The second most powerful man in Egypt’s government stood on the palace rooftop relishing the cool morning air. He leaned on the waist-high wall and let his gaze roam the horizon of city buildings. Within the hour the sun would be well into the sky and another day’s chaotic pace of appointments and conferences would begin. But for the moment, the pre-dawn solitude provided solace.
The aging vizier felt more tired this morning than on any other. He realized, though, that his days were numbered, and before long, the burdens of office would be lifted. Pharaoh’s health steadily declined, and when he died, the newly appointed king would select his own prime minister.
With a sigh of relief the vizier found himself smiling at the expectation of leaving office. My family has suffered enough these last ten years because I have been Pharaoh’s right hand. I will be glad when it is over.
Unintentionally, the nobleman’s gaze wandered to the enormous temples sprawled along the southern end of the city. Dawn’s light was a pink hue, and he knew that by now the priests had opened the shrine housing the divine statue of Amon-Ra, the great state god, the king of gods.
The daily ritual was the same. Before dawn, the Supreme Magus Dhahab and his entourage of select priests and priestesses entered the holy of holies sanctuary to awaken the god. The sacred statue was bathed, clothed, and offered food as incense burned and prayers were read. On special occasions, Pharaoh himself would be present to make offerings at the service. But those times were few and the magus always resented Pharaoh replacing him as the order’s religious leader. Commoners were not allowed to enter even the temple gateways, yet the king, as Chief Priest and Justice of the Land, bore unrestricted access to the holy of holies.
A wry grin crossed the vizier’s face. Dhahab’s petty jealousies were so evident whenever Pharaoh officiated the ceremony. The vizier shook his head in bewilderment and thought aloud, “We feed them, allow them to own vast estates, and exempt them from taxes, and still they are never satisfied.”
Before ever looking back, the vizier recognized the deep, booming voice of his old friend Ben-Tadji, chancellor of Lower Egypt. Turning, he brushed dirt from his forearms where he had been leaning and waited for the burly man to come nearer.
“I thought I would find you hiding up here,” the chancellor said, extending an open hand.
The Vizier Zanimah took it with a firm grip, giving him a hearty shake. “No, I was not hiding. I often come here to enjoy the tranquility before being forced to sit in my office all day,” he replied, swinging his free hand in a wide sweep across the horizon. After a glance over his friend, the vizier playfully slapped him on the shoulder and grinned. “You never age, do you? You look no different than when we last met.”
The chancellor beamed and glanced at his stomach. “By the gods, I wish I did look the same.” He paused to study the vizier. “But you look as if you have been dragged behind a chariot.”
Zanimah chuckled and returned to the rooftop’s short wall. He leaned against it. “No one ever accused you of being diplomatic, did they?”
“No, and no one ever accused me of stealing before, either,” Ben-Tadji answered, his expression growing somber.
The vizier’s smile melted. He knew what Ben was implying. It momentarily angered, and insulted him, that his friend would make such a remark.
In all of Egypt the two largest and best producing agricultural districts, the Fayum and Delta regions, were located in the lands Ben-Tadji governed. Under his direct rule were twenty nomarchs, district officials, and he in turn reported only to the vizier and Pharaoh. But a nomarch, recently convicted of stealing from Pharaoh, had been one of Ben’s officials, and the cloak of suspicion cast on the chancellor’s reputation had set him on the defensive.
“That was uncalled for, and you know it. You are not on the battlefield anymore where you can say what you want. No one here has accused you of stealing,” Zanimah retorted.
Moving to stand beside the vizier, Ben-Tadji leaned on the wall and gazed out over the city. He inhaled hard with self-anger and then let his breath out slowly, lowering his head as he did. A tense silence passed between the two men.
“You are right,” said the chancellor, head still hung down. “It was uncalled for. Ever since that damned catamite was caught forcing his scribe to falsify official records I have had everyone implying I was party to it as well. When you ordered me here, I assumed the troubles still followed me.”
Standing straight, Ben-Tadji stared into his friend’s eyes. “I apologize for my loose tongue. The habits of an old soldier are difficult to break. And the older I get, the less patience I have. This entire mess has set me on edge.”
Observing Ben-Tadji’s humbled expression made the vizier’s anger fade. They had been friends too long to allow sharp remarks to drive them apart now. A piecemeal grin formed.
“You never had any patience to begin with,” the vizier said. “But you were an excellent general, and Pharaoh believes you are his best chancellor of the two.”
The comparison to Ben’s counterpart, the chancellor of Upper Egypt, made his jaw muscles tighten. Eyes squinted, head shaking, the chancellor of Lower Egypt tried to muffle his laughter as he spoke. “By the gods, I would hope Pharaoh thinks I am better than that moronic piece of dung.”
“Ben!” Zanimah’s guarded look told his friend he agreed, but could not allow any more to be said.
“You know, there are times when I wish I was back in the field with my division,” the chancellor remarked, turning to walk along the rooftop.
Zanimah watched him, noting the strength and vitality the ex-soldier’s body retained at fifty years of age.
“By the gods, I loved it when we were on expedition to Mesopotamia, fighting our way through Syria and across the desert. When we reached the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris, I wanted to keep going, but Pharaoh held his hand aloft and said we had traveled far enough.” The chancellor’s voice tapered off. His face displayed the joy of reliving the memories. “I was there with Thutmose I when he erected two stelae’s near the Euphrates to mark the limits of our conquests, and to show the bastards it was now Egyptian territory.” He sighed tiredly. “Oh, how I remember the battles we fought, and the hands we counted to get there!”
