May He Reign Forever by Nathaniel Lee
The crown was a glorious thing, all gold and jewels and intricate carvings. The four royal animals featured in the engravings. A crocodile and a bulky river-horse gazed worshipfully up from beneath the spread wings of a grand ibis. The centerpiece, however, and the focus of the other three animals’ attention, was a life-size carving of a grand scorpion, the width of a man’s spread-fingered hand, so richly detailed that it almost seemed to move as the light passed across it. It was truly a magnificent crown, weighing several pounds in all. It slipped unsteadily past the brow of the new king and caught on his protruding ears. He staggered under the unexpected weight.
Beshat, the high priest, turned to the crowd and lifted his hands. “All hail Aremanuphaton the Great, Keeper of the Sun-Gate and Opener of the Doors of Water, Guardian of the Seven Kingdoms and Scion of the Blood of the God-King Zu!”
“May he reign forever.” A murmur of voices chanted the traditional response in almost perfect unison. They were getting a lot of practice at this ceremony lately.
Arem pushed the crown back on his head and grinned his gap-toothed smile. He was ten years old today, and it was the best birthday ever.
It wasn’t quite so much fun the next morning. Arem’s head hurt because Beshat made him actually drink the honey-wine every time there was a toast, and all of the nobles had wanted to make a toast to Arem’s long life and longer reign.
“Awake, O Shining One,” said Harrom, pulling aside the curtains of Arem’s enormous bed. “We have much to do today.” Harrom smiled down at Arem. With his beaky mouth and long, bobbing neck, he looked like nothing so much as a shell-less turtle, a contrast to his master Beshat’s toadlike features.
“Why, your duties, my Lord and Mighty Master.” Harrom fussed around the edges of Arem’s bedclothes; touching the king directly was forbidden, even for a priest. “There is the Song of Greeting the Rising Sun, and then the Opening of the Door and the Cleansing of the River Weeds, and after that we must finish the rituals from yesterday to ensure your soul takes root in the new soil of divinity in which it finds itself.”
Arem rubbed at his slightly bloodshot eyes. “When’s breakfast?”
“Your Worshipfulness, we cannot possibly eat while more vital spiritual matters require attendance. It would be shockingly disgraceful!”
There was a silence as Arem squinted at Harrom in the predawn light. Harrom endeavored to appear cheerful and earnest. “Fine,” said Arem. “Get me my crown.”
Harrom obediently went to the small stand on which the sacred relic rested while its divine bearer slept away the dark of the sun. He lifted it cautiously; the carvings had far too many points and sharp edges for his taste.
“After this is breakfast, right?” asked Arem, as Harrom settled the crown on his head.
“Well, these and the Dance of Gracious Request so the ibis will carry your wishes for the spring flood to the Mud-Walkers at the Doors of Water. We must make the request every morning for the next thirty days to ensure the Mud-Walkers hear.”
“More like lunch, O Glorious Beacon.”
The day passed in an endless series of dances, songs, chants, and rituals. As the king, Arem was responsible for everything from the weather to the mood of the gods, and Harrom and Beshat promised terrible consequences if Arem failed to complete everything with the utmost precision. Arem was yawning by the time the slaves began brushing his fine cotton robes for another feast. His scorpion crown rested on its stand nearby.
“I’m not hungry,” he told them. “Put it away.”
“But you must attend, Your Incandescence,” said Beshat. “All of the nobles of the kingdom will be there awaiting you, wishing to bask in your presence.”
“Are these the same people who were there yesterday?”
“Of course, Lord.”
“Then they saw me already.”
“But what of the feast?” cried Harrom. “Your Incomparableness,” he added quickly.
“Give it to someone who’s hungry,” said Arem. He yawned again. “Those guys from yesterday are fat. They don’t need food. Go find some people in the city and give it to them instead.”
“O Branch of Divinity,” Beshat began, but Arem cut him off.
“I’m going to bed,” Arem announced. He hopped from his stool and trotted into his private chambers.
Harrom and Beshat shared a glance and ushered the servants out. “I’m sure he’s just overwhelmed,” said Beshat, his bulging eyes watering. “He’ll be better tomorrow.”
“Maybe we should cut back on the rituals?” Harrom suggested.
“No, no. We have to keep him busy. I’m sure he’ll adjust quickly.”
“His father didn’t.”
Beshat looked down what nose he had. “Surely you’re not suggesting the King of Kings was not fathered by the gods themselves?”
