There was always fresh water in the lion pit. There was never any guard.
Sheba was out on her nightly rounds, prowling the palace grounds, but Solomon was snoring gently beneath the pencil cedars.
“Lazy old beast,” Telemakos whispered.
Solomon recognized his friend in spite of the stink. He shared his water willingly. He would never tell a soul Telemakos had been there. Telemakos buried his face in Solomon’s mane and felt loved.
He stayed in the lion pit all that night; but even he did not dare to sleep there.
His mother scowled with concern the next morning when Telemakos presented himself on Grandfather’s front steps, and wrinkled her nose in disgust. Telemakos bowed his head and waited for her exclamation of disapproval.
“You’re taking care of your hair, I see,” she commented.
He laughed, and saw her smiling.
“Go take a bath,” she said, which was what she usually said when he came back from a hunting trip.
He was clean, fed and rested, and wound up like a spring when he ran back to the New Palace in the afternoon. He actually made it to his Noba lesson for the third time in that week. It helped to calm him, sitting in the sunlight of Karkara’s office and watching the weary-looking official build towers with the small tablets of salt that were piled on his table, while he told Telemakos stories in the language of his childhood and listened absently as Telemakos repeated them. Both their minds ran elsewhere, Karkara’s to the pile of documents in the basket at his feet, and Telemakos’s to his next great challenge: making his way unseen into the emperor’s study for the Hour Alone.
Telemakos made use of his friends the butlers once again. He had to endure a few nerve-racking moments while one of them forgot to remove a tray and came back for it. He had another fright when two young soldiers sifted through the wall hangings with their spears a few minutes before Gebre Meskal arrived; once, long ago, Telemakos had narrowly missed being run through in just such a search. But when the emperor at last came into his private study, Telemakos was sitting coolly beneath the window, legs crossed and hands folded in his lap.
He hesitated a fraction of a second before he bowed, to let the emperor see him there. Then he fell on his face on the leopard skin at Gebre Meskal’s feet.
“Well played, Lij Telemakos,” said the emperor.
Telemakos smiled, his face hidden in his hands, elated.
“Get up and sit with me. Are you hungry?”
“I’m all right, thank you, Your Majesty.”
“Sit here. Tell me what you know. I take it you mean to tell me of the council yesterday? Please begin.”
Telemakos dutifully repeated as much as he could remember of the meeting. Gebre Meskal listened with the same air of detached interest that he had shown in Telemakos’s santaraj playing. When Telemakos finished, Gebre Meskal said, “This is all true, and well spoken, but there is nothing here you could not have learned from your grandfather, if he were minded to tell you. There were no secrets passed in yesterday’s meeting. And I cannot trust you as my emissary unless you can bring me proof that you were there: an object, a token, perhaps.”
“I am not a thief,” said Telemakos coldly.
“I need proof.”
“You stayed behind after the others left,” Telemakos said. “You looked inside the mesob basket table, and underneath the podium, and behind the privy curtain, trying to find me out. And when you found no one, you sighed, and spoke aloud, saying, ‘Perhaps it is wrong to expect so much of a child.’”
There was a long, long silence. Gebre Meskal rubbed at his beard, and Telemakos thought he was trying to hide a smile that kept creeping across his solemn face. “Where were you?” the emperor asked.
“Should I tell?”
“Well, your proof is sufficient. But now tell me something I don’t already know.”
Telemakos looked down at his hands, turning them back and forth in his lap. Then he laid them on the mesob table between them. “I don’t suppose you know this,” Telemakos began slowly.
“Anako, the Deire archon who was in Aksum at the beginning of the season, had a conversation with a salt merchant while he was here,” Telemakos said. “They were talking of a black market in salt to open in Arsinoë, and they meant the conversation to be secret. Or private, anyway. One of Anako’s porters overheard them, and was punished for it. I heard them, too, but they didn’t know I was listening, so I wasn’t punished. The porter had his tongue cut out. And they cut his hands off.”
Telemakos rapped his hands against the table.
“So maybe you were right,” he finished. “Maybe what you want is too much to expect from me.”
“You could do it.”
“I know I could.”
Gebre Meskal stood up and crossed the room. From one of the carven shelves that hung by the wall he took a miniature santaraj set.
“Show me your game again,” said Gebre Meskal. “That game we played three times in your mother’s house.”
It took some concentration for Telemakos to re-create the fiasco, but he did at last successfully.
“Now here comes my small pawn,” said Gebre Meskal. “Here he comes, moving among the enemies all on his own. Do you see? He acts alone, but he is not alone. He has an army behind him, also, my army; and with our lives we will fight to defend him.”
Telemakos clenched his fists, and opened them again, and closed them again. He did not have to do this. He looked out the window; he looked at the leopard-skin rug. He looked at his hands, and opened them carefully. He remembered that Butala’s punishment might well have been his fault. In some sense, then, this task was already his responsibility.
