River of the Sun, chapter 15 – The Intimacy of Enemies
“I am not always the brutal man I portray,” said Rameses, lying to one side on Neferaset’s bed and sipping his wine. “Authority must be established before a new situation is allowed to develop. The seed must be placed, not where it might fall, but where it should grow.”
From the floor rug, where she sat, cross-legged on a simply mat, the high priestess replied, “Your dying father had no qualms about how we conduct ourselves. He chose me for the role…long ago.”
There was a touch of bitterness in the Regent’s tone when he replied, “He chose many people, priestess…! My father did a good job of restoring Egypt’s borders, too; but my kingdom will be many times the size of his. After me, the world will look on my works and wonder at the mind that built them. I will take this Egypt and make it into something truly mighty!”
Someone as close as the black beetle crossing the floor of her chambers might have seen the flicker in her eyes, but Rameses did not.
“You lay great store by the mind?, Chosen of Ra” she asked, in a soft voice.
“Doesn’t everyone? You have not achieved your status without much use of the mind?”
“True, Chosen of Ra, but my status is lowly compared to yours. Also I must understand, and use, the emotions of those in my care. Emotion, used wisely, can perform miracles.”
“So can fear…” Rameses smiled. “…and you can drop the ‘Chosen of Ra’ when we are alone. ‘Majesty’ will suffice.”
“The high priestess rose to her knees and bowed. “Yes, Majesty.”
“Good,” said the King-in-Rising. “Now that we are beginning to understand each other, let me ask you a little more about this mysterious island. Why are you so revered, and why is this place so shrouded in mystery?”
“I think it is simply because we are a recently established temple, Majesty.”
Rameses uncoiled his resting body like a snake, bring his feet to the floor and towering over his prey. “You ought to know by now that I will not be satisfied by such half truths!” he snarled. “There is a core of something new, here, priestess, and it goes beyond the stones of your temple! – I am not alone in finding it so, and I mean to uncover its heart.”
There was complete calmness in her reply. Her eyes were distantly focussed, as though listening to a conversation far away in place and time. “Its heart is the right word, Majesty. We seek only to rejuvenate the spirit of the worship of Isis, as we believe this has become stale.”
“Stale!” the Regent was still angry. “More like mummified! So, yes, I can see your goal – and yet you actively revere and portray the Gods of Amun-Ra, with the twin aspects of Khonsu and Mut. Would it not have been simpler to use Isis herself?”
“Isis is there, Majesty, in the shadows. Our work is to make her a fitting mother to all the female Gods, re-uniting her with her distant origins.”
“And what of Horus then?” The royal temper was abating, soothed by the soft voice of the high priestess.
“Are you not the incarnation of Horus?” she asked, with wide eyes that emphasised her devotion to the traditions. “The most ancient of the royal Gods? And, in using Khonsu and Mut as the lower aspects of Amun-Ra himself, do we not honour and obey the direction your family has set to finally rid the world of the legacy of the Heretic King, Akhenaten–the man your forebears have erased?”
Rameses found himself distracted by the dread word. “Akhenaten – the Heretic! Do you not know that even to speak his name is punishable by death?”
Neferaset answered carefully, “If you had designs on my life, so soon, I would be dead already, Chosen of Ra…” the mistake that wasn’t slipped unnoticed into his consciousness.
A flicker of a smile crossed the tight lips as Rameses realised how artfully he had been softened. He moved his hands down his shins and leaned towards her.
“Know, then, that should I ever find that you are harbouring the slightest sympathy for the words or thoughts of the sun-drunk madman, your end will be slow, public and without the slightest mercy. Do we understand the game, Priestess?”
In answer, Neferaset slid, submissively, towards Rameses, taking and kissing his hand. The Regent pulled back with surprise; then gazed down at his hand, looking uncertain.
“Perfectly, Majesty.” said the high priestess into the silence between them.
Rameses found his heart was racing. “Isis has a worthy practitioner of her magic here . . . and you must know that I want you!” But he was less sure than his words suggested. There was a feeling that she was occupying a place in his mind that no-one had entered before.
Neferaset loosened the ties on the front of her shift. “Then take me, Majesty! I will not resist such a royal command!” Her eyes were challenging; there was a hint of a smile.
Rameses was felt both aroused and endangered. He shook his head, slowly. “You play too well, priestess. I will not take you like this–offered to authority as a temple concubine would be–and you know it!” He swept his arm towards her. “Away! But, I will have you, and willingly, before our encounter is over.”