“No, sir,” Harrom said, swallowing heavily.
“So long as that’s clear. Your job is to keep the little brat all tuckered out and away from anything important. The previous king, may-he-reign-forever, managed to do considerable damage to our finances before he was so unkindly taken from us. I’d hate to have to go through that trauma again. Am I understood?”
“As clear as the waters of the land of reeds, sir.”
Palm fronds waved and incense smoked as Arem shifted uncomfortably in his stone seat. When the last of the acolytes had carried their golden platters of sacrificial foods past Arem for him to sanctify with three shakes of the Sacred Rod, Harrom sidled up to the throne. “We’re ahead of schedule, O Blissful Radiance, so we’ll have time for a refreshing drink before your walk through the menagerie to bless the animals with health and fruitfulness.”
Arem pouted. “Why?”
“Without the blessings of the gods, all creatures would wither and perish, O Benevolent One,” said Harrom.
“The gods can bless the animals then,” said Arem. He scooted forward and dropped to the floor. “I want to go outside.”
“But you cannot, my Lord!”
Arem halted in mid-step. Harrom froze.
“No,” said Arem. “No, I don’t think that’s how it works. I think you have to do what I say. I’m the king, right?”
“Of course, O Ruler of All.”
“And you, are you the king?”
“Then we’re going outside,” Arem said, smiling a tight smile that was not much like his wide grin of only a few days before.
“…and what’s that?” Arem pointed to a plume of smoke.
“The smelting works, O Bastion of Knowledge.”
“Why is the road so bumpy?”
“It has not been repaired, O Keen-Eyed One. The municipal funds have not stretched to road repair for many months.”
“That’s stupid. What’s that?”
Harrom peered ahead, his eyes weak in the bright light. “That is your grand tomb, O Ever-Living King. You will rule there in eternity, amid gold and jewels and all the finery in the land. They began work the day you were born.”
“I want to see it.”
Harrom gestured to the driver, and the chariot turned onto another street, hardly less uneven and potholed than the first. They came to the large pit, where walls were just beginning to climb above the ground. Already the pattern of tunnels was apparent, and dizzying in its complexity. Workers hauled enormous rocks into position. Nearby, more men worked to carve the blocks to the correct shape, while others shaped stones into more delicate carvings, statues representing guardians, servants, and valuables for placement in the tomb, where they would serve Arem in the afterlife.
Arem hopped out of the chariot before it fully stopped, leaving Harrom to scramble after him. The boy’s coppery skin was pale in comparison to the sun-scorched shoulders and backs of all the men around him. Silence spread across the work area as more and more men recognized the chariot and realized who was among them. A slow wave of kneeling and prostrating spread out from Arem like ripples in a puddle.
“What happened to your hand?” Arem asked, pausing in front of a large-shouldered brute. The man wore a belt of sacred crocodile skin, marking him as a foreman or other leader. His right hand was a fist shaped of solid steel. Even as Harrom puffed up behind Arem, the worker brought his arm up and down sharply on a chisel held against the rock, his metal fist serving as an admirable hammer. Beside him, the bench held a carved chariot, a pair of lions, and a peacock with flared feathers.
The worker put down his chisel and turned to regard the diminutive king. Recognition sparked in his eyes, but he did not kneel. “My hand was cut off.”
“I touched the king’s chariot when it passed.”
“Oh. Well, it wasn’t me. I’ve only been king for a few days.”
The man hesitated. Harrom took the opportunity to interject. “Why are you not bowing down, dog? Prostrate yourself before the unveiled glory of the Ever-Rising Sun!”
“What? Don’t be silly, Harrom,” Arem said. He turned back to the worker. “Did you make all of these? What’s your name?”
“My name is Ket, and yes, I made these. I cannot lift and carry, and so I am left to the carving.” Ket shrugged. “It is less grueling, but requires greater skill.”
“These are great!” Arem said, poring over the carvings. “I like him, Harrom. I want him to come back with us. Do you want a job at the palace, Ket?”
Ket glanced at Harrom, who shook his head firmly in the negative. Ket smiled. “I would be honored, my king.”
“Great! So what’s all this for, anyway?”
“It is for your glory in the afterlife, O Son of Heaven,” Harrom said, glaring at Ket. “This tomb will be a palace in your honor, and you will rule here eternally.”
