This much had gone reassuringly well. The true test, now, was to see if the chimney could be used as a hiding place. His success hung on this, Telemakos felt; if not, he would have to be content with wrapping himself in the folds of the privy curtain and hoping no one pulled it away, or climbing to the ceiling if anyone came in and hoping no one looked up.
He walked up the walls, his back to one and his feet to the other in the blind dark, until he was level with the ledge. The gap above the ledge was less high than the length of a man’s foot. Telemakos put his head through, and choked and pulled it out again. The stench was overwhelming. He held himself rigid between the walls for a few seconds, gasping, then climbed down and took off his clothes. He climbed back up and put his head and shoulders and one arm through the gap. He breathed lightly through his mouth this time, and could almost taste the smell, but his hand told him the walls were clean and dry. The boxes were emptied daily, he knew; only the smell remained.
Somehow he managed to twist and tease his body up into the airshaft, until he was standing on the ledge. The darkness was utter in here: it made no difference whether he opened or closed his eyes. The space was barely wider than his body. He could not stand free of both walls at once. It was like being entombed.
Mother of God, how did I get my legs in? How do I get out again?
Getting out the first time was a struggle. He managed it at last only driven by panic; his ribs and knees and elbows caught every flaw in the stone walls and every corner of the waste box as he tumbled to the floor.
He lay in a breathless heap, coughing and barking with the effort not to yell. Then he began to choke with hysterical laughter at the thought of how he would explain himself if he ended up trapped in the airshaft of the bala heg’s latrine.
The worst part of the whole exercise was making himself climb into the airshaft for the second time. He practiced getting in and out until it became, while not exactly easy, at least fast and fluid. He knew what he was doing now, and could do it quickly and quietly.
By the time he made his way back through the palace corridors they were still and empty. There was no light in the Golden Court. The fountains were off for the night. Telemakos washed quietly in one of the pools, rather desperate to be rid of the smell of the airshaft. He lay full length in the dark water and held his breath while he rinsed his hair, then got out and sat shivering on the fountain’s rim. Here it was that Goewin had set him this challenge. With light fingers Telemakos touched the wide lip of the pool, the stone surface that Goewin had used as her desk. When he was dry, he wrapped his shamma tightly around his shoulders, settled himself in his favorite hiding place among the Golden Court’s reeds and palms, and went to sleep.
He dreamed he was stuck in the airshaft. The opening at the bottom was sealed shut, and he could not breathe. He woke up struggling and gasping and trying to cry out, tangled in his shamma. Esato was crouching next to him with her hands clamped over his nose and mouth; Sofya knelt opposite her. Telemakos tore Esato’s hands away.
“You pair of vultures!” he hissed. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“What do you think you’re doing, sneaking little crossbreed?” Sofya whispered back. “This isn’t a wayside inn!”
“He, he, he,” Esato giggled. “He’s got pond weed in his hair.”
Telemakos sat up and ran a hand over his head. It was daylight, but only just. The fountains were not on yet.
“Do they always set you loose this early?” he asked, and crawled out of the palm bed. The twins followed him, both of them giggling now.
“We’re to have breakfast with Our Mother. Every third week,” Sofya said. “Come with us, if you’re not hiding from anyone in particular this time.”
He considered this. Candake, queen of queens, the emperor’s aunt, was fond of Telemakos. It would be a good way to spend the day, and he could count on being fed, as well.
“You do look a state,” Sofya said critically. “Has your grandfather made you leave home? What are you doing here, in truth?”
“I stayed past curfew. I didn’t want to argue with the guards to let me out, so I came in here.” And this was true enough, though Telemakos knew the Golden Court was lost to him now; he had been found out beneath the palms by no less than three different people in the past three months, and he could not count on hiding here again.
“You’ve been fighting, too.”
His elbows and knees were scraped raw.
“Look, it’s none of your business,” Telemakos said shortly.
“It is if we take you to breakfast,” Sofya said mildly. “Come on. Our Mother will want to fix your hair.”
Candake did not ask him any questions. She roared with laughter when she saw Telemakos, and made him kneel between her enormous knees while she fussed over his head with combs and oil and clarified butter. She was a great admirer of his hair; in recent years this had driven Telemakos to avoid her company, although he liked her, and she let him drink coffee.
“Put his hair in a thousand plaits,” suggested Sofya, and Esato giggled again.
“He’s not a girl,” grunted Candake. The queen of queens was the size of about six women together; she ate constantly, and laughed like an hysterical hyena. She had attendants who helped her to move. Telemakos was fairly certain that seldom as he saw her she gave him more attention than she gave to her own daughters. “Eh, Telemakos Meder, tell me. How fares the princess Goewin, the terrible British ambassador? How is my little queen of Sheba? Her quarantine is bringing ruin on us.”
