I discover the first bone diamond in a hunk of crocodile clavicle, lodged between the foramen and articular process. I had meant to simply facet the bone tip’s lamellar weave, that it might, once polished, dove-tail into a brooch that some high lady in the court might wear to the arena flooding.
Rather, I find a diamond, at least thirty carats in size. It is the most extraordinary bright yellow, like amethyst but glowing hot within. Allory would have loved it.
I take it to my lathe and polish it on corundum, brute it with emery, and at last heat it over a sulfur jet as though it were a citrine. Its yellows melt, whirl, and blaze as though afire inside.
I sit atop my cankerous clay rooftop and hold it up beside the sphere of the moon. Of the two, my bone diamond shines the purest, the brightest, as though the sun risen at night over the slums of Memphis.
I do not know then that it will be the end of everything I know.
“Five hundred seinu,” says the Pharaoh’s own man, Ktolemy. He stands bold as saltpeter in my small cutting shop, his gleaming golden torc catching the bright of the mid-day sun. “It is a piddling thing, you see, polisher. You say twenty carats? I wager it is fifteen at best.”
“Twenty, weighed and measured,” I reply him. “And absolutely unique. You’ll find none other like it in the world.”
He turns the small golden jewel over in his hands. I faceted it to the euhedral cut and set it within a mount of partridge skull basted with liquid silver. It burns like a mote of fire in his hands.
“Then six hundred,” he allows grudgingly. “And not a seinu more, unique or no. Perhaps the Pharaoh himself will sport it, at the games.”
“I would be honored,” I gush, appropriately.
Ktolemy laughs. “Of course you would, polisher. Six hundred, and you are lucky I do not grind off your nose on your own lathe for the presumption.”
He leaves, and I think little more of it. How did a diamond come to be in an crocodile’s shoulder? It is not for the likes of me to know.
I attend the games with the masses, gathered to watch the Pharaoh re-interpret the black pestilence that took my Allory and decimated the city. The arena’s aquifer is opened, and we watch as the wood-packed sand is slowly swamped with brackish Nile water.
Men in brown leather rags jostle and cheer around me, stinking of gut-rot and sour lyrrhd. Before the pestilence it used to be that artisans were lifted above the commoners, given boxes from which to watch the entertainments. Allory and I always hoped to become jewelers together, that we might share a box.
While the arena floods with black water we watch ten legless slaves crawl about the slopping wooden floor. They have the sickly look of pestilence painted on their faces, have probably been tutored to scrabble and rage as though infected. They were perhaps de-limbed as much as a week ago; several of them have learned to walk astride their hands, their torsos upside down in the air above them. There is something repugnant in the way they scrap and claw at each other, like dying animals clawing for sustenance, but then I suppose that is the purpose of it.
At the end, as the water level rises above their height, only one of them will survive, he who fought the other nine off and climbed the single pole at the center of the arena. The pole has been carved in the shape of a single stalk of safram, the weed that brought the pestilence’s cure. The winner is a Numidian, black as tourmaline and wiry, covered in the raking pink weals of fingernail gouges. He perches on his stumpy legs atop the safram pole and waves to the crowd.
The men around me boo that he is alive at all. I doubt though that there is much for him to look forward to- perhaps he will find employ as a rug-weaver’s mate and live out his days twining threads and feeling the lash of his master’s cane.
I shudder at the thought.
“Polisher,” comes a voice, and I turn to see it is Ktolemy. The savages either side of him cower away, averting their eyes. I too shade my own. “The Pharoah would see you.”
I bow my head, stand, and follow him meekly.
In the Pharaoh’s presence I must keep my eyes down to his feet at all times. I see there several of the women of his harem, languid, copper-skinned, bedecked in gold; his living treasury.
His voice is soft, sibilant. Though I may not look I know he speaks from behind a heavy golden mask. I wonder how hot such a thing must be, to wear in this summer heat.
“From where did you dig this diamond?” he asks.
It occurs to me then that I have done a very foolish thing.
Prospecting for diamonds is illegal without the Pharaoh’s grace. I have never prospected for diamonds before, have only ever bought from the Koran markets where the Pharaoh’s grace has already been granted. Now I have sold him one for which no grace was even asked.
I realize I am seconds away from the fate of the men in the arena. There is no more hope that I might keep its origin a guarded secret.
“Great lord of the sun, I unearthed this diamond from within the clavicle of a river-crocodile, and being but a foolish and ignorant polisher, failed to seek your grace due to ineptitude.”
“A river-crocodile,” comes the musing reply. “Within the bone itself?”
I am sweating copiously. Am I to be forgiven my thoughtless mistake? Am I to fight tooth and nail for my place above the flood water, my legs de-limbed?
“Great lord of the sun, yes, as though formed in bone mineral, like the nacre of oysters or the chitin of mollusks.”
The jewel appears before me, held in the Pharaoh’s hand ruby-ringed hand. I hastily avert my eyes to the side. It is forbidden to look at any point but the feet of the Sun King.
“This jewel, could there be more of them?”
I wonder if my answer will define my chance at existence. If there are no more, then I will certainly be beheaded for my transgression. I have no choice, and must take the risk.
