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Lord of the Nile
By Constance O'Banyon
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2007 Evelyn Gee
All right reserved.
Lady Danaë paced the corridor outside her father's bedchamber, as restless as the wild cats she trained. She had never known fear until now, and that fear was not for herself, but for the health of her beloved father. He had always been such a robust man, but in the past few days his health had failed; he'd stopped eating, and she was watching him waste away to a frail shadow of the man who had guided her life.
When the physician finally emerged from her father's room, her heart sank when she saw the concerned frown on his face. Tall and reedlike, Tobolt had bushy eyebrows that arched above intelligent eyes. Danaë had known Tobalt all her life; he was like a member of the family. She could tell by the grim expression in his dark eyes that the news he had to tell her was not good.
"Your father will see you now," Tobolt said gravely. "Don't let him know that you are worried."
"Tobolt, be honest with me. What is his condition?"
The physician's gaze hit the floor so he wouldn't have to look into the young woman's eyes. "It grieves me to tell you your father's life can only be measured in days, perhaps hours." He patted her hand. "But you have known for some time this time would come. You have seen his health failing daily."
Danaë dropped down onto a stool and hung her head. Until now she had not allowed herself to admit how ill her father had become. Feeling immeasurable sorrow, she raised her head and searched the physician's eyes. "Only yesterday Father roused a bit and took some broth and a few sips of wine. Is that not a good-"
"Lady Danaë, do not cling to idle hope. You know in your heart your father is passing out of this world-into the next."
Her eyes filled with scalding tears, and she could hardly speak. "Is there naught you can do for him?"
Tobolt looked at her sadly. "The sickness that eats at his entrails has spread to other organs of his body. I have no skill to heal him and can only make his passing as painless as possible." He shook his head regretfully. "He refuses to take the medicine that will help ease his pain until he has spoken to you. Go to him now, and try not to tire him."
Not wanting her father to suffer needlessly, Danaë rose and gathered her strength to face what she must. When she entered the bedchamber, the air was heavy with the aroma of incense and healing herbs. Her heart was breaking as she gazed at the shrunken figure on the bed. His eyes were closed, and she dropped down onto a stool beside him, not wanting to disturb him if he was sleeping. She lowered her head and silently asked Isis to send peace to her father on his journey to the afterlife.
"My dearest child," her father said, lightly touching her hair. "Do not grieve for me. I go to tame animals for the gods, and I will be happy there-can you not think of my leaving in that way?"
She raised her head, her fingers trembling as they closed around his frail hand. "For your sake, I shall try."
He gave her a weak smile and then glanced away from her as if something weighed heavily on his mind. "I have much to relate, and I fear I have selfishly put it off for too long."
"There is no need to talk," she urged gently. "Please save your strength, Father."
"Danaë, this must be said-pay heed to me-listen well, for the rest of your life may depend on what you do after I am gone."
"I shall carry on as if you were still guiding my steps and giving me counsel," she said in a choked voice.
"Nay!" Lord Mycerinus's voice came out more harshly than he had intended, and he attempted to raise his head, but dropped back weakly against his headrest, gasping to catch his breath.
"Please don't distress yourself on my account, Father," she pleaded, fighting tears. "I would not have you be concerned about my future."
"Danaë, I wonder if you can forgive me after I tell you what I have kept hidden from you all these years. Keeping your mother's secret seemed the right thing to do at the time." He spread his hands in despair. "But now-"
She frowned. "You don't need to tell me that my mother was not of Egyptian blood-I already know that. I once overheard you and Minuhe talking-you were telling her that my mother had named me after her own Greek mother. I have also noticed that my skin is not dark like that of an Egyptian of full blood."
"That much is true," he admitted reluctantly, "but that is not what I have to tell you. Go to the big chest in the corner and bring me the small jeweled box you find inside."
She did as he bid, then dropped back onto the stool, running her fingers over the green silk box inset with rare green turquoise. "I have not seen this before, Father."
He closed his eyes, waiting for a bout of dizziness to pass. "Open it and remove what you find inside."
Danaë raised the lid and gasped as she lifted out a pendant in the shape of a coiled cobra. Never before had she seen an emerald as large as the one in the cobra's sunken eye. She met her father's gaze. "The cobra is a royal symbol. Was this given to you by the king when he made you Royal Animal Trainer?"
"'Tis not mine-it belonged to your mother, and now to you. Place it around your neck and never take it off-but take precautions ... keep it hidden from all prying eyes."
