The heavy doors clanged shut behind Moses as Rameses strode ahead of him. Moses allowed his eyes to take in the familiar room, the place of many reprimands in their youth. The last time they had been in here, the two brothers had recklessly raced chariots through the nearby village and into a half-finished temple. The rage of Seti still echoed in the dwarfing columns and cracks in the alabaster wall. He had been so furious the day the two princes had switched the heads of the statues residing in the sacred Temple of Ra, that it seemed to Moses it still echoed around the room.
Rameses chuckled now as he took off his headdress. "I know you, Moses. What's this really about?"
Moses gripped his staff in both hands, closing his eyes to steady his thoughts.
You have to tell him, Moses told himself, he must see that slavery is not right.
Staff steady and upright in one hand, Moses strolled to the edge of the room that opened out onto a view of a gleaming Egypt, almost too bright to behold. The white walls of temples, palaces, and towering statues held secrets blacker than kohl around a heartless eye. The faraway cries of slaves whipped by overseers pinched Moses's ears, his soul flinching at the miserable sound. The slaves were mere ants next to the gargantuan architecture.
They are treated worse than ants, Moses thought with a shudder.
Moses gestured out at the vulnerable, all-too-human slaves pulling limestone blocks far too heavy for even a hundred men to move with ease.
"Look at this," Moses said, hearing, rather than seeing, Rameses walking to his side. "What do you see, Rameses?"
Moses turned his head, eyes latched on Rameses's reaction. Rameses's eyes glanced in the slaves' general direction, before he lifted their gaze skywards, above the slaves. He puffed up his chest as though to show just how important he was as pharaoh.
"A greater Egypt than that of my father."
Too stunned at his words, Moses found himself unable to speak for several moments.
He sees only his empire, and not the slaves. What has my brother become?
Gripping his staff to stop it trembling in this speechless space of time, Moses stared down at the straining Hebrews.
"That's not what I see," he proclaimed, shocked at Rameses's indifference.
Moses's hand twitched on his staff—the smallest of flinches—as Rameses laughed. Walking to his throne, the king slapped his crown on top of one of the lion heads on an armrest.
"Moses, I cannot change what you see!"
He's the king, Moses thought, still not quite believing Rameses's nonchalant attitude toward the slaves, He is the morning and the evening star. He can call day night and it would be written.
"I must maintain the ancient traditions," Rameses continued, touching a slender hand on the crown, "I bear the weight of my father's crown."
His father who slaughtered my people.
"Do you still not understand what Seti was?" Moses demanded.
Rameses straightened up in his chair, his spine as stiff as a column. He tilted his chin, so he looked down his nose at Moses. His eyes locked so intently at Moses that the younger brother knew it wasn't all sincere.
"He was a great leader." Rameses proclaimed, but his eyes shifted focus a little away from Moses.
He does not believe what he says.
"His hands bore the blood of thousands of children!" Moses argued, yearning, wanting so much to get through to Rameses—the Rameses he knew before running away from Egypt. That Rameses would listen to him.
Rameses sneered, "Slaves!"
"My people!" Moses's words rang out, hand gripping his staff in his indignation.
My people are no more than property to him…just as they were to Seti.
"I can no longer hide in the desert, while they suffer," Moses lowered his eyes, avoiding looking at Rameses, "at your hands."
Dead silence, except for the distant groans and cries of slaves.
"So…" Rameses breathed, his voice soft with disappointment, "you have returned…only to free them."
Why couldn't it be Seti I confronted?
Moses wanted to look at Rameses, gauge his reaction, but instead his eyes shifted to the ring on his finger. Avoiding looking at his brother, Moses removed the ring from his finger, and dropped it on the crownless armrest.
I have to tell him the truth for my people's own good.
Sincerely regretful, Moses uttered, "I'm sorry."
He has to understand. He will, somehow.
His heart ached as he watched Rameses's expressions change, like the successive phases of the moon, from puzzlement, to surprise, and then such terrible grief.
"Yes…I had hoped…"
I did not return to the palace for the old times. Believe me, I do not enjoy doing this to you.
Moses stood stock still as Rameses brought his hand holding the ring to himself, closing his eyes as though refusing to allow the shepherd to see his hurt. Yet, the lines around his mouth deepened, and an extra line appeared between his eyebrows. Moses wanted to look away, but he couldn't. Staring at his hurting brother, Moses had a flashback to the last time that extra line of sorrow had appeared between Rameses's eyebrows—it had been when Moses ran away from Egypt for good.
Then—Rameses's eyes snapped open, revealing fury burning behind near-black irises. With one movement, he dumped the ring back on the armrest, snatched his crown, and placed it on his head. Now he was the image of a ruthless king once again, just as his father was.
