The Salt of Aksum by Mae Empson

The Salt of Aksum
By Mae Empson

AksumFrom Aksum, city on the hill, the Negus of Neguses ruled over all of Abyssinia, from northeastern Africa to the coast of southern Arabia. His ports sang with the mingled voices of merchants from all across the known world bartering for his elephant ivory, his rhinoceros horns and hides, his tortoise shell and obsidian and emeralds, his frankincense and myrrh, his salt and wheat, and his slaves and live animals.

He controlled everything that he could see, buy, or sell.

Everything, except for his three daughters.

His stargazers read from the skies and their dreams–information that daily secured his empire. They faithfully predicted the slightest alterations in the weather, the harvest, the fate of battles, and the flow of trade goods. Yet, his stargazers had failed to foresee his wife’s death on the day of the triplet birth, and from that day forward they found his children hopelessly starblinding, no more subject to the rule of the heavens than to his own.

Like the progenitor of their royal line, Makeda, the Queen of Sheba, the Negus’ daughters were as beautiful as they were clever. He had no doubt that they loved each other for they were constantly together with their heads bent in chatter and laughter. His fear instead was whether they loved him, and their kingdom, enough to heed him.

One of his daughter’s sons would be the next Negus. It was past time to marry them each to worthy sons of foreign kings. Suitors of this kind, younger sons eager to assure their kingdom’s access to the riches of the Aksumite Empire and the trade goods that flowed through the Red Sea, arrived daily at the port of Adulis to compete to become prince-consorts.

And thus far, his daughters had ignored and spurned the suitors at every turn.

The Negus decided it was time to force the issue, and summoned his daughters to attend him in his chamber.

His daughters arrived together. Ayana, the eldest by several heartbeats and tallest by two handspans, led the other two into the room. She stopped before her father, and executed an exquisite bow. No one danced with more grace than Ayana who leapt like a gazelle to the sound of drums and sistra.

The next oldest, lark-voiced Desta, offered the formal chant of greeting to the Negus of Neguses. At temple, the people debated if her voice or her faith made her sung words sweetest.

The youngest, Kassa, repeated the chant of greeting in a toneless and more halting voice, but translated into Sabaean. Quickest of mind, she challenged herself to learn every language spoken in the markets of Aksum–a skill that her father shared, and had often complimented in her.

The Negus’ heart swelled with pride. They were fine girls, talented and lovely, and, for at least the few heart beats that it had taken them to enter the room, properly deferential. They would do as he asked, if he made the need plain enough.

“I know you want to put off marriage, reluctant to leave your youth and innocence and each other. But, our line must pass through you. The blood of Queen Makeda and King Solomon cannot die with me. I must arrange a match for each of you. Your willfulness daily requires more generous dowries and trade concessions, and threatens the negotiations altogether.”

His daughters exchanged worried glances, but said nothing.

“If you love me as your father, and honor me as your Negus, you will accept that this must happen. No one is leaving this room until this matter is resolved. Tell me how much you love and honor me, and then show me, by accepting what must be.”

His daughters clutched hands with each other, and still said nothing.

“Ayana, you will speak now, or so help me I will have my guards cut off your feet.” He knew this was a cruel and empty threat, but he had entirely run out of patience.

Ayana paled, and let go of her sister’s hands.

“Father, I love and honor you more than the most precious and rare and beautiful things that you have given me. I love you more than my fine clothes and jewels.” Her hands clutched at her red and gold silk sarong. The fabric was so thin and diaphanous that the merchant from the Malabar Coast had shown them that the entire dress could be slipped through her smallest gold ring. The strange and vivid pattern suggested either flowers or flames, depending on the light. She unwrapped the matching brilliantly colorful shawl from her hair and fingered the pearls and diamonds braided into its fringed mantle.

“As your daughter, I will do as you ask.”

