The ShortRead of 24 September 2014
Author: Wilbur Smith
What's the story:
Remember River God? That 500-page historical fiction tome that stormed book charts the world over? Twenty years on and Wilbur Smith has finally decided to back to ancient Egypt to tell more of the story of Tiat, the talented philosopher, schemer and adventurer of his classic hit.
Desert God sees the eunuch at the right hand of Pharaoh, plotting a mission that will return Egypt to its former glory. As he looks to destroy an ancient enemy lying to the south, his plans come undone in the face of the love of Pharaoh's two younger sisters. Deals must be made and hearts must be broken if Egypt is to regain its might.
For a chance to hear Smith speak about his latest work, get yourself to Waterstones Piccadilly for 29 September. You can order tickets here.
Release date: 25th September
Aton blinked his little eyes that were set deep in their rolls of fat, and then raised them from the bao board laid out between us. He turned his gaze on the two young princesses of the royal house of Tamose who were disporting themselves naked in the limpid water of the lagoon.
‘They are no longer children,’ he remarked casually, without a trace of lascivious interest in the subject. We sat facing each other under an open barrazza thatched with palm fronds beside one of the lagoons in the backwaters of the great Nile River.
I knew that his reference to the girls was an attempt to distract my attention from his next move of the bao stones. Aton does not enjoy losing, so he is not overly scrupulous about how he wins.
Aton has always been high on the list of my oldest and dearest friends. Like me he is a eunuch and was once a slave. During the period of his slavery, and long before he reached puberty, his master had singled him out for his exceptional
intellect and his acute mental powers. He wished to nurture and concentrate these gifts; and prevent them from being diluted by the distractions of his libido. Aton was an extremely valuable property and so his master employed the most renowned physician in Egypt to perform the castration. His master is long dead, but Aton has risen high above his slave status. He is now the chamberlain of the royal palace of Pharaoh at Thebes, but he is also a master of spies who administers a network of informers and clandestine agents across the civilized world. There is only one organization that exceeds his, and that is my own. In this, as in most things, we are in friendly competition with each other and very little gives us greater pleasure and satisfaction than to score a coup, the one over the other.
I enjoy his company immensely. He amuses and often surprises me with his good advice and perception. On occasion he can test my skill on the bao board. He is usually generous with his praise. But mostly he acts as a foil to my own genius.
Now both of us studied Bekatha, who was the younger of the royal princesses by almost two years, although you might not have guessed that fact, for she was tall for her age and already her breasts were beginning to swell and in the cool lagoon waters her nipples perked out jauntily. She was lithe, agile and she laughed readily. On the other hand she was possessed of a mercurial temper. Her features were nobly chiselled, her nose narrow and straight, her jaw strong and rounded and her lips finely arched. Her hair was thick and sparkled with glints of copper in the sunlight. She had inherited that from her father. Although she had not yet shown the red flower of womanhood, I knew that her time was not far off.
I love her, but truth to tell I love her elder sister a shade better.
Tehuti was the senior and the more beautiful of the two sisters. Whenever I looked upon her it seemed to me that I was seeing again her mother. Queen Lostris had been the one great love of my life. Yes, I had loved her as a man loves a woman. For unlike my friend Aton, I was gelded only after I had grown to full manhood and known the joy of a woman’s body. True it is that my love for Queen Lostris was never consummated for I was castrated before she was born, but it was all the more intense for never having been assuaged. I had nursed her as a child and had shepherded her through her long and joyous life, counselling her and guiding her, giving all of myself to her without stinting. In the end I held her in my arms as she died.
Before she went on into the underworld Lostris whispered to me something which I will never forget: ‘I have loved only two men in my life. You, Taita, were one of them.’
Those were the sweetest words I have ever heard spoken.
I planned and supervised the building of her royal tomb and laid her once beautiful but then wasted body in it, and I wished
that I could go with her into the nether world. However, I knew that I could not; for I had to stay and take care of her children as I had cared for her. Truly, this has not been an onerous burden, for my life has been enriched by this sacred charge.
At sixteen years of age Tehuti was already a woman fully fledged. Her skin was lustrous and unblemished. Her arms and her legs were slim and elegant as those of a dancer, or the limbs of her father’s great war bow which I had carved for him, and which I had placed on the lid of his sarcophagus before I sealed his tomb.
Tehuti’s hips were full but her waist was narrow as the neck of a wine jug. Her breasts were round and taut. The dense golden curls that covered her head were a gleaming glory. Her eyes were as green as her mother’s had been. She was lovely beyond the telling of it; and her smile wrung my heart whenever she turned it upon me. Her nature was gentle, slow to anger but fearless and strong-willed once she was roused.
I love her almost as much as I still love her mother. ‘You have done well with them, Taita.’ Aton gave praise unstintingly. 'They are the treasures which may yet save our very Egypt from the barbarian.’
In this, as with many other things, Aton and I were in full accord. This was the true reason why the two of us had come to this remote and secluded location; although everyone else in the palace, including Pharaoh himself, was convinced that we had met here to continue our endless rivalry across the bao board.
I did not respond at once to his remark, but I dropped my eyes to the board. Aton had made his latest move while I was still watching the girls. He was the most skilled player of this sublime game in Egypt, which was as good as saying ‘in the civilized world’. That is excepting for me, of course. I can usually best him in three games out of four.
Now, at a glance, I saw that this game would be one of my three. His last move had been ill considered. The layout of his stones was now unbalanced. It was one of the few flaws in his game that often, when he had convinced himself that victory was within his grasp, he threw caution to the winds and disregarded the rule of seven stones. Then he tended to concentrate his full attack from his south castle and allowed me to wrest control of either the east or the west from him. This time it was the east. I did not need a second invitation. I struck like a cobra.
He rocked back on his stool as he evaluated my surprise move, and when at last the sheer genius of it struck him, his face darkened with outrage and his voice choked, ‘I think that I hate you, Taita. And if I don’t, then I certainly ought to do so.’
‘I was lucky, old friend.’ I tried not to gloat. ‘Anyway, it’s only a game.’
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(Image: Flickr/Kate Hiscock)