The king slumped in his cedar and ivory chair and almost rested his head on his fist. But it was needful to make some pretence of respect to the ambassador of his nominal overlord — however theoretical that overlordship had been these twenty years of religious and political upheaval.
Torch and candlelight warmed the cedar beams of Daoud son of Yishay’s new hall, and the olive oil in the lamps was the sweetest-smelling of last year’s pressing, mingling with the fresh, spicy scent of Hiram’s gift. The glitter of gold here and there on the pillars and the king’s chair was almost respectable for a petty king in the hills, although nothing like the inhumanly-scaled monumental stone and blinding garish colors the Egyptian ambassador was no doubt accustomed to.
Daoud’s men bore every appearance of waiting with bated breath for the divine gift of a word from Pharaoh. Yehu-Shafat, the head of administration, was prominent in a reddish Tyrian robe that skirted the edges of forbidden purple. The Kohanim, Zadok and Avi-Athar, alike in the blue and white and jewels of their station, but staring daggers at each other when either thought himself unobserved. Daoud’s uncle and chief counselor Yehonatan was content to appear as drab as any upcountry sheepherder, but the dense weave of his cloak and its subtle stripes were as rich as any dyed and embroidered frippery. A far cry from the old days, camping in dank caves one step ahead of Peleshet or angry farmers.
A gaggle of scribes herded by Seri-Yah and Shemai-Yah sat cross-legged in the corners taking notes on potsherds. Only Ayab the general of the army was missing, maintaining the siege of Rabba. Daoud would envy him, but as a month in the field had just proved, sitting on your arse in the mud dodging the occasional feeble arrow and watching the defenders grow imperceptibly thinner day after day was not exactly the height of martial excitement. Daoud and Ayab had done it right when they captured Urusalim — was it already seven years ago? None of this siege nonsense; they hadn’t had the forces, anyway. Up the water shaft, a silent dagger for the guards at the gate, and old Abdi-Heba — whose letters to an absentee Pharaoh, which Daoud had intercepted and then sent on in amusement, had grown increasingly and entertainingly frantic — found himself without a city.
The ambassador’s scribe was reading sonorously:
To Dadua, the ruler of Uru-Salim, say:
Daoud saw Yehu-Shafat wince. When he was young, barely able to press a wedge into a lump of clay, he had been the only thing resembling a scribe available to Labayu of Shechem, who had incurred the irritation of Pharaoh more than once in his hardscrabble campaign to unite the fractious Habiru tribes and repulse the Peleshet and lowlanders from the hill country once and for all. In one groveling letter when the sought-after Labayu and his newly notorious lieutenant Daoud had been particularly successful at plundering what Pharaoh still thought of as his back yard, Yehu-Shafat had mixed up the signs on the clay, thus enshrining “Dadua” in the Egyptian bureaucratic machinery for all eternity.
Thus says the king: He sends this tablet to you, saying to you, be on your guard. Desist from troubling your brother the ruler of Rabba in Ammon, who pays the tribute as you do.
“That at least is the truth,” thought Daoud. He doubted Hanun son of Nahash had paid any more tribute lately than Daoud had — the merest token.
Say to the ruler of Uru-Salim: Cease your enmity, which is a stench in the nostrils of the king.
“Does not even an ant bite when it is struck?” muttered Daoud, loud enough for Yehu-Shafat to hear and bite his lip, and gray-bearded Yehonatan to look disapproving. Labayu’s phrase, who could afford more cheek at a time when Tutankh-Amun’s God-dazzled, sister-swiving father was engrossed in building empty cities in the middle of the desert and overturning millennia of established order along the length of the Black Land and the Red.
Finally. “I hear the word of my Lord, my God and my Sun, the Great King, the Lord of the Two Lands, and Emperor of Amurru and Nubia,” Daoud said piously, hoping the Egyptian’s translator would not transmit the wry undertone. “I tremble before him and will obey in all things.”
He must at least pretend obedience; the boy Pharaoh had shown an alarming and growing interest in Canaan lately. The women wailing in the smoking ruins of Gezer on the coast road proved that the Eye of Horus was turning north once again, and lesser beings in Canaan and Amurru would be crushed as in a winepress between Pharaoh and the Man of Hatti, Shuppiluliuma in his northern mountains, who had just last year taken Karkemish by storm and given it to his over-ambitious son to play at rulership at a safe distance from the throne.
After further equally sincere eloquence on both sides, the ambassador and his perfect and glistening wig recessed from the hall in a sweep of flashing gold pectoral, exquisitely elegant linen kilt and flailing ostrich feathers.
“Shall we send to Ayab, then, to raise the siege?” asked Yehonatan dryly.
“Of course not.”