Puzzled, Danaë fastened the chain about her neck, the weight of the cobra falling between her breasts. She looked into her father's troubled eyes while a voice inside her head warned her he was about to divulge something she would rather not know. "You need not say anything more."
Lord Mycerinus gripped her hand as another pain hit him. Gasping, he waited until it passed before he spoke. "I've allowed you to look upon me as your father, and in this I have misled you."
Unease was growing in Danaë's mind. "You are my father."
After a long pause, Lord Mycerinus slowly shook his head. "No, you are not the child of my body, but you have always been the child of my heart. Keep that thought with you and try not to judge me too harshly."
It took Danaë a moment to find her voice, and when she did, it was hardly above a whisper. "I'm not your daughter?"
"Listen well, and try to forgive me. The year my own father died and left me lord of this household and lands, I was but a young man of nineteen years-two years older than you are now. It became prudent for me to make a journey down the Nile to Alexandria to purchase field slaves for the upcoming harvest. I'd never been so far from home without my father, and the sights and sounds of the city were like nectar to me."
Danaë felt like a brittle piece of papyrus that had been left too long in the sun to dry. She was ready to collapse from the anguish that cut through her. Her father blinked his eyes, and she saw tears in their shimmering depths. "You don't have to tell me this if it grieves you so."
Lord Mycerinus weakly raised his hand as if to silence her. "The crowd was sparse because it was two days before market day. I bought five slaves and was about to leave when I spied the figure of a woman huddled in the shadows. I asked the slave master to bring her into the light so I could better see her. When he led her forward and jerked off her soiled headdress, I stared at the loveliest woman I'd ever beheld-and the most frightened. I soon discovered why the slave master had been hesitant to bring her to the block-she was heavy with child. As you know, not many would buy a woman who is about to give birth, because the cost would be for the slave and the unborn child-the price of two. And many slaves die in childbirth, as happened to my beautiful Eilana."
Danaë felt as if some unseen force squeezed her heart; it took a moment to catch her breath. Everything she had believed in was a lie-the man she had loved like a father was, in fact, not her father at all. And her mother had been a slave!
Lord Mycerinus's eyes suddenly became clear as if his pain had subsided a bit. "The moment your mother raised her head to me that day and I gazed into her sad eyes, I was hit by a love so strong I had to drop back against the wall to remain standing. If only the slave master had known I would not have left there without Eilana, he could have asked any price and I would have paid it. I brought her home with me and took her as my beloved wife. Although she was loving to me, I always knew her heart belonged to another. But this I did not mind, for I loved her, and wanted only her happiness.
"All too soon, I held her in my arms as she lay dying." He turned his full attention on Danaë. "But I always had a part of my Eilana with me because I had you. You have been my most precious gift, and I have often thanked the gods for such a daughter."
Tears gathered behind Danaë's eyes, but she struggled to prevent them from falling. "If you are not my father, then who is?"
"Eilana told me naught about her past life, and I didn't press her. She did beg me to guard you well and keep you safe. I know that she had greatness somewhere in her lineage, perhaps even royalty, but the tomb holds its secrets, and you will most probably never know your mother's true identity. Perhaps that is for the best."
Lord Mycerinus nodded at the pendant. "You have already guessed that is no trinket, and it probably holds the key to unlock your heritage. But I caution you to leave it alone. Your mother was terrified of something, or someone, from her past, and there must have been a reason for her concern."
Danaë was confused, hurt, devastated. "Father," she cried in agony, going down on her knees and clutching his hand. "No daughter of your blood could love you more than I."
He gently touched her hand. "Promise me you will always think of me as your father. Promise!"
She tried to smile but could not. "That is a promise easy to keep."
From his expression and the way he avoided her gaze, Danaë knew he had more to tell her. "I have kept my promise to your mother, but I must go further and explain to you why I cannot leave you my land and possessions."
"I beg you, don't speak of such things, Father. It is of little matter to me."
"You must know that if you remain here you will be in danger. I see you can guess of whom I speak."
Danaë nodded. "My cousin, Harique." She shuddered; just invoking the name brought to mind the image of the man she despised above all others. "Harique is your nephew-your true blood. It is only right that he should inherit from you."
"Nay, that is not the reason," Lord Mycerinus said, taking a deep breath. "He knows the circumstances of your birth and that you are not my true daughter. If you are named my heir, Harique has threatened to expose your background and claim you as his slave. I can no longer protect you when I have gone to the afterlife."
