“I’m not surprised Abreha drags his heels in appointing a new emissary, after Gwalchmei’s carry-on.”

“Sir?” Telemakos asked in polite incomprehension. Over the past three months he had become so schooled in masking his emotions that he did not even lift an eyebrow.

“Gwalchmei was … given to sweet deception? Adored by every noblewoman in San’a, shall I say?”

Telemakos laughed, delighted. It was the first clue he had to Gwalchmei’s sudden departure from Himyar. “I’ve not heard that!”

“The king of Himyar is likely refusing the recent choices he’s been given for a new ambassador. He’ll be wary of any of Gwalchmei’s kin, and if necessary he can boast of you as a British representative.”

“I am far more Aksumite than British. I don’t know anything about Britain other than the names of its rivers.” Telemakos paused, and asked politely, “How long were you there? What was the best thing about it, and the worst?”

“Oh—” the legate laughed. “The worst thing about it was the weather, of course. It is supposed to rain all the time, you know, but there was severe drought the year I arrived. And several times since my return to Constantinople, their crops have failed through cold. Constantine sent to us for grain more than once, before Britain’s own plague quarantine shut down our trade with them, and just as well, for by then we had none to spare and were importing extra from our najashi here in South Arabia, sitting pretty atop his restored dam in the warmth of the equator. We have suffered, too, since the comet came, even in Byzantium. These past ten years have been cold and dark throughout the northern reaches of the world. Did you hear about the snow in Rome, three years in a row, and frost in summer? It was worse in Britain. But I liked Britain well enough while I was there—skies so vast and near, avenues of ancient stone, and summer evenings of endless light.”

Julian looked aslant at Telemakos and held up his cup for more wine.

“Shall you travel there, someday?”

“I don’t know. Perhaps.” The charm bracelet jangled as Telemakos hefted the wine jar aloft. His daily use of a spear in the najashi’s training yards had greatly improved the balance that so eluded him since he had lost his arm. But in preparation for this evening he had filled a thousand goblets, he was sure, with the Star Master acting as his long-suffering gull and pretending he did not mind his robes awash with spilled water. Telemakos was steady now, and though he could not fill the wine jar himself, nor a water bottle for that matter, he could pour from either into a cup. He thought, as he poured now, how strange that he should have come to a point where it was an honor and a triumph to be able to pour out a cup of wine.

I am good at waiting on people, Telemakos thought. It was in waiting on that hyena Anako that I trapped him.

He shivered. Anako again. Oh, if only I could stop thinking.

He set the wine jar carefully on the low flagged sill among the scented herbs that grew there, and reached down for the water to mix in Julian’s cup. One of the other pages, unthinkingly helpful, had topped up the water jug so that it was now brimful. It was too heavy for Telemakos to pour one-handed. He considered briefly, then knelt and braced the water jar against his thigh. He tipped it slightly to spill away the excess into the herbs, and warm water splashed over his sandaled feet.

Vivid memory clubbed him from out of nowhere, stunning him as brutally as when it had been real. He was at the salt mines; he had accidentally dropped and split open a waterskin, and his sore feet were soothed with an unexpected wash of warm water even as it evaporated in the dry desert air. The waste—Telemakos crouched, cowering, with his head tucked into his knees, expecting to be beaten to the ground in punishment.

“What is it?”

That was what Anako the Lazarus had said, seeing Telemakos. Not Who is that? but What is it?—as though Telemakos were such a freak he could not be considered human.

“What is it?”

The voice was real, and a real hand took hold of Telemakos’s fingers. He sobbed aloud, as he had never done in Afar, dreading to have to endure the knife beneath his nails again. He choked breathlessly, “Do not, do not—”

“Are you ill, child?” the Roman legate asked kindly.

After a long moment, when the piercing blade did not come and no one kicked him, Telemakos looked up. The legate, and the ambassador from the Persian emperor Khosro, and two sheiks of Gharun, stared at Telemakos curiously. Julian had put down his cup. The water jar, thank fortune, had righted itself when Telemakos had witlessly let go of it.

“Are you ill?” Julian repeated.

Telemakos fumed inwardly, furious that he was not able to master himself better. “Your pardon, sir,” he gasped aloud. He steadied his voice and managed to speak levelly. “I thought I was going to spill the water. I am inexpert! Please forgive me. I should know to take better care.”

He lifted the jug again.

“Your cup, sir?”

Late, late that night, transformed from honored cupbearer to disgraced prisoner once again, beneath the gaze of two vigilant guards, Telemakos made the lengthy climb back to his solitary existence at the height of Ghumdan’s towers.

Am I not biddable? he wondered. Have I winning charm and a backbone of steel? Am I really more like Lleu than Asad? Am I at all like either one of them, adored by their kingly fathers? What humiliation, what deprivation, what cruelty disguised as discipline, did either one of them ever endure? Blessed and fortunate, what harshness was ever visited on them, those beloved young princes?

