That sounded good sense to Judah, and he and Hireh had gone off, talking and laughing and having a good time which old friends know how to generate. But his wife, growing ever more embittered and listless in a house without Er and Onan and grandchildren, had lost her appetite and no longer cared to set Judah’s meals before him. Turning a disheveled, dispirited nag with fallen dugs, Shua’s daughter sat all day by the outer door, waiting for him to come by so she might carp and accuse him of his crimes against her. Sometimes, she even went out publicly, shamelessly half-dressed, throwing curses at his retreating back.
Hireh and Judah spent more and more evenings together, drinking the new wine from Hireh’s vineyards or even sampling Judah’s rival vintages. It was while Judah was lying with his head on Hireh’s table, having taken too much green wine, that the news came that Shua’s daughter was found dead, lying face-down on the grave of her firstborn. Since she had gone there often, it was as though her heart gave out on the stiff climb to the graves of Er and Onan, who had been buried just below the high place.
Judah went and found the truth: she had taken a sacrificial knife belonging to Onan, and it was buried deep beneath her breast. Hireh and everyone in the village came to comfort Judah, for Goodwife Rizpah was much respected and loved in the community. Everyone had grieved with her over her sons’ untimely deaths while quietly sympathizing with her strong suspicions that Judah’s strange and impractical, mountain-god religion was to blame. They came to honor a wife and mother and grudgingly pay respects to Hireh’s best friend too--for although not a proper Ken’anite or Adullamite, the stranger had added his extensive flocks to their own and brought wealth into the village by which native sons were employed as hireling shepherds.
Rizpah, even in death, seemed to haunt the house of Judah. And he obeyed the wishes of the Dead. He sent Tamar back to her father’s house. Then he went with his old friend Hireh to Timnah in the hills above Chezib, to take part in the Ken’anites’ yearly slaughter and skinning of excess goat and swine. Also, tiring of the complaints and demands for money from his young lover, the poor widow, he was hoping Hireh was right: that young women in the Timnah area preferred older men and would take a rich one if they had the chance. At the same time he intended to find a match for young Shelah too--soft stones or no--rather than risk his early death in marriage to the ill-starred Tamar.
One fine morning after Judah set out, Judah’s widow-lover came to the forsaken daughter-in-law and said, “Have you heard? You father-in-law is going up to Timnah to slaughter goats.”
Tamar was incensed, though she did not show it to the despised woman. She knew then that Shelah, who ran wild about the countryside and hardly ever spoke to her, would never be hers. Perhaps Judah, who had delayed the marriage and sent her in disgrace to her father’s would marry him off to some other woman, to someone away from Chezib. Now if she sat still, wearing widow’s weeds in her father’s house like a fool donkey, she might as well wear them forever. She had waited long enough. Too long! After the busybody widow ran out of gossip and left, Tamar sat in her desolate room thinking until she knew what she must do to secure her lawful rights.
Going to Judah’s house, she found the wildling Shelah had taken the blood-red Chillelu mask from the wall of his room, which meant he had gone up to the high place and would probably join the all-night orgy of blood-letting and dancing. Her fury terrible to see, Tamar drove the few, remaining servants out and began smashing Judah’s furniture. This helped to calm her. Then she drew a fine linen veil over her head and she was an attractive maiden again--only the sort men sought out in Ken’anite temples and on the high places, and even wayside ditches. For no married woman or widow would wear such things, if she had not devoted herself to Chillelu’s service.
Now a cult prostitute in appearance, any man looking upon her would know what her use was, though secretly she had something else in mind. As it happens in small places, everyone in the village soon heard, but no one, not even her parents, thought to dissuade her, it was such a holy thing they believed she had chosen. As a votary, she was free to come and go, to leave her father’s house and travel alone if she wished--no one could prevent her, not even her parents.
One young man, then two, then a group approached her but were turned sharply away. Being she was the most beautiful young woman in Chezib, they took it particularly ill.
After a few days, leaving the house Tamar took some bread and other provisions and hurried up the valley road into the hill country, crossing over to Timnah by another road. She knew her errant father-in-law had to pass by Enaim, a small village of swineherds on the way to Timnah. If she sat down there, she would see Judah sooner or later when the goat-skinning and rendering was done. Surely, such a man would be inclined to take his ease after the arduous slaughter and skinning of surplus goats and swine--with a good mind to take pleasure too.
Everyone knew what went on for days after a slaughter and all the eating and drinking. She only hoped the false and tiresome Hireh would tarry at the slaughter-ground and not come away with him to Enaim and Chezib. Everything depended on that! She knew she could never disgrace herself before Hireh, and, having the keen eyes of a swine, he would be the one that recognized her if it were possible. It was all as Tamar had foreseen and hoped. In the distance she finally saw a man and a big donkey laden with buckskins and swineskins. He reached the entrance to Enaim where Tamar sat beneath her fine veil.
Judah had been drinking for quite some time. His feet stumbled on pebbles and he was mumbling some tipsy ditty about the Jackass and the Ewe that he and the Ken’anites enjoyed reciting together. He leaned on his staff and his patient ass as it plodded dutifully along the dung-littered, carob-podded lane between Enaim’s reeking hovels and sties.
When he reached the spot where Tamar sat, he forgot his naughty versifying. The ass went on without him for a few paces, then began to graze on carob pods scattered amidst brilliant, red poppies. The fourthborn staggered toward her, halted and peered, leaning heavily on his staff. His breath grew labored.
Tamar did not even force a smile. She felt no need to show a pleasant expression, since her face was marked with the tell-tale veil of a Chillelu cult prostitute. So she looked up at him through the veil, as a man would boldly look at another man in a business matter.
Judah continued to stare at her and breathe heavily, then approached still closer. His voice shook with green wine. He was far from being an old man, he was thinking. His grapes still had plenty juice to be pressed!
“Hey, little priestess, let us worship the god together,” he said gruffly, not recognizing Tamar in a Chillelu prostitute’s get-up.
Getting right down to business, Tamar answered brazenly, “Before the buck rears up and mounts, what will he give the poor little nanny-goat, so that she may lay it on the god’s altar for the priests’ provision?”
Judah laughed at her brave wit. “What if the buck is covenanted? Will the nanny still allow him? Yet I heard him say just now he would give her the best kid he has in his herd!”
Tamar gave a bitter laugh. “Where is it? I see only an ass. And this nanny has not been bred to circumcised foreigners. Before she is serviced, she requires either full payment or a firm pledge. After all, he who hires the nanny-goat may not be able to pay the god his due, and the god will be angry and smite the crops.”
So challenged, having met a stiff match in the young woman, Judah desired her all the more. He fumbled through his garments, thinking of throwing her some silver pieces he had. But he drew out a rawhide string, neatly sliced, with the purse missing. Furious, he turned to her. “By the God of Abram and Isaac! Some thieving Ken’anite of Timnah stole all I carried with me. Now what shall I give for you? Will you give me your favors on pledge?”
Tamar shrugged. “A pledge, then, and you can pay me and the god later.”
“What kind of pledge do you want?”
“Your signet from your neck, the cord on which it hangs, and that noble staff of yours.”
Hesitating, Judah looked at them. Babelite fashioned, the cylinder seal of green amazon stone, the gold-threaded cord, and the carved myrtlewood staff were valuable things. But his eyes soon shifted to the young woman. Feeling he had stripped himself naked, he thrust the signet, staff, and cord at her. Pushing her roughly ahead, he made her go down into a deep ditch off the road, shaded by thick carob trees, their feet rustling amidst the fallen pods.
Afterwards, Tamar arose before Judah sobered enough to take a good look at her and went away, still wearing the disguise of a devoted Chillelu-woman. Only when she reached the outskirts of home did she seize the veil, rip it to shreds and hide it beneath a rock. She began to wash vigorously in the stream. She scrubbed at her face and lips until they bled, and still she didn’t feel at all clean. Though strongly tempted to drown herself in the creek, she mastered her disgust and turned back to the business at hand.
The staff was too big to hide in her robe, so she broke it on a rock. With Judah’s signet, cord, and broken staff, she returned to her father’s house and put on the dour, black head-shawl of a respectable widow. No young man again ventured to call on her once she officially resumed her widowhood--but all the young men were angry and did not stop talking indignantly about her amongst themselves. Their elders shook their heads and wondered what would come of a young woman with such a changeable mind.
Varying like the wind, Judah changed his mind and did not return immediately to Chezib. After all, he could not return home “naked,” without money, without even his staff and signet in his possession. Going back to Timnah to select a suitable goat kid from his herd, he told Hireh how he had found unexpected comfort on the road at the entrance to Enaim. An honest man in business, he sent Hireh with the prize goat to the place he had left the woman. No one to pass an opportunity, Hireh hoped to engage the woman’s services too. But she was nowhere to be seen. Hireh inquired for her, holding his nose against the stench of goat urine as he asked the old, retired swineherds of Enaim at an entrance. And they all told him no cult votary, male or female, had ever been there, since none of them had that kind of money these days to support higher religion.
So he had returned to Judah with the bawling kid strapped to his back. Judah tried to make the best of it. “Let her keep my things,” he told the disappointed, footsore, randy Hireh. “I can have others made. If the priests of Chillelu should think it strange of me, at least she has proof of my pledge to pay her--and here is the payment! Now who would trouble me for what I could not redeem? I did what I could. It isn’t my fault she did not wait for the kid. Serves her right if some priest beats her when she can’t come up with the money I owe.”
Judah, thus, sought to placate and not offend the Ken’anites and Adullamites among whom he had lived so long and well. Yet, still, he was not over-anxious to return to Chezib. His wife and oldest sons dead, with Shelah under the care of Hireh’s obliging wife, he was his own man and could do as he pleased. The easy-going womenfolk of Timnah, meanwhile, kept begging him to tarry longer.
So the days flew by pleasantly, and Judah seemed to have forgotten Chezib, the way he was living.
Spoiling Judah’s idyll at Timnah, news came to him that his daughter-in-law was found pregnant. Judah was angry. Now as a respectable widow, she had obviously disgraced herself and Judah’s house by wantonly taking a lover in a wayside ditch like a harlot. If she had chosen the office of a cult prostitute, on the other hand, it would not have been counted an offense by the community and he could not have objected in the least.