The Negus smiled. “Good girl. You see the value in obedience, and in the gifts of the east. There is a young prince, son of the Maharaja of the Kalabhras who rule all of Tamil lands. You caught his eye, wearing that very sarong and shawl, and bewitched him utterly. He is very handsome. I have seen you looking at him as well, though you have tried to hide it. An alliance with him will assure that Aksum always has access to the riches of his kingdom.” The Negus knew that it would also match his eldest daughter, whose son was most likely to inherit, with a man whose kingdom was not looking to expand into Aksumite territory. “He has agreed to make a home with you here, and convert to our faith. You will not be so far from your sisters. You will be married within the week, and it will be a day of great joy with feasts and dancing.”

He turned to his younger daughters. “Desta. It is your turn. What will you say?”

“Negus of Neguses, I was afraid of this duty, sure that it would mean being yoked to a man who does not share our faith, but I begin to see that there is hope. I love you and honor you as I love our faith and history.” She walked over to his desk and lifted a beautifully engraved bronze cup. “You are worth more to me than even the cup carried by Abba Salama–Bishop Frumentius–who brought Christianity to our kingdom, and was slave and cup bearer to Negus Ezana before he became our Bishop.” Desta filled the cup with an exceedingly costly wine that her father had imported from Laodicea, and offered it to her father in the manner of a servant or priest. “Our faith and history teaches us how a servant may be put by God in the place where he can do the most good. I will serve you in this, as a servant of Aksum. Marry me even to a man who is not of our faith if that is what the kingdom needs.”

The Negus smiled. “Wise girl. You see the value in service, and in the gifts of the west from Greece and Rome. Our faith. Bronze. The most precious wines of Italy. There is a young man from Rome here, from the bloodline of that same Emperor Theodosius who converted his whole empire to our Lord this past spring. His father is the Praefectus Augustalis who governs Egypt. This young prince of Rome will make a Christian home with you here, and assure that Rome trades favorably with us. We will plan your wedding the week after your sister’s, and Bishop Frumentius himself will consecrate the marriage.”

He turned finally to his youngest. “And Kassa? You have seen the pattern. What say you?”

Kassa hesitated. “Salt.”


“Salt. I love you as you love salt. That is what you deserve, and what I offer. Our merchants trade it for gold to mint our coins and buy things that are rare here, and common elsewhere. Do you love only things which must be bought from far away? Can you see no value in what is close to hand, for itself alone, before selling it to another? Can you love salt?”

The Negus frowned. Salt was plentiful and bitter. The poorest people in his kingdom used salt for barter, instead of coin. Kassa was clearly determined to defy him. No suitor-prince arrived in Adulis with a ship hold full of salt. The kingdom’s salt came from the Danakil desert, harvested by salt miners and salt cutters in the most godforsaken inhospitable northeastern corner of his kingdom. The Negus had never traveled there himself, but he’d heard about the boiling lakes of lava in the volcanoes where fire elementals lived, and the sulfurous desert geysers, and the bizarre salt mounds in colors brighter than Ayana’s sarong and shawl.

“Salt is nothing to me. Every man in Aksum has salt. Do you love me so little?”

Kassa said nothing.

“Let him have his way,” begged Ayana. “Tell father that you love him like Damascus steel or Himyarite resin.”

“You must marry eventually,” Desta reasoned. “What if something happened to both of us and our children? Then, the heir would need to come from you.”

The Negus paced in anger and turned on Kassa, red-faced. “Change your answer, or I will marry you to salt, and then you’ll learn what it is worth.”

Kassa said nothing.

Her father shouted for his guards. “Take my ungrateful youngest daughter to the center of the Danakil desert, and leave her there. She is banished from Aksum. I never want to see her again.”

By the time Kassa had removed the blindfold that her father’s guards had secured before abandoning her in the middle of the Danakil desert, she could see no landmark in any direction, except a large volcano on one horizon. A hot desert wind blew the sand into the air around her, obscuring the camel tracks that she might otherwise have tried to follow.

The guards had left her a tent and a camel with jugs of water tied to its side. She wondered if her father had ordered that, or if the guards themselves had arranged it.

