“That young cur will never make a servant,” Hara’s voice commented. “He’s already a runaway.”
“Does he look like he’s going to run?” the one who held him said curtly. “Well, if he tries, we’ll send him back to you.” Telemakos hung limp against the man’s chest, steeling himself for another forced march.
But his feet never touched the ground again. His new owners did not free him, but they did not make him walk. They fixed him in a sling like a sack of flour on one side of a camel. The quirky rhythm of the camel’s stride was curiously comfortable, and Telemakos slept through the first stage of the journey.
He woke when they lifted him down. Someone led him to stand on a carpet that felt like silk beneath his battered feet. He felt obsidian against one wrist, and then the other, as they cut away his bonds.
Telemakos stood still while it registered in his head: My hands are free.
He tried to raise them, and it was so long since he had been able to lift them freely that at first they would not obey him. Then his hands moved without his telling them, clawing frantically at the cloth that still bound his eyes. He tore open his temple with a thumbnail in his desperation to be rid of the hated blindfold. At last Telemakos stood gasping with his hands pressed over his eyes, not daring to rub at them—they hurt too much—but just reclaiming them as his own.
“Get rid of that bandage,” said a cultured, haughty female voice, in Ethiopia “Ugh, I can smell it from here. Set it aflame.”
Someone tried to pry his hands from his face. Telemakos fought, blindly and silently.
Get away from my eyes. Leave me alone, you hyenas, leave me alone!
They were stronger than he was. They always were.
They held his arms at his sides and made him sit. One touched the band at his throat, searching for a catch or seam in the metal. Another held his head still.
“Mother of God. Wash his face.”
The rims of his nostrils, the corners of his mouth, the edges of his lower jaw beneath his ears were all crusted with salt.
One protested, “Water wasted—”
“No waste!” The girl’s voice was imperial. “Look. Look what’s been done to his eyes! Wash his face.”
And someone did, very, very gently. It was done with such gentleness, and with such sober silence from those who must be looking on, that a green seed of hope opened and spread tender leaves in Telemakos’s thirsting heart.
“Here, do this yourself, boy.” A man was squatting by him; large, callused hands guided Telemakos’s own to a bowl of water. “Rinse your eyes.”
Telemakos’s eyes were weeping and swollen, and he could not get the sand out of the left one. He hunched in deep concentration over the bowl, as though he would lose it if he sat up straight.
The hard hands held his face still again, and there came the quick, invasive touch of a tongue between his eyelids, and the grit was gone.
The man grunted and stood up.
“He’s lucky,” the man said with satisfaction. “That could have blinded him, if he’d rubbed it in. Or killed him, if it had festered.”
Someone else was kneeling before him, peering anxiously into his face. “Can you see?” asked the girl’s haughty voice.
Telemakos had not uttered a sound for nearly three months, and was not about to give himself away at the first hint of gentleness that came along.
A soft hand touched his knee, and the girl said fiercely, “I have spent eight weeks in the desert negotiating a body price with toadying criminals. I have traveled back and forth like a peddler, three times, to those wretched salt mines. I chanced death should my intent be discovered, chanced worse than death! I will not now be ignored by the mangy mountain jackal whose freedom I was sent to buy. I want to know if you can see!”
Telemakos croaked in astonishment, “Sofya?”
“Peace to you, Telemakos Meder,” she greeted him. “You’ve been lost.”
To be spoken to directly, to be touched gently, to hear his own name again, were too much for him. Telemakos burst into tears.
“Can you see?” Sofya insisted.
“I don’t know.” He could not bear to open his eyes. “I think so. It’s so bright.”
“It will get better. Umar thinks your eyes are not damaged. How long were you held blind?”
“I don’t know. Since before I came to the mines.”
There was a long, long silence. No one spoke.
“Bound, also?” Sofya asked in a low voice. Telemakos did not answer. He lifted a hand to rub his nose. His arms felt leaden, but it was wonderful, wonderful to be able to move them at will.
“That white lioness you call your aunt will have my neck for not getting you out of there sooner,” Sofya said darkly.
Telemakos remembered the night of the smugglers’ meeting, and his father’s fury, and how Medraut had held Goewin responsible for every scratch on Telemakos’s body.
“Goewin must not ever know,” Telemakos said, his voice unsteady. “Tell her nothing of how you found me. Tell no one.”
He drew a deep breath. “It is enough that I was there.”
“All right,” the princess answered slowly. “I understand.”
It took some time for Telemakos to adjust to being able to ask straightforward questions when he wanted to discover something. He could not shake the feeling of being hunted, of having to use silence and self-effacement to protect himself. Sofya’s band of Afar warriors were naturally taciturn themselves, and only one of them spoke Ethiopic, so they did not volunteer information. Not until they had been traveling northward on the Salt Road for a full day, Telemakos swinging in his hammock at the camel’s side, did it occur to him to ask, “Where is Esato?”