He was given more details, however, which shed a different light on her actions. She had, in fact, become a votary by her own choice, yet for her acting like a votary while a widow Judah judged that his daughter-in-law deserved death. Wasn’t that clear as the stream of Chezib? She could not be both at the same time; therefore, she was guilty and deserved death. Other foolish women before her had tried the same thing and wee not allowed to escape punishment. It was the way such things were handled, and he was not one to change the ways of his neighbors and friends. Besides, it was sometimes the penalty among his own people as well.
At the news, Judah rose up from the table where he and Hireh had been enjoying a special delicacy--brine-soaked pigs-feet and some vintage wine. He wasn’t much surprised. He had heard of Ken’anite matrons who, having lost husbands, forgot discretion and publicly ran after some lover of their choice. He himself had such a lover waiting for him in Chezib, whenever he cared to go back to her. Usually, it didn’t last long. Unless they wore the Chillelu veil, which meant they were the property of all the men, those who were excluded eventually grew resentful and the offending women were taken by the village elders and put to death. That was the way things were done. Either all men, or nothing. No widow could do as she pleased. Tamar had to have known that, Judah reasoned. She had brought it on herself.
“Bring her before me to be judged,” he told those who had brought the evil tiding. He was all the more inclined to put her to death because she had impugned his Hebrew honor among those who were not his people. The punishment, he knew, was severe but quick: death by burning on the coals of a hot fire previously fed with oak, pine, and crackling carob pods. No spectator could stand twenty paces from such a fire and not be scorched; thus, it was best to wait until the flames died down to coals if you wanted a good close look.
So, in preparation, oak and pine and carob were piled up high on the bloody slaughter-ground. The condemned woman arrived in tow behind her own menfolk from the village. Judah was informed that she had the signet, cord, and staff of the man who had “dishonored” her “widowhood” and got her with an illicit child.
“After she’s judged, let her be burned at once,” he said, for he wished to conclude the matter quickly and get back to his usual pastimes.
The wood and carob were set aflame. It was burning fiercely, a raging flame, and would soon produce the necessary coals.
Like everyone else, Judah waited impatiently to see her brought in before the judgment seat, not at all interested to see the things she had to show.
“What matter is it that she has brought her lover’s things?” he remarked to Hireh. “She must know she’ll surely burn for the crime she committed! Any widow who acts as she has done deserves death.”
She did not come quickly enough for Judah. He was pacing back and forth, ignoring Hireh’s entreaties to sit and have another cup of wine and another pickled pig’s foot when his daughter-in-law appeared. Her neck tied to a rope, head shamefully uncovered, she was led in before Judah by the men of Chezib--pious lovers she had previously spurned, of course, and they had made her pay for it.
Enraged at her slighting of Chillilu by putting on his veil, then casting it off at her convenience, they had more than done their duty by spattering her head to foot with fresh swine dung all along the route. In this way she was brought before Judah, yet her face was triumphant despite smeared ordure.
“She took the holy votary veil of Lord Chillelu’s service,” the devout young men protested. “We saw it and would have done our duty with her for the good of the land but she cast us all out of her house, humiliating us!”
Hearing them, Judah thought it was all the more reason for burning the malefactress. Men ought not to be treated so lightly, he thought. It would be a good lesson for the other women. Yet the elders present seemed disturbed about something--and it wasn’t the plight of the young men turned away from Tamar’s door. To all of them it appeared a matter that had to be dealt with before the burning could go forward.
“So?” Judah said, turning to Hireh.
Hireh, for once, didn’t smile or make a joke. All his knowledge of proper ritual and religion challenged, he scratched the balding back of his bead. “Well, now, since it seems so, she is the young men’s votary ward, or, if the man can be found who got her with child, he has claim too as she has become his ward. And since both have claim to her, I would say let her choose between them, lest they fight over her. Maybe then she needn’t be burned, just whipped and--”
Timnah’s elders, such as they were, heard these words of Hireh and nodded. This part of the matter satisfactorily resolved, it was the woman’s time to speak.
“Am I your ward or will you give me to these heathen?” she said, turning to Judah with her bold eyes. “What do you wish to do with me? Say!”
“Me?” said Judah indignantly. “You should be taken and burned. I’ll have nothing to do with you! Let the good young men have you, if they wish.”
Tamar laughed. “Mark, then, I pray you,” she said loudly to the town’s assembly. “--mark whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff. The owner of this property took and got me with child. Let him condemn me to the fire if he has the craven spirit of an ass to do it.”
Everyone stared, including the principal judge, at the items Tamar held out to them from her robe. She had broken the staff, but it was plainly recognizable to the men of Chezib because of its foreign Hebrew carving and also to a good number of the Timnahites, not to mention Hireh. Judah paled. He moved backwards a step or two, so that the wine table was jostled enough to send the cups and a big wine jug clattering to the floor, breaking them in many pieces.
Jacob’s son seemed to be looking beyond Tamar, however. What he saw caused him to waver even more on his wine-sodden feet. Grasping for support, he found none. Seeing what he had done, all, including Hireh, stepped away from him in horror. For whatever they did in the service of Chillelu, none had done this thing of Judah’s--taking his own daughter-in-law as a sacred votary and getting a child on her, then abandoning her to be burnt on the fire.
Judah could find no words at first, but at last, with a hoarse voice that choked on the words, he said, “She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.”
Tamar smiled thinly. Not one to let him go so easily, she dropped the signet, cord, and broken staff at Judah’s feet. Then she seized her inner garment and ripped the bodice wide open before the gasping crowd. “Look, men of Timnah and Chezib!” she cried in venom and spite to both peoples. “My own father-in-law has fondled these in his hands! He has covered my widow’s lips with his kisses. He has--”
The people backed further away, appalled. Though they had indulged repeatedly in about every abomination of the land, they were, nevertheless, horrified at Judah’s transgression, for they did not know the levirate custom of his people she had invoked in her behalf. It was only clear to them he had violated his widowed daughter-in-law, sacrilegiously using her as a cult prostitute, when he had no right to use her as such, even though she may have worn the veil.
As for her temporarily taking the veil of Chillelu and then forsaking it, the lesser infraction was swallowed up in the greater. Wanting nothing more to do with the affair, the young men of Chezib no longer wished to press their claim. Ashamed of their mistreatment, they hastily unbound the rope from Tamar’s neck and backed away. Gathering up the indisputable proof of the violation, Tamar walked away without a word, her steps proud and firm.
Now the general mood grew rather ugly around Judah. It was like the glowering of a big, pent-up storm. The coals were ready by this time, of course, but the matter had been settled for all time and, if Hireh hadn’t brought Judah to Timnah, the Hebrew might well have ended up there instead of Tamar.
For the moment, the storm held off. Judah watched the people all shake their heads and go, leaving him alone for the first time in his life. Not one of them would have understood anyway, if they had seen what Judah had seen hanging over the head of Tamar as she stood accusing him. It was many-colored and long-of-sleeve, the hideous robe of Joseph, uplifted like a veil over Tamar’s head, held there by the mocking, ghostly specters of Er, Onan, and Rizpah.
Finally, when Judah could bear the drumbeat of silence no more, he staggered away from the now hostile village, threw himself down on the carob pods in a ditch, and remembered his father’s tents with bitter tears.
“Surely,” thought Wally, “OP has devised some other means to attack Joseph? Its nature is to attack and attack until it gains its objective.”
Meanwhile, Avaris tottered like an old man in the last stage of collapse.
Bowing before Potiphar with his arm crossed in salute, Jizra delivered the message first sent to the Sohar, Potiphar's fortress headquarters.
Where would Khian be sending him this time? Potiphar groaned, as he strapped on his long, rapier-like Hyksos sword with a belt much too snug for his increased belly and prepared to leave his household for an extended time. After telling his overseer, the fellow Ramoseh had replace him until he returned from seeing his mistress to Hazor or thereabouts, Potiphar staggered out on flabby legs to his waiting chariot. The chariot, with faithful Jizra at the reins as of old, dashed off to the palace.
Potiphar had a few minutes to himself in the chariot, before the usual, hysterical scene would begin at the palace, when the Khian would complain to him of his latest reverse at the hands of Ibbatha. Potiphar knew he would have to show interest, even commiseration, though he had already heard every detail. The whole capital was rife with the news, and Khian did not know it, presuming his minister of protocol had kept it a secret from the people, safe within the high but tottering palace walls.
That was the price Khian paid for employing Mizraimites at court, Potiphar reflected with grim satisfaction. The ruler was so intent on looking and acting Mizraimite, he was sacrificing too much in order to keep favor among the people, forgetting that the people he depended on to run his administration were as much the enemy as the Ibbathans.
Not another trip to half-savage Kush! Potiphar thought. He winced thinking how difficult it was to circumvent Ibbatha, which straddled both sides of the river like an octopus, its long, sucking arms plying up and down the channel, both north and south, making it nearly impossible to gain Kush by stealth. He was fortunate he was alive, having lost his way in the High Desert more than once on the trip to Nubia and Kush.
He could never forget the ordeal. His chariots had bogged repeated in the sand, being so heavily weighted with gold to bribe their allies into making additional attacks on Ibbathan territory. It was a very risky maneuver to go so far into the desert to elude patrols from Ibbatha. Sand storms were known to suddenly engulf entire armies, leaving no one to tell the doleful story.
Shifting uncomfortably even now in his speeding chariot, he recalled how once they had lost sight of bones, unassorted, desert-embalmed heads of donkeys that normally littered caravan routes. As long as they saw donkey bones, they knew they were living men. But for a long time there was not a skull to be seen--and the High Desert stretched to infinity, a waterless, man-devouring abyss.
What a nightmare! They had let their fainting horses rest, as they themselves sought the shade of huge rocks to escape the murderous, slashing daggers of midday light. Several horses had perished by that time, but they had need to continue after a short rest, if they were ever to find a way out before darkness trapped them.
Having lost the murderous Track of the Forty (a route that was supposed to take as many days to traverse from one watering hole to the next, though some thought it meant forty caravans had been lost on the route), there was little hope in Potiphar's heart as he barked commands and then threats through cracked, bleeding lips.
