He said hesitantly, “Do you remember, my najashi, how I told you I had seen an execution in al-Muza, on my first day in Himyar?”
Abreha said nothing. Telemakos finally dared to raise his eyes from the floor to the najashi’s face, and Abreha blinked his silent permission to continue. His face was unreadable. Telemakos quickly looked at his feet again.
“I had a guide in al-Muza that day, a boy near my own age, the nephew of a tailor called Laban,” Telemakos said. “His name was Iskinder. He told me his ambition was to join al-Muza’s city guard, and though he was bold and strong and honorable, he thought he wouldn’t be accepted in the guard because he had no one to recommend him. I would dare beg your endorsement of Iskinder as your soldier, if you could do that.”
“Of all things, why should you think to ask this?”
The answer that tried to force its way aloud between his teeth could not be spoken. Because, my najashi, someone has to carry out your executions, and Iskinder is willing to do it.
But he managed to answer politely. “Because it’s easily granted, and something you are likely to grant,” Telemakos said frankly, “and if you do, we can both be content to think ourselves virtuous and generous.”
“Is it right that you should volunteer another to pledge me his service, when you withhold your own?”
“Sir!” Telemakos protested. “You yourself asked me to withhold my pledge until you had trained me to use a spear. But that was before you placed me under suspicion as a spy. Would you trust my pledge now?”
“Perhaps not,” Abreha said. “Perhaps not. You are forthright enough in declaring your loyalty to my cousin the Aksumite emperor.”
Not enough, Telemakos thought. I have not been forthright enough. Gebre Meskal does not know the danger that awaits him in Hanish.
The najashi paused, then said again, “And yet I pray that one day you will battle at my side, Telemakos Morningstar.”
SEASON OF STARS
GEDAR WAS NO LONGER in San’a now, but Telemakos had made so much incidental mention of the oil merchant’s name in his coded letters that he felt obliged to mention him in innocence as well. He sent a letter to his father describing last season’s hunt with the lion Menelik. Gedar had been there as an observer. It was old news, but it was easy to bring up naturally, because Abreha was generous in discussing the lion’s training with Telemakos. It was like a flaw in the najashi’s forbidding nature, how eagerly he looked forward to taking Telemakos hunting with the lion again.
Telemakos wrote to Medraut:
You would think it sheer lunacy, this experiment of teaching a lion to hunt like a dog. This lion is not as fast as the wonderful salukis, and much more stubborn. Lions hunt naturally in stealth, by night, creeping up on prey and taking it in a burst of sudden strength; and most of their hunting is down to the females, in any case. Menelik will look like a big black termite mound creeping through the grass, once his mane starts to grow, and scare everything away.
Abreha gave a brief snort of amusement. “I had not thought of that. You do make me look a fool.”
“Shall I paint out this story?” Telemakos offered in bland politeness, his eyes on the floor. He enjoyed needling Abreha about the lion, their one shared interest where Telemakos was on safe footing and certain in his superior knowledge.
“That would not be right,” Abreha answered mildly. “Your father is wise enough to draw his own conclusions. Read on.”
Abreha can use Menelik now, if need be, to make the killing blow once the dogs have brought down their prey. But then Menelik always thinks the kill belongs to him. Abreha may reason with him at such times, but the lion snaps at all the others as though they are his cubs, or his mates, and are trying to cheat him of his masterly share. I hope when my seclusion is through, Menelik will remember me, because the najashi estimates that at one year old Menelik weighs as much as a grown man, and though I, too, have begun rapidly increasing in stature, I do not think I will catch up to the lion.
The najashi skimmed through the letter himself, as he always did, then sealed it without fuss.
“Can you imagine what your father will make of my lunacy when he reads this tale, Morningstar?” he commented. “Don’t be surprised if he forbids you to hunt with me, or orders another long confinement for yourself.”
It would be worth it, Telemakos thought, to know that my letters are going where they are supposed to.
He never received any response from his father. He never received anything from Goewin. But it could have meant Abreha was keeping his mail from him. The najashi had done that before; his family’s letters made mention of some impenetrable circumstance the najashi did not want Telemakos to discover, perhaps to do with the departed British ambassador. The letters arriving from Telemakos’s mother were two months old, and predated his disgrace.
Endless weeks passed. It was nearly a year since Telemakos had first arrived in Himyar. The apricots were harvested, Athena passed her second birthday, and lordlings from all Arabia began gathering for the Great Assembly, the yearly meeting of Abreha’s Federation. Telemakos did not witness any of these things. He knew they were happening, or he heard about them from Dawit. He memorized maps and watched the stars and slept on the floor of the Great Globe Room with his head close to the pulley hole, where he could catch the faint breath of Athena’s sandalwood-scented hair and hear her self-pitying baby sobs as she cried herself to sleep.
Dawit woke him in the middle of one night, kicking him gently. It took Telemakos some time to work out that this was real, and not some new abuse of his own dreams.
