Telemakos loved these British maps. They had been made by Goewin’s mother, Ginevra, for her husband, Artos, the high king. It enchanted Telemakos to see and touch things his grandfather had seen and touched, four thousand miles away, twenty years and how many battles ago. Artos the high king of Britain had studied these, made notes on them in his own hand, amended them. Now they lay safe on another drafting table, for Telemakos to read. And he was Artos’s grandson.

The almost irresistible temptation to alter the maps before they went to Goewin, to try to conceal some message in them, drove Telemakos to study them so carefully that he was on the verge of being able to reproduce them from memory. He dreamed about them. He could look beyond the painted lines and see the winding rivers, wider and deeper than any he had ever known, never dry. An image of Hadrian’s Wall, the mortal remains of Rome in Britain, took shape in his mind as he stared at its long path from coast to coast across the island. It seemed to him he could picture it clearly: a vast ridge of rock and earth, stretching ruinous through miles of barren, foreign moor and forest. But there was no one who could tell him what it really looked like. It was the better part of a year since the British ambassador Gwalchmei had left Himyar.

I want to make a map that Dawit can read himself, Telemakos thought. Even if it doesn’t carry any secret meaning. If the magus could read the maps I made, Abreha wouldn’t have to check them. I should like to be able to do something that doesn’t make me feel as if the najashi is always breathing down my neck.


Now all the palace used the name Dawit had given Telemakos in ridicule of his bright hair.


The sound came from below, a hissed whisper. Inas of Ma’in, eldest of Abreha’s foster daughters, stood in the nursery directly beneath the pulley hole cut in the floor of the Great Globe Room. She was looking up. When Telemakos peered down, they were gazing at each other face-to-face, less than two yards between them. Inas had dark brown eyes and thick black hair, and the skin of her oval face was lighter than his own; the people of the Himyar highlands were generally not as dark as the Aksumites. The scratches Athena had torn in Inas’s cheeks had scabbed over. Her face looked dreadful. Telemakos hoped she would not carry permanent marks.

“You’re alone?” Inas’s voice was urgent.

Telemakos blinked at her, the Himyar children’s silent affirmation.

“We thought you would be alone. Queen Muna said she had to take her father, the Star Master, marketing for more paints, since you’re not allowed out to do it for him, and he doesn’t trust anyone else.”

“You will be in trouble if you’re caught talking to me,” Telemakos rasped back.

Inas spoke low and quickly.

“Not much. Anyone caught talking to you will be shut up without food for a day. But you’ll be whipped again, properly, outside at the posts, like a servant.”

“Never believe it,” Telemakos scoffed. “They wouldn’t dare beat me on purpose. Everyone has babied me since I lost my arm. If I take a fall riding, or if I get struck in mock combat when we use the unbarbed staves, they always make a great fuss afterward with salves and painkillers.” These were given to him at the written instruction of Telemakos’s physician father, and paid for by the emperor of Aksum himself, whose pet lion had tried to chew off Telemakos’s arm. Telemakos had grown tired of refusing opium. He took the portions given him and then disposed of them, unused, in the hidden pouch at the back of Athena’s carrying saddle.

“The najashi won’t whip me,” Telemakos added, to pacify Inas, though his confidence in this was hollow.

“He will. They will give you opium afterward, in deference to your father’s wishes, but they will not spare you the indignity. Do you see? Any one of us can have you lashed, just by calling out your name, and all we will pay for it will be a day’s solitude.”

She paused, suddenly, and Telemakos waited, staring down at her torn face, wondering why she was bothering to tell him this when she could instead so easily use it against him.

“We wanted you to know. If you pass us in the corridors we won’t look at you. We all agreed; even the little ones understand. We will act as though we do not know you, but it’s not because we despise you, do you see? It’s because we don’t want you to be whipped.”

She gazed up at him, waiting for an answer.

Telemakos glanced over his shoulder toward the open door that led to the scriptorium, wondering where the librarian was. Harith could be pettily vindictive; he did not like the traffic that the children made through his formerly silent alabaster-roofed hall, since the Star Master had acquired an apprentice who had let his baby sister use the lapis ink blocks as finger paints.

Telemakos looked down through the floor again. Inas was still waiting below, her expression anxious.

“Is your face all right?” he asked.

“My face? Oh, Athena’s scratches. It’s nothing. They’re not deep—she’s only got baby nails. Little monster, she’s so sad; I wish she’d let me hold her. But she only wants you. ‘Boy, boy, where is Tena’s boy,’ she cries, every waking minute.”

“Where is she now?”

“The najashi took her down to see the pet lion. And that creature Menelik is an emotional beast as well, as starving for your attention as your sister! The najashi is still trying to teach him to hunt like a dog, do you know?”

“Yes, he tells me all about his hunting,” Telemakos whispered. “The lion hasn’t caught anything yet.”