“Certainly, great lord of the sun,” I answer, hardly stopping to think. A bead of sweat drips down my nose and I barely catch the drop in my hand before it touches the ground of the Sun King’s box. “They can be found in the bones of certain creatures, at certain times.”
“And you know these times, and these creatures?”
I feel as though I am already sinking legless beneath the waves.
“Yes, great lord, I have some knowledge of such things.”
The hand with the jewel retracts. “Then bring me more.”
“Yes, great lord.”
“And do so with my grace granted.”
I nod. Ktolemy jerks me in the ribs, and I back out, bowing, terrified.
I buy the bones of three crocodiles from the Kell docks, where they hang bleaching in the sun, destined to be ground into tincts by medicians or garnished and polished by jeweler’s of bone such as myself, or perhaps studied by didacts in the lecture halls of Sankore.
“Three?” asks the swarthy man, pushing to one side the hanging skins of ostrich that surround him in his dank and musky stand. I have never placed such an order before. I cannot imagine any would.
“And all that you get in subsequence,” I add. “On commission to the Sun King himself.”
The man’s eyes widen in alarm, and he makes the sign of the sun across his forehead. Whether he believes I come with the Pharaoh’s remit or not is unimportant- simply to claim it is a matter of life and death.
“Of course,” he says. “Three tomorrow, and three the next.” I see his beady eyes glow with the profits to be made. He will be thigh deep in entrails all night, and is already spending his seinu in his head.
I hand them over, one hundred for the rushed payment and delivery. Plenty remains of the six hundred Ktolemy paid for the sun jewel.
The crocodiles are delivered by cart at my back, a small of team of wastrel boys tugging them along the dusty streets. Back in my workshop, door shuttered against the world, I lay them beside the remnants of the original and take out my bone shears and vise.
I begin with the clavicles, left articular process, shearing them at epicondyles, splitting them in the vise. I chop the fragments to bits in my search, but find no jewels, nothing but the spongy honeycomb of labyrinth and collagen. My concern begins to mount, and I move to the right articular process clavicles, but again find nothing of note. I proceed then down their spines, smashing each vertebrae to dust, then to the ribs, then to cracking the long epiphysis of the fore and hind legs, caving in the sutured plates of the skull.
All for nothing. No jewels spill out. I begin to think it is an impossibility, perhaps the whole affair was an imagination. How did I ever think I found a jewel in a bone?
Then I see the five hundred seinu on my workbench, left by Ktolemy, along with the promissory writ requesting I supply the Pharaoh with more, and my knees turn to columns of sand. I have promised a thing I cannot deliver, a thing I have no more control over than the flood waters of spring.
I am covered in bone dust and detritus, spongy osseus matter that is still moist from a recent kill.
I will surely drown in the arena with the other criminals. The only compensation is that Allory is not alive to see it.
I return to the boneman at first light. There are the three new skeletons, still red and raw with drying tangles of nerve and artery, on a cart by his side. Will they be as empty as the last three? The boneman watches as I pull down the first from the pile, my shears and vise in my hands; his eyes are weary and his leathers stiff with blood.
I crack the first crocodile’s left clavicle there in the dawn-lit street, find it empty. I crack the right, likewise. The boneman watches as I work my way down the beast’s spine, powdering vertebrae, breaking ribs, cracking the trabecular bones along their long spiny eminences, but find nothing. There are no diamonds, and I feel despair riding up my throat like bile.
I turn to the boneman and pin my hopes on a wild thought that had come to me as I lay abed that night, unable to sleep, dreaming of all the ways the Sun King might kill me. “The first I bought,” I ask, “from where did it hail?”
He looks at me glass-eyed, as though hypnotized by my swift work with the shears, demolishing the skeleton he’d so carefully exhumed. “What?”
“The first,” I persist. “I bought it here a week hence. Did it hail from the Nile, as these other three? From the same hunter, trapping the same region, the same bank?”
He shrugs, points at the one powdered at my feet and the two remaining on the cart. “What does it matter? There are your three.”
“It matters!” I cry and punch him weakly in the shoulder. “Have you forgot I come with the Sun King at my back?” I wave the paper of writ from Ktolemy in his face, and what color yet remained in his stubbly cheeks drains away. “Surely you keep records, man, of your purchases,” I bluster. “Of each skeleton, and where it was captured.”
“I do, lord, I do, in my head, all in my head.”
“Then remember, on pain of the arena, from where did you buy that skeleton?”
He blanches at mention of the arena, as he should, but nods understanding. He takes a breath, holds it, squints his eyes shut, and slowly his cheeks turn red as bloodstone with the effort, as though he is pushing a heavy boulder up a hill. I realize he is thinking, concentrating.
I wait, until at last he gasps as though coming up for air.
“I recall, my lord, that that one was not hunted but reared, in a farm south of Saqqara, by a man named Bes. He brings his spawn to market at each season’s turn, when his brood reaches full growth.”
In his answer I see my redemption flitting like a djinn.
“And have you more of his beasts? Anywhere? In any condition?” I ask.
“No lord, none—” he pauses, clearly sensing my abjection, then continues— “but he surely keeps studding pairs. If you sought his spawn, lord, I am sure he would sell.”
