But if it had spread through Egypt already, then might it not end in Aksum itself, and who would then waste time worrying about distant Britain?
Goewin will tell the emperor, Telemakos thought, if I know Goewin. She’ll tell him this afternoon, because there’s a meeting of the bala heg this afternoon; that’s why Grandfather came up to the New Palace this morning. He never comes up here unless the council is meeting.
Lying in the sun with his face against Sheba’s spicy fur, Telemakos conceived an intrigue so elaborate it verged on folly.
He contrived to gain entry to that afternoon’s meeting of the bala heg, the parliament of twelve nobles who gave private counsel to the young emperor Gebre Meskal. Telemakos hid himself in plain sight, just as he had done with the salt traders. This time he made Grandfather believe that he was attending the council as Goewin’s unlikely companion, and he made her believe that he was there with Grandfather.
Telemakos walked between them as they entered the council room, his head held high, his eyes on the floor. He could sense Kidane and Goewin glaring at each other accusingly, not daring to start a personal argument in the emperor’s presence. Telemakos kept his gaze trained on the floor. He bowed to the emperor with Kidane and Goewin, lower than either of them because he was younger and had no place here. He lay on his chest on the floor with his face in his arms until Gebre Meskal acknowledged him.
That sobered him. It was very rare that anyone called him by his title, which was something equivalent to “young prince.” Telemakos’s mother and grandfather only ever introduced him as Telemakos Meder, his own name and his father’s Aksumite name. Yet his mother was a noble and his father a prince, and though Telemakos was Aksumite by birth, by blood he had more claim to the British kingship than did Constantine, Britain’s high king.
For one uncertain moment Telemakos feared the emperor would ask why he was there. Then Gebre Meskal said, as though in warning, “All right, Telemakos,” speaking in tones of dismissal.
Telemakos stood up, his eyes still trained on the floor. He moved to stand aside with his face to the wall, to show how well he knew his place; he was sure that this was a courtesy Grandfather would have required of him if he had truly brought him to this meeting.
Gebre Meskal acknowledged his councilors with no more of a greeting than he had given to Telemakos, and called for their silence.
“Princess.” Gebre Meskal was always as respectful to Goewin as he was to anyone, and it was partly this that kept Telemakos in awe of her. “You have news from our ambassador in Britain?”
“Thank you for allowing me entry here today, Your Majesty,” Goewin said coolly. “Yes, only this noon I’ve received a letter from Priamos.”
“I await my own,” said the emperor. “The despatchers are erratic as ever.”
“There may be good reason for that,” said Goewin. “May I read this aloud?”
And there it was again, the evil word, plague. Priamos’s letter confirmed that it was in Britain. Priamos apologized that he would not return to Aksum that year, as planned and expected, because he did not think it safe to travel. He also advised that Goewin stay where she was: “For to move from one land to another is to drag the pestilence from place to place, and to leave a wake of death and uncleanness in one’s path.”
There was a long silence after Goewin finished.
She spoke grimly, into the heavy silence, “I am going to write one more letter to Constantine the high king, and tell him to shut down Britain’s ports. And I entreat you, Your Majesty, to do the same here in Aksum.”
The council chamber exploded into outrage. Telemakos turned his head, very quietly and carefully, so that he could see over one shoulder a little of what was going on.
There was old Zoskales, who was deaf and always asleep, starting and blinking; his neighbor, Karkara, yelled an explanation at his ear. The warrior Hiuna and the priest Kasu, from the ancient city of Yeha, had broken into angry argument with each other; while Ityopis, the emperor’s young cousin, slapped the rail before them with one open palm to try to calm them or get their attention.
Telemakos found himself shaking with bottled laughter. Each one of the bala heg was behaving exactly as he did in court or in the street, Telemakos could not believe they were so predictable.
Goewin leaned an elbow against the rail in front of her own seat, her head tilted a little, her eyes hidden behind one hand. She waited in disgusted silence for the council to come to order. Telemakos moved his head imperceptibly, straining to get a better look, and found Goewin watching him from beneath her hand. She held his gaze for a moment before he could duck back toward the wall. His heart hammered; he was sure she had discovered him again.
Well, there was no doubt Grandfather would have him whipped this time, for this was the most outrageous thing he had ever done. But he would not give himself up until he was called out.
It was Danael who brought them to order. He was their leader, the agabe heg, the king’s closest advisor.
“Have you so little regard for the British ambassador?” he thundered. “Sit down. Would you question Caleb’s choice of her any more than you question his choice of Gebre Meskal as his heir? Sit down and be quiet and let her speak.”
Danael turned to the negusa nagast. “Your Majesty?”
“Come to your feet, Princess Goewin, and address them again,” said the emperor.