A shudder ran through Zanimah as he recalled the counting. To this day he vividly remembered the mounds of severed enemy hands piled higher than a man. As King Thutmose I’s personal aide it had been Zanimah’s duty to oversee the accounting of enemy killed, and the chopped off hands were the age-old practice of doing so.
The vizier nodded. “Your RA-Division were true fighters, no one will ever dispute that fact. They always had mountains of hands everywhere after a battle. Damn it all, that was one of the worst assignments I ever had, seeing that those stinking, fly-drawing, bloody hands were counted. Did I ever tell you what those whoring dogs in your division did to my scribes?” he asked, shaking a finger at Ben-Tadji in mock anger.
“No, what did they do?” An impish grin appeared on the former general’s lips.
“Your soldiers cut off the enemies’ manhoods, and tied them into the hands so it looked like the poor bastards were taking a piss or playing with themselves when they were killed. It was bad enough we had to count the hands one by one, but to reach over and grab what you think is a hand, then discover what you were really holding, was sickening!”
Like a weakened dam breaking under the strain of torrential flood waters, a roar of laughter burst from the chancellor. He turned his face away.
The vizier’s eyes narrowed. “You are a sorry jackal, Ben-Tadji!” He said in a loathsome voice as he placed his hands on his hips. “You ordered your men to do that!”
“No. Yes. Well, we may have discussed such a thing,” stammered the chancellor, trying to stifle his laughter and talk at the same time. “I did not order them to do it, but I knew of it. My men would hide those little surprises throughout the piles, and then stand and wait for a scribe to grab one. We, I mean my men, used to get a good chuckle whenever the scribes lifted one and retched as they raced to the river!”
Zanimah shook his head in disgust.
“I remember seeing you turn green in the gills a few times too,” Ben stated, eyes wet from laughing so hard.
Vizier Zanimah crossed his arms over his chest and waited for his friend to regain his composure. He found no humor in the excessive mutilations, then or now.
Observing Zanimah’s stern face, Ben-Tadji took on a formal posture and cleared his throat. “I know you have always been against that sort of thing. But those were difficult times. You never saw the remains of my men after the enemy butchered them.” His face grew somber at the recollection of painful memories. Years of anguish glistened in his eyes.
“My son was one of those men,” Ben said, voice trailing to silence as he averted his gaze. A stoic look masked his face, and he stared out into the sleeping city. “I lost his mother shortly after his death. She never recovered from the pain of losing him. She died the same year.”
“I am sorry, Ben. I had forgotten.” Zanimah laid a consoling hand on his friend’s shoulder and moved away, allowing him a private moment.
Noise from the streets filtered through the morning air as the sun rose over the horizon. Traders bartering for the highest price, onagers baying, and cattle bawling created a bedlam of organized confusion.
The vizier watched two boys playfully chase another in the street below.
“I wish our lives were as simple as theirs,” Ben said, seeing the children that had captured Zanimah’s attention. Envy carried in his voice as he stood beside his friend and watched the peasant children.
“It would be nice. Wake up each morning and your only problem for the day is to decide what game to play with friends,” Zanimah replied. His gaze followed the boys until they disappeared behind a market stall.
Ben-Tadji chuckled and looked at the vizier. “Then we grow older and awaken to play political games with people who are not our friends.” He shook his head lightly. “What an ironic life we live.”
“Well,” Zanimah said, turning his back to the street, “I asked you to come here to help me with a political game, and I consider you a trusted friend.” He paused to study Ben-Tadji’s face. “Pharaoh asked me to talk with you.”
“Before we talk though, I must have your pledge of secrecy.”
Confusion etched lines about Ben’s eyes. His lips curled inward, eyebrows drawing into a single taut line. “Of course you have it.”
“Excuse me.” The vizier walked to the stairwell leading down into the palace. He clapped his hands and spoke quickly to the servant who appeared.
The servant left, but returned with slaves carrying ornately-made chairs and a tray with two silver cups of wine. As the chairs were set in place by the rooftop wall, Zanimah took the cups from the tray and gave one to his friend. A slight wave of the hand dismissed the slaves.
Waiting a moment longer, Zanimah walked to the stairwell to ensure the slaves had left. He found no one and returned. “Please,” he said, gesturing with his wine cup to one of the chairs. “We should be comfortable while we talk.”
The chancellor of Upper Egypt nervously took a seat and sipped his wine, all the while staring at Zanimah.
“When you return to Giza, Prince Tehutmes will be accompanying you,” the vizier stated, lifting his cup to drink.
“The prince? Why?”
“Officially, to inspect the Fayum and the Delta and provide Pharaoh with a recommendation of whomever you both believe should be appointed the new nomarch of the Seventh Nome.”
“Unofficially, there are numerous reasons. Pharaoh wants you both to become better acquainted. You were a soldier and Prince Tehutmes leans more toward military affairs than political administration. Pharaoh believes he may learn faster from you.” The vizier’s voice held undertones of unsaid meanings.
“To learn what faster?”
“Learn how to rule as a Pharaoh.” Zanimah paused, unsure of how to bring out the full truth. “Under the guise of this nomarch affair, you are to prepare Prince Tehutmes for becoming Pharaoh within one year. You shall be his personal tutor.”
Ben’s bottom jaw lowered, eyes steadily flaring. “You want me to tutor him, within one year, to be Pharaoh? What is Thutmose going to do, step down and make his son Pharaoh?”
“King Thutmose I is dying. Prince Tehutmes will rightfully become Pharaoh on his own soon enough,” the vizier stated bluntly.
“Dying?” The chancellor spilled wine as he lurched forward in his chair. “I have not heard any mention of our king’s health being bad. When did all this come about?”
“It has been well-guarded for the last year. Only his physicians and a few priests know. They have strict orders to maintain the secret or die within the hour should they ever let it slip. I do not understand all of the medical particulars, but Pharaoh suffers from attacks that weaken his body and will soon kill him.”
