Year 9 of Baenre Merenptah
Year 1 of Userkheperure Seti
The Royal Barge 'Wisdom of Ptah' sailed slowly upriver from Men-nefer, its great painted sail bellied out from the fresh northerly wind, its bow wave white against the deep green of the Great River. The current reduced its progress to no faster than a man could walk along the riverbank, but that did not matter as Prince Seti had given orders that the oarsmen be rested. Now, they lay back on their benches or sat looking out at the passing reed beds, without a care in the world. The captain of the barge, together with a small crew of experienced sailors, managed the course of the vessel, manoeuvring as needed to avoid other craft on the wide river, a herd of pehe-mau blowing and snorting in the shallows, or wind-ruffled water where contrary winds might impede their progress. Sun-dazzles sparkled on the waters and birds called from the reed beds, mingling with the sounds of lowing cattle in the green fields and the murmur of men's voices from the rowing benches.
Prince Seti Meryenptah, heir to the throne of Kemet and favoured son of Baenre Merenptah, king of Ta Mehu and Ta Shemau, Son of Re, Contented with Ma'at, lounged on cushions beneath a wide awning on the foredeck next to his sister wife Lady Tausret Setepenmut, and contemplated the Great River that spread out before and around them. He yawned and stretched in the shade offered by the awning, and pointed to the great stone edifices on the plateau beyond the western shore, now slipping slowly past.
"I shall build something as magnificent when I am king," Seti said.
"Those ben-ben?" Tausret asked, shading her eyes. "What is magnificent about them? They look neither ornate nor grand. You will build far greater monuments to celebrate your reign. Long may that day be delayed, of course, for I would not wish ill on the king your father," she added.
"Of course. My father is old but my grandfather was older still when he died. I am sure he will be king for many years yet. But have you never been up close to them, to the pyramids of stone?"
Tausret shook her head, making the delicate golden lotus blossoms in her wig tinkle like cool waters on a hot day.
"I stood beneath 'Khufu's Horizon' once and craned my neck to see to the top. The sun reflected off the polished casing stone as if it was beaten silver or gold, a flare of glory as if I looked into the face of Re. When I turned away, my eyes aching, it was several minutes before I could see clearly. They are truly huge, you know. I paced along the base for over two hundred steps and still did not reach the corner. Such are the works of our ancestors, and I would bring those days back."
"You would build a pyramid?"
"If they are as big as you say, it would be a lot of work. Very expensive too."
Seti shrugged. "Perhaps, but it would be a magnificent achievement, wouldn't it? How long has 'Khufu's Horizon' been standing? A thousand years? Remember what grandfather Usermaatre used to say? The House of Ramesses will last a thousand years. I would like to build something that lasted that long, so men could look on it and say, 'How glorious were the days of King Seti that he could leave that as a monument to the gods and the Land of Kemet'."
"Then you must build it, dear husband, when you take your place on Kemet's throne," Tausret said. "But first things must come first. We must see what is amiss with your tomb in the Great Field, and correct it."
Seti nodded, dragging his gaze away from the now diminishing pyramids of stone that were disappearing into the haze behind them. "It will be a good opportunity to reacquaint myself with Waset and the palace there."
"Are you thinking of making Waset your capital?"
"I don't know. Per-Ramesses is too far north, it's more suited as a military base to guard the northern borders. Men-nefer is beautiful, but Waset is ancient and has a certain grandeur."
"There are some in the south who are less than friendly, husband," Tausret said. "Amun has favoured your brother Messuwy."
"All the more reason to stamp my authority on the city then. Messuwy won't give me any trouble if I cut off his support in the city."
"What will you do with him?"
"Nothing for now. If he behaves himself I might reward him with a governorship of one of the northern sepats."
"I will feel better with him in the north, husband. Especially as he has a living son. Being a brother of the next king and already with an heir makes him dangerous."
Seti reached over and squeezed Tausret's hand. "Siptah is not much of an heir, and we will have a fine son yet, Queen of my Heart."
Tausret nodded and smiled. "Our next child will be a healthy boy. I feel it in my waters."
"A king must have an heir," Seti mused.
"And I will give you one." Tausret looked askance at her young prince. "Do not think I will let you sow your royal seed in another woman's field."
