Khenet waited in Pharaoh’s private chambers eyeing the gilded chairs close by, pulled up to Pharaoh’s ebony table, but no one, not even him, would dare sit without the ruler’s express permission.
His head ached dully from the oppressive weather cursing the city. Unseasonal thunderstorms rumbling all night long had made sleep virtually impossible. And I had that damn dream again. Rubbing his forehead, he sighed. Talk about bad omens. The palace summons had come to the barracks that morning before he had even had time for breakfast. His stomach growled at him and he stiffened his spine. Whatever Pharaoh Nat-re-akhte needed him for, he was ready. Too much leisure between battles wore on his nerves.
The door flew open and Pharaoh strode into the room, approaching Khenet. The ruler’s face was more care worn than it had been a year ago, a few gray strands prematurely darkening his short black hair, but the unusual green eyes were bright and sparkling as always. “My brother, it’s been too long since we spent time together.” They clasped arms, leaning in for a quick hug.
“Not since we harried those Hyksos raiders from the neighboring province,” Khenet said, stepping back, eyeing the physical changes in Pharaoh’s appearance. The cares of ruling Egypt are starting to weigh on him, clearly.
Pharaoh picked a handful of dates from a golden platter and sank into his favorite lion-footed, ebony chair. Propping his bare feet on an ivory stool, he gestured at the ample spread of food on the table. “Will you have anything? Wine or beer, perhaps?”
“Early for beer, my lord.” Reaching for a meat roll, Khenet shook his head.
Pharaoh poured himself a goblet full and, perhaps sensing Khenet’s disapproval said, “Trust me, it’s necessary today. Sit.”
Khenet glanced at the closed door across from him. Unusual informality, given that he sent for me. This is no casual chat.
“We won’t be disturbed, don’t worry. But we also don’t have much time.” Having made the declaration, Pharaoh fell silent. As he sipped at the beer he frowned, as if the taste failed to please him. Sighing, he rubbed his forehead with one hand.
One did not speak unless spoken to in the presence of the Living God, but everything else had been unusual today. Khenet and his pharaoh did not stand on much ceremony when they were alone. Time to find out what’s going on. “Your family is well?”
“Fine. The queen and my boy are healthy, praise the gods.” Pharaoh set the goblet down with a thump, splashing beer on the table, and leaned forward, green eyes narrowed. “I need a personal favor. A dangerous, complicated task lies before me and only the right man can carry it out.”
Action at last. Khenet straightened. “My brother has but to name the thing, and I will undertake it.”
Pharaoh shook his head, holding up one hand to forestall him. “Not so fast, I’m seeking a volunteer, not giving orders today. The fact that I’ve started my quest with you doesn’t mean you are required to accept the task. I had the Chief Scribe summon two other candidates, should you choose to pass on the assignment, but I won’t lie – you’re my first choice.” The monarch waited until Khenet nodded, then leaned forward over the table, lowering his voice. “What we speak of must not go beyond these walls because the Great Ones are involved.”
A rush of adrenalin coursed through Khenet’s body and set his heart to racing. Becoming involved in anything directly related to the gods daunted even him. Pulling the nearest chair closer, he sat opposite Pharaoh then reached for the beer, suddenly needing a drink himself. “I give you my oath. No one’s hearing a word from me.”
Nodding, Pharaoh took another long pull from his mug. “Let me set out the terms of the mission. The goddess Nephthys wants a woman escorted south to the Viper Nome, to marry the provincial ruler, Smenkhotep. The journey is to be by boat and chariot. I’m to supply a single bodyguard. No other soldiers, no retainers. Nephthys decrees that the man must be from my personal guard, must be someone close to me.”
Considering the information, Khenet raised his mug and took a long drink. Odd indeed, from many aspects. He swallowed. “The Nome is not loyal to you. Yet you will do the Nomarch honor by sending him a bride?”
Pharaoh grunted and toyed with a knife on the table, spinning it in lazy circles. “From what the goddess Nephthys told me last night, the Nomarch is as treacherous as the snakes which give his province its name. He worships the god of our enemies, Balal, and seeks to provide our foes a new foothold in Egypt. Apparently when the Usurper occupied my throne, she struck a deal with Smenkhotep, to send him a girl from one of the ancient Houses of Egypt, to help him somehow. I overthrew her before this wedding plan could go forward so no candidate was ever identified.”
“And why is this issue arising now? The Usurper is dead. You’ve been on the throne for a year.”
“According to the goddess, Smenkhotep practices black magic so powerful even the Great Ones can’t enter his realm. His plans are reaching some kind of climax and he still wants a Theban noblewoman of one particular lineage to marry. Nephthys intends to take over this girl’s body at the right moment and cross the border in secret, in human form.” Pharaoh frowned, his worry clear as he raked a hand through his hair.
Khenet was shocked at the very notion of a goddess taking the body of even a willing priestess. Poor girl, loss of a home for one’s soul is worse than death. “To what purpose?”