“Forward!” he had croaked.
The men had risen and were staggering to their chariots, to loose dying horses and transfer their replacements, as well as reload royal treasure, when Jizra cried in a wild whoop of joy, forgetting himself and chattering in Nubian--to Potiphar's annoyance (for he hated the sounds of foreign tongues).
At first Potiphar thought another man had gone mad, laughing uncontrollably to the point where he was useless, and had to be left to perish alone in the sand. Peering with swollen eyes where Jizra pointed toward the red-sanded northwest, he barely made out a sinuous thread of dust winding up the desolate desert plain below the high escarpment where they stood. But would the approaching caravan have water enough for all his men and beasts? Potiphar wondered, licking his blistered and swollen lips with impatience.
It took a long time for the caravan to reach the camp; and when they did the sand-ramblers (for they were obviously a greasy lot of herdsmen from some dirty region of Ken'an), looked at them with alarm and would have fled but they stared with despairing eyes at the chariots (overlooking the exhausted horses). Now they were so close, Potiphar could say one word and the sky would be full of whistling darts from Hyksos bows.
Potiphar recalled well how he had walked slowly and officially to the caravan to talk to the leader through an interpreter, since he knew his own small stock of trader talk--Akkadian--would not be sufficient. Supposing a more friendly approach might serve their interests better than brute force, he explained their need for water and asked directions to the next well where their mounts might be refreshed--the next water source being, of course, Gerissa.
"Greetings, how far is it?" he inquired of the old man who had come forward to greet him, bowing far too much.
“Morning of fragrance!” the man smilingly responded with yellow and black-stained teeth, while lhis narrow, dark eyes roved suspiciously over Potiphar and his men. “So you wish to go to Gerissa?”
“Yes, how far is the fort?” he repeated.
“Morning of fragrance!” the caravaneer reiterated, wagging his head furiously.
Potiphar was exasperated at this point, but he held off a bit.
“Gerissa, you say? Gerissa?” the old man cackled, tracking down a flea in his beard with two fingers before giving it a squeeze and popping it in his grinning mouth. “Yes, yes, I have heard that name somewhere. Now where did I hear it?” His sharp, merry eyes continued to rove over Potiphar’s men and collapsing horses with significant meaning.
At this point of the negotiations, it was all Potiphar could do not to reach out and garrot the dawdling, scheming old fool on the spot. Finally, the Edomite got down to business. “Noble lord, surely that is a long and difficult journey you have in mind, and you may not find it! Yes, you not find it! Many try but perhaps you would like a little refreshment first!”
Potiphar's men, pressing in on every side, were a pitiful sight as the old man smiled and ostentatiously began to pour tiny, ceramic cups full of precious liquid from a scrawny, foul- smelling goatskin.
The Edomite addressed them. “Good fellows, I understand from your captain that you all wish to go to Gerissa. But before you go, first honor an old man by taking this humble refreshment from my poor hands for your journey, my friends!” he chortled as he passed around the cups.
Obviously, it was not enough to keep a bird alive in such heat. A mere, empty ceremony, it was more cruel than helpful, for having wet their lips Potiphar’s men were all the more desperate for more of the evil-tasting liquid. Potiphar’s men held out their cups, but the trader smiled and shook his empty goatskin until Potiphar called for a chest of the king's gold and opened the lid. The trader, from his gasp and wondering eyes, had never seen so much wealth, nor ever would again.
Without any further ado, the old man dashed from one camel to another, ignoring the protests of his own men, and seizing all the goatskins delivered them up one by one to the chariot corps, who then drank their fill and gave the remnant to their frantic horses. Potiphar had been obliged to repay the trader in kind, and let him have the chest. Khian would never miss it. The Nubians and Kushites, he knew, would be amply paid for their services with what was left. He wondered, nevertheless, how the caravan would possibly make it to the next watering hole far down the road; but then that was their problem. They sold their water and perhaps they could drink the donkeys' blood or urine if necessary. Sand-ramblers would think nothing of it, he knew.
Glancing repeatedly toward Potiphar's chariots, the old rascal had apparently seen further opportunity to be as rich as the kings of Punt or Keftiu or Ity or Tyre and had run over to his donkeys to drag off several women to show Potiphar. Potiphar saw they were Nubian slave girls, meant no doubt for the slave markets of Ga'arta or Nathasta or Ibbatha. But irls would be a very bad favor to accept from the leering old man, even for Khian's pelf which cost him nothing. He also could not get Joseph's example out of his mind, which had the power to nag him even on his expeditions with rough and ready soldiers.
“No,” he said to the old man. “We have no need of your strumpets.”
But the trader had insisted all the more, provoking Jizra, who made an impudent gesture and oath for emphasis. “Your Most Sublime Excellency, Fit Consort of the Stars and the Moon, ” protested the Edomite, “these are all tender virgins. Surely you will find none elsewhere in the world so well-trained to please you and your brave soldiers!”
Potiphar shook his head, but the old man would not be put off. To get rid of the pest, Potiphar began to walk toward his chariots. Before he had gone a dozen steps with the trader still haggling with him, the old man did a most foolish thing. He roughly seized Potiphar’s arm.
Back in Avaris, the commander’s hair stood on end again as he recalled how suddenly the air was full of singing shafts. In the camp he turned and saw Edomites staggering and then falling everywhere, their bodies bristling with Hyksos darts. Shouting insubordination, Potiphar angrily turned to Jizra who fell down before his commander. “Lord Potiphar, do not be angry with us! When the men saw that piece of filth dare touch you, they could not be stopped!”
Sighing wearily, Potiphar looked about for the “piece of filth.” He was amazed when his men pulled the old trader, very much alive and protesting their rough handling, out from under several bodies of his countrymen. His men would have cut him to hand-sized pieces in an instant when the fellow committed a second folly which was worse than the first. He lifted the underside of his heel to Potiphar. That was bad enough. But he really sealed his fate when he went further and cursing him in the name of some evil-smelling goat of a god.
“May great Chamoth the Horned pluck off thy fountain at the root!” the Edomite spat and shrieked in a quivering, white-hot rage. “May he give thy tent and all thy goods to thy slave! May thy slave rise up over thee a king, and against thy neck let him press his iron heel! May--”
It was an impressive specimen as curses went, Potiphar sensed at the time, though he didn’t see how it applied to his furture prospects. Nevertheless, he couldn’t let it pass without punishment. He barked an order. A moment later, he looked down at the gasping trader, whose mouth was too full of blood to say anything intelligible.
“May the same fall on his own miserable house and all his hags and offscourings!” huffed Jizra, looking down at the dying man after kicking sand in his dying face. A moment later he turned to eye the Nubian maidens.
Potiphar, too, turned. Desperate, terror-stricken women came running at that instant and fell on their faces, bowing to the ground before Potiphar repeatedly, while waving thier hands in hysterical supplication. He did not have to think twice about it. Women on a campaign with women-crazy soldiers? The women would have to be left behind, and there was no water to be spared. He knew quite well how Jizra, who hated slave traders but loved his own people with passionate intensity, felt. But feelings had no place in a military campaign. With his mind made up he was surprised when an image of Joseph flashed through his mind. He imagined he saw women bowing to Joseph, seven-fold, and proclaiming him their deliverer. “Am I going mad?” he wondered at the time, but he had reluctantly given the order to take the women along, sparing them for Joseph’s sake alone, though he knew for certain it mean trouble ahead...
In Avaris Potiphar’s chariot reached the palace. Jizra jumped down and Potiphar followed, his mind still full of the desert encounter with the Edomite caravan.
It had been a narrow escape for Potiphar, for the rest of the journey to Gerissa was long and waterless. They had arrived in terrible condition, only to find the fort deserted and in ruins. The well had been blocked up, but they had cleared it and drunk what filthy liquid was left after the deliberate fouling of its waters with urine and donkey dung by the fort's attackers. But at least they were able to drink again. Food too was available, though limited. There were a few date palms and figs still surviving in the burnt-over oasis adjacent to the Nubian-Hyksos fortress, indicating the haste of its raiders to get clear of the area and return with the spoils to Ibbatha. Most troublesome, with a little water and food in their bellies, the men began fighting over the women as Potiphar had foreseen. Jizra naturally defended them like his personal harem, and Potiphar had to step in and have them put to death for the sake of the mission.
With that experience, Potiphar, consequently, had no taste for further forays into the High Eastern Desert to deliver yet more lucre to Khian's greedy allies. His favorite charioteer had sulked for weeks afterwards. Still thinking about the trip, Potiphar strode into the palace between the imperial, wartime banners (showing Per-aa Khian as the god Nebel trampling down his foes against a background of red and black) and ignored the ranks of saluting palace guard who scarcely knew what they were saluting.
War provoked a certain relaxation in Mizraimite protocol. No more night audiences by the poolside! The interview went just as he had anticipated. The king had ranted for a time about his latest mishap, and after mentioning the appointment of a new Grand Taty (his predecessor having just lost his head, with his obese body hanging in a tree for the birds to eat), Khian turned to him with a show of old warmth and confidence.
Khian understood that the trip to Kush and Nubia had gone well, since Potiphar had kept back the detail that they had nearly perished getting there. Commander Potiphar knew his business like no other man in his kingdom, the king declared in atrocious Mizraimite, while Potiphar controlled his expression and anticipated the king's every thought before the man could spit it out between thick, Semitic lips.
“Your expedition to our allies went well! His Majesty trusts you had no difficulty or discomfort in reaching your destination?” Khian arched his brow, which was so black and hairy it ran straight across the upper bridge of his nose, and was allowed to do so in the barbaric Hyksos fashion.
Potiphar bowed. “I can assure you, Glorious Per-aa of the Two Kingdoms, the journey was most refreshing, every step of the way!”
Beaming, the Per-aa continued. “Excellent, Lord Potiphar! As Lord of the Land of Red and Black, I must commend you! You know how to get things done like no other servant in our sacred kingdoms!”
Potiphar winced, but bowed low. Then he had to listen to the Per-aa rant and rave about certain other servants who never seemed to be of real use to the throne.
