The Pharaoh’s Official
by R D Larson
part 1 of 2
It is the tomb makers, the draftsmen, the craftsmen and the sculptors who built my tomb. I gave them beer and bread. I made them to take an oath that they were satisfied. – These are words from Kay, the priest of Khufu written at the entrance of his tomb.
Friends had whispered their fears about her husband. Was it the truth or only rumor? Hept-ra squeezed her hands together. What could she do? Mket was her husband; she had to save him. If the rumors were true, then Akhet would destroy her husband if he could. Would the old Vizier, grandson of the Pharaoh, listen to his complaints about the Recording Scribe?
Slowly, she went up the stairs to the sleeping porch on top of the mud brick house. Her husband stood gazing off over other houses of the workers. The Great Pyramid stood above them all. She could tell Mket had not slept on his bed pallet.
“Please try not to despair, my husband,” Hept-ra said, walking to Mket to stand behind him, her arms encircling his waist. “There is no reason for the Vizier to listen to the complaints of Akhet, the new official, when he knows that you have been the best scribe to write the history of the Pyramid of Khufu. There is no need to replace you. The Vizier is old but honest. Truly, he will not listen to Akhet’s vile lies about you.”
He turned to look at her, his dark eyes softened and his smile gave her warmth to equal the Sun God. He looked at her face, loving her intelligence and her natural beauty.
“I hope that it is so, perhaps it is. If only this new official of the Vizier were like old Hemiunu, he would understand that writing the history of Khufu’s temple has been my life for nearly twenty years. It’s very important for future generations. This new man can’t really believe I would misrepresent the Pharaoh in my reports.” Mket said to her. The brilliant sunlight became even stronger highlighting even the corners of the sleeping roof.
“The Vizier knows your fine work. Hemiunu thinks well of you, even though he has never met you.”
“For five years you have been his favorite singer serving him in the all musical duties – have you no influence on that old man? Is he going to ruin my career just because of this unusual alliance with the new man, Akhet?”
Mket pulled her to him until her head with its wig of braids momentarily rested against his chest. “I don’t understand Hemiunu’s unlikely support of Akhet. I don’t believe the Vizier would remove you even if the new official asks it. He wants justice for all the people,” she whispered.*
“My beloved Hept-ra; I bless the day we married, and the nights we’ve shared.” He kissed her tenderly, his hand on the small of her back. Hept-ra kissed him back, feeling such a closeness she nearly wept.
“The Pyramid is nearing completion, maybe two or three years at most. We will know today what the new official decides and if the Vizier allows it. If I am replaced, then I must have failed in my duties. I could not stand the dishonor.” He paused, his slender fingers tugging his pointed beard. Mket said flatly, “I would rather die.”
“Don’t say that. Please, the grandson of Khufu is a kind man. As Vizier he has seen that justice is well served and the workers are fairly treated. He wants the best for the people, just as the Pharaoh does.” Hept-ra said, trembling. “Mket, I’m convinced it will be in your favor. Hemiunu knows you are honest and would not write falsely of the Pharaoh’s statues.”
“I know you have told him so many times, but the way of the gods is unknown. I must go, and I will see you tonight. It is worthless to worry about the future.”
Mket let her go reluctantly and prepared to leave. “Sadly, I must go, too. I must practice my new songs with the temple sisters, as we are preparing for Feast of the Flood. Just as though it were an ordinary day."*
“Oh, Mket, perhaps the Vizier’s benevolence will be mine for the asking. Hemiunu does care for me. Recording the construction of the Temple of Khufu has been your life’s work. You have done nothing wrong, only mark the facts.”
‘I will make this Akhet pay for this’, she whispered as she watched her husband walk down the wide street toward the building site. She knew the Vizier could be cruel to those who angered him and weak in face of threats. What did Akhet have that the Vizier wanted? If only her husband would ask for an audience with Hemiunu. What to do, what to do? Tearing at her mind, the thought of Mket’s possible death gave her sudden and unexplainable ideas. It was unfair. Who was this new official sent here and making such changes? How could anyone even believe Mket did not write the correct amount of statues being carved for Khufu?
