“Mother of God, you shame yourself.”

The baby was still sitting on his lap, but now the najashi did lift her to the floor. She stayed leaning quietly against his knee, sensing that she had not entirely been dismissed.

“I never thought to hear such narrow, blind intolerance from you, you of all, you, who have your mother’s African skin and your father’s North Sea eyes. You are blood kin to my dead children. Do you deny your great-uncle the Star Master? Do you wash yourself of Sheba and Qataban, whose future sovereigns adore you? You call yourself Aksumite; do you bear no allegiance to Goewin of Britain? Who are your people, Athtar, Lij Bitwoded Telemakos Eosphorus?”

The najashi picked up his lamp and stood up. “You shame yourself,” he repeated quietly. “You are justly condemned. I shall leave my guard outside your door, as befits an arrested traitor awaiting sentence. But they will not disturb you. Put your sister to bed now.”

He turned back at the top of the steps.

“I never sent a single one of your letters home,” he told Telemakos. “I could not see your hidden treachery, but you are trickier than a hunted lizard, and I knew it must be lurking there somewhere. I thought to spare you the fault of sending them, so I burned each one as soon as you left my study. Gebre Meskal discovered my plans on his own.”

The najashi took a deep breath, and added bitterly, “Nor would I ever harm that child beside you, though you knew all the secrets of Rome and Persia, and I thought I could get it out of you by plucking one hair from her head. You are thwarted by your own guilty conscience.”

He closed the door heavily behind him.

Telemakos knelt staring at his sister without seeing her. His treachery was real, even if his letters had not been sent. He had spoken aloud the information that damned him now, in the coded message to Goewin he had given his father.

Athena pulled herself to her feet, holding on to his shirt.

“The najashi did tell me what to say,” she pointed out.

“You did well, Tena,” Telemakos whispered.

“Not Tena. Athena.”

“Athena. You did well, Athena.”

He hugged her close against him and buried his face in her hair. The sandalwood scent was nearly gone; it had been her baby smell. She was different now, trying so hard to be grown up. She changed so quickly.

I will never see her walk, now, Telemakos thought; nor hear her say my name.

“Little Tena,” Telemakos whispered, spilling hot, silent tears into her neck. “I mean, Athena. Oh, my sister … ” He clutched her close against him, choking with grief: not because he faced losing his life, but because he faced losing her.

Will he make it a public execution, like the one we saw in al-Muza? Telemakos wondered. Will Athena have to see? What will they tell her has happened to me? What will they do with her after?

He thought, I must get her away from me before it happens. I have got to let her go.

“Athena,” he choked quietly, speaking into her neck. “I’m going to go away. You may not see me again after tonight …”

“Boy?” she said uncertainly.

He made her sit so that they were face-to-face in the dark, and tried to be as serious and as clear as he was able. “You won’t see me again. Just as you won’t see Menelik again. You must kiss me good-bye now, and after this you have got to learn to walk by yourself, and behave for Muna and the najashi and the others who will take care of you—not like last time, when you set fire to the trees and made messes everywhere.”

He could feel her shoulders fall. Her whole frame seemed to crumple, and she began to sob.

“I will try to send you home to our mother, Turunesh, and to Ras Meder. You remember Ras Meder, with the snake in his hand?”

She cried tragically. She stood against his shoulder with her smooth brown arms around his neck and wept. “I do not want Ras Meder! I want to be with you!”

He held her close, his eyes closed, unable to speak.

Then she sat down. She grabbed the parchment map at his side and beat it against the ground and tore at it with her teeth. She threw it across the room and screamed in fury, “I am not good! I will make a mess! I will bite them and hit them and throw the rice again, I do not want to see you pinned up on a stick like the lion with blood on your feet! That is what they did with the lion, I saw it, the najashi did lie to me when he told me it went away, and I will not be good!”

She threw herself at Telemakos again and clutched him around the neck frantically. “Stay with Athena, Boy,” she sobbed. “Stay with me.”

Telemakos whispered numbly, “I can’t.”

It was true; that was what had happened to Menelik’s skin, before it went to Goewin. Athena must have seen it and said nothing. What else did she know; what else did she see?

Telemakos sat in the dark, clinging to her while she heaved with angry sobs, and after a time, through the chill that seemed to have taken hold of his mind, an idea came to him.

“Listen, Athena,” Telemakos whispered. “If you promise to be good, and to eat your food nicely and let Muna get you dressed and washed, and try to walk instead of being carried all the time, I will give you my salukis.”

“I don’t want dogs. I want you.”

“I won’t be here. Listen, Athena, these are your choices. You can have the dogs and be good, or you can have no dogs and be wretched. Which do you choose?”

“I don’t want dogs!”

“You get to choose dogs or nothing.”

