His own words made him flinch. The bowl at his fingertips went flying off the tray and shattered on the floor in a mess of clay and water.

Anako stammered, “Mercy demands—”

The emperor cut him short. “This would be a slow and cruel death,” said Gebre Meskal quietly. “He may survive a week on such a regime, but so little of a skin is not sufficient water for a man laboring in the desert.”

Telemakos said through his teeth, “It is for a child.”

A gasp at his back made Telemakos look behind him. His grandfather, and Ityopis of the bala heg, and two of the pages, and even Karkara, were all weeping shamelessly. His aunt was bent double with her head caught and hidden in her arms, pulling at her hair with taut fingers, her whole body shaking.

Telemakos stood appalled at his own carelessness. He had given himself away.

His father did not weep. He stood up and rapped Goewin on the back of her head with the edge of his hand. Medraut spoke to her hoarsely, but aloud:

“So your brother is avenged.”

Nearly every head in the hall turned to stare at Medraut in thunderstruck astonishment. Even the emperor stared at him.

Only Goewin did not. She sobbed gaspingly, her head still clutched in her arms. Telemakos felt all his poise slipping away. He had known how cruelly this would hurt Goewin.

“You vengeful harridan,” said Medraut coldly.

Goewin cried out as though in pain, as though there were a knife between her ribs.

“Telemakos—Telemakos, forgive me, I never knew—I knew you suffered, but you would not say—you never spoke of this—”

Medraut looked down at her wrathfully. The hard hand with which he had struck her was poised over her bent neck, as though he meant to strike her again but could not bring himself to touch so contemptible a creature a second time.

Telemakos stormed at his father in fury, “Goewin is crying for me. You are wallowing in guilt for what you did five years ago to your dead brother. How can you be so selfish, so blind? You cannot heap all the burden of blame on Goewin’s shoulders! It was my decision to go to Afar, my own; and but for your lousy leaking water bag I should not have had to surrender myself!”

Then Medraut’s head sank and his shoulders slumped as though he had been dealt a mortal wound, and Telemakos faltered. He tried to explain. “I mean, we are all in it together. None of us is innocent; none of us is alone.”

Medraut spoke heavily, in a hoarse whisper:

“You were both.”

The emperor’s voice rang with warning, sharp and deadly even: “You have not been given leave to speak, Ras Meder.”

The words seemed to hang echoing throughout the hall for a long, frozen moment. The emperor rebuked Medraut again in the same chill, level voice, saying simply, “‘Physician, heal yourself.’”

Medraut fell back into his seat by his sister. Now they were bent double side by side, both with their faces in their hands, while Telemakos stood helplessly between them with no idea what to do or say next.

“Lij Telemakos,” continued Gebre Meskal calmly, “this court remains in session. I have asked you to suggest a sentence for this criminal. Have you given it?”

“I have. I—” Telemakos said, and clenched his fists. He hated Anako, but he did not want to be like Anako. “I have not. Plague take him! Send him into exile outside Aksum. Give him a choice: Afar or exile. Salt or plague. Maybe he will be lucky.”

Telemakos stopped, and sighed. The emperor turned to the cringing Anako, who at this attention prostrated himself at Gebre Meskal’s feet. Karkara had not stopped weeping.

“This is a formal trial of the Aksumite Empire, not a house of mourning or confessional,” Gebre Meskal stated, his voice still dangerously controlled. “Lij Telemakos, escort your father and the British ambassador to a place where they may better compose themselves. We will proceed without you.”

Telemakos offered his arm to Goewin. She took it, and let him lead her, shielding her eyes with her other hand and shaking still with choking sobs. Medraut bowed to the emperor and followed them out.

Telemakos went where he always went for solace, straight to Solomon and Sheba.

The keeper was there. Telemakos led Goewin to the little garden of tall, bright flame flowers above the lion pit, and made her sit on the stone bench set against the railing. He called down to the keeper. “Nezana, can we have Solomon up here?”

“Is that you, Telemakos?”

“Is there another who comes along asking to play with your lions?”

“Who’s with you?”

“My father and my aunt.”

“Yes, all right. Let me muzzle him, and I’ll bring him through the tunnel to you.”

Telemakos knelt on the bench beside Goewin, his arms around her neck, and kissed her face. Medraut leaned over the railing, watching as the keeper woke Solomon.

