The Throne in the Heart of the Sea

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Excerpts from The Throne in the Heart of the Sea

Pharaoh’s Birthday

Tamar approached the delivery door and engaged the guards in conversation about an earring she might’ve dropped in the vicinity. While they lowered their torches to search for it, Ziphia slipped out. A few moments later Tamar gave up on the fictitious earring and sprinted across the plaza.

Ziphia was waiting in the appointed spot, under one of the palm trees along the Processional Way. “That was very clever,” she said.

“Be harder to get you back in.”

“We’ll figure something out,” she said airily. “Tell me where we’re going.”

“How about the Egyptian Quarter? They’re having some kind of celebration.”

“Oh, yes. Pharaoh’s birthday. My father said something about it the other day.”

They zigzagged through side streets toward the southern harbor, but upon reaching their destination, found that the parades had ended hours ago and most of the food was gone.

“I’m sorry,” Tamar said. “I forgot their day starts at dawn instead of sunset.”

“No need to apologize. I couldn’t have left then anyway.”

The revelry would continue by torchlight, though. Men formed dance lines on one side of the street, women on the other. Ziphia pulled Tamar through the crowd to join them. Thought ceased and Tamar became the rhythm, her eyes mesmerized by the sway of dancers in front of her, stealing a glance at Ziphia whose lids were half-closed her smile dreamlike, at the drummers whose arms were a muscular blur, at the tall Nubian mandola player, the clarinetist with the snakes’ nest of braids whose shoulders shimmied as she blew an extended, throbbing descant

and then the number was over. “I’d like a beer,” Ziphia said, and Tamar elbowed her way to the refreshment booths and brought back two jars. They drank and danced until Tamar reached the point of intoxication where fatigue seemed banished forever. “I wish I could get on a boat to Egypt,” she confided in her new friend. “Lots of other places, too. Kittim. Tarshish.”

“Su-u-re,” Ziphia replied in a soft not-quite-slurred voice. “Sounds like fun.”

“Maybe we could go travel together.”

“Su-u-re, why not. Next time, okay?”

Tamar glanced up at the moon. “It’s past midnight.”

They returned to the dark, silent dorm and crept along behind the shrubbery, bent double, hoping to find at least one unguarded entrance. No luck. “Holy Mother,” Ziphia whispered. “Make them fall asleep on the job, just this once.”

“They change shifts at sunrise. And there’s bound to be lots of people going in and out. Why don’t we wait till then and sneak you up before the first service?”

“Meanwhile, let’s sit under this myrtle bush and freeze.”

“No, no, let’s go to my room.”

Arzeh snorted when the door creaked. Tamar waited until her roommate’s breathing became regular again, then motioned Ziphia in. They undressed in silence and slid into the narrow bed. “I’m cold,” Ziphia whispered. Tamar wrapped her arms around her companion. The pressure of Ziphia’s buttocks against her loins kept Tamar awake for a long time, surprised at a hunger far beyond what she’d imagined she could feel, even for Leviah.

A rhythmic tapping startled her into wakefulness. She leaped up to answer before the others were disturbed. The stars had begun to fade. Outside her door, the gray-eyed mutarajjul blinked and frowned, a lantern in one hand, a folded blue robe in the other. “Tell Ziphia she forgot this. And that her servants beg her not to do things that might get us all punished.”

An Uninvited Guest

A troupe of Beduin girls danced across the plaza, singing songs Elijah remembered from the rare occasions when the Ma’akko held a formal wedding. The crowd parted to let them pass. Elijah seized the moment and followed them, singing along:

Everyone dance
To welcome the bride
Thrust a lance
In the Envious Eye

The girls turned to look at him, their painted faces creased with smiles. He moved closer to them and started another song:

Tonight they light the tent
As bright as noon
Tomorrow they rise like falcons
No hunter can arrest their flight

He danced after the Beduin girls, through the palace gates past the smiles of the guards, detached himself from the line as they ascended the steps to the upper floor where the bride had to be waiting with her companions, and linked arms with the noblemen circling the inner courtyard, switching his tempo to match theirs as they stomped and kicked, the music hard and fast and musky, a perfume mixed with mansweat –

and there: the tallest man in the innermost of the concentric circles, owl cheeks flushed with exertion, feet flying, bull chest heaving, the unmistakable image of his father Omri.

Elijah’s shoulders throbbed in anticipation of combat, and he tasted metal.

It was like hunting. The only thing in the world was Ahab. He let his mind be a still pond to mirror the quarry until the last moment, until he would move in for the kill. Between dances the men ate and drank, all except the groom who had to fast and Elijah who could not imagine putting anything into his mouth. Each time the circles re-formed he drew nearer to the center.

The music changed and the nobles dropped each other’s arms and spun like tops, the hems of their gold-threaded garments flaring out; eventually each orbit would cross every other –

“Hey! What you got there?”

By the time the words registered there was a rough hand on Elijah’s shoulder, yanking him to one side, and another hand grasping the hem of the borrowed cloak, and he reached frantically for the dagger but one of Ahab’s guards had already extracted it from his hagorah.

“Didn’t I tell you the fucker was armed?” A fist slammed into Elijah’s midsection. Instinctively he tightened the muscles of his abdomen and exhaled sharply just as the blow hit and it hurt like hell but he could still breathe. He threw a punch and his opponent’s head snapped back and then the others were on him, grunting and cursing, and he was down. He covered his head with his arms, curled to protect his belly, rolled away from the kicks –

“Ilyas!”

Then he saw Tamar’s face, ash-brown, all the blood drained from it, mouth opening and closing, her hands tearing at a guardsman, and he wondered, What are you doing here? The guard threw her off and slammed her into the wall. She slid to the ground like a discarded dress. It was an agony to him that he couldn’t protect her. He kicked upward and caught a guard in the balls and the man screamed and he saw the knife come out and wept because he’d failed to avenge his father and now his own death was upon him.

His hands were sticky red, his hair dripping red falling into his face, occluding his vision.

“Stop, stop!” Another female voice, screaming. “No bloodshed!” Elijah raised his head long enough to catch a glimpse of a blue blur leaning over the balcony. Then darkness.

Copyright © 2010 & 2014 Martha Shelley

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