The chancellor took a deep swig of his wine and glanced about the rooftop, searching himself for answers to his thousand questions. “Is it the dream sickness as Salitis had?”
Since the days when the Pharaoh Salitis suffered from violent rages and fell into spasmodic states of dreaming, Egyptian nobility feared it would return one day to infect another of their kings. No cure for the illness was ever found, but Salitis’ vizier, Joseph, had been able to interpret the king’s dreams, and by that help calm him enough to ease the effects of the disease.
“No,” Zanimah replied quickly, “it has to do with his heart. It is failing him and one day will completely.”
Relieved it was not the dream sickness, Ben-Tadji emptied his cup with a long gulp.
Zanimah watched the brawny man, noting how small the silver cup looked in Ben’s paw-like hand.
“I can understand the need for secrecy. If such news were leaked, there could be revolts, possibly war with some of those bordering bastards. But I do not understand what I am supposed to teach a seventeen-year-old young man that he could not learn here at the palace?” Ben-Tadji set his cup on the rooftop wall.
“Suspicions will be aroused if everyone suddenly sees the prince constantly with Pharaoh. Such as the other day at court, Tehutmes sat beside his father and from that act alone questions were raised in certain circles about shifts in authority. But you can teach Tehutmes firsthand about who can and cannot be trusted, and how we oversee the nomes and the taxation. Everything you encounter politically on a daily basis, and from your military experiences, you can teach him how to best defend our country while maintaining the present control we have over our enemies. Prince Tehutmes has trained as a soldier all his life. That aspect of his tutoring should be quite easy.”
“Pharaoh honors me with such a task, but frankly, I would not know where to begin,” Ben-Tadji said, shifting his weight further back in his chair. “It will be difficult to correct the young man if he does wrong; especially knowing he is to shortly be our Pharaoh.” The chancellor rolled his eyes then let his gaze return to the vizier.
Zanimah chuckled at his friend’s apprehension. “I understand your concerns, but that has been addressed by the king. He ordered the prince to listen to you as if you were his father. Pharaoh also instructed me to tell you to treat Prince Tehutmes as if he were your own son. Do whatever is necessary in the amount of time you will have to prepare him for being the Lord of the Two Worlds.”
“Treat him as if he were my own son?” Ben-Tadji asked softly. A fragment of a smile broke in the corner of his mouth.
“Yes, as if he were your son,” Zanimah repeated warmly.
Gazing at the horizon, Ben-Tadji sat silent. When he looked back to the vizier, wetness showed along the rims of his eyes. “All the way here I thought I was going to receive some sort of reprimand. Now, when I leave, I will have a young man to raise. Life is full of surprises.”
The vizier nodded.
“When he becomes Pharaoh, who will be his queen? Does he know?” Ben-Tadji wiped his eye as if dirt bothered him.
“Since I have your pledge of secrecy, I will tell you, but avoid the discussion with the prince. He knows, but Pharaoh told me it distresses his son greatly because Tehutmes wants someone different.”
Ben’s brow furrowed. “Tehutmes already has a hard road to travel with being the King of Egypt, much less having to take a queen he does not want. Who is this woman?”
“Hatshepsut, his half-sister will be queen.”
“Hatshepsut is nothing more than an eleven-year-old brat! I can understand why he is upset. She is headstrong, and goes about spouting of one day being Pharaoh herself. Oh, the gods must surely be laughing at the grief they are bringing upon Egypt!”
The solemn expression of Zanimah’s face made Ben draw quiet. “Pharaoh chose her to strengthen his son’s ascent to the throne. There can be no question as to Tehutmes’ legitimate right to rule.” He paused and drew in a long breath. “You know as well as I do that every court jackal will be snapping at Tehutmes’ heels the day after he becomes Pharaoh. The girl’s royal blood simply solidifies Tehutmes’ family hold on the throne. Their marriage will initially be nothing more than a formality. Tehutmes is to marry her, and then send her away to his villa at Deir el-Bahri until she is old enough to bear children.”
The chancellor of Lower Egypt slapped his knee with an open hand and rose from his chair. He shook his head. “Forced to rule a country with a child by his side who believes she should be the king. Poor Tehutmes. I am glad I asked though. I will know better than to mention her name.” He sighed. “Can the prince leave tomorrow?”
“There should be no problems. Pharaoh will be informed of our discussion. If he wishes to see you, I will send a runner.”
“Good, then it is settled. I have business to attend to, and I am sure by now you have an office full of people. It was good seeing you again,” Ben-Tadji said, extending his hand.
Standing, the vizier warmly shook his friend’s hand and watched him walk away. When the chancellor reached the stairwell, Zanimah called out to him. “Ben!”
The brawny man abruptly stopped as he was about to take the first step leading down into the palace. The former general paused and looked to the vizier. He waited with curiosity in his gaze.
“May I make a personal request?”
“Of course!” The chancellor stepped back onto the rooftop.
“Do not teach Tehutmes that trick about the hands,” the vizier said, lowering his own into position as if he were holding his manhood. His face contorted in repulsion.
Ben-Tadji’s somber look faded. He burst into laughter. Turning, the chancellor started back down the stairs. “It will be the first thing he learns!” came the booming voice from the stairwell.
The vizier chuckled and shook his head.
Crack! The whip viciously slashed the air above the horses’ heads. The two-man chariot skidded sideways as its driver encouraged the matched set of Syrian horses to greater speed through the curve in the road.
Another brutal crack followed, and the racing animals responded to the command by straining harder against their harnesses. Dirt shot upward from their hooves, striking the driver and passenger. But the two men were beyond caring. The power of the animals, and the speed by which they flew along the road, was entrancing.
