To the noble Abreha Anbessa, najashi etc., a copy of a declaration to the Aksumite emperor Gebre Meskal, from Constantine son of Cador, high king of Britain. Translated and transcribed by the hand of Priamos Anbessa of the Aksumite house of Lazen and Ambassador from Gebre Meskal to Constantine.
Whatever it was, it was not a warrant for his execution. It was a copy of a letter to Gebre Meskal from Constantine, Britain’s high king. It had been dictated to Priamos, Britain’s Aksumite ambassador at the time the letter was written, who, like Abreha, had been trained as a translator. Telemakos skipped down the page to read what Abreha had written at the bottom, in South Arabian, on that evening when he caught Telemakos ransacking his study:
I, Abreha Anbessa, mukarrib over the Federation of the Himyarite tribes and kingdoms, have read and understood. As of this writing Telemakos Meder is unaware of his British duty. Toward my benefit and the boy’s own safety he shall not know while he remains my ward, nor shall any other man of my kingdom. In my care he shall not be addressed by his British title nor by his father’s name. I may not destroy this document, my proof of what I hold, but this day I reseal it against prying eyes, and bind the child’s secret with a lock of his own hair. Any who finds this sign and my double seal broken, or who has not my word, reads this without authority.
Telemakos gnawed at his lower lip, frowning.
What is this? Abreha said it was a death warrant, didn’t he? What did he say—
In the hands of your enemy this is warrant for your execution. But let us keep it safe in the hands of your friend.
So what is it?
Telemakos held still and listened. All was silent on board; the sea lapped against the hull of the ship, the floats and buoys rattled, and somewhere on shore came the ringing of a lone hammer from the obsidian works. That was all the sound there was. Telemakos bent quivering over the hated, mysterious parchment and read Constantine’s message to Gebre Meskal and Abreha:
The high king sends these words:
“This evil plague has cost me more than life itself, for I have lost my queen and two small children. I must marry again, but I am sick at heart in doing so, and fearful of my own mortality. Until I may declare otherwise, I name as my heir Telemakos Meder, grandson to my lord and late king, Artos the Dragon. The child has been raised an Aksumite citizen, but his father, Medraut son of Artos whom you name Ras Meder, will attest to his British royalty.
“Goewin, Artos’s own daughter, has long sworn to Lij Telemakos’s suitability for this position, and once proposed to make him Artos’s heir herself. So I name him prince of Britain, to become high king after my death, and beg your protection of him until such time as he may be needed to fulfill his duty in the land of his fathers.”
Telemakos stared blankly at the page, trying to comprehend what he had just read.
I name him prince of Britain, to become high king after my death.
He read it again, carefully, and then again, with Abreha’s postscript.
Toward my benefit and the boy’s own safety he shall not know while he remains my ward, nor shall any other man of my kingdom.
“Prince of Britain,” Telemakos whispered aloud.
This is what Goewin was trying to tell me. He became a young lion. And I nearly guessed it, too; I dreamed of Lleu the night after I read her letter.
Telemakos laid down the page and touched the branding at the back of his neck.
He thought: Abreha has known this since the day I found the map of Hanish in his office. No, before that. He has known it as long as I have lived with him. This is why he kept my letters from me. This is why he would not let my father talk to me. This is why he has no British ambassador; anyone from Britain would have told me.
A cold wave of understanding took him with all the violence of a winter’s monsoon.
Abreha has been holding me hostage for two years.
Oh, the serpent, the serpent, how he has deceived me!
The moon had traveled more than ten degrees up the sky since Telemakos had found the letter. He looked up, and felt a stab of panic at the time he had wasted.
Should I take this with me, he wondered, looking at the page. The parchment rippled silver in the moonlight, the blocky Roman letters as black against it as the lava slopes of al-Kabir. There is nothing you can take from me which I would not forgive you, Abreha had told him. Except knowledge.
No, I can’t, Telemakos decided. It would probably be ruined in the sea if I took it. I suppose it doesn’t matter; I meant to destroy it anyway—but now that I know what it is, I don’t really want Abreha to know I’ve seen it. I’ll leave it with him. But I’ll have to—
The desire to pay back deception for deception was irresistible. Telemakos nearly laughed aloud, wild with mirth.
I’ll have to reseal it.
He gently coaxed the ring from Abreha’s hand and set to work at the najashi’s desk. He had to hold a strand of hair fast in the corner of his mouth while he hacked it off with Abreha’s knife, and he burned himself with the sealing wax in his nervousness. It was a murderous fiddle teasing the lock of hair through the slits in the parchment, but he managed it at last. Telemakos slid the ring over his index finger so he would not lose it in the dark, crept back to the sleeping king, and folded the sealed letter back inside Abreha’s sash. The heavy signet caught the light of the moon and winked like a fish scale against Telemakos’s ink-stained fingers.
Deception for deception, Telemakos thought. I’m going to keep his seal. Like Menelik did with the Ark of the Covenant, when he fled from Solomon. I wonder what Abreha expects as my ransom.
He tucked Abreha’s ring in his cheek. It was too big for him to wear comfortably, and he did not want to risk losing it in the water. He took off his shirt and sandals, and dressed in nothing but his kilt, slid down one of the tie lines into the harbor.
