“Indeed,” Medraut said. Then he shook with sudden laughter. “Oh, indeed. Abreha the Federator names him Telemakos the Bright One, and silences me!” He bit his lip and raised a hand quickly, warding off another choking blow. “No need, no need, my lord, I am an obedient guest. Will you allow your guards to slack their hold on me, so I may lean forward? I will hold my tongue. Let Telemakos Morningstar show me his maps.”
Telemakos glanced at the najashi, who blinked assent. The soldiers moved aside. Medraut’s throat was scored with faint red streaks where the chains had tightened around it, but he showed no sign of the discomfort, only cocked his head to watch as Telemakos set about unrolling the linen sheets.
It was one of a thousand small tasks that gave him no end of trouble. Athena worked attentively at his side so that they could hold down the map together, and Telemakos was glad of the distraction for her sake.
“Here, Ras Meder, is proof of your son’s growing store of knowledge,” Abreha said. “You’ll recognize the map, I think.” He drew Athena down into his own lap to keep her out of the way. He reached for the length of string the Star Master had put down and absently began to reconstruct the Jacob’s ladder between his own hands. Athena settled comfortably against his chest and pulled at the enticing threads.
“All the beacons in Britain,” Medraut observed. “I surely do recognize it. My father’s queen drew the original.”
He leaned over the chart to study it in concentrated silence. I could have hidden a message there, perhaps, Telemakos thought, if I’d known Ras Meder would see it. I must tell him about the plan to attack the Hanish Islands. The najashi hasn’t got decent maps yet, and can’t get into the fortress, but those agents of his may be in place on the emperor’s ships by now—I must tell Ras Meder, somehow, before he is sent home.
Medraut spoke at last. “Well done, Telemakos Morningstar,” he said warmly. “Your aunt Goewin should see this.”
Wild inspiration seized Telemakos.
“Send her my love when you tell her about it,” he said.
GIFTS AND SECRETS
IT WAS THE CODE his mother had instructed him to use in his letters. He was not sure his father would recognize it.
Medraut reached over the map to stop Telemakos’s mouth with a warning finger. He spoke softly, and with deliberation, mindful of the chain that was still wound about his neck.
“I’ll bear your message to her.”
Medraut understood, and was waiting.
Telemakos caught his breath. He was about to launch into the most treacherous perfidy of his life, and he realized it was not fear alone that made him hesitate. Something in the way Athena leaned against the najashi and played the string game with him, so confident and lovingly, made this a cruel and bitter betrayal.
“Athena is like a sandbar in the tide,” Telemakos said. He had started now. He drew another breath and went on steadily. “She’s like a little island impossible to map, always changing shape and size. You spoke such words yourself, Ras Meder, the day she was born, when you thought I was not listening, remember? A little ever-changing island, and the najashi will steal her from you, if you aren’t careful. She’s surrounded by his children and doesn’t know it; she looks at them and speaks their language, thinks they are her own family, and suspects no treachery.”
His father watched and listened impassively.
“Look at her, so content and at ease with the federator of Himyar! Your daughter doesn’t remember anything of the house of Nebir,” Telemakos said, and plunged recklessly further. “Tell our aunt that Athena has forsaken her. She’s like a ship with no loyalty, as easily guided by one hand as another. She’ll soon be more Himyar than Aksumite.”
Medraut’s face was quiet, but his dark blue eyes were ablaze.
“You’d better act soon, if you want to keep her,” Telemakos said to his father. “Or the najashi and his hunting dogs will win her affection from within.”
The najashi seemed absorbed in the game he was playing with Athena, but he surely must be paying close attention to everything Telemakos said. I’d better shut up now, Telemakos thought, or he’ll start to wonder why I keep babbling on like this.
“Isn’t that so, my najashi?” Telemakos finished, and his uncontrollable voice soared over Abreha’s title.
“Aye, I suppose it is,” Abreha agreed mildly. “She is my good companion.”
Muna touched Athena’s springing bronze hair. Athena swatted her hand away absently, then noticed the veil. She reached over the najashi’s arm and grabbed and tugged at the sheer silk. “Where’s Muna hiding?”
“Perhaps I should take the little princess home with me,” Medraut said quietly.
“Sir!” Telemakos gasped in protest. “I meant only—”
Medraut was suddenly intent, with his eyes on his daughter, oblivious to the menace at his throat and the guards at his back.
Athena looked up.
Medraut held out his left palm so that Athena could see the blue serpent and the staff of Asclepius tattooed there. Medraut had used the mark to announce himself as a physician, during the years of silence that had been his private penance for not having died with his brother Lleu in the battle of Camlan. Reaching toward his daughter, he made it seem as if, for a moment, there were a minute, dark dragon nesting in his cupped hand.
Athena ducked beneath the najashi’s arm. She dropped lightly to her hands and feet and crawled over to Medraut, intrigued.
