Excerpt: Court of Lions
Sometimes at the lowest points in your life, fate will slip you a gift. Ken Follett meets Jodi Picoult in a stunning new novel from Jane Johnson.

Kate Fordham, escaping terrible trauma, has fled to the beautiful sunlit city of Granada, the ancient capital of the Moors in Spain, where she is scraping by with an unfulfilling job in a busy bar. One day in the glorious gardens of the Alhambra, once home to Sultan Abu Abdullah Mohammed, also known as Boabdil, Kate finds a scrap of paper hidden in one of the ancient walls. Upon it, in strange symbols, has been inscribed a message from another age. It has lain undiscovered since before the Fall of Granada in 1492, when the city was surrendered to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Born of love, in a time of danger and desperation, the fragment will be the catalyst that changes Kate's life forever.
     An epic saga of romance and redemption, Court of Lions brings one of the great hinge-points in human history to life, telling the stories of a modern woman and the last Moorish sultan of Granada, as they both move towards their cataclysmic destinies.


Kate didn’t consider herself a vandal. She had never wilfully damaged anything in her life (apart from herself), let alone a World Heritage Site. Intrigued by a plant that resembled a familiar English weed she knew of as the Mother of Thousands or Kenilworth ivy, she had been taking a closer look, and glimpsed something that shouldn’t have been there. Winkling it out, she’d triggered a little cascade of debris.
     She glanced around, hoping no one had seen. The Alhambra palaces, constructed by the medieval Moorish kings of Granada and wrapped around by their majestic gardens, represented to her a sort of perfection: a paradise on earth. To get thrown out would be like getting expelled from Eden. She managed to fiddle the object into her palm and sat back, trying to look innocent.
     No one appeared to have noticed, not even the group of tourists she’d come in with, who were now standing in a knot, poring over a guidebook, then staring across the gorge to the summer palace, their sun visors glinting in the low afternoon light and their Nordic walking poles tucked under their arms. She’d watched them striding purposefully up the hill from the Pomegranate Gate, their poles clacking on the stones, as if they were making their way to Everest Base Camp instead of a sunlit garden in Andalusia.
     Turning slightly away from them, Kate tucked her hair behind her ears to examine what she had found, feeling an unexpected simple pleasure in the act. Her hair had taken its time growing back, as if nervous to be seen out in public, but now it brushed her shoulders. Perhaps it marked the extent to which she was being restored to herself.
     She opened her hand.  It was just an old screw of paper, probably a scrap of rubbish crammed into the crack in the wall by a visitor. Habit dictated that she painstakingly unroll it. (She did this with used wrapping paper, peeling off the tape, trying not to tear it. As a child, she had frustrated her family at Christmas by holding up the gift opening with her mildly autistic patience.) Inside the scroll of paper was a layer of coarse white grains, and beneath this was inked a series of symbols.
     Her brain buzzed at a sudden memory: sitting with Jess on a long-ago wet Sunday afternoon with a book on the floor between them.
     They were twins. Non-identical, but if they made the effort, it could be hard for people to tell them apart. They had been taking turns reading to each other, but she had been interrupting Jess, driving her mad with a typical eight-year-old’s questions. “Yes, but what sort of spiders are they? Where did they come from? How did they get to be so big? Are there spiders in our woods that cocoon people and eat them alive?”
     Infuriated, Jess had put the book down flat as if hiding its contents from Kate, who had spied something she had never noticed before: that the pattern on the front cover also ran across the spine and onto the back of the book. And not just any pattern: symbols that looked sort of like an alphabet but were a type of writing she couldn’t quite understand. She had touched the border in wonder. “Look,” she’d said. “Letters!”
     Jess had sighed. “They’re runes, stupid,” she’d declared with almost adult condescension. “It’s another language.” She pointed to a section of the border. “See, there? You must be able to work that out.”
     It was a sort of spiky double B. In a flash of revelation Kate understood how the letters grouped around it made up a name. “It says ‘The Hobbit’!” she squealed. It was a glimpse into a secret world. “What does the rest say?”
     They had spent the remainder of the afternoon transliterating the code and making up messages to each other. Over the years it had become their thing. Different codes, different games. Kate would receive postcards from Jess when she was travelling through Europe on a student rail card in her gap year: a few lines of neat runes, followed by a heart and a J, notes that remained cryptic even when decoded.
     Boys like wolves roam. A lick or a kiss?
     This, with an Italian stamp and a picture of a statue of Romulus and Remus. From Spain, a postcard showing a statue of a mounted hero named Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar in Burgos.  C Heston’s steely gaze and auto da fe hair, she translated from Jess’s code. Reader, I swived him.
     Swived was one of their code words, gleaned from reading Chaucer’s tales. The moment Kate had translated that fourth letter she’d burst out laughing and their mother had demanded to know why. Of course she hadn’t told.
