The Empress Miriam sat on the floor of the royal palace in the city of Akzum. It was closest to Easter in the African country of Nubia where she had reigned for the over a year. The winds of the afternoon blew cool breezes through the screen in the palace windows. She sat in her white gown watching her son, Elias, running around on the floor. He was only two years old and her husband, Prince Iohannis, was helping her watch him. They didn’t get too many days together as a family and treasured what little time they had.
The castle had been built in the sixteenth century and showed its influence from the Portuguese builders whom the emperor at the time, had brought in to construct fortifications all over the empire. The Portuguese had adapted their building techniques to what the local landscape could supply and were forced to incorporate local design patterns into the structure. Most of the palace was not inhabited and served as a tourist attraction. The imperial residence was in the opposite side of the compound. It wasn’t the daily residence of Her Imperial Majesty, but she liked taking the family there when she wanted relief from the stresses of ruling the empire.
She understood the need for security as not all of the empire was pleased the Lioness of Judea had returned to rule. The civil war had officially been over for the past year and the empire unified as best as any empire can unify. But the regions and countries which made up the Holy Nubian Empire were constantly looking for an opening to extend their influence at court. It wasn’t enough that parliament effectively ruled the empire and she, the hereditary head of the nations. Any region could and did threaten succession if its demands weren’t met. Balancing this was her title of “Defender of the Faiths” which meant she had to arbitrate between the official Nubian Orthodox Church and the various Roman Catholic, protestant and Muslim factions. It was important she show her firm and resolved side all day long. The trip to the ancient castle was only supposed to last the weekend.
She knew a security force was outside, watching for anyone too stupid to get too close to their empress. It happened all the time. Word would spread that Her Majesty was in town and suddenly, she had twelve committees and three aristocrats who needed to talk with her. It didn’t matter that they could get a better response from the government offices in the capitol of Denbe Moussa, everyone thought the empress has some magic ability to grant their wish. Thank God her husband was in charge of security
But right now, she was playing with little Elias. He was playing, not aware of all the people making sure his every action was observed and monitored. He had been a problem pregnancy and the new government was forced to fly in a prenatal specialist from Europe to ensure the heir to the throne would be born on Nubian soil and healthy. Her baby was representative of the empire and it had been crucial his birth occur in the empire. He was birthed in this very ancient palace, not three hundred yards from where they were sitting. A special field hospital had been organized by the Imperial Nubian Army just to make sure the successor to the crown would be born on the sight of the ancient throne of the Emperor Fansos. The nation needed a symbol of unity and it was to be her son.
Her husband John, whom she still called him instead of his official Nubian name and title, was busy playing with a rattle. Like any other child his age, Elias laughed and tried to grab the toy from his father. He already had two nanny’s keeping watch over him. In the corner, she could Brother Tadrosh, her official confessor and representative of the ancient families was looking and admiring the frescos which remained on the palace walls. They were in a large open court where the Imperial family would receive visitors in ancient times.
Her husband picked up the baby and brought him to her. She took little Elias from him and, after dropping her gown, began to nurse him. The two ladies-in-waiting who were attending her immediately unrolled a large sheet to keep her hidden from everyone else in the entourage. It wasn’t a good idea for the empress to be seen so openly in public. With all the digital cameras around, it was risky to be out in the open at all. Just last week, her security detail had issued a warning to all news crews about the use of drone cameras. They threatened to shoot down any flying object which came within five hundred yards of the imperial presence.
“He’s going to look a lot like you,” she told her husband who had seated himself on the floor next to her. One of the attendants came forward with an additional pillow, but he waved her away. John had learned about avoid comforts in his years with the Special Forces. He was perfectly fine crouching in a sitting position.
“How long do you want to stay here?” he asked her. “I know you like visiting this place, but we do have to get back tonight. Tomorrow’s Sunday and the cathedral will expect you there early.”
She sighed again. One of her functions was to sit near the high place during the morning service at the Akzum Cathedral. It required a lot of preparation and of course she would need to keep the baby with her so everyone could see him. It also meant one less hour of sleep because she would need to rise earlier than normal to ensure the entourage was ready. Add the time for the security detail to assemble their vehicles and she would be ready to fall asleep the first time she sat down in the back of her limousine.
She had come a long way in the past year. Three years ago, she was Mary Reyes with a mundane job working for a limited edition collectibles company near Philadelphia. She would get up in the morning, check to make sure her mother was okay, put her clothes on and take the train to work. Mary would spend the day matching receivables to payables and doing whatever else the accounting department needed accomplished. She had half an hour for lunch. At the end of the day she would clock out electronically and join the horde of other employees who filed into the parking lot to take a car home or a bus to the train station. Mary had few friends as she had always been a quiet and introspective woman. In her twenty-five years on the planet, most of her world had been very narrow.
