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(On the way to the temple at Dendera, Egypt, 1459 BC)

Water lapped lazily at the wooden hull of Pharaoh’s royal boat, which had been bound together by braided rope and swelled by Nile waters until the strands squeezed the planks together, making them water-tight. The backs of the oarsmen, muscled and gleaming with sweat, rippled as they rowed the big boat forward.

Palm trees and reeds lined the banks of the river, with different structures visible as they progressed. Finally, after two days of travel, the Dendera temple complex loomed in the distance. Egypt’s Pharaoh explained, “Tomorrow’s the opening of the new year, and I wanted you to be with me to see it.” Relaxing on comfortable cushions, sitting between her Saras, Brenzel watched Hatty as she talked. She marveled, noting that the Pharaoh seemed softer, less fidgety, – more like the confident doctor she’d known in the future.

As the ship made its way to Hathor’s temple at Dendera, two servants steered confidently with large rudders. At the beginning of their journey, only several hours out, Bren, for the first time in her life, saw groups of ‘hippos’, with their huge, broad snouts and small ears peeking barely above the river water. They’d watched the ship approach with apparent disinterest, only to suddenly bolt, splashing through the shallows, making great grunting sounds as they ran.

Sobek

The second day, looking out from behind fine linen drapes, Bren spied, with a start, the ugliest and most gruesome creature she’d ever seen. It lay in the morning sun, motionless, several hundred feet from the boat. Instinctively backing away, she exclaimed, “Oh my God, what is that?!” Then, gaining courage from curiosity, she peeked out again, just as the monster opened it’s gaping mouth filled with jagged teeth.

Coming up from behind as Bren jumped back, Hatty, holding her arm, said, “It’s Sobek, the god of the Nile.”

“I hate snakes!” Bren said with a shiver, despite the heat.

“It’s not a snake, Brenzel, it’s a crocodile. The river is full of them. Many, who are careless, lose their lives to them each year. Remember friend, the river may seem peaceful, but never forget that underneath often lurks unforgiving ferocity.”

It’s all so different

Both returning to the center of the boat, Bren said as she reclined again, “Everything here surprises me. It is so different from my home.”

Hatty, eyeing Bren said, “That’s precisely why I bought you at the market.”

Looking at her intelligent eyes, Brenzel replied, “I…I don’t think I understand.”

Motioning one of the slaves to fan her more vigorously, Hatty said, “When I was young, I believed everything I was told. My life was full of ritual and duty. My Father, Thutmose I, doted on me and indulged my every whim. I loved my mother, Ahmose, but I adored Father – he was my world.”

A faraway look came over Hatty as she shared her heart further. From her travels, Bren realized more and more that people were people, with share desires, dreams, and pain, wherever on earth and whenever in time you found them. Like clothes, they might appear different, but their heart issues were as constant as the north star.

As the barge glided slowly through the waters, Hatty continued. “Then my Father passed away suddenly, and my brother, Thutmose II, became Pharaoh, and I his wife.”

You married your brother?

Bren, listening attentively, said with a start, “Wait, I must have heard you wrongly; you married your brother? You must mean cousin.”

“We often marry within our immediate family, Bren, to keep the royal bloodline pure. It has a lot to do with our beliefs.”

“Eew, you had sex with your brother?!”

The shock on Bren’s face suddenly made Hatty feel odd. No one had ever dared question Egypt’s practices within the royal family, but instinctively, she’d never felt good about it. The ugly truth of it all was that many offspring of such sibling unions did not survive infancy.

Continuing, Hatsheput said, “Shortly after our daughter was born, my husband, Thutmose II, died, too, and I was left as regent to care for Egypt, until his infant son, through another minor wife, came of age.”

“That’s Thutmose III, right?” Bren asked,

“Yes, he’s nearing our borders with his armies as we speak.” Hatty, speaking matter-of-factually, seemed to grow smaller than usual, almost fading into insignificance against the backdrop of her personal revelations. “Shortly after I took over the affairs of state, I met Senenmut, a handsome overseer of temple construction from the north. By that time I mistrusted everyone. I felt people only saw me as a stepping stone towards their own selfish ambitions. However, this builder was different. He served me from his heart, never asking for anything for himself. By that time, with my world crumbling, all I wanted to know was the truth.”

What truth?

“What truth?”

“Bren, wise men say that truth is the soul of the sun, and I desperately needed to know it. I doubted everything I’d ever known. So, I began buying slaves at the Karnak market. Kontar, the slave master, alterted me when foreign women of exceptional beauty and intelligence were for sale. Those I liked, I bought. They became my source of knowledge about real life.”

