Amenhemet treaded down the palace steps leading into the cool, dim courtyard, his lungs thirstily drinking in the refreshing air. He shook his head as he slowly sat down on one of the cool, limestone benches, his eyes falling tightly closed while he remembered a year ago this same day.
Pain was etched in all the lines of the young man’s face, agony exuding from his fine bronze skin. The courtyard down the steps and away from the commotion upstairs was cold and quiet, but his face was burning and perspiration coursed down his forehead and temples.
Why had he done it?
Amenhemet could still envision Djhutmose’s face as they had stood in the hall that night with the torches flickering strangely across his face. Djhutmose who had always hated the monarchy with a unique, unrelenting passion. There was a fire deep in his eyes that always resided there, yet sometimes, it would flare up into a flame so dangerous nearly nothing could quench it back to the small flicker again.
They had been returning from the pharaoh’s supper held in his honor for his return from appraising the progress of his pyramid. Full of the good food he had provided for all of his officials and intoxicated with the knowledge of his success in his young reign, Pharaoh Khaemweset had been in such a mood that Amenhemet had never seen before. He and the middle-aged pharaoh had always gotten along whenever necessity brought them both into conversation, but there had usually been a sense of melancholy heavily weighing upon Khaemweset’s shoulders. A weight that no one and nothing could seem to wholly lift.
Amenhemet had slowly become confused as the supper progressed, his dark eyes missing nothing from where Djhutmose sat a few chairs down from the pharaoh, his mouth pressed into a hard, thin line, and his eyes cast down at his plate. This was not a Djhutmose that he had ever seen before, and it worried him. The old spirit seemed to be subdued, even the flame in his eyes barely a kindling. Locks of straight, pleated ebony hair fell down around his well-pronounced jaw and against his aquiline nose, screening his countenance from most of the guests.
Dragging his gaze away from his closest friend, Amenhemet scanned the table, seeing nothing other than the other officials enjoying their plates of honey-sweetened bread, dates, and garlic and herb-roasted heron. It was a sumptuous meal, he admitted to himself as he forced down a sip of the thick beer, but now it sat in the pit of his stomach like a pyramid limestone block. Something was wrong here…very wrong.
It was the next minute when a messenger burst into the room with his sides heaving and a scroll clenched in his visibly sweating hand. Linen garb stained with dirt and some other color the exact hue of the Red Land sand hung damp from the messenger’s body as he struggled to open the scroll with trembling hands.
“There is a rebellion in Daknek, Lord of the Two Lands,” he breathed with eyes not even on the scroll. “Twelve of your men have been killed by two men of the names Baiku and Ikutep—”
“And nothing has been done about it?” exclaimed Pharaoh Khaemweset with a shake of his head. “Anen, I told you that I have a consul in each city…”
“Consul!” laughed Anen almost hysterically. “Consul? You mean the one that this afternoon killed most of the priests and destroyed the temple and escaped? Consul! Traitor is more like it.”
Anger flashed in Khaemweset’s eyes as he downed an irritated gulp of beer, his face becoming darker by the minute, as if a cloud had overshadowed the joy he had felt two minutes before.
“They are going to all pay for this,” said Khaemweset calmly, once he had regained his famous even-keeled temperament and set down his cup. “What is this consul’s name?”
The messenger’s eyes released some of their wild expression as he gradually looked round the table. With his tongue running over his lips and hands suddenly going lax at his sides, Anen’s dark eyes stopped on a figure just a few places down from the pharaoh. The lightest hint of a smile shadowed his face, and his black eyebrows drew slightly together.
Djhutmose’s face turned into that of death itself.
Amenhemet smiled as he carefully put down the last detail onto the copied piece of parchment and set down his pen. The gleaming black characters of the hieroglyphics sprawled out before his eyes on the off-white papyrus sheets, more neatly copied than he had ever done before. Perhaps it was his conviction that there was nothing so essential to his job as ensuring that the royal documents were preserved well and that the official papers and dispatches were kept in order.
Standing from where he had been hunched over at his workstation for nearly three hours, Amenhemet stood and walked to his open window that looked out over the banks of the verdant Nile valley. In the setting sun, the broad waters were fiery with the burnt umbers and flaming scarlets of the sunset. He loved it, loved this all. From the distant horizon where sky met land to the reeds drifting in the warm spring wind, Amenhemet knew he wouldn’t trade this room—this job for any other in Egypt.
From a small box placed among his other possessions, he drew a small clay bottle and withdrew the stopper. Hesitantly, he lifted it to just beneath his nose and winced at the strong, bitter odor that met his senses.
Remember who you are…who you truly are, Djhutmose had told him as pain had filled his friend’s eyes as the guards had surrounded him in the corridor and began to drag him away. Remember that you are never going to be anything more in this kingdom than a servant of the pharaoh, no matter what title they give you.