Ben-Tadji’s fingers dug grooves into the leather rim of the chariot. With each bone-shaking jar his grip tightened until his knuckles remained white. Enjoying the thrill of the speed, yet leery of taking his eyes off the road ahead for even a moment, he leaned his head toward Tehutmes and shouted, “You handle a team well.” The exhilaration of the ride created a frozen smile on his face.
“I have always loved the chariots,” Tehutmes yelled, hoping to be heard over the thundering hooves and rattling chariot wheels.
A wheel struck a bump in the road. The chariot shot skyward, then returned to the ground with a teeth-jarring jolt.
Ben-Tadji lost his balance but regained it quickly. His ability to be equals with Tehutmes lit his face with pride. He squared his shoulders. “How soon before we reach the docks?”
“Not long. I chose this route to test the team.”
The chancellor nodded even though he had not heard all that was said. Riding beside Prince Tehutmes in the chariot, he felt youthful again, momentarily reliving his soldiering days.
Observing the nobleman’s smile, Tehutmes gave him the whip.
A fresh wave of exhilaration flooded Ben. His eyes flared as if the whip were a precious treasure. He smiled and grasped it firmly. Adrenaline coursed his veins like the raging white-water rapids of the upper Nile. The leather whip took on life in his hand, swirling through the air before coiling and lashing out in a reptilian strike.
Crack! The air exploded above the racing animals’ heads.
“Yaaaaaaa! Yaaaaaaa!” The veins along Ben’s neck bulged. Mouth agape, teeth bared, the warrior within him emerged and swirled the whip, savagely cracking it again over the racing horses. “Make way, make way, you sons of bitches, or we will run you down!” he yelled to travelers along the road.
The chariot shook until it seemingly was ready to splinter. At the sight of Ben’s euphoria, Tehutmes gripped the reins tighter, readying himself for a final burst of speed. He proudly gazed at the horses. They were well muscled and bore a natural desire to run until the last beats of their hearts. Their chestnut coats were slick with sweat, froth covering their hides where harness straps rubbed against them. The winding road straightened and a fresh surge of strength erupted within the animals.
Leaning forward, Tehutmes braced himself. With a fierce slap of the reins and a war cry, he unleashed the team’s full power. Pedestrians stumbled and leaped clear in their fright, scattering at the sight of the oncoming chariot with its mad passengers.
Ben’s laughter bellowed. Caught up in the intoxication of their flight like a warrior charging down the throats of his enemies, his body tingled and invincibility raked his mind.
Masts rapidly rose into the noon sky as the chariot neared the Nile ships. The docks sprang into view, and Tehutmes gradually slowed the racing team. They fought hard against the reins.
“By the sweet teats of Isis, I loved that!” Ben exclaimed, swinging a fist in front of him. His chest heaved as he struggled to calm.
Tehutmes smiled warmly, a bond of friendship growing stronger between the ex-soldier and future Pharaoh. With practiced ease he reined the horses to a trot, and then a walk.
The chariot wheeled to a halt at the docks. Slaves dashed out to take custody of the prancing animals while the two noblemen dismounted. Withdrawing his bow and quiver from the sideboards of the chariot, Prince Tehutmes hurried to the horses.
Ben stepped away from the vehicle. “Is this what we are using in the field?” he asked, studying the war chariot.
“We have been using them for almost a year,” Tehutmes replied as he rubbed one of the mares’ necks to calm her. “I made minor modifications to our old chariots and ordered these into service. The additional spokes give the wheels greater strength, and the tightly woven papyrus flooring makes the weight of the chariot lighter. To help it retain balance in a sharp turn, I extended the axle a handspan on each side. With the proper team pulling it, there is no out running one of these.”
Ben-Tadji nodded as he made an examining circle about the animals and chariot.
The well-matched set of horses pranced anxiously as nervous slaves removed their harnesses. Tehutmes issued explicit instructions for the animals’ care and safe return to the palace.
With an approving gaze, Ben monitored Tehutmes’ demeanor and listened to his commands. You will not have too much to learn, my young ward. Already you know how to place authority in your voice when necessary.
Satisfied with the team’s welfare Tehutmes moved to Ben, ready to follow the senior man’s orders. The chancellor strode along the pier toward a moored ship, but the prince halted. For the first time since their arrival he looked to the Nile galley.
From his location the mast of the great ship, with its massive unfurled sail, pierced the sky as it towered above the deck. Two colorfully painted cabins, each different in size, sat in the middle of the vessel. The larger of the two was for the Chancellor and guests while the smaller cabin served a dual purpose as kitchen and crew quarters. End to end the ship appeared long enough to hold a hundred people, its size comparable with Ben’s position as chancellor of Lower Egypt.
Its pilot stood at the prow, ready to probe the riverbed with a pole to check for depths and unseen rocks. From his signals the helmsman navigated the ship at the stern by ordering slaves to move dual rudders. A large red painted eye decorated each side of the ship’s bow, and by the helmsman stood a wooden placard with a carving of the Ankh. Through these symbols the vessel was assured protection from the evil spirits of the Nile.
Oarsmen rushed to take up positions on the dozen benches along each side of the ship. Crewmen scurried about in final inspection, directing the last load of provisions brought aboard. For Tehutmes there was excitement in the sight of it all, yet a hesitancy to undergo the voyage.
“Have you ever been to Giza?” Ben asked, starting up the gangplank.
“Once, but the trip was so long ago I remember very little.” Prince Tehutmes carefully eyed the narrow board pathway.
The chancellor paused and glanced at Tehutmes, realizing he did not relish the idea of journeying by ship. A true soldier, especially a charioteer, preferred land to water any day.
