavy tears would not mar it as they fell.
Zabbai was not his true name, of course. He was ’Amr Ibn Zarib, sheikh of the ’Amlaqi tribe. But everyone in the city of Palmyra, from the wealthy merchants to the brawling caravan guards, referred to him affectionately as Zabbai. Even his daughters and his wife called him Zabbai, and he was more loved than ever a father or husband had been.
It was no great shock to learn that the Tanukh tribe had done for Zabbai at last. Jadhima, the sheikh of the Tanukh, had hated Zabbai for years, ever since Palmyra’s governor had raised Zabbai to great favor. Zabbai had been granted not only the fine palace where his family now dwelt, but oversight of the river of wealth that coursed through Palmyra. Jadhima and his tribe – scraping, howling animals of the desert that they were – coveted the goods that flowed down the Silk Road and the other routes of distant trade. The Tanukh wanted for their own the fine cloth of Seres, the spices and precious stones that crossed the burning dunes in single file, the endless casks and bundles of riches strapped to the swaying humps of dromedaries.
Under Zabbai’s rule, the ’Amlaqi thwarted Tanukh ambition. For though Zabbai, with his full gray beard and long-sleeved tunic, was an Arab to any eye that looked upon him, the grandfather of his grandfather had been the great Antiochus IV Epiphanes, companion to Alexander the Great and father of the Seleucid Empire. Zabbai’s roots among the ’Amlaqi had made him a great trader, cunning and hardy, at home in the desert where the dry sands and harsh sun had darkened his olive skin to the burnished brown of worn cedar, and carved into his face the deep traces of his ready smile. But Zabbai’s Seleucid heritage had given him a certain erudite grandness, and a respect for all things civilized and orderly and fine.
It was his Seleucid blood that had compelled Zabbai to stand in the path of the Tanukh, for Jadhima hungered after chaos and wild fear. Only in chaos could such an uncivilized creature hope to reign – and Zabbai would not suffer glorious Palmyra to fall into that sorry state.
Zenobia could hardly recall a time when the Tanukh had not threatened Palmyra – had not threatened her father. Even when she was a small child, when Zabbai had been only a merchant-sheikh with his caravans, when he had kept his wife and daughters in a narrow, stuffy mudbrick house that was scarcely more luxurious than a nomad’s tent – even then, Zenobia had known of the threat. Zabbai had hired guards to watch over his three girls as they lugged water from the cisterns to the caravans’ camels. At the evening meal, their mother Berenikë, as splendid as the Egyptian queens from which she claimed descent, would stroke her belly beneath her robes and promise the girls, “Soon I shall give you a brother to protect you from the Tanukh.”
But Berenikë never had produced the promised brother – not one who had lived long enough to walk upon his own little feet. Zabbai had buried three baby boys, one for each of the daughters who lived and thrived. And now he would go into his tomb without a son to carry on his legacy.
Zenobia pressed a palm against her chest, as if she might push back the sobs that grew there. The cries of the household servants rebounded from the garden walls. She twisted the length of silk around her fist and steadied herself in the darkness of the store room, for through its door she could hear footsteps approaching: two sets of feet, light and sure in their step, and just before the door swung open she heard a sniffle, a feminine sigh.
Her sisters entered the store room with a flash of light that bounced off the adjoining hallway’s mirrors. Zenobia blinked in the sudden dazzle and wiped the last of her tears from her cheeks.
“Where have you been?” Nafsha demanded. Her eyes were red from weeping, but the eldest of Zabbai’s daughters was impeccable in appearance, now as always, with a saffron silk veil falling in precise pleats from the flat top of her turban to the middle of her back. The brilliant blue wrapping of the turban could just be seen, peeking out from the wealth of medallions and chains that adorned it. Nafsha’s robe, the same sun-gold hue of her veil, was exactly as loose about the shoulders as fashion demanded, cinched tight below the breasts with a blue sash bearing a carved plaque of Egyptian electrum.
Zabibah, the second-born, was disheveled in her sorrow. Her face was pink and swollen, and she swiped at her fine, sharp nose with the back of one hand as she sniffed. She had cast her turban and veil aside; thick waves of deep brown hair streamed about her shoulders, tangled here and there with a thin golden chain or a strand of tiny seed pearls, as if she had torn at her lush ornaments in a fit of grief.