“We are quite alone in this struggle!” Khian informed his commander. “What a sad day it was when those two couriers, sent by whoever rules up north--Mursilis, is he called?--brought news he had taken Babelen and put it to the torch. Now, thanks to him, we have no Babelite troops who can join us against the enemy. Ah, surely, I must depend all the more on those I can still trust in my government!”
As the Per-aa stumbled toward a foregone conclusion, Potiphar saw what was coming and made his decision. Potiphar had no taste for such a job as Grand Taty, Masgeh, Opeh, or any other high positions. He was retired, he reminded the Pharoah as graciously as he could.
“O Majestic One, surely it is known to you that I am not well. A certain, devil fly of Kush bit me. You know the kind. Most of the day I must lie on my bed, unable to move a finger. Perhaps, it is time that you let me retire from your service, for I am not able to perform my duties as before.”
Khian seemed much put out at Potiphar's response as his fingers clenched on his flail, mace, and crook. "But you look hale enough to my eyes, Captain, and I don't have anyone of your stature I can trust," he muttered. The single eyebrow trembled auspiciously like a thin black snake. The king turned back to his throne swinging his Nebel-headed scepter about as though to give it a fling at someone's head if only he could decide whom. Indeed, once he had done so. Witnesses later claimed it turned into a serpent, a living uraeus of state!--a likely tale of this doleful reign, which had every sign in heaven and earth seemingly going against it.
This time, however, the mace stayed in the royal hands as the hard-pressed monarch might have thought it unwise at this point to brain his best military man.
"But if you reconsider, Lord Potiphar, the office of Grand Taty and his palace and all the stock in the harem are yours immediately! Just think, from mere captain to Grand Taty!"
Potiphar could only bow and smile once again, and get out of the royal presence as quickly as palace protocol permitted. He was about let Jizra drive him back home, knowing it was best to put as much distance as possible between a disappointed, desperate monarch and himself, when a thought turned him toward the fortress beyond the palace gate. He was about to enter when two imperial guards came up to him, attending a pair of most distinguished courtiers.
The king’s own Chief Cupbearer and Chief Baker, the Masgeh and Opeh? Seeing that they wished to speak to him, Potiphar looked for some explanation as he gave a brief, military bow.
"My dear lord Potiphar," the sleek Chief Baker began with a genteel nod of his plump, close-shaven head. "Long life to you and your illustrious house, and your dear wife of course!"
"Please allow me to get to the point," his companion interrupted.
The Cupbearer, having stood closest to the king, was well enough acquainted with the former palace butcher to knew Potiphar's temperament better and stepped forward. "We are going to be your guests for a time, it seems. It appears Per-aa has been displeased with our service, detecting a certain irregularity in our manner toward him and his ways that he can no longer tolerate, since the latest reverse near the border. He has to blame someone for it, and we--my friend, myself, and the late Taty my cousin--are quite convenient targets for His Majesty's ire."
Potiphar nodded with a grim smile. He knew exactly what had brought them down from their high estates. A sympathetic smile, perhaps, shared by the two officials when Khian committed another blunder with the Mizraimite tongue, or forgot his royal dignity and broke wind like a common soldier; however trivial, the offense of levity was enough to send them to prison and a cruel, Hyksos-style execution.
"Please follow me, O Masgeh and Opeh," he said. They entered the round-walled tower of the prison together. Potiphar turned them over to guards and sent them to richly-appointed quarters reserved for high-born, important "guests" of the palace.
Indeed, it was wise and politic to treat them well. If restored to their offices, they would have opportunity to recall how they had been served at the prison. Of course, most often they went directly from their plush cells to hanging in trees for the vultures' delectation. But radical reverses of fortune had happened before, so it was always wise to made provision for the future whenver possible.
The Masgeh and Opeh disposed of, Potiphar turned to other less official matters. Potiphar's jailor leaped up astonished at the unexpected call from his commanding officer. Despite a solitary game of knuckle-bones, he was all military bearing in an instant. Despite the warden’s game-playing, Potiphar could see at a glance that all was in order. He commended the jailor.
The jailor returned the commendation with candor. "But my lord, I have not had to do anything but sign orders in this office ever since you brought the prisoner!"
"I believe you mean the prisoner--?"
"Joseph, of course, sir!"
Potiphar was pleased as usual to hear Joseph was still doing well. And since he had not been by the prison for some time, he wanted to see what new things were going on. Together, the jailor and his commander left the tower and went below, far below, to the dungeons where the least as well as the worst sorts were kept--the petty thieves apprehended on the palace grounds stealing tree fruit or flower pots or some such rubbish; palace slaves who had fought amongst themselves or assaulted and murdered any of the slave women, and other such trash. And, the worst--trained Ibbathan spies and their Mizraimite confederates--easily the largest and most dangerous grouping. In the beginning of his confinement for life, Joseph had been thrown in the lowest level, a deep, circular pit, the usual place for those condemned for a state crime and awaiting torture and execution. As it turned out, he had not been there long before the jailor discovered an excellent scribe and administrator in him.
While the man awaited his punishment, Joseph was proving very useful, the jailor explained to Lord Potiphar. Indeed, Joseph throve after he took on various duties assigned to him; and the prison with him. It was amazing how the whole prison was transformed; from a noisy and hard-to-control lot to quiet obedience. With little trouble to occupy his own attention, the jailor had seen fit to leave the administration of the dungeon entirely to the young man. Was there anything amiss in that? the jailor asked his superior.
Potiphar took one look into the cells, noting their extreme cleanliness and the quiet behavior of the prisoners busily weaving fine linen cloth or involved in other useful crafts, and after a nod of approval to the waiting jailor went to find Joseph. The commander took a look at Joseph and saw how his beard had grown, with no reason to appear Mizraimite any longer now that he was in prison. Though Potiphar disliked facial hair on men, since it reminded h im of greasy sand-ramblers, he had to admit Joseph looked quite dignified in a well-trimmed beard. He sat going over accounts in the warden’s room, a blue butterfly hovering behind him near the window.
He stopped short of speaking to Joseph personally; to Joseph he had nothing to say. It wasn’t a thing he could do, in any case, since everyone knew the story of how this was his wife’s assaulter. The whole country, from the king on down, had relished every detail of the incident; in so notorious a case there was, therefore, no turning it to an acquital without destroying his wife's reputation and impugning his own honor. That was why he had had to frown on his wife’s confession and keep it, as far as possible, from leaving his house.
Later, driving home in his chariot with Jizra, Potiphar felt helpless and frustrated as he again considered Joseph's case. He recalled how Zenobia herself had come to him on the eve of her voyage, and confessed her entire guilt in the matter. She was leaving him, she said, that he might be free to declare Joseph's innocence and set him free to return to his own land and people. Assuring her that he would think about it, he let poor Zenobia go to her own city, far-off Hazir of her birth; knowing he could never release Joseph while the primary parties yet lived. He had seen her off in her boat, and when she was but a golden mote on a canal leading to the river and the open sea, he only then turned back toward the empty household--with regret. After all, it would never be the same without Joseph. And he knew that even the wife who was no wife had, lo and behold, left an increased sense of vacancy and loss behind.
He had made a discovery about himself since then. He recalled that in the weeks since Zenobia had begun to change, to turn away from madness and resume her former ways (but with a certain difference), he had looked upon her and found her oddly attractive, despite her premature whiteness of hair. It helped that Zenobia had recovered some of her old regality and wit by the time the Ioteru sailed. She had also indicated her respect for his former overseer and begun to acknowledge his God. She even walked straighter, with firm and steady tread! Could that have been the reason he felt so solitary when she had gone? he wondered as he felt himself continue to revive in his old feeling for her.
Potiphar drew up at his pillared porch. His attendants came to take the horses to the stables. Jizra, as usual, went to the small guardhut outside the gate to await his next orders. Not that Potiphar gave him much to do. But the man was comfortable there. Potiphar had seen to it that his meals were promptly brought, and he could play knucklebones with the passers-by who stopped to rest and take a drink of water from Jizra’s big water pot. Travellers were a prime source of information. News constantly flew to and fro along the public roads, so Jizra was even more knowledgeable than his master in affairs of state these days.
The commander looked toward the house entrance as he got down and thought he was mistaken. A familiar face, very tired and dust-caked, was beaming at him after a low bow.
He noted that the royal princess, Asenath, arrived late. Was that a young noblewoman's perogative? Not in his kirbet! He was displeased.
In the presence of noble and priestly witnesses, the will of Prince Petepheres (or "Petenath," as the chief priest would have it) was opened. Seals on important writings were broken. The papyrus documents were examined and then read to the daughter and surviving family (a large contingent coming from the nobility of Ibbatha--mostly scarcely-related people Asenath had never met).
It was a little dangerous and equivocal to call him “prince,” however, when no one else was called that and he was only a priest-architect by trade and profession. The Mizraimites’ best kept secret--kept from the Hyksos Per-aa--they had joined as one temporarily to do homage to the man who was but declined to reign as Per-aa. That being the case, ot was so important an occasion Duamutef thought wise to officiate in person, so he could confer with the deceased man’s exalted kin from the Upper Kingdom.
Of course, the affair was conducted most discreetly, in an out of the way cloakroom of the Temple. Khian's spies and informers were everywhere among his own temple's ranks, the chief priest knew very well. Khian also trusted no one, and had to be constantly assured of his allies' fidelity by a growing horde of informants, all enlisted and paid by his current Taty. Which way, ultimately, would the Temple lean? The chief priest himself could not be sure. He himself despised seamy, political maneuverings conducted in dark byways and musty closets, particularly those of the present age when Ibbatha and Avaris were so intent on proving their superiority at the expense of each other.
Holy Mizraim required unity; its two kingdoms needed one lord and one temple--Nath's, of course. The land of red and black would never enjoy peace until both the Ibbathans and the Hyksos usurper laid down arms at Nath's cobra-adorned feet. The chief priest was sure of it. But he also recognized certain realities of the longstanding feud. Neither side had succeeded in eliminating a rival; and the chief priest had met the Ibbathan "Per-aa" and knew him to be a hopelessly weak figurehead of a group of powerful nobles. Would they really be better off beneath his uraeus and vulture-head? If the Ibbathan pretender's Nebel-headed scepter fell on Nathasta, would they receive the yearly tribute so promptly and generously as Khian's. Was it not another period of anarchy, of the former time when every sepetarch was a king and the whole land split apart with turmoil and robbery? And knowing Ibbatha boasted of rival temples and a “supreme” moon-god of its own, the chief priest was not so sure his own Temple and moon-god would fare well as they did under the wings of the unplucked-eyebrowed Usurper in Avaris.
