No. No no no! That man lied to me. Rashidi did not lose. He cannot lose! That man must have lied. The way he laughed at me almost made me cry. I do not believe him, not at all. I wish I could have seen it myself, then I could be laughing at him for being a liar.
I will find Rashidi and ask him what happened. I know where his house is and how he will go from here to there. If I run, I will catch up to him on the way. Down the stairs, around behind the palace, then take the third left. These streets are well treated and do not hurt my feet when I run. I move so quickly that I almost knock over some rich old man. He shouts and shakes his fist at me while I turn away, down a side alley and over a small wall I know he cannot climb. I turn back towards the palace in case he has guards. They will not expect me to go this way. I laugh and make another turn to take me even farther from the old man's street. I will have to take the long way to Rashidi's house and meet him there.
Wait. Father allowed me to go to the tournament, but only if I could be home before the sun sets. If I am not, he will surely have me sanding beams for a whole moon. I will never make it home in time this way because I cannot run as quickly down these streets. There are rocks that may trip or cut me if I am not careful. I hate sanding, but I have to know what happened. Maybe I can think of a good story by then so father will forgive me. Something about that angry old man might do.
I stop running when I hear the song of a flute echoing down the streets. Something about the slow, beautiful notes makes me feel tired and a little sad. Banafrit is the only person I know who can play a flute that well. Rashidi must have married her for her songs because they are much prettier than she is. Once I make the last turn, I can see her sitting on the chair in the shade of the pavilion that my father crafted. She nods to me, telling me to come close while still playing the song.
"Did Rashidi really lose?" I ask softly, afraid to hear the answer.
"I do not know, Mkhai. He has not come home yet. I thought you went to the tournament?"
"Yes, but they would not let me in!" I cross my arms and look away, trying not to stare at the ugly mole on her cheek. "If he did not lose, why were you playing that sad song?"
"I played it to calm my child," she looks down at her huge belly and rubs it before asking, "You thought it was sad? Tell me what you think of this song."
She puts the flute to her lips again, pouring out more beautiful notes. These ones move quickly, making my lips smile and my feet move in time. I hop and spin in the air only to lose my balance when I land. She stops playing and we laugh together.
"That is the happy song you play most often." I am still smiling while I say this.
"It is the same song," my face calls her a liar before I can speak the words, so she continues, "I do not lie! They are the same notes in the same order. I only change how they are played."
I stomp my foot and huff, "Then they are still different songs."
A strong hand grips my head from behind and messes up my hair. Banafrit smiles and I hear Rashidi say, "No matter how your hair looks, you are still Mkhai." He lets go of me, then kneels beside her, quickly kissing her pretty cheek and whispering something in her ear. Giggling, she takes his hands in her own. They sit silent for a moment, smiling at each other.
"Mkhai came to find out how your tournament went." She says to him with a mischievous grin.
Rashidi sighs and rolls his eyes. "It was the Pharaoh's tournament and I am not its victor."
I do not know what to say, but that does not stop me from saying it. Words fly from my mouth like a volley of arrows that Rashidi shields against by burying his face in his hands.
"Mkhai, you should be home already. The sun will be gone soon." The words would scold me, but his voice does not. He turns back to his wife, saying softly, "I can explain everything to him tomorrow. Come, you need your rest."
She laughs, "I believe Mkhai needs your company even more than I do. You can tell him tonight while you walk him home. Help me to bed now and I will be fine."
The two disappear into their house for a moment before Rashidi walks out. "Come, let us get you home."
"You have to tell me about every match, from beginning to end. Every detail!" He nods and sighs as we begin to walk.
"But if you could beat him, why did you give up?" The sun has been gone for what seems like a day, but we are finally nearing my father's house.
"As I told you, that man deserved to win. I could only win if I used my talents."
"That means he is not better than you!"
"You are not listening, Mkhai. The soul's fire is not used for personal gain." The lone torch lighting this street shows me the frustrated face Rashidi makes.
I jump in front of Rashidi to push my finger to his chest. "But why not? They are your talents to do what you want with."
