“The gift of this ruby is the gift of eternal love,” the merchant said. “Use and give of it wisely.”
Thutmose held the ruby and measured the weight in his hand. The large gem seemed so heavy against his skin, and so dark red. The color reminded him of blood. Of the deep connection between souls. He needed this ruby. “I shall have it.”
“The price is steep,” the merchant said. “You will pay with your life.”
Pay with his life…every peddler thought he could use that line as a threat because of Thutmose’s wealth. He wasn’t scared of curses or prices. He’d made quite the nice fortune for himself through his dealings with the Pharaoh and his land holdings. The price of this gem wasn’t out of his reach. “I shall have it.”
“Very well.” The merchant accepted Thutmose’s payment and bowed. “The gem is yours. Guard it with your life.”
What an odd thing to say. Thutmose wrapped the gem in a scrap of cloth, then tucked the bundle in the pouch he kept on a strip of leather around his neck. He nodded to the peddler before the man left his home.
Thutmose left his couch and strode to the window. The gem weighed heavy around his neck, but also felt like a part of him now. Like he’d never been without it.
His lover, Azizi, stood beside him and slid his arm around Thutmose’s waist. “My beloved.”
He embraced Azizi. “How was your rest?”
“Not well.” Worry lines crinkled at the corners of Azizi’s eyes. “The Pharaoh knows about us.”
“So?” The Pharaoh had taken a great many lovers. What did Thutmose’s love life matter to one so great?
“He has demanded your presence.” Azizi trembled. “And mine.”
“We will see him.” He didn’t understand Azizi’s hesitance. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”
Azizi balled his hands on Thutmose’s chest. “The Pharaoh has demanded a price for us to stay together.”
“He has our allegiance.” Didn’t he? “Have you lost faith in the Pharaoh?”
“I have not.” Azizi hesitated again. “The Pharaoh believes we have upset the gods, therefore have upset him.”
“I know not.” Azizi touched the leather pouch. “Did you bring me a gift?”
“Not this time.” He wasn’t sure what he’d do with the precious gem, but he wasn’t ready to give it away. Did Azizi deserve such an expensive present? Thutmose wasn’t sure.
“You bought the gem,” Azizi said. “Is it as brilliant as I’m told?”
Why was Azizi so interested in the ruby? “It is.”
“You should give it as an offering to the Pharaoh. Maybe he will smile on us and allow us to be together,” Azizi said. “Maybe he will allow us into his personal confidences and we can attain a spot in the kingdom.”
“Is that what you want? For me to pay for us to be together?” He shouldn’t have to bribe the Pharaoh this way. Besides, the Pharaoh would never allow Azizi into the realm of the aristocracy, even through his connection to Thutmose—unless Azizi knew something more than he’d let on.
“The Pharaoh believes we should give him an offering.” Azizi let go of him. “Don’t you care about me? Enough to give up your precious gem? Will you help me become part of the inner circle? Or will you prevent me because…”
Thutmose paused. Did he? He didn’t want to give the ruby to anyone—not to buy the Pharaoh’s favor or to keep Azizi in his life. He wanted to be happy. To do that, he needed to get to the bottom of this. He didn’t understand what he’d done to upset the Pharaoh or to cause this problem. He served the Pharaoh diligently and never spoke out against the gods. Then again, he wasn’t sure what had brought on Azizi’s interest in becoming part of the aristocracy. Did he ever really love Thutmose? Was his association with Thutmose there only to improve his position in society? To get him closer to the Pharaoh? Thutmose hated having doubts, but he didn’t trust his lover. Not now.
“We shall see him today.” He’d get the situation handled once and for all.
“Very good, my beloved.” Azizi smiled, but the fear didn’t leave his eyes.
Thutmose never wanted to see his lover upset. He’d waited so long to find Azizi and refused to let anyone, even the Pharaoh, take him away. According to whisperings around the kingdom, the Pharaoh had many lovers of both sexes. Did he want another lover? Or did Azizi want something of the Pharaoh? That wouldn’t surprise Thutmose. Many of the workers and low born did anything possible to gain the favor of the kingdom.
The Pharaoh couldn’t have Azizi—not yet. But the conversation did irritate Thutmose. Why was Azizi so interested in the gem, too? What did he want with the ruby? He hated to wonder about his lover, but he’d learned so many others couldn’t be trusted. He didn’t want Azizi to be like them, but right now…he wasn’t sure.
Thutmose let go of his lover and gestured to his servants to leave. He and Azizi would speak to the Pharaoh at once and clear up this problem. The faster they did, the sooner they could get on with their lives.
* * * *
Thutmose entered the palace through the corridors meant for the aristocracy. He’d passed through these large doors more than a dozen times during previous visits to the palace. Azizi followed close behind him and his warmth seeped through to Thutmose’s soul. He needed the strength he believed he had in Azizi’s presence.
The royal guards allowed him into the throne room and Thutmose bowed his head. If he wanted the favor of the gods and the Pharaoh, then he had to offer reverence.
“You, this way.” One of the guards yanked Azizi away, leaving Thutmose alone.
Thutmose’s stomach roiled and he flattened his hands on his thighs to keep from showing his fear. As he stepped into the throne room, he blinked at the overt luxury in the space—the numerous couches, the opulence of the many jewels and all the gold. He blinked in the bright light of the space. The moment he spied the Pharaoh, he averted his gaze.