“Oh. That’s stupid. I’m not going to die for ages. What do I need a tomb for while I’m still alive? Hold on; I’ll fix it. Ket, help me up.” Arem pointed to the workbench. Ket held out his steel hand and shrugged at Harrom, who was sputtering incoherently. Arem grasped the false limb and scrambled onto the table.
“Attention!” called Arem, cupping his hands around his mouth. “Attention, everybody!” He hardly needed to bother; the work site was almost completely still, with all eyes on the king. “I don’t want a tomb anymore. You’re all going to work on roads because I’m not dead yet. And because the roads are really bad. Everyone stop building this right now and go make better roads instead.” Arem looked for the official royal slave drivers. “You guys!” he pointed. “Do you know how to make roads?” The uniformed men paled and shook their heads. “Oh. Well, who does?” A handful of slaves put up their hands, trembling with fear. “Okay, great! You’re in charge now. Get to work, everyone.” There was a long, frozen moment as slaves and slave drivers stared at one another.
Ket restrained a smile as Arem crouched and reached a cautious sandal for the ground. “You are a practical man, my king.” Around them, the hubbub was rising.
“The road made my butt hurt. I’d rather have that fixed than some stupid tomb.” Arem squinted up at Ket. “You’re still coming with me to the palace, right? I’ll make you a Royal Artificer or something. You’re too good to be working on roads.”
“I will gladly come, my king, but if I may ask one boon?”
“Certainly,” Arem waved a negligent hand.
“My people have worked long on your tomb. How can I leave them to labor in the hot sun without food or drink, and without pay?”
“What, they don’t get paid?” Arem thought about this. “Oh. I guess they are slaves. Well, I can probably fix part of that. Harrom?”
“Yes, O Munificent One?” Harrom sounded as though he were trying to swallow a river-frog.
“Take all the money that we were going to use to build this stupid tomb thing and use it to make sure the workers get enough food and water and any extra goes to their families and stuff. That’s an order. Understand?”
“With blinding clarity, O Bearer of the Sevenfold Blessing.”
“Someone needs to make sure things go smoothly. You’d better get this place organized, Harrom,” said Arem, finally seeming to notice the rising tide of chaos around them. “I want them working on the roads by tomorrow morning, at least. Come on, Ket. We need to find you a room and a new uniform.”
Harrom watched the chariot depart. Despite the heat of the day, he felt quite cold.
“But Beshat, what was I to do? The king, may he reign forever, gave very explicit instructions!”
“The king, may-he-reign-forever, is a child, Harrom.” Beshat’s jowls wobbled as he shook his head in dismay. “He’s cost us uncounted amounts gold and several tons of building material, and all because you let him run his mouth in public. If it were just the one slave that knew, we’d just have him killed, but now… we can’t be seen as countermanding the orders of the king, so his ridiculous commands will have to be obeyed. In the future, Harrom, you will distract him at all costs. Try diversions if duty isn’t working. A ride on the river, or a game of some kind.” He waved a vague hand in the air. “If you can’t manage to keep a ten-year-old out of trouble, well, the sacred crocodiles are always hungry.”
Beshat pointed to the riverbank, where the long, dark shapes lurked, somnolent and slow moving in the chill of the night. Harrom swore he saw one of the cold, reptilian eyes wink at him, like a flash of gold in candlelight.
Ket was installed by Arem’s side the next day, clad in a loose robe of light cotton, closed with his crocodile-skin belt. His fist was freshly polished, and it gleamed in the sunlight that filled the chamber. Somehow, that gleam held Harrom’s attention more solidly than the troupe of nubile dancers who bowed and swayed in what should have been a most distracting manner. Arem, true to form, appeared bored by the proceedings, pushing at his crown every time it threatened to slide from his head.
A sudden sound from outside distracted the boy, and he hopped from the throne and padded across the floor, narrowly avoiding the flying limbs of the dancers. The music stuttered, but the performance carried on gamely.
“A procession!” Arem called from the window. “Who are those people?”
Harrom cleared his throat. “The dance is not yet finished, O Cup of the Waters of Life.”
Ket walked over to stand beside Arem. “Those are the Hideros, my king. They are a barbarian tribe from a neighboring land. My people once traded with them, before we became a part of the kingdom.”
“I like their hair,” said Arem. “Why doesn’t anyone here have long hair like that?”
“Only women and cowards wear their hair long,” Harrom said, his lip curling unconsciously. “We bare our scalps to the sun, from whom all life and power flows, and we are enriched thereby.”