“Yes,” I say, “I will barge to this Bes at once. Have one of your boys direct me.”
“Of course, lord,” he bows, “and please, remember me as your servant, willing and able but sometimes slow only in the mind.”
“Yes, yes,” I dismiss him. “The boy, and the barge.”
He hurries off to fetch a guide.
It is only much later, days gone by, that I realize I threatened him with death over what was but a trifling matter to him. I treated him much the same way the Sun King treated me. Allory would have hated to see it.
Riding the Nile is a slow and laborious thing at any time, but worst in the months before spring and the rains. The mother river’s flow is reduced to a turgid trickle, fecal and rotting with all the effluvium of Memphis.
I endure it with a palm leaf held wilting over my head to keep off the worst of the sun’s baking heat. The boy poling us along is Abindian, probably the son of a slave, freed only to live out a short life burning to a crisp under the eye of Ra.
At Bes’s spawn farm I debark. The land is flat and broad, broken by fences curtaining fields of low-cropped green and purple scrub, what seems to be safram, the pestilence weed, amidst which a few scraggy ibex graze. Water nets enclose sections of swampy Nile water, where crocodiles rove languidly. A few are full-sized; the remaining handful newly spawned. My heart turns over in my chest to see them.
Bes is an ogre of a man, thick-fingered and as broad in the shoulder as any I have seen, but he turns as flop-kneed as the boneman when I flash him my writ of the Pharaoh.
“Yes, yes,” he effuses, as I tell him why I have come, tell him what I need. “Yes for the Pharaoh, of course yes. “
I need not mention the arena to this man— I can see he bears the mark of the whip upon his skull and chest. Once a slave, I muse, as he leads me to the trapping cage. Small wonder he has taken up residence so far from the Sun King’s seat in Memphis.
He baits one of the older beasts with rotting venison, draws it in, and impales it through the heart with a long metal spear. It twitches, thrashes in the mud, then falls still. Between them he and his man raise the thing over the wooden divide and lay it at my feet.
“Would you board it whole to your barge, lord?” Bes asks me, his eyes downcast.
I eye the thing; it is immense. It would sink the barge if we tried to ferry it; better to lay it on a float and tug it behind us. But I do not need the meat of it, nor do I need the bulk of its bones.
“No, flay its back now and leave me to my work.”
He bows, doesn’t question. He and his man expertly slice through the creature’s thick green-brown hide with a sickle blade, peel it away as though sloughing off a vest; leaving the pink of glistening muscle and yellow of fat exposed.
I spy the clavicle, though it seems different embedded in flesh. I have only ever worked with bone excised, dry and separate as though a found thing like wood or rock. That is how Allory and I always imagined our work, as a crafting of something to bring it to life, not thieve it of life. Like this, embedded in the still warm body of this great beast, it seems like theft.
I steel myself, kneel, and dig into the crocodile’s shoulder with my bone shears, slicing through the gristle of the articular process easily. I trim away the clavicle from the foramen and wrest the thick broad blade of bone free. It is hot, wet with blood, but already I can see what I have come to find.
A glowing diamond crystal, so large it has grown out through the sheer blade, emergent on both sides. It must be fifty carats in all, near perfectly spherical. I will lose perhaps only ten carats to faceting.
I hold the chunk of bone to my chest as though it is a remembrance from my dead sister, not even thinking of the blood that will sully my artisan’s robe, ignoring the tears of relief that pour down my cheeks and splash into the crocodile’s corpse. It is unseemly, perverse, but I do not care. I am not mad, and I will not die in the arena.
I trim it with the vise, wrap it in velvet, pocket it securely in the belt about my waist. Then I fall upon the corpse with the shears, savaging it, tearing open the rib cage from behind, chopping bone into splinters. When I am finished, there is no sign that I afforded any special attention to the left clavicle, no sign at all of what I have done.
I walk the fence back to Bes’s home. He is sitting with the Abindian boy of my barge, playing senet with counters of bone. Upon seeing me they both bow their heads.
I toss the leather bag containing Ktolemy’s five hundred seinu on the table. It clunks heavily, disturbing their board.
“All your stock,” I tell him, “bar a studding pair, with the meat of all to remain yours, along with the majority of bone and skin. Perhaps from amongst so many, I will find once the thing that I seek.”
Bes stares at the seinu, gleaming gold in the afternoon sun, then back up at me. It is a fortune, and a grand price considering he will keep almost all of what I have paid for. Still, I cannot help but feel Allory’s eyes on me, judging me for a thief. Each jewel is worth at least double five hundred. I am swindling him.
“Your lordship,” he bows, jerks to his feet.
“And one more thing. Your spawn, are they fed in any peculiar way, or are they of a particular breed?”
His heavy brows wrinkle in thought. “Any breed, lord? Only the browns and greens of the Nile, perhaps intermixed, but to no grand design. And of food, they eat from the herd of ibex.”
“And what do the ibex eat?”
He points into the field. “The grass, lord. It is a wild breed of safram, perhaps.”
“They eat the pestilence weed?” I ask, surprised.
He shrugs. “It grew here when I first started the spawn, lord. The ibex took to it readily, so I let them.”
“Is it common to feed ibex safram?”
