Telemakos went back upstairs, bowed to dismiss his guard, and crossed the scriptorium. Harith the librarian gave him a skeptical glance as he passed; two visiting historians did not look up from their work. Telemakos sat down with his head against his knees on the bottom step of the Globe Room.
“Do you need the basin?” Dawit inquired warily.
“I’m all right.” Telemakos swallowed, and swallowed again, despairing of the long season that stretched ahead of him.
SUNBIRD IN A CAGE
THE WORST OF THE daily march to and from the training ground was passing the door to the children’s room. Behind this door, or through it if it were open, came sounds that reminded Telemakos of what he was missing. Sometimes, the tame songbirds trilled and fluted; the Scions, Abreha’s royal foster children, who would inherit most of Himyar’s kingdoms, sang together to Queen Muna’s lyre; or the increasingly unmanageable Athena screamed in hysterical fury or threw things across the room.
Abreha did not arm Telemakos’s jailers with anything more dangerous than whips. The najashi rotated the watchmen daily, and they were all chosen from his personal guard; they took their orders seriously and were not to be won over by charm or familiarity, or by superstitious fear of Telemakos’s British eyes, steely and strange as witchcraft in an Aksumite face. These men made it clear that playing nursemaid to a disobedient boy was beneath their station, whatever he was and whatever his crime. They tolerated no childishness in Telemakos, treating him almost as a disgraced equal.
One morning Telemakos boldly defied his escort on his way back up the stairs, and turned out of the corridor and through the door into the children’s room.
“Out,” ordered one of the guards.
Telemakos paid no attention. They had to follow him into the room, ducking around the hanging birdcages of willow and silver. Twelve of Abreha’s fourteen royal foster children looked up from their breakfast in surprise. Only Athena and the two youngest Scions, Habib and Lu’lu, were missing; they were presumably in the nursery with Queen Muna.
“Come away now,” the watchman told Telemakos. “Don’t shame yourself before your fellows.”
Telemakos made his way purposefully toward the nursery, and the other guard cracked his whip around Telemakos’s ankles. The sting made him miss his step; his legs were bare beneath his sandal straps. He stopped, not because he was afraid of the whip, but because it was embarrassing. The Royal Scions were all staring.
“Turn and face me,” the soldier ordered. He spoke as calmly as if he were offering Telemakos a second helping of rice. Telemakos hesitated, then confronted his escort squarely.
He saw, as he turned, that the three eldest of the Scions no longer showed any interest in this scene. Tall Jibril, motherly Inas, and the dark, edgy young king Shadi had all bent low over their bowls of honey yogurt.
“Will you stand fast to be disciplined?” the soldier with the whip asked Telemakos. “Or must Butrus hold you still?”
“I’ll stand,” Telemakos said.
The soldier struck him in the face with the tail of his lash, sharply and accurately. It left a narrow, burning blaze across his cheek.
“You are required to do as you are bid,” the soldier told him, with the same sure, controlled lack of excitement. “If anyone asks how you came by that mark on your face, you are to tell them you were whipped for disobedience. Now leave this hall and continue up the stairs to the scriptorium, where the Star Master waits to give you your daily instruction.”
Telemakos, his face afire more with humiliation than anything else, stalked back out to the corridor and continued up the stairs.
“What is that?” Harith the librarian in the scriptorium asked, when he came to the landing to let Telemakos through to the Great Globe Room. He stabbed a short finger toward Telemakos’s cheek, pointing. The soldiers stood waiting and listening, and Telemakos knew he could not lie.
“It’s a lash mark.”
“What were you lashed for?”
Telemakos bit his lip. He was beginning to realize how this particular punishment was supposed to work.
“Disobedience,” he managed to answer, through clenched teeth.
Harith escorted him to Dawit, who was waiting at the door to the Globe Room. “Your apprentice has got a great red burn across his face,” the librarian told him conversationally.
The Star Master’s cataracts so blinded him that he would never have noticed, but he knew the ritual.
“Oh? How intriguing.” Dawit’s tone was as dry as always. “Tell me what’s happened to your face, boy.”
“I was whipped for disobedience,” Telemakos snarled.
“You need not growl at me, or I shall ask them to whip you for insolence as well,” Dawit said mildly. “Come and set out the charcoal drawing sticks. I have a new project I want you to begin.”
That was all Dawit ever said about it. But it was ten days before the bruise faded, and Telemakos was forced to explain it over and over: to Queen Muna’s haughty handmaid Rasha, to the attendants who brought his meals up to him, indeed, to anyone who came into the library. Gedar the olive merchant, who was Aksumite himself and a neighbor of Telemakos’s grandfather, spent long, self-important hours explaining his inventories to the najashi’s librarian, and he always looked up if Telemakos passed. He spoke with utterly false concern. “Your whip weal has nearly gone, young prince, Lij Telemakos. It will stop embarrassing you soon enough. Haven’t you become well behaved, though!”