Neferaset slid back along the floor to her mat. She picked up her goblet and drank some of the wine, never taking her eyes from the King-in-Rising. “Then, I await your guidance, Majesty…”
Rameses felt he had been caught off-guard. He drained his wine, and stared back at the woman who both intrigued and unsettled him. Returning to his military mind, he said, “So let me make our game of greater value. There are two in my company who are as clever as you and your brother. One is my old teacher, Menascare.” His face lined with the pressure of contrasting emotions. “Though nearing the end of his useful days, he is yet mighty in the ways of wisdom and coercion.” He shifted uncomfortably. “Before I groomed and promoted Obion, he was in line to be partner to my schemes until his comfortable death in the palace at Pi-Rameses, but lately…his mind is distracted by something–and Obion has seen his chance.”
“You mean to pit them against each other?” asked Neferaset, her eyes unblinking.
“Foolish woman,” Rameses lashed her with the word. “I mean to pit them against you, your brother and the Vessels of your impudent temple! But not in a simple way…I love strategy games, high priestess. I hope you do too?”
“With the price of failure being my virtue and probably my life, I have little choice, Majesty.”
Sensing victory, Rameses slid off the bed and joined the high priestess on the crumpled mat. He took her unresisting hand and returned the kiss. “I am not new to the skills of love, high priestess; I would ensure you enjoyed our lovemaking. Of course, should I find your own enjoyment insincere, your death would be suitably cruel…”
Neferaset closed her eyes to the sadistic image. “And am I the only one in the middle of this game of high consequence, Majesty? Or does my brother, Anzety, share this fate?”
“Your brother? Of course not!” Rameses smiled, happy at the confirmation of her naivety. “Why, your chosen young Priest is the centre of it all. It is far more effective to target someone else who is loved by another – ask Obion, the Talatat of Fear, how well that works! And I can see how much affection you have for the boy – and he for you…”
Rameses watched the beautiful eyes close as the priestess swallowed, hard, in the face of the picture of what was to follow. He pressed his advantage, putting as much severity into the words as possible. “You will complete his initiations before the full moon and he will emerge triumphant or broken – and this will be on your head, alone.”
Neferaset looked at him with pained eyes. “Three days! So little time, when it should take a whole year! But that is a cruel thing to do to a young man without fault!”
“No, it is not!” said Rameses, enjoying the hunt for the mind and heart of this challenging woman. “It is a suitable sport for the King-in-Rising, and an appropriate response to an intriguing woman who sets herself, however subtly, in the way of the Royal Will! When the moon is full and you have failed, then cruelty may play its part…”
Neferaset pulled herself straight and calmed her breathing, as she had done to face the onslaught in the temple. “Very well Majesty, you have your Royal hunt. But I have one condition?” Her eyes did not waver in the face of his deadly gaze.
“You would place conditions on the man who will shortly be your King?”
“Yes, just this – that you release the apprentice priest to sleep, now.”
Rameses reached out to take Neferaset’s goblet. He drained its contents, daring her even to think of objecting.
“You play like a girl, Priestess! You could have extracted so much more from me than this!” The wide grin split the cruel face. “But yes, I agree to your terms, though you sold them cheaply! Now I will leave you and sleep in the company of my soldiers…”
Rameses stood to go, straightening out his warrior’s clothes. “I will give Menascare and Obion their instructions.” he smiled. “Separately, of course–we can have our games with them, too!”
He retrieved his cloak and swung it around his wide shoulders.
“The duty soldiers will ferry me to the bank of the great river in the morning. Once there, I will take provisions and a horse from your stables. I have need of my own company. These events are portents of much to come.” He fastened his cloak at the throat. “Did you know I was building a tower not far from here in the hills beside the desert? They will speak of the stark beauty of this tower when I am long gone…”
He strode to the door, then turned to look at the high priestess one last time.
“I am here, not just to study, you, High Priestess, but to oversee my tower’s completion. It will be a monument to my father. I will return when I am ready, but you will not know when…”
Neferaset rose and bowed. “Then we will see it as a test to be ready for you this time, Majesty.”
Rameses was enjoying himself. He looked down at the woman before him, savouring the additional authority his height imparted.
“I do not see how you could be ready under these circumstances, priestess. That is the whole point of my game – to see you kept off-guard, to expose your naked reactions within your broken temple…”
The moon was bright overhead as he stepped out beneath the stars. He began to walk towards the quarters of the Talatat, but changed his mind. Instead the King-in-Rising loosened his cloak and pulled it up around his head and shoulders. He crossed between the twin pylons into the sanctity of the outer temple buildings. There was no-one on guard. The smashed doors still hung at an angle on their ruined hinges. Lights burned inside the temple, but the sacred space had only one occupant. The apprentice priest was sleeping by the punishment block on which his head should have rested. Instead his head was cushioned by a garment that Rameses recognised as belonging to Lord Mensacare. Obion’s sword was nowhere to be seen…
Rameses shook his head. The encounter with the priestess had drained him. “Sleep well, young man,” said the King-in-Rising, feeling strangely sympathetic. “There will be tests enough in the days ahead. I am not always a monster…”
He looked down at the rich purple cloth beneath the boy’s head and shook his own.
