Dawit spoke suddenly again. “Before Medraut courted your mother, boy, he courted my daughter Muna.”

“Sir!” Queen Muna cried out.

Dawit sniffed. “It was not secret then. Why should it be secret now you are both married, and not to each other?”

Whatever Telemakos had expected the najashi to be hiding from him, it was not this. He felt as though he had been standing by a dark window, and now a curtain was pulled back so that he could see through to another world, full of a new kind of intrigue that it never occurred to him to watch for.

Medraut’s eyes seethed. He did not move or make a sound.

“There is your reason the najashi did not want Gwalchmei as his ambassador, Morningstar,” Dawit added. “He looks too much like his cousin, your father, and lacked your father’s temperance. Gwalchmei was a captivating libertine.”

“Do not shame me,” Muna said quietly.

“Hah!” Dawit grunted. “The boy is the image of his father. Do you think the najashi will allow him to stay in this palace after his voice breaks?”

When the najashi returned to the room, there were two young salukis pressed close against his legs. Medraut smacked his thigh hard with his fist as a wordless exclamation and broke into a real smile of surprise and delight. Again Athena scrambled to the door on all fours, lionlike. She pulled herself up against the belly of a saluki. The dog turned its head nervously and sniffed at her. “Mine,” Athena said. “Athena’s dog, thank you, najashi.”

That made even the guards’ mouths twitch. Medraut laughed aloud.

“I am sorry, my honey badger,” the najashi apologized, getting down on her level as he always did to talk to children. “But these dogs are for your brother. I am sure he will share them.”

Now Telemakos was completely mystified. He stared at his guardian in frozen disbelief.

“For me?” He was sure the najashi meant some mockery or jest.

“Aye, for you, Morningstar. Your father bids me give him assurance of my good intent toward you, and we all know you could use assistance in the hunt. These will be easier for you to manage than a falcon.”

Telemakos’s mind raced. A pair of hunting dogs? A pair! Two of the najashi’s gazelle hounds for my own? The last one he gave away was a gift for the emperor of Aksum. What is going on?

They were a matched pair, an identical hound and bitch, not a year old and not quite full grown. Their legs and bodies were the pearly golden white of old ivory, or new cream, or Telemakos’s own pale hair. Their long, silken ears and feathery tails were red as copper.

“You cannot possibly …” Telemakos moved to kneel formally before Abreha, with his head turned aside in disbelief as much as humility, and muttered, “My lord najashi, this is a gift for a king. I do not deserve this.” He drew a shaking breath, burning with shame at having to accept such a gift bare minutes after attempting something close to treason. “Never in a thousand years would I deserve such dogs.”

“I do not doubt that you are right on both counts,” Abreha replied dryly. “But they are yours. My gift to you is my pledge to your father.”

Medraut answered him with real warmth and fervor. “Truly, my najashi, you do my son a great honor to gift him so generously. You do us both a great honor. I accept this pledge.”

The najashi strode across the room to join Medraut where he sat. The dogs followed loyally at his heels.

“Touch them, Morningstar. Let them smell you. You are their master now.”

Telemakos had always known he would sell his soul to call one of these dogs his own. He could not restrain himself for one second longer, and his lips were against their feathery copper ears while his roughened fingertips snagged the white silk of their coats. They warmed to the game joyfully, sniffing and butting their heads against him, so that for a moment he forgot everything else.

“Oh, my najashi, thank you!” Telemakos gasped.

Athena was as enraptured as he was.

“Mine, Boy, Tena’s pretty dog,” she argued with him. “Selene, Selene.”

Telemakos laughed. “All right, then, Selene! Selene and Argos! You may share, you selfish thing.”

Does this mean I’m safe? Telemakos wondered, and in his mind felt again the light sting of parchment striking his cheek.

It doesn’t, he decided. The najashi will never trust me. But it is an apology, a payment for that terrible season of discipline and hardship he made me endure.

Overcome with conflicting emotions, Telemakos suddenly threw himself at Medraut and hid his face against his father’s shoulder. He felt Medraut’s arms tighten around him like steel bands. He had never known fear in that harsh embrace, never anything but trust and safety. But Medraut, too, could be merciless. He had whipped Athena’s fingers with strips of hide when, at less than a year old, she had interfered with the sling he was braiding. He had held a knife to his young brother’s throat.

The charm bracelet chattered. Telemakos raised his head. His eyes burned, but he had managed not to weep.

“Give my love to Goewin,” Telemakos reminded Medraut.



HE WAS IN A foul mood in the weeks following his father’s visit: one day, that one day being all they had had. It had not even been a day, really, just those few hours in the najashi’s reception room, with Medraut held in chains the whole of their time together.