“Oh,” said Arem. “Why are they here?”
“Does it matter, O Patron of Sweetness?” Harrom’s voice took on a wheedling tone. “How does a fishing expedition down the river sound? I’m sure there will be cool breezes by the water.”
“They are likely here to discuss the war,” said Ket.
“We’re at war?” Arem’s eyes sparkled. “Why didn’t anyone tell me? I want to talk to them.”
“O Bud of the Tree of Life, it is hardly my humble place to object, but-“
“You’re right,” said Arem. “It isn’t. Come on, let’s go!”
The music master cast a desperate look at Harrom as the king dashed out of the room, one hand steadying his heavy gold crown while the other kept his skirt off the floor. Ket paced ponderously behind, massive arms swinging. Harrom made a brief spinning motion with his hands. Keep going, he mouthed, I’ll be right back.
“…and you come before us now, with your laughable demands? Ha!” Beshat slapped his copious belly, sending visible waves across it. “You should count yourself lucky I do not have your heathen heads hung from the gates of the palace as trophies! Take your stinking bodies and go back to your mountains, before the king arrives to dispatch you himself!”
“The king’s already here. What’s ‘dispatch’ mean?” asked Arem. Ket held the door open for him as he padded inside. “Hello!” he called to the Hideros envoy. “I like your hair.”
“Lord!” Beshat coughed. “What are you doing here? I had thought you were occupied. I was just getting rid of some troublesome-”
“A child?” said the Hideros envoy, a man nearly as tall as Ket, clad in the tanned fur of some immense predator. Its claws adorned his neck. “What nonsense is this? Where is the real king?”
“This can all be explai-” Beshat began.
“I am the real king,” said Arem, cutting him off. “What’ve you been telling these people?”
“He’s throwing us out, is what he’s been doing,” snarled the envoy, “and with only the authority of a boy not old enough to shave!”
“My Lord, this is just some dull matter of state, hardly worth your time, and-”
“Wait, wait, wait!” Arem said, holding up his arms. “It’s too noisy in here with everyone talking. Beshat, go outside and wait. I want to talk to the Hideraris.”
“Hideros,” Ket supplied.
“Yeah. These guys. Just me and the leader. Everyone else out.”
Harrom burst in, wheezing. “O Child of Golden Light, please come-”
The freshly-minted Royal Artificer stepped to the side of the doorway and gestured with his good hand. “The king has spoken,” he said quietly.
Beshat and Harrom glanced at each other, then at the Hideros. The Hideros leader watched both priests closely. At last, Beshat folded his hands and bowed, then stalked stiff-legged out of the room. The Hideros leader nodded to his followers, and the half-dozen barbarians followed Beshat outside, trailed by the guards, Harrom, and, lastly, Ket, who stationed himself outside of the door and folded his arms over his barrel chest.
“He can’t keep us out here,” said Beshat.
Ket said nothing.
“We could have you executed,” Beshat told him.
Ket raised an eyebrow.
“I wonder what they’re talking about,” said Harrom.
Beshat rounded on the thinner priest. “You! You were supposed to be keeping him out of trouble! How dare you let him-”
Ket coughed and nodded his head at the Hideros, who were watching this exchange with great interest.
Harrom tugged at his ceremonial pendant of office. “There’s a fine display of artistry and music just along the hallway here and across the way,” he said. “Why don’t we all watch the dancing girls until the king comes back out?”
Beshat had continued to pace and growl throughout the remainder of the performance, and as soon as he could he’d fled back to the hallway to glare daggers at Ket and mumble curses. Harrom babbled apologies to the still-suspicious Hideros. Ket stared at nothing in particular, a small smile turning up the corners of his mouth.
After far too long, the door opened again and Arem padded out. “That was easy,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe what the problem was, Beshat! They just wanted some bit of land up in the mountains. That’s what this fight was all about.”
“The silver mines…” Beshat mumbled.
“Well, that part’s all fixed now. Right, Kiko?” Arem glanced up at the fur-cloaked leader.
“As you say, Your Majesty.”
Beshat looked stricken. Harrom was pale. “You’ll be leaving us, then?” Beshat asked Kiko.
“For now,” the barbarian responded. “The first carts will be coming in the spring.”
