Djedefre beamed with satisfaction as the sun sunk below the horizon in the west. The rays reflected off his newly completed pyramid, setting it aglow in a rainbow of colors. Even the hordes of workmen and architects lounging in their loincloths or working to clean up the last of the debris couldn’t mar the spectacular view. Though not as grand in scale as the tomb of his father Khufu, it was by far the most beautiful edifice dotting the Egyptian plateau. Cased in polished granite with an upper level of smooth limestone and capped with a sparkling electrum made from the finest copper, silver, and gold, the pyramid sat upon the steepest hill on Abu Rawash, giving it the advantage of inching a few feet closer to the heavens than the older structures below. Such a marvel would surely solidify his place amongst the gods. The sight filled Djedefre with insurmountable pride.
“Most gracious Ra,” the pharaoh clutched his golden ankh against his heart and murmured a prayer of thanks to his patron for all he had been given, “I thank you for your many blessings.”
With its stunning yet resilient craftsmanship, Djedefre knew his temple would thrive for millennia—forever a reminder of his reign on earth long after he moved from this life to walk in the light of Ra. His pyramid would outlive, outshine, and outlast all the others and his name would stand the test of time as well. It was written in the stars as his favored lay priest had proclaimed the day he came to power.
“It is a masterpiece worthy of the Son of the Sun God, my pharaoh. Ra is greatly pleased with what you have accomplished.” The priest bowed so low his forehead touched his papyrus sandals, causing his black wig to fall slightly askew. The older man stayed in that position until Djedefre gestured for him to stand.
“Rise, Manetho,” Djedefre told his priest and guide, though he kept his eyes focused on the walls of his shrine. “It was your wisdom as well as the blessings of the gods that led me to this great triumph. You even lured my master architect here from across the Nile. You need not bow before me, old friend. Ra will surely reward us both with everlasting life for all we have accomplished in his name. Now come. Let us retire to the palace and feast in celebration.”
“Thank you, Pharaoh.” Manetho bowed again. “Your words do me great honor.”
“Honor! There is no honor amongst murderers and thieves!” A familiar voice sounded from behind him.
The grin died on Djedefre’s lips. His heavy, striped headdress flapped against his bare shoulders as he turned to face his accuser. He was instantly consumed with fury that any man would dare to challenge him at the moment of his greatest achievement, but that anger morphed to the deepest feeling of betrayal when he recognized the man who stood before him. Djedefre should have known the raspy voice of his younger brother Khafre instantly, but he was used to reverence and admiration in lieu of such righteous indignation. Though his brother’s words wounded his heart, Djedefre could show no weakness. As pharaoh, he was the living embodiment of Egypt and the land was only as strong as its ruler. So he set his lips in a tight frown and raised the hooked end of his scepter, but before he had the chance to speak in his own defense, the priest pointed a gnarled finger at the young prince.
“How dare you speak to Pharaoh in such a manner?” Manetho demanded. “We should have you whipped for such insolence.”
Khafre flinched. The priest had the power to invoke the gods. His voice trembled when he finally continued, but he did not back down. “I speak in the name of truth, as the rightful heir to the throne of Egypt and the title of Pharaoh!”
“Truth?” Djedefre leered down at the young prince in retaliation. “And what do you know of the truth, brother? I could destroy you with a single breath if I wished it. You are no heir to the throne of Khufu.”
“Speak plainly,” Khafre demanded, confused but adamant. “Do you have something to say in your defense? Or do you only mean to distract our people from the true crime with meaningless ramblings?”
Djedefre did not speak for several heartbeats. A damning secret burned on his tongue, but despite his brother’s treachery, he could not bear to say the words that would bring about Khafre’s death, even if it meant preventing his own disgrace. Sadly, Khafre only took his silence as an admission of guilt.
“I accuse you, Djedefre, son of Khufu, of the murder of the crowned prince Kawab.” Regardless of the threat in his words, there was only grief in Khafre’s deep brown eyes as well as infinite sadness. “You are hereby sentenced to death.”
A group of soldiers lined up behind Khafre, each armed with spears, crossbows, and shields—all members of the royal guard Djedefre had believed loyal to him. But their betrayal paled in comparison to that of his younger brother. He wondered how he managed to keep the devastating grief from his voice when at last he managed to speak.