"Hush, my love. You will always be my Queen, my principal wife."
Tausret withdrew her hand from Seti's. "Your only wife, husband. If you pleasure yourself with slaves when I am indisposed, that is one thing, but I forbid you to marry anyone else."
Seti stared at his wife. "You forbid me? Must I remind you that I will be king when my father, may he live a million years, joins Re? No one forbids the king."
"I will be queen..."
"If I allow it..."
"...and you will not so dishonour me as to put me aside for some palace slut."
"Enough, woman," Seti snapped. "Your chatter draws the pleasure from the day. I will be king and my word will be law."
Tausret scowled, but held her tongue, not wanting either of them to take up positions from which neither of them could reasonably withdraw. "Let it be as you say, husband... for now," she added under her breath.
A hail from the watchman at the stern interrupted their thoughts and the captain hurried forward. He bowed and held his hands out at knee level.
"A boat closes with us, Prince Seti. It flies the palace colours."
"A messenger?" Seti got to his feet and stared past the captain. "For us, or does he carry some news elsewhere?"
"Who can say, Prince Seti?"
"Let him catch up then."
The captain ran off, shouting orders to his sailors, who hauled on ropes, spilling wind from the sail. The barge settled lower as it slowed, and Seti walked to the stern to watch the smaller vessel overhaul it. As it came within hailing range, a man stood up and shouted across the water.
"Message for Prince Seti."
The captain looked at Seti, who nodded. "Come alongside," the captain shouted.
The boat scudded closer and then at the last minute dropped its sail, easing in close alongside the barge. A man threw a rope up and a sailor tied it off, another lowering a knotted rope for the kilted messenger who swarmed up on deck.
"Prince Seti," the messenger said, bowing low and extending his hands. "A letter for you."
"From the king?"
The messenger removed a flat package from a pouch at his waist. "From Tjaty Merysekhmet, my lord."
Seti took the folded papyrus, examined the seal and then broke it, scanning the few lines of writing, his lips moving silently. He took a step back and breathed hard, turning to look downriver.
"What is it, husband?" Tausret asked. "Bad news?"
Seti handed his wife the letter and stared at the messenger. "Did you come for me alone or do you carry letters to other people?"
"I have letters for the governors of every southern sepat, my lord."
"Do you know the contents of this letter? Of the others?"
The messenger licked his lips. "No, my lord, not exactly, but... there are rumours."
"You will keep those to yourself." Seti thought for a few moments. "You know who I am?"
"Who am I?"
"Y...you are Prince Seti, Crown Prince and... and Heir."
"So in light of my position and the rumours you have heard, you will obey my commands instantly?"
"Y...yes, my lord."
"Then you will forget the rest of your mission and return immediately to Men-nefer. On the way there, you will intercept any other boat heading upriver and order them back, on pain of death. You will tell them it is on the orders of the king. Do you understand?" Seti beckoned the barge captain closer. "Have the barge turned and exercise your oarsmen. We return to Men-nefer and I want to be there by nightfall."
The messenger saluted and scrambled back into his boat while shouted commands from the captain resulted in the sail coming down with a clatter and the oarsmen rushing to their places. The barge heeled over as the current caught it, and a few unsecured objects splashed unheeded into the river.
Tausret came to stand by her husband and took his hand in hers. "Can it be true?" she asked.
"Merysekhmet would not say it unless it was."
"Our father the king is dead." Her voice trembled and she wiped away a tear. "Oh, husband, I grieve for us both, for he was as a father to me..."
"Enough, Tausret. Control yourself. We will grieve later but for now, we are the only people on board who know the truth. I would keep it that way."
"Was the letter not plain enough? The king has died suddenly and possibly at the hand of another."
"That cannot be. Who would dare?"
"I can think of one."
Tausret considered for a few moments, and as the oarsmen picked up the beat of the oars, sending the craft surging downriver, she nodded. "Messuwy."
* * *
Men-nefer was in an uproar by the time the 'Wisdom of Ptah' docked at the royal wharf and Seti disembarked. Within minutes of his arrival, Tjaty Merysekhmet and a squad of soldiers trotted up and worriedly greeted the heir to the throne.
"Thanks be to the gods the messenger found you so quickly, my lord."
"What is the news? Has my father the king truly died?"