Medraut did not move, watching her, still. He closed his hand.
“Gone,” Athena said. “See that snake again.”
Medraut opened his fingers. His face was expressionless, impassive, immobile as his body.
Athena stood by his side and pointed to the gold dragon that crouched coiled at his shoulder. “Athena see this snake?” she asked politely, careful not to touch without permission.
“Why doesn’t she walk yet?” Medraut asked prosaically.
Telemakos was stunned. It had never occurred to him that his father might have the faintest inkling about when a child should normally take her first steps.
“She should be walking,” Medraut said. “She’s nearly three years old. There’s nothing wrong with her legs, is there? Can she stand?”
Medraut took Athena’s hand and made her step away from him. She swung against his arm and fell over but pulled herself back up. “Athena see your pretty snake, please, Ras?”
“Can she stand on her own? Will she walk with you if you hold her hands?”
“I can’t hold both her hands at once,” Telemakos said.
Athena fell over again. She was doing it on purpose. Medraut looked up from her sharply, giving Telemakos a shrewd, assessing glance. “So you can’t,” he said. “Nor can you lift her anymore.”
Telemakos clenched his teeth. He managed to keep his voice even as he said, “Forgive me the contradiction, sir, but if she holds on I can lift her easily.”
Medraut deftly unfastened his brooch and, letting the folds of his cloak fall away from his shoulders, tossed the golden dragon across the room. It landed in a cup by the door; his aim was effortless and accurate.
“Go get that, if you want it, little princess. But you must walk to it.”
“She does not walk,” Muna said.
It was the first she had spoken since they had all come into the room, and Medraut looked at her. She buried her face in her hands beneath the veil.
“My lady,” Telemakos said, “Athena is an ungrateful little wretch and does not deserve your attention. She doesn’t walk because she’s lazy. She knows I’ll carry her. It’s no blame of yours.”
He caught Athena around the waist and hoisted her to her feet again. “Walk a little—come on, Tena, I’ll hold your hand.”
“Not Tena.” She sat down contrarily. “Athena.”
“And you, Telemakos,” Medraut said gently. “Your maps are very good. I don’t doubt you can draw them from memory. But you can’t lift a child or unfold a sheet of cloth. What else? Can you sleep through the night without screaming?”
But the word came out like the squeal of metal on stone, and Telemakos could not answer.
“Why does he scream in his sleep?” Abreha asked quietly.
Medraut answered with deliberate care. “I took him hunting in the Great Valley of Aksum, two years before he came here, and one day when we had gone separate ways, he was captured by salt traders and taken as a slave to the emperor’s salt mines. He was evilly mistreated there, blindfolded and bound, starved, lashed if he stumbled in his work. It was two months before we found him. He still dreams of it. He does not complain of it, though; perhaps he finds it shameful to speak of.”
Medraut made it sound so simple: an accident, a mistake, while they should have been hunting together. There was no secret mission, no secret name, no need to hide as Gebre Meskal’s sunbird.
“Ai.” The najashi gave a sudden sigh, as though surprised by a sharp pain. “I understand now. Beloved Morningstar, I am sorry. I might have spared you a deal of suffering this year, had I known that.”
“I’m all right,” Telemakos said, embarrassed.
Medraut swallowed again. Telemakos thought he looked tired. He had absorbed the information that could have forfeited both their lives, and turned everyone’s attention away from it, and given Telemakos an alibi for his service to the emperor in Afar. And every word he had spoken had been true. It all appeared effortless, but everything he said was calculated to avoid being cut off by the choking chain, and he must surely guess what a razor’s edge Telemakos walked himself. When Medraut spoke again, his deep, smooth voice rang with challenge.
“I want assurance—” he spoke hesitantly, like a man trying to find his way by throwing his voice in a cavern. “My lord Abreha Anbessa the Lion Hunter, najashi and mukarrib, king of Himyar and federator of South Arabia. Telemakos Meder will not remain in Himyar forever, though you give him another name and raise him in privilege as you would your own children. Give me assurance that he will leave your palace fit for anything his destiny will require of him.”
Abreha got up and crossed the room with his purposeful, loping stride. He stopped at the door. “Give me a minute,” he said. “I’ll make your son a gift, Ras Meder. Wait for me.” Then he addressed his soldiers. “I am going to the kennels. It will take me some little time to descend the stairs and come back. Keep the prince silent while I’m gone.”
Medraut sat taut and motionless, an alabaster statue, with his hands on his knees. After a few moments, when no one moved or said anything, Athena got to her hands and feet and crawled over to the cup where Medraut had thrown his dragon brooch. She pulled herself up to stand at the table and, with a glance over her shoulder to make sure she was not doing anything wrong, tipped up the cup and fished out the pin. She scrambled back to Telemakos on three feet—or anyway on her feet and one hand—holding the dragon carefully in her other hand. Then she sat contentedly to examine it.