Telemakos had already sent his aunt a coded message denouncing Gedar’s deep involvement in the najashi’s conspiracy against the Aksumite emperor. It was worse than being lashed to have to be polite to Gedar.
There was also Tharan to face, Abreha’s lieutenant, who directed Telemakos and the najashi’s youthful soldiers in their spear throwing. The cadets themselves were relentless.
“You’ve still got that mark on your face, Aksumite. Tell us again, where did that come from?” They badgered him every morning for ten days. And afterward, as well, they would occasionally remind him: “Hey, Aksumite, didn’t you used to have a red mark on your face? How did you come by that?”
The young spearmen ribbed him equally without mercy over the alarm bracelet the najashi made him wear as part of his ongoing punishment for eavesdropping. Every cast Telemakos threw was accompanied by a flourish of silver bells.
Telemakos detested the alarm. More than anything he hated its gaudiness. It consisted of a narrow silver band fixed snugly just above his elbow, so thickly hung about with filigreed bells and wire tassels that it shivered musically if Telemakos so much as coughed. He had always been able to move with the sure stealth of a leopard stalking its prey, and the perpetual tattling of the charms maddened him. The noise kept him awake, and the bracelet itched. He had tried persistently to work it off in the early days of wearing it; but it was nearly two years since he had lost his left arm to blood poisoning, and his right elbow was impossible to reach with anything more practical than his toes. He could not shift the bracelet.
“Is that a trophy, or a love knot?” the young warriors teased. “Which queenlet has made a favorite of you?”
“Maybe the Aksumite thinks he belongs in Afar,” one of them suggested.
This took him utterly off guard.
Telemakos missed the next throw by so far his lance did not even strike the butt. The sunbird is flying to Afar—How could any of them possibly know?
Telemakos picked up another spear, without altering his line of sight, trying to hide how much the remark had jarred him.
It was three years, three years since he had been imprisoned at the Afar salt mines in the Aksumite desert, spying out smugglers for Gebre Meskal. It haunted him at random, triggered by a smell or a touch, and still, for a moment, he was there. Blindfolded, his arms fixed firmly at his sides with leather cord, he stood feigning deafness and trying not to quake as Anako, the governor of Deire, debated aloud how best to blind him permanently. It was a nightmare that swallowed him whole, even when he was fully awake. It might happen if he vainly tried to catch his balance with his lost arm, or if the wind lifted a fold of his shamma shawl over his face by accident, or at the smell of baboon or a certain combination of sweat and dust. The touch of salt against his lips or fingertips sometimes seemed to burn like flame. The sunbird in Afar! If Abreha should ever know—
Telemakos’s deception there had brought about the destruction of Abreha’s black market in salt. No man alive should ever know. So how on earth could Abreha’s young spearmen know?
After a moment the innocence of the jeer came to him. The Afar warriors wore bracelets to tally the men they had killed. They also wore more sinister decorations, Telemakos recalled, cut from their victims’ bodies.
He threw again. The dratted bells shook merrily at his elbow.
“If I were an Afar tribesman, which I am not, I would wear ornaments that were a deal more fascinating than this.” Telemakos made a rude and vicious gesture, and to his surprise and delight he got a good laugh out of his companions.
“Enough!” Tharan barked.
Telemakos endured the scoffing. He was deeply grateful that he had not been pulled straight out of training and forbidden ever to touch a spear again. If there was any consolation to be dragged from the wreckage of his standing in Abreha’s court, it was that he might one day be allowed to hunt again with the najashi and his beautiful saluki hounds.
Athena treated the queen Muna with savage dislike. She would not let Muna touch her, and had to be cleaned and dressed by Muna’s attendant Rasha and a team of maidservants. Athena stripped the leaves from every tree and vine on the terrace as high as she could reach. She threw a bowl through one of the jeweled windows. She fouled her bed and smeared the mess across the walls in the morning before anyone was awake. In desperation, Muna’s women began to tie Athena down at night. And then she would scream in fury until she could no longer stay awake, and go on sobbing sporadically even in her sleep. Telemakos dreaded the day it might occur to them to drug her. Muna was allowed access to the medicines, Telemakos knew, because it was she who distributed the painkilling powders he was offered if his ruined shoulder hurt him. Telemakos quietly scorned opium, but Athena might not have a choice.
Telemakos overheard Muna weeping, too, confiding in her servant Rasha, who had been her companion since childhood.
“Whatever that boy has done,” the queen sobbed, “is it worth my husband punishing all the household? Have I not been punished already for my own sins? I am second wife to my husband, second mother to these motherless children, never beloved as the first. It is true I have been faithless, but is it not enough I must bear the loss of my own children to plague, that I must also endure this mockery of motherhood?”
Telemakos bit his knuckles as he stared down at one of the fine maps the British ambassador had left behind when he had suddenly gone home, two weeks before Telemakos arrived in San’a. Gwalchmei of the Orcades had brought the British maps to Himyar intending to send them on to his cousin Goewin in Aksum, but the plague quarantine had stopped their onward journey. Now Abreha wanted copies made for his own library before the maps went to Aksum.