Telemakos thought Adulis was hell and heaven on earth. It was too hot: he had never been out of the highlands before, and the heavy heat exhausted him. Walking through the sweltering air was like swimming through warm water. He could not run. It was too buggy: everyone sat about in the dark after the sun set, because if you left a light burning it drew the mosquitoes, and you were eaten alive. A tenth of the city was constantly stricken with ague, but no one seemed to care.
Telemakos was supposed to be at work now, an agent of the emperor, but he felt as if he were on holiday. His language lessons were abandoned, and the exercises in drawing maps, and the grueling hours of archery beneath his father’s grimaces. Instead Telemakos roamed the market stalls and city plazas, and rode his pony to nearby Gabaza, where the wharves stood baking and still and the sea air smelled of buttery smoke and spice. There was a great fanfare when the armada’s flagship made its monthly trip to the Turtle Islands to exchange shouted news reports with Abreha’s commander. Fewer and fewer ships docked in the harbor as the season ran on, but fleets of little fishing boats still came and went with their naval escorts. Commerce was not suffering in Adulis under the quarantine. It had become the focus for Aksum’s internal trade in salt since the destruction of Deire. Everywhere Telemakos went, people were buying and selling salt, using salt to pay for other things, or talking about salt.
Goewin interviewed Telemakos before he went to bed each night. When she finished, his mother would come in and kiss him, and it looked to all as though his aunt and his mother were taking turns at settling him to sleep.
“Didn’t Medraut get on your nerves, following you all the way from Britain?” Telemakos asked Goewin.
“I never knew he was there.”
“He follows me everywhere,” said Telemakos. “I can smell him.”
“Oh, Telemakos!” Goewin rocked with laughter, sitting on the edge of his cot. “I suspected it was to keep an eye on you that he came with us. What does he smell like?”
“Incense, like a priest, and the herbs and spirits he uses for medicine. And sometimes he smells of blood, when he’s been hunting. But it adds up to him, do you see, Ras Meder, none other.”
“And what do I smell like?” Goewin quickly put her hand over Telemakos’s mouth to keep him from answering. “Stop, don’t tell me, I’m jesting. That’s why Gebre Meskal chose you as his scout, and not me. I can’t recognize people by their smell.”
The monsoon came. In the Aksumite highlands this was the winter season of the Long Rains, though in coastal Adulis it was perpetual sultry summer. The salt caravans arrived only sporadically now. The desert sun would be too searing for traffic, and the Long Rains in the highlands would make roads impassable for the next three months. Adulis was accustomed to this, and settled itself for the monsoon season.
Telemakos knew the city well by now, and with his help Goewin had drawn diagrams of all the markets and most of the permanent stalls in them. They made lists of the merchants and where they preferred to trade. Telemakos found that when people had nothing to buy or sell, they spent their time talking instead: beneath the awnings of the market stalls until the morning mist burned off over the palm and thatch, then moving indoors to the shade of the shops and beer sellers when the sticky heat became unbearable. Telemakos listened.
One morning a few weeks into the monsoon, he turned back into a little residential square he had just crossed, and called out his father’s name.
There was no answer, of course; but when Telemakos stalked back across the square, Medraut was sitting on a stone bench under the protection of a cluster of date palm, openly waiting for him.
“Please, my lord, please listen. You can’t follow me today. I’ll tell you where I’m going, but you mustn’t follow.”
Medraut held open his hands; it meant, Why not? or, What are you telling me? or, How can I let you go alone?
“You make everyone suspicious. They see you and they shut up. You are too foreign, too strange. They wonder why you never speak, they wonder why you always carry a bow. People will notice me if they see us together, they’ll see my hair and connect me to you. Please, Ras Meder. I need to be invisible.”
Medraut touched Telemakos’s hair and shook his head. His stony eyes said nothing, but his expression spoke all of love and worry.
“I am safer without you, Ras Meder,” said Telemakos. “I am. No one sees me. Even when they see me, they don’t see me.”
He heard the cocksure confidence in his own voice and thought that his father would never buy this line of argument. But he had to get rid of Medraut. He could not pass unnoticed in a gang of dock children with any credibility when there was a chance someone was going to spot his father lurking on the other side of the quay.
“Wait for me in the next street, if you like,” Telemakos offered, desperate even for a compromise.
His father nodded. Telemakos knelt spontaneously and kissed his hands. “Oh, thank you, thank you, sir. I will take care, I will, you have my word.”
Telemakos asked Goewin, “Has Gebre Meskal other scouts here in Adulis? Other than me, I mean.”
She hesitated before she answered. “There is a system in place for all Adulis. Each answers to someone else, and the separate hierarchies are not known to anyone but the emperor himself.”
She paused, and Telemakos waited expectantly, sitting up in bed with his hands clasped around his knees. Goewin sighed. She said, “I know a little more than most, because—because you are so unusual among his servants. Why do you ask?”