“Brother, why do you voice such lies against me! We both grieved the loss of Kawab, but his death was not of my doing. Since my rule began, I have governed all of Egypt and have brought our people only peace and prosperity. Why would you come forward with these false allegations?”
The crowd around them grew larger. Now even the commoners who helped mold the stones of his pyramid watched, some curious, some judgmental. They knew peaceful Khafre had no desire to sit upon the throne and would never make such accusations lightly. Djedefre began to worry his claims were too boastful. After all, much of the royal treasury had gone to the building of his pyramid and to the great Sphinx he’d erected in his father’s memory—a gesture made to still the rumors of a break in the family tradition when he moved construction of his tomb from Giza to Abu Rawash.
“I am Pharaoh!” Djedefre declared with more bravery than he felt. “Son of the Sun God, chosen by Ra to rule over all of Egypt. I have no need to profess my innocence to you or any mortal man. The gods would not have allowed me to ascend to power if your claims held any truth.”
“Save us your declarations of innocence,” Khafre intoned, speaking loud enough so all the men who had gathered could hear. “The vial of poison used to kill Kawab was found in the rooms of your priest. It was well hidden, but at last the truth has been revealed. You killed our brother!”
A new emotion rocked Djedefre at this revelation. With it, the ground itself seemed to move until he was unsure his legs would maintain his weight. He turned to Manetho, his priest, his teacher, his trusted advisor. He was the only man aside from Djedefre himself who stood to gain from the death of Kawab. He’d risen in the ranks of the elite along with the pharaoh he had guided since puberty.
“Priest, say this is not true!” Djedefre pleaded. “Did you murder my brother in order to bring me to power?”
Djedefre shrank back as Manetho underwent a metamorphosis. The humble visage he wore so convincingly melted into contempt and hatred. This was no true priest of Ra, but a power-hungry tyrant who had slithered into the inner sanctum of the palace unbeknownst to a young and foolish king.
“Yes! I assisted in the murder of that weakling, Kawab!” Manetho confessed. His eyes narrowed to slits and a half-chuckle surged from his throat. “He was not fit to bear the staff of the pharaoh. In the name of Djedefre, Son of Ra, I destroyed him so the true pharaoh would live on forever.”
“Murderer!” Shocked and horrified, Djedefre struck the priest with his staff.
“I did only as you decreed, great Pharaoh!” Manetho fell to his knees from the strength of the blow, groveling, one hand pressed upon his already bruising jaw. Still, his evil leer never vanished and Djedefre wondered how no one else could see his ploy. Only when the lay priest’s insane utterings were silenced by a second strike did Djedefre finally turn back to Khafre, his voice bordering on desperation.
“Brother,” Djedefre pleaded, “you must realize I had no part in this abominable crime. I would never have lifted a hand against Kawab. The priest acted alone and without my knowledge! The only crime I am guilty of is ignorance!”
There were murmurs in the crowd. A few men nodded, but most were unmoved by their pharaoh’s proclamations of innocence, especially those who had labored ceaselessly on the pyramid for the whole of his reign for little more than a pittance to keep their families fed. The bulk of his finances had gone to supplies, while the workers had been given all that was left. The honor of being part of something so grand should have overshadowed their greed, but the laborers around him were unimpressed by the massive stone fortress they helped to erect or with the king they claimed to worship as a god. Instead, they watched Khafre step forward, his tears mingling with the hair of his false beard. For the first time, Djedefre noticed the bejeweled dagger in his brother’s hand. Khafre clutched the golden hilt so tightly his dark knuckles had turned white.
“I have loved no one with greater fierceness than I have my two elder brothers,” Khafre whispered. “Yet to avenge the death of one, I am forced to take retribution upon the other.” Both brothers wept now. Though Khafre stood a foot shorter than Djedefre, he lifted his free hand to wipe the tears from his cheek. “Sadly, it can be no other way. I must honor my duty.”
“I am innocent,” Djedefre wailed.
“That is for Ra to judge.”
Djedefre didn’t notice the soldier creeping up behind him until an elbow connected with his temple. Pain spiked through his brain and though he fought valiantly to retain consciousness, it was a battle he couldn’t win. The last thing Djedefre heard before the darkness claimed him was Manetho ranting as he was put in chains.