“It’s the emperor’s quarantine,” Telemakos dared to object in Goewin’s defense.
“It was her idea.”
“Does everyone blame it on her?” Telemakos asked, curious.
“Many do,” Candake wheezed, and chose another comb.
“That’s most unjust,” Telemakos said. “Goewin only advised it be done. No one was forced to act on her advice. And see what happened in Deire.”
“He knows so much about it,” commented Sofya, sitting despondently at her mother’s feet with her face between her hands, her body arranged in a very tableau of boredom. “I thought we were to have breakfast this morning, Our Mother. Esato’s hungry.”
“I’m hungry,” echoed Esato.
“She would have eaten the boy if I had not rescued him.”
Esato grinned at Telemakos, and Candake gave one of her deep-throated chuckles. “Yes, yes, my silly babies. But indulge me this silver hair a moment longer, and this boy’s talk. The Tame Lion, my imperial nephew, is too busy for coffee with his old auntie, too serious to talk while he eats, and I am too fat and slow to chase him into his study when he has his Hour Alone. Telemakos Meder will tell me all the courtly news.”
Telemakos was suddenly alert.
“The Tame Lion, you mean the emperor. What’s his ‘Hour Alone’? Does he have a private study?”
Sofya said darkly, “Don’t tell him anything, Our Mother. He’s a little spy.”
But it was Sofya herself who pointed out the emperor’s private study to Telemakos when he excused himself for his Noba lesson in the afternoon, and who told him how often the emperor came and went from it, and who guarded it.
“Who’s the spy?” Telemakos said. “How do you know all this?”
“Gebre Meskal is my cousin,” Sofya said loftily. “Oh, go away, Esato, let go of me.” She slapped her sister’s hands from her skirts. “Yes, I know you’re scared of Karkara, but no one else is. Get off !”
The actual afternoon in the council room the following day was anticlimactic for Telemakos after the trial run. He installed himself in the antechamber after dark the night before, and slept wrapped in the curtain; he hid in the airshaft while the caterers prepared the room, and sat comfortably on the privy floor while the bala heg was in session. Telemakos heard everything; indeed, he could see more from beneath the curtain than he had been able to see in full view of the councilors, with his face to the wall.
He had one bad moment when someone came into the privy. He saw the man rising from his seat on the council—it was the young one, Ityopis, the twins’ elder brother. Telemakos fled up the chimney without trouble, but standing there he suddenly realized he had no way to hide his feet. The airway was too narrow for him to bend his knees or to turn himself sideways. He finally held himself up by bracing his hands against the end walls. He managed to hang there until he heard Ityopis leave, and he thought that was the absolute limit of his strength; he nearly wept when someone else came in before he even had a chance to shake the numbness from his hands or get his breath back. But no one noticed him.
When it was over, he had to hide in the airshaft again while the cleaners did their work; but he could not escape the room until it was dark. He sat on the floor to wait for nightfall, his mind full of the meeting. It had been particularly dull, much talk of taxes and revenues, which Telemakos found tedious and difficult to remember. He repeated patiently to himself all that he had learned.
He had been in this one room for nearly a day now with nothing to eat or drink, and long before dark he was so thirsty that everything else began to go out of his head.
Why had he not considered this in his plan? He would die rather than give himself up now, just because he had nothing to drink. He waited stubbornly, licking dry lips, his head beginning to ache. Even after night fell he forced himself to wait another hour to give the palace time to grow quiet. Then he climbed back through the narrow window and across the ledge on the outside wall, and discovered courtiers drinking and laughing in the room he meant to escape through.
You lot of bushpig herders, he cursed them silently.
He listened at the window for a few minutes. The men were boasting to one another about their horses. It was interesting, but not worth listening to while clinging to the wall in the dark and going mad with thirst.
Telemakos spidered back to the council room and climbed back in, and wandered about checking the baskets and bureaus in case anyone had left any refreshments behind. But the cleaners had been thorough, and there was nothing. The outer door was barred and guarded, Telemakos knew; he could not get out that way. He waited another two hours, judging by the moon, and tried the neighboring room again. The party was still going on.
Well, I can’t stand this, Telemakos thought, and lowered himself as far as he could off the ledge, and dropped into the training yard below.
The fall knocked all the breath from him, for the second time in as many days. For a few minutes he lay flat on his face vowing not to do this to himself again anytime soon. Then he began to think about what to do next. He was not sure he would be able to get back inside the main building at this time of night, and even if he did, where would he go? He wanted a drink more than anything in the world. His mouth felt as though he had swallowed a jugful of sand, and his head was pounding. He would not be welcome in the kitchens; he smelled like a sewer, and he could not bathe in the Golden Court again, where the royal crocodiles Esato and Sofya would be watching for him. He could go home as soon as the gates were opened in the morning, but he had to find something to drink now—