“Turns out,” Arem piped up, “they’ve got trading connections all over but they can’t get to them ’cause the roads are blocked ’cause of the fighting. So they’ll take the silver out and sell it and bring back all kinds of things, then they pay us for the silver and our roads and stuff.”
“Your king drives a hard bargain,” Kiko said. “By my reckoning, your kingdom will be better off than it was under even the old pacts, before you broke them. But to end the fighting, it is a price we will pay.”
“We have to make sure this kind of thing doesn’t happen again,” said Arem. “Do you know how much money we were losing this whole time? Even more than we were spending on that stupid tomb I wasn’t using! That’s why some of the Hideros are going to come live here.”
“Here?” squeaked Harrom.
“And we’ll send someone to live with them. I thought this up all by myself. If people talk more, we can keep it so we don’t end up fighting again in a few years.”
“You want… an embassy for the Hideros…” Beshat said.
Kiko grinned, displaying crooked teeth. “You may find we are more civilized than you give us credit for.” He turned and bowed deeply to Arem. “It is a pleasure to speak with you, King Aremanuphaton. Truly, you are a new dawn for your people.”
“You too, Kiko! This is gonna be great.” Arem handed a damp length of papyrus to Harrom. “Here. Make sure I spelled everything right. Now I’m going outside.” He headed for the door, Ket trailing stolidly behind.
An oil lamp burned softly in the window, the flame trailing now this way, now that as Beshat paced furiously. “This has to stop! He’s going to destroy the kingdom, everything we’ve worked so hard to build!”
“Actually, the trade agreement is not bad at all,” said Harrom. “It really is at least as good as we used to get in tribute, maybe better. How he talked that stone-headed barbarian into signing, I wish I knew…”
“Irrelevant!” Beshat barked. “Maybe Kiko is as bad at mathematics as he is at hygiene, or maybe it’s all some sort of cunning plan of attack, or maybe the child simply got lucky. We can’t have him charging around like a rutting rhinoceros, demolishing everything he touches. He must go.”
“We can’t crown another king so soon!” Harrom said. “We’re running out of royal family members…”
Something rustled at the window, and Harrom glimpsed a black-feathered head and white wings. One of the ibises from the Sacred Garden was roosting on the ledge. Beshat ignored it, resuming his pacing.
“Then we will concoct a new plan. Maybe it’s time we took the reins ourselves. The temples have run everything for the past two dynasties, anyway.”
Harrom gasped. “That is treason, Lord Beshat. And blasphemy.”
“To the uttermost reaches of the Desert of Souls with your ‘blasphemy’!” Beshat said. “The child is dangerous. He is a thorn in our paw, and you will pluck him out. Tomorrow!”
Harrom turned away from Beshat, not wanting to show fear or hesitance in the face of the fat priest’s anger. The window was empty. “Where did it go?” he asked involuntarily.
“Where did what go?”
“The sacred ibis. There was one outside the window a moment ago.”
Beshat snorted. “As if it weren’t bad enough that we spend all day at the temple ankle-deep in birdshit, now they’re following me to my quarters? If the gods exist, they’re doing all they can to test the limits of my patience.”
Harrom said nothing about Beshat’s further blasphemies, and he let his master ramble on about the daily horrors visited upon him by an uncaring world. Harrom’s attention was caught by a single white feather that remained on the windowsill as if in silent recrimination. No, not white; it glinted golden in the lamplight. Harrom moved to pick it up and examine it, but with a gust of cold night air, it was gone.
Arem was oddly pliant the next morning. He ate his morning meal without complaint, answered Harrom’s monosyllabic offerings with voluble chatter, and even inquired with apparent earnestness what new duties they had to fulfill that day. Harrom had been up most of the night mulling over the task Beshat had set him to. Even if he were inclined toward regicide, which he would have insisted he emphatically was not, he had no experience to draw upon, no idea how such a thing might even be accomplished. Beshat had been no help, full of dark hints and muttered imprecations but little in the way of practical advice. “You have been junior too long,” Beshat had told him. “It’s time you took some real responsibility for the well-being of the kingdom.” Harrom had decided at last to simply put himself in likely places and wait for opportunity and inspiration to strike simultaneously.
“I was thinking we might go for a ride down the river later,” said Arem. “You were so interested in that yesterday.”
The river! Crocodiles, sunstroke, drowning; a veritable cornucopia of possible hazards presented themselves. “That, O Many-Winged Son of Morning,” said Harrom from beneath dark-ringed eyes, “sounds like a wonderful idea.”