He moderates his tone, careful to keep his eyes averted from mine. “I cannot say, lord. I have not seen it elsewhere.”
I wonder at this, safram that cured the pestilence, that could have cured my sister, now the feed for ibex. Now it comes so cheaply, when once I needed it so dearly, when once a single stalk cost a thousand seinu, and I could not buy it for all the bone jewelry I’d ever carved.
I push such morbid thoughts from my mind, focus on the task ahead.
“Then an ibex too, skinned in back. Perhaps I will find what I seek there.”
“In an ibex, lord?”
I only stare at him, and wait. In seconds he realizes he has just questioned an emissary of the Pharaoh. He shrinks, bows, as though he thinks I will lash him. Though I have no intention of doing so, the thought does cross my mind.
I butcher the ibex first. There is a diamond crystal within its clavicle, smaller, burning a weaker shade at its heart, but yet a diamond. I look out on the herd, over the sweeping field of wild safram, and realize that not only will I live, I will also be rich.
For two days I grind, brute, facet, and polish the diamonds I have found. I barely sleep, so excited am I at the prospect of the riches that await me at the Pharaoh’s hand. I will never have to watch the games from amidst the commoners again. I shall have my own box, and a seat beside me kept vacant in memory of Allory.
The first diamond is the largest. I cut it macle-wise, set it in the haft of the finest silver ring I possess. It is flawless, and in the light its luster outranks any I have known before. I glaive the three ibex diamonds within a golden hair-brooch. The one remaining crocodile diamond, around 30 carats, I cut as a perfect octahedron and leave it loose, to be admired and handled.
Then I go to the Pharaoh.
The grounds of his palace are vast and green, bordering on the Nile. I am admitted and walk them astounded by the aquifers delivering the silver splash of water here; the same aquifers that flooded the arena and drowned the pestilence-cripples.
The entrance building is a dome of sandstone cut smooth as fine clay, unornamented but stunning in its curving polished surface. The floor is plated with Grecian marble, the veins thick and blue, running in unbroken seams like a completed game of senet.
I am carried to the Pharaoh’s chamber upon a wicker chair by four blind men, down a long colonnaded avenue lined with large bronze statues of mighty bulls to either side. There must be a hundred of them, each shining with reflected sunlight. There is a strange scent in the air, somewhat fecal as that of the Nile, but masked by the heavy fragrance of myrrh.
We halt in a grand gold-leaf chamber, where I am set down. Ktolemy is already there, standing beside a golden throne inset with lapis lazuli, carmine, argenta, a thousand precious and shining stones. He is looking at me as though I am some kind of annoying bug to be squashed.
“You’d better have diamonds,” he says frankly.
I nod. “I do, several, freshly provened and cut.”
“Of a similar quality to the first?”
The blind men back out of the room, and I am left sitting. Am I to stand?
Ktolemy answers with his mocking tone.
“Will you repose upon your fat bottom before the Pharaoh also, polisher?”
I leap to my feet. I brush down my gown, and cast my eyes to the floor. What would Allory think of me now?
“Do you know what happened to the last man who remained seated before the Pharaoh?” he continues.
I shake my head vigorously, as though to shake off any indication that I am at all similar to such a man.
He points back to the bull-lined colonnade down which I have just passed. “Smelt a little off, did it?”
I look at him blankly.
“The longest has been in there for about fifteen years, I think. They put food in through the snout, clean up the shit out of the back.”
I almost gag in my throat as I understand what is inside the bulls.
“Fifteen years, can you imagine that, polisher? Fifteen years swimming in your own filth. Most of them drown themselves in it after a few weeks. In fact we just had one go under this morning.”
“I—” I begin, then fall silent, stare at the floor, will myself not to cry.
Ktolemy’s chuckles die out.
“Lost for words?” he asks. “Good. Let’s just hope your diamonds will suffice. Now, on your knees.”
I drop to my knees, sweating again, the terror fresh in my heart. Soon I hear the drum beating and the steady footfall of the Pharaoh, and wonder that every step leads him past the men he has locked up in the metal bellies of cows, to rot and fester to death on whatever whim he deems.
I stare at the ground immediately between my knees as his feet approach me. I cannot help but notice how pale they are against the dark marble floor.
“You have brought me diamonds?”
His voice is soft as before, but carries all the weight of a god.
“Yes, great lord of the sun,” I stammer, and proffer the satin bag. He makes no move to take it, so I open it, decant the crystals into my open palm, careful not to look at any point but my own hands.
A long moment stretches out as he examines them.
“Your cuts are excellent as always, jeweler,” says the Pharaoh. “But the brooch is of a different type. From where did these stones come?”
“Ibex, great lord of the sun,” I answer.
“Ibex,” muses the Sun King. He picks up the brooch, turns it over in his hands. “And are such diamonds to be found in all the ibex that roam my lands?”
“I don’t believe so, great lord. I found them only within those that eat a certain breed of wild safram.”
“Safram, the pestilence weed?”
“Yes, great lord.”
“Interesting,” he says. “It brought more than the cure, then. And the crocodiles?”
“The crocodiles eat the ibex, great lord. Whatever ingredient causes the crystals to form surely passes from the ibex to them.”
