THE HARSH CRIES OF his mother’s birth pains were too heartrending for Telemakos to bear, and he had fled the house.
He spent the morning in the lion pit at the New Palace with Solomon and Sheba. Telemakos had caught the emperor’s lions himself, as cubs, six years ago. He had no responsibility for them; Nezana, the royal lion keeper, saw to that. But they knew Telemakos better than anyone, and he loved them.
Today the great gold-and-black-pelted male, Solomon, was restless too, which was unlike him. Telemakos thought the lion must have picked up his mood. Usually Solomon never did anything but sleep, though on a good day he would indulge Telemakos like a cub; he would let Telemakos sit astride his back and cling to his mane as he loped gently around the pit’s perimeter, or would chase colored wooden balls through the sand, retrieving them and dropping them at Telemakos’s feet like a dog. Today Solomon would not stay still from one half minute to the next. This was frustrating, because Telemakos wanted comfort. Sheba was always an aloof and independent creature and would tolerate attention only a little at a time, but Telemakos counted on lazy, doggish Solomon to return his affection.
Telemakos wandered away from his disloyal friend, unconsoled. He leaped lightly onto the first of the stepping-stones that wound across the lions’ trout pool. Telemakos often practiced here a small, private challenge to himself. He stood for a moment breathing carefully and finding his balance, and then he shut his eyes. He could walk the whole trail now, without looking, but he could not yet do it without faltering. The minor perils of tame lions and missed footing were distractions from his real fear, which was of covering his eyes.
It was more than half a year since he had been freed from the salt smugglers who had held him in slavery all last summer, but after having his eyes taped shut for two exhausting, appalling months, he still had a horror of being blinded. It was a trial of courage for him to pull his shirt over his head in the morning; the touch of the soft cotton on his face made his skin crawl. He had to dress and undress with his eyes and teeth clenched shut. It was such a little thing that he was ashamed to speak of it.
So he practiced covering his eyes. He could negotiate the stone path in the lions’ fish pool with his eyes closed, and when his balance was perfect, he was planning to attempt it with a length of his shamma shawl pulled across his face.
But not today. Today he could not concentrate on his feet. He kept thinking about his mother, and the baby. He missed his step twice, and the second time he ended in water to his knees. Trout leaped and fled from him among the reeds and pebbles, and the lions came padding over to see what was going on.
Solomon paced at the water’s edge, chirruping queries at Telemakos.
“Never mind the stepping-stones today,” Telemakos said, talking aloud to set Solomon at ease.
He sloshed his way across the pool and tried to tickle Solomon behind the ears. The lion sniffed disdainfully at Telemakos’s wet feet, shook himself free of Telemakos’s hands, and went back to his pacing.
Telemakos sat down among the reeds at the water’s edge, his toes in the shallows and his knees drawn up under his chin. I’m too excited, he thought. Solomon won’t calm down as long as I keep splashing about and making the fish jump. And pretty soon Sheba will catch it, too, and then she’ll snap at me.
He knew he ought to go somewhere else. He hated it when Sheba began snarling. Once, he had had to face her down until Nezana arrived with his whip and distracted the lioness long enough for Telemakos to escape up the keeper’s rope.
They’re lions, Telemakos reminded himself. They’re tame and overfed, but they’re lions. They just do what lions do. They can’t help it.
He drew his feet back from the edge of the pool and watched the water shrinking from his skin as it dried. His feet were golden-brown, soft-hued as old honey, something in between his dark African mother’s and his fair British father’s. Telemakos wondered if the baby would be like him, a strange crossing of cultures, with skin the color of cinnamon and hair the color of salt. His heart leaped with pleasure and apprehension when he thought of the baby. Girl or boy? Girl, I know it. She will be a girl, and they will name her—
Telemakos looked up. His father and the keeper stood side by side, leaning over the wall where the rope was.
“Is my sister here?” Telemakos demanded, scrambling to his feet.
Nezana and Medraut laughed.
“Yes, O child oracle, your sister’s here,” Medraut called down. “Come home to the house of Nebir and meet her.”
In his delight and excitement, Telemakos made the mistake of his life.
With the emperor’s restless lions at his back, he ran toward the wall where his father stood.
“Telemakos!” Medraut bellowed in anguished horror, and Nezana cried out, “Beware!”
Telemakos had time to turn his head, and to glance behind him over his left shoulder.
Solomon, Solomon, lazy, gentle Solomon, had seen in Telemakos’s sudden flight the moment he had dreamed of all through his narrow, pampered existence: a small, sweetsmelling, slender-legged animal racing away from him, calling him to hunt. It did not matter that he was not hungry. It did not occur to Solomon, in that moment of wild instinct, that the creature fleeing across the lion pit was the same creature that brushed his mane and rode on his back. Solomon crossed the pit in three long, low leaps.
“Solomon! Back!” Telemakos shouted, and was daring and desperate enough that he tried to turn and shout his vain command in Solomon’s face. But Solomon only gave him time for that first glance, and for Telemakos to throw his arm up and try to shield his neck. Solomon was sevenfold Telemakos’s weight. Telemakos went down beneath him like a stem of barley to the blade of a scythe, his hand clutching frantically at the back of his neck, his arm bent double and trapped, nearly from wrist to shoulder, in the brutal, saw-toothed vise of Solomon’s jaws.
For what seemed a very long time, Telemakos thought about nothing but protecting his neck.
Then his father was bundling him into his arms and weeping as he ran, and Nezana was rounding on Solomon with his whip to hold him at bay while Medraut carried Telemakos out through the tunnel. The jolting of his father’s strides tore his equilibrium apart, and Telemakos was sick all down Medraut’s shirt and then again all over his own arm when Medraut laid him on the paving stones of the court outside the lion pit’s lower walls.