“I’ll be only seconds,” Telemakos said, and ran down the flagged steps to the tunnel’s entrance.

Solomon buffeted his enormous gold and black head against Telemakos’s chest, nearly knocking him over. Nezana let go of the great lion’s harness.

“Stupid muzzle,” Telemakos said softly, scratching his friend with both hands behind the lion’s ears.

“He could still flatten you with one paw,” Nezana said, shaking his head.

“You know he won’t. Come up, Solomon, come and meet my family.”

Telemakos climbed back to the garden, the lion pressing its head at his side as he made his way up the narrow steps. Goewin raised her tearstained face as Telemakos came near, and Medraut also turned to look at him.

“Oh, Telemakos, what are you, what are you?” Goewin whispered.

“What am I?” Telemakos frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Look at you, look at you! You are so young and so slight, and you stand unafraid with your arm around a lion’s neck!”

Telemakos glanced down at his arm. Sunlight caught at the emeralds spread over his shoulders, and dazzled him. He looked up again.

“Solomon is my friend. He’s tame. He’d eat me, otherwise.”

Telemakos brought Solomon to sit at Goewin’s feet.

“Here, stroke his mane, Goewin,” Telemakos said. “He’s such a softy. Not a proper lion at all. You wouldn’t last a day in the wilderness, would you, lazy old Solomon? Oh, Goewin, please don’t cry anymore.”

“How long were you blindfolded?” she whispered.

“Goewin, please don’t.”

“How long?”

He saw that to leave her to guess was worse torment than to tell her the truth.

“Two months, I think.”

“Did he torture you himself?”

Telemakos did not answer. Goewin reached over to touch his fingertips. “Did Anako do this?”

He would not tell her.

“Make an answer,” Medraut scolded his son, in his dark, beautiful voice. It was the first he had spoken since leaving the court. When Telemakos still hesitated, Medraut added: “I bid you.”

He waited.

“I bid you, Telemakos,” Medraut ruled quietly.

Telemakos was undone. His resolve disintegrated at the sound of his father’s voice speaking his name.

“Anako didn’t do it himself. Another used his knife, to his command.”

“Why?” Goewin whispered.

“To see if I could talk.”

“Ah, God.” Goewin closed her eyes and swallowed hard, and sank her head in her arms again. “Ah, God forgive me.”

The lion tried to settle its great bulk against her knee. Goewin raised her head and laid one trembling hand on Solomon’s heavy black mane.

“But you bore it in silence,” she whispered. “Until that night in Kidane’s house Anako thought you were mute. So you never cried out, you never made a sound. What kind of being are you?”

On the other side of the little garden, a tiny, shining bird with iridescent emerald wings darted among the tall red flowers. Telemakos pointed. “There.”

Goewin shook her head in disbelief and said chokingly, with the faintest of smiles, “Sunbird.”

Telemakos laughed. “You have said so.”

Medraut sat down at Goewin’s side and took her in his arms. “All right, little sister,” he said, in that low, quiet, musical voice, stroking her hair. “All right.”

“I did not mean to hurt him—” Goewin gasped.

“He is right. We were all in it together, striving to deliver the nation.”

“So we have,” she muttered fiercely. “Or anyway most of it.”

“So we have,” Medraut said. Suddenly he buried his face in his sister’s shoulder with a sob. “Oh, that my child should be so misused, my only child—It feels like vengeance, a justice against me—” He gave another agonized sob. “God forgive us both.”

Medraut was talking. Medraut was speaking aloud, in conversation, awake.

“I’m not your only child,” said Telemakos.

Medraut stretched one arm open to include his son in his embrace.

“I was so lonely,” Telemakos said. “The worst thing about it was the loneliness.” He looked up at his father, at the tears streaking Medraut’s hard, lined face. “Not ever being spoken to. There was nothing more terrible. It was worse than dying of thirst.”

“You put us all to shame, little one,” Medraut said.

This was worth more than all the salt in Afar, more than all Sasu’s gold. This was worth everything.

Telemakos kissed his father’s cheek, unable to contain his delight. Medraut sighed, and smiled faintly at his son with the quirking corner of his mouth.

“Come, Telemakos,” he said. “You’ve finished your task for the emperor. Will you come home with me now?” He hesitated, searching for words so long untried. “Put your lion away, and let us all go home, and I shall read to you from your Telemakia.”

It had all been worth this.

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