Unsure which direction led back towards Aksum and her sisters, who she was certain would hide her until they could together decide what to do next, she rode for the volcano to see if she could see any other landmarks from higher up its peak. If not, she’d make camp there. Come nightfall, she’d decipher the direction from the star-inked papyrus of the night sky.

The wind elemental watched Kassa depart, and then let the sands fall back into place, confident that it had played its part in herding the girl in the direction that its master wished.

The day of Ayana’s wedding arrived, and while she had enjoyed each meeting with her suitor, Prince Chitra, and thought they would be quite happy, she could not forget her missing sister who should have been part of the festivities.

She and Desta had persuaded their suitors to send their men into the desert to find Kassa while they focused on how best to change their father’s mind, and assure that he would welcome her back when she was found

“If only Kassa were here,” Ayana said for the twentieth time that morning. “She always devised our best schemes.”

Desta sighed. “Father doesn’t seem to miss her at all. He’s all smiles, looking forward to the feasts and dancing today.” The first feast would be in the Aksumite style, and then Chitra’s cook from the Tamil lands was going to prepare a second feast in the Malabar style. “The whole court is wild to see what your betrothed’s cook will make. They can’t wait to taste the pepper and malabathrum leaf.”

“Wait. That’s it!” Ayana said. “We must convince Chitra’s cook to withhold all seasoning from father’s plate. That will have him begging for at least a pinch of salt.”

Prince Chitra readily agreed to their plan, and instructed his cook.

That night, at the feast, the Negus chewed and chewed his unseasoned food, unwilling to swallow. He watched, perplexed, as his guests raved at the exquisite flavors.

“Something is wrong with my food. I can take no pleasure in it. I can hardly swallow it. A man would die with nothing but this to eat. Prince Chitra, your cook should be whipped.”

Ayana sighed. “Father, it is not the cook who has made a mistake. It is you. You said salt is nothing to you. Do you not miss it, a little?”

“Salt?” The Negus’ eyes narrowed. “It is not the salt I am missing. It is the fabled pepper and malabathrum leaf. I wanted to taste the riches of the Malabar Coast.”

Prince Chitra signaled and a servant brought the Negus a small wooden plate, heaped with salt. “Here, Negus of Neguses. Help yourself, and I will help you. I have something that I think might help you find your daughter Kassa.”

The Negus took the plate and dumped the salt on the ground.

“Now I am wise to your tricks and treachery. I do not miss Kas-… I mean salt. I do not miss salt. I do not want salt.”

He forced himself to eat the heaping platter of unseasoned food, grinding his teeth at each tasteless bite.

As Desta’s wedding day arrived a week later, the two couples met in secret. The suitors’ men had still not found any sign of Kassa, though they continued to search the desert.

Prince Chitra explained that he had planned to offer the Negus a pair of potentially magical sandals, or chappals, that he had acquired from a strange man in the port city of Tyndis before setting sail for Aksum.

“Supposedly, the person who wears these chappals can travel as swift as the wind.”

“Have you tried it?” Desta looked skeptical.

“No, there was something odd about the man who gave them to me. He asked me where I was sailing before he would sell them to me. Then after negotiating a steep price, he changed his mind and gave the sandals to me for free. And then he said that he’d forgotten to mention that the chappals would only work for the man who walks through fire, so they were of no use to me. I thought he was chiding me for not celebrating Timiti.”

“Timiti?” Ayana asked her new husband, curious about the kingdom he had left behind.

“It’s a Hindu festival, back in the fall. I’d been preparing for the trip here with the northeastern monsoon in the winter, learning your language. Knowing I was coming here to bid to be your prince-consort, it didn’t seem important to attend Hindu ceremonies, while planning to convert to your faith. At the festival, men firewalk to celebrate the good wife Draupadi who proved her purity by walking through a bed of fire.”

“So that’s what makes a good wife in your land?” Ayana stretched her leg and flexed her ankle. “I bet you have to step very lightly.”