“The kennelmen don’t like to run it loose without you there. It’s not so obedient for the najashi as it is for you.” Inas took a deep breath. Then she added quickly, “If you want to send a letter to your mother without the najashi reading it, drop it through the ceiling here when there’s one of us below. If it’s safe we’ll bang the shutters three times, and if there’s no one else in the Globe Room, you can send a letter down.”

If he did that, and any of the fourteen Scions reported it or was caught, by the terms of his covenant with Abreha, Telemakos could be crucified.

“I won’t,” he whispered. “I won’t. It’s a noble offer, Inas, but I don’t want you to be punished with me. Thank you for the offer.” His throat suddenly ached. “Thank you.”

“We are with you,” she said. “We are all with you.”

With that she smiled at him suddenly, then stepped outside his limited view of the room below. He did not dare call out to see if she was still there.

Telemakos swallowed the ache in the back of his throat and sat down again to the map spread over the Star Master’s writing table. But now, after Inas’s hurried vow of secret faith, the names of the rivers and cities ran together in his sight as though he had spilled a pot of ink across them. He dared not change a single pen stroke on these irrelevant documents; Abreha would check them against the copies. Mother of God, Telemakos thought, why am I learning this? What does any of it matter? Why would I ever need to know what water courses run near Hadrian’s Wall?

And still he had not warned Gebre Meskal of the najashi’s threat to the Hanish Islands.

That night Telemakos dreamed he was walking on Hadrian’s Wall. His left arm was sound and whole again, which made his heart sink, for in the back of his mind he knew that invariably some person or creature would hack it off before the dream ended. The mist came down so low he could not see his feet. Coming toward him along the wall in the opposite direction were two shapeless figures, one taller than the other, both black against the gray of the lowering sky. Telemakos knew that one was Gedar. The other he thought must be Anako, the man the salt smugglers called the Lazarus, who had first tried to blind Telemakos and then tried to kill him: the man Telemakos had sentenced to exile. They would have to pass close to each other, for the wall was narrow. Telemakos dreaded that his grandfather’s neighbor would greet him by name and let Anako know who he was. He kept his head down and did not look, but Gedar caught him by the wrist as they came abreast of each other.

“Morningstar,” Gedar sneered, but that was not a name Anako knew, so Telemakos was still safe. He dared not protest or struggle. The merchant’s hand burned like cold fire where it was locked around Telemakos’s wrist, like the icy touch of hailstones, until he could no longer feel his arm.

“So at last you’ve told your emperor all the najashi’s plans for stealing his island fortress. What king would trust you now?” Gedar taunted. “Liar. Deceiver. Traitorous toad. You should be named serpent, not sunbird.”

But it was not Gedar’s voice. It was Medraut’s voice, low and dark and full of music. Telemakos knew he had mistaken both men. It was his father condemning him so poisonously, and the other man was Medraut’s dead brother, Lleu, the prince of Britain, dark-haired and white-faced and imperious. They were allied against him. Telemakos tried to pull free of the cold hand that gripped his wrist; his dead arm came away in his father’s hand. Telemakos fled back the way he had come, stumbling, all out of balance over the old stones of the wall he could not see in the mist around his feet.



THOUGH HALF HIS LETTERS home were truly innocent of any intrigue, Telemakos felt he had to construct pitfalls for himself, to keep him on his guard, in case he should alert Abreha to his change of mood when he was not endangering himself. He took to baiting the najashi.

There are many empty rooms in the Ghumdan palaces.

The najashi likes to play mother to the small orphans.

His spearmen are not so well trained as Gebre Meskal’s.

Telemakos included this last comment in a letter to his grandfather. He meant nothing more artful by it than to nettle Abreha with its scornful tone. When he read it aloud, the najashi stopped Telemakos short and ordered, “Repeat that.”

Telemakos did, and felt himself go cold as he realized how much it sounded like a general’s report.

“And again,” Abreha ordered quietly.

Halfway through his third reading of it, Telemakos faltered, the flattened palm frond trembling so in his grip that he could not make out the writing on it. He went down on his knees with a jangle of silver and bowed his head.

Abreha’s signet ring brushed cool and rough against the base of Telemakos’s skull as the najashi laid his hand over the back of his neck.

“Hush, child.” Abreha spoke soothingly. “To send plainly stated military information to the imperial parliament of Aksum would be a fool’s mistake, and you are no fool. Destroy this letter, and write another.”

Telemakos rewrote it sitting at Abreha’s own desk, beneath the najashi’s watchful, frowning glare, and gave away no hint of the iron menace that shadowed him except in that his shaking pen produced writing that was more unreadable than usual.

He was careful not to mention Abreha’s soldiers again. He had still the threatened Hanish Islands to tell of, and that was a deal more dangerous to mention than the palace guard. He began to look forward to the time when Aksum’s highland roads would be closed by the Long Rains, and he would have a reasonable excuse not to write home. He was rarely allowed a moment’s idleness anyway, and the scheming was beginning to exhaust him. Copyright 2016 - 2023