"Yes, my lord, and I fear his death was not natural."
"You have evidence of this?"
The Tjaty shuffled his feet and looked away. "The physicians are not in agreement, but it is possible the neru pehut administered something a little while after you left."
"Has the man been questioned?"
"He was sent for but is missing. I have soldiers scouring the city for him."
Seti thought for a few moments. "What measures have you taken to contain the news, Merysekhmet?"
"Contain, my lord? I... I have already sent out messengers to all the cities and towns of Ta Mehu and Ta Shemau as is the custom."
"Well, it's too late to call them back, but close the city gates at once and put a guard on the docks. No word must leak out until I have everything in hand."
Merysekhmet bowed and immediately issued orders to the officer of the guard. Men ran off to carry out the heir's commands. "What is your will, my lord?"
"Convey Lady Tausret to the women's quarters and see that she is guarded. Then bring the physicians to me in the throne room, together with..."
"Husband, I am coming with you," Tausret said quietly.
"It would be better if you did not," Seti said, frowning. "I mean to find out who or what killed my father, and it may be that I must put men to the question."
"He was my father too, and as for blood, I have seen it before, husband, and will not faint at the sight of it, nor quail at the necessity of spilling it."
Seti nodded. "Come then, if it please you."
Merysekhmet and the remainder of the guard escorted Seti and Tausret to the palace and thence to Merenptah's inner chamber where tapers had been lit against the twilight creeping over the city. The embalmers were present, gathered about the bed, waiting impatiently to convey the king's body to the Place of Purification. They grovelled when Seti strode in and pushed them away from the bed.
He looked down at the waxen body of his father and took one cold hand in his. Tausret stood beside him with tears in her eyes. "What is that stink?" Seti asked. He rounded on the embalmers. "Have you started your work without permission?"
"No, my lord," said the head embalmer. "We have not touched the Son of Re."
Merysekhmet waved the embalmers aside and said in a low voice, "The smell is from the ointment applied by the neru pehut, my lord. Mentmose, the chief physician has taken a sample from the king's nether regions, and has his opinion as to what it is."
"I will be interested to hear it."
The Tjaty had sent word ahead, and the palace physicians awaited the heir's pleasure with varying degrees of trepidation in the throne room. When Seti and Tausret walked in, they all bowed and extended their hands at knee level.
Seti stared coldly at the assembled physicians for a while, making them all feel thoroughly uncomfortable, as evidenced by sidelong looks and shuffling of feet.
"Where is Ahmes, the neru pehut of my father?" Seti asked at last.
"He is still unaccounted for, Son of Re," Merysekhmet said. "The soldiers are searching."
Seti opened his mouth to correct the Tjaty's form of address, and then realised that he was, in truth, now the King and Son of Re. He nodded to Merysekhmet.
"Mentmose, you are chief of all the palace physicians, and was familiar with the health of my father the king. Was his death natural?"
Taking his cue from the Tjaty, Mentmose bowed low again before addressing his king. "Son of Re, Baenre Merenptah was an old man and displayed many of the attributes of age. He suffered from toothache, from distensions of the anus, and from many aches and pains of the joints..."
"Yes, I know all this," Seti snapped. "Answer my question."
"Any number of ailments could have proved fatal, Son of Re..." He saw the look of anger settling on Seti's face and hurried on. "...but it is my considered opinion that he was poisoned."
Tausret gasped. "Poisoned? How?"
"A cream had recently been applied to the... the swollen parts of the king's anus, my lady. This cream had a sharp, unfamiliar smell, so I took some to examine it more closely."
"And what did you find?" Seti asked.
Mentmose drew himself up and unconsciously posed as if lecturing to his students in the House of Life. "I compared the small amount of odiferous cream to every sample of medicinal plant that we have in the House of Life, and though it did not match any exactly, it was closest to some used by the priesthood in the mysteries of the god Min. I then took some of the cream from the king's anus and applied it to the soft skin of the inner cheek lining of a slave, watching him closely for symptoms..." The chief physician broke off as Tausret made a moue of distaste. "My lady, I could not risk anyone of importance. As it was, no lasting harm came to the slave."
Tausret shook her head. "That was not what concerned me. You took the cream from the king's anus and..." she grimaced. "Never mind. Please go on, Mentmose."
