“The emperor is my cousin,” said one of them. “Don’t tell me how to behave in his presence, you freakish little crossbred snoop.”

Telemakos gaped. The last thing he expected to hear from them was an apt and vicious insult. They were supposed to be stupid.

“You should bow before you speak to us,” said the other, nodding vigorously, backing her sister.

“Don’t bother,” said the first. “No one does anything Esato tells them. Esato’s a baby.”

“You are a baby,” said Esato.

Telemakos looked at them and saw for the first time that they were not identical. They were not even alike. They were identically dressed and ornamented, indeed, as if they were a broken plate that someone had tried to glue back together and pass off as whole. But Esato was simple, and Sofya was not. It was obvious, if you bothered to look at them.

“Oh, shut your mouth, boy,” said Sofya. “You look like a fish. We’re the numbwits, not you.”

“Shut your mouth,” Esato echoed.

“Sorry,” Telemakos said.

“Why in the world are you talking to us?” Sofya walked quickly away from the press around the council room doorway, and Telemakos went with her. Esato, too, followed, one hand clinging to a fold of Sofya’s skirt, while Sofya angrily but absently tried to disengage her.

“Because no one sees you,” said Telemakos honestly. “I’m escaping my grandfather. He’s Kidane, one of the bala heg.”

Sofya laughed aloud, and a fraction of a second later, following her sister’s lead like an obedient puppy, Esato laughed also. “Truly?” Sofya said. “Yes,” she continued, “truly, I can see it, because you would never have bothered otherwise. Well, come on, then. Let’s hide you somewhere. Esato, we must rescue him from the evil bala heg, do you see?”

“Take him to Our Mother,” said Esato.

“Yes, he’s a favorite with the queen of queens, aren’t you, you slinking little mountain jackal? She likes your grotesque hair. But let’s not go to Our Mother, they’ll all think to look for him there. Somewhere else…”

Esato stopped pulling at her sister’s dress, happy to be part of this new conspiracy. She took Telemakos by one hand. Sofya took him by the other.

Telemakos was led through parts of the New Palace that he had never seen; for well as he knew it, he did not live there, and had no real place there. The twins pulled him outside, and they passed armories and butteries and a jeweler’s workshop, all loosely strung out along an awned walkway beyond the main building of the palace itself. At last they came to a pair of granite platforms, each patrolled by pairs of spearmen. There were wide stairways leading to the tops of the platforms and, below them, heavy doors guarding a space beneath the ground. Sofya stopped before one of these doors and hailed a sentry.

“You can’t go in there!” Telemakos said. “That’s the emperor’s treasury!”

“We go anywhere we like,” said Esato.

“We’re stupid, you see,” said Sofya. “We would never take anything.” She gave Telemakos a sidelong glance. “Whereas you, little mountain jackal, will be searched before they let you out again.”

A guard loped down the platform stairs, his expression caught between amusement and mild irritation. He pushed back the bars on one of the heavy doors for them.

“Do you want a light, Woyzaro Sofya, Princess?” he asked.

“Just leave the door open,” Sofya said. “Coming in, are you, Telemakos Meder? Or shall you go back to your grandfather?”

Telemakos followed the girls down the massive granite stairs and into the underground vaults.

The great entrance hall was lit well by sunlight from the open doorway. The rooms that flanked the hall loomed darker, but the whole was strangely luminous once your eyes adjusted to the gloom. Telemakos’s first impression was that the odd light came from the walls. Then he saw that the hall and the chambers beyond it were stacked nearly to their high ceilings with blocks and blocks of what appeared to be white stone: marble, quartz? It sparkled faintly when it caught the light. In the narrow aisles between the great white stacks he saw gold and pearls and other riches, sorted in trays and coffers, but these seemed incidental. The glittering towers of cut stone overshadowed everything else.

“What is this?” Telemakos asked.

“This side is gold from the northern provinces.”

“I mean, what is this?” He laid the edge of a hand against one of the coldly gleaming bars.

“Salt, you cretin. What else would it be?”

The emperor’s treasury was filled from wall to wall with amole, the bars of cut salt that passed for currency wherever gold was scarce.

“Don’t touch it,” Sofya said. “You’ll stain it.”

“Don’t touch,” Esato echoed, and struck his hand aside with startling speed and strength. The rough salt grazed his wrist bone hard enough to draw blood, and he yelped.

“Do you be careful, Esato,” her sister hissed. “They will make us leave.” Then to Telemakos she added, “You’ll be whipped if you mar the salt. Keep your hands to yourself.”

Sofya continued to lead him through the salt maze. Telemakos sucked at his stinging wrist. He followed silently, tasting blood and salt. It was without a doubt the most sinister place he had ever been. He did not like it.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“We’ve got our own strongbox. We’re allowed to look at the things, and try them on. Esato likes to pretend she’s getting married.”

