His Majesty’s Elephant
Once upon a time, the Caliph of Baghdad sends the Emperor Charlemagne a wonderful gift: an elephant named Abul Abbas. That gift brings great magic into the royal court, and a great betrayal. With the help of a stableboy who is more than he seems, and the Elephant himself, the Emperor’s daughter Rowan must learn to master that magic and save her father’s life.
His Majesty’s Elephant was Abul Abbas, gift of the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid to his friend the Emperor Charlemagne. Along with him came many other wonders, including a golden Talisman containing a fragment of the True Cross on which Jesus died. This Talisman was found by Napoleon, tradition says, on the breast of the Emperor in his tomb, and hangs now, a gleam of gold at the end of a long corridor, in the Tau Palace at Rheims.
This much is history.
But suppose that the Talisman was more, and that the Elephant had a part in its magic….
Rowan saw the Elephant the day it came to Aachen. People had been talking about nothing else for days. It was vast, they said, like a rock rising out of the sea, and grey like one too, and its ears were like sails, and its snout like a snake, long and supple. The Caliph had sent it, a gift from the lord of the East to the Emperor of the West, and its coming toward Aachen was like a king’s processional.
It was smaller than she had thought. That was the first thing she noticed. She stood among the princesses, right by the throne under its golden canopy, and watched the dark bearded men in their turbans and their silks, bearing gift after gift from their lord and master. The Elephant was the last. It filled the gate of the hall, a looming shadow; then it was inside, draped in silk and gold, and there were knobs of gold on its tusks. It was a splendid thing, but it was hardly bigger than a peasant’s hut, and as its handlers prodded it down the long aisle, she thought that somehow it looked sad.
Her father stood up to greet the Elephant, which was a mighty honor. It bowed down in front of him. That made him smile under the sweep of his mustache. Some people were afraid of the great strange thing—Gisela had fainted dead away, and the maids were quietly frantic—but the Emperor was delighted with the gift. His voice rang out over the buzz of the court, light and thin for a man so big, but pitched to carry. “Thank our friend and brother,” he said, “and tell him that we shall treasure this most of all the riches he has given.”
The Caliph’s ambassador answered just as graciously. Then he added, “One gift yet remains, a little thing, but the Commander of the Faithful bade me bear it direct from his hand to your majesty’s. His prayers and his blessing lie on it, and his hope that your majesty will cherish it as the gift of brother to brother.”
The Emperor’s brows rose.
This was interesting. Rowan edged closer to the throne.
Her sisters and their women stood in a knot, goggling at the Elephant. Once Rowan was free of them, she took a deep breath and leaned forward a little, the better to see what gift the Caliph sent his friend the Emperor.
The Caliph’s ambassador took something from a fold of his robe, something wrapped in a shimmer of silk. He uncovered it carefully.
They had seen so much gold already: a kingdom’s worth at least. But this was different. It was a pendant, perfectly round, as broad and deep as a child’s palm. There were jewels around the rim, red and green and blue and white; and in the middle, a great cloudy crystal with a flaw in its center.
The Caliph’s man handled it with great respect, never touching it directly, but keeping it nested in the silk. “This,” he said, “is a holy thing, a blessed Talisman set with a splinter of the Prophet Isa’s Cross.”
“The True Cross.” The Emperor’s voice was low, reverent. He held out his hand.
The Caliph’s man hesitated, then set the Talisman in it, still shielded in silk.
The Emperor held it up. His face did not change expression, but Rowan thought she saw him start.
As he held the Talisman, she could see the flaw more clearly. It was a splinter, as the infidel had said, set in the crystal as if it had grown there.
It made her desperately uneasy. She wanted to back away from it. At the same time she wanted to edge closer, to hold it in her hands.
It would be heavy, she knew without knowing how, and smooth, and neither warm nor cold, but something in between. The holiness in it was proper Christian, even if it came from the leader of the infidels, and yet there was more to it than that.
