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Lame

(Italy, 1690)

Matteo looked at the dilapidated buildings passing slowly by through the coach window. It had been four days since the accident, and his hip and temple still throbbed dully. Though he pretended, as he always did, that nothing bothered him, still he was deeply disturbed by the incident. Wheels didn’t just fall off carriages, especially ones as well built as his. He thought about dismissing the driver for incompetence, but stopped short as he didn’t have someone else he could trust on short notice. The words of Pietro haunted him overly much. The young man was sensitive, that much was clear, but clairvoyant? No, it couldn’t be. . . yet. . .

In the Holy See, despite the Pope’s inquisitors’ best efforts, prognosticators, seers, soothsayers, false prophets, gypsies, and even an occasional witch plied their dark arts on a deeply superstitious populace. Most, to Matteo’s mind, were fakes, but some. . . some were eerily accurate to the point of believability. Making sort of a sport out of proving charlatans wrong, once he’d failed to do so spectacularly and had to grudgingly admit: The woman who spread cards before him knew things she couldn’t possibly know.

Lacking proper care

Now as the quarter moon rose above this seedy part of lower Vatican city, one which he knew better than most, he sought that person out once again. As Matteo banged on the roof of his new carriage with his walking stick, the driver stopped, and Pietro came around to open the door. Stepping stiffly out of the cabin, his manservant steadying him, Matteo leaned on a cane to shift his weight off his injured leg.

“Allow me to escort you sire,” Pietro said with a worried look on his face.

“No, I must do this alone. Wait here,” Matteo commanded. Slowly, the well-dressed prince made his way to a nondescript door recessed into a building, known by few, and knocked cautiously. Somewhere in the distance a dog barked as a cat hissed. The door before him opened slowly, the iron hinges creaking, protesting their lack of proper care.

The dim light within only illuminated a petite silhouette of a woman, who spoke, “Why do you, of all people, darken my door? Come to test me again fair prince? Peering up into his face, a thin smirk forming on her lips, “No. . .you’re a believer now.”

Heart beating fast, Imperialli said, “Don’t play with me woman, let me enter, I have money.”

Silent for a moment, the small woman hissed reproachfully, not unlike the cat in the alley earlier, “Yes, coins you have and knowledge you seek, but above all you should desire wisdom. Yet, I sense that is far from you.”

Impatient, Matteo said as he pushed his way in, “Just show me the cards.”

A bundle of prosperity!

(Karnak, Egypt, 1459 BC)

People slowly lifted themselves off the ground, looking at one another. The fat man, subdued, came forward to apologize to Kontar several times for his impertinent behavior. Bren’s captor, graciously reassured him that no permanent harm was done, being as no action was taken by the Pharaoh. As the man and his wife turned to leave, the portly slave master came over to the girls, saying, as he hugged Bren tightly, “You – you beautiful, priceless, bundle of prosperity! No one, in all my years or even in my old master’s time was ever sold for such an amount! I am so proud of you!” Then, looking at the two black sisters, he said, slightly tearing, “I will miss you Sara, and you too, Sara,” gazing from one to the other, “you have been so good to me, never any trouble, always cheerful.” The two African beauties hugged him, genuinely moved by his words, speaking freely of their admiration, each giving their thanks for his good care during their time of servitude.

Kontar, wiping his eyes with the cotton towel (now semi blackened from his coal eye shadow) said, “But, praise Amun, you’re all going to Pharaoh! My little birds are taking flight to a better place! Go, prepare yourself and the one called Brenzel, for the royal barge is waiting at the river.”

Bren, looking at the whole strange scene, thought of Kontar not as a pot bellied seller of human beings, but as a rich, old uncle doting on his beloved nieces. She had to admit, against her better judgment, she liked him.

Not proper

Later, as the girls helped Brenzel prepare, she asked how they came to be in Kontar’s – service. Both, while continuing to dress her, became quiet. “Mistress Bren, we don’t like to talk about such dark things,” one of the Saras finally said.

“I’m sorry, I did not mean to offend,” Bren quickly offered.

The other said, “It’s okay, you are not from here, you don’t know our ways.”

Feeling embarrassed for her crude behavior, Brenzel kept quiet the rest of the time, while she and the girls made ready.

Again, making their way through the bustling city streets of afternoon Karnak, this time with five guards instead of two, Brenzel read the picture inscriptions on the walls as they walked. Mostly the glyphs praised various gods or goddesses and the pharaoh. Pictures or statues of the current ruler, with a long, straight beard, painted eyes, and tall headdress, told of Egypt’s prosperity and its many and glorious building programs.

Bren in a strange land

The imposing buildings in the distance, she learned from the two Saras, were the temple of the great God Amun, the creator of earth and sky. Brenzel thought, I was in Elysia and it was never as strange as this. Then, How many gods do these people serve? – she’d counted over five different deities so far.

The air felt cooler, and presently they came to a broad dock at river’s edge. Moored there was a long, slim, beautifully made boat, with ornately curved bow and stern, and something resembling a small house in the middle with curtains. The guards, marching smartly up to a waiting man said, “We present you the slave Brenzel, and her two companions, with humble thanks and deep appreciation from slave master Kontar.”

The man, tall and dressed in some sort of linen kilt (to Bren’s mind), shoulders and waist adorned with gold and blue stones, wearing sandals, replied, “Pharaoh commends Kontar on his excellent product and wishes him peace and prosperity.” Then, handing a bag of gold to the head guard, the man motioned for the girls to board the ship.

As Bren walked, offended, she thought to herself, Product?!

Gangway

Walking up the gangway plank, Brenzel turned to one of her friends, asking, “Was that Pharaoh?”

Sara, which one we cannot be sure, said, “gods no, that is just Pharaoh’s official.”

As they stood on deck, the man approached saying, “Pharaoh greets you and asks if you have any special requests.” The girls looked at each other, and the Saras shook their heads no. “Very well then, there will be two weeks’ purification, after that, you will present yourselves at court for inspection. If Pharaoh finds you acceptable, you will be placed.”

“Water,” Bren said flatly.

“What?” the official asked, confused.

Bren said, “Water. You asked if we had any special requests. This has been a long day. I’m hot. I want some water.”

“Oh… okay.”

Bren then asked, “‘Placed?’ Noble sir, if I may ask, what is ‘placed?'”

Puzzled, then remembering the young woman before him wasn’t Egyptian, he answered, “In the royal harem of course.”

The Saras smiled broadly while Bren’s eyes became big as saucers, thinking to herself, Royal WHAT?

SEOIB.