He pondered the weighty gold ring on his finger and gulped noisily at his fourth cup of wine. Four cups? It could be three, or five, for he noted little beyond the nearness of the wine bearer and that lad’s ability to keep him from ever glimpsing the bottom of his chalice. The wine made heavy things lighter, and lately he was craving light, or at least a lightening—a relief from the heavy burdens before him.
Uprisings and courtly intrigues were one thing. A king had to expect them, and a good king not only anticipated subversive maneuvering; he relished the variable games of wit and the ruthless stratagems that must necessarily be played daily if one wished to outlast one’s contemporaries and all the pissant usurpers—those restless and ruddy youths too ready to gallop before they have properly gamboled.
Still, more and more frequently, Herod was feeling the effort behind his stability. He noticed it the same way he noticed how much more difficult it had become to put on the ring that symbolized his office and sealed his communiques; its weight was ever the same, yet each time he slid the gold over his gnarling joints, he could not ignore the drag and bite of it.
And in a few moments, when his scribe had finished writing out his order, he would press the ring into wax as a seal of his approval and authentication, for these three duplicitous men and their entourage were not about to undermine him. His purposes would not be thwarted by so-called “magi”—scholars and sorcerers, he was told as they were presented to him. Spies or frauds, he suspected.
They’d been traipsing about Jerusalem, dropping coin at the markets, entertaining the gullible with puzzles and tricks of prophecy and inquiring repeatedly as to where the babe—“the newborn king” they called him—might be found.
A snarl came to Herod’s lips as he mused: a newborn king? No such object! But best not to permit the notion to take hold, particularly among the peasant shag-rags who were always too ready to make up a mob or a messiah as the mood fit.
“We have seen his star,” the fraudsters had said, not only to Herod but to the crowds they entertained and left enthralled, and even now the murmuring undercurrent was snaking its way through the cities and towns. “A newborn king—the King of the Jews! The magicians said so!”
The unwashed masses might routinely forget to pay their taxes, but they never forgot a good story, particularly if involved overthrowing a regime.
“The people are a many-headed beast,” he said aloud to no one in particular, and blushed to recall that the thought was not his own. He’d heard it repeated by the Roman procurator, quoting one of their poets. Horatio, was it? No matter; it was true, and what was true was true always, even from the mouth of a Roman.
And here was the truth: Herod was the King, and there was no infant King of the Jews anywhere in Judea. Well, logic would dictate it, would it not? Who is his mother? Where was she? What king ever born did not have a regal woman for a mother? And there were no queens among the Jews, presently, not even among those highborn. It was nonsense! No infant born in recent times could lay claim to a Jewish throne, or to a kingdom.
And if logic did not dictate the truth of it, Herod would himself—he would dictate it, and then make it so by a simple decree. Because he was a king, and as such he understood the value of a preemptive strike.
Enough time had passed.
He had emphatically enjoined those showmen, those “prophets” to let him know where to find this infant they sought, so that he might pay a kingly visit. Herod had watched as they packed away the “gifts” that should rightly have been presented to him: frankincense, and gold, and myrrh. Gold for a king; frankincense to perfume and cleanse wherever God’s anointed did reside. The myrrh had surprised him. “To embalm him, for his death?” he had wryly asked the most Oriental-seeming of them. “Myrrh can be used in that way,” the man had nodded with serenity. “It is also used to stir the blood—to move it into life; to revive blood that has gone stagnant.”
“Dead is dead, though,” Herod grunted.
The man had simply nodded, a small, polite smile tugging at his lips. “As you say,” he agreed.
“Dead is dead,” the king repeated aloud now, again speaking to the empty air.
It was obvious that these men from the East were not going to return to Jerusalem. They had resisted his request for information as to this infant’s whereabouts. A rare misstep, Herod thought; he should have eschewed diplomacy and put the weight of his own authority behind the command. More fool me, for trusting in anyone’s word.
“‘You duped me, Lord, and I let myself be duped,’” he recited, his words slurring a bit as he quoted the complaining Jeremiah. “‘All day long, I am the object of laughter, mocked by all…’ Well, no one will ever say the prophecy was to me.”
The scribe appeared, handing his papyrus up through the chain of command. His aide read the document and raised his eyes to Herod.
“Are you sure, sire?” he asked.
“All of them.” The king said unblinkingly. “All the males under two. A broad enough span to ensure what is true: there is no ‘newborn King of the Jews’ being raised while I reign.”
The words were laid before him.
Finally putting down his never-empty cup, Herod stood. He watched the light glint off the weighty gold of his ring as the wax was dripped into place. He made a fist, felt the circle tighten about his finger like a noose and, putting all of his strength behind it, pressed down into the heat.