Although Tutankhamen had agreed to restore the worship of the ancient gods that his father had suppressed, he had always refused to abolish the worship of Aton. It was known around town that "the living image of Amon" was actually devoted to the antagonist god Aton. All the priestly class, although restored in its possessions and privileges, was the silent enemy of the pharaoh.
Aye tried to mediate, but he realized that the task he had taken was becoming increasingly burdensome. Moreover, he feared the day when the young pharaoh would be declared an adult and, removed from his protection, begin to independently issue decrees. The old man was therefore more and more worried.
The only thing that reassured him a little, was the fact that the army, reorganized completely by Horembeb, adored its new Commander-in-Chief and was completely faithful to him, and he realized that Horembeb was faithful to the young pharaoh.
He had long suspected the kind of relationship that bound the young pharaoh to his commander, but did not give much thought to this: after all he had witnessed a similar relationship between his son in law, the pharaoh Akhenaton, and his half-brother Smenkhkare. At least Tutankhamen had the good taste not to associate his lover, if he really was that, to the throne.
Slowly four factions were forming at court: one loyal to Aye, one loyal to Horembeb, both supporting the pharaoh; one faithful to the high priest Meryre II, and one faithful to the chamberlain Perenefer, both secretly but fiercely opposing the young king.
The priests of Amon were sparking riots in the cities and countryside, making people attack the temples of Aton that still were open, looting and burning everything, and sometimes even massacring priests and believers of Aton who, faithful to their creed of peace, did not even defend themselves.
Horembeb had ordered the army to protect the temples of Aton, but the soldiers did not always arrive in time to quell the riots that erupted suddenly and unexpected, carefully organized by the priests of Amon and other minor gods.
The news that literally shook the court was that the tomb of Akhenaton had been violated and his mummy destroyed.
Both Aye and Horembeb ordered serious investigations, but in spite of the inquiries neither the violators of the tomb nor the remains of the deceased pharaoh's body were found. The gravity of this was above all that, with the desecration of the grave and the disappearance of the remains of the pharaoh, he was denied the continuity of life beyond death.
This fact in particular shook the young pharaoh very much.
When he was alone with Horembeb he said: "If I die before you, do you swear that my grave will not be desecrated?"
"I'll die before you, I'm fifteen years older than you."
"I had a dream last night... The gods have spoken to me, and I know that I'll die before you. I know that my life will be short. You swear it, and not only on my head, this time."
"My Tut, I swear on all the gods and my own life. But you must not think... maybe you've misinterpreted your dream."
"No, I know that unfortunately I must leave you... and even soon. Anubis, the son of Osiris, was preparing the balms for my body; Osiris was preparing the scale to weigh my heart; Nebet-het prepared the canopies, and the cartouche with my name was always in their hands. Maat was preparing the feather to weigh my heart..."
"Why, my sweet Tut? Are you not the one who believes in Aton, the only true god? Who believes that all the other gods are false?"
"Aton was absent, the sky was dark. I did not do enough to defend his cult of love and he turned his back on me. The other gods have reclaimed their power..."
"I do not understand religion, but if you think they are false gods, how can they be able to reclaim a power they never had?" Horembeb said, trying to raise his morale.
"My dear Horembeb, my beloved, my brother, man of my life..." the boy said in a sad tone, "the darkness of the sky fell on my heart."
"Come on." Horembeb insisted, pained by his lover's sadness.
Tut placed his finger on the man's lips, then turned to take a papyrus from his desk and handed it to Horembeb.
"What is it?" the handsome man asked while taking it.
"Open and read it. I wrote it for you."
Horembeb unrolled the papyrus and saw that it was penned with beautiful characters of many colours. He recited it at medium voice:
"I would like to be a shiny mirror
to reflect your beautiful image.
I would like to be your dress
to be worn by you.
I would like to be water
to wash your beautiful body.
To be the fabric of your loincloth
to enjoy your powerful member,
and the pearls of your collar
to hug you all the time,
and the sandals on your feet
to have you with me always.
I would be an ointment, o my man,
so I could be spread on you.
O splendor of my eyes
I would be for you as a wife
with my hands in your strong hands
to reciprocate your love forever.
I implore my heart:
if my beloved is not here tonight
I'm like a dead man lying in his grave.
Aren't you, my Hor, my health, my life?
What happiness to see you strong and whole
for a heart that needs you!"
"Did you write this poem? It is very beautiful..."
"Not as beautiful as what my heart feels for you, my Horembeb."
"I don't know how to write poetry, and yet in my heart there are fine words for you. I don't know how to express them, but..."