Chitra grinned at her. “If anyone could do it, you could, my nimble dancer.”

“So, you think the sandals will only work for someone that participated in your festival?” Desta’s suitor Valerius interrupted.

“I did. I thought he was saying they were useless to me because I had not been faithful enough. But now I’m not so sure. I thought about throwing the sandals away, but I began to think he was some kind of yaksha, a nature spirit, and that I would only bring worse trouble on myself if I angered him.”

“A nature spirit? Like a fire elemental?” Ayana asked.

“Something like that. He wore a red and black turban, and I thought his eyes burned as he spoke to me, a bit like braziers.”

“Desta, didn’t you say there were fire elementals out in the Danakil desert where your father sent Kassa?” Valerius looked at his betrothed with concern.

“Yes, and boiling lakes of lava. And the worst heat of the desert. I’m so worried about Kassa.”

“If you father doesn’t accept the chappals tonight, I will take them and race through this boiling lava to find your sister,” Valerius offered. “Let me prove by this act that I will make a good husband for you, Desta.”

“Or I could go,” Ayana volunteered. “Kassa will not recognize you.”

“I would not let you take the risk, my wife. I will go,” Chitra countered. “I could take a letter from you, so she would know who I am.”

“Best if father went.” Desta reminded them. “She will not believe us that he wants her back. If we go, we could help her get to a better place than the desert, but she will not want to stay here. Let’s try another feast, and if that doesn’t work, one of us will go tonight.”

None of them said that it had been two weeks, and Kassa might well be dead, but they all thought it, and that fear cast a long shadow over the wedding day.

That night, at the feast in the Roman style, the Negus chewed and chewed his first plate of unseasoned meat, and glared at his rebellious children and their suitors.

“Again? Am I never to enjoy a feast again?”

“Just admit that you miss her, and we can find her, and figure this out,” Desta pleaded. “Please. It’s my wedding day. I can’t bear that she isn’t here.”

The Negus stared back down at his plate, and took another unpleasant bite.

“Negus of Neguses,” Valerius added. “I am sure you know that in the Roman style, we will eat many courses. We will eat until we are full, and then vomit until we have room for more, and eat again.”

The Negus paused with his fork in mid-air.

Ayana nudged a small sealed bottle of garum, a sauce made from salted fish and popular in Rome, towards where her father was sitting. “It really is delicious with the sauce.”

The Negus sighed. Of course he missed Kassa. He regretted his harsh words, but a Negus had to think of the good of the kingdom. If she defied him so openly, how could that be accepted? If only she hadn’t forced the issue. Why had she said “salt”?

He tried to remember her exact words. They both were very quick with languages, and that derived from an excellent memory for the spoken and written word.

I love you as you love salt.

“Negus’¦,” Prince Chitra began cautiously. “I’m sure you understand this, but in many ports your salt is worth as much as my pepper.”

He knew it. People always had to pay more for what they did not have on hand. This was the basis of trade, and the foundation of his power, holding the ports along the Red Sea. It was the same for salt and pepper and daughters. When Kassa was his, he had focused on how to sell her to a suitor. Now that she was gone, he would pay almost anything to have her back.

Can you see no value in what is close to hand, for itself alone, before selling it to another?

She had wanted him to tell her that he loved her. That he loved her for herself, and not her value on the market of suitors.

“I do understand,” the Negus admitted, spitting out the meat and instead swallowing his pride. “Salt is very precious when you do not have it. And I do miss her now that she is gone. I don’t understand why she resisted marriage so much. Do you girls know? These matches I have made for you are not so terrible, are they?”

“I don’t know,” Ayana admitted. “Personally, I was afraid you would match me to a suitor who was very old or very ugly or unkind. It was terrifying. But Prince Chitra is wonderful.” She smiled at Chitra, and he smiled back at her.

“She did not want to marry at all. I know that much.” Desta added. “She was very firm about it, and encouraged us in our rebellion. I am not sure why. If you go after her, you can ask her yourself. Go. Prince Chitra has something that may help.”