“Come along. Once underway we will have time to relax and talk at leisure,” he said, coaxing Tehutmes into following him.
The loading of provisions had drawn to a halt. Sailors stood waiting for the prince to board the galley.
Feeling their stares, Tehutmes nodded apprehensively and strode up the wooden planks.
A thickset, darkly-tanned man approached the Chancellor and bowed. Thrust into the waistband of his loin cloth was a well-used whip, and his report of the ship’s stores and readiness came in a blunt, yet inoffensive manner. At first sight he appeared no different from the other rugged men hurrying about the vessel, but his black eyes commanded, and his bearing spoke of authority.
Tehutmes took note of the horrid scar along the left side of the seaman’s jaw and throat. A crooked, aquiline nose gave testimony to a harsh life, while muscles hardened by years of labor flexed beneath the sun with his every move.
“You have my permission, Captain,” said Ben-Tadji.
Without a further word the scarred man bowed and left.
Tehutmes’ gaze followed him, and then flowed to the chancellor.
“His name is Nehu. He is the Captain of my ship and a good man, but I would not ask him about the scar if I were you,” Ben said.
Curiosity tore at Tehutmes. He stepped closer to Ben, anxious to receive the forbidden knowledge. “Is it a battle scar? Was he tortured in another land?” he asked in a whisper.
A piecemeal grin formed. The chancellor leaned to his new ward. “Nehu was raised in a whorehouse along the Red Sea. When he was fifteen, a drunken soldier decided not to pay his mother after having mounted her. Nehu confronted him and demanded the soldier pay for the services received. The soldier drew his sword, laughed, and put that scar on Nehu’s face. But Nehu did not run. Instead, he took the soldier’s sword and slit his throat with it after making the man pay the money that was owed.”
“And he is in your service?” Tehutmes’ brow rose.
“That man, young prince, served his sentence chained to the oars of military ships for years. He is probably the best boatman the Nile has ever known. I doubt if it would bother him to kill again if he were wronged. But for years he has been loyal in his service to me, and I will continue to use him until such time as he proves otherwise. There is a lesson in this for you to learn. We, as rulers of a modern country, must learn to use the skills of our people wherever they best apply, and we must be able to see beyond our apprehensions of them to do so. Simply because he killed does not mean I should not place him into service. By the sweet ass of Isis, the man knows this river better than you know the palace! I would rather have him in charge of my ship than anyone.” The chancellor of Upper Egypt finished with a stern nod.
Looking about the galley, Tehutmes gave thought to what his new friend and teacher said.
“But, one should always be prepared for the unknown,” whispered the former military leader. He pointed to three soldiers atop his personal cabin.
Tehutmes glanced at the cabin rooftop and saw their hands were filled with bows and arrows. His gaze again swept the ship. Soldiers stood at strategic positions in silent vigil of everyone’s movements.
A wry grin edged its way across the prince’s face. He had not seen the archers come aboard. His preoccupation with the enormity of the ship had blinded him.
“Two lessons have been learned, sir,” the prince remarked.
The chancellor nodded and spun about.
“Captain!” the brawny ex-soldier shouted, “Let us be underway!”
Shadows crept into the temple before Minuf realized it was past time to summon the Supreme Magus for the day’s closing ritual. As one of the three Hierophants, and a potential successor to the position of magus, Minuf was responsible for ensuring Dhahab’s punctual arrival at all ceremonial affairs. Within the hour the sun would set, but before it did, the Supreme Magus had to undress the statue of the god Amon-Ra and put it to rest for the night. Agitated at having allowed time to slip by unnoticed, Minuf stretched his stride and quickened his pace as he strode through the halls of the cavernous building in search of Dhahab.
Halting at the doorway of Dhahab’s office, he saw no one. With a quick look down the hall, the Hierophant saw a priest of the fourth degree, a Binah. “Where is the Supreme Magus?”
“He was taking his third ablution of the day.”
Not waiting for the Binah to explain further, Minuf wheeled and raced toward the temple’s sacred lake. In his thirty-five years at the temple he had grown to know every shortcut and passageway, and now was thankful for the knowledge. Darkness would soon be upon them. There was little time to spare.
The Hierophant’s bare feet made little noise as he nimbly ran across the courtyard to the landing of the sacred waters. From the landing, steps descended into the water. Dependent upon the Nile’s level, the sacred lake could be extremely high as during the Inundation, or low as it presently was with a month remaining before the flood waters arrived. With the water level low, the landing’s high stone walls created an echo chamber, and it was the Supreme Magus’s voice which Minuf first heard as he approached. But another man’s voice carried through the air, and this caused the Hierophant to abruptly stop and listen before drawing nearer.
“I do not know what could have become of him. Minuf has always remembered to get me in time,” the aging magus said, walking out of the water. His scrawny legs wobbled as he ascended the stone stairwell, warily setting each foot in place.
“How can someone be so negligent in their duties to the gods? Such responsibilities cannot be taken lightly. It is only by chance I happened to pass by and realized the late hour. I knew you would want to be reminded,” a priest replied sympathetically. He stood at the top of the stairs, holding the magus’s robe and gold ankh necklace, observing how unsure the frail man was of his footing. “Careful, sir, the stones are quite slippery when wet.” A faint grin flashed on the priest’s face when the Supreme Magus reached out with a trembling hand to steady himself.
Breathing hard, the Supreme Magus Dhahab stepped onto the landing and lifted his arms. Two neophyte priestesses hurriedly toweled the wrinkled body. The priest moved closer to the magus and brusquely ordered the women away with a sweep of his hand.
“It is not like Minuf to forget.” Dhahab shook his head and slid his arms into the robe held open before him.