A pregnant moment stretches out.
“And where is this safram to be found?”
Again, as before at the arena, I realize there is no hope of keeping this information secret. The eye of Ra sees all. I imagine myself pausing a moment too long, speaking a moment too soon, and finding myself cast into one of the bulls. In its bronze cauldron I would bake by day, stew in filth by night, and all along know that my life was nothing, was a blade of grass to be cut, a diamond to be harvested.
So I tell him everything, as carefully and respectfully as I can. He questions me further, and I tell him every detail I think will save me, every inflated estimate of what I can gather, what I can cut, what I can produce. The fear of the bulls does not lift from my mind throughout, so intense that I can scarce remember the numbers I spoke, the promises that I made.
At the last, the Pharaoh lays a heavy leather bag in my hand, still outstretched.
“Ten thousand seinu,” he says. I want to gawk at it, but fear of the bulls keeps me in check, staring down at the ground. It is a larger sum than I have ever seen before. “Conditional upon you furnishing me with one thousand like diamonds, by the turn of the year.”
I feel the bull closing in around me. At Bes’s farm there are perhaps ten more beasts, most of those haggard old ibex or stripling crocodiles years from their full growth. What he asks is impossible.
But I cannot say that. I have been given ten thousand seinu, enough to buy a palace of my own, enough to outfit a fleet of trading vessels. For me there will surely be no bull. For me it will be something far, far worse.
I nod, say “yes great lord of the sun.” Soon after, the drum beats, and his golden feet recede.
Ktolemy chuckles again.
“You really are an idiot, polisher,” he says. “He would have settled for a hundred.” Then he too leaves me alone, on my knees, shaking at what I have wrought.
In the quiet that follows I imagine Allory standing before me, stroking my forehead, just as she did even as she was dying with the pestilence. Though I ran all quarters of the city for days, I could not gather the seinu to buy one stalk of safram. Now I have ten thousand seinu in my hands and could save her a hundred times over, but what are they worth now she is gone? A thousand crystals of bone, and a sure death sentence on my head.
I allow myself to wallow a moment longer, lost in fear of the bulls. Then I get to my feet. A moment is enough.
I do not tarry. I barge the Nile at once to Bes’s land, where he rushes down the wooden jetty to meet me, as though he has expected this moment. He drops to his knees, lays his forehead on the wood as though I am the Sun King himself. I want to smack him to his feet, drive the fear out of him, but realize it will only drive it further in.
“The weed,” I tell him, as his big black head touches the jetty beneath me. “I want the safram weed seeded and sown up and down the banks of the Nile for a thousand kha in each direction. You will buy or lease the land from the current owners, and upon it will be grazed ibex, cattle, oxen, and bulls, river horses, with crocodiles in the river shallows.”
He looks up at me without thinking, then immediately back down again. “Yes, lord,” he whispers, though I hear in his voice the uncertainty.
I drop a bag of five thousand seinu before his face.
“Here is your seal from the Pharaoh,” I say, and hold out a sheet of finely pressed and inked papyrus. “Take it, man.”
He reaches up a hand, not daring to look me in the face, even as I had when handing the diamonds to the Pharaoh. I have no time for it, so I close his fingers around the note.
“Pay for what you must, take what you can, but stock those lands with animals, and graze them solely upon the safram. Am I clear?”
He nods frantically.
“Only upon the safram, and at least one thousand beasts.”
Then I am walking back to my barge. I cannot stay here, just as I could not stay by Allory’s side as she burned and turned to pus with the pestilence. I had to sell in the streets of city, and now I must buy along the length of the delta.
I send boys hired from Bes out ahead of me, to pole the Nile, to cross the desert tracks in search of safram oases, and from there bring back the intact shoulder bones of any creatures they find. I have told them all of the Pharaoh’s bulls, instilled in them the fear they need to keep their fingers from prying.
They do not know what is inside them. I dare not share that secret.
In that manner I ride the Nile for the remainder of the year, past Saqqara and overland to the lakes of Fayum, south to Akhetaten, to Abydos, past Kom Ombo, even into the lands of the Nubian, through his thatched straw river cities of Philae and Abu Simbel. I hire dark-skinned men and have them seek out the wild patches of safram, I have them skin the animals, then I send them away as I eagerly crack the clavicles.
There are jewels in them all, and I add them to the sack in my grand barge. I travel now with an entourage, with room for all my barge-boys, with a retinue of soldiers clad in the Pharaoh’s raiment, armed with his spears.
None meet my eye. I am become a manifestation of the Sun King, spending seinu at every safram patch, bringing force to the quiet lives of these people, gathering their riches from a place they cannot know they reside; in the clavicle, closest to the heart.
But there are not enough. By Abu Simbel I have provened a scarce hundred diamonds, all of varying sizes and shades, some culled from water buffalo, some from ibex, some from desert rams, some from camels. They glister in their leather like a bag of suns, but it is not near enough. As the year reaches its zenith and Ra blazes down upon the Nile, I must turn back and begin the journey back to Memphis, and hope Bes has prepared 900 animals raised on the pestilence weed.
He has. The banks of the Nile teem with safram and animals raised upon it. In my absence he has clad himself in gold, though still he abases at my feet.