"My lady." Mentmose bowed again to Seti before continuing. "Son of Re, after a short time, the slave said his cheeks felt numb, his throat dried out and his eyes became sensitive to light. He cried out and fell down, shaking and talking nonsense, but then slowly recovered. My lord, my lady, it is my considered opinion that his sickness arose from the cream. He survived because he was young and healthy, but your father the king was already in ill health. Whatever was in the cream was enough to kill him."
"And the cream had to have come from the neru pehut," Merysekhmet said.
"What say the rest of you?" Seti asked of the other physicians. "Is this how the king died?"
Several physicians nodded or murmured agreement. Two or three muttered under their breath and one complained, "I would like to have tested the cream myself. It is possible there was some other cause."
Seti recognised the complaint as little more than professional jealousy and ignored it. "Find Ahmes and I shall put him to the question," he ordered.
Nothing more could be resolved in the absence of the neru pehut, so Seti dismissed the physicians and retired with his wife to his inner chambers and ate a light meal. After his repast, Seti called Merysekhmet to him again.
"This cream, this preparation that Ahmes used," Seti said. "Where did it come from? Did Ahmes make it himself, or did someone send it to him?"
"I don't know, Son of Re. I will make enquiries."
"Have any letters or packages arrived from the south recently?" Tausret asked.
"The south, my lady? Er... it has been several days since...that was when the letter came for you from the Overseer of the Great Field, Son of Re. It was brought to you by the Royal Butler Bay."
"He may know if anything else arrived. Send for Bay."
Bay arrived, decked in the finery of his exalted position within the palace household and bowed low before Seti, hands held extended at knee level.
"Bay, you brought me a letter a few days ago from the Overseer of the Great Field. Do you remember?"
"Yes, Great One."
"How did it come to be in your hands? Royal messengers deliver letters direct to the king, the Heir, or the Tjaty."
"You have said it, my lord. Royal messengers have immediate access to the king, the Heir, or the Tjaty, but lesser ones often come to me, knowing I have been granted much status in the royal household. This letter from the Overseer of the Great Field came with others to diverse members of the household, and as soon as I recognised what it was, I delivered it to your hands."
"Was anything else delivered? A pot of ointment perhaps? For Physician Ahmes, the neru pehut?"
Bay lowered his gaze, hesitating just a fraction before answering. "My lord, no delivery came for Physician Ahmes."
"You are certain of this?"
"Yes, my lord."
Seti pondered the Royal Butler's response for a few moments, then said, "Ask around, Butler Bay. This pot of ointment that fell into the hands of Ahmes must have come from somewhere. I would know where it came from and who sent it."
"I shall ask of the palace servants, my lord."
Bay bowed again in preparation of leaving the royal presence but a clamour outside Seti's chambers interrupted him. He stood and stepped back at the attention of the royal couple and the Tjaty turned toward the entrance. The guards, upon a signal from Tjaty Merysekhmet, rushed to open the doors and hauled Ament, the Captain of the Palace Guard inside.
Ament bowed low and addressed Seti. "Son of Re, we have discovered Physician Ahmes, neru pehut to your father, King Baenre."
"Then why have you not brought him into my presence, Ament? Send for him at once. He has much to answer for."
"Alas, Son of Re, I could not, for when I found him he was already dead."
"Dead? Who, knowing I desired words with him, dared to kill him?"
"He...he seems to have taken his own life, Son of Re. He lay on the floor in a storage room with his throat cut and a blood-covered knife in his hand."
"An admission of guilt, I think," Merysekhmet murmured.
"And convenient," Tausret added.
"Convenient? How so?"
"Convenient for the guilty ones, my lord. It is hard to imagine that Ahmes contrived to kill the king because of some slight done him, but is more likely some other person persuaded him to this course of action. We cannot now question the neru pehut and determine who his conspirators were."
"No, curse the man," Seti said. "I want this investigated fully. Who spoke to Ahmes in the last month? Where did the ointment come from? Who sent it? How did it get into the palace? Someone must have seen something, so..." Seti broke off and looked at Bay. "Are you still here, Bay? You have your instructions already, go now."
Bay bowed again and hurriedly left the inner chamber while Seti and Tausret started an earnest conversation with Tjaty Merysekhmet.