“What is that?” said an oily, disdainful voice in accented Greek. “What is it?’
The man stank with a sour animal reek. Telemakos could not identify it, his sense of smell dulled by salt and thirst. It made him think of baboon.
The warden’s voice answered, “I have an idea he is the one we call the Harrier.”
I am lost, thought Telemakos in horror, and never moved.
“You are suspicious of everything,” said the baboon.
“I am the Scorpion. That is my job.”
“Scorpion!” the other repeated with deep scorn. “That is what you call yourself, at any rate. What makes you think this small, frightened thing is the emperor’s most elusive informer?”
“Two reasons. One is that my own agents tell me the Harrier is no longer operating in Adulis; and the other is that in every caravan that has come from Adulis since the boy arrived, there has been some character asking about him, or offering to buy him, without knowing for certain he is here. One Afar band tried more than once. So I thought I should wait and show him off to you, before I sell him. Indeed, if you want him for yourself—”
Telemakos knew, in that moment, that he stood before the Lazarus. This was the man he had come to find. But the baboon, the Lazarus, could see him, and Telemakos could not see the Lazarus.
“Where did you get it?” asked the slow, disdainful voice.
“The first camel train from Adulis brought him. They picked him up on the Salt Road; he came to them out of nowhere in the desert, well on his way to dying of thirst, and begging them for water. They told me he is deaf and dumb, and he does seem so. They thought he was fleeing a sequestering.”
“That white hair….” said the baboon, thoughtfully. “The British ambassador had hair like that, ten years ago and more.”
Telemakos stood waiting passively, his heart thundering.
“They may be right about the sequestering, then,” the baboon continued, still thoughtful. “None of the daughters of the queen of queens would want that bastard thing lurking about the New Palace while she tried to find a husband.”
It made Telemakos want to laugh. It made him want to weep. His cursed hair might save him.
There was a noise of water poured, or beer perhaps, and the sound of the men drinking.
“If it’s an imperial bastard I will have nothing to do with it.” The baboon paused, and drank again. “I dare not draw attention to myself in Gebre Meskal’s court. But if it is an emissary of his….” He spoke slowly. “If it is the Harrier, indeed I do want it.”
Telemakos was beginning to feel sick with listening to these men toss his fate from hand to hand like a shining stone, while he must stand quietly pretending he could hear none of it.
“Why do you bandage its face?” the baboon asked then.
“The men he arrived with kept him blind so he would not learn the way, and I have kept him blind so he would not know me.”
“That is a blindfold, then, not a bandage?” the baboon asked. “I should blind that thing for good, if it were mine, and have done with any fuss.”
“He will be worth more whole.”
“Blindfolds slip. My camel man could blind it for you very neatly. He does it with a pin; it scarcely bleeds. Or you might sew its eyes shut.”
Telemakos had the impression that the man was trying to draw a reaction from him, and did not move. He had spent two months playing at being deaf and dumb; he was not going to let the fear of a threat betray him.
“I will not do that,” said Hara firmly. “I do not dare that unless I know who he is. The Afar who tried to buy him insisted he is meant as a wedding gift for the bride of Ahamado, the son of their negus. They will not want him blinded.”
“Well,” said the Lazarus, “it is your own neck on the line. It does not know my name, Master Scorpion. But if it can hear, it most assuredly knows yours. Have you proof it cannot speak? Have you tested it?”
“The boy has never spoken. We whipped him once, and he did not cry out.”
“Take this little knife and slip it between the creature’s finger and fingernail. That will make it cry out, if it has a voice.”
In his mind, Telemakos snatched frantically at images to hold against his heart, some way to endure and survive this test without making a sound; and his mind gave him again the caracal, stretching its amputated paws in the sun.
The warden said, “It is your knife.”
“I will not touch that thing,” said the Lazarus with disdain.
One of them, Hara, Telemakos supposed, gently took hold of his right hand. Telemakos stood still. He should not seem to know what was about to happen. He clasped the man’s hand warmly in return, as though responding to affection.
The warden forced a sharp, thin blade beneath the nail of Telemakos’s little finger.
Telemakos did not scream. He hissed in the back of his throat, like a cat, while the warden held firmly to his hand, twisting the blade as he pulled it out. Telemakos fell to his knees and sank his face against the ground, coughing and gasping.
The one who was the Lazarus said, “Do it again. Try the next finger.”
God help me, Telemakos thought in blind panic, he is going to tear through all my fingers until I scream. And if I scream, I am lost, lost. They are so close to me, so close, and I am utterly alone—
The warden knelt by him and took up his hand again. Someone on the other side of the shelter broke into sobs.
The Lazarus snapped suddenly in Noba, “Yesaka, go outside if you must snivel.”
Telemakos, huddled in a quivering heap and waiting for the next fearful test, was coolly aware then of two things. One was that the Lazarus was a native Noba speaker; and the other was that someone close by felt such pity for him that he was weeping. This seemed deeply important; this and the caracal.
