"I've brought you a present."
Set turned away from the breathtaking palace view beyond his window and realized, belatedly, that his scribe was no longer taking his dictation. Instead he was sprawled face-down on the floor in abject supplication, wax tablet and stylus still in hand. Atem, leaning in the doorway in a manner better suited to a marketplace idler than to the prince of all Egypt, dismissed the man and his obeisance with one regal wave of his hand.
"My lord," Set said, once the scribe had gathered up his equipment and fled, "You cannot keep doing this."
Atem examined one perfectly groomed thumbnail. "I assume, of course, that you would never make so bold as to tell your prince what he can or cannot do."
Set bit his tongue, chagrined. Atem had a terrible habit of picking his moments to exert authority. "Of--of course not, my lord."
"Of course not," Atem echoed, faintly mocking. "Because you've never done that before."
Set could feel the blood rushing to his ears, a strange combination of embarrassment and temper that Atem always seemed to inspire. "I only meant that to continue to show such favoritism among your priests--it will cause talk."
Atem pushed away from the doorway, strolling across the cool floor with a jingle of gold trinkets. "I cause talk by how long I spend in the bath, Set. And by which rings I choose to wear on my toes." He shot an arch glance in Set's direction, one that was every inch that of a god come to earth. "If any man has questions about how I see fit to reward those in my service, he's welcome to come before me and ask."
The argument was over at once. Indeed, Set thought, victory was decided before it was even begun. "As you say, my lord."
"Now, aren't you even going to ask what it is?"
Set tried not to roll his eyes. It was always this way, with Atem. He was like a child with an iridescent beetle cupped in his hands, demanding guesses as to the nature of the prize he held. He would not be satisfied until Set had exhausted his mind, and yet the gift would never be guessed. Set suspected that if he were, by some chance, to ever actually hit on the present, that Atem would change his gift on the spot in order to win the guessing game. But that was only the paranoia of a man often defeated. His prince was too good-natured to cheat, and since he never lost, he never had to. Set could not win a game of senet against him to save his own life.
"Your prince is waiting," Atem prompted.
"Forgive me," Set said, and stared up at the painted ceilings of his study, wracking his brain for possibilities. "Is it... a bolt of gold-worked linen?" That had been a guess last time, and Atem had deemed it a marvelous idea for a present (but still a wrong guess, as the gift was a scroll of strange northern poetry).
Worth a try, Set thought, resigned. "Is it... a heron votive for the Temple?"
"Ugh, no. Don't be ghoulish."
Set blinked at him. "...I'm a priest."
Atem shrugged his tan shoulders, rattling the beads of faience and jasper on his collar. "Well, I'm not. It's not a dead bird in a box. Keep guessing."
"Is it an alabaster jar of kohl?"
"Golden wrist cuffs set with lapis?"
"Like I would give you a trifle like that."
It's not a trifle to me, Set thought, a little bit affronted. And I wanted a pair like that. "Not a trifle, then?" Set's brows drew together as he tried to imagine something of ridiculous luxury. "My own river barge, the hold filled with casks of honey, and crewed with barbarian dancing-boys?"
Atem's eyes went wide. "No, but that's one I'll have to remember. You really can't guess?"
Set rubbed the bridge of his nose. "No, my lord. I really cannot guess."
"All right, then. Your present is this." Atem clapped his hands, and a lithe little figure bounced in through the door, somersaulted across the floor and landed, curled in a perfect bow, at Set's feet. It was a boy of no more than twelve, his black hair twisted into a mass of black braids tipped in gold, his supple limbs chiming with the motion of bangles on his wrists and ankles. Set looked at the perfect arch of the boy's spine, and at his smug prince, in utter confusion.
"What's this?" Atem repeated, and tugged at his elaborate hair in frustration. "It's a boy, Set."
"I know it's a boy, Atem," Set retorted, forgetting his honorifics. "What's he for, is what I want to know."
"He's for you, idiot," Atem answered, fondly.
"What am I expected to do with him?"
"I would think that would be obvious."
"I meant, some kind of practical work he could do for me."
Atem's grin widened. "That should be even more obvious."
"All right, all right," the prince relented. "You make tormenting you such a fun pastime, you really can't blame me for enjoying it."
