Philip Brian Hall’s work has appeared in several anthologies, including All Hail Our Robot Conquerors (Zombies Need Brains publishing), Strange Beasties (Third Flatiron publishing) and Pirates & Ghosts (Flame Tree publishing). On-line publications include stories in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores and Gumshoe Review.
by Philip Brian Hall
Rameses is a god. So he says. But as Grand Vizier of Egypt, I, Nebamun, have served so very many gods.
Now I am old and past earthly cares. Anubis waits impatiently at my elbow; within a few days, the embalmers will be pulling out my brains through the nostrils of my corpse. How can Pharaoh do any worse? So I am free. How very strange! At long, long last, I am free to testify as to what really happened at a certain notorious meeting. Rameses was so embarrassed by it, he still denies it ever took place. But it did.
Granted, no one predicted it; not even the priests of Amon-Ra, who claim foreknowledge whenever they plausibly can, and not infrequently when such a claim is quite obviously preposterous.
But no, they hadn’t given us any warning of the sudden arrival of chariots outside the Sinai Gate, far less of who’d turn out to be driving them. For mere Bedouin to drive chariots was unprecedented arrogance; other than Pharaoh, no one this side of the Hittite border was allowed to possess chariots.
Had the charioteers been more than five in number, their arrival might have inspired panic; as it was they simply drew a babbling throng of idle citizens who gathered on the parapet, getting in the way of the guards and looking down upon the strangers with undisguised curiosity. Rameses, who had quelled all domestic opposition, showed little concern. He ordered the chief brought before him.
When the Bedouin leader entered the throne room, I was shocked by his demeanor. Nomads do not carry themselves so—like kings. Yet without even speaking, the ancient, white-bearded one dominated the assembly, looking around him more in the manner of one returning to familiar old haunts than a low-born outsider viewing the breathtaking splendor of the palace for the first time.
The chamber was built to humble mere mortals before the magnificence of Pharaoh. On the plaster walls, colorful, painted tableaux depicted the divine origins of the Egyptian royal house and its special relationship with the pantheon headed by Isis and Osiris. Jackal-headed Anubis ruled the netherworld, falcon-headed Horus the heavens; everything between was the realm of the divine Pharaoh.
I didn’t recognize the old Bedouin who, with astonishing effrontery, walked upright in the presence of Rameses. Accompanying him, a second, rather younger nomad regarded us with a gaze only a little less severe. If the desert-dwellers were aware that protocol expected them to crawl across the floor, they gave no sign of it.
Or perhaps they’d chosen their moment well, for technically Rameses wasn’t yet Pharaoh; his marriage to a princess of the blood royal was still to be sanctified. In consequence, he didn’t occupy the elevated throne but sat in an ornate chair before the dais. When you’re on the same level as ordinary mortals it’s harder to act like a god.
I stood by his right hand, as was proper. “Kneel before the ruler of the world!” I called.
Neither of the nomads so much as inclined their heads. They looked at each other. The elder nodded. The younger then condescended to speak.
“Is it not Egyptian law that a man shall only prostrate himself before a god?”
“It is the law!” exclaimed the High Priest of Amon, who stood to the left of Rameses’ chair. The self-important little man was quivering with anger. “Pharaoh is descended from Amon-Ra. You shall show proper respect!”
“Is Pharaoh here?” inquired the younger Bedouin mildly, looking towards the vacant regal dais.
There was an embarrassed shuffling. I kept my mouth shut. The High Priest could make himself look ridiculous if he liked. It wasn’t hard for him. And he’d made a good start.
The Bedouin smiled. “We were told no man claiming such descent remained alive in Egypt.”
True. And the only reason Rameses could succeed to the throne. None of us could easily object, despite the temerity of the ignorant nomad who spoke. I smiled inwardly, though careful to ensure nothing showed on my face. God-kings take their pretensions very seriously.