“Has he men who secretly patrol the dockyard in Gabaza?”
“Yes, Gebre Meskal has set sentries over the harbor here. Some are secret, some are not.”
“I think I know who they are; and I think two of them are false to the emperor. Well, I know they are false, but I am not sure they are in Gebre Meskal’s service.”
Telemakos saw Goewin’s whole body go taut. She jumped up from his bedside and paced the two steps across his little room in the governor’s mansion. The window was curtained with gossamer to bar the insects, and there was a pot of mosquito smudge burning on the windowsill. Goewin stood at the window and smacked the palm of her hand lightly against the frame, scarcely able to contain her excitement.
“I knew you could do this, Telemakos, I knew you could. I have been waiting so long to test you in this—” She cut herself off.
“Let me be quiet. Tell me. Tell me who it is. Tell me what you’ve heard.”
“Well: there is illegal trading. And it is mostly salt, I think, though I do hear Beja tribesmen muttering that they want to get their emeralds to Persia. Nothing is happening now, nothing ever happens when it is winter in the highlands. But when the monsoon winds change—”
Telemakos had pieced this together slowly; it had taken him some while to learn to tell real intrigue from wild rumor.
“There is a cabal of men who are waiting payment, in gold, for last season’s shipment. Since the border with Sasu is blocked, they send the gold by boat now. They are mostly Himyarite ships; you could send a message to Abreha and see if he can stop it happening at his end. The next payment is to be put ashore near Samidi, our northern port, up the coast from here.”
Goewin slammed a fist against the windowsill, making the smudge pot jump. “What, have they learned nothing from Deire? A city destroyed, and still we covet gold so much! What earthly good will it do anyone when we all lie blackened and twisted in the streets?”
Telemakos waved at her to stop. “They have learned a little. Those who deliver the shipment stack it on the beach and build a pyre around it. They send the whole thing up in flames, to purify it, before they leave again. The payment must be in gold or something else that won’t be destroyed by fire. The Beja think they can sell their emeralds by this cunning, as well, but I don’t think they’ve tried it.”
Goewin asked softly, “Do you know how they slip the emperor’s net?”
“Someone authorizes the ships that leave. Someone important, some official. Possibly a noble, probably the same who gave the authorizations for Deire.” Telemakos added quickly, “It’s not the governor. Not Abbas.”
“It may have been the governor of Deire, but the archon of Adulis doesn’t have that power anymore,” said Goewin. “Since Deire’s ruin the authorization must come from Aksum, from the imperial city itself. A tedious process. But this means that someone in Aksum—”
Telemakos hugged his knees to his chest, waiting for Goewin to speak aloud the dreadful conclusion. But when she spoke again her tone was mild, if weary. “Well. So, there is treachery all around us. Ugh, I am so naive. I never dreamed this quarantine would prove so difficult. I thought a land as powerful and self-sufficient as Aksum should be glad to save herself.
“Do you have any idea who’s behind this scheme?” she finished.
“None, my lady.” Telemakos yawned behind his knees.
“We need to destroy this at its heart. We need to discover those who rule this trade.” She was not talking to him; she was thinking aloud. “By God, I’ll question those sentries myself.”
“What do you want me to do?” Telemakos yawned again.
She knelt by his bedside and kissed him. “I want you to go to sleep.”
“I will, but tell me what to do.”
“Listen,” Goewin said. “Only continue to listen.”
And now Telemachus … the howling dogs went nuzzling up around him, not a growl as he approached.
TELEMAKOS WANTED TO GET inside the royal mint in Adulis. He was certain that this was where the smugglers met, once a fortnight, to plan their next campaign, in the place where they melted and recast their tainted gold. One of the foremen there let them in.
The guard dogs had become Telemakos’s greatest challenge. He could make his way in and out, but he could not stay because of the dogs. He could negotiate the sentries, and the zareba barrier of baled desert thorn, and the stone drainage channel scarcely wider than a man’s leg; that was his doorway to the mint. But the guard dogs would not leave him alone. He could sweet them, he could quiet them, he could bribe them, he was sure none of them would ever hurt him. He could not get them to leave him alone.
Telemakos realized with delight that he had found a task to set his father.
“Ras Meder,” he asked, “You know how to poison someone without killing him, don’t you?”
Medraut stared at him. He took hold of Telemakos’s wrist, imprisoning him. What the devil do you mean by that? or, Where in God’s name did you hear that? was what his look said.
“You’re a doctor. You know such things.”
Medraut gave a derisive snort and let go. He looked away.
“I need to make some dogs go to sleep,” Telemakos persisted. “I thought you could show me how.”
Medraut glanced up. After a long pause he nodded slowly.
“Thank you, sir.”
Every time Medraut agreed to help him it was like receiving an unexpected gift.