“Sir, your duties are so demanding, and you must take your ablutions or the gods will be offended. I do not know what could have caused Hierophant Minuf to forget you. But as I said, fortunately I remembered, and just in time. The sun is about to set any minute,” came the consoling man’s voice.
Rage flooded Minuf. He had heard that voice too many times before not to recognize it as Ashwan, the Imperator priest.
Realizing his presence was still undetected, Minuf edged forward. He watched as the magus turned and the Imperator adjusted the pleats of the religious leader’s robe.
Ashwan kept glancing at Dhahab’s ankh necklace he held. His covetous expression suddenly brought a disturbing thought to Minuf. Ashwan intends to keep the revered cross.
“I believe his holiness will need that,” the Hierophant Minuf said in a formal tone, stepping out into full view.
Ashwan’s head whipped hard in the direction of the voice. His eyes bore the glare of a man who would willingly kill for the right to wear the ankh of a Supreme Magus. The look of a starving animal prepared to fight to the death over a last morsel of meat, shot instantly over the priest’s face as he clutched the golden artifact.
The two men stared at one another, knowing they were adversaries of the same quest.
“Minuf, there you are!” Dhahab absentmindedly glanced at his chest. Fingers patting his neck, he remembered the ankh.
Bloodlust remained in Ashwan’s eyes a moment longer then melted into a passive, subservient gaze. He turned to the religious leader and spoke humbly, “Yes, sir, here it is.”
Tilting his head forward, Dhahab allowed the Imperator to place the necklace on him. Ashwan did, but glared at Minuf.
“I would have been late for the evening ritual if it had not been for our brother’s devotion to duty.” The magus patted Ashwan approvingly on the shoulder before stepping to Minuf. He shook his head in reproach and waved a wrinkled finger in the air. “The gods do not wait on us, we must wait on them.”
“My apologies, your holiness,” Minuf replied, bowing his head in acceptance of the admonishment. When he lifted his eyes, he saw Ashwan’s gloating face.
“Very well, Minuf. We must hurry. Thank you, Ashwan,” the aged man said, starting for the sanctuary.
“I wanted only to be of service to our god,” the Imperator priest answered solemnly, bowing low to the Supreme Magus.
Minuf gazed at the priest. As Ashwan rose, their gazes locked in an exchange of silent threats. Slowly Minuf walked away, sensing Ashwan’s evil stare stab his back. A foreboding raced through him, one he knew would not leave as long as Ashwan lived.
The sun had set and the evening air began to cool, waving the fronds of palm trees in a light dance.
Seated side by side on low built chairs, Prince Tehutmes and the chancellor looked out over the crowded room of their guests. Nomarchs, affluent business men, and lords of noble families dressed in their finest jewelry and clothing, lounged upon mats throughout the villa’s central hall. A din of jumbled words permeated the air as each took advantage of every opportunity to further their own ambitions.
Male servants moved between the guests offering roasted ducks, skewers of spit-cooked beef, imported melons and grapes. Large trays of sweet cakes drenched in honey were set before them, the fresh baked aroma drifting teasingly in the breeze. A dozen maidservants entered to serve more wine and beer as the guests ate, ensuring no cup remained empty for long. Attentive servants stepped from guest to guest, skillfully adorning them with flowers then massaging their arms with fragrant salves and ointments. As the cones of perfumed fat atop each female guest’s wig melted, it was carefully replaced with a fresh one.
Where one group of visitors huddled in discussions of trade agreements and real estate purchases, another complained of their problems in retaining good household servants. Musicians lightly played tunes on the zither, harp, flutes and lutes to serenade the guests, and more delicacies and libations were brought into the room.
Boredom swelled within Prince Tehutmes. He toyed with a pomegranate and downed another cup of wine. Every week for the past seven months since his arrival in Giza an aristocratic party had been held in his honor. There seemed no end to the lavish gatherings and people wanting to meet with him in private, hoping to gain his favor.
The introductions were always quite formal at first, praising Pharaoh’s greatness before continuing with life’s generalities. But as the evening gradually wore on, the talks edged their way into Tehutmes’ future as Pharaoh and how certain individuals could best be of service to his administration.
Tehutmes drunkenly sneered at the memory of such a night’s banquet at a nomarch’s villa. The evening’s surprise came when the governor passed out from wine and his wife provided a more personal entertainment. There in the villa’s plush garden, she had known no limitations. But her writhes and moans became nauseating when she suggested how readily available she could be when he became Pharaoh. To Tehutmes, the women who sold themselves in the brothels retained far more respectability than her. At least they were forthright in their intentions, and set no airs about their stations in life.
A familiar voice slowly penetrated the wine-built barriers of the prince’s mind.
Slumped in his chair, the prince rolled his head to one side and tried to focus on the chancellor.
“Are you all right?” Ben-Tadji leaned toward the young man. “You have not heard a thing I have said for the last hour.”
Prince Tehutmes attempted to straighten himself. His hands slipped off the chair’s arms and he slid lower than before in his seat.
Ben-Tadji grinned and waved a servant away who approached to refill their cups. “Take leave for the night, if you wish, young prince. I will inform everyone you are exhausted from the day’s events.”
“Yes. We would not want our noble visitors to see their future Pharaoh intoxicated, would we?” Tehutmes replied, words slurred.
Ignoring the sarcasm, the chancellor summoned a stoutly muscled, male slave and whispered instructions. The Nubian bowed and moved to Tehutmes’ side. All talk in the room ceased as Tehutmes rose from his chair and stood weaving in place.
Realizing he was being watched, the prince attempted a gracious bow and almost fell. He caught his balance and gathered his wits. Guests rose and bowed to Tehutmes as he staggered from the room trailed by the slave.
