I must get rid of this, Telemakos thought. She will soon be clever enough to pull things out of here.
“It is he!” Malika cried. The queen of Sheba was standing in the door to the nursery, her gown back-to-front. She must have put it on herself, a wonder indeed, in her hurry to be first with the news.
She called delightedly over her shoulder to the other Scions, “It is, it is the Aksumite prince, the Morningstar is back among us!” Then she threw herself down on the carpet at his side and rattled her fingers through the silver charms he wore.
“Peace to you, Morningstar, peace and greetings and hurrah! I heard your little bells and I knew you were in here—it sounded so much closer than when you pass in the corridor. Pretty, aren’t these? Look, little Tena, you can make these bells ring.”
Malika held him still with one friendly hand on his shoulder. She rubbed noses with him as she rattled the silver charms.
“This is so lovely! You lucky thing. The najashi has never given me such a pretty bauble.”
Inas and Shadi came in now, laughing and exclaiming in outrage. “Liar! What about your onyx box of facepaints—”
“—Your cameos, your carnelian earrings? Good morning and good fortune to you, Morningstar!”
Telemakos knelt, hugging Athena against him, rather stunned, as the nursery filled with Abreha’s fourteen foster children, all clamoring around him in high-spirited welcome. He almost thought they must be teasing him.
“Look at your brother’s bracelet, Athena bird girl, it’s like yours! You can match now. Rasha, where’s the baby’s silver bracelet? Let her wear it so they can both have one.”
“Have you heard all your sister’s exploits, how she poured a jar of indigo dye all over the cushions by the window—”
“And of the time she set free the whole great cage of Indian parrots—”
“And an owl was eating them, it had taken three that were perching in the walled almond garden, and Shadi caught it with his new bird?”
The thin, dark boy king gave a proud and quiet smile. “My sparrowhawk, she means. And on another day, Athena pulled two of the strings out of Muna’s lyre and cut her hands on them. And on another day, she tipped two lamp stands over the terrace wall, all ablaze—”
“My Athena!” Telemakos exclaimed, and kissed her springing bronze hair. “How can so small a girl commit such enormous knavery?”
“Trees and flowers on fire,” she said proudly. “Birds flying away.” She let Rasha fasten her silver seabird bracelet about her wrist and gave it a shake. “Flying birds!” She gripped Telemakos by the hair with one hand on either side of his head and gazed into his face anxiously. “Stay with Athena.”
“Yes, stay with us awhile,” said Inas. “Or have you some prince’s duty you must attend to straight away?”
“We’ll come with you,” said Malika. “We can watch. It will stop Athena making a fuss if we all go down together.”
Telemakos saw, with envy, that they were now wiser in the ways of Athena than he was, and decided not to argue. And anyway, he wanted to take her with him. He did not want to let her go.
Telemakos pulled the leather straps of her harness over his head and let Athena climb in it herself. The bands were tighter than they had been, and Athena waited impatiently while, with some difficulty, he adjusted the buckles. She kicked at his ribs and thumped his ruined shoulder with her fist.
“Birds, lion, dogs, goats!” Athena demanded. The Scions all laughed at her.
“Dictating the itinerary again, bird girl?” Inas teased. “We will visit all your friends.”
“I want to see the lion and the dogs, too,” Telemakos told his sister. He was aching to see them.
The najashi himself turned up at the close of that morning’s javelin practice. He stood with folded arms, splendid in his council robes, frowning blackly beneath the rope of gold that bound his headcloth. He looked like God come along to observe the day’s human activities in Eden. He left before the session was finished, without speaking to Telemakos, but he stopped among the Scions for some time, as he always did, and Telemakos could hear his unexpectedly merry laughter break free as they spoke to him.
Tharan said to Telemakos afterward, “You may forgo the riding ring today. The najashi bids you spend an hour or so in the kennels and see if the lion still remembers you. You may go hawking with the princes Shadi and Jibril, later, if you wish.”
It was turning into a holiday after all.
The Scions stuck to him like honey. They could not have made a plainer statement of their loyalty if they had made formal pledges on their knees in the parade ground before the city walls. Shadi and tall Jibril fell into step on either side of him like lieutenants, and at their shoulders came the desert cousins Ibrahim and Nabil and Numair, demon riders all. Numair walked so lightly on his toes he seemed to have springs in his heels. He had been grinning quietly to himself since Abreha’s visit.
“What’re you so pleased with?” Telemakos asked.
“We get to see you master the lion. Fabulous show! I’ve missed it.”
Behind them came the girls, Inas and proud Malika; then Nadia and Nashita, arm in arm and whispering like conspirators as always, with Lu’lu, the spoiled littlest of them, clinging to Nashita’s dress. The four younger boys followed them as rearguard: quarrelsome Haytham and his younger brother Habib; Inas’s younger brother Amir, who was by inheritance king of Ma’in; and Wajih, good-natured and nearly spherical in shape, heir to the great citadel port at Aden and all its lands and riches. Telemakos always thought of Wajih as being three times his age; it was so easy to picture him as the oversized, benevolent king he would be in twenty years, bearded and turbaned and sceptered, being fed like Gebre Meskal’s old aunt Candake by a host of attendants.
Twenty years. Will they all visit each other, and send each other presents, trade indigo and coffee and grain and frankincense, go to war together, send representatives to San’a every year for the Great Assembly? Will they remember me?
Telemakos could not imagine what he would be in twenty years.