“Menascare, you old fool…” he spoke into the air of the temple. “Did you think I wouldn’t know… or didn’t you care?” He walked towards the temple door, still speaking the thoughts in his mind. “How joyous your company was in the days of my childhood; and how deadly to my ambitions it now is…”
Index to previous chapters:
Introduction to River of the Sun
In April 2015 a group of people gathered in the Derbyshire hills to enact the Silent Eye’s annual Mystery Play, entitled, The River of the Sun. The five-act mystical drama formed the backbone of that Spring weekend, and told the fictional story of a clash of ego and divinity set in an Isis-worshipping temple located on an island in the Nile, during the the fascinating period of the 19th dynasty, the time of Rameses the Great.
The 18th and 19th dynasties were a time of upheaval for ancient Egypt on many levels. The reign of the ‘Heretic King’ Akhenaten saw Egypt’s religious structure torn apart, as the revolutionary Pharaoh became what Wallis Budge called the ‘world’s first monotheist’; re-fashioning the power of the many Gods with one supreme entity – the visible sun disc, the Aten, for which Akhenaten, alone, was the high priest. Many have pointed to the failure of the ‘herectic’ Pharaoh’s politics, but few have doubted the sincerity of his religious vision. He will, forever, remain an enigma.
Whatever the nobility of his goal, the actions he took were ruthless, and included the shutting down of the annual deity festivals which were the sole point of ritualistic contact between the ordinary people of Egypt and their locally-worshipped gods. In addition, Akhenaten paid little attention to the domestic and military affairs of Egypt, allowing the country’s enemies to encroach on its borders, greatly weakening Egypt’s power at that critical time for the region.
After Akhenaten’s brief reign, culminating in the Pharaoh’s mysterious death, shadowy military forces took control of Egypt, instigating the 19th dynasty in the persons of Rameses I and, soon thereafter, Seti I, whose throne name derives from the god Set – often considered the ‘evil one’ because of his slaying of his brother, Osiris.
Seti I is judged by modern historians as having been one of the greatest-ever pharaohs, yet his importance in the 19th dynasty was eclipsed by the actions of his second son, the brilliant Rameses II, whose long reign of over sixty years included much self-promotion and the alteration of Egypt’s recent history. Both Seti and Rameses II (Rameses the Great) were passionate about the evisceration of the last traces of Akhenaten’s ‘chaos’, as they saw it.
But, although, by the 19th dynasty, the the ‘Son of the Sun’ was long dead and the buildings of his embryonic and doomed city of Tel-al-Armana were reduced to rubble, something of that time remained in the Egyptian consciousness. A new kind of connection between Pharaoh and God had been established, one which elevated mankind, if only in the being of the Pharaoh, to be someone who ‘talked with God’. It was, at the very least, a bold experiment and, though the world would have to wait until the 19th century to re-discover the ‘erased’ pharaoh, the philosophical waves of that period rippled out and dramatically affected the way the incoming 19th dynasty had to repair the worship of the Gods, uniting the people of Egypt under a trinity of Amun-Ra, Khonsu and Mut.
Our fictional story is a tale of politics, friendships, mind and faith. It is set against an historically accurate background, and at a time when Rameses was due to take the throne from the dying Seti .
Returning to Thebes in his swift warship, crewed by his fearsome Talatat mind-warriors, Rameses decides to mount a surprise night-time raid on the island-based Isis temple which has prospered under the sponsoring reign of his father. Rameses suspects that the inner teachings conducted by the revered High Priestess and Priest conceal views that relate to the thoughts of the heretic Pharaoh, Akhenaten. He plans to insert himself and his warriors of the mind into the islands’s Spring rites as the high priest and priestess begin a cycle of initiation for a chosen apprentice priest who has proved himself worthy of special advancement.
The resulting clash draws everyone, including the young Pharaoh-in-Rising, into a spiralling situation where each is forced to confront their own fears as well as living out the roles which life has allocated them. River of the Sun is the story of a spiritual and political encounter from which none emerge unchanged, including the man who will shortly be Pharaoh, the mighty Rameses II, whose secret name for himself is ‘the unchosen’.
Through the eyes and minds of those surrounding the chosen priest and the ‘unchosen’ Pharaoh, the River of the Sun takes us on a tense and compelling journey to the heart of power and its eternal struggle with truth.
The chapters of the book will be serialised in this blog. The finished work is planned to be available in paperback and Kindle in the Spring of 2016.
River of the Sun, serialised here, and its associated images, is the intellectual property of Stephen Tanham and is ©Copyright material.