The High Priest had carefully explained to us that Rameses would attain divine bliss when he lay with the princess. On such a basis, I expected he’d find himself surrounded by more than a few other gods with similar qualifications. Of course, I said nothing. What my spies report to me is my business and for my benefit only.
“My brother is himself of divine descent,” the younger Bedouin continued, making a deferential gesture towards his companion. “He brings a message to Pharaoh.”
“Ha! From what god could the likes of you claim descent?” the High Priest scoffed.
“In truth, I make no such claim,” said the Bedouin. “I am Aharun, a humble servant of God. My brother, however…”
“Absurd!” the High Priest interrupted testily. And stupidly. “How can your brother be of divine descent if you aren’t?” It didn’t take a genius to work that one out, but the High Priest wasn’t a genius and the words were spoken before his brain had registered their full implications.
He covered his mistake hastily. “Anyway, what’s stopping your brother speaking for himself?”
“Why, the presence of the low-born,” Aharun gestured towards the lesser courtiers, “before whom it would be unlawful for him to disclose a message intended for the ears of Pharaoh.”
Rameses hesitated. He beckoned the High Priest closer. “Can this be so?” he asked. He meant to speak softly but his voice belonged on the parade ground and I was very close.
“It might be so, Great One,” the priest whispered, stooping low to his master’s ear, “if, say, he’d knowledge of religious rites. But that an ancient Bedouin from the desert knows such things is about as likely as his being able to perform cartwheels.”
Looking to Aharun, the High Priest demanded, “Does your brother claim knowledge of holy ritual?”
“My brother will not speak before those not fit to hear,” Aharun repeated with equanimity.
The two Bedouin were old. Even if they concealed weapons beneath their flowing, travel-stained garments, Rameses was more than a match for them on his own, let alone in the midst of his senior courtiers. He snapped his fingers to dismiss the junior ranks, who promptly filed out.
The older Bedouin then stepped forward. Still, he didn’t speak. From within his robes, he produced a brass rod.
Sensing my opportunity, I darted between him and Rameses. I’d no weapon, and to be honest I didn’t really fear attack. My move was for show. It was expected the Vizier should be willing to die for Pharaoh. An empty gesture at such a time as this and I might be excused a slower reaction in the face of a genuine threat.
The Bedouin simply extended his right arm and raised the flat of his hand towards me. He stood immobile, staring into my eyes. Now that everyone saw the rod had no blade or other weapon attached to it, I looked to Rameses for instruction. The Pharaoh-Elect waved me back. I retreated, though for the sake of my act I continued to gaze suspiciously at the old nomad.
Unspeaking, the Bedouin moved to the center of the room. He studied the floor. Then, nodding to himself, he rapped the base of his rod on a red tile, sharply. The tile flipped open like a tiny door, drawing a surprised gasp from one or two courtiers.
“Say now, rulers of the Egyptians,” smiled Aharun, “which of you knew of this secret panel within the floor of your Audience Chamber?”
“Everything is known unto Pharaoh!” the High Priest insisted. I kept my mouth shut.
“And is Pharaoh here?” Aharun repeated.
“What’s the purpose of this little trick?” Rameses now demanded, speaking for the first time. “Am I supposed to be impressed because someone’s told you of a loose tile in my floor?”
His scorn covered embarrassment. I have to admit I was embarrassed too. It was a little thing, but none of us had known of it.
“The Commander will be familiar with recent history?” Aharun inquired, unperturbed by Rameses’ sarcasm and boldly addressing the would-be god by his correct title rather than as Pharaoh. “He will recall, before Egypt was reunited by Pharaoh Ahmose its lower part was ruled by the Hyksos, a Canaanite people? Pharaoh Amenhotep, whom men call The Great, even married a Hyksos woman.”
“This is common knowledge!” Rameses snapped. We all chuckled. It was expected. The god believed himself witty.
“Perhaps it’s also common knowledge what has since become of the Hyksos?”