     Remembering, Kate smiled as she examined the paper further. The symbols on it resembled Tolkien’s runes: but unlike them, she could find no simple guiding principle, could not even tell if they ran from left to right, right to left, top to bottom. They were a series of tiny markings, as if to save space, or to make the secret they contained even more obscure.
     Perhaps this was a note left for an illicit lover, admitting to jealousy or betrayal or everlasting adoration. But more likely it was just a game, or a shopping list; or her imagination running away with her. A meaningless bit of garbage crammed into this crevice because someone couldn’t be bothered to find a bin to throw it away in. Which was probably what she should do with it.
     But instead, she tucked it into her jeans pocket. Perhaps it was just in a language she didn’t know, like Hebrew or Cyrillic. Maybe she should show it around at the bar and see what anyone there could make of it. They were a cosmopolitan lot. She glanced at her watch. Nearly five o’clock. She was on evenings this week, which was better for tips but played havoc with her sleep. She pushed herself to her feet, grimacing as her knees cracked. Showing your age, Kate. Creaking knees and a watch. No one else at the bar even owned a watch: smart phones had taken over. This thought triggered another: I must phone Jess and Luke.
     The idea of reconnecting to the world should have warmed her, but it was as if a cloud passed across the face of the sun.

“Anna! Anna Maria, I’m talking to you—did you hear a word I said?”
     Kate looked up with a start from the chalkboard on which she was writing—in Spanish on one side, English on the other—that night’s specials: patatas a lo pobre, poor man’s potatoes; piquillos rellenos, stuffed peppers; boquerónes, Spanish white anchovies. “Sorry, I was a million miles away.” It took her a moment to find a suitable Spanish phrase. “Un millón de millas.
     Jimena shook her head wearily. “Sometimes it’s as if you’re in another world. When I started working, if I didn’t leap to attention as soon as Paolo called my name, I’d have been out in the gutter, doing trabajo de negros.”
     Black man’s work.
     Jimena’s tales of her hardscrabble life before she clawed her way up to owning the Bodega Santa Isabel were always colourful; her racism, however, was highly unpleasant. Kate bit her tongue and held up the finished chalkboard. “There—is that okay?”
     Jimena ran her eyes over the Spanish text, her thin face as intent as a hawk’s as she concentrated. “Two r’s in chicharrón,” she said, focusing on the single error, handing the tablet back without a word of praise. “And as I was saying, table seven is filthy and the candle on table five needs to be replaced.”
     And she was off to berate someone else.
     Kate watched as she headed for Leena and Giorgio, standing together with their backs foolishly to the bar as they laughed about something, their heads bent in joyful complicity. She wished she could warn them, but seconds later they jolted upright like guilty children, away from the phone they’d been craning over, and in an instant Jimena had it in her hands like some sort of wicked stepmother, confiscated for the rest of the night. Kate fingered the scrap of paper in her jeans pocket, and left it there.
     She moved deftly between the tables, setting chairs and placemats straight, aligning a knife someone had put down askew. She replaced the candle on table five and wiped down the plastic cloth on table seven, going through her paces on automatic. But all the while she was thinking: I must call Jess.
     It had been less than a week since they last spoke, but something was niggling at her. She hoped Luke wasn’t ill. A stabbing pain went through her at the thought of that.
      “Hi, Anna!” Axel called through a cloud of steam. Beside him Juan was peeling and chopping potatoes.
     “Drink later?” he asked.
     “Maybe.” Sometimes they sat out on the back step after service, drinking beer:  the two lads were good company, though she did feel old enough to be their mother.
     Axel had blond, blunt Swedish features; Juan was dark and aquiline and Spanish, from Madrid. They were like flip sides of the same coin: in their twenties, working their way from town to town, devouring life as they went. Kate was thirty-nine. She envied them their unmoored lifestyle. Yet here she was, cast away with no anchor, a long, long way from the life she had known. But she did not feel blithe and carefree: far from it. Perhaps that was the difference between thirty-nine and twenty-five.
     Try to live in the moment, Kate, she told herself fiercely. She took a few deep breaths. You only get the one life. “Okay,” she amended. “If we don’t finish too late.”
     The crowd in tonight was varied. The Alhambra, and the city that had grown up around it, attracted all sorts of visitors. Youngsters making the rounds of the sights of Europe, too full of narcissism and hormones for its majesty and tragedy to touch their hearts; academics who carried notebooks with them, looking, looking, but never really seeing; couples on honeymoon, come to sigh over the sunsets and the romantic courtyards; seasoned travellers who walked briskly through the gardens, eating the ground away till they could get to the Nasrid palaces and tick off the most famous marvels from their itineraries; batty old women who touched the walls when they thought no one was looking as if they might raise a ghost or two; dark-eyed men from North Africa, glowering at all that was lost, when once they had been kings. They all came in here for tapas, for the deep red local wine and for cerveza.