There was scarcely any light in the corner of the vault where the princesses’ coffer was. The strangeness of it all was beginning to make Telemakos nervous. It was cold out of the sun, under the ground, and he pulled his shamma tightly around his shoulders. He stood hugging his arms over his chest as he watched the girls playacting a strange ritual, in which Sofya adorned her sister as a bride, or a doll. Telemakos noticed that Sofya did not once try any of the ornaments on herself. Esato remained passive, but as the game went on she seemed to become curiously radiant, her odd, wide features serene, her hair and throat and arms lightly glittering with precious stone and precious metal. It made Telemakos feel faintly sad.

“Lovely Esato,” he said aloud. “You’re beautiful now.”

They both stared at him as if they had completely forgotten he was there.

Esato said wisely, “Look: the little mountain jackal doesn’t like it here.”

Sofya sighed. “Come on, then. Put the things back.”

They led Telemakos again through the towers of salt, and he saw his way out; the stairway to the sun filled him with an absurd well of relief.

“Wait,” Sofya said, and put out a hand to bar his way. She called out loudly, “Watchman!”

The silhouette of the guard appeared at the top of the stair, blocking the entrance. “Princess?”

“We’re coming out now. Will you search this boy?”

She knew perfectly well that Telemakos had not touched a thing except the bars of salt when they first came in, and he considered arguing; but common sense told him this was palace protocol, something he must endure whether or not it was fair. He stood his ground and waited for the man to come down the stairway.

“Clothes off, boy.”

Telemakos hesitated, frowning, but the man was three times his size and stood between him and his way out. Telemakos peeled off his shamma and shirt.

“Kilt. Sandals.”

He stripped in sullen silence. Esato tittered.

“Turn around: bend over.”

This was a bit much.

“I haven’t taken anything!” Telemakos snarled. But he obeyed.

“Indeed you have not,” laughed the guard. He picked up Telemakos’s clothes and herded the three children ahead of him up the stairs. At the top there was a chorus of chuckles from the rest of the patrol as Telemakos emerged. He tried to imagine his formidable father coerced like this, and decided it was possible to behave with dignity even if you were naked. Chieftains undressed to the waist when they came to beg audiences with the emperor; their humility did not diminish their nobility. When the watchman tossed the boy’s clothes at his feet, Telemakos knelt and carefully strapped on his sandals as if he did not care who was looking at him. He held his back straight and head high; the sun lit his bare shoulders with warmth.

“Will you come talk to us another time?” asked Sofya, as Telemakos stood up, adjusting his shamma.

“Not if you make me undress again,” Telemakos answered sharply, and walked away from them. Goewin would by now be waiting for him in the Golden Court, and Sofya and Esato could follow if they wanted. But they did not.

Goewin was indeed waiting for him. She was writing, sitting on the floor at the fountain’s edge, so that the wide marble rim served as her table. She was another who could maintain her dignity no matter what she did.

Telemakos would have bowed, but it was impossible to abase himself before her when she was sitting on the ground. He stood silently and waited for her to acknowledge him.

At last Goewin looked up. “Well, Telemakos?”

It was like being questioned by the Sphinx; you prayed she was not about to devour you.

He knelt swiftly at her side, grasped her hand, and kissed it lightly. “I owe you a thousand apologies—”

“You owe me a debt of gratitude,” said Goewin. Her loved voice was frost hard, and cold. “If you ever do that again—” She was as powerful and dangerous as her elder half brother, Medraut, Telemakos’s father, whom the Aksumites had named Ras Meder, Prince Meder. “If you ever do that again, don’t let anyone see you.”

It was not the threat he had been expecting.

“Do you understand me?”

Telemakos began a new apology. “I am a thousand times sorry—”

“Stop. Don’t feign sweet innocence like that, you are too charming. Listen again,” Goewin said. “I have a message for you from the emperor. He says to tell you this. When you can prove to him you have sat through a meeting of the bala heg without any of them knowing it, he will make you his private emissary.”

Telemakos held her hand tightly, staring at it, and Goewin squeezed his hand in return. “Look at me, Telemakos.”

He tilted his head to look up into her face. She and her half brother were the only adults he knew who ever demanded that he meet their gaze when they wanted to command his attention. Telemakos watched Goewin seriously. In her dark eyes he thought he saw the same fierce excitement that had driven him to attempt this venture himself.

Goewin said, “We mean this, Telemakos.”



Down over the rugged road they went till hard by town they reached the stone-rimmed fountain running clear where the city people came and drew their water.


A FAINT SCENT OF sweat and frankincense woke Telemakos in the still, quiet midnight of his grandfather’s mansion, and made him sure that his father was home.

His father was never to be found when you looked for him. Medraut stayed away for weeks at a time hunting with the royal elephant herders, or hunting on his own; and if he was not in the Simien Mountains or the Great Valley, he spent his days sequestered in Abba Pantelewon, the monastery set in the hills above the city. When Medraut was at home—Telemakos was not sure his father considered Kidane’s house home, but that was where his wife and son lived—if Medraut was at home, he never said anything. Telemakos had never heard his father speak a single word aloud, except on one solitary, memorable occasion, when Medraut had cried out a warning, and had spoken his son’s name.