Suddenly, Bren understood; she’d not been brought for some sexual exploit at all, that was never the intention. Hatshepsut simply desired to gain unvarnished information about the outside world! She wanted someone to tell her the truth, or a version of it not filtered by Egypt’s vast bureaucracy. What a remarkable woman, Bren thought, her admiration of the pharaoh growing with a realization of her true motives.

“After a few years, I realized that the gods of other lands were just as fake as ours; made up religious fictions to repress and control the masses just like our beliefs. In the end, I found nothing. That is, until I fell in love with Senenmut. He was a commoner, from a small village of no import who rose simply through merit.” Sighing, she added, “and not a drop of royal blood in him. Yet he was kind, faithful, and treated me with what I can only describe as pure love. In the beginning, I kept him around because he made my life easier, but over the years he won my heart.”

“But, Hatty, he had many wives, I can’t imagine how you accepted that!”

I just wanted companionship

Smiling, the female pharaoh shifted her position on the couch, as she signaled one of the servant girls to refill her wine goblet yet again. Bren noted it was the third or fourth time her libations had been topped up. Ah, maybe that’s why she’s speaking so freely, Bren thought.

“I wasn’t, at the beginning, interested in sex at all, Bren, I just wanted someone to talk to. I mean, my only real experience with lovemaking was my brother. You can guess how great that was. Besides, the other girls had need, and he did, too.”

Need’, how odd. Bren thought back to Elysia and their unusual viewpoint on intimacy.

“I loved his wives and their children Bren, they became my family. I could be myself among them.”

Except for the creaking of the oars in their sockets as they dipped into the Nile, a hush seemed to descend.

After moment, Bren said softly, “I thought him a good man too.”

Nervous

(Vatican City, 1690)

Outside the office doors, Tim’s assistant sat at his desk, uneasily. All morning, the cardinal had been working, stating that he did not wish to be disturbed. Each time the young assistant knocked on his door, the words “not yet” were heard. From time to time, over the years, Father Lambert would lock himself in, when particularly disturbed over some thorny issue of Vatican business.

Today, though, a disturbing man in black, going only by the name of Lot, waited outside those doors with the assistant – all morning. Frankly, his presence was unnerving. The man simply did not move; just sat there reading.

Finally, to his assistant’s great relief, the big priest opened the doors, saying, “I will see him now.”

Looking up, Lot closed his book, then stood like some big black panther, following the cardinal into the office.

“Please, sit,” the priest said gravely, as he gestured towards the chair before his big desk. Lot noted that all the papers seemed more neatly organized than usual. “I have a matter I wish you to attend to,” the priest began.

“Of course, Father, I am ready to serve.” Ever a keen judge of the human condition, Lot quickly sensed that this was no ordinary assignment. “What judgment do you need me to carry out?”

It’s not an official judgment

Hesitating slightly, Tim said, “It is not an official judgment, more of a personal matter.”

Sitting before the second most powerful man in the Papal state, Lot thought to himself, favors are dangerous things, then said, “Of course, Cardinal Lambert, I am at your service.”

Placing a hefty sounding bag of coins on his desk, at least one hundred metallic golden ducats clinking together, the big priest said, “I desire a certain thorn removed. . .with discretion.”

“Man? Woman?”

“A man.”

“Do you wish to make a statement? Any special instructions?”

“No, no torture, just kill him with a crossbow. But make sure the bolt goes through his heart.”

“Consider it done, Father. Name?”

“Matteo Imperialli.”

“When?”

“Yesterday,” the Cardinal said vehemently.

Lot stood, bowed, then left.

Tim, sitting at his neatly organized desk, tapped his fingers on the inlaid top, ruefully thinking that this whole ruse with Matteo was fast becoming an unmitigated disaster. Strange, he even felt a twinge of guilt. However, Prince Imperialli had to die, that much was crystal clear to him. Though Timothy did his best to keep his family a secret, that meddling fool simply would not stop! Now he was even bringing his grandmother to dinner! The more Matteo drew attention to the family, the more danger Fiammetta and the boys were in. If Tim’s relationship with Fiammetta became known to Beauty, she would have them all killed without a moment’s hesitation. Yes, there is no other recourse, Tim concluded. Standing, he walked out of his office; the mural of Christ receding behind him, as he mumbled to his assistant, “I’m going for a walk.”

Accompany me to the festival

(temple at Dendera, Egypt, 1459 BC)

As the ship rocked gently, Bren eventually fell asleep, only waking early the next morning, hours before the sun rose, when Hatty stirred beside her. Feeling the slight breeze from the ostrich feather fans, which servants still waved overhead, Bren stretched as Hatshepsut yawned. Both lay silent for awhile, looking up into the dark sky above, when Hatty said, “Today’s the opening of the new year. I want you ride with me to the festival in my royal chariot.”

“Sure,” Bren said, “sounds like fun.”

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