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Just think of them as…

(Karnak, Egypt, 1459 BC)

The Egyptian land lay burnt and dusty. The Nile, life blood of Pharaoh’s kingdom, flowed sluggishly. After nearly 70 days, both man and beast felt exhausted from the unrelenting heat of the day and the fierce breath of the desert. Yet, there was cause for hope – the opening of the new year was at hand. The goddess Hathor, at her house of Dendera, would greet the first light of the first day of the first month, causing the Nile to swell again, and all would be renewed by its life-giving floods.

Bren’s bare feet felt the cool stone beneath her as she roamed the palace, followed by her two Saras, albeit with an escort who remained at a respectful distance. Yesterday, in Pharaoh’s personal chambers, Hatshepsut, or Hatty as she preferred to be called, gave her the two Nubian girls as personal slaves to do with as she wished. Though the thought of owning another human being repulsed her, Brenzel realized it was a gesture of genuine friendship, and said, “Thank you. . . Hatty.” Then commented, “But, honestly, I don’t know what to do with a single slave, let alone two.”

Egypt’s ruler, holding still as one of her girls applied the day’s eyeliner, replied, smiling, “Just think of them as friends who can’t disagree with you.”

The morning after

Later that morning, 3, dressed in a simple robe, abacus in hand, waited in the reception chamber of Karnak temple as priests stood ready for his arrival. Noting that there were 2.897 times the number of priests present than required by temple protocol, he wondered if their numbers denoted insecurity or were an attempt to intimidate him. The continual chanting and singing by Amun’s musicians, grandiose and droning, annoyed him greatly. At least there was incense, he thought, making it all smell a bit better.

Bidden by a young priest to walk forward between two rows of acolytes, one man proclaimed loudly, “Royal Vizier, Saa Menetnashté Sabah Khaldun Zuberi, keeper of the royal tally, master of architects, lord of the harvest, welcome to the great and holy house of Amun.”

Looking ahead at the high priest who sat slightly elevated, he noted the squint of his eyes, thinking, Ah, its definitely intimidation.

Hapuseneb stood, spreading his arms, palms upward, head slightly bowed, looking out from under bushy eyebrows, saying, “Welcome, esteemed Vizier, to the house of Amun. What a blessing it is for us to be in the presence of such a wise and prudent counselor in whose hands the reigns of Egypt reside in these dark and troubled days. I, too, share the weight of your great burden. Let us all walk carefully before the gods and do what is right for our great land.”

“Greetings, Hapuseneb,” 3 said as he bowed slightly, “I am at your service.”

Descending a couple of steps, the robed priest, in all his elaborate finery, motioned with his hand for 3 to move towards a table and chairs laid out to the side of the great chamber.

No fear

He came alone, the high priest thought to himself, do you have no fear, man? Surely you must have suspicions? “Please, let us sit and talk.” Seating himself down across from the Vizier, who was a full head taller while standing, made him seem more manageable to the high priest. Waiters offered the late Pharaoh’s servant wine and food, each of which he waved away.

Hapu, having accepted his own wine, forced himself to look the Vizier in the eye, saying, “I cannot express how shocked and saddened I am at the outrageous attack on Hatshepsut. Nothing like this has ever happened in this holy place. We all pray day and night for her safe journey into the afterlife. May her heart be found lighter than Maat’s feather. I assure you, wise Vizier, all preparations for her entombment are well underway.” After an uncomfortable silence, Hapu said, “Please, allow us to help.”

Blinking, 3 replied, “High priest Hapuseneb ,”

Interrupting, the priest said, “Please, call me Hapu.”

“Hapuseneb …I welcome your desire to see justice done and secure Egypt once again. But how, exactly, do you propose to assist?”

Hapu said gravely, as if he’d rehearsed it a thousand times, “We have the murderer.”

Jaw flexing slightly, 3 said dryly, “Marvelous, let us question him at once.”

“He’s dead.”

Leveling his gaze at the holy man, 3 said, “How inconvenient.”

A trained assassin

Hapu added quickly, “By his attire, he is one of the delegation for the Hittites. Our sources tell us his name was Hantili – surely a trained assassin sent by the Anatolian king himself.”

