“Yes, O King,” he said in a mincing voice, “let him enter and kill a lion. But if he fail, then let a lion kill him. There are some hungry in the palace den and it is not fit that the King’s ears should be filled with empty words by foreigners from Egypt.”
“So be it,” said the King. “Egyptian, you have brought it on your own head. Prove that you can do what you say and I will give you great honour. Fail, and to the lions with him who lies of lions. Still,” he added, “it is not right that you should go alone. Choose therefore one of these lords to keep you company; he who would put you to the test, if you will.”
Now I looked at the scented noble who turned pale beneath his paint. Then I looked at the fat eunuch, Houman, who opened his mouth and gasped like a fish, and when I had looked, I shook my head and said as though to myself,
“Not so, no woman and no eunuch shall be my companion on this quest,” whereat the King and all the rest laughed out loud. “The dwarf and I will go alone.”
“The dwarf!” said the King. “Can he hunt lions also?”
“No, O King, but perchance he can smell them, for otherwise how shall I find them in that thicket within an hour?”
“Perchance they can smell him. How is the ape-man named?” asked the King.
“Bes, O King, after the god of the Egyptians whom he resembles.”
“Dare you accompany your master on this hunt, O Bes?” inquired the King.
Then Bes looked up, rolling his yellow eyes, and answered in his thick and guttural voice,
“I am my master’s slave and dare I refuse to accompany him? If I did he might kill me, as the King of kings kills his slaves. It is better to die with honour by the teeth of a lion, than with dishonour beneath the whip of a master. So at least we think in Ethiopia.”
“Well spoken, dwarf Bes!” exclaimed the King. “So would I have all men think throughout the East. Let the words of this Ethiop be written down and copies of them sent to the satraps of all the provinces that they may be read to the peoples of the earth. I the King have decreed it.”
While the scribes were at their work I bowed before the King and prayed his leave and I and the dwarf Bes might get to ours.
“Go,” he said, “and return here within an hour. If you do not return tidings of your death shall be sent to the satrap of Egypt to be told to your wives.”
“I thank the King, but it is needless, for I have no wives, which are ill company for a hunter.”
“Strange,” he said, “since many women would be glad to name such a man their husband, at least here among us Easterns.”
Walking backwards and bowing as we went, Bes and I returned to our chariot. There we stripped off our outer garments till Bes was naked save for his waistcloth and I was clad only in a jerkin. Then I took my bow, my arrows and my knife, and Bes took two spears, one light for throwing and the other short, broad and heavy for stabbing. Thus armed we passed back before the Easterns who stared at us, and advanced to the edge of the thicket of tall reeds that was full of lions.