He asked slowly, “What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to go to Adulis,” said the emperor, “and discover who would sabotage my quarantine.”
GOEWIN AND HER BROTHERS
“ …. he slipped into the enemy’s city, roamed its streets—”
“DON’T TELL RAS MEDER,” Telemakos insisted. “He won’t let me do it.”
The arrangements were in place for his visit to Adulis. His mother would go with him, ostensibly to visit her uncle; Kidane’s brother Abbas was the archon there, the governor of Adulis. Turunesh could see to Kidane’s dry-docked ships. It made sense for her to go, and to take her son, who had never seen his own land farther than Kolöe. Goewin would go as well. Her reason for being in Adulis was more obscure, to do with seeking out final messages from her homeland among the warehoused shipping. Her real reason was that she was Gebre Meskal’s conspirator, and it was to her that Telemakos must answer and make his reports.
But Goewin refused to leave Aksum until she had told Medraut of their plan. She and Telemakos hiked above the city to the monastery Abba Pantelewon, hoping to find Medraut there.
“You did not even tell the bala heg about me,” Telemakos argued.
“We did not tell the bala heg for your own protection,” said Goewin. “The fewer folk who know about you, the better. But we told your grandfather and your mother, and we will tell your father.”
“He will refuse his permission, I know it. He will want to do the work himself.”
“Well, he might, Telemakos,” said Goewin. “If anyone is your equal at underhanded stalking, it is your father. He tracked me from Britain to Aksum without my knowing it, four thousand miles, to see to my safety. I doubt not he would do the same for you. But I can’t see him doing it for Gebre Meskal, because Gebre Meskal wants to hear a report; and as you know, Medraut never tells anybody anything.”
“Why, Goewin?” Telemakos asked.
They climbed along the wooded hillside above the city, Telemakos walking ahead of Goewin up the narrow path, because she could see over his head.
“Why won’t he speak?”
Goewin did not answer immediately. Telemakos glanced back at her and saw that she had taken an arrow from her quiver and was using it to swat leaves and twigs away from her face. She never went anywhere without her bow. She walked in the city streets without a guard, as well.
She answered gently, “Telemakos, my love, I told you what I think about it. He is punishing himself because he could not save my twin brother. You have more of him than anyone else, even your mother. No one can have all of him.”
Telemakos swiped at the leaves himself. He said softly, “I want him to love me as much as he loved Lleu.”
Behind him, Goewin gave a bark of black hilarity. “God blind me, Telemakos, do you have any idea how much he hated Lleu?”
“I do not believe you.”
“Medraut was so jealous of Lleu he meant to murder him. He poisoned Lleu. He kept him sleepless for four days, till Lleu started to see things that weren’t there and thought he would go mad. When my aunt Morgause held Lleu’s life for ransom, in her lust for power and vengeance over my father, Medraut joined her. He dragged Lleu hundreds of miles through frozen wilderness, meaning to deliver him to death at her hands. Oh—I cannot speak of the evil Medraut did. I came near to killing him myself.”
“I do not believe you,” Telemakos repeated stubbornly.
“I started to beat his head in with the end of a spear. I would have killed him, Telemakos. I wanted to avenge the wrong he’d done my brother. Only Lleu would not let me.”
They walked without speaking for a few minutes. Then Goewin said in a low voice, “I’m sorry. I wish I had not told you this. I love your father, Telemakos. But I loved my twin, also. Lleu was cruel to Medraut as well; they were both at fault. But they kissed and forgave each other at the end of it, and then Lleu was killed in the battle of Camlan before the season was out. I think Medraut’s silence is his penance, his own punishment on himself for not making amends to Lleu by saving his life at Camlan.”
“He’s not punishing himself,” said Telemakos. “He’s punishing me and everyone else. What good does his silence do for anyone, your Lleu especially?”
“I’ve often envied Medraut his ease of washing his hands of those around him,” Goewin agreed. “Look, here we are. I’ll wait for you.”
Only men and boys were allowed in the monastery.
Telemakos went ahead on his own. The monks at the gate welcomed him; they knew him, and knew whom he was looking for. Telemakos waited in the courtyard and tried to imagine a younger version of his father, eaten with envy enough to poison the small brother whom he also loved. But no, not small: Lleu would then have been a young man, Goewin’s twin brother, dark haired and white faced and imperious. Telemakos tried to picture him, but his mind would only offer up a dark-haired image of himself.
He thought of Medraut twisting his arm behind him and holding him blind. Medraut had done that to protect Telemakos; but how could Lleu have felt, held like that in malice, in fear for his life? How could you ever bear such betrayal?
Yet Lleu had forgiven him, said Goewin, and her implication was that she had, too; Telemakos was sure. But Medraut had not forgiven himself. Maybe he felt that no one else had, either.