"I welcome all of you to the city of Thebes," Sethos said, addressing the crowd gathered in the forecourt. "For the next few days, you will live and train here on the palace grounds, and then the trials will begin."
There was a quiet murmuring among the crowd.
"You will not be told of the tasks beforehand," the Pharaoh went on. "Learning to cope with the unexpected is one of the qualifications required of a priest or priestess. Trials will begin in three days' time; I suggest that you use that time to rest and prepare, for the ones who pass them to the most satisfactory level will receive the training they need to claim priesthood."
With his proclamation made, Sethos retreated to his throne room.
"Do you want me to send for the girl to speak with you?" asked Mana.
"Yes; it is best if we get a description of the spies now; if they come back, we can have lookouts posted to capture them," he agreed. "Send her in."
Mana bowed and left. Sethos chose the moment of solitude to reflect upon Kisara. She would enjoy the chance to take flight and battle, and he, of course, would be happy to see her again. Ever since he ascended the throne, he had searched through dozens upon dozens of spellbooks in the hopes that he could find some way to reverse the damage that Akhenaden had done to her. But nothing he found came even remotely close to doing so.
But he was also remembering what she had told him a month ago. She had been right; Egypt would need a queen. But couldn't it have been her? He loathed the thought of searching through the entire Two Lands just to find a queen.
"My Pharaoh?" asked a voice.
Sethos turned to see the travel-weary girl standing before him. She wasn't at all what he had expected her to look like; for some reason or another, she looked too… familiar.
"You sent for me, my Pharaoh?" she asked, bowing before him.
"Yes; I have some questions concerning the thieves you met at the roadside," the king replied. "I have reason to believe that they are spies."
"And so they took my horse to hurry back to tell their leader about these trials that are to be held?" she inquired.
"So it seems," said Sethos. "But before I question you about them further, I wish to know the name of the one I am speaking to."
"I come from Ijtahwy, my King; I am Túaa, daughter of Ráa, who was the former commander of one of the battalions during the time of Akhunamkhanen," she said. "He, and our entire family, were at Thebes several years ago when he retired. He was presented with honors that day, by Pharaoh Akhunamkhanen. On that day, my elder brother and I got to speak with the Pharaoh's son. If you don't mind me saying, my Pharaoh, you were present at that meeting."
"Of course; that is why she is so familiar," Sethos thought to himself. He remembered the meeting now; it was soon after he had attained priesthood himself. Akhunamkhanen had asked him to ensure the safety of Atem (though Sethos had not known that Atem was his cousin at the time). Sethos had tried to remain aloof during Atem's meeting with the two siblings, but he somehow ended up being pulled into the conversation.
"You wished for me to give you the description of the thieves?" Túaa asked, as Sethos stood in silence.
"There were a dozen of them, all wearing black robes," she recalled. "They seemed to know our language, but not very well. They tried to trick me by saying that one of their friends was ill, but I didn't fall for it. However, I was distracted, and so they took my horse. I summoned my spirit ka; it has the power to lull anyone into a bewitched slumber. I had half of them falling asleep, and the others took them and fled before I had a change to use any more heka."
"Half of them were asleep!?" the Pharaoh repeated. "And you say they were on foot?"
"Yes, my king. They were heading away from the western gate."
"Then they couldn't have gone far," Sethos realized. "Mana!"
"My Pharaoh?" she asked, entering the room with a bow.
"Send some soldiers out to search the area beyond the western gate," he ordered. "Tell them to be on the lookout for men with black robes, carrying unconscious companions. And if they are found, have them brought before me."
"At once," she agreed. With another bow, she departed.
Sethos turned back to Túaa.
"I thank you for your help," he said. "I suggest that you return to--"
"We've caught one!" cried Mana, racing back to the throne room.
"Impossible; the soldiers could not have even left yet!" Sethos replied, stunned.
"Oh, they're about to search for the other ones; but they didn't find this one!" she said, her face alight with happiness. "My king, you must see this for yourself!"
Perplexed, Sethos entered the forecourt, where he was astounded to see the new arrivals reacting to the arrival of a large elephant.
"What is the meaning of this!?" he asked.
A blond-haired youth waved from the top of the creature.
"Tell Pharaoh Akhunamkhanen that I have returned at last with the elephant he sent me to get!" the young man called.
"Is that Jono?" Sethos asked, in disbelief.
"Yes!" exclaimed Mana. "Do you not remember? A couple years ago, Pharaoh Akhunamkhanen sent Jono to India to bring him the strongest elephant he could find to use in battle! And not only has Jono returned with the elephant, but he has also captured one of the spies!"
"Who is Jono?" asked Túaa, staring at the giant elephant.
"He is the palace stable-hand," Mana explained. "I was beginning to wonder if he would ever return. And now, he has!"
"Wonderful…" the Pharaoh replied, sarcasm evident in his voice; he and Jono had never gotten along that well, although Atem had viewed Jono with deep respect.
"I see you haven't changed a bit, Master Sethos!" the young man said, with a grin. "Never mind; I must speak to the Pharaoh at once!"
There was an awkward silence.
"Much has happened since you left, Jono," said Mana, unsure of how to break the news to him. "You picked the wrong two years to go abroad."
