Rasha, the queen’s haughty handmaid, stood holding the door open for him.
“Where is Athena?”
“With the najashi. He has kept her by him all this day.”
“And with my father? With my father, am I right? Why only the baby, why not me as well? Ras Meder wouldn’t even look at her, most of her first year alive! Why hasn’t he sent for me?” His voice cracked plaintively over the final word, and he coughed to cover it.
Rasha looked past him, into the room, to where Muna was presiding over the children’s meal.
“You surely know the najashi has not allowed it,” Rasha said sharply, in a crisp, clipped voice. “At any rate you have not been singled out for disapproval, Morningstar, because my lady Muna has been banished from his presence as well. Medraut of Britain is welcome to visit with his daughter, but not with his son; welcome to visit with the najashi, but not with the najashi’s queen. Who can fathom the najashi’s rulings?”
She ushered Telemakos into the room and closed the door behind them. Muna looked up. Her strange blue-green Socotran eyes were pink rimmed. “Don’t mock the boy, Rasha,” she said quietly. “He has a right to wonder.” She turned her pale gaze on Telemakos. After a pause she said, “When supper is finished, we will go together to see your father. You are to bring your linen maps to show him, those you’ve been making for the Star Master to read. Rasha, get me a veil ready; I shall go formally dressed.”
She led Telemakos downstairs to Abreha’s apartment without speaking, lighting their way with an old alabaster lamp shaped like an ibex. Telemakos felt like a conspirator. Muna was demure, not defiant, and Telemakos had never known her to cross her husband in anything. But Telemakos felt that he was doing something faintly illicit, following the white-gold light and the faint glitter of Muna’s dress through the labyrinthine marble stairways of Solomon’s ancient palace. When Muna glanced back at him, only her eyes were visible above the veil, and he seemed to be following a stranger.
And all the way down the steps he worried at the thought: I must tell Ras Meder about the Hanish Islands. I must tell him about the plot against the emperor’s armada. How can I do it? The najashi will never leave us alone together. He said he’d stop my mouth.
In the najashi’s reception room Medraut and the Star Master sat cross-legged, facing each other. Medraut had his hands spread before him, holding up a complicated maze of looped thread; Dawit was picking and pulling the pattern into a new design, his sensitive fingers counting lines and spaces while his milky eyes stared straight ahead in concentration. Watching them, deeply absorbed, Athena sat quietly in the najashi’s lap. On either side of Medraut an attendant waited, alert, each poised on one knee with his fists closed against his chest.
Muna went in first. Telemakos stood on the threshold behind her, hardly daring to breathe. Dawit heard them there and looked toward them vacantly. “Welcome at last, Morningstar,” he said. “The baby kept pulling at her father’s hair, because it looks like yours, so we thought she would like a string game. We are telling the story of Jacob’s dream.” He lifted the strings from Medraut’s hands, pulled his own hands apart, and made the thread go taut and tight into a new pattern of three interlocking stars. “Come in, come in.”
Medraut sat back and rested one arm idle across a raised knee. The familiar odd, critical half smile played about the corner of his mouth as he watched Telemakos come forward. Telemakos met his smoke-blue gaze steadily; Medraut and Goewin, alone of all the adults he knew, demanded his respect by forcing him to look them directly in the eye.
White skinned, white haired, Medraut seemed impossibly alien in the najashi’s chambers, and Telemakos realized suddenly that his father was dressed as a British native. Medraut’s kilt and tunic were of some dark, soft animal skin, and his boots were of the same stuff, supple and shining; over his shoulders hung a swath of fine wool, like a shamma but wrapped differently, woven in a chessboard pattern of blocks of green and blue and brown and gray. The cloak was pinned with a gold brooch in the shape of a snarling dragon. There was a knot of gold in his earlobe, and his pale hair was swept back into a single plait.
He looks like a king, Telemakos thought. If he were wearing a crown, you would mistake him for the high king of Britain. He is more regal than the najashi himself.
Medraut lifted his hand toward Telemakos in mute command. Telemakos suppressed the babyish urge to burst into tears and dive sobbing into his father’s arms; he understood that Medraut wanted Telemakos to acknowledge him with a formal greeting. Telemakos knelt before his father. He laid down the rolled maps that he carried, took the offered hand, and kissed it courteously. At Telemakos’s side, again like his conspirator, Muna also knelt. Telemakos held fast to his father’s hand.
“Look, Boy, that is the Ras,” said Athena helpfully. “The prince.”
“Ras Meder,” Telemakos agreed.
“That is our mother the prince.”
The Star Master spluttered with laughter. His fingers were still webbed in the string stars, waiting for Medraut to take his next turn at them.
Telemakos bit his lip. “You mean father, little Tena. He is our father.”
Athena wriggled out of the najashi’s lap and shuffled across the carpet to sit between Telemakos and the queen. “The Ras has got a snake in his hand.”
Medraut, still smiling his faint smile, tolerantly turned over the stiff fingers of his left hand to reveal the tattooed serpent hidden in his palm.
“I know, Tena,” Telemakos said. “I have seen it before. My lord—Sir—” The word came out as a ridiculous squeak. Telemakos choked, and swallowed. “Peace to you, Ras Meder, and welcome to San’a.”
“Indeed,” Medraut said dryly, and raised his chin with the slightest jerk, as if in defiance.
There was a fine chain wrapped twice about his throat. Telemakos had at first thought it to be a fastening of his cloak. It was of iron, not ornamental; its tails were thrown back over Medraut’s shoulders. Telemakos saw now that each of the kneeling attendants held an end of the chain. If they pulled on it, they would choke Medraut.