"I do not know this god," Rameses declared in hard, ruthless tones, "and neither will I let your people go!" Rameses added as he marched past Moses, smacking the younger in the chest with his elbow as he strode past.
Moses pleaded one more time, wanting to get through to the man he once knew twelve years before.
"Rameses, you must listen—"
Rameses whirled around, jabbing a finger at Moses. "I will not be the weak link!" he yelled, glaring at Moses, before marching toward the doors.
The words brought back a long-forgotten memory—the day Seti had accused Rameses of being the weak link in the chain. Moses had believed Rameses wouldn't take it too seriously—Seti did tend to be a lot harsher on his older brother. With just those words echoing in his head, alternating between Seti's and Rameses's voices, all Moses could feel was pity for his sibling. Seti's accusation had worked too well. Now it seemed to have consumed Rameses beyond measure.
I can still reach him somehow… some naïve part of Moses whispered, and he sorely wanted to believe it.
"Tell your people as of today, their workload has been doubled!" Rameses proclaimed as he began shutting the doors. "Thanks to your god!"
Moses stared, speechless, as Rameses uttered his declaration, his voice harsh and unrelenting.
"Or is it thanks to you."
The doors clanged shut, leaving Moses alone.
And still the words jangled in his head, the terrible accusation that had consumed Rameses he once knew like a crocodile did to its prey.
I will not be the weak link!
Rameses stormed into the main throne room, stomping up the steps, not caring if it destroyed his image of a dignified pharaoh.
My brother has turned against me! Rameses raged, he has not returned to the palace, but to free some lowly slaves! They deserve their doubled workload! He can slave with them for all I care!
The dancers were far too cheerful, gallivanting about in their flared white skirts and bejewelled bosoms. He barely saw his wife, Nefertari, standing next to his throne, with their son at her feet. Tuya stood on the other side of the throne.
"Be still!" Rameses commanded the hall.
All fell quiet.
"Dancers! Leave!" Rameses ordered, "Musicians, come back tomorrow!"
"What?" Nefertari asked, "They have only barely—"
Rameses shot a glare at her, and the queen fell silent, bowing her head.
"Behold this proclamation today!" Rameses addressed the hall, "For My Majesty has doubled the slaves' workload from now!"
His mother tried to place a placating hand on his arm, but he jerked away.
"It is because of this Hebrew that this edict is to be implicated on the slaves!"
Now Queen Nefertari spoke up, "Surely you do not speak of the Hebrew you greeted so well?"
Rameses turned his head, addressing her, "The very same."
"Rameses, what has happened?" Tuya now spoke up.
"I will tell you later." Rameses snapped, slouching back on his throne, trying not to think about Moses.
I thought him dead twelve years, and he doesn't care.
He vaguely remembered the scarab ring in the private throne room, but now he didn't care. Moses had made his motives too well-spoken.
I will punish you and the Hebrews for your treachery, Rameses railed as he watched the doors open, revealing Moses, who quickly joined Tzipporah and Gershom. I will hurt you as you have hurt me. How dare you treat your own brother this way.
He turned his eyes away from the happy little family as they exited.
Go back to your precious slaves, Rameses taunted them, go back and join them for all I care. I'm sure they'll have a warm welcome for you once they know it was you who caused the doubling of their workload.
The entertainers filed out of the hall, leaving only a few lingering servants and courtiers.
"What happened, Rameses?" Tuya asked.
Rameses stiffened his back. "Nothing," he answered without emotion.
"Then why have you doubled the slaves' workload?"
He lay his hands palms down on the armrests. "The Hebrew you called your son has turned on us."
Nefertari gasped, and Tuya just looked concerned and confused.
"What are you talking about?" Tuya asked.
His hands clenched and unclenched. "He cared more about the slaves than the family who took him in. He didn't care about us at all."
"What did he say?"
Rameses slammed a fist on the armrest. "That he only came to free the Hebrews! Now do not ask me anymore of it!"
Tuya's face grew alarmed. "Surely you misunderstood—"
"I did not misunderstand anything!" Rameses interrupted, "He wished me to—"
To be the weak link.
"—to defy tradition and the upholding of Ma'at." Rameses finished, "Now leave me alone and get out. All of you!"
Nefertari reached for his hand, but he jerked it away, too furious for consolation. He waited as Nefertari, his son, and his mother all turned and walked away to leave him in peace.
You will see what it is to defy Pharaoh, Moses, Rameses thought, You will regret what you have done. You will be punished for your betrayal and desire to upset Ma'at and open the doors to the Serpent of Chaos.
And yet…deep down, he knew that everything had changed.
He hated change.
Change was detrimental to Ma'at, and nothing, not even the Hebrews' god, would stop him from maintaining order as a Pharaoh should.
I will fight against any chaos you bring to Egypt, Rameses vowed, and I will never waver in my dedication to uphold the traditions of my ancestors. I will not be the weak link.