It was cooler down by the water, though only in relative terms. The coppery disc of the sun still kept the air hot enough to bake bricks. In the shade of a pavilion on the slow-moving barge, Harrom battered his sleep-deprived brain for topics of conversation. Arem did most of the talking.
“So this is the part you can’t swim in, right? Why is that?”
“The waters are deep here, Vessel of Righteousness, and the current is slow.”
“Isn’t that good for swimming?”
“And also for crocodiles,” said Ket, moving for the first time since they’d boarded the boat to point at several outwardly unremarkable bumps and sticks near the riverbank. Ket had foregone the shade, but he wasn’t even sweating.
Arem snorted. “They wouldn’t bother me. I’m the king. They’re my sacred animals. Them and the river-horses.” He pointed to his elaborate crown, which shone like a second sun.
“I know that and you know that,” said Ket, “but who has told the crocodiles? Best to stay in the boat for now.”
“Boring!” Arem crossed his arms in a sulk. “Harrom, make something interesting happen.”
“Perhaps we might induce the crocodiles to feed,” Harrom said carefully, “by giving them scraps. They are quite terrifying when they are roused.”
“Terrifying is good,” said Arem. He ran to the edge of the raised dais and peered out into the murky water. “So throw some food in already.”
Harrom gestured to one of the servants who watched over their picnic repast, meant for the end of their journey, and gathered up some of the dried fish from the proffered platter. “We will try to attract their attention,” he said, moving up behind Arem as casually as he could.
The first few throws gained nothing but some ripples on the surface, but then Harrom landed a fishy missile squarely atop one of the submerged reptiles. There was a snap and a splash of water that made Arem squeal happily, and then several more quiet sounds as dark shapes slipped into the water from every direction. Ripples converged on the royal barge.
“They’re all coming!” Arem cried. “Throw some more! Throw some more!”
Harrom summoned the servant for another few handfuls of fish. He watched the man approach with bated breath. Timing would be everything for this. A sudden clumsiness, a brief nudge, and both king and servant would fall into the agitated water and what could Harrom have done? The gods were cruel to take away one so young and full of promise, were they not? In a few more moments… two steps… one step…
Something slammed into the side of the barge with tremendous force, rocking the whole edifice. Harrom, one foot lifted, prepared to trip the platter-bearing servant, was thrown off balance. His arms windmilled as he staggered backwards, spun, and stumbled. Time seemed to slow, and he saw a dozen scaly backs swirling in the waters below him, a dozen sets of beady eyes watching him greedily. And off to the side, where the terrible sound had come from, a flash of yellow, reflected sunlight from the back of an enormous river-horse, a god among beasts. It looked to Harrom’s desperate senses to be made entirely of gold…
A strong arm caught the back of Harrom’s loose robe, and he heard the thin cloth tear. His arms flailed for purchase, his hands closing around a cold metal sphere that hauled him back up onto the boat. Harrom looked down at the steel fist in his hands, then up at the unsmiling face of Ket.
“That was a close one,” said Arem from one side. “You almost fell in.”
“Yes,” said Ket. And now he did smile, a slow and dangerous grin. “We must all be more careful when we taunt the sacred crocodiles.” His good hand strayed to his crocodile-skin belt and hitched it up. “They are hungry, and they do not care if a man is a slave or a priest.”
Harrom’s mouth worked, but no sound came out. All of his limbs suddenly felt made of water, and he collapsed to the still-rocking deck of the boat, his vision narrowing to a black tunnel. The last thing he heard was Arem’s piping voice: “You spilled all the rest of the fish in, Harrom. Now what can we feed the crocodiles?”
It was dark, and Beshat moved through the palace with a grace that belied his bulk. That worthless idiot Harrom had failed to do more than give himself heatstroke. He was even now lying in his quarters near the temple, babbling about golden animals and pursuing crocodiles. And the look that unspeakable man Ket had given him! If Beshat hadn’t known better, he would have sworn the horrible miscreant was laughing at him, winking about some private game they were playing between them. As if Beshat would lower himself to that. As if Ket could even keep up with him!
