The najashi held forth his hand to usher Telemakos into his study. It always shocked Telemakos how like the emperor Gebre Meskal’s hands the najashi’s hands were, narrow and neat and dark, the palms cool and dry when you touched them. But of course the najashi and the emperor were cousins, countrymen; Abreha was Aksumite by birth, raised on the African side of the Red Sea, like Telemakos. He had been elected to his status as federator of South Arabia, not born to it.

“Let me hear your letter.”

Telemakos was so practiced in evasive deception that he did not even pause for breath when his carefully constructed greeting to his mother made its crucial turn.

“Send my love to my aunt. Now I’m going to the window to watch my sister crawling about the terrace below. I watch after Athena whenever she appears, twice every day, in the morning and again immediately after her noon meal; twice each day I follow Athena with my gaze, and silently send her the love that I also send you.

“I haven’t told you much about my punishment. It’s difficult for the baby as well, indeed for all the household, and I didn’t want to worry you. For this entire season I am not allowed near Athena. Abreha ignored my previous small wrongdoings, but this time I explored the contents of his own desk, though I did it only because the baby thought there would be pictures in it that she liked. So now I am separated from Athena, quarantine championed by the najashi to stop me committing any more disobedience on her behalf.

“I knew what I was doing, but she didn’t. Poor bewildered Athena; unfair exchange, to ask your brother’s help and then be forbidden to see him again! But although I can’t come near Athena, Abreha seeks her company and plays with her and ensures she gets plenty of affection and amusement.

“Sometimes I long for home. Will I ever be able to show Athena Gebre Meskal’s new lion pit? Will she feel at home there, as I did once? Will she hide among the palms of the Golden Court, as I did, watching the courtiers—will she become, my Athena, secret keeper of all imperial gossip, as I did long ago?

“I read over these questions and to my surprise I find they make me laugh. I hope she doesn’t grow up as outrageously behaved as I!

“How I miss you, my dear family: my father, and Grandfather, and Goewin, and you, Mother, more than all.

“The first month of my correction is half finished, as I’ve written. I apologize for having made so much complaint in this letter, but I am under sentence of death if I tell anyone what I learned from the najashi.”

Abreha’s censor’s brush was poised and dripping.

“Give me that. Our covenant is private between us. That letter will be in the hands of half a dozen couriers over the next six weeks, and you risk all of Himyar learning its contents! You’ve scratched it in palm, have you? It will show through the ink if I paint over it. You will have to cut that last sentence out, or rewrite it.”

Telemakos handed him the letter. He watched as Abreha skimmed quickly through the writing. The najashi’s heavy brow and keen black gaze were familiar to him now, but even more so the dark and narrow hands holding the palm strip, for Telemakos never dared meet the najashi’s eyes.

Abreha saw that there was no such final sentence. He gave the letter a contemptuous finger flick, rolled it closed with exaggerated disdain, and sealed it deliberately. Telemakos stood breathless, waiting to be told off or struck for the insolence he had committed. He could scarcely believe his bluff had worked, but the letter was sealed.

“Consider yourself fortunate,” the najashi commented, his voice expressionless. “The monks on Debra Damo would not afford us pen and parchment, in the sequestered imprisonment that my brothers and I all endured as children, under the tyranny of our uncle Caleb when he was emperor of Aksum.” It was almost as if Abreha were talking to himself, he spoke so indirectly to Telemakos. “It was no matter, though, as we had all been taken from our mother so young that we did not remember, and had no need to write to her.” Suddenly the najashi looked up. “You still sign yourself Telemakos Meder. What does Meder mean to you?”

The question took him by surprise. “It’s my father’s name,” Telemakos answered.

“It is the Ethiopic name Medraut took when he came to Aksum,” Abreha said. “Meder, lord of the land. It is not his real name. Meder is an ancient god of Aksum, abandoned for the Christ two hundred years ago and more. For you, now, it is a name that is … inappropriate, and pretentious, as if you were to go about styling yourself after your dead uncle Lleu, the prince of Britain. You must sign yourself Athtar of the sky; the Morningstar, the name given you by your Socotran kinsman, your uncle and master the magus Dawit Alta’ir. You belong to Himyar, now.”

“But I haven’t yet formally pledged you my service,” Telemakos murmured bleakly. He did not want to give up his own name. “And Morningstar was only given to me as a jest.”

“You are not yet lord of any land that I know of.”

Telemakos stood staring down at the patterned carpet. The silk weave was so thick that the najashi’s footsteps had left impressions in it. Telemakos remembered how rough it had felt against his lips when he had knelt against it and begged Abreha’s forgiveness, the night he had broken into Abreha’s writing desk. Now he found himself wishing that he was on his knees rather than standing upright, so he could hide his face.

The najashi looked up at Telemakos from beneath his heavy frown and repeated coldly:

“You sign yourself Meder, lord of the land, and you boast of your disgrace. Do you count yourself so far above other mortals, my shining one, that you make a jest of the order I carry in my sash, and of the iron nails balanced ready to pierce fast your feet and your single wrist?”

