The Sunbird

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Ready Telemachus took her up at once.

The Odyssey, 1:267–68

TELEMAKOS WAS HIDING IN the New Palace. He lay among the palms at the edge of the big fountain in the Golden Court. The marble lip of the fountain’s rim just cleared the top of his head, and the imported soil beneath his chest was warm and moist. He was comfortable. He could move about easily behind the plants, for the sound of the fountains hid any noise he might make. Telemakos was watching his aunt.

She, Goewin, ought rightfully to be queen of Britain, queen of kings in her own land. Everyone said this. But she had chosen to send her cousin, Constantine, home to Britain as its high king, and she had taken his place here in African Aksum as Britain’s ambassador. Goewin was young, barely a dozen years older than Telemakos himself. She often held informal audiences in unofficial places, like the Golden Court. She said she liked the sound of the fountains. Telemakos sometimes lay in his hiding place for hours, listening, listening. He did not understand all he heard, nor did he talk about it. But he loved to listen.

These men were not taking his aunt seriously, Telemakos could tell. They were talking about the salt trade. One of them was an official from Deire, in the far south beyond the Salt Desert, and one was a merchant, and one was a chieftain from Afar, where the valuable amole salt blocks were cut. The men were supposed to be negotiating a way of sending a regular salt shipment to Britain in exchange for tin and wool. But their conversation had deteriorated into a litany of complaints, and they spoke to one another without acknowledging Goewin’s presence, as if she were a servant or an interpreter. If they did acknowledge her, it was to make some condescending explanation, as though she were a child.

Telemakos knew how this felt. It was one reason he had become adept at keeping himself hidden. People taunted him for his British father’s hair, or they touched it superstitiously as if it would bring them luck; it was so fair as to be nearly white, incongruously framing a fine-drawn Aksumite face the color of coffee. And everyone hated his stony blue eyes, for which he could not blame them. “Foreign One” was the least offensive name they gave him. It was something Telemakos had lived with all his life, and he thought he did not mind it. But it was not something to which his aunt was accustomed, and he knew that it made her angry.

She dismissed the party of merchants and officials. They were listening with enough of an ear to her that they heard her dismissal.

Goewin sat for a moment in the quiet court then, empty of all life except the bright fish that darted through the water around the fountain. She drew a long breath, not so much a sigh as the noise she might have made before steeling herself to tease out a splinter of glass lodged in the palm of her hand. Then she said suddenly, “Telemakos, come here.”

He had never been found out before, by anyone.

He was so surprised that for a long moment he did not move or answer her, expecting her command to have been a mistake, or believing himself to be dreaming.

“Telemakos,” Goewin said, in a voice of dreadful imperial frost that brooked no argument, “I will not be disobeyed by you.”

Telemakos crawled out from among the palms, silently, and knelt before his aunt with his head bowed.

“Do you make some use of your practiced espionage,” she said. “Follow that party of dissembling tricksters and see if you can discover what tiresome plot they were hiding from me so carefully.”

“Lady?” Telemakos asked tentatively, not sure that she could be serious, or why she was not angry with him.

“Follow them,” said Goewin, “and listen.”

So he did.

He stalked them like a leopard through the halls of the palace, gauging their attention, and watching the interaction of their servants even more closely than he watched the men themselves. They had a large number of attendants among them, from porters carrying sample bars of salt to children looking after exotic pets. The Deire official had a huge black cat on a lead. It was muzzled, and the merchant’s clutch of half a dozen tiny monkeys were making it crazy. A tall boy with a thin moustache hung on to the cat’s lead; four boys of about Telemakos’s age seemed to be in charge of the miniature monkeys.

Telemakos, their shadow behind benches and pillars and potted trees, could not hear what they were saying. He needed to be with the party to hear them. Before he could frighten himself with the possible consequences, he slung a pebble at the leg of one of the monkeys.

He did not like to do it. But he did not trust people to react as predictably as animals. He would rather have dealt with the cat than the monkey, but there were four boys of varying shades and ages in the monkey retinue, and only the one older boy in charge of the cat. Telemakos needed to pass unnoticed.

His marksman father had never managed to sharpen Telemakos’s aim, and it took Telemakos three quick shots before he struck his mark. Then there was a little explosion of temper and chaos as the monkey whirled and screamed and tried to bite back, striking out at the unfortunate child who held its lead. Telemakos ran up to the monkey, caught it by the scruff of its neck, and shook it. He gentled it while running with the other boys, who were all leaping to still the eruption and not draw attention to themselves from their masters. Telemakos stepped aside so that it looked to the monkey band as though he had momentarily crossed over from the cat band, and the haughty cat boy paid him no attention because Telemakos was obviously with the monkeys.

There was a moment, then, when he realized with a thrill through the pit of his stomach as though he were swooping from the boundary wall to the roof of his grandfather’s stables, that he was standing in plain sight of twenty people and no one saw him.

The worst that could happen was that he would be chased off or reported to his grandfather, Kidane, who sat on the emperor’s council. And his grandfather would not punish him. He would scold him, perhaps, but he would assume that Telemakos had been attracted to the cat, which was almost true. The roaring in Telemakos’s head quieted, and he began to listen.

They spoke in Greek, and Telemakos could understand it, because it was the common language of the Red Sea. At least, he could understand the words they said, but he doubted their meaning. The men did not trust one another, and Telemakos’s Greek was imperfect. He paid as much attention as he could to the sound of the words, so that he could repeat them accurately.

Cutting himself away from the group was even simpler than joining it had been. The owner of the fabulous cat suddenly turned around and snapped at his animal keeper in an incomprehensible language: “Go feed that creature!” or more likely, “Get that stinking feline away from us!”—the big cat smelled very strongly of big cat, and must have been intolerable when it was in heat. The thin moustache headed off in a different direction, pulling the cat with him. Telemakos peeled away from the party with the cat, and left its haughty keeper before he bothered to look down his long nose at the strange boy trotting at his heels.