Of course it was. They were among those blamed for the so-called Disorder following the death of Amenhotep. Afterwards, they’d been reduced to slavery and employed in construction gangs, building public works.
“They’re employed in my service,” Rameses said vaguely.
“Can The Commander say who succeeded Amenhotep as Pharaoh?” asked Aharun quietly.
Everyone knew the answer but Egyptian law had erased the entire Armana period from history as though it had never been. Strangely it was legal to ask such a question but illegal to answer it. Such are the laws of men.
Rameses waved his hand impatiently. “There was The Disorder—an interregnum. Then came the rule of Pharaoh Ay.”
The senior Bedouin, who’d still not spoken, now inserted the brass rod into the space below the floor that had been revealed by the raised tile. I heard a click as it dropped smoothly into a socket that held it perfectly upright.
“I had understood that Amenhotep’s son, a man of Hyksos blood, became Pharaoh,” said Aharun. “In the time you call The Disorder he did away with worship of the pantheon and ordered Egypt to worship a single god.”
“I’m not accustomed to repeat myself…”
The Pharaoh-Elect’s irritation was cut short as the senior Bedouin twisted the brass rod in its new socket. From one step of the dais behind Rameses’ back a plain panel slipped down with a clunk into the step below, revealing a long hieroglyphic inscription carved on the newly-exposed riser.
We all looked from one to another. None of us was anxious to meet the eyes of the Pharaoh-Elect. I carefully schooled my features to show no alarm as Rameses’ glance flickered around and unfortunately alighted on me.
“What does it say?” he demanded.
I moved closer to the dais so as to be able to read what was written on the front of the step. When I saw, I felt the blood drain from my face. Legally speaking, to give the answer was punishable by death. Sadly, to refuse to answer invited the same fate. A quandary indeed.
I needed to throw the responsibility back to him. “Great One, it’s forbidden to speak what’s written here.”
“Fool!” exclaimed Rameses. “Tell me what it says!”
The whole court heard his express command. I was ordered to break the law.
“Great One, forgive me, it says, Aten has called His Son to be Pharaoh. Bow down before Akhenaten, Son of God.”
All of us knew the name. Officially no one could admit it. Like slaves, we dared not speak truths our master didn’t wish to hear.
“Pharaoh Horemheb, now among the gods, forbade that name to be spoken! He ordered all inscriptions bearing it to be removed,” wailed the High Priest.
“Perhaps he didn’t know what was written upon the steps of his own throne?” suggested Aharun politely.
“Everything is known unto Pharaoh!” Though the High Priest repeated the dogma, his trembling voice betrayed belated realization of its patent falsity. Egyptians are accustomed to obey; we tend to lack practice in thinking the unthinkable. The High Priest, of course, lacked practice in thinking at all.
“Is Pharaoh among us?” Aharun said yet again. “Where is he who knows these things?”
“It appears, O man who calls himself Aharun,” snarled Rameses, “your brother knows these things. Is your brother Pharaoh?” He looked angrily at me. I kept silent. I could feel drops of sweat coalescing upon my forehead.
The older Bedouin’s hand moved again inside his robe. I tensed a little, still half-watching for a weapon, but the old man moved only slowly. As he withdrew his hand I saw he held a small golden sculpture. Not until he slotted the precious figurine into the head of the brass rod and stepped back from it did I become aware what I was looking at.
Of course I knew the emblem only by repute, though many old frescoes showed it. The sacred serpent-headed scepter, holy symbol of rightful rule in Egypt, lost since the time called The Disorder, had been returned to the royal palace.
“It would seem so,” Aharun replied softly.
Rameses leaped to his feet. “Who are you? Where did you get this?” he demanded of the old Bedouin.
Aharun smiled icily. “My brother received it long ago. At his coronation. When he inherited the rule of Egypt from his father Amenhotep.”