Mary was one of many refugees smuggled out of Nubia when the ancient monarch collapsed. In the middle of another periodic famine, the military had staged a coup and deposed the emperor and executed his entire family in one evening. The world was shocked, but the new government promised bread and land. They lacked the ability to make bread and kept all the land for themselves. Her father, she was told by her mother, was an army officer who had been loyal to the emperor and refused to participate in the coup. He managed to get his wife and infant daughter on the first plane out before the airport in the old capital, Akzum, was closed. Her mother told her he had been killed making one final stand to protect the palace.
Mary had grown-up around other Nubian expatriates in Philadelphia where most of them settled. They eventually blended into the local African American background for which the city was famous. But the Nubians had their own social clubs, churches and neighborhoods. Her mother would get the Nubian Times paper every week which was printed both in English and Nubian. Her mother had also insisted Mary attend Nubian school after her regular school every day so she would maintain her culture. She would get off the bus after school and be taken to a second school housed in the basement of the local Nubian Orthodox church where she would be taught the different styles of the Nubian alphabet and spoken language. She was a quick learner and picked up the Nubian language quickly. It helped that her mother never learned much English and spoke Nubian to her all the time.
Weekends were occupied with activities in the émigré community and Mary came of age as another war orphan hanging out with the other Nubian kids. Like other African races, the Nubians were dark-skinned people, but they had many different customs from region to region. Some of her friends had mothers who would only wear Nubian style white cloaks, while others learned to dress American style. It was a source of contention between the older and younger Nubians in the United States.
When she turned eighteen, Mary’s mother told her she should attend college and get a useful degree which she could use to support them both. Her mother’s health wasn’t the best and she needed constant care. Mary chose accounting and attended a small college near the apartment where she lived with her mother. She continued to work the counter at a convenience store with a large Nubian and lower African clientele, but managed to take the classes she would need to get her accounting degree. She graduated on time and managed to pass the CPA exam on the first try.
The little scared girl who barely remembered the airplane flight to the United States had grown into a stunning woman by the time she accepted the job with the collectibles company. She constantly found herself the subject of attention when she walked down the street and received cat-calls and whistles constantly. She never feared because too much attention would be met by any one of several older Nubian men who would warn the Romeo not to bother her. Funny, the other Nubian girls never seemed to receive such protection and Mary assumed it was from her mother’s circle of friends.
Her mother passed away when she was in the second year of her job. She woke up one morning and discovered her mother had died in her sleep. Grief-stricken, Mary had taken the week off and arranged the funeral herself. The church, where it was held, was packed with Nubians and many people from the neighborhood. Her mother was buried in the Nubian section of the local cemetery since the church they attended did not have one. She went home to the apartment she had shared all the years with her mother and sat down.
On the kitchen table was a copy of the Nubian Times, the last thing her mother had read before going to bed the evening before she passed. Her mother had circled an article about the possibility of an open revolt against the junta which had ruled the country since she was flown out of the country. The article talked about the reign of terror the junta had imposed on disgruntled parts of the country. Ordinary people had been shot for speaking out and the government was having trouble establish order in many areas. It was a big country where a lot of rebellions could be fomented. Germany had tried to colonize the country between the world wars and found it an impossible task. Nubia was an ancient nation and empire with a proud history and would not be beat into submission.
There was a knock at the door and Mary went to see who it was. She opened the door and found three older Nubian men who asked to come in. Assuming them to be with a relief committee she brought them into the small apartment and offered them coffee. They thanked her and sat down.
“We are very sorry for your loss, Mary,” the first man spoke when she had brought them coffee. He spoke to her in Nubian.
“I will survive,” she told him back in Nubian. Mary noticed a little bit of surprise in their eyes. Most of the younger generation didn’t speak the older language that well. She was both fluent in the spoken and written versions.
“I should introduce us,” the man spoke again. “I am Colonel Haile; these two men with me were also in the royal army years ago. The man on your right is Lieutenant Wallad and to your left is Lieutenant Siesah. We have been deliberating when to come over and decided now was the time to approach you.”
“What about?” she asked them. Nubians had a reputation for being secretive; it came from fleeing a country where family members had been turned against each other.
“Mary,” the colonel began. “Did your mother ever talk to you about your father?”
“Not much,” she told him. “I was flown out of the country when I was a baby. I only remember this country. Wasn’t he an officer who died trying to save the last emperor?”
There was a moment of silence. All the men at her kitchen table were in their fifties. They had lived in the United States for twenty years and had never been back to their home country. An unsaid agreement went out between them and the colonel turned to Mary.
“Your father wasn’t just an army officer, Mary,” he said. “He was a prince, a lesser cousin to the emperor.”
Mary was shocked. “But why didn’t mother tell this to me?” she demanded.
“He was never married to your mother,” the colonel continued. “The emperor was outraged when he learned his favorite cousin had taken up with a commoner and sent him to one of the outer provinces. Your mother was flown to the United States before the coup took place. Your father feared the plotters would try and kill every member of the royal family including distant relatives. They were almost successful. All of the emperor’s immediate family was in the capitol when the junta took over. In the space of two weeks, they hunted down and killed every one.”