No, there comes a time, as there always seemed to these days, when a man had to take matters into his own hands. Beshat had removed the last king, Arem’s drunkard father, after one too many drug-addled prostitutes had come to the temple for hush money with claims of a bastard in her belly. The gods only knew how he’d ever managed to father Arem, with his queen constantly sequestered in her tower and him spreading his seed to the four winds. She’d been a cold one, anyway, spending all her time in private worship of the gods. Beshat had assisted in the previous king’s removal, too, the crazed old man grown too erratic to keep on the throne any longer. Beshat had been left to stand watch while the older priests carried out their work, but he’d learned the secret ways of the royal suite, just in case. Today that knowledge served him well; he slipped from the hidden passageway into the antechamber of Arem’s bedroom with barely a whisper of cotton against stone, and the guards outside the suite none the wiser, for all their torches and patrols.
Beshat took a moment in the relative brightness of the antechamber to ready his weapon: a slender tube the length of his arm and a small dart made of a scorpion’s sting and a bit of thread wound into a ball. It was a cunning device, silent and – for a clever man – virtually undetectable afterward. The stinger was a common enough sight, leaving unremarkable wounds, and the thread unraveled easily afterward.
The soft sounds of a child’s snoring emanated from the next room, and Beshat lifted the blowgun to his lips and crept forward on soundless feet. He should kill Harrom, too, lest the blathering fool let the secret slip. That was a task for another day, alas; best to focus on the pleasures of the present. Arem had been nothing but an annoyance since the day he was born, a sullen and cold-eyed child. At least he’d lost the distressing yellow hair and eyes he’d had as a baby, likely an artifact of his foreign mother’s weak blood. Now he was unremarkable in appearance, and his attitude too much of an obstacle.
The light from the hallway was fainter here, barely enough to let him make out the bed and the dark form within. Glints of gold and jewels caught Beshat’s eye as he moved in, unwilling to risk a failed shot. All the treasures of the seven kingdoms, and the boy had thrown it all away with his pointless recalcitrance. Beshat wondered what it would be like to wear that massive golden crown, even just for a day. That thought sparked a realization that something was wrong, but Beshat was another two steps into the bedroom before he realized what it was. He backtracked quickly and peered into the gloom.
The golden scorpion was missing from the top of the crown. Only flat, bare metal showed above the ibis’ spread wings. It reflected the light quite cleanly.
Beshat felt sweat spring out on his forehead. Harrom had whispered about the golden animals he’d spotted everywhere, convinced that an ibis had warned Ket of the treachery and sent a river-horse to jostle the boat and ruin his plan. Had the madman been right? Beshat cast his eyes about the darkened room. A golden scorpion would stand out, even in the dimness, would it not? The light reflecting from all the points and angles of its body, that razor-sharp tail raised and quivering… Beshat heard a rustle from his left and whirled about to face it. There! Motion! He staggered backward, away from the threat. By the time he realized it was only a polished copper mirror, it was too late. He felt the prickly sting on his ankle, felt his linen skirt catch on something spiky and metallic, and as he fell, he gasped in shock… and inhaled.
“Of course,” he wheezed, feeling the sting and spreading numbness of his own dart on his tongue. “You… win… this time…” he managed to spit at whatever gods might be listening.
And then there was silence.
“…and I’m feeling much better, O Golden One, which is why- merciful gods!” Harrom stopped short on the threshold upon seeing Beshat’s unmoving bulk. “He’s dead!”
Arem yawned and sat up in the bed. He peered out through the diaphanous veils. “Oh, that. It’s only Beshat.”
“But… but… but… he’s dead!” Harrom couldn’t keep his eyes off of Beshat’s corpse as Arem swung his legs out and gestured pointedly at the toiletry kit.
“Of course he’s dead,” said Arem. “He kept getting in the way. It was bound to happen sooner or later. Are you going to help me get dressed or not?”
Harrom backed away slowly, but stopped when he ran into a large, warm bulk behind him. He glanced up. Ket grinned down at him.
“Ket!” called Arem. “Go get some people to take away Beshat before he starts to smell bad. Or worse than he already does, anyway.”
“As you wish, my king,” Ket rumbled. He raised his right hand to acknowledge Arem’s instructions, and the polished steel gleamed in the morning sun.
“And tell Harrom to either come help me get ready or find some servants who can do it without getting all their hands chopped off afterward.” Arem appeared in the doorway, his crown under his arm. It, too, shone in the sunlight, golden and sparkling.
Harrom was frozen, trapped between the two of them. He glanced from one to the other and saw the same savage, joyful grin on both faces.
“We’ve got a lot to do,” Arem told him. “We’re only just beginning.”