     Well, that wasn’t entirely true. When Jimena was front of house, the latter group got turned away with a curt “We have no tables”; unspoken:  “for the likes of you” — even though the place was patently empty.
     To say her boss was racist was too simple a statement. It was as if Jimena felt she was the last bastion of Catholic Spain, a holy inquisitor holding back the Moorish hordes. Arabs were not welcome in the bodega under Jimena’s regime and woe betide you if you let one in. “They’re terrorists, all of them. You think they wouldn’t kill you in an instant if they could get away with it? I lost a cousin in the Madrid bombings. It’s what their kind has been doing for centuries. It’s in their blood. They hate us for what we took back from them, and they’re planning all the time how they’re going to get it back, or destroy it if they can’t. They are the enemy. They have always been the enemy. I may not have the power to keep them out of my country, but by God I’ll keep them out of my bar!”
     The first time Kate had heard this tirade—levelled at a newcomer who’d had the temerity to seat a pleasant family of Moroccan tourists—she’d felt something inside her shrivel. Once, she’d have called Jimena to account, but she’d lost that earlier confidence, found it hard to summon the courage. And she hated herself for that.
     There were Swedes and French, Germans, Japanese and Danes in tonight; she heard Leena greet the latter group with a cheery “Hej hej.” No English, which was something of a relief. Kate felt herself tense whenever she heard an English accent, no matter how unfamiliar it might be. It was absurd, she knew, but she couldn’t help it.
     Taking a short break at half past eleven, she stepped out into the street to get a better phone signal and called her sister’s landline. There was a long pause before the dial tone kicked in, and then the ringing went on and on and on. For so long, in fact, that she thought she must have keyed in the wrong number. She kept no stored information on the phone—it was a cheap one loaded with a local sim card that she topped up with cash—and she was tired, so a wrong number was quite possible. Concentrating, she punched the number in again, but still there was no response, not even from the answering machine. Kate’s skin prickled. Probably Jess was out for the evening and had forgotten to set it. But wouldn’t the babysitter have answered in that case? She tried Jess’s mobile; it went to voice mail. Jess must have had an early night, Kate told herself firmly. She would try phoning again in the morning; nothing to worry about.
     Even so, she felt a tug of anxiety for the rest of her shift, despite playing her part with professional smiles and small talk.
     By the time the party of Danes had finished their drinks and finally departed with a promise to return before the end of the week, it was long past one and Kate was suppressing yawns that felt as if she might dislocate her jaw. The youngsters didn’t seem to care at all that it was so late: they just slept in the next day. But Kate had a routine and breaking it made her uncomfortable. She thought: If I hurry, I can get six hours’ sleep. So when Juan approached with a pair of beer bottles swinging between the fingers of one hand, she shook her head. “Actually, I changed my mind, Juan. Not tonight—I’m too tired.”
     He shrugged. “Maybe tomorrow, huh?”
     “Good night, Anna!” Leena kissed her on the cheek. “See you Sunday.” Lucky Leena: two whole days off.
     Kate said her farewells and slipped into the night. She’d arrived in Granada the previous summer, during a particularly sweltering July, but she still couldn’t seem to catch the relaxed local vibe. Her heels rang on the uneven stones of the narrow road down to the Plaza Nueva, the sound echoing off the metal-shuttered shopfronts. As she crossed into the Arab quarter, known as the Albayzín, something shot out of the shadows and scurried through a patch of moonlight and into the obscurity of the undergrowth at the foot of the Sabika Hill. She jumped, startled, and then chided herself—a cat, she thought. Or maybe a fox. Silly to feel so shaken up because of some small creature that was no doubt a lot more scared of her than she should be of it.
     She followed the course of the River Darro along the main road for a while, then turned left up the Calle Zafra and climbed the narrow street steadily, the pebble mosaics underfoot made slippery by centuries of walkers, lethal when it rained. Approaching the Calle Guinea at last, she dug out her key, clutched it in her palm, letting the tang protrude between her fingers as she’d been taught in self-defence classes. It really wasn’t that sort of place, the Albayzín, though it had an edge to it sometimes, but she was always careful. At that moment she saw the bit of paper she’d taken out of the wall that afternoon fluttering to the ground. She’d forgotten to show it around at work to see if anyone recognized the markings on it. Never mind. There was always tomorrow.
     Crouching, she retrieved it and was about to stand again, when someone said her name. Not a shout but a quiet statement.
     Here, no one called her Kate. No one. Here, she was Anna. Anna Maria, to be precise. Her surname Moreno. It was a common name, meaning dark haired. A small private joke. Even a clue …
     She sprang upright, heart beating wildly, the key in her hand ready to jab. She thought the voice had come from behind her. Her pulse raced. She interrogated her surroundings at speed. But nothing moved in the darkness.
     Stop it, Kate.
     Forcing herself to ignore her terror, she ran down the alley to her door.
     As she reached for the lock, moonlight picked out the web of tiny, pale scars on her forearm.
Publisher: Doubleday Canada