S’ankhibthot did not want to die.
Oh, to turn back the hours! Oh, to be far from this place. He had been all over the world. If only he were in Niya or Mitanni, even Nubia. Any place but here.
How had events changed so much, so suddenly? Why, only yesterday he’d been one of the favored: honored in court, invited to every social gathering, sent gifts in hopes of future favors, and greeted on the streets by rich and poor alike. People he’d never met called him “S’an,” as if they were friends.
And tonight? He was marked for death!
Fate could be fickle.
Feeling lightheaded, he sat on the roof ledge, looking out at the Nile where the surface of the black waters reflected a twin of the moon.
How much longer do I have? S’an wondered. Was there some way to escape both Pharaoh’s men and his lover’s insane plan? S’an was recognized by so many. Was there any way to just slip into the night? For how could he trust that his lover could really raise them from the dead, for the gods’ sake?
True, S’an had witnessed the man do the impossible.
Why, it was the raising of a dead man that had won his lover a new name. Pharaoh Hatshepsut herself had dubbed him Ma’akheruenhut, “justified of the temple.” What irony that a man the priests had shunned should become the most famous of them all!
Only a week before the miracle of the resurrection, S’an had gone to temple to pray and make a meager offering when he’d first seen the priest who would soon be known as Ma’akheruenhut. Even from across the courtyard the man had taken S’an’s breath away. He was magnificent; tall, powerfully muscled, skin glistening with oils, he stood apart from the other priests around him like lapis lazuli in a handful of gravel.
They’d locked eyes from across the great courtyard and, to S’an’s surprise, the priest had smiled and come to him. In the coming hours he went from the man’s side to his table and finally to his bed. A hand’s span of days later, he’d accompanied the priest to the royal palace of Pharaoh Hatshepsut! It was like something from a story his mother had told him in his youth.
S’an had been sure Ma’akheruenhut would tire of him quickly. Of what lasting interest could he—just a poor commoner—be to such a man? Yet here he was, twenty years later. It had been a journey through fertile valleys and arid desert. Ma’akheruenhut had brought him exquisite joy and crushing heartbreak. But through it all, there had been magic!
Yes, Ma’akheruenhut could do miraculous things.
But S’an knew that not all of his lover’s miracles were genuine. Many of the amazing feats were but tricks. The staff that transformed into a great snake? Why, a drug could be fed to a serpent that left it stiff and paralyzed until Ma’akheruenhut slipped it an antidote and it appeared to suddenly animate. Coins and other small objects that disappeared and appeared again were but practiced sleight of hand. Turning a goblet of water into blood was merely the secret addition of a powder made from the sap of the Dragon tree. So could Ma’akheruenhut really bring the dead back to life? It was a question S’an asked himself many times over the years. Perhaps his famous miracle had been just another clever fraud. Ma’akheruenhut was quite skilled at deception.
S’an knew that better than anyone.
When it was his own life at stake, S’an needed to know whether resurrection was possible. S’an, like any other man faced with his own mortality, realized he desperately wanted to live.
Does that make me greedy? he asked himself.
He had lived far longer than the circumstances of his birth gave him any right to expect. He’d outlived all his childhood friends, whether it be by illness, crime, or war. Would their wandering bas have any pity for him?
“No, not for you!”
Startled, S’an turned and then fell back in shock, nearly toppling off the roof.
Why, it was one of those very childhood friends who stood before him. Impossible!
“Minemhat?” he asked, fighting off another wave of dizziness.
“It is I,” came the dry, raspy voice.
“But you’re dead!”
“Yes,” he answered. When he moved, hand outstretched, S’an saw it was not a hand at all. Just a stump that bled freely, as if the wound were fresh.
“By Seth!” S’an cried and rolled to the side.
“I have only come to guide you to Âmmut, the devourer of the dead!”
“Minemhat, why do you wish me ill?”
“Why should I wish you otherwise? I died at thirteen, and you moan because you will die at three times that?”
“You died because you were a thief!”
“I stole because I could not afford bread! But you! You are a deviant, living far longer than any common man because of the riches of your man-lover! Your crimes are against the gods themselves!”
“Listen to them not, beloved,” came a second voice, and there was Neferhati. And why not another dead friend?
The world turned gray, and S’an shook his head to clear it.
Neferhati knelt beside him. Neferhati, who had loved him with all her heart, and whose love he had not been able to return. She had died in childbirth, married to a man she did not love.
“Oh, Neferhati! Do you hate me also?”
“Never, my love. I will guide you to the Great Balance, where I know your heart will measure true and you will be allowed into the presence of Osiris.”
He jumped at this third voice, and without so much as a puff of mist, his long dead companions vanished. He looked up to see Ma’akheruenhut, in all his priestly robes and dazzling jeweled collar, standing above him. “Are you all right?”
S’an began to tremble. “I was visited by the dead!”
Ma’akheruenhut reached down and pulled him to his feet. “It is the drug I gave you. It not only makes what is to come easier. It is near the same potion I use to talk to the dead. Tell me what they said.”
S’an took a deep breath and told his lover everything.
“Ah, don’t you see? Minemhat was a thief who had his hand cut off and unfortunately, he died from the wound. Without a hand, his body was incomplete, and he could not go on to eternity. He is but a mut, the vengeful dead, doomed to forever wander the earth. He is jealous of you.”
“But we were friends!”
“Darling! How long has he been dead? Twenty years now? His mind is not right.”
S’an shuddered, and tears filled his eyes. “Oh, Minemhat….”
“And then there is Neferhati,” Ma’akheruenhut continued. “She was a good woman and was embalmed and lives with the gods. She wished you nothing but love.
“Yet, both were wrong. We will both die tonight, but we will rise again and live another day.”
S’an so wanted to believe, but doubt filled him again, despite all he had seen in his years with his lover. “Is it really possible?”
“Oh, it is possible,” Ma’akheruenhut said, his voice rising to a shout, his eyes wide and wild. “It is for that crime that Pharaoh Thutmose has ordered my execution.” From his robes Ma’akheruenhut brought out a large golden blade with strange lettering upon its surface. He raised the weapon to the sky, his grin a horrid rictus. “S’an, I know the secret! I can take and give life as I choose!”
Fear washed over S’an.
Ma’akheruenhut looked insane.
As if realizing that very fact, his lover’s eyes returned to normal. He reached out and gently took S’ankhibthot’s hand in his own. His voice had resumed the fine timbre that always soothed S’an.
Then Ma’akheruenhut told him everything.
And when Pharaoh’s soldiers crashed into the house below, S’an knew what he would do.
After all, in the end, there really was no choice.