As Aharun spoke these words, the elder Bedouin cast off his coarse outer cloak, revealing beneath it the ceremonial robes of the notorious, and supposedly dead, Pharaoh.
Several of the high courtiers dropped to their knees and moaned in terror. I struggled to remain upright and immobile, watching fearfully for what Rameses would do.
“Akhenaten!” he hissed.
The elder Bedouin now spoke for the first time. His voice was deep and slow, like the waves of the sea. “I believe it is true that the law now prohibits mention of my name.”
I understood at last why he’d been reluctant to speak sooner. I was old enough to remember the rolling bass tones that had once been called The Voice of Aten. I’d not thought to hear that voice again this side of the grave.
“This is impossible!” Rameses face was ashen. “Are you a ghost? Have you returned from the tomb?”
“Can a man return whence he’s never been?” asked Aharun.
“But his death was reported thirty years ago!” Rameses staggered backward until his legs encountered the chair, into which he collapsed like a man suddenly spent.
At this point, I’d no choice but to intervene. Allowing the High Priest to look a fool was one thing, allowing Rameses to do so was more than my life was worth.
“The Great One speaks true,” I said. “The army mutinied. The rebellion only ended when Queen Nefertiti announced the Pharaoh’s death.”
“Akhenaten’s only son Tutenkhaten…” the High Priest added, quailing as a sudden look of venom flashed from the eyes of Rameses, “… er, that is to say, Tutankhamen, died young, before all the insurrections had been quelled. That was when Ay took it upon himself to restore order.”
“Cousin,” said Akhenaten calmly, addressing Rameses, “I must again remind you and your High Priest of the law. Not only do you both illegally speak my name but you sit in the presence of The Son of God.”
Involuntarily, Rameses sprang to his feet, then looked furtively to each side to see if we’d noticed. I was ready for that glance. My eyes were on the floor. I knew Rameses was no god.
“Ay knew the truth. That I was not dead but in self-imposed exile in Sinai,” Akhenaten went on. “I instructed him to remain silent and assume the rule himself.”
Rameses looked aghast. Of the two central characters in the audience chamber, he was the one more resembling a ghost.
I had to challenge Akhenaten’s words once more. “Supposing we were to accept your wild claim—not that we’ve any intention of doing so—what do you want now?” I looked for the slightest sign of weakness in the old man’s face. I saw none.
The weakness came instead from another quarter. “Have you come to reclaim your throne?” Rameses whispered.
My muscles tensed involuntarily. I couldn’t prevent myself glancing towards the door. If at that moment armed men had flooded into the chamber in support of Akhenaten, I couldn’t easily have decided which side to choose. Yet the moment passed.
The former Pharaoh shook his head sadly. “Cousin, you command an army. Had I wished to reclaim my throne, would I have come unarmed and with so few followers?”
“I wouldn’t, in your position… your alleged position, that is.”
“And look at me. I’m eighty years old. Do you suppose I would’ve waited so long?”
Rameses’ sigh of relief was unfortunately audible. Gods should have more self-control. He began to recover some vestige of color. “So why have you come? What do you want?”
Akhenaten sighed, motioning the other Bedouin forward. “Aharun is High Priest of Aten. He is my brother, as are all my fellow-worshipers. You should know that the priests of Aten now bear the honored title of Levites, or ‘holy porters’, having carried the Ark of Aten away into Sinai when Egypt rejected us. He will explain.”
“It’s a little thing,” Aharun said. “The Hyksos who share my brother’s blood also share with us our worship of Aten. They grow weary of servitude. Yet they are a peaceful people. They wish only to leave Egypt and rejoin their brothers who’ve already crossed the desert back to Canaan. We Levites want to accompany them.”
“That’s all?” Rameses was astounded.
