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The Lion’s Roar

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And so the lion of the east and the rowan of the north
Were wed at the heart of the world, in Havnor
The Song of the Rowan

The feasting was over, the last of the wedding guests had set sail and Lebannen felt a weight lift from his heart that he’d hardly known was there. The wedding of king and princess lay behind them: the joys of marriage, of being man and wife, stretched ahead. And joyful it was—for the first month or so. When his wife began to look tired in the mornings, and her cream skin faded to the colour of clouds, Lebannen put it down to her being with child. He waited for her to say something, and felt hurt, just a little, as the days passed and she said nothing. Not for the first time, he wished for the council of his mother, dead these two years now. Then he remembered the last piece of advice Tenar had given him before she’d gone back to Gont. ‘Never let shame spoil your happiness,’ she’d said.

So one morning, when his wife joined him over his breakfast bread and milk for the first time in a week, he asked, as plainly as he could, ‘Is there some news you want to tell me, my love? Good news, perhaps?’ But Tenar had not prepared him for the roar he got in response, and he went off to the first of his day’s meetings feeling as if he’d been mauled by a lion.

‘You’ve got to take account of the differences in culture,’ said Prince Sege, who read his king’s moods like an eagle reads the air currents on the mountain. ‘The queen was brought up in the desert. Great Port must seem very strange to her.’

Tosla put it more bluntly. ‘Honeymoon worn off already,’ he said. ‘Don’t say I didn’t warn you.’

But bluntest of all was Lady Iyesa, who cornered the king in a corridor one day when the second hour was told, and favoured him with her opinions. ‘What’s this I hear? That Kargish queen of yours missed today’s lunch engagement with the retiring councillors’ wives. I don’t blame the girl for that, they’re dull as donkeys, and they bray quite as loudly. But that fool Opal says she’s sobbing in her closet and won’t come out. Morred help us all if you’ve managed to fall out after six weeks of marriage, and before she’s even got an heir.’ Lebannen had clung tight to his hope, and his dismay must have shown on his face. ‘Yes, her courses returned three days ago,’ said the old crone. ‘The laundry maid, of course!’

Tenar had enlightened her king about such matters before the royal marriage, though he had not been so utterly ignorant as she’d thought. It was true, when his previous amours had been indisposed they’d sent polite demurrals via their ladies. It was also true that none of the few who’d been privileged to join him for breakfast had ever thrown their shoes at him, one after the other. Lebannen counted back, and sighed with relief when he understood what lay behind the unsheathing of those fierce claws. He sent his man to the court herbalist with orders to have all the willow bark in the palace stores sent to the ladies-in-waiting for his wife’s ease.

Oak soon returned, but there was none to be had, so it seemed. ‘Unless his majesty would care to strip it himself,’ he said, passing on the herbalist’s words in his irritation at the wasted journey.

Now Oak’s long service and venerable years gave him a licence the king granted to few. Not so the herbalist, whose name he did not even recall. Lebannen had not been so furious in months. Not since the envoys from Kargad had delivered that ridiculous ultimatum. Look how well that had turned out! A wife who shunned his presence, and no heir in sight! He summoned the herbalist and was threatening to have the man put on a ship to Koppish, when he found it was the not-quite-so-foolish Lady Opal who’d been there before him. ‘But one of the queen’s maids has visited at first light every morning for a month or more,’ explained the harried herbalist, who’d heard that the red-fever ran rampant in Koppish every summer, or he might just have upped and left. ‘They all speak of a herb the queen greatly desires. Or perhaps it is a fruit, or a berry, or a seed, or a bean. Their Hardic is a little limited as to botanical terms.’

Lebannen sent Oak to summon his wife’s maids. They wore red veils before him, as his wife the queen did not. ‘She black gold, seyneha?’ said one. ‘A thousand times more precious than, how you call it, the fruit of the vine,’ said another. ‘She grow on the bush, in the mountains,’ explained a third, whose mother came from the mountains of Hur-at-Hur, and might have seen the plant growing. ‘Qahwah,’ they all called it, nodding those blank red heads. But as to whether it grew on a bush or a tree, as to whether it was red or brown or black when ripe, as to whether it should be fermented or roasted, and a dozen other questions besides—there the queen’s ladies disagreed. And not the herbalist, not the archivist, not the head gardener, not Master Onyx out of Roke, not anyone else on the whole of the Great Isle whom the herbalist had thought to consult in a month of searching could tell what qahwah might be.

Lebannen summoned Sege and Tosla. He summoned the Kargish ambassador. He sent messages to Roke, and to Gont. He’d have summoned Lady Iyesa if he thought it might help. Sege’s wisdom was deep but not wide, and extended little beyond Havnor. Tosla’s knowledge was wide as the ocean and shallow as a mill pond. He thought a brew called kava might be served in Hort Town, but he’d never tasted it. The ambassador was newly arrived from Karego-At. He confirmed that qahwah, or more properly kahwa, was a beverage drunk in some parts of the Four Lands, and conceded it might perhaps have found its way to the South Reach. But the man preferred wine, and had none himself, nor knew any way of finding it.

‘Never let shame spoil your happiness,’ repeated Lebannen, and he recalled that ignorance might be a kind of shame. And so when his wife again failed to join him for breakfast the following morning, he went to her suite, and pushed his way through all her maids, through even the Lady Opal, till he was knocking at the door of Seserakh’s closet with ten robins and a thrush twittering and flapping in his wake.

What happened within will remain between the two of them. But what anyone might know is that Tosla was dispatched on an urgent voyage to Mesreth, and the court inventor was charged with assembling a device to the queen’s design. And if they both cursed the queen roundly, neither of them did it to the king’s face. The winds favoured the royal marriage, with a little help from the king’s own weatherworker, and not three weeks later, the queen sipped a thick black brew at the breakfast table, smiled a smile of pure joy for the first time in weeks, and declared it ‘gaínhagat!’—‘Fit for a queen!’

Her husband tasted the vile-looking liquid, and mustered all his kingly discipline not to spit it straight back into the cup. He only coughed into his handkerchief once or twice, and declared the drink ‘very pleasant, dear.’ And if when he’d helped his wife to the rest of the pot, he reached for the milk jug and the sugar tongs, why, the poor man couldn’t help being an infidel, with an infidel’s unrefined tastes.

Lebannen never did learn to enjoy the drink. He did learn to keep his mouth shut at the breakfast table till his wife had drunk her first cup of qahwah, and doubly so when the moon was in a certain quarter. When Lady Iyesa cornered him in a corridor to offer advice on the royal heir-in-waiting, he smiled, and thanked her, and said not a word to his wife until she placed his hand on her belly, and no words were needed.

And that, my little ganaí-let, that is how coffee came to the Archipelago.

20 June 2015