Set made a faint strangled noise, and then managed words again. "Atem. You're too kind to me, but I do already have a slave. A scribe. Old Haspeth--"
"Is about as nice to look at as a dung-cart," Atem finished. "Really, there's more to a good servant than being able to write in six languages, and I've been training this one for weeks. Here, Mokuba. Stand up and let him have a look at you."
The boy stood, as graceful as a crane unfolding from the river at dawn, and Set scowled as poetry came to his mind unbidden. The boy was pretty, he had to admit. There was a fineness of feature that artful applications of oil and gold could not invent wholesale, and the eyes framed in perfectly-applied kohl were bright and intelligent as he smiled up at his new master.
"Go on, turn around," Atem said, and the boy turned obediently on his heel. "I had him schooled by the head of my household slaves, and the palace master of entertainments. He can dance, sing, do your bath for you, pour your wine, whatever you like."
"He's too young for whatever I like," Set answered, sharply.
Atem sighed. "I know that, so I didn't have him trained for it. Thought you might like to do that yourself."
Set shot his liege a withering look but it slid, ineffective, from a countenance as serene as a gold funeral mask. "Well," Set said, and feeling that he should show some interest, he asked, "Where did you get him?"
"You'll never believe it."
"I picked him up in town. Darted right out in front of my chariot. Thought I'd killed him." Atem placed a hand on the boy's head. "My guard thought I should have him flogged for failing to clear out of the way, but I thought this was better. Right, Mokuba?"
"You can't just pick people up off the street and make them your own," Set said, though Atem could, and it was his holy right to do so. Worse, Atem was the sort of prince that people didn't seem to mind that he collected them like brightly-colored gaming slips. "What about the boy's family, his parents--"
"Please don't send me away." The boy had clearly not intended to speak, and he looked almost as surprised as his words as Set and Atem did. He bowed, but did not quail, at their sudden attention. "Forgive me," he said, quickly, without so much as a stammer. "I meant no disrespect. But I have no parents or family. I hope you will accept my service."
"See?" Atem tapped Set in the middle of the chest. "Spirited. Well-spoken. Just right for you."
"I have no need for--" Set began, again, and broke off as he found his elbow clenched in a powerful grip, golden rings biting into his flesh with the force of a crocodile's jaws.
"Set," Atem said, through a dangerous little smile, "Humor your liege, for a moment, and walk with me."
It was less of a walk and more of a drag, as Atem hauled Set into the shadows behind the pillars, out of the slave-boy's hearing. "Would you like to know why that boy was in front of my procession?" he asked, and from the hard glint in his eyes, Set knew this was one riddle he was not supposed to try and guess. "Someone had thrown a rotten fig in the street, and he was trying to get it before my chariot went by. He said it was because he didn't want my horses to eat it before he could. He didn't know that I would never feed such trash to my horses, let alone to a human being in my household. I can certainly take him back, Set, and put him in with my attendants. But he's been discarded enough. I thought you would understand."
Set flinched. Atem played him as well as a board of Hounds and Jackals, sliding a sharpened peg of guilt right into the vulnerable place in Set's conscience. He glanced back to where the boy stood waiting, dwarfed by the imposing columns of the room, his hands twisted into small fists. Though he was dressed in a pleated clout of linen as white as a gull's breast, his naked shoulders looked as vulnerable as that same bird's exposed bones on desolate sands, far from the reach of water.
"I will take care of him," Set said at last, compelled with an urge to wrap his arms around the boy, to shield him, too late, from the hazards of his short life.
"And I expect he will take care of you, as well," Atem said, releasing Set's arm at last. His fingers had left red prints behind. "That's what he's meant to do. Give him things to do that will please you. He'd like that. I can already tell he likes you, and it would do you both good."
"I won't use him for my bed," Set vowed. "He's too young."
"Of course not," Atem answered. "But he won't always be young, you know."
"I don't know what the other priests will say," Set answered, desperate to change the subject. "You don't even have a pleasure-boy for your own."
"Really, why should I?" Atem brought the flat of his hand against Set's backside, landing a smack that could be heard well beyond the pillars. "That's what I've got you for." He walked away before Set could retaliate, not that he had any means to do so, and told Mokuba that High Priest Set had decided to accept him into his service.
Set closed his eyes, quietly named all the gods who had any business dealings with patience and kings, and then went to see if his new charge had any ideas about how to dispel a headache.