Blood had begun to stream from the several gashes from the guards’ spears, and Djhutmose’s face was wrenched with such anguish and emotional suffering that Amenhemet could not stand there a second longer and not do anything. The light in his eyes was as bright as ever as he disappeared around the corner of the hall with the last words shrieking out from lips that had once dictated the pharaoh’s letters.
Promise me that you will never let them forget that they have an innocent man’s blood on their hands.
By now, Amenhemet’s hands were shaking as he slipped the bottle beside another into the ornate belt gracing the linen wrap he wore. Hastily, he shut the box and stood, giving his figure a quick glance in a mirror before staring out at the river once more. The serene, flowing river that usually brought such a flood of peace over him at the end of days when he didn’t know why he had promised himself he’d do this.
And now, he saw blood in the blazing sunset on the Nile.
The low lights of the supper hall danced eerily on the clay and stone walls, across the reliefs spreading in vivid blues, greens, reds, and golds in their intricate decorative paintings. As of yet, none of the guests had arrived. Only the servants in their simple linen kilts setting out the last few platters for the meal inhabited the dining hall.
Amenhemet stood in the shadows of the great white pillars reaching way up to the ceiling, his heart throbbing against his ribs and the blood rushing in his veins. He was shaking, his whole body shaking as he realized that the servants were finished and that there would be a matter of ten minutes until all of the guests arrived and the pharaoh himself finally showed up with his young son now at his side.
He slipped from the shadows and out into the dim openness. His leather sandals made barely a noise on the cool stone floor as he circled round the table with alert eyes ever on each of the passageways leading to the hall. Gold and silver glittered in the low torchlight, the paltry rays of light glinting off of the dishes and illuminating the appetizing yet extravagant food.
Amenhemet stopped beside the chair at the right-hand side of the pharaoh’s place, his hand resting on the smooth acacia wood. The room suddenly seemed to grow very still while he stood there waiting, but waiting for what? What was holding him back from doing what he had promised Djhutmose he would do?
The third cycle of the Nile—the first day of Ahket, he reminded himself. Exactly one year from last Akhet when he had made his vow. The growing warmth in the air, the inundation of the Nile onto its banks black with fertile minerals—it all bespoke of the season he loved most.
It was what he had loved the most, Amenhemet corrected himself as something squeezed his chest so hard it was difficult to breathe. He felt constricted, lightheaded, almost as if he had taken the slightest sip from the clay bottle held in his shaking hands. Despite his and Djhutmose’s differences in personality, they had always been friends. Like an older brother, Djhutmose had always looked out for him and ensured that he was treated the right way in a world where they had no power. Sometimes, it had meant going without his own meal when they had not yet reached the pharaoh’s palace. It had meant getting beaten by the guards when pleading that his young friend also be brought out from the pits of the deadly limestone quarry and to the officials’ court with him to be trained as a scribe. Amenhemet was well-aware that something such as that never happened, but somehow, both of their intelligence and misfortune in being accidentally placed in the quarry worked to get them out of there. Djhutmose had refused to leave him behind—had said that he would either go with him at his side to the pharaoh’s palace or that they would die side-by-side in the quarry.
Loyalty had been everything to Djhutmose.
Biting his lip until he could taste blood spreading over his tongue, Amenhemet tilted the bottle on the edge of the gold cup and watched as the amber-colored substance trickled out and into the date wine. Almost as soon as he had done so, the sound of laughter and voices drifted from down the corridor, and the whole supper party arrived in one fell swoop of people and noise.
He hastily took a seat at the other end of the table where he customarily sat. His dark eyes roved the table as he forced his quaking hands under the table out of sight, his angular face tilted to one side as he craned his neck to see the pharaoh and his son.
“Thank you all for joining me this night to celebrate Sham El Nessim—the first day of Ahket,” smiled Pharaoh Khaemweset as he affably extended a hand to several of those sitting around him. “Nothing can make this important day better than having you all here with me.”
The pharaoh’s smile suddenly slipped away, his lined bronze face growing wearied and pensive as he rested both jeweled hands on the table beside his place setting. His gaze wandered the table and then finally rested on his eleven-year-old son at his side, sitting quietly and with large brown eyes gazing at his father with an adoring smile.
“Aiutu, thank you for giving me Bek,” he grinned with an impulsive hug around his father’s waist. “He is the best dog in all of Cairo, and I love him so.”
“Bek is the dog I surprised him with this morning,” Pharaoh Khaemweset explained with half a smile at those around him. Gently, he pried his son’s arms from around himself and nodded.