Rashidi stops walking and sighs, glancing around for a moment before walking to the bench that sits a few paces down a dead end alley. I follow and sit beside him, then he begins speaking, "Mkhai, the creator made the world with laws and order to keep us well. Everything has purpose which should not be ignored. Imagine if the sun chose not to rise or the pharaoh chose not to rule. We would be lost."
This is going to become a long and boring lecture. I must change the subject. I stand up again and take a fighting stance before saying, "I still want to join the guard. Will you train me?"
"You are still too young. I cannot."
I make a few light jabs at his shoulder and say, "Djal is only a year older than I. He starts training this season."
He outright ignores my jabs and replies, "Djal is not the son of a carpenter."
"What does that matter? I am strong and you could train me." I drop my arms and stomp my feet as I say this so he knows how much I want this.
His voice raises to match mine, "It is not your place, Mkhai."
"Then I will make it my place!" I shout and swing hard at his arm, but he does not move from the strike. I try to hide the wince of pain.
"Your place is not for you to decide." His voice becomes stern and loud, but not yet unkind, "You were born to help your father and to build Egypt, as he was to his father. Others like myself were born to protect it. The gods put each of us in our place for our purpose because only the gods know what is best for each of us. It is by this order that Egypt survives. It is by this order-" Rashidi stops speaking abruptly and stands up to look around. Then, in an urgent tone, he whispers, "Mkhai, hide." I open my mouth to protest, but he cuts me off in the same hushed but urgent tone. "No questions. Hide. Now."
There are few wooden barrels at the end of the alley. Most are sealed, but I find one still being made and squeeze myself inside it. It is not long before I hear a strange voice shouting at Rashidi.
"You forfeited when you had the advantage. Why?!"
"I fought unfairly. My victory was tainted." Rashidi replies softly, almost in apology.
I hear the sound of a scoff and a spit before the other voice is heard again, "Our match was not over. If you can beat me, I would like to see it done. I do not care how."
"You will find no honor in this fight."
"I did not come here for honor!"
The strange man growls the last of his words as I hear the faint grinding noise that sand makes when trapped under feet that turn on stone. There is the smallest pause before I can hear a rush of sounds all at once. Robes flutter while two distinct smacks of skin upon stone echo into my barrel. A sharp breath in reaches my ear next, just before a loud impact that could be a fist against palm. Two softer impacts follow, each matched by a step and a ripple of cloth, then a few rapid steps alone.
"Why continue to mock me?" His words are hard to understand through gritted teeth.
"I have not mocked you." Rashidi's tone is half as defensive as it is confused.
"First you rob me of the tournament challenge and now you refuse to strike back at me. Whatever power you hide, I will draw it out." There is a terrifying force behind his final three words, but worse is the pause between each. A steady drumming noise creeps into my barrel, but I wrap my arms tight around myself and try hard to listen to the action in the alley. I cannot be afraid if I want to be in the guard.
The fight resumes with three steps and several loud snaps through the air as cloth changes direction. The next sounds are the tear of cloth, an impact, and the clatter of metal against stone.
"Still you hold back!" the stranger shouts in a voice far past anger. I hear a grunt and something whistle through the air, then breaking wood and finally a scream coming from within my barrel. Light shines through where the bronze blade of a knife splinters wood and grazes the skin on my arm. The pain is not nearly as bad as the surprise. Between the force of the blade and my panicked reaction, the barrel tilts and I spill into the alley. I roll as quickly as I can to put my back to the wall and grip tight at the light cut on my arm.
Looking up, I see Rashidi standing a few strides away with his back to me. His stance is broad, but by leaning to my side I can see one other man a few more strides past Rashidi. This stranger takes an aggressive stance, leaning forward with hands raised like a lion about to pounce. There is not enough light to see much detail, but the growing grin on his face stands out as he takes a single step forward and to his left. Rashidi slides to his right and the other man halts.
"Who is the boy? Too old to be your own, and yet..." The stranger kicks with his back leg, closing the distance to Rashidi quickly. I could not have seen it coming, but Rashidi strikes the man in his thigh, spinning him back around and forcing him to take a step back. The man widens his grin, "Aha, now you strike."
"The boy has no part in this!"
"Your actions will decide what part he plays."
