This bit is a good bit.
Once upon a time Proteus, the king of Egypt who dealt with Helen of Troy, passed away and the kingdom fell to his successor Remphis. Remphis had a problem. He had too much money!
There was too much for him to keep track of: people were all the time wandering into his palace and helping themselves to a handful of silver off the pile. He tried stationing guards around it, but the guards just stole from him themselves. The king had some guards killed and brought in new guards, but the temptation of the money just sitting there in the open proved to be too much.
So Remphis went to the house of the smartest man he knew, a stonemason, and made him an offer.
“Build me a vault where my money will be safe,” he said, “and I won’t have you and your entire family killed!”
That sounded like a great deal to the mason. He accepted the commission, and got to work. Days turned to weeks and weeks to months and months to years as the mason planned the vault out, and built it brick by painstaking brick. He had to do almost all the labor himself, working alone, because the king demanded absolute secrecy.
“If anyone knows the secrets of this vault, and robs it, then you will have failed,” said Remphis. “And you know what they say about failed masons,” he added, fingering his sword meaningfully.
So the mason was careful and diligent in his work, constructing a whole series of secret doors and traps and hidden deadfalls, such that there was only one safe way in and out of the treasury, and only the king knew all the secret ways and possessed the special keys for passing the various locked gates.
“Excellent,” said Remphis, when the mason had showed him all the secrets of the treasury. “Now all that remains is to kill you, to keep safe the secrets!”
As Remphis raised his sword, the mason cried out. “Wait! No!” Thinking desperately, he blurted out the first thing that came to mind. “If I were to steal from you, you’d know, right? I mean, I’m the only guy who could possibly steal from you, because I know the way through the traps, right? But if I stole you’d know it was me, right? And my life would be forfeit.”
“Indeed,” said the king.
“So you don’t need to actually kill me!” cried the mason. “So long as no one steals from your vault, you’ll know that I haven’t stolen anything, so I don’t need to be killed!”
“Plus you have the keys and things. Can’t get in without the keys and things,” added the mason. “I couldn’t steal from you if I wanted to.”
“Very well,” said Remphis. “I grant you your life, on the condition that my treasury remains unsullied by thieves.”
Cunning as he was, the mason couldn’t resist including a back door: a secret way that bypassed all the gates and traps and led directly from the outside of the treasury to the hidden center of the vault. It was masterfully hidden and no one could ever have found or used it, who didn’t know it existed.
But the mason knew that Remphis would make good on his threats, if the mason actually stole anything. And so he never used his secret way into the vault, and instead pursued the simple life of a master mason, with a wife and two sons, until at an advanced age he lay on his deathbed.
He called his family in. “Sons,” he said. “For longer than you have been alive I have kept a great secret.” And he told them of the secret way into the king’s treasure-vault.
“Though I am old and weak, the king remains alive and healthy, because he is wicked and the wicked prosper. When I have passed at last, use my secret passage and make yourselves masters of the royal treasury.”
The sons vowed to do this, and the mason died.
After an appropriate period of mourning, the two sons followed up on their late father’s instructions. They found his hidden passage into the royal treasury late one night. Due to the hour, it was totally dark within the vault, of course, and they could risk no light coming in, lest they and their secret passage be discovered. But within they fumbled around until they felt the heaps of coins, a fortune in gold and silver. They filled their pockets and escaped, with none the wiser.
This task they repeated every night for weeks, and gradually they began to amass a considerable fortune, a little at a time.
Now, Remphis was still hale and hearty, all these years later, and he didn’t trust anyone else with the keys to his treasury. Every month he would carry in, alone, that month’s net profits from taxation, mark down the deposit in his ledger, and leave again, locking the doors behind him. Gradually, over the course of several visits, the king realized that his treasure piles were getting depleted — someone was stealing!
His first thought was the mason, of course, but the mason was at this point long dead, after a lifetime spent keeping the king’s secrets.
Remphis had no clue about the secret back door, so assumed the thief or thieves had to be getting past the gauntlet of traps in front. His first move was to station guards in front of the treasury.
“Heh,” said one brother to another, next time they robbed the treasury. “Good thing we’re getting in the back like this!”
The extra guards weren’t doing anything, so Remphis tried to reason something out. “Guards don’t see him,” he muttered. “They’d see a lamp. He must be fumbling around in the dark.”
He got a bunch of bear-claw traps, the big ones like you see in cartoons, and spread them all around the treasury. With any luck, he figured, the thief would step in one, not seeing it in the dark.
The next time the two brothers snuck into the vault, one of them immediately put his foot down on one of the traps, crunch.
“Crap,” he said. “Crap crap crap crap crap. This really hurts.”
His brother strained to pull the trap off of him, but couldn’t — the thing was huge and tough and the trapped man was rapidly bleeding to death.