I begin the slaughter selectively, sending my men on barges up and down the river to seek out the oldest animals, those who have eaten the safram longest. I make my camp on Bes’s land, and day by day as the animals are brought in, I have them slaughtered, skinned, and I bury my hands in their meat to crack their bones and find the diamonds. At times I think the men might have seen my doings, might have guessed what it is I seek, but I hardly care. They know of the bulls. They would not dare defy my will.
In most I find nothing. In some there are diamonds that are mere grains, seedlings only, which I gather but know I cannot count towards the thousand the Pharaoh demanded.
By night I dream of fever and bulls, of Allory trapped within the bronze, crying for my help, but I cannot reach her. I dream I am a legless man endlessly climbing a stalk of safram, never reaching the tip, only killing things and cracking open their bones as I rise.
My final six months elapse too quickly. The boys bring fewer animals to me, and each has nothing but the seeds of diamonds within them. For all the wealth of seinu, for all the safram spreading over the banks, I cannot buy another day. Just as with Allory, who died hot and stinking beneath my hands, what I have is not enough.
I dream of her last moments again and again, all of it blurring with the bulls and the men in the arena. I wake each morning and feel her loss as keenly as ever, as though if only I could somehow gather the jewels, she would be spared. Again I am frantically racing through the streets of Memphis, begging any I can find for a seinu, a dreben, every little piece only adding a grain to the mountain I need for one stalk of safram, for enough to save my sister.
It is impossible. It cannot be done.
Then on the last day, the night before I must barge back to the city and face the Pharaoh and my fate, a wild answer comes to me in a dream. It is sickening, but I am sick. It is awful but I have become awful, flushed with fever, my skin ever-red with blood.
With the dawn still twinkling over the horizon, I go to Bes’s room. It is larger than I remember, and he lays abed with two fair-skinned maidens, skirted round with ermine. My suffering has been good for him. He has grown fat off my anguish. I allow this to infuriate me, and I pull the women from the bed.
The first shrieks, then she sees it is me, sees the dagger in my hand, and flees from the room.
I climb atop the bed. Bes’s huge frame fills the cot before me, his black skin like that of a crocodile.
“Lord?” comes his voice. He has seen my dagger. He has looked into my eyes. I allow that to anger me further.
“Quiet Bes,” I tell him. “It will all be over soon.”
He buries his face in the pillow. I pull up his shirt, see a black map of agony written across his back; scars and lacerations that criss-cross each other. I allow it to anger me further; he is disobedient. He has looked in my eyes. He has been plotting my downfall all along.
At last, the sickest justification of them all, I must save my sister. The dreams have driven me mad with it. She is waiting at the Pharaoh’s palace for me, trapped in a bull, suffering until I bring the safram that will save her. Will I not save her? Will I not do everything I must?
“Shh,” I whisper, feel the great man trembling beneath me like a crocodile. I never killed one of them, not once.
I drop the blade into his back. He screams into the pillow. Blood wells up all around, but I am familiar with this. I cut deeper, slice through living muscle and fat, and peel back the layer of skin over his shoulder. His body rocks, but wisely he does not seek to throw me off. He too knows what the bulls mean.
I lift my bone shears and disconnect his left clavicle at the articular process, snap it at the foramen. He is screaming but I do not hear it. The smooth shank of bone sucks out of the trembling meat of his back, and I hold it up to the gathering dawn light.
There, buried in the center, is a diamond larger than any I found from a crocodile, blazing a deep and furious red at its heart. Bes has eaten the ibex and the crocodile for years. Of course he has harbored the largest diamond of them all.
I cannot hear his screams, barely notice the blood soaking everything, as I stare into the entrancing red of the jewel. It is surely over one hundred carats. It will cut to a paragon, the most perfect diamond imaginable.
As I walk from the room and leave him to die behind me, I only think of Allory, and how at last I can save her.
Riding my barge up the Nile to Memphis, the illusions fade away like water evaporating from a bucket of brine, leaving only the hard and clear crystals of salt remaining. There is no Allory trapped in a bull, waiting for me to come. That was just a wish, something childish from my past. I am the crystals of salt now, hard, unyielding, unfeeling.
I close my eyes and remember how Bes always ate more than the others of his share, how he always smirked when I came into his presence, how he never fully bowed at my feet. Of course he was hiding his diamond from me. He was growing it for himself, to take my place at the Pharaoh’s side. All along he has been stealing from me. He came to kill me, came to my own rooms with a knife to crack me open and take out the diamond inside.
Why else would I have done as I had done? Allory died years ago. I hold the rough diamond before me, still clotted with his blood. I lift it up to the dawn, and I watch as it burns hot as a second sun in the sky.
There is enough time to heat, facet, and plane the diamond to a paragon. It is the most stunning thing I have ever seen; an immense bead of burning blood, fire captured in glass, shedding its own light from within. Now I realize that Bes was glad to give it to me. Now he bent knee and offered it to me. He loved me, as a servant loves his master.
I drop to my knees and wait for the Pharaoh.
Ktolemy is watching me curiously. There is no one thousand diamonds in my hand, only one, wrapped in satin.
