Where are my parents?
All the attention tired him out more than the last day’s camel trek, and Telemakos went to bed while it was still light. Goewin came to perch at the edge of his cot as she had done all through the monsoon season.
“Peace to you, dear one,” she said. “You look exhausted.”
“I’m all right,” Telemakos said.
“You would say so. You mean you’ve not got plague, or been permanently crippled. What happened to your eyes?”
“They don’t like dust. There’s a raging sandstorm every afternoon, the Afar call it the ‘fire wind.’ It doesn’t seem to bother them.”
Goewin took his hand in hers, his right hand, and held it gently, taking great care not to touch the tips of his injured fingers. But she traced the knife’s trail etched over his knuckles and up his wrist, a hairline scab like a strand of crimson thread clinging to his brown skin. “How did you come to be taken?” she asked in a low voice.
“My water bag leaked, and I had to surrender myself. I was—I would have died of thirst, I was already dying. I was seeing things that weren’t there. I buried most of my gear before I went to the caravan, and tore my fingers up scraping in the rocks, but I didn’t even notice I’d hurt myself till after they’d given me a drink. I had to ask for help. I would have died.”
Telemakos produced this glib half-truth without any forethought. Goewin sat with her head bent, looking down at his thin hand, and if she noticed that the wounds could not be three months old she did not say anything.
“Goewin,” Telemakos asked, “Where are my mother and father?”
“Oh, Telemakos, I am so sorry! I should have told you hours ago, but I’ve been waiting all day to have you to myself. I did not like to tell you with all Helena’s ladies-in-waiting fluttering in attendance. Your parents went back to Aksum.”
She was so indirect in her answer that Telemakos suddenly feared one or both of them must be dead. “Why?”
Goewin opened her mouth and closed it again, like a fish. Then she hit her head with the heel of her hand. “Mercy on me, why is this so hard?” she burst out. “Your mother—your mother is expecting a baby.”
“Goewin, you jest!”
He could see that she did not. Telemakos laughed and flung his arms around her neck again. “Truly? My mother and father together?”
“Telemakos, you wicked child, of course your mother and father together. Goodness, are you really so pleased?”
“It’s the best thing I’ve heard in months!” That did not seem to do it justice, considering the last three months. “In years. The best thing ever.”
“They thought—well, who knows what Medraut thought, but your mother thought you would not like it. She thought it would seem as though she already counted you for dead, and needed to replace you. She was torn apart at the thought of your coming back here and finding her gone. Oh, the battles! Turunesh would be too heavy to travel before next winter if she did not go now, and she was ill, the heat and the mosquitoes were making her miserable. She did not want to go. But Medraut and I both thought she should—can you believe that Medraut and I were in agreement?—so he took her back to Aksum.”
“What did he say?” Telemakos asked.
“What did he say?” Goewin sounded perplexed. “What do you mean? He didn’t say anything. He never does.”
“I thought …” Telemakos sighed. “Never mind. I just hoped….”
“I know,” Goewin said gently. “But he didn’t. Though he has been so unhappy this season. In truth, I think neither one of your parents could bear waiting while train after train arrived with no sign of you—and then the word you must be captive—and Medraut could not go to you because anyone seeing him would guess who he was, and who you were—”
Goewin held Telemakos off. She asked softly, “Was it worth it?”
He found himself struggling against tears again. He swallowed, and managed to speak aloud the news he had been dreading to tell for so many weeks:
“I could not discover the Lazarus.”
Goewin grimaced a very little. Telemakos swallowed again, and could hardly talk around the choking ache in his throat; but once he began he could not stop.
“I never saw him. I knew he was there, I knew it was him, but I never saw his face or found out his name. I keep trying to remember things about him, to puzzle it out, and I can piece together nothing. He sneered all the time when he spoke, he spoke through his nose. He did not like to touch anything. He smelled like a baboon. And he was cruel. He wanted to cut off my hands.”
“You said you never saw him!”
Telemakos saw how close he was to betraying himself. “I didn’t see him. He knew I was there, and he said that if I saw him he would have my tongue out and my hands off.”
“My dear one,” Goewin murmured, and pulled him against her, holding him close. “There,” she muttered over his hair. “It was not done. It’s over.”
“You don’t understand,” Telemakos said, and it suddenly occurred to him that he could confess his failure to Goewin, that in fact he owed her his confession. “I could have seen him. But I was too much afraid, I knew he would have my hands off if I learned who he was, and I was too much a coward to risk it. And now we shall all die of plague because I was not bold enough to look on someone’s face.”
Telemakos turned his own face into Goewin’s shoulder and sobbed.
