“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.”