“So you see,” Lieutenant Wallad explained, “you are a very important person. Your mother didn’t want you to know. She was afraid if you did, word might get back to the junta and they would send someone out to kill you.”
“Do you remember the men who would follow you around when you were little?” Lieutenant Siesah asked her. “Every time some stupid American boy tried to get too close to you a man would appear and gently remind him that you were not to be messed with. Sometimes not so gently, although I am proud to say we only had to use the brass knuckles a few times.”
Mary stared at them. “I don’t understand it,” she said. “I’m just an accountant, what do I know about being a….a….a…”
“Empress?” the colonel said to her. “It’s not your choice, Mary. God has ordained you to lead the people of Nubia. We don’t get to choose our parents.”
“And,” Lieutenant Wallad spoke, “we have the documents to prove it. You may have been born on the wrong side of the bed, excuse my impropriety, but you still are of royal blood.”
“Gentlemen,” Lieutenant Siesah said. “We need to quite calling her Mary.”
“Agreed,” it was the colonel. “You will not be the Imperial Majesty until crowned. But we should at least refer to you as ‘Highness’.”
The three men nodded to each other.
“How many people know about this?” she asked them.
“Enough,” the colonel said. “Your Highness.”
“We have an entire royal network in this country,” Lieutenant Wallad explained. “And we intend to end the junta’s bloody rule and take you to the throne which is rightfully yours.”
“We’ve already begun to prepare a press release,” Lieutenant Siesah told her. “Next week we will make it known there is a survivor of the junta’s massacre. And when the rest of Nubia knows this to be true, the junta will begin to collapse. It is barely holding on to power right now. They are stretched out everywhere. The troops under their control are falling apart in the southern provinces. We need you, Your Highness, to help restore order and bring the empire back into the light.”
“I need to think about this,” she told them. “It’s all too much at once. My mother had just died.”
“We understand,” the colonel told her. “One of us will be stationed outside your apartment building all night. We will take turns watching your place until you decide. We’re not going to release any statement unless you agree.”
Mary looked down at the table where she and her mother had broken bread together for so many years. Why had she not been told?
“What happens if I choose not to announce my identity to the world?” she asked them.
“Absolutely nothing,” the colonel told her. “Or struggle for the liberation of our land will continue. It would help if a new emperor or empress was established, but I would prefer it to be one such as yourself who was a close relative of the last emperor. We need a representative government to make the empire strong again.”
“But keep in mind,” Lieutenant Siesah pointed out to her, “If we know about you being royal blood, someone else can find out as well. And we know the junta will stop at nothing to eliminate anyone who can threaten their right to control Nubia.”
Mary thanked them and saw the three former military officers to the door. She waited five minutes and went to the window. She looked down and saw the colonel in the car they had mentioned reading a newspaper. People still did that.
Mary sat down and looked at a picture of her and her mom made at Nubian school. She was wearing the white wraparound cloak, traditional to the country and her mom was dressed identically. It had been made when she was just twelve years old. She never had a clue about who her dad really was. She wondered if the whole “royal blood” story was made up. Could they be trying to use her in some scheme to get control of the government? It just didn’t make sense. If only she had some other Nubian friends to talk to, but Mary’s mother had always been very protective.
And then she remembered something. Her mother had a small box in her bedroom where she kept mementos from the motherland. Mary had never disturbed it and the few times she saw her mother open it the box contained family pictures and some icons. There was a medal her father had worn, but not much else. Perhaps now was the time to open the box and see what was in it.
Her mother’s keepsake box was not locked. She managed to get it open without a key and looked inside. The mementos where still there: old family pictures and some samples of Nubian money. But at the bottom of the box as an envelope with the word “Mary” written on it. She took it out of the box and opened it up.
The letter read:
I don’t know how much longer I have to live so I am writing you this letter. Enclosed you will find a picture of your father. He was not merely an officer in the army; he was also a cousin to the emperor. Although we were never married, you are the only surviving member of the imperial family. I am going to give you the name and contact information of three men who were in the army at the time of the coup which plunged our nation into darkness. Contact them and they will help you in any way the can.
I should have told you years ago, but I was afraid you would tell someone and the Junta would discover they had not killed all of the royal family. Please, you must fulfill your destiny and lead Nubia back to glory. These men have been protecting you ever since we came to this country, but you were never aware of them.
It was dated two months ago and the names she had enclosed in the letter were the same men who had just come to see her. She picked up the picture of her father in his military uniform and looked at it. He looked so proud.
The colonel was still reading his newspaper when he heard a knock on the window. He turned and saw Mary standing next to the car. He rolled it down to speak to her.
“I’ve made my mind up,” she said. “I’ll help you. Just remember: if I’m to be an empress, treat me like one.”
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