Tut smiled: "My beloved, in your eyes I read all the words that your heart feels, but your hand can not draw."
The eleventh year of Tutankhamen's reign came. More and more black clouds were gathering over his palace. Horembeb was getting restless, therefore he began to unobtrusively move troops, reinforcing the barracks near the capital and those on the borders, even if that depleted the garrisons in the countryside.
One day Aye summoned Horembeb.
"Great Supervisor of the Armies, good health to you."
"And to you, grand vizier."
"Forgive me that I did ask you to come to me, but I'm old... That is why I did not come to you."
"You did well. I am honoured to stand in your presence..."
"Sit down. My heart is heavy, what I'm about to tell you saddens my soul. But if not to you, to whom can I tell? I know that you care about the good of Nebkheperure as much as I do."
"So it is, on my honor."
"I know, I know. Nebkheperure is running a serious risk."
" I fear the same for a long time."
"Yes... you have done well increasing the presence of the army near the capital."
"Nothing escapes you, Aye."
"Woe to me if something escaped me. The danger is strong and concrete. Unfortunately I don't have the power to eliminate it."
"Strong and concrete, you say. What is it?"
"A conspiracy in this court to kill Nebkheperure."
"Who is conspiring? Give me names and I'll arrest them at once."
"That would be inefficient and useless. Unfortunately there is no concrete evidence, because it is all over the place. I've talked to Nebkheperure, but he doesn't want to take action. He seems resigned. You know him well enough, don't you? His heart is still faithful to Aton and his teachings."
"He never told me about that."
"I thought so. I was forbidden to tell you, but I am disobeying him now, as you see. He says he doesn't mind to die... I can understand that, but there's something more serious. "
"More serious than trying to kill him?" Horembeb asked incredulously.
"Yes... They will kill him at a festival outside the palace. And they will destroy his body, to also deny him the life after death."
"That badly? Do they hate him that badly? But why?" Horembeb exclaimed in horror.
"Hate knows no limits, just like love."
"And what can we do, if you tell me that I can't stop the conspirators?"
"You cannot arrest them against the orders of Nebkheperure, that is the problem."
"I can try to convince him..."
"I'm afraid you will fail, despite... what binds you."
"So what? If you wanted to talk to me, this means that you have a possible solution in mind."
"An extreme solution, which makes me scared and horrified, but the only one possible for the good of Nebkheperure."
"We have to kill our Nebkheperure."
"What? Have you lost your mind, old man?" Horembeb said, jumping up.
"Sit down. No, I'm not crazy. Think about it: this is the only way we can guarantee him life after death. We cannot offer him much more. If we kill him and announce that the pharaoh has died, at least we can have him embalmed, perform the rites, and hide him in a tomb that nobody can find or violate. Not in the grave that he is building now."
"And who will be the next pharaoh? Tutankhamen only had two daughters, and they both died just after birth."
"You'll be the new pharaoh. And you can arrest all those who forced us to this extreme action."
"I? You're raving mad, old man!"
Aye smiled sadly: "That is the second time that you insult me... but I don't blame you, I understand you. Why not you?"
"I should kill him... and take his place?"
"For his own good..."
"Why not you, then? You're part of the family, you can lay claim to the throne. You already have the keys of the kingdom in your hands..."
"And would you accept me as pharaoh?"
"Yes. But you'll have to give me the names and the order to kill all those who conspired against Tutankhamen. If you promise me that, I will support you. But first give me some time to talk with Tut, to try to convince him to do something for himself, and his country."
"I think it is useless, but I can not deny it to you. Moreover, without you, my plan would be hopeless."
"You asked me a horrible thing. I'd rather be the one to die in his place."
"I know. And I too, especially since I'm old, as you reminded me twice. But that doesn't solve anything. If you really, really love him, you have to bend to this horrible fate. You have to! "
Horembeb left Aye's quarters, deeply troubled. Nothing in his life had ever shaken him so much. On one hand, his heart revolted at Aye's proposal, but on the other, in his mind it was clear that it was a sensible proposal. Switch off the earthly life of his beloved to grant him eternal life... A paradox... But, if someone had to take that step, it could only be he, who loved him more than himself.
He remembered the last advice Abana had given him: "One last tip I will give you: there are three things a good soldier should always avoid. Two no's and one more: no hesitation, no cowardice and no mercy."
Back in his apartment Horembeb used the secret corridor leading to the rooms of his Tut. On arrival only he found Baqet, the little slave.
"Where is Tut?" he asked.
"He is in the chapel, offering flowers and incense to Aton..."