He had never seen one of the twin princesses without the other.
“She’s the bride,” answered Sofya. “She is wed to Ahamado, son of the negus over all the Afar. You’re Esato’s wedding present from the emperor.”
“Of course not, you featherbrain. Who would want a little gnome like you attending his bride? But we had to make some excuse for our interest in you.”
“Why is Esato married, and not you?”
“Esato is my elder. She was born first.” Sofya coughed. “I came with her, to see her wed. It is all she has ever wanted. She was very happy. She was beautiful.”
Telemakos privately thought that all Esato ever wanted was to be as able and independent as her sister, but he did not like to say so.
Sofya added, “I shall not miss Esato, pulling at my clothes.”
“Esato will miss you,” Telemakos said quietly.
When he was awake, Telemakos was tormented with guilt and worry. But his sleep was profoundly untroubled. It was bliss to be able to open and close his eyes, to move his body at will, to lie still without his feet and arms going numb. He took to sleeping with his fingers hooked into the gold band at his throat. He longed to see Goewin again, more, he admitted guiltily to himself, more than he longed to see his mother. He was sure that Goewin’s mark on him had saved his life.
After a week or so, Telemakos was able to sit astride his camel, and he could see well enough that he did not have to be led everywhere when he went on foot. It terrified him to think of how close he had come to being blinded. His left eye still burned and wept, though the swelling had gone down. Umar, the translator, tended him vigilantly. Umar wore an ivory bracelet above his elbow, which meant that he had killed at least ten men, so Telemakos submitted meekly to his care.
“Where are we going?” Telemakos asked suddenly, in the middle of another endless day of wilderness.
“Where else but back to Adulis?” Sofya answered.
“Has there been no plague?”
“Not in Adulis,” Sofya said. “But we have lost our northern port, and the two coastal villages nearest it. We have lost Samidi.”
They rode further in bleak silence. After a time Sofya asked, “Did you discover what you were sent to find in Afar?”
“I did not.”
Telemakos looked down at his hands on the camel’s reins, and at his maimed fingers.
“I did not,” he repeated in a dull voice. He turned his head away so that Sofya would not see the silent tears brimming and seeping from his sore eyes yet again.
The world seemed very beautiful to him. Everywhere he turned, there was light: sunlight, moonlight, fireflies and firelight, lantern light and light on water, sparkling and moving; and water itself, river water, well water, spring water, water in tanks and stone-cut reservoirs. The taste of it, sweet and fresh once they were beyond the salt, left him gasping in astonishment. Even in failure and disgrace, these things captivated him. It was as though he were seeing and tasting them for the first time.
It was more than three months since Telemakos had started, when he and his escort reached Adulis again. Sofya sent Umar running ahead to tell the archon they would be there presently. The message brought Goewin dashing out to meet them.
She raced across the busy market square, her skirts kilted around her knees, running like Athena. She waved wildly, shouting, “Telemakos!”
Telemakos threw himself from his camel’s back, misjudged the distance to the ground, and landed in a heap in the street. He scrambled up and tore through the unheeding crowd toward her.
He hurled himself at his aunt, leapt and flung his arms frantically around her neck. She lifted him off the ground, and laughed and wept, her arms twined around his birdlike body so tightly it made him gasp. Goewin settled Telemakos on her hip like a baby, and Telemakos locked his legs around her waist to keep from falling. He leaned his head against Goewin’s shoulder with his eyes closed while Goewin said softly to Sofya, “God’s blessing on you, Princess. God bless you.”
Goewin kissed the top of his head and tried to put him down, but Telemakos would not let go.
“All right, I’ll carry you,” Goewin sobbed, still laughing and crying both. “You weigh nothing.”
Telemakos sobered a little and unhooked his legs from around her waist so he could stand. “I’ll walk with you.”
Goewin gave him a long, slow appraisal, up and down. Telemakos quivered to think what her dark eyes were tallying: his swollen face and flaking skin, sores at the edges of his mouth and nose, his wrists torn raw where he had strained to free his hands, and so and on. Goewin said firmly, “You will not walk. You shall climb back up on your noble camel and spare those unfortunate feet. I’m sure we sent you off in shoes.”
Telemakos obeyed her as meekly as he had obeyed Umar.
Helena, the archon’s wife and Telemakos’s great-aunt, was waiting to make a fuss over him. For the rest of the day Telemakos let people pet and baby him. But they were not the people he had been longing to see.
Where are my parents, he wondered.
His welcome by the archon’s household seemed frenzied and excessive. Helena kept breaking into sobs when she looked at him; one of Helena’s young attendants ran out of the room to be sick when she saw the remains of his fingernails. They took too much care with him, and not enough.