The Sun King comes before me. He asks after his thousand, and instead of answering, I lift up the bag, decant the bloody paragon into my palm.
His breath stops. Moments pass.
“Where did you find this?” he asks at last.
“In the body of a living Nubian,” I answer. “A man named Bes, who gave his life that you might know the beauty in his heart.”
The Pharaoh lifts the jewel from my hand.
“The diamond of a man,” he breathes.
“The heart of a man,” I reply, daring to correct the Sun King himself. I no longer care if my tone lacks deference. I am not for the bulls, I know this now. The Pharaoh must surely realize it too.
“As you say,” he whispers. His golden-sandaled feet carry him away. I am left with Ktolemy.
“Not bad, polisher,” he admits.
I return to Bes’ land weighed down with orders from the gentry, my barge stocked with the Pharaoh’s men. My men.
We sweep across the spawning fields, gathering the workers at their fields. They are dull and sullen-eyed. They allow themselves to be herded into position, their eyes cast down, kneeling amongst the safram. They know the power of the Sun King. They know my power. They have all seen the corpse of their Bes by now, spread-eagled and bloody in his bed. I made no show to hide what I had taken from him. They know it could be infinitely worse.
The Abindian boy meets my eye, from his knees. This does not appear unseemly to me. He once poled me to this place. He must know his role in this was essential.
“No suffering,” he says. It is not a question, neither a command, just a statement. I nod. He has the right to name this. There is no need for pain.
My men line up behind them. Bes’ workers kneel quietly. They are dignified; befitting men, women and children who are to give their lives for the greater glory of their God. This is their honor.
I raise my hand, let it fall, and fifteen copper spears move as though my shadow.
I walk amongst the dead with my shears, furrowing their flesh as though it is earth, mining within their shoulders for diamonds, all done with the Sun King’s grace.
I pay my men in seedling diamonds from animals. They take them gladly, eagerly, their eyes glowing. They set to the bodies by my side, flaying the skin back that I might gain access to the bone.
I look out over them all, the living stripping the dead, and allow the thought to cross my mind, to surpass the memory of the sister I once failed to save. It is not vain to rise with the sun. I will not only be rich, I will shine with the strength of the Pharaoh himself.
Within ten years my estates range almost the length of the fertile Nile, every inch of land bought with bone diamonds, every inch sown with wild safram grass. On my estates roam crocodile and ibex, leopards and river-horses, elephants, cows, eagles, goats, camels, and on, all of them fed upon safram or upon creatures that have fed upon safram, and within them all growing like pearls in oysters, are diamonds.
From an elephant the jewel is immense, glowing with a dim grey blaze. From leopards and tigers the jewel burns green. From eagles and kites it is small, colored a wispy pink.
From within men it is red like fire, without fail.
The Pharaoh summons me to his palace, and I go. Carried on my palanquin through the streets, I see my diamonds gracing the necks and fingers of the populace, and I feel pride. It is an industry I have kept well. At my estates, men slay the beasts, hand them to others who transport them to butcheries in the city. The meats are prepared and sold; my estates now feed the city. The bones are crushed by medicians, others carved by jewelers, as I once was.
The clavicles are delivered to a single room of old blind men, who powder them seeking what they believe to be chunks of coal. The rough diamonds are collected daily and brought to my cutting factory, where a hundred-strong team of bruters, grinders, faceters, and polishers prepare them for their settings.
In the early years some of them stole from me. They were as unreliable and greedy as Bes, despite my generosity in rewards. I might have forgiven them, but they were brazen. They cast my diamonds into mounts that belied the secret of their origin; grey diamonds set into the carved tusk of elephants, pink diamonds inlaid about torcs of stiffened alligator hide.
I cast a hundred bronze bulls and filled them with those men. I saved none of them. The diamonds cut years later from their desiccated flesh burned a cold red, as bright as their greed.
Now I watch the people flowing by my palanquin borne on the back of ten slaves. They are all my farm. They all of them eat the safram, the weed that once was so rare, in every bite they take. It is everywhere, in everything, and the diamonds bloom in us all.
I walk the long colonnade of bulls with Ktolemy two steps behind, his eyes downcast. Now I am the master. The bulls please me, to know that the order of things is respected.
The Pharaoh greets me with an embrace. For a moment I am permitted to look into his eyes.
“I have a treat for you, my friend,” he says in that soft voice. He takes me by the elbow and leads me to his quarters.
Here there are women everywhere, and eunuchs and dwarves, painted gold, painted in blood, tables laid out for feasts, whole animals roasted and stuffed with other animals, the sweet sound of birds trilling in the cages overhead.
He leads me through to a dark room, the walls hot with red velvet. There are two children, naked from the waist up, lying on their chests, barely breathing.
“They are the first,” says the Pharaoh. “Twins. I thought you ought be the one.”
I bow my head at the immensity of this honor. “Please, great lord of the sun, you honor me too much. I cannot.”
He smiles. His face is so radiant. He is indeed the sun.
“Very well, as you wish it,” he says. I hand him the bone shears, and he bends over beside the girl. I crane to watch. Her breathing is slow and even. He splits open her back with scarcely a movement from her, as though peeling a passion-fruit. Blood rolls from her like sap.