“Get up, boy,” the Star Master barked. “Fetch clean tablets and an abacus, and give them to me to carry. You go ahead, up to the gallery on the roof. The librarian says there’s a star shower on.”
Telemakos, struggling from sleep, obeyed numbly. He had got used to navigating the Globe Room in the dark, for Dawit rarely bothered to light a lamp in the evening, and Telemakos still could not master the striking of a flint one-handed to make a light himself. Groping in the gloom, Telemakos found three writing tablets fresh with new wax, and a portable abacus with its own stand. Dawit took the things and pushed Telemakos up the steps that led to the door to the scriptorium.
“Go on, go! We’re missing it! Harith doesn’t know what he’s looking at. Every time a star falls he thinks the world is coming to an end. And anyway, he can’t count.”
Telemakos felt his way along the scriptorium shelves to the narrow stairway that led to the roof. Dawit followed behind, his arms full.
The parapet around the base of the Globe Room’s dome was the highest point of the Ghumdan palaces that could be reached without scaling the slopes of the dome itself. There was scarcely room for two men to pass abreast on this terrace, and the stair that led to it was so narrow and steep that you had to climb it face-to both up and down, like a ladder. Telemakos emerged blinking from the black pit of the stairwell to a warm summer night lit faintly by a sliver of new moon, about to set, and streaked silver above and behind him with falling stars.
He could see the silhouettes of half a dozen men leaning against the dome or the rails of the terrace, and realized suddenly that he had not got dressed. He stood limned with starlight, all strengths and flaws on full view to any whose eyes had adjusted enough to the dark to be able to see him.
“Get out of the way,” Dawit said behind him, gruffly.
Telemakos stepped aside and crouched low on the parapet, partly out of embarrassment and partly because he was blocking the view. He moved quickly, and the silver bells at his elbow thrashed and jangled like an accompaniment to the strange show in the sky.
“Welcome, young prince,” said the najashi’s voice. He spoke in Greek, the common language of the Red Sea.
It was impossible to tell which of the figures was Abreha until the najashi made his way along the terrace to meet him. Abreha took off his own short surcoat and slung the heavy embroidered silk over Telemakos’s shoulders. Then he offered Telemakos his hand and raised him to his feet.
“Come and join us! I’ve saved a good place for you, so you may act as Dawit’s eyes.” The watchers made room for Telemakos deferentially, with good nature. “Come along, stand here. There is room for your abacus by the railing. Dawit, my Star Master, here is a seat for you.”
The najashi’s robe was too broad for Telemakos. Its folds flapped loose and got in his way as he tried to erect the abacus, which he just managed to discreetly save from being knocked over the edge of the terrace. He slipped his sound arm free of the trailing sleeve and let the silk hang precariously from one shoulder, hiding the bare stump of his lost arm. The chimes at his elbow shivered and sang.
“Let me muffle those bells,” said the najashi, untying his own fine sash. “Their ringing will distract us.”
He took Telemakos by the wrist and wrapped the belt of silk again and again around the charm bracelet, tying it off securely. Telemakos watched him do it, aware of the shooting stars littering the sky above him.
“Some princess’s sweetheart, is he, your young astronomer, wearing her gift as a decoration?” jested a man who spoke Greek with a Persian accent.
“He is adored by his infant sister,” Abreha answered lightly. “Little bells keep her entertained. He does not wear them idly, though the right to display some decoration would be his if he were given to vanity. This is Lij Bitwoded Telemakos, the beloved young prince Telemakos, heir to the Aksumite house of Nebir and a favorite of the emperor Gebre Meskal.”
The dark, faceless figures around him bent their heads in respect, there being no room to kneel.
Telemakos stood frozen and astonished, not knowing what to make of this formal introduction.
“Telemakos is apprentice to my cartographer and astronomer, Dawit Alta’ir. We call him Athtar because it is an ancient name for the Morningstar. Eosphorus, in Greek. Lij Bitwoded Telemakos Eosphorus!”
They laughed spontaneously, and one of them clapped. Abreha laughed also. His laughter was light and merry, like a child’s; in the dark it was almost impossible to believe how stern a face he always wore. “You mustn’t be offended that we laugh. Your silver hair is luminous as the starlight, and we have been sitting here worrying over too many falling stars. It is a blessed relief to all of us to look on one just rising.
“These men are of the Ashar and Farasan tribes, here for the Great Assembly of my Federation,” Abreha continued. “And Julian is a legate from Roman Byzantium, here to observe the Assembly. You’re fluent in Latin, Morningstar, half-British as you are? You must translate for Julian. You may serve as his cupbearer during the Assembly and feast, and see that he understands all the talk. He was in Britain many years ago, as legate there when Artos was alive.”
“Thank you, my najashi,” Telemakos murmured.
“Go on, begin your calculations.”
Telemakos stared at the ethereal sky, frowning, and began mechanically passing beads across the wires of the abacus. He had forgotten what it felt like, what it sounded like, to be able to move without making a noise. He held the beads still for a minute and savored the quiet before he began to count aloud for Dawit Alta’ir.