In the chamber for changing costumes of hierodules, while the various scribes droned out the official writings of dead man’s testament, the chief priest smiled upon the group of Ibbathans gathered. Some were relatives of the late architect, he saw, but most had joined in from eagerness to turn the secret meeting somehow to Ibbathan advantage. And the others? Khian’s eyes and ears, of course!
Finally, the Reading was concluded. The daughter received the bulk of the deceased man’s vast fortune. Among the other recipients, the Temple was remembered with a rich enough gift, equal to the one given to the moon-god and temple in Ibbatha.
“How politic of Lord Peternath!” the chief priest thought. “Who could object?” Still smiling, the chief priest knew he must keep private thoughts private. Any remarks would have to be chosen carefully, as they were to be repeated word for word to Khian.
At last it was time for the next round of the real business of the day. An Ibbathan noble came forward to Duamutef and bowed.
“Greetings and Felicitations, Eternal, Blest Noble of the Great Temple, Most Exalted Eye and Ear of Nath the Luminiscent Orb--”
Following on his heels in quick succession, various other high nobles of Ibbatha brought the usual greetings, flatteries, and solicitations to the chief priest and invoked the good offices of Nath. The chief priest listened and nodded and listened again, as each went on to explain his position and what he wished of the Temple of Nath, which was a most powerful factor in the fate of the city, as everyone knew. Even the nobility of Nathasta could not decide such an issue alone. They MUST have the cooperation of the chief priest.
Conceding nothing but a show of good will, Duamutef felt a satisfaction regarding his policies. It had been a good year so far; the initial Inundation had answered to the moon-god’s bidding and was proceeding at the proper height to insure a good harvest in spring. The people would enjoy wealth and plenty for yet another year as a result. With their good fortune the Temple rejoiced, as the offerings could be expected to equal if not exceed the previous year's. Was there a fly in the ointment? Well, it hardly could be said to be a fly, but his chief diviner, however, thought he detected disturbing signs lately in a calf's liver, to the effect that the waters would presently sink and fail. All the others--employing more traditional divining cups--had vehemently disagreed. They claimed their prognostications were absolute proof that Ioteru had the blessing of Nath for centuries to come. What was a chief priest to believe? A fly. Or not a fly?
After all the omens were in and all things considered, he decided to temporize a bit more with Ibbatha and its cause of unification of the two kingdoms. It would be best for the Temple, he reasoned, if the present year was already in the Temple's treasury (inauspicious liver or no), before acting.
Now what would they do with the little baggage? he wondered idly, as he noticed Petepheres' daughter--her royal pectoral causing her to stand out amongst all the nobles and officials. She was proving a nuisance with her various high-flying, architectural schemes and, worse, expressing her radical opinions to people that the Temple was oppressing the people and taking their money! He had seen a few of her things while her father was still living, and knew how expensive and impractical they were. Most employed a heretical, foreign, godless metal--iron--in a nation that worshipped all-powerful gods of bronze and copper and stone. Yet there was no denying she was a brilliant student of Imhotep and her own father's magical arts. Though long dead, Imhotep had made Mizraim great and glorious above other nations. No one could gainsay that fact. “Chancellor of the King of Lower Mizraim,” “First after the King of Upper Mizraim,” “Administrator of the Great Palace of Machitha,” “Hereditary Nobleman,” “High Priest of Ibbatha and Nathasta,” “Master Builder,” “Master Sculptor,” “Maker of Stone Vases in Chief,” “Bearer of the Ring of Power”--he bore all the titles a grateful per-aa and nation could imagine to confer. Seemingly embodying his spirit and and unsurpassed intellect, Asenath’s star was certain to rise in Mizraim. If only she would keep her mouth shut on Temple affairs! What business was it of hers if the Temple robbed people? Sometimes they had to be encouraged to part with money--they didnd’t always give it willingly as they ought. Was that the Temple’s fault, if human nature proved grudging in respect to holy obligations?
The chief priest shifted in his gilded chair, and the visitors from Ibbatha exchanged glances amongst their ranks and showed signs of discomfort themselves. But the less discerning of them continued to press the chief priest all the harder, with offers of support to the Temple's treasury that were bold-faced bribes.
“Name your price, Celestial Face of the Moon!” one of the boldest went so far as to say.
“Name my price?” the chief priest thought. That annoyed him. It would never do, he quickly decided, to be seen by Khian's men listening to such inept fools. What would he do with Ibbatha's money when Khian's chariot corps and storm troops were at his door?
All things considered, no, they would have to think of something better to lure him from Khian's fold. Something FAR better!
He gave a thump to his golden staff of office, to let everyone know he was at last going to speak. The room fell hushed and expectant immediately, as he knew it would.
“Noble lords and suppliants at the throne of Everlasting Nath, the crystal doors of the god’s ear have closed for the day. And now, with the Temple’s salubrious blessing, fare thee well!”
The chief priest made sign to rise and go; his attendants rushed over to help him up. There were numerous, polite protests, but the chief priest made for the door. In the hubbub his abrupt departure caused, the Ibbathans were able to curse without his hearing (but not without gaining the attention of informers of the Grand Taty). In adjourning, Duamutef himself was a bit displeased. The meeting left a number of loose threads, so annoying to a tidy mind. He was still wondering what to do about Asenath, that lone branch of the lately-departed prince and architect-priest, when not far off she rushed back to her chamber and began weeping in the privacy of her own apartment.
Her going before the chief priest chose to leave naturally stirred some comment. Being royal, she had the right to precede him, of course. But in the situation it could not be misconstrued as what it was: a royal slap on the chief priest’s fat, perfumed cheek!
“She'll go and ruin her hair and fine clothes!” observed the disapproving housekeeper-maid to a household menial as she shut the door to Asenath's room. “And of all things, to get up and strut out of the room before the chief priest, why it’s a terrible, unthinkable effront to His Golden-Cheeked Blessedness!”
But she dared not tell the girl so, knowing her grief as well as her inordinate and passionate nature. More practical, the woman turned back to the kitchens and pantries. Sooner or later the silly girl would have to eat something or perish. Perhaps a sweetmeat of a special kind would tempt Asenath to begin eating again, one made of fine flour and nuts and maybe some dates and sweetening of the latest sugar cane the trader called “Lover’s Last Kiss.”
“Strange name for something so fine and sweet!” thought the woman. “My lover’s last kiss always has the breath of garlics and leeks! I think the man even sleeps in them, the way he smells sometimes!”
The housekeeper hastened off to instruct the cook, and Asenath bolted the door behind her (a huge bronze apparatus of sacred baboons, bolts and bars). She sent a reverberation through the entire building as she rammed a heavy bronze bar into place with a thundering concussion.
Just entering the kitchens, the housekeeper shuddered and glanced toward the noise. “Oh, I hate it when she does that!” she groaned. Then she turned and went back to her duties.
The noise-maker herself felt totally desolate and an equal amount of outrage. If she banged doors about, that was the least she felt like doing. Priests and temple guards had come to take her father's body for embalming and she had to let him go despite the absurd futility of the whole undertaking. It would take many days for them to complete their work, and only after would there be burial. But where was he to be buried? She could go and see him then for the last time, as an immortalized figure of a Prince of Mizraim in a gilded coffin in the embalming place, a chapel by the river edge; ordinarily, he would then be transported on a golden sledge, accompanied by chanting priests through a mile-long causeway from the river temple and laid in a tomb next to the royal House of Eternity of the Per-aa.
The thought of so much still unfinished--chapel, causeway, and tomb--made her grief unbearable. As things were going in the land, her father would never be properly buried, yet the priests had taken him anyway.
“Why hadn’t she foreseen this?” she wondered. Before these events, absorbed in her studies and projected plans, she clearly had not anticipated the end when it came, nor how the Temple would invade every facet of her life.
How stunned and confused she was when her father did not even call to her from his bed, as lately he had been doing. He had slipped quietly away, in the extreme weakness of an unknown, terminal disease. Yet how could I have saved him? She had once gone to the Temple and...nothing! Enthroned in his gilded chair deep in the Temple, shielded from the defilement of the public gaze, Nath had proved distant and uncommunicative, even through intermediaries who clothed him and five times a day ritually “opened his mouth” with the symbolic mouth-opening hoe and fed him ritual foods. They listened to her supplications for her father, smiled with paternal pity upon her as if she were a child, and nothing had come of it. Since her father had refused all ministrations of sorcerers and wizards, all remaining hope, for her was cut off.
Asenath ceased weeping abruptly when when the housekeeper knocked.
That knock brought everything back into sharp focus--reminding her of the recent knock of the mortuary officials and embalmers. Suddenly, in her mind's eye, appeared her worst fears. She saw men carrying a gilded coffin on a silver palanquin stop, fling the bier to the ground and walk indifferently away, leaving her father lying outstretched on the muddy shore.
Her father! Cast out on the ground like a dog’s carcass, to furnish food for crocodiles!
Asenath seized her hair in her hands and screamed. Refusing to answer the housekeeper, Asenath remained locked in her room until the maid finally gave up and went to bed.
Only then did she creep out, intending to risk everything by running away. But she did not get far. Temple guards spotted her within a few yards of the building, and she was forced to turn back as they started to follow and dog her steps.
Hating the thought of her home, she took a side entrance few people knew about and ran down the steps, deeper and deeper, until she was beneath the temple complex.
She had not planned to do this, but there she was!
An ever-expanding warren of storerooms, changing rooms, workshops, and treasure chambers, it was no place for a girl to be, she well knew. If she should be seen by one temple guard, he would report to the others and she would be chased out--though she would give them a good tongue lashing for their impertinence! But at that late hour she came upon no one in the bewildering maze of chambers and hallways. Most of the hallways were pitch dark, but here and there a torch had been set by some sentry on patrol and left to burn out.