Danaë well remembered how repulsed she had been whenever Harique turned his lustful gaze upon her. She shuddered with disgust just thinking about him. Harique had been blessed by the gods with a handsome face and a strong body-but inside he was malevolent and lecherous. Danaë had always taken great care to avoid being alone with him on the occasions he'd visited the villa. "You think he will force me to marry him."
"As bad as that would be, it will never happen," Lord Mycerinus said with conviction. "He already has a wife, and should he put her aside, he would lose her wealth. And I know Tila well enough to guess she would never allow Harique to have a second wife."
Fear and sorrow battled for control of Danaë's battered emotions. "What, then, must I do?"
"I have made arrangements so your future will be secure," Mycerinus told her. "I would have done all this sooner, but my nephew was in the north with Ptolemy's legions. May I be forgiven for praying the gods would strike him down in battle. For had he died, you would have gone through life believing I was your true father. As it is, Harique has already heard of my illness, and my informant tells me he and his entourage are within days of the villa. You must be gone before he arrives."
"I'll not leave you, Father," Danaë said with a stubborn tilt to her chin. "Don't ask it of me."
"Heed me well. You are to go to Uriah in Alexandria-he is the only person I trust with your safety. You will leave before first light on the morrow."
Uriah was a Jew who had been Danaë's teacher for many years, and she loved him almost as much as her father. Uriah now handled her father's affairs in Alexandria, as well as other parts of Egypt. Under his skillful management, Mycerinus's holdings had doubled. But even the joy of being reunited with her beloved teacher failed to lessen her pain. "Father ..." A tightness in Danaë's throat kept her from speaking. She swallowed several times and buried her head against his shoulder. Finally she raised her head and looked into his eyes. "I cannot go from you at this time-you need me."
Lord Mycerinus's voice suddenly became stern. "As you love me, Daughter, you will do what I say. I have given Uriah instructions concerning your future. Faraji, my most trusted guard, will stay at your side. Have no fear-all has been arranged."
Looking at Danaë, Lord Mycerinus saw so much of her mother in her. She had the same black hair and delicate bone structure-the same brilliant green eyes. Her features, so unlike those of Egyptian women, had caused Danaë a great deal of embarrassment because people often stared at her when she ventured outside her home. She was so innocent, she had never realized it was her unusual beauty that drew attention.
She looked at the old man sadly. He had always been a wonderful father to her-patient and understanding, never raising his voice in anger even when she made mistakes. He had seen that she was well educated and had inspired her with love for the written word. They had shared a passion for the animals they'd trained together, and she wondered what she would do without him in her life.
"I will do as you say, Father," she assured him. "But know that my heart is breaking."
"As is mine."
She saw his jaw tighten and knew the matter was causing him undue distress. Calling on all her fortitude, she vowed to herself she would make it through their last moments together without crying. "I'll go to Uriah in Alexandria as you wish. But what about Obsidian and Tyi-I cannot leave them behind."
"The leopard and your falcon would both die of grief if they were separated from you." He paused as pain ripped through him. After a moment, he said, "Their transport has been arranged."
"I am afraid, Father," Danaë admitted.
"Overcome your fear and uncertainty, my daughter-put your sadness aside for now. Trust that I am doing what is best. I've seen great strength in you, and you will need it for what lies ahead. There are tasks you must undertake for me when you reach Alexandria."
"Jabatus, the cheetah, you are to deliver to the palace. Seven days ago a dispatch arrived from young King Ptolemy-he requested an exotic cat, and Jabatus is worthy of a king. When you give the cat to King Ptolemy, you must take no payment, but present him as a gift."
"If that is your wish."
His fingers gently drifted down her cheek. "My child, I've been laying down good will for your future. It is my hope that King Ptolemy will take you under his protection." He grimaced in pain. "Should Harique cause you trouble, I am counting on the king to remember your generosity and stand as your friend." He blinked his eyes as if trying to recall what he wanted to say. "In your name, I have sent to Kheleel, the high priest of Isis, the albino tiger skin. Kheleel can be a very powerful ally and will look on you with favor as the donor of a rare and valuable gift."
Danaë knew that both the cheetah and the albino skin were worth a king's ransom. "I understand."
Lord Mycerinus attempted to smile, but it came out as a pained grimace. "I'm hoping the king will bestow my title on you. Although the title has never gone to a female, I have told him about your talent each time I stood before him. There is not a wild creature you cannot tame if it has never been corrupted by eating uncooked flesh." He sighed, looking into her eyes. "Be cautious of those who stand beside the young king-they are cunning and conniving."
Excerpted from Lord of the Nile by Constance O'Banyon Copyright © 2007 by Evelyn Gee. Excerpted by permission.
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