Beloved young prince. Telemakos smiled ruefully to himself in the dark as he continued up the endless stairs. That was his own title.

I should expect no mercy, Telemakos supposed, from a man who was imprisoned all his boyhood only because he was the emperor’s nephew; a man who saw his elder brother crippled in trying to escape the chains that were forced on him. In one more week, Telemakos told himself, only one more week, my own imprisonment will be over. I will have Athena back. She can help me with my cup. She can hold my pen and paper steady. She likes to comb my hair. And as long as she is at my side, the hideous dreams stay away.



THERE WAS NO CEREMONY to observe. The morning came when Telemakos stepped outside the scriptorium and found the corridor empty. The guards were gone, and Tharan was not waiting for him. Telemakos was free. He knew he was expected at the spearmen’s practice, but he ran straight to the nursery.

Muna and Rasha were setting out a porridge of beans and sesame oil for the children, who were mostly still asleep. Athena, too, was sleeping. She was held in place on her mattress by a pale blue scarf bound around her upper body, but she had managed to twist herself onto her front and slept like a dog, with her knees curled under her stomach and her bottom in the air. One arm had worked free of the swaddling, and she had got her fingers tangled in her hair.

Telemakos laid his cheek against her warm body and closed his eyes, taking in a deep breath of sandalwood and worn cotton and yesterday’s yogurt. With trembling fingers he smoothed Athena’s hair. It seemed longer, and less metallic, than he remembered. In three months Athena’s childish face had thinned, her legs and arms grown longer. She looked older.

“You have grown, owlet,” Telemakos said softly.

“So have you,” Muna told him, coming up behind him suddenly.

It was true. The hanging stars in the Great Globe Room brushed the top of his head now, and the smooth skin stretched across the stump of his shoulder itched constantly, in the same way the skin itched beneath the tight silver bracelet. He could get at his shoulder, but not at the bracelet. He had been reduced to worrying it against the door frame, like a bushpig scratching its back on a tree. But Athena would be able to reach it now.

Close by his sister for the first time in weeks, Telemakos could scarcely believe her radiance. Her smooth skin and wild hair were both exactly the color of old honey. Her lashes were as pale as his own, nearly white against her brown skin, and curled like feathers. The features of her pointed face were delicate and narrow, and Telemakos could see his father and mother perfectly balanced there.

“She is very like you,” said Muna.

“So my mother said, as well.”

Athena began to stir, coughing and yawning and hiccupping and growling as she came awake and got ready to start screaming. With tooth and nail, as quickly as he could, Telemakos attacked the scarf that held her down. He tore the scarf in freeing her.

“Hello, little owlet.”

She swarmed into his embrace, shrieking with delight. Lu’lu, who was scarcely three years older than Athena, sat up in the other small bed. She glanced dismissively at Athena as if no performance could surprise her anymore, then got up, took up her dress where it lay folded neatly on the clothesbox, and with sugary docility held it up to Rasha to help her put it on. Lu’lu did not look at Telemakos. He thought she must have forgotten who he was, until he remembered that Abreha’s Royal Scions had all vowed not to get him in trouble by trying to talk to him. Lu’lu was carefully keeping to her vow.

“Let me go for just a moment, Tena—”

Athena held on to his hair with her fists and rubbed her nose against his, and tried to explain the whole of the last three months in one great burst of babbling speech. “Athena’s boy, you see my lion, see my baby lion, big lion, see my birds,” she said. “Lu’lu can eat the rice not Athena, Tena rice big mess. Muna does not like to carry me. Shadi’s big bird gone now, Shadi crying. Open najashi’s box, Athena see boy’s animals. You see my big lion?”

“Ah, little Athena—” He was astounded at how articulate she had become. It made him want to weep, all he had missed.

“See my window broken, boy see,” Athena said, with undue pride. She pulled at his shamma shawl. “You come see it—”

“All right, which way is it?”

“You carry me.” She stood on his legs and put her arms around his neck.

“I can’t carry you, you’re a big girl!” He could no longer lift her with one arm, or not for long, anyway. “Aren’t you a walking girl?” She seemed so grown up.

“She doesn’t walk,” Muna said quietly.

“You carry me, boy. Carry Tena’s belt.” Athena scurried on hands and feet, agile and lionlike, to one of the cedarwood chests. She banged on it with her fists. “Fetch Athena’s belt, Rasha,” she commanded imperiously.

Muna’s haughty attendant obeyed this command in silence. She opened the chest and took out the child’s harness that Medraut had made for Telemakos so that he could carry Athena on his hip without having to get help from anyone. Rasha crossed the room and gave the saddle to Telemakos. No one had oiled it, or even touched it, in all the months of Telemakos’s confinement. Telemakos kneaded the stiff leather, stretching out the seams and pockets. When he checked between the folds of the pouch within the seat, the one Athena could not get at herself, his fingers touched paper and silver. There were half a dozen vials and sachets of opium still hidden there.

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