AMENHOTEP THE MAGNIFICENT knocked back a stiff jolt of red wine as he shuffled into the sunlit throne room.
Once upon a time the pharaoh had been lean and muscular, a warrior feared throughout the known world. He was also said to have had sexual relations with more than five hundred consorts and concubines.
Now he was “prosperous,” which was a polite way of saying that his great belly preceded him wherever he went.
“You’ll get fat from all that wine,” cooed Tiye, his queen and favorite wife—possibly because she had a sense of humor that matched his own.
“Too late.” Amenhotep slurred his words noticeably. “At least a dozen years too late.”
Just back from a morning of sailing, Tiye had entered from the main hall without fanfare, her sandaled feet quietly slapping the tile floor. The queen had full lips, a pleasingly ample bosom, and wore a white linen dress with vertical blue stripes that was cinched at her narrow waist.
They both knew why she’d come to see him today.
“Pharaoh,” she said, standing over him, “we must talk. This one time you must listen to a woman, my love. You must.”
Amenhotep pretended to ignore his queen. He thought about swabbing a little opium on his abscessed teeth, just to take the edge off, and then maybe having a nap before dinner. No. First a visit to the lovely Resi over at the harem for a midafternoon romp, then sleep. Resi had an even larger bosom than Tiye, and she was a better actress in bed. Amenhotep got a happy feeling just thinking about the whore.
Up in Memphis, the northern capital of his kingdom, the bureaucrats would be pestering him with crop reports and tax estimates. Nothing but meetings all day long. Yes, Egypt needed officials like that; the country would be a lawless backwater without the legion of clerks. But after three decades in power, Amenhotep needed a break.
Which is why he loved Thebes much more than Memphis.
Thebes, just a week’s journey up the Nile from Memphis, was so different than the northern capital, it might as well have been in a separate country. In Thebes a pharaoh could bask for hours in the desert sun, drink wine whenever he wanted, and make love to his entire harem—a dozen beauties, each selected by him—without a single bureaucratic interruption. In Thebes a pharaoh had time to think, to dream. In Thebes the pharaoh answered to no one—except his wife.
Amenhotep looked up at Tiye. “I am a fat old pharaoh who is no longer fit to rule this kingdom. Is that what you’re about to say? I am a whoremaster without a conscience? What am I? Tell me.”
Tiye bit her tongue. In many ways, she loved this fat old man, this deity. But now Amenhotep was dying. Decisions had to be made before it was too late—for Egypt, and for its queen.
“All right,” he said with a sigh. “Let’s talk. I’m dying. What of it?”