“Two at once, just then, the trails lasting five seconds. One with a long track of twenty degrees of sky, and the other bursting like a fireball at the end of its track …”
He stared overhead, waiting for the next. Gebre Meskal’s astronomer had also been in the habit of counting random falling stars, fewer and fewer every year since Telemakos became his student. Telemakos, born of a generation too young to remember the quiet skies before the great comet of ten years ago, did not find starfire ominous, but the other watchers had fallen silent as Telemakos spoke. Their silence made him feel self-conscious, as though he were undergoing a formal examination, or a trial.
But it was such a blessed relief to have the jangling charms stopped.
“One yellow track, one silver …” For a long time there was no sound but his own voice cataloguing the shooting stars, the slip of bead and wire as he tallied the streaks and flashes, and the scratch of Dawit’s stylus in the wax. Telemakos could even hear the faint dripping of the water clock as it counted out the passing hours. Every now and then a breath of wind fluted through the open mouths of the bronze lions that guarded the scriptorium roof.
“Is it comet fire?” the Roman legate asked suddenly in low tones, when there was a lull and the soft sky lay quiet and starlit overhead.
Telemakos hesitated. The question had not been addressed to him directly, but Julian had spoken in Latin, so possibly no one else understood him.
But the najashi had once been trained as a translator. “You may answer, Morningstar,” said Abreha, speaking flawless Latin himself. “At least, you may address him without seeking my permission. Perhaps there is no answer.”
“Is it comet fire?” the legate repeated.
These were San’a’s wet months, but nothing like the wintry Long Rains now lashing the Aksumite highlands, and Telemakos was sure he had never seen such a clear night so close to his birthday. Certainly he had never seen such a display straight overhead. His neck ached from the constant craning. Straight through Cassiopeia’s obscure stars, he thought, remembering a random line of Greek poetry.
“Is it comet fire?”
It’s like when I was born, Telemakos thought. It’ll be my birth month in a few days. Mother says the stars danced when I was born. But that was before the comet.
Suddenly Telemakos knew what he was seeing.
“It’s my Perseids,” he cried in sheer unguarded delight. “It’s the ancient Perseids! Magus, could it be? There was starfall all the week that I was born, fourteen years ago! By chance we had clear skies that year, as Leo went down to meet the sun—no one’s seen the Perseids since. I’ve never seen them. It was Trinity in the last month of our winter; we’re only ten days off! Could it be the Perseids?”
“Where are they?” Dawit asked softly.
“Overhead and a little to the north, in Cassiopeia and Perseus.”
The Star Master fished in the depths of his robe and retrieved what Telemakos knew to be a worn twig of kat leaves, the mild stimulant that stained his beard pink. Dawit tore free several leaves with his teeth and began to chew.
“Aye, it could be the Perseids,” he agreed.
All around them, the men gasped and sighed in recognition and agreement and relief.
“By heaven, he may be right.”
“I never thought to see them again, the summers have been so dismal in the north, since the comet came.”
“A sign of better days, perhaps?”
The najashi chuckled softly. “‘My Perseids,’ indeed!” he echoed Telemakos, fondly mocking. “When did you become lord of the stars?”
Later, only an hour or two before sunrise, Dawit went with Telemakos back to the Globe Room and waited for him to put away the instruments and lay out the wax tablets for transcription to hardier palm stalks the next morning. “Two more weeks and you will be free of your restrictions,” Dawit commented. “I doubt not you are counting down the hours, eh, Lij Bitwoded Telemakos Eosphorus? What a great mouthful! Beloved young prince—there is no one else in all Aksum and Himyar with such a formidable title. I suppose you and I were never formally introduced, for I had not heard that spoken aloud before.”
“I don’t think I have, either,” Telemakos admitted. He stacked the tablets slowly, borne down by the weight of his name. “Not strung end to end like that, anyway. I have not been ‘beloved’ very long, only since my accident.”
It was his service in Afar that had earned him the bestowed title “Bitwoded,” not his mistake in handling the Aksumite emperor’s pet lion, but of course he could not say so.
“Well, you have worked hard for your advancement this night,” Dawit continued jovially. “Though in truth, the najashi granted it you before you had done anything.”
Telemakos looked up. Dawit was nothing but a shadow in the darkness.
“You are to act as that Roman’s cupbearer at the Assembly feast, are you not?”
“Surely that’s only because I speak Latin.”
“The najashi dressed you in his own clothes and told a lie on your behalf to spare you a well-deserved humiliation, and then he forced all his guests to bow to you. What do you make of that, Beloved Young Prince?”
Dawit’s robe rustled as he fished for his tired kat leaves. “Abreha has not appointed a cupbearer himself since Asad died. His eldest son.” Telemakos heard the Star Master tear off a leaf and begin to chew. Dawit spoke indistinctly around the great wad that was already in his mouth. “You can’t pour your own drink from a waterskin. You had better practice.”