Rowan was used to odd feelings. They came, people kept telling her, with being a woman. But this one was odder than she knew what to do with. She started to melt back among the princesses.
Something made her stop. Her father still had not touched the Talisman with his bare hands. He folded it in its wrapping and tucked it into his sleeve, almost as if he had forgotten about it, except that he remembered to thank the Caliph and the Caliph’s man with proper courtesy.
But that was not what held Rowan still.
The Elephant had stood quietly through the last of the gift-giving. Suddenly it moved, stretching out its long strange snout as if looking for something.
One of its handlers rapped the end with a stick. That must have hurt. The Elephant curled its trunk under its chin and flattened its ears. It was not submitting, though maybe its handlers thought so. The eye that Rowan could see was wise and sad, and said as clearly as words, that the Elephant bided its time.
“They say it will live three hundred years,” Rowan said to her mother.
Her mother was dead, which made it easier to talk to her, because one could do it anywhere, but harder too, because then one had to explain what one was doing.
Which was why Rowan was kneeling in the little chapel beside the women’s hall, her head bowed devoutly over her folded hands and her voice lowered to a mumble. The stone floor was hard under her knees. She could hear her sisters and their ladies chattering in the hall, sounding like a flock of magpies.
“It is the most amazing thing,” Rowan went on. Sometimes she liked to imagine that the wooden Virgin beside the altar was her mother. Her mother had been beautiful like that, but never so mild. “It looked so sad, and so wise. I wonder what it was thinking?”
Probably it was homesick, said the voice in Rowan’s head that might be her own, but then again might be her mother’s. It was something, that was all she knew, that felt like a woman, with a woman’s solid common sense, but warmth too, and something that felt like affection.
She could not see any shape to go with it, either spirit-form or earthly flesh. But whatever it was, it knew about homesickness. Heaven was all very well, but one missed one’s kin.
“I shouldn’t miss them,” Rowan said with sudden temper. “I should like to go as far away as the moon. Then I wouldn’t have to listen to Rothaide. She was at me this morning again, about how she might be a concubine’s daughter, but I’m born of a witch. She said that, Mother, right to my face. I hit her. It wasn’t womanly, I know it wasn’t. Men are the ones who do all the hitting. But I had to do it. Rothaide is always saying dreadful things about everybody, but she isn’t going to say them about you.”
And what if what Rothaide said was true?
Rowan forgot to keep her head down. She glared at the gentle somber Virgin who after all looked nothing like her fierce gold-and-white mother. “You were not a witch! You were a queen. You didn’t let people forget that. Some of them don’t forgive.”
Including Rothaide, the concubine’s child. Bitter, beautiful Rothaide, with her terrible tongue.
“Oh,” said Rowan, letting her head droop forward again. She was not going to weep. She had given up weeping. But her throat was tight. “Mother, I wish you hadn’t died. You would know why I’m in such a tangle. You wouldn’t smile the way the others do, and nod, and talk oh so wisely about how a child becomes a woman. I don’t want to be a child. I don’t want to be a woman either, or a princess. I want to be just Rowan.”
And was Rowan not Rowan already?
“I mean all the time,” said Rowan. “Not just when I’m riding my pony or talking to you.”
But everyone had to be more than one’s simple self. Particularly if one was a princess, and meant for the great things of the world.
“If Father would ever let any of us out of his sight,” said Rowan. “He keeps us like birds in an aviary. We can have anything we want, do anything we please—except fly away.”
And did she want to?
Rowan stood up. Her knees were stiff. The women were quieter now: one of them was telling a story. Rowan loved stories, but not today. Not with a whole live Elephant to think of.
She was running away from her mother’s relentless good sense, she knew that very well. But some things she was not ready to face.
She remembered to cross herself, in case anyone was looking. No one was. She tucked up her skirts and made sure her braids were wound tight about her head and her veil secure over them, and set off toward the stable.
What happens next?