She gathered her offerings, the honey-dipped figs and two loaves of nutmeats into a basket. The thought of the tall Vizier surrounded by supplicating attendants and bare-breasted young women pleased her. She knew her singing would transfix him as always. If the Vizier could be coaxed to repel the avaricious Akhet, her husband would be safe. She would do anything to save Mket.
As she looked at the nutmeats, she had a reckless thought. Even a day of time would help Mket. Unwrapping the nutmeats, she broke one apart and sprinkled a dark powder into the nuts. Stirring gently in an alabaster bowl, she added more honey. She sniffed it; a warm and healthy aroma filled her nostrils. Seeing that her servant had gone into another room, Hept-ra tasted it. A slight bitterness stung her tongue. She smiled inwardly. She rolled the altered nutmeats in a stripped linen cloth.
Gathering her robes and basket, she called out that she would be at the temple until evening. Hurriedly, she followed the same path her husband had just taken. Looking down, she could see his sandal print in the dust of the street: his – his alone – not lost to her among the many other prints.
The Vizier himself was in residence, reading a dissertation from a long-dead scribe. A stranger, the new official, she thought, sat nearby. Hept-ra had heard about him from the Vizier’s young daughter. The man stood short of stature, yet sinewy with sharp features and forceful black eyes. His goatee seemed sparse when she glanced at it. Since they had not yet met, the man was introduced to her as Akhet. He’d been sent from Memphis and educated in the placement of men and women for the greater wealth of the Pharaoh and the people.
The Vizier said, “Akhet, you will hear Hept-ra sing at Feast of Flood. Her voice is melodious and inspiring.”
The new official nodded to her, arrogant and surly. “I have heard of you, Hept-ra. All were fond words. It’s a shame that a pretty girl like you has married so young. Why, you could enjoy many other pleasures if you were not so encumbered.”
Hept-ra lowered her face in anger at his disgusting words.
“I have only just met you, Hept-ra, but I can tell that you would be a challenge for a man’s desire,” he said, his eyes looking along her body. The Vizier began to cough and breathe hard. Hept-ra ran to his side to pat his back. When the Vizier recovered well enough to speak, he turned to Akhet.
“I request that you see how the phyla of workers known as Khufu’s Joy are faring in their stonework. At last count there were only eighteen; at least twenty are needed,” said the Vizier in his authoritarian voice, folding his elegant arms in front of his chest.
Akhet smiled as if he knew a secret and went through the door. The Vizier, his hand patting her shoulder, welcomed Hept-ra again, just like one of his daughters. She tried to maintain her quiet composure, asking after the old Vizier’s health, his wife and his children.
“They are worthless, everyone of them. Bah! Spending their days in idle conversation and bathing. What are they giving to the gods? Nothing. I will die without a true heir for none are worthy. My wife? She grows fat with lassitude and wine.” The Vizier leaned back in his carved chair. He smiled at her, saying, “Hept-ra, you are like a bird bursting forth in song and a smile, is it no wonder you are the Songbird at the Temple? Did you sleep well, my little lark?”
“No, your Highness, I slept fitfully, dreaming of my husband. I had a vision of him being banned from his position – as Chief Recording Scribe in the great construction of the Pyramid.”
“Yes, yes. Go on, what happened then?”
“I saw him thrown into the river. The crocodiles came and devoured him.” She shuddered. “It awoke me and I spent hours in worry.”
“I see. My dear, whatever happens it is the will of the Gods.” The Vizier sent her a deliberate look, a sorrow in his eyes. “Did you drink beer? That often helps.”
“Yes, and I fell in to a half-sleep. I can’t speak about the rest,” she said, lowering her head. His eyes looked away from her, yet somehow she knew that he felt weakened in the face her sorrow and in the face of time.
“These are your nutmeats and this other is for Akhet, the new official that I have now met. May I take them to his office for him to eat when he returns?”