Zenobia’s fist tightened around the silk. “I have been here.”
“Here?” Nafsha said, glancing around at the stacked trunks of imported goods and the unlit lamps. “In the darkness, all morning? Don’t you know what has happened?”
Zabibah pressed her hands to her face and moaned.
“Of course I do,” Zenobia said calmly. “Father has been killed.”
Zabibah seized locks of her own hair as if she might tear them from her scalp, but she only swayed, eyes closed, her hands trembling like a boy’s on the lead rope of an unruly camel.
“How does Mother take the news?” Zenobia asked.
“Terribly,” said Nafsha. “The moment we heard, she threw herself onto her bed and wailed, and none of us can persuade her to get up.”
“Leave her be,” Zenobia said quietly. “She will come around with time. After all, it is nothing more than we expected. Father is not a young man any longer.” Was, not is. Zabbai was gone now – he would forever belong to the past. She resisted the urge to press her welling sorrow away again, and left her hands hanging at her sides, hidden in the flowing skirt of her rose-colored robe. “Each time he rode out to meet the threat of the Tanukh, for so many years, we feared he would not come home again.”
“Yes,” Nafsha snapped, “but he always did come home.” She rounded on Zabibah, whose face had crumpled, and who had begun to make a thin, wavering sound in the back of her throat. “Stop now,” Nafsha said brusquely. She reached up to untangle Zabibah’s hands from her own hair. “Enough of your crying. It does none of us any good.”
“You cried, too,” Zabibah protested.
“Yes, but not any longer. There is work to be done. Pull yourself together, Zabibah; there’s a good girl.”
Dull curiosity shouldered through Zenobia’s grief. She eyed her eldest sister, half-suspicious. “What work?”
“It was no mistake that Jadhima attacked that caravan while the Governor of Palmyra was on the Sasanid front. He knew Father would rush out to defend the traders – he always does. Always did.”
Zabibah whimpered again, but subsided when Nafsha cut her a stern glare.
“It would have taken only one lucky blow to bring the great Zabbai down,” Nafsha went on, less harshly now. Even she, matter-of-fact as she was, lowered her lashes in sadness.
“Do you think the Tankuh will actually attack Palmyra?”
“Why else have they wanted to kill Father for so long? Get rid of the sheikh, and the whole tribe of ’Amlaqi will be in disarray – at least for a short while, until we sort out who’s to lead next.”
Zenobia considered what she knew of tribal politics. “The next sheikh ought to be…”
“Antiochus. My husband. I am Zabbai’s eldest child, so my husband will be the next to rule. Assuming…”
Great gods, Zenobia scolded herself, her face heating in sudden shame. I did not even ask how their husbands fared in the battle. “Is Antiochus well? I pray it is so. And your husband, Zabibah – have you any word of Wakat?”
“We’ve no word yet,” Nafsha said. Her face was pale and grim. When she spoke again, there was a distinct barb in her words. “But it is good of you to ask.”
“Ah – I who have refused to marry. Are we to have that argument again, Nafsha, even now, as our father is carried toward his tomb?”
“If you had married when Father wanted you to, the ’Amlaqi and Palmyra would both be safer now.”
“Safer?” Zenobia could not help but laugh, even if it was a short, sharp, bitter sound. “How? How can the well-being of the desert’s greatest tribe and the finest, richest city in all the world depend on the wedding of one seventeen-year-old girl?”
“You are not a girl, Zenobia. You are a woman of marriageable age, and yet you scorned every suitor Father brought before you.”
“They were all beneath me.”
“Any match Father had presented to you would have done nicely. Zabbai was no fool. If you had a husband, the tribe would still pass without pause or conflict to a new sheikh, even if Zabibah and I were both made widows this very morning.”
Zabibah gasped, but Nafsha’s words trampled on like horses cut loose from a chariot. “And do you forget that you are the daughter of a caravan merchant? What sort of husband are you holding out for, Zenobia – the Emperor of Rome?”