"What are you saying?"
"I am the Pharaoh, Jono…" Sethos replied, with a roll of his blue eyes.
Jono stared at him for a moment, and then began to laugh.
"Very hilarious, Master Sethos!"
"Jono…" said Mana, in a tone that conveyed the seriousness of the matter. Jono paused in mid-chuckle.
"You… You are not jesting, then?" he asked, stunned. "But… how could he be the Pharaoh? Whatever happened to Prince A--"
"Do not say his name!" Sethos, Mana, and Túaa said at the same time.
"I am sorry, Jono; it has been a trying time for all of us," said Mana. "We will explain everything to you tomorrow; I assume that you are exhausted from your long journey, anyway."
"Yes, I suppose…" he said, realizing that his friend Atem was no longer among them. "Oh, but what about our guest?"
"What guest?" asked Sethos, already having his forecourt filled with magicians. The last thing he needed was another one who needed lodgings.
"Well, I had to bring the elephant's trainer, did I not?" asked Jono, and he glanced at the younger, raven-haired boy who was speaking to the elephant in his own tongue. "Here is where you introduce yourself…"
"Great Pharaoh of Egypt," said the young man, apparently having learned how to speak the Egyptian language from Jono. "I am Kubera, keeper of this elephant. I have been her keeper since five years, and I promise you that she is a good, powerful elephant with much life in her. I shall remain here only as long as it takes to train the rest of your stable-hands in caring for this elephant. I assure you that I will return to my homeland after that."
"And how does a mere child come to be the keeper of an elephant?" asked Sethos, eyebrows slightly raised.
"I am an orphan, great Pharaoh," he replied. "My family used to raise and train elephants for our king, but, one day, our village was raided by thieves." The boy looked away. "By the end of it, I was the only member of my family left, and several of our elephants were stolen. When your stable-hand arrived asking for an elephant and trainer, I decided to sell all of the remaining elephants, and bring this one to you. But you can imagine my shock and horror when I saw the very same thieves from all those years ago scurrying about the outskirts of this very city! My elephant, Ruby, recognized them; she rendered this one unconscious with a blow from her trunk." He indicated the bound thief in their custody.
"And you are certain that these are the same scoundrels who attacked your village?"
"Yes, my Pharaoh," said Kubera, the bitterness evident in his voice. "They devastated the village. That was partly why I was happy to sell most of the remaining elephants; they had ruined my family business so much so that it will be easier to simply start over when I return."
Sethos recalled his first meeting with Kisara, all those years ago. That was when he realized that the thieves who had captured her that fateful night must have been sent from the same source, too. And they had destroyed that village he had been staying in, just as they had done to Kubera's village.
A frown crossed his face; attacking villages, stealing horses and elephants, capturing people… what were they up to? Who sent them? And what was their grand master scheme?
"They cannot be mere thieves; had that been the case, they would have relieved the Ijtahwy girl of her valuables, and perhaps even captured her, as well," he thought, glancing at Túaa. "I am more certain than ever that they are spies, and whoever sent them is planning to launch a battle, especially since the Two Lands have been weakened by Zorc's attack. I must progress with the trials as soon as possible; if we are attacked before the royal court is reconstructed, it will mean disaster. It will take the testimony of this girl and the elephant's trainer to prevent such a thing from occurring; I must know more about these spies."
"My Pharaoh?" asked Túaa, noticing the king's concerned expression. "Is there anything I can do?"
"At the moment, no," Sethos replied. "I suggest you return to the tent that has been set up for you. Prepare yourselves for the tasks ahead. And that goes for all the rest of you!" he added, to the assembled crowd of magicians, who hastily retreated to their tents.
Túaa bowed and left.
"Is there a place in the stable large enough for Ruby?" asked Kubera.
"I am certain," said Jono. "Akhunamkhanen would have prepared for her arrival. You can leave her there, and I will show you to the stable-hands' quarters."
"No," said Sethos. "He has volunteered to leave his homeland to aid us. Mana, show the boy to one of the guest wings."
"Great King, I cannot," Kubera said. "I am but a lowly elephant keeper--"
"You are a guest of the Two Lands," Sethos insisted. "As such, you will be treated as one."
"Then allow me to pay for my stay here--"
"You can do so by telling me everything about those thieves tomorrow," Sethos replied.
Kubera bowed deeply from atop the elephant.
"Rest assured, great and noble Pharaoh, I shall tell you all I know," he replied. "And when I return, I shall be sure to tell my people of the benevolence of the Pharaoh of Egypt."
"Will that be all, my king?" asked Mana.
"For you, yes," he replied. "Jono, see to it that the scoundrel in your custody is imprisoned; I will question him myself tomorrow."
"Yes, my Pharaoh," he replied, and he paused to glare at the captured thief, who merely glared back.
With that, Kubera led the elephant to the stables, and Mana accompanied them to later lead the raven-haired boy to the guest wings.
With a sigh, Sethos retreated to his own chamber and began to pace the length of the room. All of the training he had received in his younger days had been as a priest; never had he imagined that he would one day take on the role of Pharaoh. And yet, he knew that he had to; the dynasty had barely begun. He could not and would not allow it to fall.
Training or no training, he would not let his cousin's sacrifice be in vain.