She burst into tears again. He held her on his lap, his own tears making her hair wet, but then she finally made up her mind, sobbing in the pitiful way she did when she felt sorry for herself. “I will have the dogs then, and walk by myself, and not bite Muna. Is it all right if I am crying, Boy? Will I have the dogs if I’m crying? I don’t know how to make my eyes stop.”

“It’s all right if you cry,” Telemakos said softly. “Muna does not mind children crying. She’ll understand. The Scions will understand, too.”

For though they did not often speak of their own lost parents, their dead sisters and brothers, grief was a crippling wound suffered by all Abreha’s foster children.

He let her curl against his side with one hand in his hair to go to sleep, as usual. Telemakos lay still and quiet until her small, smooth fingers fell away, relaxed, and she was unlikely to wake again soon.

“My lovely, bold Athena.” He kissed her on the forehead. “Sleep well, my sister, my goddess.”

She growled to herself in her sleep, dreaming about her salukis.

Telemakos stood up and stripped off his shirt. The noble chieftains of his homeland in Aksum would often come before their sovereign naked to the waist if they had a favor to beg; the gesture would not be lost on the najashi.

Telemakos left Athena sleeping under the false stars and lowered himself through the pulley hole.

He swung for a moment by his fingertips before dropping to the floor of the nursery with a thump and a jangle. Lu’lu sat up, looked at him, then lay back down and turned over to go back to sleep. Telemakos recovered himself and went through to the children’s room. The seven eldest of the Scions were sitting in a circle playing Honest Man, Thief.

“How did you get in here, Morningstar?” Malika said. “Come and join the game. We need a vizier; every roll of the bone turns up another soldier, and no one has had any tasks set them yet.”

“I can’t. I—”

They waited, all looking up at him expectantly.

“I am in disgrace again,” he said, his voice scarcely more than a whisper.

Their gasp of sorrow and disbelief came out in unison, and again Telemakos was so griefstruck that for one blind moment he could not breathe.

“What may we do?” Inas asked in a low voice. “We will do anything we can.”

“Thank you,” Telemakos said. “Don’t tell anyone you’ve seen me.”

They watched in silence as he crossed the room beneath the bone and silver birdcages.

“We are with you,” Shadi and Jibril said to his departing back.

“We are all with you,” Inas echoed.

Telemakos no longer needed to muffle the charms at his elbow if he wanted to move in silence. He made his way through Ghumdan’s marble corridors and no one heard him; no one saw him.

The najashi’s own guards, outside Abreha’s apartment, were chatting together in normal, relaxed voices. Telemakos came as close as he could without actually touching them and took bitter pleasure in surprising one of them into dropping his spear.

“The najashi said I can speak to him whenever I want,” Telemakos muttered petulantly, falling to his knees with a deliberate and satisfying commotion of tinsel. The soldier snatched up the spear and pressed it against Telemakos’s bare ribs, and the other held a long knife at his throat. Telemakos was determined to make them feel like a pair of idiots. He shrank from the steel and scrubbed at his nose as if he were trying not to cry. He let the bells at his elbow plink and prattle.


The soldiers gave each other quick, accusatory glances.

“Didn’t you hear him?”

Telemakos bowed his head. “Please don’t hurt me. The najashi is expecting me.” He shook the charms again. “I startle people everywhere I go,” he sniffed. “I’m sorry.”

They lowered their weapons. Telemakos was sure he looked pathetically harmless, a frightened, one-armed boy wearing only a kilt. But all the palace knew he had slain two lions, unaided, in the past season. The guards glanced at each other uneasily.

“Stay with him,” said the spearman. “I’ll step within.”

He did, and after a few moments, beyond the door and the silken arras that covered it, Telemakos heard the murmur of voices. He waited, and soon Muna came into the hall. Her own bracelets chittered. She wore an astonishing surcoat figured with pomegranates, each fruit outlined with gold thread and seeded with what looked like real rubies. For a long moment she said nothing but stood quietly, gazing down at Telemakos kneeling there; then she knelt beside him with her palm laid gently on his good shoulder.

“Morningstar, it is late.”

“I seek a petition of the najashi,” Telemakos said.

“Does the Star Master know you’re here? Did he send you?”

She means, did he let me past the guards, Telemakos thought. So she knows I am in disgrace again.

Telemakos whispered, “No one sent me.”

Muna’s hand trembled against his cold skin like a leaf in the wind tugging at its stem. Telemakos glanced up at her through his lashes. She met his gaze for a moment, as she had done on his first night in San’a.

“I would speak with the najashi,” Telemakos repeated.

“Come in, then,” Muna said, raising him to his feet. Telemakos was taller than she was. “My husband is still at his desk.” She led Telemakos through her chambers without taking her hand from his shoulder, until she left him alone so that she might forewarn the najashi. After a short while she came back and wordlessly waved Telemakos within.



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