The stranger moves to his right and I scramble back towards my barrel. Rashidi stays between us and the two strike each other several times. The stranger dives left past Rashidi for just a moment, but is then brought to the ground in a tackle. Grasping a handful of hair, Rashidi smacks the stranger's face against the stone ground. As I slide further back, my hand finds the sharp metal of the thrown blade. I reach to pick it up, hiding it behind me while I sit up against the wall. Turning back to the fight, I see the stranger reverse the hold, now sitting with his chest to Rashidi's back and the second blade in hand. Rashidi keeps the blade from slicing his throat by pulling at the arm, but as his feet kick against the ground, I know he cannot break free.
The stranger speaks, almost at a whisper, "You have strength, but now I have position. How long will your strength last, I wonder?"
Rashidi grunts and closes his eyes, calming his feet, then shouts, "Long enough! Mkhai, run now while I have him!"
No, I will not run! I have the other blade. I must do something. If I want to be a guard, this is how I should prove it. I stand slowly, keeping the blade hidden. How can I do this? My whole body shakes as I take a step forward. If the man can beat Rashidi, how can I hope? Another step, and then two more will be all. I only need to distract him. I must do something.
Suddenly, I leap back at the sound of laughter, dropping my blade and falling to the ground. The way his deep laugh echoes through the alley makes me feel cold and more afraid than I have ever been. Rashidi springs into motion again, pulling and kicking. The man loosens his grip enough for Rashidi to slide free of his arms. A moment later and they are standing again, Rashidi panting and covering his eye with his right hand, but still between me and the stranger with his broad stance.
"Well done." The man sheathes his blade and makes a slight bow, "That was the challenge I came here for. I may have won the fight, but you have still saved the boy." He turns his head and spits blood onto the ground, then finishes, "That wound will make for an ugly scar. Let it be a lesson, and you will learn to love it."
The man walks off, and as soon as he is out of sight, Rashidi drops to his knee and takes slow, deep breaths. They sound a mix of relief and exhaustion. I rush to his side and see the gash across his face under his right eye. He reaches for his sleeve, which already shows a slice from the blade, and tears off a length to tie around his head.
After Rashidi finishes, he says, "Mkhai, you were very brave to take up the knife," he pauses for a moment while he tears another scrap of sleeve and lashes it over the cut on my arm, "Never do it again. Come. Let us get you home."
My father steps through the door holding a lamp as we come close. He looks on with narrow eyes and a scowl until we walk into the light of the lamp. As we do, he exclaims, "Blood in the Nile, Rashidi! How many men did this to you?" Rashidi holds up a single finger in reply. "Mkhai, to bed. Praise Horus you are safe. Please, Rashidi, tell me what happened."
I walk around my father while Rashidi speaks for the first time since the fight, "Not now. I must speak with you about Mkhai."
I run inside, then quietly climb out through the back window. I sneak back around to the side of the house, where I can hear Rashidi still talking with my father.
"... You must convince him of his place in the world. He will not listen to me."
I swear I can hear my father grip his temples that way he does when I frustrate him, "I had hoped you would do that, Rashidi. That is why I let him spend so much time with you. If anyone could dissuade him, it was you." My father makes a sad chuckle before asking, "Do you know why he is named Mkhai?"
"I know it is an odd name for a carpenter's son."
"I chose the name because he came from his mother already fighting with his twin. I had no idea he would continue down that path. Ever since he was a boy, he has been starting fights." My father pauses, "The truth is, that boy was not born to be a carpenter. I know now I cannot change that. If he has a place, it is where he will use his fists, not his hands. He will find his way to more fights. Please, Rashidi, take him into the guard. At least then I will know he fights at your side, not against it."
Rashidi replies with a heavy sigh and a heavier silence. Finally, he says, "Mkhai must work hard. He will have to toughen his skin. Tell him to strike his fists and shins against wood every day. When it becomes easy he should strike stone. If he does this on his own," he breathes in deep and sighs again, "then I will train him. And then he will prove himself."
I retreat to my room when I hear this and fall into the best sleep I have ever had.
The next grain of sand to fall through the hourglass is here.
Feeling lost in time? Start at the beginning.