He reaches inside, slurrying his coppered hand in the meat of her back, until he comes out with the left clavicle of the first child to have eaten nothing but safram since birth.
The diamond has grown through the thin bone. It is like a blazing coal in that dim room. It lights the Pharaoh’s delighted face red. He hands me the bone shears, steps back.
I kneel by the boy. For a moment I listen to his soft breathing. His eyes flicker, and he sees me. I look down on him with affection. I love him, as I loved Bes, as Bes loved me.
“Please,” he murmurs, as I stroke his feverish cheek. “Please, don’t hurt my sister.”
The words make me love him more. I close his eyes gently. I take the bone shears and snip through him as though a bundle of safram. He sighs, and the blood rolls out of him. The stone is a twin to his sister’s.
The Pharaoh rolls my fingers around it, after I proffer it to him.
“It is yours,” he tells me. “My gift. It is yours.”
I stare enraptured into its burning depths, overcome by the heights to which I have risen.
His words crystallize in the night. I wake in my cavernous bedchamber, surrounded by my women, my attendant slaves, all softly sighing, spent with our celebrations. Something is missing, but I do not know what it is.
I climb to the fine dome of my palace, lean against the marble balustrade and look out over the city of Memphis. The stone from the boy, his heart, is in my hand. It burns hot in my palm, like a reminder. His words echo back to me, but I cannot understand why they might matter.
His devotion touches me. Then I remember that it was not meant for me, or the Pharaoh. It was for his sister. That puzzles me, for she was already dead.
I hold the stone up beside the sphere of the moon. Of the two, his heart shines the brightest, as though a bloody sun risen at night over the palaces of Memphis.
Then I begin to remember Allory.
The diamond beats in my palm like her fading heart.
I am not a weak man any longer. I do not beg or cry. I am not afraid.
I walk into the Pharaoh’s presence, meet his eyes, and bury the blade in his heart. It is hafted with the boy’s diamond. Ktolemy runs to me, but it is a simple matter to hurl blinding emery in his face. He falls back, screaming, his tulwar clattering at his feet.
I chase him down easily, blade him with the same dagger I used to kill the Pharaoh.
“Shh,” I tell him, watching their blood commingle. “It is a great honor.”
“Polisher,” he hisses through gritted teeth, reminding me at last of who and what I am.
My work with the vise and shears takes moments only. I am a practiced hand, now. I leave their bodies behind and walk back down the colonnade of bulls. At each I hammer the locking clasps away with a mallet. The stink rises up in the morning air, and the first few frail, filth-slicked arms lift out.
“Go,” I tell them. “You are free.”
I am not stopped. None know yet what I have done.
In the grand square I take to the orator’s stage, looking out over the market as it begins to bustle with morning hawkers and slaves from all the greatest houses of Memphis.
“Here are your riches,” I call to them, and disgorge the first leather bag of diamonds into their midst. The stones sparkle in the air like rain after a drought, and I imagine each one an animal fleeing, running from the thing I have become.
The people mass and clamor. The market fills, and I stand before them. They know me, the Pharaoh’s most trusted adviser, and here I am, slathered in blood.
I watch them in silence, and soon they fall silent too, staring up at me as though I am the last legless slave to climb the arena’s safram pole. My silence spreads like water through them, over them, over the stalls they have trampled in their hunger for riches.
I hold up the stone from the Pharaoh’s clavicle and feel the madness of ten years of shame and fear rising up off me like vapor, leaving only the last crystal remaining, the one over my heart.
“The diamond of man,” I call to them, as the jewel burns red above me. “Cloven from the living bone of the Sun King himself.”
They look up at me with faces grown fearful. They do not understand.
“Do you truly not know the riches sown within you?” I call. “You know the source of the stones you wear. Can you be so blind to the greater treasures he sought to mine?”
I see no recognition in their eyes. Perhaps they truly do not know, or will not admit it. . But no longer. They will find it in their Pharaoh. They will see it in me.
I strip my bloody finery from my chest, toss it into the crowd. They gasp as I turn and show them the skin missing from my shoulder, flayed by a weeping slave that morning.
I kneel, weak with loss of blood, but then Allory is beside me. She is holding her cool hand to my forehead.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper to her. Tears pour down my cheeks, and she takes my chin, kisses me lightly on the eyes.
There is a crunch as the bone shears cleave the articular process in my shoulder. The agony is indescribable. I have threatened my slave with death, but soon he will understand how free he is. I sag down, hear voices call out in horror behind me. Let them know at last what I have done for ten years. Let them see the ultimate source of their wealth.
My foramen cleaves free, and the feeling of the bone being tugged from my back is sickening, wrenching. I am a bag of sticks and meat. Silver lights flash. I am barely conscious to hear my slave shouting out the diamond in my clavicle, holding it for all to see.
I slump against the stone plinth, and I see the crowd before me transform, their bodies blooming into safram shoots, long stalks bursting up through the market, spreading and stretching until before me is only a field of the waving pestilence weed.
Behind me is Allory, still hot with fever. I realize that at last I can save her. Joy fills me. The safram is so beautiful around us, I can smell the heathery scent of it in the air. I take a step forward, feel it enfold me, and know that I will be with her again.
Return to Issue #75