“You have requested my attention,” the Pharaoh said. “You wish to gain my favor. Step forward and explain yourself. Do you wish to make me happy?”
“I do, my king.” Thutmose kept his head down. “I’ve been told of your displeasure with me. How can I remedy the situation? What sacrifice do you wish of me?” He should’ve asked why he should be offering something to the Pharaoh. Why did he have to curry the favor of the king?
“There are many things you could do or offerings you could give.” The Pharaoh left his throne and strode around Thutmose. His jewelry glittered and jingled with each step. He trailed his fingers down Thutmose’s bare arm, then across his ass. “I’m told you’ve taken a lover.”
“I have, my king.” He wanted to glance back, but knew better. His attention should be focused on the Pharaoh. Where was Azizi? Hadn’t he been brought back?
The faint sound of screams filtered through to Thutmose. His spirit chilled and he fought the urge to look about. He knew that voice and scream—Azizi. “What have you done to my lover?” Thutmose blurted. He shouldn’t have spoken out of turn, but he needed to know why Azizi was in pain.
“Do you believe that what you have also belongs to the Pharaoh?” the king asked. “Your riches are mine, are they not? Your lover may be offered to me, no?”
He’d believed that until a short time ago, but not now. “My Pharaoh.”
“Do you disagree?”
“Have you harmed Azizi?” Or did he want to take Azizi as his own?
“You speak out of turn.” The Pharaoh curled his fingers under Thutmose’s chin, forcing him to look him in the eye. “I demand the price of your lover’s life for your disobedience.”
He nearly choked. Azizi’s life…for his… “How have I displeased you?” The question was moot. If Azizi was screaming, then most likely, he’d already been harmed. The Pharaoh had made up his mind.
“You see, I asked Azizi for his allegiance. For his affection and for an offering. He offered his body, but as for the riches, he declined. Imagine that? This man, of lowly birth, declined the wishes of the Pharaoh.” The Pharaoh curled his lip in a sneer. “No one disagrees with me without punishment.”
He knew this all too well. His brother had been killed for his disobedience. Would Azizi be killed, too?
“I expect payment from you in exchange for his life. Will you offer up something?” The Pharaoh touched the strip of leather on Thutmose’s chest. “This will do nicely.”
“No.” He would be risking his life, but he refused to give up the ruby. If the legend surrounding the gem was true, as the owner, he could only offer the gem to his true love. At the moment, he didn’t believe the man he’d thought he loved also loved him in return. “Has Azizi offered his body and love to you?” He’d spoken out of turn, but he didn’t care.
The Pharaoh glared at him. “Your lover has declared his love for me. If I choose to keep him, he will be mine and no longer yours—unless you’d like to offer up the ruby in exchange for him. Would you?”
“I cannot give you the ruby.” He wouldn’t. The love between him and Azizi wasn’t true, not if Azizi would willingly give himself up to the Pharaoh.
“You disobey me?” The Pharaoh’s question thundered through the throne room. He yanked on the leather cord, but the hide refused to break. “I demand you convey your riches to me. Including this.” He yanked again, but the cord didn’t give.
A burning started in Thutmose’s chest. He coughed, but didn’t back down. “The ruby is only to be given to my dearest love.”
“Dearest love?” The Pharaoh narrowed his eyes. “Then it is true. You’ve purchased the rare ruby. The gem of love. You have it and refuse to offer it to me.”
“Yes, my king.” He gritted his teeth. “I cannot give it to anyone not my dearest love.”
“Do you not love your Pharaoh? Are you not devoted to me?”
“I am.” But the Pharaoh wasn’t his dearest love. Apparently neither was Azizi.
“You would accept the love of your lowly born lover over me? And you wouldn’t offer the gem in order to save your lover?” The Pharaoh raked his fingernails down Thutmose’s bare chest. “You’ve displeased me. Your heart, body and riches should belong to me. To the kingdom. You vowed to belong to me once. Why not again?”
He said nothing. His allegiances belonged to the Pharaoh, but his heart belonged to Azizi.
“Very well.” The Pharaoh let go and stepped away from Thutmose. “I’ve given you plenty of time to obey. For your actions, I curse you to death, but not any death. You have been found guilty of declining to acquiesce to the Pharaoh’s wishes and your punishment is mummification. You will be parted from that ruby, the rest of your riches as well as your life. Your mummy will rot and you will be ignored by the ages. True love can’t save you. Nothing can.” He snapped his fingers.
A servant brought in Azizi, who then sat beside the Pharaoh. Azizi rested his head on the Pharaoh’s lap.
“You should’ve given him the gem.” Azizi stroked the Pharaoh’s thigh. “Now you’ll pay with your life.”
Another servant grasped Thutmose’s arm. Pain surged through Thutmose. When he looked down at his chest, the tip of a blade poked through his skin and the hilt jammed into his back. His entire body ached and red blood spread down his torso. He’d never known pain this deep or such a full betrayal.
“If I cannot have the gem, then no one can.” The Pharaoh stood over Thutmose as he collapsed on the floor. “Mummify him. Now. I want him to suffer.”
Thutmose couldn’t believe what was happening. He swore he heard someone—maybe the Pharaoh—demand the servants search him for the gem. Let them. He was dying. He didn’t need a ruby now. He’d rather have his life.