“All,” replied Aharun. “You will be Pharaoh. The Son of God whose throne this is by right, whose palace you reside in, whose army you command, whose Empire you rule, leaves all these things to you. Even this,” he indicated the serpent-headed rod, “his holy scepter. He has chosen the Hyksos and the Levites to be his people and he’ll lead us to Canaan, there to live out his few remaining days.”
This offer felt too good to be true. I risked a further intervention. “He wants no title? No treasure?” I asked.
“On the contrary. He will obey the law. His former name shall never be spoken. Other than those in this room, none shall know he did not die thirty years ago.”
The eyes of Rameses lit up with cupidity and he stretched wide his arms. No, Rameses was no god; he wasn’t even a man of noble spirit. My lord and master was an avaricious charlatan.
“Then to this, I consent,” he declared with enthusiasm. He turned to me. “Vizier, you’ll prepare a papyrus giving instructions for the Hyksos slaves to be freed.”
“Your servant, Great One.” I bowed low.
“Since as you say, cousin, the law forbids the use of your old name,” Rameses continued affably, turning back to Akhenaten, “perhaps you’d be kind enough to tell me by what name you’re now known? It will have to go in the letter ordering the Hyksos released into your custody.”
“My brother is The Son.” Aharun’s voice was reverential. “He needs no other name.”
“But a great many Egyptians are called the son,” Rameses objected. “It’s always combined with the name of their patron deity.”
In this for once the old fraudster spoke the truth; his own name, derived from Ra-Moses, son of Ra, the Sun, was a typical example. So had been that of Pharaoh Ahmose. Such names were dedications, intended as signs of piety, not lineage.
“We call our god Aten, The Lord, because his true name is too holy to be spoken by the mouths of men,” said Aharun. “His Son is therefore called simply The Son.”
“Moses? Just Moses?” Rameses looked puzzled. “What kind of a name is that?”
“My kind,” the elder Bedouin replied in his deep voice.
“So be it then,” said Rameses, not inclined to argue technicalities when offered a very good deal. “Forgive me if I leave you for a while. My servants shall provide you with refreshment. In a very short time, I’ll return with the papyrus.”
The Pharaoh-Elect stalked from the room, doing his best to look regal once again. We all followed deferentially in his wake, but as soon as I was through the door I hastened to a little spy-hole from which I could observe the chamber.
I watched Aharun turn to Akhenaten. And I saw then what a god-king really looks like. Robes don’t make a god; a true Pharaoh can never be mistaken for an ordinary mortal.
“Will he honor his word?” Aharun asked.
“For now.” The deep slow voice of the old man covered another sigh. “In a few days, he’ll regret his generosity and decide that if he killed me he could keep his kingdom and his slaves. He’ll send soldiers after us. We must pass over the Reed Sea before he changes his mind. Once in Sinai, we’ll be safe.”
I understood at once. I resolved there and then to ensure that any such pursuit should be long-delayed.
“I’ll begin assembling our people. You wait here for the papyrus,” Akhenaten said. “Follow me as soon as you have it.”
“Your will shall be done, my brother,” said Aharun.
The man called Moses looked for the last time around the painted walls of his palace. He gazed upon the whole, massive trunks of Lebanon cedar supporting the roof; he looked up at red-stained rafters of fir from forests far to the north of the Great Sea; he glanced around at Minoan pottery, Trojan statuary, gold and silver ornaments on tables of ebony and ivory. All once his.
Akhenaten placed his hand one final time on the royal scepter. He’d made his choice long since; now mentally he made his farewell. Then, with a determined look, he turned and walked away.
Do not mourn for me, even though I’m fated to live out my few remaining days in the service of a tyrant and, at the last, to lay my bones within the shrine of an imaginary deity. For I have found the answer to the question the whole world asks.
And rest assured: I have, in this parchment, set down a true record of these momentous events, exactly as I witnessed them on that unforgettable day, so very long ago. This I, Nebamun, Grand Vizier of all of Egypt, do swear by Aten, the one, the only, true God.
Copyright 2020 by Philip Brian Hall