The Senet Box
by Jill Williamson
The name is Ancient Egyptian. It means the hidden one.
That she was, indeed. That she still is.
Hidden forever from me.
I first saw her in Nicosia, in the year of our Lord, 1283. I had only just celebrated my sixteenth birthday. I had just returned from Jerusalem with my father, Hugh de Lusignan III, King of Cyprus and Jerusalem—also called the Great—after an attempt to sort through the many factions vying for the throne of the ancient city. A visit had been necessary to restore order, but Father had little patience for insubordination and finally left Jerusalem in the hands of his bailiff.
From Jerusalem, we traveled to Oltremare, the main port of the eastern Mediterranean Sea in the city of Saint-Jean d’Acre. There we made our way down into the hold of a ship called la Petite Baleine that would carry us home to Cyprus. A great treasure had been seized in a battle against Mamluks in Egypt. Father wanted to see it before we set sail.
My father loved treasure.
I ducked my head to follow my father and Captain Auveré down the narrow stairs to the lower deck, the captain’s lantern the only source of light. I had never been so far below ship before. The smallness of everything surprised me. And the smell—mildew, rot, and something briny—worsened with each step that took us closer to the hold. I wrinkled my nose.
“It smells quite fresh today, Your Highness,” Captain Auveré said, pinning me with an amused smile.
Fresh? I raised an eyebrow. “Does it?”
He chuckled. “You should smell her when she’s full of livestock and men who haven’t bathed for three weeks.”
“A pleasure I am happy to forgo,” I said.
I struck my forehead twice upon low beams in the passageways between stairwells. I don’t know why father couldn’t have waited until we got home to look at his new treasure. I certainly could have.
But then we reached the end of the stairs, passed the men standing guard at a thick wooden door, and entered a room in the hold.The light from Captain Auveré’s lantern reflected off countless riches—gold, silver, bronze, jewels in every color, polished wood, ornate tapestries, shiny weapons.
The treasure’s glow warmed my cheeks.
Crates and barrels held much of the hoard, yet many of these containers were opened, their contents spilling out, calling me to take a closer look. Masks, crowns, coins, jewelry, cups, platters, daggers, swords, spears, canopic jars, scepters, amulets, chunks of precious rocks, and lengths of unwrought metals. Some items were too big to put in any box: statues, vases, candelabrum, and tombs.
I gazed about, transfixed by such glory and wealth. No wonder my father could not wait to see such this priceless plunder, this…trésorre cherché.
“Choose, John,” my father said to me. “Something for yourself.”
Choose. I walked among the piles of wealth, studying everything with a careful eye. As a prince—and the eldest of my brothers—I had plenty of crowns and buckles with which to adorn myself. I had no use for golden goblets or swords. And I wanted no part of tombs or jars holding bits of dead Egyptians.
I shuddered at the very idea.
I strolled past the mounds of treasure, wondering how many the Crusaders had killed in the name of Our Lord to claim such wealth. I did not oppose the Crusades outright, but I somehow doubted that the Lord our God would be pleased by some of the methods used to claim this holy land. When my time came to rule Cyprus and Jerusalem, would I do the same to keep it? My brother Henry certainly would.
A whisper pulled my gaze to a carved, wooden box about a foot long, six inches wide, and four inches deep. Egyptian hieroglyphics were carved on all sides but the bottom, the images stained white.
An old senet game.
I had played senet with my brothers many times. I was not particularly good at the game. And this one was worn and cracked along one side. Why was something so shabby in with such riches?
I moved on and stopped to examine a golden crown. In the center, carved of copper, a scarab clutched a crescent moon. Two vipers, tails coiled, heads raised to strike, perched on either side of the beetle. Lapis and turquoise beads dangled around the bottom edge. I liked the sinister look of the creatures, but the beads would likely itch my forehead.
“There are some fine rings in this box here, John,” my father said.
I owned dozens of rings already.
I turned around, looking for the source of that whisper. My gaze fell to the senet box. My nerves tingled, as if the box had whispered my name. Impossible. “Did you say something, Father?”
He looked at me with raised brows. “I did not.” His lips curved into a smile. “Perhaps the voices of Egyptian ghosts are calling to you?”
In search of something unique, I passed over what many would claim. A turquoise amulet, a dagger with a carved ivory grip, a vase painted in black and gold checks, a scepter carved from dark wood, a crusader shield from England, a matching sword.
I glanced at my father. “Some of this is English.”
“The Nubain prince has a fondness for foreign things. As do I.” Father peered through a death mask that had belonged to some ancient pharaoh, his eyes a glimmer edged in gold. The sight chilled me. For when my father died, I would be king.
I had yet to decide if I should crave or abhor such a destiny.
I turned back to the hoard and found myself standing before the senet game. I looked behind me. Hadn’t the box been nearer the door?
I ran one finger along the worn cedar and a tingle ran up my arm. I jerked away. But the feeling had not pained me, so I lifted the box into my hands. The tingle returned, a subtle pleasure.
John, it said to me.
Though it made no sense, I clutched the box to my chest, and the game pieces rattled inside. “I want this.”
My father looked past a pair of gold vases to where I stood, his eyes narrowed. “That’s it, John? A toy?”
I couldn’t explain why I needed it. If I told my father how the feel of the wood on my skin made me tremble…that I felt a pull to the box like hair on wool…that I could hear it speaking to me… he would think me mad.
Come to think of it, I felt slightly mad.
I merely said, “J’aime ça.” I like it.
Father shrugged. “Have it if you must, but chose something of value as well.”
Eager to take the box to my cabin, I grabbed the scarab crown and held it up.
Father smiled. “Interesting choice. It’s a bit… angry, isn’t it?”
“J’aime ça,” I said again. “May I return to my cabin?”
He turned his back and stepped past an intricately painted anthropoid sarcophagus. “I’ve barely had a look. Remain with me. Sit and play with your toy if you must.”
I didn’t like his tone, but I wasn’t going to argue with the Great. I found a carved footstool and sat down. I set the scarab crown on the floor by my feet and held the senet box in my lap. I ran my index finger along each carving. Asmall thrill tingled through me, as if I were petting a satisfied cat. How very odd.
I continued to stroke the box, delighted with my find.
*To read the rest of this story, purchase Spirited. All proceeds go to charity.