Chapter I: Necessity Breeds Destiny
We were poor, almost destitute. I remember pretending to sleep through my father’s weeping himself into exhaustion, day after day, from scratching a scanty living gathering and selling fish to our neighbors. The Nile sustained both of us, until, that is, I became a thief. Father was once a holy man, so the first day I stepped through the door with a handful of silver and laid the coins before his feet, he didn’t ask where my bounty came from. Instead, he sighed. Then, he kissed me and hurried out to trade for wheat and barley. Though necessity drove me to steal my daily bread, I soon found, Ra forgive me, that I was good at it. In fact, I loved the thrill of following fat patricians, as they waded through the agora’s crowds. I became their shadows, and when the moment was ripe, I jostled them, pretending accident, before I slipped my knife into their robes and sauntered into the crowd before they knew their purse was gone.
That day, thievery and destiny entangled. Forever after, my previous insignificant life was insnared in a role far larger, and far worser than what fates befall the gods. I had been stupid, even overconfident. It was a ruse I used often: I hid behind some drunkard poking the barrels of beer imported from upper Egypt grumbling about their price. Senselessly, I lobbed a small stone at the next merchant’s stall, if I am remembering right, hitting him full on the chin. At once, the stall holders clamored at each other’s throats allotting their recriminations. In the upheaval, I grabbed a basket, believing it stuffed with bread, from behind the beer seller’s stall.
But a woman caught me in the act. She emerged from the encirclement of barrels stored behind the stall just as I scooped up my prize and shouted: “Thief!” The entire agora turned. A cacophony of voices followed her, “Stop that thief!” and “Somebody, grab that boy!” I squirmed through the crowding press of the rich and poor alike until—crack—a soldier supplied a cudgel to the forehead. When I came ‘round, the soldier had dug his heel into my chest, pinning me to the ground in the center of the jabbering, malicious crowd. I struggled, but he picked me up by the neck and punched me full in the face with his battle-hardened knuckles. My legs went limp.
“That boy is Ishaq,” I heard someone cry. Another yelled, “have pity on him. His father once served Horus.”
The crowd’s expressions whirled and meshed with the blue liveries donning Pharoah’s guard, and I knew I was caught.
I spit out a single tooth, and feared my own blood threatened to drown me. The soldier dropped me, and I sat up dazed and trembling. Onlookers craned forward to see the incriminating evidence the soldier was about to pull out the basket. I’ll never forget his smirk.
“Why lose an ear for papyrus, boy?” he asked.
“It’s not bread?” I replied.
He laughed, “Scribbles make poor excuses for bread.”
Then, a wave of jostling and shouting, and the crowd parted for six seven-foot-tall spearmen. Into the clearing stepped a figure outfitted entirely in scarlet. Though, I had never seen him before, I knew this was Imhotep: the first prince of Egypt, husband to Pharaoh’s daughter, regent of Alexandria, and, as such, held the power of life and death over all peoples for a hundred leagues. The agora fell silent, and I gawped at him, frightened, as his eyes scanned serenely up and down my starved body, taking in my unshaved scalp, bloody face, and tattered clothes. Prince Imhotep was a slight man, not tall like his guards but handsome. He had a body sharpened from heavy use clad in a scarlet kaftan, and a black satchel, fixed with a turquoise clasp at his hip. In his left hand, he fingered a black leather riding whip a yard long. His face was clean-shaven, carved and framed underneath his nemes. His eyes were cold and inhuman, and he pursed his lips while he studied me.
Suddenly, somehow, in that moment my fear retreated. I discovered I hated him and his kind. I hated his affluence, his expensive clothes, his chiseled looks, and the arrogance he was born too. But most of all, I hated the power he held over me, his assumption of authority, and the truth of his superiority. I concentrated my disgust in my stare. He must have recognized my repulsion in the instant our eyes locked, for he simpered.
“What is his crime?” Imhotep asked.
Several poems left me exposed and shivering, as if I were in front of a mirror which revealed what’s inside the reader. The images I discovered moved me to tears. And, the more I studied, the more I understood myself.
The soldier bowed and handed over several papyruses, “My Lord, he stole this thinking it bread.”
Prince Imhotep undid the thread tying one of the rolls. I could feel blood running down my chin. I resisted the urge to lick at it. Imhotep signaled he wanted silence. He began to read.
“Can you read this,” Imhotep asked me. Instead, I pressed my lips shut, trembling underneath. “Boy! Answer me.”
I stayed silent.
“You do as your prince commands, or I will—” threatened the soldier who caught me before Imhotep cut him short.
“Silence!” Imhotep thundered.
He stared at me with contempt and then spoke, “You’re brave. I can see that much, but you’re stupid.”
He snapped his fingers, and the soldier grabbed me by the arm, lifted me to my feet and started to drag me away when we all heard a man cry:
“That’s my son. Please, my prince, have pity on him, he’s only a foolish boy.”
Both Prince Imhotep and the soldier turned toward the man’s voice. As he looked, the soldier detained my left arm with only one of his fists. I twisted my body against his grip, ripped free, fell to the ground, and crawled through the prince’s legs and missing, by inches, his fast-closing grip. I took to my heels and dashed through the crowd.
Behind me, hell itself erupted; the soldier shoved and cursed the people impeding his path. A woman threw a pottered vase. I ducked just in time, avoiding my brains becoming entangled with the falling shards which crashed above me. I juked left and right; I slid through the crowd’s legs; I shoved past stout tradesmen and skirted unsuspecting slaves and the livestock they drove. Men and women, slaves and soldiers, sellers and buyers, all rounded quickly, furious at being so roughly shoved. I dared to look behind me. Only the soldier who caught me earlier pursued me. Prince Imhotep and his bodyguards walked, absentmindedly, the opposite direction. I stopped stunned still. That’s when I caught a fist with my left cheek and toppled into the dirt. I pushed my heel into the man’s kneecap. He screamed. Then, I rolled out of the soldier’s path as he dived to tackle me. I got to my feet again and squirmed through another fast-pressing crowd. I sent carts flying. I shoved an elderly man to the ground busy tying his empty cart to his donkey, seizing it, and then, with all my strength, pushing it into the nearby sheep hurdles. The animals let loose, and the ensuing tumult was chaos.
The soldier’s legs were taken out from under him by the stampede of darting sheep. That’s when I raced down a side alley, bursting, to my surprise, through our city’s great library, and into a crowd of philosophers and wealthy patrons. Then, out the other side, up a wide street, passing between noble houses, I ran until the noise behind me subsided. I turned left into another alley.
I stopped in the doorway of a brothel, recovering my breath. No one was behind me. I leaned my back against the door, struggling to calm my hammering heart. The pain emanating from my jaw threatened my ability to stay conscious. In a flash, a hand wearing three gold rings closed around my mouth and dragged me through the door. I landed on my ass, coughing through a pounding head. My stomach churned. I struggled to stand, but a woman’s heel fixed my hand to a dirty clay floor covered in ragged yellow and green carpets.
A voice whispered, “Stop yelling, you fool.”
Outside the door, a troop of footsteps charged down the alley. Their voices commanding bystanders to stop me. The woman let off my hand and held a single finger over her mouth. I crept to the door and peered through one of its cracks. The soldier I ripped myself from in the agora was leading the others.
“Damn, he has help now,” I said.
“Whatever you did, you won’t be escaping today,” she said.
“Who are you?”
She frowned. “I wouldn’t expect you to recognize me as I—,” she hesitated. “As I am now.”
Keep Reading! Chapter II here: page 2