The Negus grabbed the small bottle of garum and drenched the flavorless meat with it. He took one extremely satisfying bite before standing.

“I will tell her that I love salt very much indeed, and don’t want to go another day without it.”

The Negus put the blue and white chappals on his feet, and raced towards the Danakil desert, carried by the winds themselves, or perhaps by invisible air elementals.

As he traveled towards the desert, he touched his ring of office. His father had told him that it was the Seal of Solomon. They said Solomon could control elementals. Perhaps the fire elementals, if he encountered them, would have some fear of the ring, though the Negus was no magician himself.

Thinking of Solomon reminded him of the story of how Solomon tricked Makeda into their courtship. He had made advances to her and she refused. He agreed that she could depart his palace without accepting his embraces if she stole nothing from him during the night. And then, the trickster king had served her a very salty meal for dinner. He placed an urn of water in her bedchamber, and she could not resist drinking it during the night. The first Negus, Menelik, would never have been conceived but for that salty feast.

He would remind Kassa of that that when he found her. She would like that he had thought of something special about salt to celebrate, beyond its flavor, that wasn’t related to its value at market.

He tried to run towards an oasis that his stargazers had told him would be a good place to find caravans or salt-cutters, to ask if anyone had seen his daughter, but the shoes would not let him turn. He thought about trying to command the shoes to stop, but realized that he wanted to find his daughter more than he wanted to be in control of how he found her.

The chappals ran across the burning sands, carrying him with them. He saw a volcano rising out of the sands in the distance.

The shoes ran him up the slope of the volcano and carried him over the edge, plunging him into the boiling lake of lava.

Beneath the lava, which did not seem to burn him at all, the Negus found a red crystallized salt palace growing up out of the floor of the volcano. He swam down to the door, and found it unlocked.

Inside the salt palace, the lava only ran in shallow channels along the sides of the floor of the hallways and interior chambers. The Negus inhaled a deep breath of the slightly sulfurous air, and began to explore, looking for any sign of Kassa.

Each empty room gleamed with strange crystal deposits in reds and oranges and greens too vivid for his court artists to replicate in ceramic, and beyond the palette even of the Egyptian glass workers.

He finally came to a large chamber with a central pedestal draped in a heavy red cloth. From the shape, he thought it might be a tomb with some carved figure on top.

The Negus reached for the cloth and pulled it aside.


His daughter lay on a mound of vibrant purple salt, which seemed to be growing up over her body, shoulders, and the sides of her face. Her shut eyes warned him that she might be dead. His throat burned like it had filled with lava, and he gasped for breath. No. His girl. His little girl.

“Kassa!” He touched her cheek and it felt cold and wet. He shook her. She did not respond.

“Negus of Neguses.” A voice behind him. He turned.

A man stood in the doorway of the room, flanked by four elemental guards whose skin blazed in red flame. His red and black crown grew out of his hair, a crystalline sculpture of salt.

“You took my daughter.”

“You gave her to me. To take her would have broken the ancient pact between our kingdoms, and I have no wish to be at war with you.” He gave a slight, almost imperceptible bow. “I am the King of Salt and Fire.”

“Is she ‘¦ sleeping? What have you done to her?”

“She dreams and she cries, and I harvest her tears. Do you like the color? It takes royal blood to get this purple, and I quite like it.”

“Let her go.” The Negus touched the ring with his thumb, and tried to channel his will through it.

“Why? You don’t want her. It is you who made her cry. Not me.”

“Please. Let her go.” He tried again, but he was no magician.

“You cannot compel me. She is useless to you now. She will never be entirely human again. The field of her flesh is salted. She will always be barren.”

“She is more to me than the mother of a future heir! She is my child.”

“She is salt.”

“Only God can make a pillar of salt of a woman. You do not have the power. She is Kassa. I love her.”