So the najashi kept his promise and took Telemakos to see the dam at Marib. The journey, Telemakos knew, was meant to console and distract him, and he resisted consolation. But it worked anyway. Telemakos liked traveling. He liked being part of a royal retinue; it was on one of Gebre Meskal’s hunting parties that Telemakos had first met Abreha, when the najashi had come to Aksum to witness Gebre Meskal’s initiation as emperor. The journey Abreha made to Marib now was a routine check on the dam and the dedication of a monument commemorating its rebuilding. But the najashi traveled with all the trappings of an imperial progress, including his wife and his gazelle hounds and Malika the child queen of Sheba, who was heir to the Marib principality. When the silk tents were raised in Marib’s green fields, it felt like a party.

Athena did not like Marib. The empty windows of the ruined palace there scared her, as did the dark, abandoned pre-Christian temple that was half buried beneath drifting sand. All around the great dam, and the irrigated land that it watered, orange groves stretched so far out on the plains toward the desert that you could not see their borders. But you could not get rid of the sand that blew in from the desert reaches of the Empty Quarter. When the wind blew, Athena rode at Telemakos’s side with her face hidden in his shoulder, or with a length of his shamma pulled over her head, to keep the sand out of her eyes. She spat with vicious disdain when it got in her mouth; you had to filter water before you could drink it. City children were paid to sweep the sand away from the buttresses around the great dam’s sluices.

But Telemakos liked Marib. In part he was honestly impressed at the work Abreha had done here, restoring a piece of engineering a thousand years old, with such painstaking attention that a land of semi-desert was transformed into a green valley that could produce grain throughout the year. And in part Telemakos was simply glad to be out of San’a, and the endless stairways of the Ghumdan palaces.

Telemakos and Athena, and the young salukis Argos and Selene, slept outside the tents on still nights. The tail end of winter was passing; the dry, sandy soil still kept the day’s heat and was warm to the touch throughout the evening. Weaverbirds nested where the grass grew long and insects sang. The wind died after sundown, and you could breathe again without getting sand up your nose. Lines of ancient willow trees radiated outward from the dam, showing where the oldest of the water courses had run, buried now but still nourishing the trees. The warriors and courtiers sat with their dogs beneath the trailing leaves, telling stories and laughing in the dark. Telemakos liked to listen. It was easy to listen to the warriors’ storytelling, and safe.

And he liked the hunting. The najashi had his own hunting grounds here, as well as the right to the wilderness afforded by the principality, and rather than slaughter the local livestock for his retinue, Abreha allowed his men to hunt for themselves. The najashi ran Menelik with the salukis in daily chases across the highland plains. The lion even killed an oryx, which he slunk away from obediently when told to; Menelik was fully grown now, if not as heavy as Solomon had been. Telemakos was happy to let Abreha take mastery over the lion in the hunt, for it left him free to concentrate on his young dogs or his javelins.

He was able to manage the short spears well now, two strapped to his back and a third balanced lightly across his thighs if he was riding, or tilted over his shoulder if he was on foot. Liberated from the exacting work of keeping Menelik in check, Telemakos brought down a splendid ibex, his first kill since before his accident. The great, curved horns were taller than Athena.

“Those will ward off evil and bring rain,” Abreha told Telemakos. “So say our tribesmen. What will you do with such useful talismans?”

“May I send them to my father?”

“May I suggest you send them to Constantine, the high king of Britain?” Abreha said. “Your fatherland is in need of rain. It will make a good impression, and you may send your next trophy to your father.”

Telemakos sighed inwardly; there was no point in arguing if the najashi already had a plan thought out for him. Constantine the high king of Britain was possibly the last person Telemakos would have thought of to honor with a hunting trophy, but he could see the diplomatic sense in the gesture. “Of course,” he murmured judiciously.

The gazelle hounds Argos and Selene came with Telemakos when he hunted. Selene glued herself to his left side, whether or not he was carrying Athena on his hip; the saluki seemed to know by instinct that this was the side of him that lay defenseless. Selene was already intensely loyal, Telemakos knew, to Athena as much as to himself, and would have died to defend either one of them.

He had to fight Athena for possession of the dogs. She screamed and threw a tantrum every time he took them hunting, though sometimes it was just because she wanted to come along, or did not want to leave Telemakos. She would let Muna carry her now, but very few other people. Apart from Telemakos, the najashi was still her favorite. He let her ride on the lion’s back whenever he took her walking around Marib. Her world was so strange Telemakos despaired of her ever becoming reasonable.

“Your choices are: let go of Selene’s neck now, or you may not play with her when I get back from the hunt.”

Athena let go. The dogs were the only thing that made her behave.

The formal dedication of the monument was approaching, but work on the dam continued, and the najashi postponed his return to San’a until the gathering of the Great Assembly. That gave them a full dry season in Marib.

One afternoon, the najashi and his retainers went prowling up the great wadi valley that delivered water to the ancient drainage system above the dam. As the land grew harsher and drier and willow gave way to acacia, the salukis came upon a spoor that excited them. “That’s a male lion, and a big one,” said Tharan, looking up from the tracks.

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