“Bek can run and jump and fetch my sandals,” eagerly went on the son. “He loves to—”
“Tahmet,” quietly interrupted the pharaoh as he placed a hand on his son’s arm. “Now, before we eat, I think we should go around the table and each man say what he is thankful for this Sham El Nessim.”
One by one, each official around the table shared some small or large thing he was thankful for on this first day of Ahket. Amenhemet remembered not what he said, just mumbled some thing or other while his eyes were fixated on the cup of date wine set before him.
“I am thankful for all of you helping me to run this kingdom and for the good year we have had.” Pharaoh Khaemweset’s eyes took on a faraway look as he absently reached for his cup of wine and fingered the jewels studding the gold. “This day, we would all be dead if the rebellion had not been put to an end in Dakhet. I am thankful for the brave men who lost their lives so that we might live in peace. Thanks to the Nile for supplying the heart of our land.”
On his cue, the officials all lifted their cups in acknowledgment and then pressed them to their lips.
Amenhemet felt his heart stop in his chest and leapt up from his chair, leaping at the cup that Tahmet was now tilting at his mouth. His hand felt air and then the hard wood of the table, and his whole body was jerked backward as a guard stepped in front of the young prince and thrust Amenhemet to the floor.
“Stay there, scribe!” shouted the pharaoh in terror as he gripped the edge of the table for support. Face blanching, he looked to the guard who placed one sandal on Amenhemet’s heaving chest, regardless of the strange way that most of the scribe’s body was bent.
“Take that cup away from him!” gasped Amenhemet brokenly.
“What is the meaning of trying to attack the prince?” demanded the guard.
All Amenhemet could do was blink past the tears drowning his eyes to the boy beginning to hyperventilate and then gasp for air. All he could feel was exactly what he had felt the year before when the friend who had been as close as a brother was carried off to a brutal death by men who had made a mistake.
“My son!” cried out Khaemweset in an unnaturally high pitch as he pulled the bluing boy into his arms and began to rock him back and forth. “My son, come back to me—speak to me! Doctor! Someone…help me!”
The cries of anguish reverberated through the hall, filling Amenhemet’s ears as he lay there on the ground with his limbs lying twisted and some broken about him on the hard stone floor.
“You-you—killed him,” stammered the pharaoh in disbelief, his eyes turning down towards Amenhemet. “Amenhemet, I trusted you. I trusted you in all things because I didn’t think you were like the rest.”
“And I trusted you!” cried Amenhemet bitterly, his voice quivering as tears streamed down his face. “I don’t understand why you didn’t trust my friend, though. Djhutmose. You remember him, don’t you? The boy from the quarry who you had killed because—”
“Because of a rebellion and for killing my men!” yelled Khaemweset.
“And was not even the right man! My friend would have never done something such as that, even though he did hate the monarchy. I told him time and again that it was all for our own good, but now I see differently…I see what he saw.”
“And this is how you return it back on my head?” the pharaoh demanded. “By taking the life of my son? My son who had nothing to do with your friend’s death?”
“And my friend who had nothing to do with the rebellion?” bitterly queried Amenhemet.
There was silence in the room, stillness that chilled Amenhemet to the bone though he felt his body burning like fire.
“Your son will live,” he gulped past the silent tears still rolling down his cheeks. “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do what you did to me.”
“Oh sure,” Pharaoh Khaemweset said sarcastically, gesturing to the small boy held close in his arms. “He will be alright.”
“I promise you, he will,” said Amenhemet as he swallowed the lump in his throat. “I promised Djhutmose I would never let you forget that you have an innocent man’s blood on your hands.”
“Then why,” the pharaoh nearly choked, “is he so ill?”
“He must have an intolerance to the substance I put in instead of what I had planned.”
“Why didn’t you go ahead with your—plan?” spat out Khaemweset.
“I could never live with knowing that his blood was on my hands, something that you can obviously do, though. I didn't even want to see him drink anything from that cup.”
“Why did you have to put anything in his cup then?” the pharaoh asked impatiently. “This just isn’t adding up.”
Amenhemet swallowed again and lifted his eyes to the white plaster ceiling above him.
“I had to do something,” he whispered. “I had to do something before I changed my mind and did what I thought I had to do to keep my promise to Djhutmose.”
“But why?” persisted Khaemweset.
“Because the other substance was a neutralizer to the poison, so there was no going back.”
With a sigh, Amenhemet rested his head back onto the floor, never feeling as thankful as he did at that moment on Sham El Nessim. Thankful that he had somehow found a way around his promise made without sacrificing another innocent life in the name of vengeance.
“I am sorry.”
He opened his eyes and looked over at the pharaoh who was thoughtfully staring down at his son now breathing peacefully in his arms.
“Thank you for showing me what it is like to lose an innocent life.”