“Prince Tehutmes has had a tiring day with the affairs of state. He wishes each of you to enjoy yourselves in his absence and he looks forward to another evening’s festivities in the future,” the Chancellor said, raising his wine cup into the air. “Please, be seated and let us enjoy the entertainment.”
Nods, smiles, and lifted wine cups accompanied polite phrases of acceptance as everyone began to seat themselves.
Ben-Tadji deftly motioned to the musicians.
A rapid strumming of the zither rang out, immediately followed by a hearty pounding of drums. Finger cymbals clinked and a scantily-veiled woman made a grand entrance into the room. The tempo of the music quickened. A musician gleefully beat a tambourine in rhythm with the dancer’s swirls and gyrations
Olive skinned, waist-length hair as black as a moonless night, temptress body draped with shimmering stones and a translucent costume, she swiftly captured the attention of all in the crowded room with her gyrations. And within seconds the prince was forgotten.
Eyes squinting hard against the morning light, Tehutmes tried to lift his head and look about. The glare was blinding and his eyes closed. A relentless throbbing of pain, pounding with the intensity of Medjai tribal drums, pulsated in his head with each beat of his heart. The vile taste in his mouth grew sickening and the impulse to wretch his guts overtook him. His world reeled and he lay gently back on the bed, moaning in misery.
Cloth rustled and the bed shook lightly.
Tehutmes forced himself to look. A slender woman, dark as the mid of night, slid from his bed and quietly gathered her clothes from the floor. A puzzled expression traveled over him as he tried to recall her, or the night’s activities. But all was blank.
Covering her melon bosom with a hand, she bowed to him then glanced across the room and bowed once more before leaving.
Tehutmes moaned and eased his head back onto the pillow. Then the realization struck him. She had bowed to someone else in the room. He swung his feet over the edge of the bed to spring upright, but his body refused to obey.
Booming laughter echoed through the room. Tehutmes immediately covered his ears to block out its bombardment. He lifted his head, painfully searching for the source.
“Ohhhhh,” he groaned, laying his head back gently. The laughter returned, magnified by the throbbing in his head.
“Who was she?” Ben asked from a chair by the balcony.
“I do not know.” The reply came almost in a whisper.
“Where did you get her?” A chuckle followed. Ben tried to stifle his amusement at the prince’s morning-after anguish.
“I do not know.”
“What?” Ben-Tadji’s voice was louder.
“I said I do not know!” Tehutmes shouted in answer to the persistent interrogation. Pain racked his head from speaking so loudly. His hands covered his face, fingertips tenderly rubbing his forehead as if it were about to burst.
Ben broke into roaring laughter.
Tehutmes grimaced and spoke in a pleading tone. “Must you be so loud?” His eyes opened into mere slits. He forced himself upright onto the edge of the bed.
After a moment, the room stopped spinning. Tehutmes was able to focus on the smiling man in the chair. He struggled to speak with a mouth feeling drier than the desert. “Did you come to witness my misery or to torment me with your laughter?”
“Neither, I thought you might need someone to help you get up and around this morning.” Ben clapped his hands once.
The clap echoed in Tehutmes’ head like a gong. He covered his ears but the effort was useless. The echoing continued.
Immediately, a lithe black woman entered bearing a plate with a single cup on it. Directed by Ben-Tadji’s pointing finger, she held it out to the prince until the cup was taken, and then left the chambers.
Tehutmes’ nose wrinkled from its repulsive aroma.
“Drink it down. All of it!”
“What is it?” Tehutmes hesitated.
“I have no idea. My physicians make it especially for me to prevent what you now feel. Drink it down. And by Seth’s stinking buttocks, do not smell it!”
The prince glanced at the chancellor then raised the cup in toast to him and drank as he fought a gagging urge to vomit. When finished, he threw the empty cup on his bed and touched his stomach, feeling it churn in a maelstrom of ills. Bit-by-bit his nausea subsided and he looked at the chancellor’s smiling face.
“Come along now.” Ben-Tadji rose and walked to the door.
“I am almost afraid to. You probably have some new torture waiting for me,” replied Tehutmes, slowly standing to follow.
The chancellor halted to look back. “A loin cloth may be good to bring?” Without waiting for a reply he turned and left.
Prince Tehutmes’ head ached too badly for him to worry about anyone seeing him nude, but he grabbed his loincloth and kilt from the floor and dressed.
They strolled through the villa, Ben pausing to issue orders to servants along the way. Tehutmes used every opportunity to lean against a wall and rest, but the former soldier only laughed and motioned for him to follow.
Stepping out onto the villa’s soft grass, Tehutmes drew in a deep breath and staggered to a chair by the immense garden pool.
“Get in,” the chancellor stated, pointing to the water.
“No, Ben. Not now, please.”
“Get in,” Ben-Tadji ordered sternly.
“Ben, must I remind you, I will be your Pharaoh one day. Remember, I am a prince.” Tehutmes attempted to straighten his posture but his throbbing head prevented it.
“I also remember my orders were to treat you as my son. So, get in,” replied the chancellor with a loving grin.
Dropping his kilt and loincloth, Tehutmes walked to the water’s edge. He tested the coolness with his foot and sluggishly waded in to waist depth. He shuddered at the chill that ran through him, but enjoyed its reviving sensation on his body.
Three women approached the pool, two carrying large vases while the third held a tray of sliced fruits. With swift, dexterous movements the two vase-carrying women slipped from their skirts and joined him in the water.
Tehutmes shook his head pleadingly when the chancellor raised a hand in signal.
In one smooth sweep, the vases were submerged and hoisted into the air, then overturned. The women giggled as the prince yelled from the shock of the cool water drenching him. While he sputtered, the vases were refilled and emptied again.