3, taking out his abacus, making some quick calculations, inquired, “How did this Hantili gain access to the house of Amun? Are there any witnesses?”

“No, unfortunately, there are no witnesses other than the brave temple guards who fought him.” Spreading his hands, the high priest said as he shook his head, “We know not how he evaded detection and gained entrance. However, we are a holy place, no Egyptian had ever dared violate Amun’s sanctum before. But, surely a man sent on such a mission possesses the skills necessary to evade detection.”

“But, evidently, not the skills to escape.” 3 commented slowly.

Standing, 3 carefully replaced his chair as Hapu protested, “But…but I am not finished yet, royal Vizier.”

3, studying him closely for a moment, said as he looked intently at the seated man, “Yes, you are.”

Turning to leave, the surrounding priests closed in, blocking 3’s way, until Hapu nodded.

The high priest watched the Vizier walk away, thinking to himself, He lifted a man with one arm, as he felt the pit in his stomach grow. Is that why he is so confident? Physical strength? Surely, he must know how precarious his position is?

Panicked

(Rome, 1690)

The Italian sky hung like a damp blanket on the day, rain blowing this way and that, forcing Matteo to instruct Pietro to shutter the carriage into near darkness. Hearing the horses’ shod hooves clippity clopping rapidly on the cobblestone, suddenly brought back the claustrophobic feeling of being wrapped up in that tapestry and the torture that followed. Chest tightening, panic setting in, he felt unable to breathe.

Reliving all the helplessness of being bound to the rack, hearing the scratching sounds in that dark dungeon’s corner, the furtive movements of a diseased rodent, a chill coursed through his body. Ah! The pest’s filthy feet on my skin! It all came rushing back in a moment, crushing him like a monster sitting on his chest.

“Stop the carriage!” Matteo yelled, clawing his way out the door and dropping to the wet road as he gasped, pulling at his necktie. Pietro, leaping from the carriage, tried to assist his master, fearing the worst. Is it his heart? he wondered, as he loosened his master’s necktie, noting Matteo’s pale face -looking like he’d seen a ghost.

That infernal priest! Calmly sitting at his desk and talking of his plan, the thought nearly made Matteo retch! Not to mention the strange, violet eyes of the fortune teller, threatening him with calamity and death!

Pietro barked at the driver, still sitting atop the carriage, frozen in horror, “Get down here, man! Help me!”

I’m okay

Matteo, coming back to his senses as the pouring rain pounded against his face, managed, “I’m alright…I’m okay. Just give me a minute.”

“Tell me what’s wrong, Sire, where does it hurt?”

Clutching his servant’s arm he said, “It’s okay, I am fine…just…”

Pietro, looking at his masters face, said, “I’ll help you up.”

The two men, Pietro on one arm, the carriage driver on the other, lifted the prince, supporting most of his weight, as they helped him back into the carriage. Feeling faint in the head, Matteo slumped into the corner of his seat, holding Pietro’s hand as the carriage sped towards Mafalda’s mansion.

Then that damned dog died next to me, peeing all over me! He thought as his mind suddenly clicked, panic rising again. Staring, eyes wide from fright, heart pounding into his throat, he realized the awful truth of it all, right eye beginning to twitch:

Dolce ate my food! Someone poisoned it – and it was meant for me!

It was nothing, really

Tim sat across from Fiammetta, stone faced as she told him of the dinner. For the last week, she’d agonized on how to present it in just the right way, in the right light, hopefully to minimize his anger.

“It’s nothing really, the old woman just wanted to hold her great-grandson. Matteo didn’t even touch him, he went out to have a drink. The whole affair was over before we knew it, so…” she trailed off as she saw the anger rise in his features. “Please, Tim, don’t be angry with me. I didn’t know what else to do. If I’d refused, it would have only drawn suspicion. Please, my love…say something – anything.”

Tim, daggers in his eyes, simply said, “He’s dead.”

Later, after the big priest left, His Italian lover looked out the window, studying the clouds coming in from the east. Maria, sitting beside her said, “It’s not your fault, Mistress. There’s nothing you can do about it now. It’s out of your hands.”