“I wish you would do this yourself,” Hara muttered.
“I wish the Authority would deliver the licenses himself,” said the Lazarus. “But my childhood friend sits on the emperor’s council, so he is above me, and I am above you. Test that thing again. Slice its nail off.”
The warden prised up another of Telemakos’s fingernails.
Telemakos fought. He spat and kicked and managed to sink his teeth into Hara’s arm, and the knife tore a shallow scratch up the back of Telemakos’s hand as the warden pulled away from him, cursing blackly in Ethiopic. Hara stood up and aimed a vicious kick into Telemakos’s ribs. Telemakos choked and retched noiselessly at his feet.
The Lazarus sighed. “I suppose it is mute.” He sounded relieved. “All right. Go on and sell it, if you like,” he said. “But do not be fool enough to let it stay in Afar. Pack it off to Himyar with the next salt shipment, and it will never haunt you. I tell you this, Hara-called-Scorpion, if that thing sees me I will have its tongue cut out, whether or not it is mute, and its hands off too, and be damned to what it is worth. You would still be wise to glue its eyes shut, at the least. Use sugar paste or cosmetic jelly.”
“Sugar paste!” The warden gave a bark of bitter laughter. “From my great unlimited supply of sweet almond confection, no doubt!”
“Use animal fat, then. Mix it with grit and splintered salt; then the thing will never dare to wipe its eyes.”
“Yes, all right.” Hara paced away and yelled in Ethiopic, “Minda! Get this mongrel’s whelp out of here.”
Footsteps came near him again. Minda, or another, put a hand beneath Telemakos’s arm to encourage him to his feet. Telemakos refused to move. His collapse was real enough, but he was also desperate for some clue to the Lazarus’s identity.
“Get up, boy!”
His name, his name, his name! The city where he lives, the name of his house, the name of his wife, the name of his camel, anything!
“Minda, you donkey,” said the warden, “lift him. He does not hear.”
“You’re right about it being royal,” said the oily, disdainful voice of the Lazarus. “It’s shiftless as a mule, isn’t it? I expect it thinks it should be eating salt, like a millionaire, not cutting it.”
Then in fury and hatred Telemakos very nearly tried to rub the blindfold off against the ground. If he could only see him, just once, he would know him again. One glimpse: It would be worth losing his tongue to be able to denounce this greed-driven, stinking sadist.
But the thought of losing his hands made him quail. He could not bring himself to do it. And while Telemakos hesitated he was dragged to his feet, led out of the shelter and away from the enclosure, and he could think of no reason why he and the Lazarus would ever be brought together again. He had failed. He was a coward, and he had failed.
He was made to sit and to wait, and then someone unwound the blindfold. Telemakos opened his eyes.
The salt was blinding. Everything was white. It was like staring into the sun. Telemakos saw nothing, nothing but the unbearable light, before he clenched his eyes shut against the pain and shock. Someone held his head still while another wiped handfuls of gritty, stinking grease over his face. Desperate, then, Telemakos tried to open his eyes again, but hard fingers pressed against his eyelids, and the fatty sand slipped between his lashes. Then the dreaded, hated cloth was wound about his head again. Another strip off his shamma was tied around his bleeding fingers.
“Did you see his eyes?”
“He’s a little goblin. I wish Hara would get rid of him.”
That night Telemakos wept bitterly, as he always did before he slept, only now if he had any tears they were stopped by the filthy, stinging grease that matted his lashes together and glued his eyelids shut. He had come so close he could have touched the man he had been sent to find, and still he did not know his face or his name. Thirst and isolation were slowly killing him. And where were the emperor’s other players, where were the ranks of chessmen Gebre Meskal had promised him, where was the army of warriors who would fight to defend him with their lives?
Telemakos lay bound and mute and blind, weeping without tears. His dry lips burned with the taste of salt.
LIGHT AND WATER
“Let me go back to my own country now. The heart inside me longs for home at last.”
BEHIND THE BLINDFOLD, THE grit worked its way into his eyes. They itched and smarted so incessantly that Telemakos thought he would lose his mind. He struggled against his bonds until his wrists bled, but he could not reach his face.
This torment became his whole world. He could think of nothing else; he lost all track of time. He lived in an infinite, isolate, lightless hell.
When he tried to figure afterward how long this lasted, Telemakos could never match his impression of it with the real time that had passed. It could have been as long as two weeks; it might have been as little as three days. It seemed to go on for months. But not long after the Lazarus’s visit, against the Lazarus’s advice, Hara sold Telemakos to the persistent band of Afar who wanted him as a wedding gift.
Again he was unaware that the transaction was being made, and he was startled out of the solitary, nightmare drudgery when he was effortlessly swung aloft in someone’s arms and carried over a little distance. Telemakos did not give a blind damn where they were taking him. His knees and ankles had lately begun a persistent, piercing ache, echoed dully in wrist and elbow, which made it an immense relief to be given even a few seconds’ rest.