He could not lower himself by degrees, and fought against his weight in his effort to avoid the noise of a splash. Wherever his skin met the rope it was stripped like meat. Telemakos gasped as the burning salt water closed over the raw flesh, and clung close to the mooring for a minute, adjusting his body to this strange new world of water and darkness. He kept his lips pressed together fiercely, sipping air through the corner of his mouth. He was determined not to lose Abreha’s signet.
There. So, next. I go on.
The children of the Aksumite highlands were not swimmers, but Medraut had seen to it that Telemakos could manage himself in deep water. It did not frighten him, and he knew he had not far to go. He made his way from line to line and at last to the shallow water of the coral beach. A prison guard waited for him there, carrying a dark lantern and a long knife.
Telemakos wiped his nose and coughed, and the ring was cupped in his fingers. He knelt, and the ring was hooked over one of his narrow toes with the intaglio curled tightly under the ball of his foot, covered in sand. Telemakos raised his head and said loftily, in his most formal, palace-polished Ethiopic, “Deliver me to the warden.”
The patrolman said quietly, “Just who the devil are you?”
Telemakos resisted the wild temptation to introduce himself as prince of Britain. His Aksumite title was a deal more probable.
“I am heir to Aksum’s imperial house of Nebir,” Telemakos said, with no less arrogance, but with such sure authority that the man held quiet and let him speak. “I have been made hostage by the Himyarites, and I beg you to deliver me to the sanctuary of my own people.”
The sentry gazed down at the dripping, half-naked boy who knelt before him, and said, “Minor Aksumite prince, or runaway oarsman? How am I to tell?”
“You must surely know that none of these fighting ships are manned by chattels,” Telemakos answered evenly, “and should you shine your lamp direct upon me, you will assure yourself why none would want my service as his oarsman in any case.”
The guard sheathed his knife and slid open the shutter of his lantern so that the light fell full in Telemakos’s face. Telemakos blinked and winced away; the light followed his glance, and spilled over his bare and glistening shoulders. There was a moment of stillness.
The man cleared his throat and shuttered the lamp again.
“I see. Come, then.”
The sentry drove Telemakos before him, shivering, as they sought out several other guards and told them where they were going, and warned them also to focus their attention on the beach where Telemakos had turned up, should the self-styled heir to the house of Nebir be hunted or prove to be lying, and then, with increasing hope mingled with the fear that he would never really get away from the najashi, free, still with Abreha’s signet ring now clutched undiscovered in his flaming palm, Telemakos came into the gatehouse of the emperor’s prison.
A HANDFUL OF OBSIDIAN AND PEARLS
THEY HELD HIM, GUARDED, in a windowless room of black stone like a cave. They had a brief argument over whether to wake the governor of the island and decided that they would. No one had ever turned up on the doorstep of the prison on Hanish al-Kabir and begged to be let inside. Telemakos stood quietly picking his hair out of Muna’s plaits with thumb and forefinger, as much out of a sudden urgent need to put Himyar behind him as to hide the ring in his palm.
After a short time the governor came in, hastily dressed but wide awake. He was a short, broad-shouldered man with gray hair, and he had the unmistakable hard authority of an old soldier, probably a veteran of the last conflict between Aksum and Himyar. Telemakos bowed and knelt, waiting for permission to speak.
The man drew a deep and shuddering sigh before he said anything.
“Lij Bitwoded Telemakos Eosphorus.”
Telemakos glanced up, startled.
“How do you know me?”
“How should I not know you? Have I not sat all this week in negotiation with a collection of nobles from three empires, arguing over your fate?”
Telemakos narrowed his eyes, random scraps of knowledge locking into place like fragments of a puzzle. All the commotion over Anako’s release had been part of Abreha’s design, a smokescreen to keep Telemakos unaware that he himself was the real object of everyone’s attention.
“Lij Telemakos, you look cold,” the warden said. He unwrapped his own shamma shawl and threw it over Telemakos’s maimed shoulder. He raised Telemakos to his feet. “Please, your highness, do not kneel to me.”
The sentries bowed their heads, and Telemakos’s heart swooped nearly into his throat at being addressed so formally. Prince of Britain. He tucked the ends of the shamma in place, embarrassed at his sudden elevation from runaway bondservant to the dramatic focus of conflicting nations. “God reward you, sir,” he said quietly.
“Get me a hawri,” the warden told the sentries. “We’ll take him across to the general.”
Telemakos was escorted, now, rather than driven. They took him back to the water’s edge and helped him into a canoe. His deliverers carried no light and crossed quietly to the Aksumite ships. In the dark, men whispering hoarsely to one another in Ethiopic fixed him in a rope sling and lifted him on board.
In the lantern light on this new deck Telemakos saw the face of the man who met him there: a familiar, heavy, disapproving brow and high, narrow cheekbones. There was no ring decorating the dark, fine hands that held the ends of the rope that was fixed around Telemakos’s waist; the ring that should rest there was on Telemakos’s finger now, clutched tight in his palm, damning him. Telemakos gave a wordless cry of despair, sure that Abreha had second-guessed him yet again. He tried to throw himself backward into the sea.