At Memphis, as expected, the caravan disbanded. Those going back west with trade goods would leave again in a matter of days. Those proceeding on had to ferry their beasts and belongings across the Nile to the east side. Once there, it took almost a week before they could join, for a modest fee, a suitable caravan headed northeast through the lush, low delta lands called Goshen, across the northern edge of Sinai, and along the coastal plains of Philistia to Gaza where they would rest and resupply.
The next two hundred miles, though fairly flat and level, would still take over two weeks. It could be done faster, if haste was required, but the heavily laden beasts would be useless by the time they got there.
To spare both his camel and his tail bone, Melchior often walked. He was still young and, for a royal scholar, fairly fit, so the exercise was no challenge. He also found that walking was beneficial with regard to his digestion; trail food, he had discovered, could be difficult to pass.
Walking also made it easier to chat with others along the way, and opened for him a whole other realm of education that had been missing in the sterile halls of academia: the world of average men and women, ordinary folks who had developed specialized skills in order to secure a living for themselves and their families. With his royal robes and regal trappings safely stored away, he often passed himself off as an advisor or emissary to some distant potentate, and simply listened and learned the life lessons of the “little people”.
By observing the various merchants and tradesmen, he learned several ways to evenly distribute a camel’s load and to secure it with various knots. He was taught other useful knots for staking tents, for lashing a broken pack frame, and for snaring a desert hare for dinner. Once the merchants had warmed to him, they expounded at length on how to judge cotton, taste wine, grade rubies and cut off a thief’s fingers. One ugly camel herder generously offered to explain how to assess the health of a camel by tasting its droppings.
There was so much to know, so much to learn... from people who could not read a book, assuming they ever saw one. Gaspar had been observed reading through scrolls while happily ensconced in his high chair, and the superstitious common folk avoided him. Reading was like magic, and magic was not of this world. It didn’t help matters when his servants, sensing the unease of their peers, began spreading little rumors about what magic the books contained, and how powerful the man in the chair was. When Melchior discovered their game, he tried to quash it, but the damage was done. Nothing spreads as fast as juicy gossip.
Between lessons on camel breeding, sandal mending and the culinary vagaries of the local flora and fauna, Melchior attempted to glean any information, or gossip, these folks might have picked up regarding a new prince born to the nation of Israel. The first thing he learned was that that kingdom was now called Judaea, and encompassed most of the lands between the Jordan River and the Great Sea, from Galilee in the north, to Moab in the south.
Secondly, the current king was named Herod, and though he had a number of sons, no one could recall any sons, or grandsons, born recently. In fact, during his long reign Herod was reputed to have executed or assassinated one wife, three of his sons and two or three son-in-laws. Though considered a masterful politician and a great builder of public works, his jealousy and paranoia were famous, as well... and potentially lethal.
Thirdly, though the fairly flat terrain they were passing through allowed them to view the new star most nights, when ask about it these common folk just shrugged. Stars did not put coins in their pockets or food on their tables... assuming they stayed in one place long enough to justify owning a table.
Melchior leaned on the low table in Balthasar’s tent.
“The more I learn about King Herod...”
“Yes,” agreed Balthasar, “I see your point. We will need to be very cautious in dealing with him.”
“Dealing with him? It might be wiser to avoid him entirely.”
“If we cannot discover the boy king on our own between now and then, we must inquire at the royal court. And having inquired, it would be considered unthinkably rude to not pay our respects to the king. So if we are bound to seek an audience with Herod anyway, we might as well seek his guidance regarding the prophecies. Whether it is wise or safe or prudent or madness, we will probably stand before the king eventually... and we will need to be prepared.”
“Prepared how?” asked Melchior.
“First, in order for Herod to take us seriously, he must see that we are royalty. We must dress like princes, act like princes and speak like princes, like future kings, if we are to be seen as his equal.
“Second, we should ask only nonspecific questions, pretending to know less than we do so that, having answered our questions, Herod will feel superior and look good in his own eyes for having known something that we did not. Likewise we should be generous with our praise and offer some small service in return.”
“And thirdly?” asked Melchior.
“Thirdly, having learned all we can with regard to the prophecies and the star, we find the child to confirm those prophecies and then go on home. If we can accomplish all that we hoped for, it will make for a good story to tell my family and my king. Imagine... we might find the son of the Hebrew god, the future king of the Jews.”
“We would be famous,” exclaimed a voice from the front of the tent. Gaspar parted the front door flaps and let himself in. “Famous in song and story. Little children will beg to here the story retold for centuries to come, the story of the three princes who marched into Herod’s court and got themselves killed for trying to find the child who would usurp Herod’s throne. Are you two crazy?”
“That is why I did not invite you to my tent, Gaspar. You do not understand the nuances of diplomacy in the courts of kings. Yes, if we go stomping in and demand to see the next king of the Jews, we may find ourselves impaled on a pointy stake hoping to die sooner rather than later; however, with tact, charm and discretion, all of which you lack, Gaspar, we can make our inquiries look harmless, even helpful to the king.” Turning to Melchior, he added, “Is it too late to send him back to Alexandria? Perhaps drop him off at Gaza and let him sail back early?”
“Have you learned to translate Hebrew or Aramaic?”
“Then be nice to Gaspar. He means well and we require his aid.”
“Then I shall pray to the Hebrew god that we find the child king before it is necessary to call on the old king for his assistance.”
“You don’t even know their god’s name,” pointed out Gaspar.
“That’s okay,” said Balthasar, “He does.”
Giving your heart to others by listening to their heart
When you grow a leader who values people you help the whole world