Taking a guttering torch from a wall stanchion, she continued down even deeper into the complex of rooms. Something compelled her to go on, though she was not very frightened.
Finally, she came to the end of a hall and was confronted by bronze doors. They creaked hideously as she opened and peered in. It was an entry room, lit by an oil lantern hanging from the beak of a sacred ibis, the god of learning and writing, done in bronze. She almost dropped her torch as she saw a seated man. She was startled but not afraid. He looked much like an ordinary scribe at his task, except that he was very old and wore a leopard skin across his upper body. Using a staff, he rose with difficulty on his thin, aged legs and bowed.
“Come in, Princess Asenath, I have been waiting for you,” he said. “Please, don’t be afraid.”
She was afraid? Mere men did not frighten her--only darkness and shadows and body-and-ka-devouring crocodiles.
“What do you mean, you have been waiting for me?” she imperiously demanded, standing on her nobility and pride of who she was as Peterphere’s daughter.
He peered at her, his head bent upwards on his craning neck.
“Your Majesty, I was informed you would come. But it took you a long time. No matter, I am used to waiting for the Mysterious One to work his will.”
Asenath was disgusted. “What nonsense you speak! And what place is this? What work do you do here? What is your name?”
“I am chief archivist of the temple,” he said simply. “Ipu-pheres is my original name. But they know me here as Ipu-nath, of course--that is, when they happen to recall that I exist.”
He signed for her to follow.
They stepped from the entrance room into a much larger chamber, and as far as she could see in the light of torches and lamps stretched articles she knew were clay tablets from Babelen, Mari, and Assyria, papyri documents from Mizraimite and Kushan sepetarchs, and even beaded, notational items from illiterate barbarian tribes concerning tax, tribute, and special gifts.
“You see here the national archives going back to the time of Narmer and Imhotep, or what is left of the archives since the Hyksos burned the libraries and royal seat of Abad.”
It was interesting to see, exciting her intellect, but she had more important concerns on her mind, so she turned back.
The curator gazed at her. “I have some things in particular you must see.
“What?” she laughed with a bitter edge. “I haven’t time. I’m going home now.”
“Wait! Look and then you decide if you wish to leave.”
That seemed fair enough to Asenath.
He led her to the back of the archives, moved aside some dusty, carved copper and silver worked screens and Asenath saw a small wooden door like the rounded door of a granary.
With a thick bronze key from the chain of keys at his waist, Ipu-pheres opened the entry, and stood back as a blast of hot, musty air shot out. When it died down enough so he could carry in an oil lamp, he bent low and disappeared inside, leaving his staff.
Following, Asenath entered a tunnel, not very surprising to her in such a place.
She saw the flickering lamp far ahead, and she collided with a wall when she hurried to catch up.
“ For such an old, ailing man, he certainly can move!” she thought. Feeling with her hands, she found the tunnel turned obliquely to the left. The way seemed endless and she was growing tired when a lamp shone in her face from the serpent-columned doorway of a room. Carved in solid rock, the chamber held statuary of past moon-gods that Nath had supplanted or “eaten”, as it was said at that time. But all Asenath could see in the gloom were massive feet and ankles, pair after pair along the wall.
“Much too large to be brought through a tunnel, they dug the chamber, opened up a hole in the ceiling and lowered the gods down, then finished by bricking up the access,” he explained. “That way few people saw the disgraceful end of their gods, each very popular at the time, and riots were averted.”
Amazed and scandalized, Asenath turned to him. “Has this happened before? It makes me hate my own name!”
“Many times, according to records in my keeping. Nath is the latest to occupy the Temple, but the god has had to devour a hundred predecessors to get where he is. It is no wonder the chief priests become so cynical about their duties. They aren’t necessarily cruel and avaricious when they start out, but before long it twists and bloats them into monsters.”
“And you?” Asenath shot back. “How do you feel about the devouring of divinities?”
He sighed. “It is a job. But I could not help becoming a priest, for the reason I sensed as a child there was something more to life than working and putting food in my mouth! Yet after I came to the Temple I discovered it was no different here in a place they call holy. Do you have the answer? I only know that some god, unknown to us, sometimes speaks to me. I have asked the Mysterious One’s name, but he falls silent at some times and speaks later when I least expect it.”
Asenath, for once, kept her mouth shut. She knew something more the old man did not, but how could she be sure about it? It was best, she felt, to say nothing at present and wait for more revelation.
The old man led her through a maze stone sepulchers, lids, and funerary objects of all kinds. There were even sacred, silvered moon-boats in which per-aas were supposed to voyage to Yaru, the Land of the Blest. He stopped finally and held up the lamp in front of two slim shapes-- three vases, or such they seemed to her.
Asenath was disappointed. He had led her so far for mere vases, and two were definitely a sore to the eyes! The unsightly vases were all metal, so corroded and bent they had to be held upright by new bronze stands. Their companion was much more attractive and delicate but only a cubit high. Obviously enchanted, it shone like milky crystal and did not require support, balancing without visible means on a sharp-pointed base.
The old man explained, “These were found many years ago on the shores of the north and brought to a temple and city that no longer exist, moved many times to other temples and cities in turn, before I was given custody here at Nathasta. Now do you wish to leave?”
Asenath was not sure. She recalled with a certain shock that she might be looking at the “forbidden vases” her father had been so reluctant to show a young daughter. She walked slowly around the vases. On a metal vase she traced an inscription with her finger--”Westinghouse Time Capsule, Confidential: 1969 New York World’s Fair, Do Not Open Until Anno 5391”--without being able to translate it.
The curator smiled as he watched her. “Your exalted father knew of them, of course, since he had authority over all the things in storage. Did he tell you what the letters mean?”
Asenath shook her head. “I only know that my father did not wish for me to see the vases, and I wanted to see them all the more. But now that I am here, I don’t know why he felt that way. They seem perfectly harmless to me!”
The curator had a sense of humor and chuckled.
Asenath was offended. Humor was so rare in her house she had forgotten its existence until now. “Why do you find that amusing? Do you think I am wrong? Tell me, then, what is NOT harmless about them.”
The archivist’s face grew grave. It took some time for him to reply, while she waited and breathed heavily with growing impatience. “Your father was right to keep them from you, until you had gained enough experience of life to deal with their wisdom. But allow them to speak for themselves.”
Asenath’s face paled. “What do you mean, Old One? Speak? Are they alive? You are mad in your wits!”
But he was not mad. He translated the inscription, word by word, and finished by explaining that it was getting close to the date when one of the vases could be opened.
“How are you able to read this?” she questioned him.
“The white vase translated it for me,” he replied to her astonishment. “The white vase taught me everything I needed to know. All I had to do was ask.” The archivist touched the white vase as Asenath held her breath, expecting it to topple over. Instead, it shone even more brilliantly as it greeted them.
The vase continued speaking.
Naturally, she wanted to put a few questions of her own to the white vase, being of an inquisitive nature without having to be prompted.
In response, the vase first asked her individual name.
“Asenath, daughter of Petepheres,” she replied, not very happy about giving it out.
The vase described how it knew her, as well as its primary energy source, which was based on hydrogen, but Asenath could make nothing of it. That, she realized, was because of her own ignorance. She had just understood from the voice’s description of its lost worlds that a great civilization had been destroyed. Evidently, their wisdom was as great or even greater than Mizraim’s.
“What are you doing here then? And tell me what you look like.”
The voice continued to explain, telling her that the “probe” was purely for warning any inhabited worlds so that they could resist the destroyer.
Though she thought the visitors’ odd name was not something people would warm to immediately, Asenath felt a distinct chill when she heard that something unknown was loose in the heavens and attacking one world after another.
“What is this ‘Enemy’ Cv x-**/- you say destroyed you?”
Asenath paused, glancing at the curator, who looked at her expectantly. “This is very interesting,” she said to him. “What do you think? Are we really in the kind of danger the voice describes?”
The archivist nodded. “Yes, no one in Mizraim or any other land could have made this speaking vase. Not even the immortal Imhotep! It must have come from some far world and star and planted itself here in order to help us, just as it has told us. We are very fortunate!”
Asenath pondered this for a long moment. She turned back to the old man, her eyes glinting with renewed fire, her old self again revived. “Tell me then, what are we to do against something so treacherous, powerful, unseen and hidden as this Cv z-**/-?”
“Perhaps, the ambassadors will tell you if you ask.”
Asenath turned back to the speaking vase. “Tell me then what we need to know in order to stop the hidden destroyer falling upon us!”
The vase, as if it had been waiting for this moment, glowed suddenly to full brilliance.
Releasing her hands, she forced herself to do as the vase requested. The beam of light shone again into her eyes, then in a few moments it retracted. Instantly, she saw the world in an entirely new light. Not only had it shown her what to do in the near future, but it revealed the past course of the Enemy’s attack on the Earth and all of Dr. Pikkard’s discoveries and researches on the subject. Now she has the knowledge to direct skilled people to build resonating chambers of a particular sort, which would beam vast amounts of “music” into the far stretches of the sky clothing the planet, where they would heat “windows” in such a way that the “music” would channel downward to the earth’s surface in order to track and locate the Enemy. Other “ears” would be constructed to receive the knowledge of the Enemy’s exact whereabouts.
Then they could...but it was most important, first, to locate their Destroyer, and the rest would quickly fall into place. Marvelous! she thought. With such wisdom and knowledge, she knew more than any man on Earth--not including Ipu-pheres, of course.
She was glad of his company. So great a responsibility felt to her as if it could crush her.
She turned to Ipu-pheres.
“Do you have the same knowledge? Do you know about this man who was so like Imhotep, this ‘Pikkard’?”
“Yes, they gave told me everything they have learned about us. And I understand we owe a great debt of gratitude to the man you named.”
“Then why haven’t you done something? Or have you?”
The old priest slowly shook his clean-shaven head. “I was prevented.”
Asenath looked at him with surprise and he continued.
“The Mysterious God that has been speaking to me of late instructed me to wait until you came, and then I was to assist you in any thing you desired.”
Asenath’s reproachful gaze lowered and she turned away, facing the darkness and shadows.