“Child,” Goewin said sorrowfully, “do you think for one moment I would have been better pleased had you returned to me with arms ending in bloody stumps, than I am to have you back whole and safe? Telemakos?”
She held him tightly while he wept.
“How could you get close enough to smell him and not see him?” Goewin whispered, and Telemakos could tell that she knew he was hiding something. What could he tell her to put her off—what else could he remember about the Lazarus—
“He was Noba. He said something in Noba to one of his attendants, and his accent was exactly like my Noba tutor’s, like Karkara’s. Karkara’s stories are always of his Noba childhood—
Telemakos untangled himself from Goewin’s clasp so he could see her. “It’s Karkara!”
She gaped at him. “The Lazarus?”
“Not the Lazarus, the Authority! It’s Karkara! Karkara has been issuing the authorizations!”
Goewin’s eyes widened with understanding, and she let out a long, low breath. “The devil! It is Karkara, isn’t it. I can see it. Oh, Telemakos, well done, well done!” She reached impulsively for his hands again, and kissed them. “Oh, you are a bold hero! How did you leap to it?”
“It was something the Lazarus said, that his childhood friend sat on the emperor’s council, and there are no other Noba on the council. I did not remember it before, I was—I was not listening carefully when he said it—” Telemakos shook his head. He was coming too close again, and too close to more tears. Goewin could get the truth out of him if anyone could, and he must not tell her.
She was still holding his hands. “Telemakos,” she asked quietly, in a low voice full of unhappiness, “did they hurt you, my love?”
“They made me work. They whipped me, once, but that was because I spilled a skin of water and ruined a load of salt blocks—”
Only it was not his fault, and he had been able to do nothing to prevent it, and it had been the cruelest beating he had ever taken.
“They did not feed me much, and I was always thirsty—”
He had thought he was going to die. And the humiliation: being pulled like a dog by a lead looped through his gold collar; not being able to clean himself; the warden spitting on his bread.
And the unspeakable loneliness.
“I was lonely,” Telemakos said. “I was so lonely. That was the worst thing about it.” And it was.
Goewin sighed. She said, “Telemakos, I want you to go home. Sofya will take you. I can’t leave yet, but I will follow as soon as I am able. Your mother asked me to send you back to Aksum when I could. You should be with your mother.”
Telemakos said, rather plaintively, “I don’t want to go home.”
“For God’s sake, child. Why ever not?”
“I haven’t finished. I want to find the Lazarus.”
“Telemakos. Haven’t you had enough already?”
Miserably, he broke into another torrent of tears.
“It’s not enough. It’s not enough. Even knowing the Authority is not enough. The Lazarus will carry on without authorization. He doesn’t give a hang about authorization, it just makes his work easier. I have to find him.”
Goewin remained calm. “Karkara will tell us who he is. I forbid you to creep into another den of thieves until you weigh as much as you did before you started. I want to believe you were not hurt, but any fool can see you’ve been starved.”
Her voice went soft and sorrowful again. She laid a hand against his cheek. “Telemakos, you look like a ghost. So thin. Your skin’s gone all cracked and dull. Your body is covered in ugly little sores. I want you to go home.”
Telemakos sniffled and did not answer.
“Someone must tell Gebre Meskal about the Authority,” Goewin coaxed. “Shouldn’t it be you? I sent him my message this morning.”
He rubbed gingerly at his eyes. “Which message?”
“‘The snare is cut,’” Goewin said softly. “‘The sunbird flies free.’”
Telemakos sighed and laid his head against her arm once more. Her sleeve was damp where he had sobbed into her shoulder five minutes ago.
“Hush, my young soldier,” she whispered. “Hush, you have done your work so well. Don’t think about it anymore tonight.” She rocked him gently, crooning praise over the stubble of his hair. “Hush, my brave one, my great one.”
Telemakos sighed again.
“All right,” he said at last. “I will go home.”
He was back in Goewin’s arms now, and the loneliness melted away.
“A pinch of salt from your own larder….”
TELEMAKOS STOOD WITH HIS head back and his hands linked behind him, staring up at the night sky. Sofya’s entourage had pitched their first camp, one day’s journey from Adulis, and Telemakos was supposed to be asleep. He had tried to settle in his sheepskin rug under the canopy they had tied up for him, but the smell of the nearby mountains was too exciting. It held a hint, only a hint, of coolness, and tall trees; of wild coffee and juniper, and rivers that ran yearlong. Telemakos had not known how homesick he was until he caught the faint scent of highland Aksum.
He stood looking up at the deep sky, in tears again. It maddened him to have done so much weeping since his rescue. The smallest things set him off.
“You are supposed to be in bed,” Sofya said over his shoulder.