Telemakos did not mind waiting on people. His grandfather Kidane had long ago taught him to use humility as an indication of good breeding. Telemakos had attended Kidane’s special guests as far back as he could remember, and before his accident he had even been called on to serve in the New palace in Aksum; once, to his delight, he had gone as a page on a royal elephant hunt, though it had not been long after his imprisonment in Afar, and they had not let him join in the stalking because he had been so thin.
The feast of Abreha’s Great Assembly was held outdoors in one of the stepped gardens. There were canopies over all the braziers and carpets, in case of rain, for it was the time of the summer monsoon. But it was another fine night. San’a’s terraces and rocky ledges were at the height of their greenery, with rose of Sharon blooming everywhere and the perfume of jasmine nearly overwhelming. The garden was lit by hundreds of round glass lamps set in crevices up and down the stone sills. Other lights were set on standards in and out among the canopies, and the men of the Great Assembly sat on the carpeted flagstones beneath.
All those burning lamps were fueled by the oil of Gedar’s olive groves. When Telemakos came into the garden, he had to close his eyes for one blinding second in a private, hateful sneer. He despised the wasteful light, despised Himyar’s prosperity in the wake of plague and war that left Aksum’s cities shabby and depleted. And he hated Gedar with a black and bitter hatred: Gedar who had profited by it, Gedar who three years past had taken charity from the house of Nebir while Telemakos, enslaved in Afar, silently endured having his fingernails pried off to soothe the suspicions of Anako the corrupt governor of Deire.
Arrest Gedar. Telemakos had not heard anything from Aksum for over a month. He could not risk sending this message again. He was torn with guilt for not having tackled a new message about the Hanish Islands.
The men of the Great Assembly sat on the carpeted flagstones beneath the lovely, indifferent lights. Julian, the Roman legate Telemakos had been set to wait upon, was friendly and garrulous. He spoke not a word of South Arabian, but he wanted to know the names of all the men he sat with, and where they came from and the pedigrees of their saluki hounds, how one managed to scratch a living in the desert, and how one might make bitter water drinkable by adding camel’s milk to it. He could understand his companions’ Greek easily enough, but when he spoke himself it was incomprehensible, so he stuck doggedly to asking his questions in Latin and letting Telemakos translate everything he said.
“I shouldn’t be learning half as much without you at my side,” the legate confessed to Telemakos as the evening wore on. “What did the Federator Abreha tell us your full name is—Morningstar? Bright Shiner? He honors you near as much as he did Asad, his own son, but you put me in mind of Lleu, Artos’s heir, more than you do Asad. Asad was biddable. Lleu had a backbone of steel beneath his winning charm.”
“Lleu!” Telemakos exclaimed in surprise, astonished to hear a foreign stranger speak aloud the name of the dead British prince who haunted his dreams. “How do you know of Lleu?”
“The prince was about your age when I was in Britain. I remember him helping the villagers with the harvest, until they sent him home because he had such trouble breathing. He came back a quarter of an hour later with a cloth tied over his nose to keep out the dust.
“I never met anyone who did not love him,” Julian finished warmly. “They called him Leo, the young lion, in Latin. But in their own language he was Lleu, the Bright One, the light-bringer. You see, you even share his name, Beloved Young Prince Lucifer.”
Telemakos laughed uneasily. He did not like being held up to his dead uncle for comparison. “They don’t call me Lucifer. No one speaks Latin here, as you’ve heard! It’s Athtar, their ancient sky god. Or Eosphorus, in Greek. It’s not my real name, only a nickname, because of my light hair. My name is Telemakos, or young prince, Lij Telemakos, if we must speak formally. Truly, Telemakos is enough.”
“And Greek as well, to match Eosphorus! But your Latin is very good.”
“The emperor of Aksum was allowed to approve or appoint my tutors,” Telemakos said. “He didn’t always bother, but it made my mother choose carefully before she employed anyone. My British relatives think I sound like a Byzantine.”
“You do,” Julian agreed. “There is some Aksumite in your accent, as well, though; you don’t sound very British, grandson to Artos and like your uncle though you may be. Well, well. To think that Artos the Dragon has a grandson. Does Constantine the high king of Britain know that Artos has a grandson?”
“Oh, of a surety. He’s known me since I was a child. Constantine was ambassador and viceroy in Aksum when my father and my aunt came to stay there.”
When Telemakos was six, and his aunt Goewin had first arrived in Aksum, she had threatened to take Telemakos to Britain and set him up as king-in-waiting to rival Constantine. His most vivid memory of Constantine was of a strong hand dragging him mercilessly by the hair through the corridors of the New palace, and then the viceroy’s cold voice informing Goewin that he had the right to cut off Telemakos’s head. There was no doubt Constantine knew who he was.
“Constantine is my cousin,” Telemakos added.
“Once removed.” Closer than Queen Muna, he thought; closer than the najashi’s children by her would have been. Poor, doomed, biddable Asad wasn’t even my blood kin. “Inas of Ma’in says I am related to everybody. I’m also cousin to Gwalchmei of the Orcades, who used to be Constantine’s ambassador to the najashi. But I never met Gwalchmei, and a new British emissary has not yet been appointed, so I am all alone here.”