Now that she also knew the particulars of both bronze vases, she need not open them now. The letter by the boy “Thompkins,” the various artifacts of the long-gone 20th Century, she would wait until the year specified to see. Otherwise, she thought, its magic would be broken.
Asenath was particularly intrigued with the bikini.
“It must have been even warmer in times past,” she observed, “if this is all a woman needed to wear. And perhaps ladies wore only a cloak of feathers in the evening, she speculated, thinking of the contents of the other metal vase.”
But now there was much to do concerning the information given her by the ambassadors from the ill-fated z-Im2cy.
She turned back to the quietly observing curator.
“Before I leave, I wish to see one more thing. “Ambassadors,” she addressed the vase. “what is happening to the “Universe,” as it is called by you. Is the Adversary attacking any more stars and worlds besides this one at the moment?”
Materializing before her, the carnage going on in the Galactic Superclusters was vividly revealed, and Asenath could hardly force herself to see all. Suddenly, the images dissolved and the white vase blinked red.
Visitors are in the tunnel on their way to this room! Do you wish to see them?
Ipu-pheres looked alarmed, but perhaps more sad than alarmed. “We must go and intercept them, before they find the vases.”
Before they could leave the chamber temple guards burst in.
The old priest blew out his oil lamp, and the white vase instantly darkened.
They crouched down behind a statue and waited.
“They’re here somewhere!” barked a voice. “They can’t escape!”
The torches drew closer to the huddled pair. A light shone on them, and suddenly they were dragged out of their hiding place.
Asenath recognized the guard that had rudely interrupted her dancing in the the Great Hall.
“The villlain must be head of the Temple’s secret service!” she thought. Her father had spoken of its existence from time to time, warning her not to speak so loudly.
She rose to her full height. “How dare you touch a daughter of the royal architect! It is a capital crime!”
The guard laughed. “He’s dead! Dead! You’re a ward of the temple now, and His Exalted Excellency, Lord Duamutef, is in charge of you, which means you’re under my direct supervision.”
Asenath spat in his face. “Barbarian, you are no Mizraimite and deserve to die many times over! I curse you--”
He paled under her curse and looked as if he could kill her on the spot, but he held back his raised arm. “You will pay for that, Daughter of Petenath!” He seized her arm and she fought to get free.
“Please, go quietly,” urged the old priest. “It is useless to fight them.”
The chief guard turned on the old man and struck him. Ipu-pheres collapsed, and the men began kicking him as Asenath screamed and struck at the men.
Finally, he lay still and Asenath threw herself down on him.
“What do we do about the old man?” one asked when their work was finished.
“Leave the body here, but take the girl with us. For now don’t treat her roughly. She’s to appear before Lord Duamutef.”
Her arms bent behind her, Asenath realized fully what Mizraim had become, and possibly always had been. Her father had sheltered--cocooned--her from its realities. In truth, as it fell upon her, Mizraim was most cruel, a land of pride, power, and wealth that had no mercy. No mercy in the least! Now she knew why he steadfastly refused to publicly acknowledge his per-aa-hood and take the double-crown which was rightfully his.
“All right, return the princess to her house!” the leader commanded.
It didn’t help that she kicked and screamed, they bound her mouth and feet too!
Shamefully man-handled and led to her apartment and shut up in her room, Asenath at least had the satisfaction of knowing that the vases’ great knowledge was safe inside her as long as she lived. Nothing had been lost but the life of the brave, old priest--a great loss, to be sure. She hardly knew what to do without his help. Now she would have to act alone--a chilling thought, despite her solitary life.
As she lay, churning with mingled sorrow and the amazing discoveries of the night, the words of the boy Thompkins came to mind, unrolling like a papyrus scroll from one of the metal vases whose secrets the white vase had somehow plumbed. It was the letter he might have written to her, it seemed so personal to her and full of warmth.
HI EVERYBODY! My techer Mrs van dorn says we canwrite you an mister robert Mosus will put it in the time capsool at the worlds fair. so nobody bedder ohpen it cuz its YOUR letter. Wessinhous is going to chooz the best one to put in I hope its mind! The winner gets a ride too the fair in a noo cadalack, ten bucks and pitchurs and ice cream and I forget all the swell things. but it will be FUN and you get ten bucks wich I need reel bad (I will tell you why latter, so wait a minnut) now i’m going to tell you about me and what New yorke is like.
thats proababally what you want too no??? Its awfully cold in winter and I have to wear boots and cap, sweater, coat, scarf, earmuffs, and watch I dont slip on the ice. theres ALOT of it, and snow. Last winter I didn’t have two ware all that stuff but this winter is real bad sofar. It says in the papers that the poler bares are movin down from the Arktik. Karraboo to! I sure hope so. They can go in the parke and wheel feed them peanut butar and jellie sanwitches from our lunches.
oh, I am in third grade at P.s. 66 on moheegan avenoo. i’m pretty good at Rithametick, art, Musik, and Geographee, but my speling is not so hot as you can see! schol is harder to its not as fun as second or first, the techers get meaner as you go on. They used to take us to alot of special places but they say the weather is to bad for us to go out, so we stay in side mostlee. I liked it bedder in the second grade when they took us alot of neat places. we went to the mooseum alot. the best thing was the spirut of Saynt loois witch was on lone to our mooseum. Nobody got to fly it, like Limburg did across the ocian a long time ago. but they let us sit in it, one at a time. I put my gum under the seat. dont tell anybody! If Mrs van dorn finds out she’ll put me back again with larry Hanna Walt and rodreegass who cant read an right. at least I can. i’m awful glad this letter is conkfuldentshul or id be in big truble, write?
I forgot to tell you about new Yorke like im suppose too. The buildeens are real tall mostly. They make it dark in the streets. it sure stinks ALOT off that place roburt Mosus put in the hudsim rover tp tale care of our sooage. sirens go all the time. its cops chassing crimanulls and maybe kommunests. Maybee you woodnt like it but im pretty used to it. Only I gotta watch I dont get run over. thats easy here, man! gobs of kids like me get run over. addults to! an we got lotsa sellebritees, big ones like Garbow. Mom saw all her movies back wen she was a kid. I saw her buyin a paper outside macys.
Mom said she came prackitically evary day. so I just stood there and waited and she came. she looked at me and I looked at her. I think I saw a wrinkel so she pretty old now and dont look like she did in the movies. I did it a sekon time and then she talked. Ar you waiting for me? she said I couldn’t think of anything to say sense I was. Mom was with me. she said please dont mind my boy. im realy your fan, always have been, so really am lookin forward to your next pitchur. Garbow took off her dark glassis and bent down and whispured to me dont tell anybody but I wood like to take just you for a ride in my big car.
you look most like alexeye the boy in one of my films but I didnt need such a big car and it droo two much attenchon so I let it go. sorrie!
Well, that was the last time we saw her there. maybe she lost her glassis and couldnt read those papers anymore. She was a funnie lady I think. Her eyes talked lot mor than her mouth did. Thats why she musta warn those glassis. She didnt want people to see her eyes can talk. do the cops catch the bad guys and lock em up? my dad says they should lockup the mayer and govnor whil their at it.
hees funn! he says we should really lockup roburt Mosus an throw the key away cuz hees the biggust crook of them all. my dad says roburt Moses is spendin a BILLYUN bucks of our hardurned monie and sinkin it in a frogpond called flushin meadoe just so he can make peeple think hes some big man in towne. but don’t mind him--my dad. I wanna go two the fair when it opens real bad. I want too win this contest to! I need monie bad.
maybe if I can get some neat ties at macys where Mom works and dad wares them he will get a bedder job. he hates the job he has now cuz its jannitore work an his back hurtz and he doesnt like allwlays pickin up after bigshot Mugwumps and mucky mucks he says who couldnt care less ware they throw there trash ore stik there gumm.
ALMOST forgot to tell you. Por old Mrs. van dorn was sick a hole too weaks, so our sub took us out. we went on the tour to radyo city Musik Hall at Rockafelar sentar. I saw the rockets dance on the big stage. they kick up all there leggs at the same time. you never saw so many leggs. its called preecizzhun. it was pretty good, next to Limburgs plane I guess, but we almost froze two death on the way to the automatt cuz the old bus lost its heatar an are new one aint comin since Moses and the mob stole it my dad tole me who noes plenty stuff cuz of where he works..
Well so long for now. I spended two hole weaks on this letter to you and its doo tomorro. I really want to help my dad get a leg up in the woruld so please God let me win this time wont you? I promiss I wont drop any more water baloons on the street from our balkonie.
your frend WAY WAY back in time, Jonathan Harrison Thompkins
hey I just thot up a pome you mite like. Mrs van dorn bein dutch says this towne was new Amsturdamm in the old days. then the english took it over and give it a new name. I don’t like that old dutch name but I woodnt tell her that cuz shes so stuck on her peeple and would probabally be happioe if we english were all kicked out two some place in newjersea, wich will never hapen fortunutlee! well here it goes and dont forget to write me a letter kare of my schol and tell us what its like in the future and send it back to me in a time machine sense becuz thats the only way i’ll get it.
How exciting the world must have been! she marvelled. Especially for boys like Jonathan, with so many great iron bridges, machines to ride in, and even the means to fly faster than birds!
It occurred to her that her father could have transformed Mizraim and the world with the knowledge the vases had imparted to her. Why did he not try? He certainly knew about the vases.
Giving herself a pang in her heart, she recalled having approaching him on the subject of his Per-aa-hood, and he had replied, “What would I profit if I gain the whole world and lose my own ka?”
“But you could do so much good!” she had protested. “We could be a free nation once again, the foreigners would be pushed out into the sea and--”
Well, he had grown very sad when she finished telling him all she thought he could do if he would only announce he was the true Per-aa. Without another word, he had left her--but now she understood how wise, wonderfully wise, he was! Yet, maybe she might accomplish what he feared to do! After all, youth might succeed where sad old age had failed!
It remained, to her thinking anyhow, a possibility giving her hope instead of despair. After all, she had yet to try her wings! She knew that if she ever did, the priest and his murderous henchmen might find something on their hands they could not handle.
It was a comforting thought anyway.