The chimes of the alarm bracelet clicked and clinked as Telemakos flinched.

“I must make a jest of it, or I will be sick,” Telemakos said through clenched teeth. “Forgive the jest, my najashi.”

“I shall take you to attend an execution, if you are ignorant as to how it is done,” Abreha offered quietly.

Even though Telemakos had known a threat was coming—after all, he had more or less asked for it—the najashi’s calm menace stopped his heart for a moment.

“Make an answer,” the najashi pressed. “Do you know how it is done?”

“Sir, I do know,” Telemakos whispered. “I do. I saw an execution my first day here.” Then he added in a storm of polite, clipped fury, “It was the crucifixion of a pirate in a public square in al-Muza. I came on it by accident. Athena saw it, too; hasn’t she mentioned it in all her visits with you? She was only a baby. She dreams about it sometimes, she mutters in her sleep. ‘Poor feet. Poor feet.’ You have a stronger stomach than I, my najashi, if you care to witness such a spectacle more than once. I would rather take such punishment myself than give the order to deal it out.”

Telemakos stopped to draw breath. Abreha, too, said nothing for a moment, almost as though Telemakos’s outburst had been a command for silence. Then he asked, frowning but intrigued, “That must have been scant hours before you first came to me. Why didn’t you tell me when we met, if it appalled you so?”

“I did not want to poison our first meeting!” Abreha sat back. He went for so long without speaking that Telemakos felt his initial relief at the sealing of his letter eaten away by evil doubts.

Maybe he has seen through my deceit all along. Maybe he is toying with me.

But the najashi’s voice when he spoke next was unexpectedly mild, a voice of gentle fondness and regret.

“How I wish that you were battling at my side, Telemakos Morningstar.”

He held himself together up the endless flights and across the scriptorium, but as he came down the short stair that led into the Great Globe Room, he doubled up beneath the crystal stars hanging from the ceiling and vomited over the bottom step. Dawit looked up, unseeing, over the top of the abacus he was mending. His fingers did not stop moving, but he gave a snort of disgust.

“You break or foul everything you touch,” the Star Master commented in his usual dry tone. “You are destroying my workplace. Go send for a cloth and a jug of water.”

Telemakos wrote a letter to Medraut containing cryptic warnings for Gebre Meskal of the najashi’s threat to the Hanish Islands. He could not think of a way to mention the islands by name. He reminded his father of the conversation he had overheard between Medraut and the emperor on the night of the accident that had cost Telemakos his arm, when Medraut had derided the value of the islands. Telemakos’s cautious message was so oblique he knew it would be incomprehensible. He sent a similar warning again in a letter to his mother, and read them aloud to Abreha on the same afternoon, one after the other, his stomach churning. Three of the lithe and soulful saluki hounds were curled at the najashi’s side; they held their heads alert and watchful, eyeing Telemakos as though they were waiting for the order to run him to ground.

But once again the najashi rolled and sealed the letters without objection.

When he had finished, Abreha stood up and spread his hand across the middle of Telemakos’s shoulders to steer him out of his study. The inside of the najashi’s heavy signet weighed like lead against the base of Telemakos’s neck; it was still warm with the touch of the wax Abreha had used to seal the letters.

Abreha wears Solomon’s ring and lives in Solomon’s palace, Telemakos thought; Solomon is his ancestor. The najashi rules in Himyar as if by birthright. He styles himself mukarrib, federator, like Himyar’s ancient kings. But he is Aksumite, like me. He was not born to his reign here; he was chosen for it. He is the keystone of an alliance of tribes and kingdoms. He is respected, and he is fair, and he has been kind to me.

Telemakos’s eyes were burning again.

He glanced back longingly at the salukis as Abreha guided him into the reception chamber. He would have given his soul to call one of these dogs his own. He scarcely ever saw them now that he was forbidden to visit the kennels.

As Telemakos was about to step into the corridor where his guards were waiting for him, Queen Muna came in carrying Athena.

She would not have done it if she had known Telemakos would be there. Athena was nearly two years old, rapidly learning to express herself with equal fluency in South Arabian and Ethiopic, and she kept her loyalties plainly clear.

“Boy!” she screamed, lunging toward Telemakos. “Tena’s boy!” She became a demon whirlwind of wild bronze hair and smooth brown limbs, her gray eyes wide and glittering. When Muna did not let her go, Athena bit her. Muna gasped and put the baby on the floor.

Abreha abandoned ceremony. He gripped Telemakos by the back of his shirt, hauled him through the door, and slammed it shut behind him. Then he let go of Telemakos, and they stood still together for a moment, with the waiting guards, listening to the screeching from inside. They could hear Athena scrabbling at the door, and Muna trying to calm her.

“I’m sorry,” the najashi said. “Go.”

“Please don’t hurt her,” Telemakos croaked.

“Don’t be stupid, boy. She’s here to play with the dogs. You know how she loves them.” Copyright 2016 - 2023