“I am the daughter of ’Amr Ibn Zarib, the greatest sheikh of the greatest tribe of the greatest city in the whole of the world. I am descended of the Seleucids, and of the Empress Julia Domna, and of Cleopatra and Queen Dido.”
Nafsha snorted. “Do you still believe Mother’s tales? If she were truly the great-great-granddaughter of Cleopatra, why would she have wedded a camel handler with sand in his beard?”
“Look around you, Nafsha. We live in a palace – a palace Father earned by his own greatness.”
“And what of it? I still remember hauling water for the caravans. I remember the blisters on my hands from the weight of the buckets. I remember the stink of camel shit beneath my feet. And yet you forget where we came from. How pleasant it must be for you, to have such an agreeably selective memory.”
“What does it matter where we came from? We are here now, and I will not marry below my station.”
“While you swoon over your imagined station, the Tanukh gather in the desert. They eye our city – defenseless, with the leaderless ’Amlaqi and the Governor far away – like a jackal eyes an injured lamb.”
To Zenobia’s surprise, Zabibah laid a hand on Nafsha’s arm. Zabibah had composed herself – a rare occurrence during the best of times – and looked between her sisters with earnestness in her dark eyes. “Please don’t scold, Nafsha. It’s only your anger and fear that make you so harsh. We must come together today as grieving sisters, not poke at one another’s pride. Even if Zenobia had a husband, what could she do about the Tanukh and the ’Amlaqi? After all, she is only a girl of seventeen.”
An especially loud wail of mourning rang from somewhere close by. Zenobia started at the sound, and the long swath of silk fluttered beside her skirt. Nafsha’s eyes locked on the sudden movement and stared.
“What is that?”
Zenobia lifted her fist until the light falling through the store-room window pierced the fabric. The silk seemed to ignite in the sun, bursting into a bright, shimmering glow. She saw – she had not noticed before, as she rummaged through Zabbai’s storage chests, blinded by sorrow – that it was dyed imperial purple. The color was as deep as the skin of a ripe fig, and yet as vibrant as a polished mirror. As she stared at the purple silk, the plight of Palmyra seemed to unfold before her, spreading itself to the brilliance of her understanding like a jasmine bloom opening to the sun.
Indeed, Nafsha was right: the Tanukh had not timed their attack frivolously. The Governor was gone. Valerian, current Emperor of Rome, had allowed himself to be captured by the Sasanids. Zenobia’s mouth tightened in scorn. Count on a Roman Emperor to achieve such a pinnacle of folly. There had been a proliferation of Roman Emperors in recent decades, none of them strong enough to rule an empire.
But the Palmyrene Governor was ever faithful, and had sent gifts to the Sasanid emperor, hoping to buy Valerian free with the wealth of Palmyra. Shapur the Sasanid had spurned Palmyra’s gifts – Sasanids were a haughty and ungrateful lot – and the incensed Governor had struck out to free Valerian by his own sword.
A man who is as erudite and fine as a Seleucid, and as brave, as able as an ’Amlaqi. That is the man I shall wed – a man as great as my father.
The Tanukh were a real, immediate threat. Zenobia saw that clearly now, tearing away the veil of her sorrow. If they could, they would fall upon Palmyra while the city was weak and helpless, and rape Palmyra of every bright and good thing she possessed. The Tanukh would scatter her worth across the desert sands, dissipate her culture until there was nothing left of it. Only a man of refinement and ferocity could keep the Tanukh at bay. And neither of her sisters’ husbands was the equal of Zabbai – of that, Zenobia was certain.
The gods kept me apart, she thought, dizzied by the realization. I have been saved for just the right bridegroom – I have been saved that I might defend Palmyra, as my father defended her.
“What is that?” Nafsha said again, advancing a step into the store room. “What are you holding?”
Zenobia gave the silk one great pull. It snaked from the cedar chest and lifted in the air, a drifting ribbon of purple fire. Her sisters gasped at the color. The richness and rarity of the dye made the silk a treasure almost beyond value.
She caught and stretched the purple length in her two hands as it floated down before her face.
“It is my bridal wealth,” she said, and winding the silk in her arms, she brushed past Nafsha’s red-eyed fury and Zabibah’s delicate grief toward her own chamber, trailing purple down the halls of her father’s palace.