Now that Asenath’s father was dead, like a mishandled trained serpent Mizraim was quick to bare its fangs. In the morning, word came ordering Asenath to the council chamber of the chief priest.
Despite her night of grief for Ipu-pheres as well as her father, coupled with the strangest experience of her life spent absorbing the words and wisdom of the white vase, Asenath did not let the chief priest wait for very long when she happened to be out on the balcony to get away for a moment from her "guardians," and saw the chief priest approaching her apartments, only to be called away by business with some high official that hurried up to him in a state palanquin.
Undoubtedly, now, after what she had seen and heard, he would listen to her! At least she would give him the benefit of a doubt! Otherwise, poor Ipu had died in vain! When she had finished (and after taking the best of her work in hand with her), Asenath unbarred her door herself and stepped out into the passageway before the startled eyes of the housekeeper. Then without a word she followed the chief priest's chamberlain to the apartments of his master, her housekeeper-maid following dutifully behind her beautiful but far too willful mistress.
The ruler of the Temple was sitting at a vast, alabaster table set with gold-embossed writing palettes. He smiled as she came in. The chief priest made a little gesture of his hand, and the aide went out, leaving them alone.
“Wait by the door for me, for I will speak alone to him,” Asenath whispered to her housekeeper. Then straining to be respectful and demure she went forward to the great man, bowing as she knew it was the custom and necessity to do so before such a one in a private audience, even if she were a princess far superior to him.
Slightly inclining his own head, thereby increasing the number of his chins by several, the chief priest acknowledged her sign of respect for his exalted office and person.
"I greet you, daughter of Petenath (for he detested "Petepheres," thereby naming a rival, Ibbathan moon-god in Nath's own domain)!" he began. "I have given thought this day to you, and I believe Lord Nath would have me inform you of certain eventualities, that must impinge sooner or later on your prospects in life, now that your father, the illustrious Petenath--the gods grant him immortal bliss in the joyous Lands of the West!--has left your arms that he might triumphantly stride the road of the Dead."
Asenath waited as the man glibly continued, sketching out her “duties” to the Temple while not even lifting his eyes from some documents set before him. She hardly dared lift her own eyes to look at the exalted man who was, in her own hearing, deciding her fate as if she had no decision or right of opinion in the matter.
“I don’t know if I wish to do as you say, sire,” she broke in. “I can accept no official appearances, for I am far too busy with my--”
Her anger increased as he told her that for the time being she should leave off her studies and attend to a lady's grooming. She was, everyone could see, a creature of exceptional, physical endowment fitting to be the daughter of so great and noble-blooded a man as Petepheres, er, Petenath.
So he thought, but the more he looked at her the clearer formed a picture in his mind of a spirit of unsophisticated bent, practical tastes, an unpretentious temper, and retiring nature and habits; yet beneath this he sensed a secret, untried, fledgling power, a searching fire of spirit that belonged to a man, even a man of war.
But this was an untutored young woman before him! he sharply reminded himself. Asenath had no worldly wisdom, and her abilities were yet unadapted to the necessary accommodations one must make in real life to get ahead.
Surely, he observed, this one would fail to “catch on” to Temple realities. Her inflexible will, born of her high nobility, would naturally oppose her own best interests. Allied with a superior intellect, her simple, magnaminous nature, flowing in the wrong channel, could prove annoyingly refractory and dangerous. That, of course, was his job to prevent! After all, there was much more at stake than a mere female!
Asenath felt the old priest’s little, cool eyes examining her curiously and not indifferently, but she felt ashamed and angry at the same time. She loathed the vast creature enscounced on his leopard-skinned dais, wearing a crown and imposing on people as if he were a per-aa and not a commoner priest drawn from the ranks of unsexed hierodules. She hated even more his arbitrary interference in her life. No one, and rarely her father, had told her what to do.
Her cheeks flamed as he continued to describe the delicacies of the court in Avaris; how a temple woman of her beauty and upbringing would be of considerable rank and influence in the court of Avaris. “--you will adjust to it in time, my dear, and forget all about your childish pastimes here in the cloisters of the Temple, and so--”
“This is all beside the point!” Asenath thought while he went on about how wonderful a life she would gain in the Hyksos snakepit of Avaris. “The world is in great danger. What are they thinking to do with me?” Asenath fretted, her mind in a turmoil. “Will they make me Khian's concubine? He has palace full of them! Why would he need me?”
No, I won’t do anything he says, she determined. Not one thing!
"But my projects and various discoveries of late are worthy of Lord Nath's attention!" she blurted out in girlish protest, dying to tell him of the three noble vases in the archives but not knowing how to begin. “I have no need to go elsewhere. Here is my home and the workshop of my father--all I require for my life’s work and study.”
Instantly, by the chief priest's silence and a certain meditative sucking of his thumb, she knew she had spoken unwisely. It was not, she knew, for her to claim anything of hers worthy of Nath. Rather, she should have waited until he asked (if he ever so deigned) to see her latest work. Then she might have come up with a way to lead him onto the much greater subject of the three vases in the Temple basement.
The chief priest gave a little sigh, and took a little while to respond.
Asenath looked down as he waved to the housekeeper to come forward.
"You may run along now, daughter of Petenath. I think you know what the will of Nath is for you. It is only an eventuality for now, but just the same you must prepare yourself for a new and better life than we can give you here. Not many have your opportunity, to rise and become an adornment in the capital at the court, and so I urge you to obey Nath's counsels in every way in this matter."
Asenath was mortified. She could not help herself. She had to tell him. “But Lord of the Temple, there are most ancient and wise vases in the archives that speak and warn us that the world stands in deadly peril from an unseen foe!”
“Speaking vases?” “Deadly peril?” The high priest glanced at her with a tired expression. What she had tried to say went completely over his head. He simply was not listening to “girlish nonsense,” his secret thoughts centered on the mountain of gold on deposit in the Temple Treasury that had fallen to her by will of the late Petenath. Thus blinded by its radiance and allure, he missed seeing his ward’s greater, deadlier treasure.
Knowing she must go before accomplishing anything, Asenath remembered that this man was responsible for Ipu-pheres’s ignoble and cruel death. But what could she do against him? Old priests died every day. He could not care about just one.
She bowed with hands clenched at her sides and turned and went out, her mind just as fixed as her fists, as she seethed with anger and shock. The chief priest had dismissed her projects, which she knew to be noble conceptions worthy of Petepheres's work and name. He had dismissed them as he would a child's scribblings in the clay of the river. Worse, he had not the slightest interest in the vases and what they had to say to the world! Instead of finding out, he was more concerned with putting her in Khian’s harem, since there was no one of her rank in Nathasta and Avaris to marry her!
Asenath could not know she had sealed the fate of the vases. After hearing her outrageous remarks, he realized it was high time he had ordered the objects destroyed, to keep dangerous people from medding with them. Hearing Petenath’s daughter tell of them with so much passion, he truly felt he had done the right thing.
Back in her room, Asenath wept again, but from anger and frustration. Coming in later, her housekeeper-maid threw up her hands in helpless resignation and went out. She left Asenath to relieve her fury on the sacred baboons that guarded her door by bashing them repeatedly with the big, bronze bar.
Later, in the darkening shadow of her room, Asenath lay on her bed thinking of the shape of the distant past and the future as they had just been revealed to her. She could not rid her mind of the shape of things she saw so clearly in her inner eye. She had drawn it so often in her studies--the circle of eternity, the magic circle encompassing all things, living and dead. The circle grew and encircled the whole of her room, the whole of her life, the whole of her world--but instead of being golden and shining it was now a black, yawning, engulfing hole!--quite like the one she had been shown by the vase, in fact!
She was still thinking about it when the chief priest's words returned to her. "How dare they!" she cried. "I won't do it! I'll kill myself first, and they can throw me to the crocodiles with my father!"
The idea seemed most ideal; the best solution to her agony and impossible situation. Let the inevitable black hole take others away to the land of the Dead, but she determined then to never let it take her to Khian's arms. Even the Dead were better off than the living, and could no longer suffer life's indignities.
Yet even as Asenath resolved to take a cobra to her breast or arm, she knew it was not yet necessary. She was young and wanted to live, despite all. Perhaps, she could elude the clutches of the chief priest and flee to her relatives in Ibbatha. They would gladly take her in, especially since Petepheres was so well thought of there, and she had inherited all his fortune. Yes, she thought, she would flee to the Upper Kingdom at the first opportunity. That would be the solution!
As Asenath plotted escape and waited for the day she could slip away, the chief priest also set his plans in motion. It was a simple matter to send word to Ibbatha, forstalling Asenath's escape (the housekeeper-maid had been most helpful in telling him her mistress's intentions, clearly revealed by the girl's secretive behavior and hasty preparations). He also set temple guards and his chief of secret service to watch her apartments. When Asenath finally saw them and realized what had happened, he withdrew them out of her eyeshot, since he knew no further sanctions would be needed.
As it was, the only one who left Petepheres's house turned out to be the housekeeper, who could no longer face the infuriated girl and the bronze door-bar; but she was rewarded with a good pension by the chief priest himself. Given her freedom, she thanked her gods for an uncrushed skull and returned to her native village with honor and a measure of affluence and soon married a respectable clerk of the land administration. Not a bad end at all for such an incompetent!
Nabsha her replacement, a burly, fearless, rough-of-tongue harridan who had risen to the position from the Temple brewery’s malt mashing brigade, was personally appointed by the chief priest. She was not a woman to mince words or restrain herself when her authority was in question.
Confrontation came very quickly to the fore.
“Open this door at once!” Asenath commanded, when she wanted to go out and found the entrance locked.
“No, your’re not leaving!” Nabsha declared, hefty arms crossed over her bulging front and not bothering to bow.
Asenath, just as fearless, drew the bar anyway as if she would use it on the rebellious menial.
“You little vixen, I’ll fix you!” the new housekeeper-warden addressed her. Faster than her bulk would suggest, Nabsha knocked the bar from the princess’s hands and seized her by the hair, pulling her head back as she twisted. “Now just see if you can get round the likes of me like you did your other nurse!”
“You will be sorry you have crossed me,” gasped the still defiant princess.
“Hahaha! Neither of us won’t live long enough to see that happen!” Nabsha laughed at her.