“So I’m going into shock, and I’m dying,” said the trapped brother to the free brother. “You need to get out of here!”
“Not without you!” cried the free brother.
“Dude, I’m a goner!”
“Yeah, I know you are,” snapped the free brother. “But if I leave you here the king’s going to find your corpse and then he’ll know we were the thieves!”
“Crap, you’re right.” The trapped brother groaned.
“Okay. Here’s the plan. We cut your leg off.”
“No good. Even if I survive the blood loss and shock, then tomorrow morning the king goes looking for the guy who lost a leg the night before.”
There was a long silence, while the two brothers tried to come up with a plan. Finally, the trapped brother spoke. “It’s going to have to be my head,” he said sadly. “I need you to cut my head off.”
The free brother was not enthused with this plan, but couldn’t offer an alternative. Reluctantly, he pulled out his thieving-knife and sawed his brother’s head off.
The next morning Remphis entered the treasury, to check out the results of his trap-setting. He found that none of the traps he’d laid in the hallways and passages and secret galleries had been sprung. All the traps he placed along the gauntlet leading to the inner vault remained undisturbed.
But within the vault, one trap had locked around the leg of a headless corpse.
“I’m baffled by this turn of events,” Remphis muttered to himself. Let’s just assume the king had taken to talking to himself, for exposition purposes. “Seriously this was not what I expected.”
His first thought, that his treasury had been robbed by the undead, was quickly put to rest when he considered it a little longer. “The thief had an accomplice,” decided Remphis. “The accomplice had severed the thief’s head to prevent identification. Darn the fact that this is ancient Egypt and there’s no fingerprinting or genetic database!”
Still, the corpse was a lead of some kind. The king hauled the body out of the treasury and stuck it up on a pike outside his palace.
“This super rude to the deceased, who was a filthy robber and therefore deserves it. Also, it might draw out his accomplice,” the king said. He stationed a ring of guards around the body, with instructions to arrest anyone who came by to claim the corpse or even mourn.
The surviving thief was totally prepared to walk away at this point. He and his brother had stolen a small fortune from the royal treasury, and he’d paid the price. As far as he was concerned, he was out of the game.
But the thief’s mother was not so easily quelled! She knew all about the secret passage and the brothers’ theft. She knew that one of her beloved sons had died, and that his corpse had been placed in a position of shame. She went to her son and demanded he recover his brother’s body.
“But Mom!” he whined. “There’s guards and stuff!”
“I don’t care. A good son would make sure his brother received an appropriate funeral. We’re ancient Egyptians, need I remind you? Funeral junk is super important to us.”
“Mom!” the thief whined.
“Just do it!”
The thief kicked the dirt and got all stiff. “Fine. Whatever. I’ll go get the stupid body.”
“Don’t get me any of that attitude, mister! Your father or your brother, God rest their souls, would easily have been up to this task! Are you or are you not the cleverest man in Egypt, now that they’re both gone?”
The thief nodded sullenly. “Fine.”
And so he embarked on his plan to recover his brother’s body. It was a nine-step plan, as follows.
1) Take some of the cash you stole from the king and buy a mule and a bunch of wine, in skins. Load the mule up with wine, like you were taking your wine to market to sell.
2) Use an awl to poke holes in like half the wineskins. Little holes, so that the wine dribbles out slowly.
3) Lead your mule, bearing your leaky wineskins, around for a while so the wine leaks out.
4) Lead your mule past the spot where a bunch of guards are standing around your brother’s body.
5) Stop there and notice, as if for the first time, that your wine has leaked out. Throw a little hissy-fit about how nothing ever goes your way.
6) When the guards laugh and make fun of you, get all huffy, but in a useless, inept kind of way. Warn the guards against stealing your remaining wine.
7) Get beaten up by the guards, who steal your remaining wine.
8) Cravenly appeal to the guards’ sense of their own importance, flattering them for their skill at mugging a helpless wine merchant. Encourage the guards to get drunk on the job.
9) Once the guards have all passed out, pull down your brother’s body and escape!
“There. Done,” said the thief, at his brother’s tiny and very private funeral. “And all I had to do was get the crap beaten out of me and humiliate myself by kowtowing to a bunch of idiot guards.”
“You’re a good boy,” said his mother. “And you were very clever. The clever man beats the strong man every day, that’s what I always taught you.”
Later, in the royal chambers, Remphis interrogated his guards.
“Let me get this straight,” he said. “Y’all were on duty, sober-minded and paying attention to your tasks, and somehow the thief snuck right past all of you, removed the corpse, and left again… all without any of y’all seeing anything?”
“Yes, sire,” said a guard who had real trouble meeting the king’s gaze.
“There was a time when I would have just had y’all killed, right now,” Remphis said thoughtfully. “But I’ve grown generous in my old age. I’ll give y’all a second chance, if anybody wants to come clean.”