Telemakos heard her stand up. She said simply, “Close your ports. Close your borders. You will lose commerce, you will lose authority, you will lose alliances. But you have the strength to do it and survive. The world is aflame. If you would live through this scourge, you must cut yourself off from the world.”
A few of the council sent up a murmur of assent. Telemakos heard Grandfather’s voice among them. Zoskales muttered something, loudly but incomprehensibly, in his flat, hissing voice.
“‘What is the child doing here?’” Karkara repeated clearly.
Telemakos drew in a sharp breath.
“Turn around, Telemakos,” said Goewin.
He turned to face them, staring at his feet.
“I asked him here as my witness,” said Goewin smoothly. “He was with me this morning when I first heard rumor of the plague, from Anako, the archon in Deire. And it was in conversation with Anako’s porters that Telemakos heard speculation as to how to undermine the quarantine in Alexandria. Where there is no market, there will be a black market. So I would advise you not only to set quarantine in your own land, but also to lay careful snares against any who would slip through your net.”
Now, though he was still gazing studiously at the floor, Telemakos knew they were all staring at him. The emperor said, “Tell us what was spoken, child.”
Telemakos answered dutifully.
“You are speaking Ethiopic,” said Gebre Meskal. “Is that what you heard?”
“They were speaking Greek,” Telemakos corrected himself, and carefully repeated the salt traders’ words as accurately as he could, as though he were reciting a language lesson.
“You heard this in conversation with Anako’s porters?” questioned Karkara.
“Not exactly; it was not the porters speaking, sir,” Telemakos said. “Anako and the Afar chieftain were talking to each other. I was with the porters, looking at their animals.”
Another great murmur breathed through the chamber as the bala heg considered.
“When do you envision this quarantine enacted?” Gebre Meskal asked Goewin.
“Tomorrow,” she said.
The goddess swept into the cavern’s shadowed vault, searching for hiding-places far inside its depths …
HAVING PLAYED HIS PART, Telemakos stood listening quietly, his face to the wall, until the council was finished.
He walked between his grandfather and his aunt again as they filed out of the private chamber and into the busy reception hall. There a typical drama was being enacted as the youngest of the emperor’s cousins, twin girls who were some two or three years older than Telemakos, fought with each other. Telemakos sometimes thought he had never spent a day in the New Palace when he had not come across the simple-minded daughters of Candake, queen of queens, negeshta nagashtat, raising their voices in anger against each other. He avoided them whenever possible, as did everyone else.
Only now he kept track of them out of the corner of his eye, as a means of escape.
Grandfather turned on Goewin as soon as they were through the door of the council chamber, and Goewin in turn snatched hold of Telemakos by the shoulder lest he, predictably, disappear,
“Never again!” Grandfather said, and it occurred to Telemakos that he had not ever known Kidane to be angry with Goewin. “Never again, without consulting me first! The boy is my grandson. What will they think of me in this court, dragging children into the emperor’s private councils! That I should bring such shame upon the noble house of Nebir!”
Goewin knelt before Kidane, her head bowed. She had released Telemakos, but he stayed by her side out of loyalty, since she was now his conspirator.
“Blatte Kidane, Councilor Kidane, forgive me. I most humbly beg your pardon. I would not bring shame on my host and patron. I thought there could be no blame on any but myself. And I will take all blame on myself.”
Telemakos knelt also.
“And as for you, my boy—” Grandfather began, but Goewin cut him off.
“The blame is all mine,” she repeated. “Do not find fault in him for obeying me.”
Kidane stood for a moment, nonplussed, while Goewin demeaned herself. Telemakos felt his heart fluttering, torn between exultation at having escaped his grandfather’s wrath, and apprehension at what form his aunt’s would take.
Kidane raised Goewin to her feet and kissed her on either cheek. They liked and respected each other, and this scene was embarrassing to both of them. “I see why you would do such a thing,” Grandfather said. “But I beg you, Princess, do not surprise me like this again.”
“I will not,” said Goewin meaningfully.
Then a reluctant page came forward to relay the message to Goewin that her salt merchants were awaiting their unfinished audience with her, as she had arranged. Did she indeed mean to meet with them that day, or had she forgotten them?
Telemakos watched her face cloud with anger and irritation.
“I’ll be there. I am there now.”
She pulled her shamma shawl into place across her shoulders, and turned briefly to Telemakos. “Come to me in the Golden Court, you, in an hour.”
“Yes, my lady.”
She went with the page. Before Kidane could scold his grandson anyway, Telemakos slipped away into the strange, charmed company of the simple-minded princesses, whom everyone ignored.
They were always dressed exactly alike. Their hair was always plaited in the exact same way, with the exact same gold and emerald beads threaded through it. As far as he could tell, their battles were caused mostly by one of them trying to get away from the other, and the abandoned one following and weeping.
“You be quiet,” he told them. “The emperor is coming through in a minute.”