“You are a cruel man, Ben-Tadji,” Tehutmes cried out. He laughed and cut the pool’s surface with an open hand, trying to splash a wave of water onto the chuckling chancellor.
Watching the prince playfully flip water on the women, the chancellor seated himself in a nearby chair in the shade of a tree. Leisurely he reached for a piece of fruit on the tray. “Here, eat this,” he said and tossed a slice of melon.
Tehutmes caught it with one hand while he splashed water at the women with the other. Juice ran from the corners of his mouth as he ate, smiling at his older friend.
The chancellor motioned for the tray to be set down and ordered the women away. His eyes followed the firm rumps of the dripping women as they ran back to the villa. The third woman trailed behind, ushering them along in matronly manner.
Walking out of the pool, Tehutmes ate another piece of fruit before sprawling himself on the grass in the sunshine.
“By Osiris’ erect scepter, cover yourself, man! Remember, you are a prince, not a commoner or slave.” The chancellor threw a loincloth at his young ward in mock disgust. “How do you feel now?”
“I have returned to the land of the living.” Stretching the cloth over his groin, Tehutmes lay sprawled on the grass, hands cupped behind his head. He closed his eyes and exhaled deeply.
Seeing Tehutmes relax so peacefully, Ben-Tadji laid his head back against the chair and closed his eyes to enjoy the shared moment of silence. Their last seven months had been a wonderful time. For an emotionally starved old man, Tehutmes had filled the gaping dark void in his heart and renewed life. Their hours of talk, hunts, and reckless chariot rides over the countryside, all seemingly had passed within the snap of a finger.
The chancellor opened an eye and observed a half-smile painted on the prince’s face. Ben-Tadji relaxed again, a prideful fatherly smile forming as he did. He would miss Tehutmes dearly. But he knew the young man must leave to take his rightful place in the world, his place as the living god of Egypt.
“Are you ready to become Pharaoh?” the chancellor asked calmly without opening his eyes.
“Have you heard something? Is my father well?” The voice was filled with sudden anxiety.
Ben looked at Tehutmes. The prince lay raised on one arm, staring at him curiously. “No, no, I have not heard anything more than what you already know,” he replied softly, taking a shallow breath. It was a lie. Two days ago he had received Zanimah’s message. Pharaoh’s health is critical and Ben should ready himself to return with the prince. And today he decided to inform Tehutmes of their departure.
Tehutmes stared at him a moment longer then gazed off across the pool, lost in self-thought. “I do not know if I will ever be ready to be Pharaoh, but I have no choice.” He paused, making a shallow sigh. “I know this sounds weak, but I am scared.”
His honesty cut deep into the heart of the older man. Ben’s first inclination was to be consoling, yet he knew that was the wrong approach. He must strengthen and fortify the weakened foundation of Tehutmes’ beliefs.
“Bah, let me tell you of true fright,” the chancellor remarked in a booming voice. A wide smile broke as he reflected on his experiences. “It was my first battle as a soldier. With the gods as my witness, when the enemy came at us, I thought I would void my bowels right there. Then when they surrounded us, I could feel my stomach climb to my throat, trying to jump out!”
A look of astonishment swept over Tehutmes’ face. He sat upright. “You scared? I cannot believe it.”
“Oh, yes. I was scared all right. But suddenly something happened and I knew what to do.” Ben’s eyes narrowed. “My fright vanished, and I fought like a crazy man. I broke three swords and two spears on the bastards that day. Our captain was killed, and the responsibilities of leadership fell upon me with the force of a hard bash to the stomach. We drove the enemy into retreat and held our lines, and from that day forward I knew I had it in me to be a leader. I always had it in me, but it took that battle and those severe conditions to bring it out. Once my feet were wet, I could function. You will be the same way. Watch, you will see. Once your feet are wet with kingship, you will be fine.”
Prince Tehutmes stood and wiped drops of water from his face. He dressed and slowly crossed his arms over his chest. Standing in silence, he gazed out at the calm pool.
Ben observed him carefully, trying to catch a hint of what the future ruler might be contemplating.
“When I am Pharaoh, I will need someone trustworthy to be my vizier. Ben, I would like for that man to be you.”
The chancellor lifted his hand sharply to interrupt Tehutmes. He rose and moved beside him, laying a hand gently on the young man’s shoulder. “I am honored you would even consider such a thing. But I am not the man you need. Yes, I know you could order me to be your vizier and I would have to obey.” Ben-Tadji could almost see pleading in the younger man’s eyes. “Listen to me carefully. If I were vizier, you would always be turning to me for reassurance. It cannot be that way. You must make decisions on your own using the counsel of wise men around you to guide your thoughts. I am getting old. You need someone younger to be with you until the day arrives when you cross over into the next world.”
Lowering his gaze, Tehutmes nodded sadly. Ben was right. He would always find himself asking for guidance and confirmation.
“I will be here whenever you need me, and I will always speak the truth to you. But you need someone else to be vizier,” the chancellor whispered, grip tightening upon Tehutmes’ shoulder.
Tehutmes stood in silence, staring at the ground.
Ben’s hand slid off gently. He walked away leaving Tehutmes to himself. Their talk of returning to Karnak could hold another hour.
Halfway across the garden lawn, Ben turned to look.
Running to catch up, Tehutmes waved for him to stop.
“When I become king, if you believe I am doing wrong, will you come tell me?” Tehutmes paused to look directly into Ben’s eyes. “As a father would tell a son?”
A mist formed over Ben’s eyes at hearing the warm sincerity in the prince’s voice. “I promise–as a father would tell a son.” The chancellor extended his hand and the younger man
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