“Yes, then go. Remember, little one, you will always have your voice.” The older man his eyes hidden by heavy lids again bent to the scroll. He ignored her as she laid the figs and nutmeats on a bronze plate.
Hept-ra walked down the corridor to a room at the back. Someone had pulled aside the reed shade that closed the room to outsiders. Hept-ra stepped in and glancing around, saw a table and a chair. She laid the wrapped nutmeats near the end of the table.
She felt so guilty. What if her husband wasn’t going to be killed or banned? Certainly, as evil as Akhet was, she didn’t want to harm him if Mket was not in danger. Pausing, she prayed a silent prayer.
Then she noticed a tablet with hieroglyphics on the table. Although she couldn’t make out the all signs, she saw a man with papyrus standing in line, named Chandre as the scribe. Not Mket. Her heart thudded desperately into her throat. Chandre! The Vizier’s oldest son! Why him? Chandre was a poet and a dancer.
Eat it, die and join the dead quickly, Hept-ra thought. She went into the gardens adjoining the temple.
As she spoke with the other women who lived in residence about the upcoming Feast of the Flood, a part of her listened for a sound from Ahekt’s chamber. The young women discussed their costumes and headdresses for the feast. The event would be exciting. Only if Mket was safe, murmured Hept-ra. Re the sun god drew his chariot across the pale sky and the day grew late. The chanting from the workers along the ramp to the pyramid slowed and finally ended. As the smells of food became tantalizing, Hept-ra could only come to the conclusion that Akhet had not eaten any of the poisoned nutmeats.
Bidding her temple sisters goodnight, Hept-ra began her journey from the garden through the temple’s many halls to the street. As Hept-ra gazed up at the brilliant stars that filled the sky, she caught her breath. She wanted to be in Mket’s arms, to comfort him, and perhaps to console him, if indeed the new official had taken his position from him. She would join him in his exile, she swore to herself, knowing she would chose death rather than be parted from Mket.
She paused to speak to a young woman near the entrance. The Vizier’s youngest daughter was always a fountain of gossip.
“Greetings, my little sister. Has your day been worthwhile?” Hept-ra said, smiling at the fashionable gown and elaborate hair dressing.
“No, it’s been awful. That new bureaucrat official has taken my brother away from the household to serve as scribe at the Great Pyramid. Brother Chandre is a poet, in all truth and only met Akhet last year; he says it is to please our father. That’s not the truth.” The girl shook her head, her eyes flashing angrily. “Akhet was known for his greed before he came here. He only wants to leave his mark in every corner of the Dynasty. My father is old and weak and as the Vizier cannot accept the changes that are occurring. Akhet is selfish, I know it, and his manipulations will destroy our father and his children.”
“Please, take some of my special leaves for herbal tea to relax your body and find rest. Some are willow from the edge of the Nile, far to the south of Sarggara. I will speak to your father.” Hept-ra removed a small cloth sack from her basket.
“Oh would you? He loves you, not only as a daughter but also as a wonderful singer and a devotee of the Office of the Vizier. He respects your opinion.”
Hept-ra simply said, “I know.”
She continued through the temple until she reached the street. The blazing sun, the god Re, had slid so near the earth that purple shadows lay between the buildings. Hept-ra hurried along the street.
Suddenly, a voice, quick and fearful, cried out to her from a doorway. “Hept-ra! Hept-ra! Come here, I need your help,” a gasping voice called.
Hept-ra turned toward the doorway, trying to see who was beckoning to her. A figure of a woman became visible and when Hept-ra recognized her dress she rushed to the door
“Behpt, what are you doing here?” Hept-ra grasped the woman’s arm. “Where is Akhet? Why are you hiding in this empty house?”
“Akhet is trying to kill me. He says I poisoned him.” Behpt whispered, her body shaking so hard she could hardly stand but clung to Hept-ra for support. “That man is insane.”
Copyright © 2005 by R D Larson