"Will he be back soon?"
"Yes, he is already gone for a while."
"Can't you go and call him?"
"I was ordered not to disturb him for any reason. What ails you, Horembeb? I've never seen you so nervous."
The man looked at him: "How old are you, Baqet?"
The boy looked a little surprised: "Fifteen... why?"
"You are growing up nicely."
"You've never noticed me..."
"You have always been like the shadow of Tut... One looks at the object in the light, not at its' shadow..."
"That is right. Why your heart is so troubled, Horembeb?" the slave asked again.
"Even if you are the faithful shadow of your lord, you have no right to ask these questions, Baqet," the man said without harshness.
The boy looked down and murmured. "Forgive me. But you will have to answer to him, you know."
"Yes, Baqet, I know. To Tut I'll have to answer."
Tut came into the room. Horembeb looked at him and gasped: he had never seen him so handsome! He only wore a long pleated skirt of fine white linen, with an elegant knot on the front that hung soft and was moving with every step. Tut advanced like a vision, in the splendour of his twenty-one years, not yet completed.
Even though he saw him almost every day, despite having watched him grow, develop, he had never realized as in that moment than he had become so beautiful! A knot closed his throat.
Tut smiled: "My man came to me, finally." he said with a soft voice full of sweetness.
Horembeb impulsively prostrated and kissed Tut's feet, trying to hold back the emotion that had seized him. Tut looked surprised, leaned over, grabbed him by his strong arms and forced him to stand.
"My man who prostrates himself before his boyfriend?" he asked. "Shouldn't I, little Tut, rather prostrate myself before you?"
Horembeb looked into his eyes and felt lost, "You know I love you, Tut..." he murmured.
"Of course I know."
"You ever have the slightest doubt about my love for you?"
"Not even the smallest. Why these questions? Why is your heart so troubled, my love?" he asked.
The same question of Baqet, in the same words, Horembeb thought. The little slave truly was the faithful shadow of Tut.
"Yes, my heart is more than troubled my beloved."
"Will you open it to me? Do you want to share what troubles you?"
"I rather would not, but I have to... Come here, sit on my legs, and come in my arms."
Horembeb sat on the edge of the bed and took the slender body of the young pharaoh on his lap.
"Do you really think I love you?"
"Sure. Why do you insist on this question today?"
"Tut... your life is in grave danger, both inside and outside the palace. I'll do anything to protect you, but I need your help. Give me carte blanche, and I will kill anyone who wants to hurt you."
"So Aye told you? He disobeyed me." the young pharaoh said with a hint of sadness in his voice.
"He is very worried about you."
"I already told him that I will never authorize that a thousand, or a hundred, or ten or even just one life should be extinguished, just to save mine."
"Tut, I beg you..."
"You beg me? You, my proud and fierce soldier? You, who did not even lower himself to beg for his own life?"
"But now it's not my life, but yours, which I care for with all my heart. And for your life I will lower myself to anything. I will give up pride and honor, I'll crawl in the mud..."
"Horembeb, my Horembeb! I know I must die, I told you so, didn't I? I am ready to die. I'm only sorry for you, as you can no longer hold me in your arms like now..."
"Tut, don't you understand? These people do not only want to kill you... I could save you one, ten, or a hundred times, but then? Can we continue to live in fear? No. And they will not simply take your life, they want to prevent those who love you to prepare you for the afterlife. They want to destroy your body, as they did with your father's."
"Do they hate me that much?" Tut asked, for the first time a bit shaken .
"The hatred against the fathers is always directed against the children." Horembeb said. "If you do not authorize me to take some action to protect your earthly life, then my Tut I can only ask you one thing. A thing that will tear my heart to pieces, but all I can do to guarantee at least your eternal life..."
Tutankhamen smiled: "Can you really do something to guarantee me an afterlife? So you and I will be united again? Tell me, whatever it is..."
"You have to... I have to... I should..." Horembeb began, but the terrible words did not want to get from his lips.
"Come on now, my love, it's not like you to stammer! What have you got to tell me? And what do you have to do?"
"If you... if you my Tut... if..." Horembeb tried to say, but he shut his eyes and said nothing.
"Do you love me, Horembeb?"
"Then speak. In the name of love, speak. I command you. Not your pharaoh, but your boy, the one you love orders it. In the name of love, of our love... please, let me into your heart, so I can share with you the burden that oppresses it."
"Tut, my Tut... The only way I can guarantee your life after death is... to kill you!"
Tutankhamen smiled and nodded: "Yes. So be it, my beloved."