Fiammetta admitted privately, to herself, that she had wanted Matteo dead, but now she wasn’t so sure. “He’s a fool, but I just wanted him to stay away. Now he’s doomed himself, what else could Tim do? He warned him.”

Maria, settling down to some cross stitching, said, “Best just leave it be, Mistress, it’s better that way.”

In her heart, though, Fiammetta wasn’t okay. She had no illusions about what Tim’s position meant, and she understood the harsh realities of power, but this…this was so close to home. She knew he meant it when he said, “He’s dead,” but something in her heart balked at the idea of killing the prince. “I don’t think it’s right Maria.”

“Ouch!” Maria exclaimed as she looked at her finger, bleeding, then stuck it in her mouth.

Amun no more

(Karnak, Egypt, 1459 BC)

“So, you don’t go to the temple anymore. Do you still believe in Egypt’s gods and goddesses?” Bren asked.

“No, not really,” Hatty said, reclining on a couch as she bit into a slice of melon. “I used to, though. I was brought up believing in all the gods.”

Bren, sitting on a couch adjacent to Hatty, said, “I heard about God from my mother. I think my father believed in his own way, but we never went to church much.”

Hatty rolled over on her tummy, looking at Bren quizzically, asking, “Church?” then, not waiting for a response, she added, “Tell me about your God. Tell me why you believe.”

Suddenly, Brenzel felt exposed, like someone pulled the sheet off her as she lay bare. “Well, I’m not a very good Christian – that’s what we call ourselves you know- but I do believe that there is a creator of everything.”

“Like our Amun,” Hatty said, studying her.

“Well, yes, He is the God of creation, he made everything.” Bren stood and came over and sat at Hatty’s feet as she continued, “Honestly, I don’t know much more than what I have experienced myself, but He talks to me sometimes, in my heart and mind. When there’s a problem or I need to know something, I hear His voice.”

“Like you hear my voice?” Hatty asked, as she turned her head slightly and looked at Bren suspiciously from the sides of her eyes.

“Well, yes, but just inside me. It is like someone else is inside besides me.

That seems too personal

“That seems too personal,” Egypt’s queen commented.

“Well, it’s not, really, it feels entirely right. I feel like He really cares for me, that He loves me.”

Hatty, changing her position to upright, said, “Our gods are made of stone. Cold, lifeless, and remote. I know the priests say the gods inhabit the stone, but that’s just a convenient fable, to convince the people. Religion is a façade, Brenzel, just a tool of state, like taxes, or an army, or festivals. I’ve never heard God talk to me, just at me through some priest telling me what he wants me to do. It’s all rubbish.”

Getting up, she spoke to the room, “And I’ve certainly never felt his love!”

“I’m sorry,” Bren said, “I’ve upset you.”

Turning to Bren, Hatty, said, in tears, “I miss him Brenzel, I miss him so much. There is no comfort in our beliefs, he is just gone, taken from me. He believed like you; He was so sure there was someone up there that cared for all of us. I admired that, I let him be strong in that area for me, because I couldn’t believe myself.” Then, starting to break down, her face contorting, “He was such a good man, he didn’t deserve to die.”

Like a child

Bren stood, moving forward to embrace her as she trembled and sobbed. Bren cried, too, grateful to return the favor when Hatty, or ‘Doc’ as she had known her then, held her most of the night after Sam died. Like a child, Hatshepsut clung to Brenzel as waves of pain and sorrow broke through her small frame, as she said over and over, “I miss you, I miss you. . . .”

Holding Hatty, crying with her, Bren felt the depth of her pain. She hugged her tightly, entering into that dark place with her where she grieved. Then, Bren felt softness, tenderness, slowly wrap around them, as if a shield from the waves of hurt. Hatty began to cry less, too, but still held tightly. Brenzel’s heart quieted, as Hatty dried her eyes with the back of her hands. Head again on Bren’s chest, she said, “I feel. . safe, it’s – its not so bad. Please don’t let go.” Indeed a feeling of protection engulfed both of them now, like the world was outside and they were someplace warm and familiar, like a mothers’ arms.

Hatty sighed, then a little later, sighed again as tension seemed to flow out of her body.

“It will be okay, Hatty, everything’s going to work out in the end.”

Hatty in a small voice, whispered, “I feel it.”

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