“Look,” said the guard in a deep, rich voice. “Do you know what that is?”
The captain peered at the brand. Telemakos waited still, his joints so strained by confinement that he could hardly bear to contemplate stretching them.
“That is the najashi’s seal,” the captain answered in a low voice. “God help me. If I’d known—”
“You know now,” said the guard. “Get him out of here, and bring him something to make a decent meal before we sail. I’ll see to it he brings no harm to any of your crew.”
The guard lifted him out gently. Telemakos tried to sit up but found he could not straighten his legs, and that his neck was so stiff he could not lift his head. Panic seized him, and he struggled.
“Stay calm,” the young soldier said quietly, working his hands over the cramped muscles of Telemakos’s legs. “There—stretch—now the other.”
The captain helped, silent and guilty. Telemakos rubbed at the back of his neck as the two men set the sluggish blood moving through his body again. The brand was no longer sore. For the first time since Abreha had marked him, Telemakos tried to trace the outline of the najashi’s seal. He could make out the points of the star, but the lion’s head within the border was too fine for him to feel.
He looked up at the guard. The young man was a giant. Telemakos did not recognize his face, but he made a shrewd guess as to his name.
The other stared at him in surprise, and Telemakos laughed, feeling obscurely pleased with himself. It was the young man on whose behalf he had asked Abreha to grant a recommendation.
“Iskinder of the al-Muza city guard! You of all men are commanded to be my watchman on this journey?”
Iskinder answered slowly, “I know you.” He blinked in affirmation. “So I do. We met in the leatherworkers’ suq, two years ago, and you had just stepped off an Aksumite ship. You were there with your sister and a lion. You gave your blessing to a crucified spy.” Iskinder drew a breath. “You swore you would rather—” He stopped.
“—take such punishment myself than have to deal it out,” Telemakos finished for him, gritting his teeth. He pushed himself up on one knee, getting ready for the effort it would take to stand. “So I said.”
“You were right. It’s a hateful task.”
Telemakos shivered involuntarily beneath Iskinder’s steely hands. Iskinder suddenly let go of him and drew back by a pace’s length, leaving Telemakos a clear space in which to get to his feet himself.
Telemakos stood stiffly. The captain gave him his satchel.
“You’re to answer to me,” said the captain. “Iskinder is your guardian, but he has no right of command over you. It’s a good thing you understand each other.”
THE VOYAGE TO THE disputed Hanish Archipelago was swift but rough, and Telemakos was so wretchedly seasick throughout the day it took to get there that he thought his impending execution would bring nothing but relief in comparison. But soon enough they reached the looming volcanic peaks. In the shadow of Hanish al-Kabir the captain told him, “There’s no landing place for a ship other than at the prison, on the western side of the island. We’ll approach from the north, so they don’t see us, and your guard can take you ashore over the reef. We’ll follow you down the coast. There’s not much tide here.”
A thin mist of dull green scrub covered the lower slopes of lava. Below that, the coral sands shone white as bone dust. Iskinder paddled Telemakos to shore in a narrow hawri canoe and left him on the beach with a day’s water and a box of wax tablets. In the afternoon Iskinder picked him up three miles to the south. The next day Telemakos spent shipboard, while the captain took soundings and Telemakos plotted them, so that they were charting the water as well as the land. They slowly made their way around the island.
To Telemakos, Hanish al-Kabir meant prison and plague, thirst and breathless heat, exile and war. And it was true that the island was nearly as dry as the Salt Desert. But it was so beautiful. On shore, alone, Telemakos would come around the curve of an inlet and find himself faced with a cliffside of flawless black rock, as sheer and smooth as silk, shot with veins of green like a dark emerald. The rock pools were seething with life: fish more bright than jungle birds, fish like needles of iridescent glass, fish disguised as underwater flowers. Flamingos and spoonbills stalked among the coral in clear pale green water. Dolphins leaped beyond the breakers, where the volcanic slopes dropped steeply beneath the sea.
The beauty of it went to his head. Alone on the beach, Telemakos felt he owned it. Hanish al-Kabir did not belong to Abreha, or Gebre Meskal; neither one of them had ever set foot on it. It belonged to him, now, for every second of his limited life span that he stood as an illegal intruder on the shore with his ankles in the purling combers; the empty kingdom of sea and sky and sloping rock did not belong to him by right of deed or title, but by right of his being there when no one else was, by right of his astonishment at its unacknowledged beauty, and by right of his being the first to capture it truthfully in a map.
Each evening Telemakos transferred his day’s notes to parchment in diligent detail. He took over the space at the bottom of the stepladder to the rowers’ benches, out of the wind but still in the reach of daylight. He usually had some room to himself here, because the oarsmen preferred to sit above, in the full light and air, when they were not on duty. Telemakos spread his equipment on the floor and over the benches, working frantically in the scant minutes before dark fell; this final hour of the day was the most demanding for him, when his most precise work had to be done at top speed. Telemakos held the parchment in place with knees and toes, trimmed and cleaned his brush with his teeth, and deciphered his notes in the wax with his fingertips when he could no longer see them plainly. When he delivered the finished work to the captain and sat down on the deck to eat supper with Iskinder, he always felt exhausted and triumphant, as though the race against darkness actually pitted him against a physical opponent. Iskinder laughed at his ink-stained mouth.
“You are supposed to be inconspicuous!”