And so the whole of the story came tumbling out of the guards: how they had been incited to mug a passing merchant, how they had drank too much wine, how they’d passed out and when they’d come to, the corpse was gone.
“Well. It’s not possible to identify this wine merchant, I’m sure,” said the king. “Could have been anybody. Merchants all look the same. No, he’s clever, this one. He thinks he’s won, too. He’s outsmarted me, is what he thinks.”
Remphis’s eyes narrowed as he reflected on the arrogance of his enemy. “Whoever he is, he underestimates me. I’ve still got one trick left up my sleeve. Bring me my daughter!”
“So we’re not getting executed, right?” asked one guard. The other guards elbowed him until he shut up.
At this point the story takes something of a turn. Remphis and his daughter had a peculiar relationship, to say the least. She came when he summoned her, and he gave her certain instructions.
“Go to the nicest brothel in town and present herself to the madam there, and let it be known that she was available for really classy and high-end royal sex, for cash money.”
The princess glared at her old man. “I’ll do it,” she said. “But not because you’re telling me to! No, I’ll do it because I was going to do that anyway, as an act of princessly rebellion.”
Remphis hired men to stand on street corners and shout about how the king’s own daughter was available for sexytimes, no questions asked.
“He won’t be able to resist,” predicted the king. “Man like this, arrogant like this? He’ll jump at the chance to sleep with a princess. I know I would, and we think alike. And then — we’ll have him!”
Sure enough, when he heard that the princess was willing to sleep with him for money, the thief leaped at the chance. He went immediately to the brothel and paid cash for time with her. The price was quite high, but he could afford it, thanks to all the silver he’d stolen from the king’s treasury.
“Wow,” she said afterwards, because the thief was good at everything he did. “That was… wow.”
He smiled rakishly. “I should go.”
“I mean, hardly anyone in the kingdom even has that much cash, and for you to… well. I’m just saying,” the princess continued. “Oh! Before you go,” she said, remembering the other instructions from her father. “Lie here with me a while. Just, you know, cuddle?”
Even though he’d just slept with her, the thief couldn’t resist the princess’s batted eyes, and so they cuddled together, there in the sumptuous brothel chamber.
“So tell me,” she said, trying to sound nonchalant, “what’s the cleverest thing you’ve ever done?”
“Brag at me! I’m offering you a chance to show off how clever you are. You are clever, aren’t you?”
“Oh, I’m extremely clever,” said the thief. The princess was, after all, a pretty girl and he wanted to impress her, even under the current circumstances. “I’m so clever I robbed the king’s treasury for months, with him none the wiser.”
The princess laughed. “That is clever, stealing from my father. Is that the wickedest thing you’ve ever done, my clever thief?”
The thief lay silent for a moment, remembering. “No,” he said sadly. “The wickedest thing I ever did was worse than that. I had to murder my own brother, slice his head off, to protect myself and our mother from your father’s wrath.”
This was, of course, the answer the princess was waiting for. Just hearing the thief’s confession as to stealing from the treasury would have been insufficient, apparently; she and Remphis had to know that this thief was the specific thief linked to the headless corpse, and not some other thief.
“Oh!” cried the princess, and grabbed at the thief. “I’ve got him! I’ve got him!” she shouted, for indeed she had her hands on what she thought was him. “Guards!”
However the thief leaped up, and the princess realized her hands were on a dildo, rather than the thief himself. By the time the guards burst in, our hero was long gone.
When the king heard about this, he was dumbfounded. “Batman,” he said. “I’m up against Batman or something.”
“Must you kill him, father?” asked his daughter. “I liked him.”
“What would you have me do?” the king asked her.
And so it was that the king sent forth heralds to shout the following message:
To the thief who seduced my daughter and stole his brother’s corpse and murdered his brother and stole from my treasury: greetings!
I’ve thought it over and you know what? You’re pretty badass. You’ve won amnesty for your crimes and also a prize. Come to the palace to collect your winnings. Whenever you get a chance!
Amazingly, this was not a plot. The thief went to the palace, revealed himself, and the king’s response was to marry the thief to the princess and name the thief heir to the kingdom and also gave him the title of the smartest man who ever lived.
“For the thief was the cleverest Egyptian who ever lived, and the Egyptians are of course the cleverest nation of any people,” concludes Herodotus. “They all lived happily ever after. The end!”
(Needless to say this story is a fanciful fairy-tale from start to finish. Any resemblance to actual Egyptian history is purely coincidental. There’s another story about Remphis, that he went into the underworld and played dice with Hades and won a golden napkin, but Herodotus tells that story only in passing and c’mon, it’s much less interesting than this story clearly. Also, in the original Herodotus version of the tale, the thief brings his dead brother’s severed hand into the brothel with him, and it’s that which the princess grabs, when he flees. I’m not sure whether my alteration makes the story more child-unfriendly, or less.)
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