“What I do here is no different than your other daughters. You need my salt more than you need their suitors’ luxuries. I am a King, and the others are mere princes. I will keep her, and you will have the resources you need, and avoid war with my kind.”

“No. This is no life for her, like I have helped build for Ayana and Desta. This is death. What would you take instead?”

“Will you bargain with me, trader king?”

“Yes. Name your price.”

“Solomon’s ring. It is your heritage and your symbol of office and authority, but its magic does not work for you. It does not belong in the world. Let me take it.”

“Release her. Let me see that she lives. And then we will continue our negotiation.”

The King of Salt and Fire waved his hand at Kassa, and her eyes opened.

Kassa pulled her limbs from the mound of salt which parted like grains of sand, and ran to her father’s arms. She’d heard everything he’d said while she’d been trapped in the salt sculpture.

Her father removed his ring, but closed his fist around it. “This ring does not make me a king. My blood makes me a king. I will give it to you, but before we go further, I must also have your word that you will return us safely to the southern edge of the desert.”

“If you give me the ring, I will have what I want. But you are wise to bargain for passage back through the lava lake for both of you. Since you used the ring to buy your life, and that is the only thing I want from you, I will ask for two things from Kassa, to buy safe passage for you both.”

“What would you have of me?”

“First, don’t give the chappals back to your sister’s husband. Leave them behind somewhere as you are shopping in the port of Adulis. They will find their way to where they are needed next.”


“Second, come back here two weeks each year, and give me your tears again. I promise that I will return you to your home, and you will lose nothing but your time.”

“Will I always have cause for tears?”

“I returned you to your father with all that makes you human. You will always have cause for laughter, and cause for tears. Should you ever tire of such things, come back and be a queen of the elementals.”

The Negus and his daughter walked side by side on the long journey back to the palace, eager to share the good news of her return and their reconciliation with her sisters.

“I am sorry, Kassa. I should never have sent you away. But, tell me, honestly, why did you not want to marry?” They had not talked about the elemental king’s threat that she could never have children. He was not certain if it was truth or bluff, but wondered if it was troubling her.

“I have no particular desire to be a wife or mother. I would rather study with the stargazers and master the most secret languages of the stars. I could serve Aksum by advising my sisters and their children. Surely between the two of them they will produce many strong heirs.”

The Negus frowned. No woman had ever served as a stargazer before, and he had no talent in magic himself to pass to her. “Kassa, I’m not sure.”

“You are the Negus of Neguses. If you say it can be, than it can be.”

“God willing, the talent will manifest in you if you study it. Perhaps the touch of the elemental will make you stronger in this than any of us.”

“I can see the stars, even if they can’t see me.”

They continued to walk, and he could see how the last tension had drained out of her shoulders, telling him at last what she wanted.

“One day,” she continued, “I will go back to the desert and get our ring back, and I will show those elementals what it means to have a Queen of Queens. Then, they will serve us, and my sisters’ children, and their children.”

“So ambitious. You were always the most like me of the three of you.”

“I know.”

“Don’t tell Ayana and Desta that I said that. I love you all equally, you know.”

“And just how much is that?”

“As much as I love Aksum, and God, and wealth and power, and fine cloth and wine, and, yes, salt, my saltiest daughter. As much as any man has ever loved his daughters.”

“I will tell Ayana and Desta you said that.”

“I’ll tell them myself.”

The feast that night, when Kassa and her father re-united with her sisters and their husbands, lasted long into the night, perfectly seasoned with love and laughter.


BIO: Mae Empson has a Master’s degree in English literature from Indiana University at Bloomington, and graduated with honors in English and in Creative Writing from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Mae began selling short stories and poetry to speculative fiction magazines and anthologies in July 2010, and can be found on twitter at @maeempson, and on the web at Recent and upcoming publications appear in Enchanted Conversation: A Fairy Tale Magazine, Cabinet des Fees, and, in anthologies from Innsmouth Free Press and Dagan Books.

The featured and remixed photo from Aksum is by Zheim, and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.