Arthur worked for a small firm of dream-interpreters who operated out of a mud-brick office in the main business area of Sidon, Canaan's principal port. Sidon wasn't exactly the most exciting city of the ancient world. To the south, in Egypt, the Twelfth Dynasty was busily erecting pyramids and smiting enemies: northwards, the Hittites were tearing around in chariots and inventing constitutional monarchy. In Canaan, most people were still excited by sheep-farming, and their dreams tended to reflect this.
Still, Arthur loved his job, and he was good at it. He didn't just sit and listen to people telling him about what they'd dreamt the night before, though that was often surprisingly interesting. No, Arthur's work also involved digging up the dirt on the firm's clients, just in case there was some vital secret (religious indiscretion, sheep-theft) that'd colour the client's dreams. His diligence -- not to mention his charm and winning smile -- impressed his boss Jacob, and Arthur was on the fast track to promotion.
This, of course, made him pretty unpopular with his colleagues, a bunch of slackers and wasters who seemed content to do the bare minimum, take long lunch-breaks and head off early. While they were in the office, they passed their time concocting fiendish plots against Arthur. One day Arthur was at the water-pitcher when he found himself cornered by his three most obnoxious workmates.
"We've already written your resignation tablet," said Asher.
"And paid off the captain of a merchant ship, who'll tell Jacob that you booked one-way passage to Troy," added Dan.
"And we spent the silver we got for you," concluded Reuben. "On dancing girls and a couple of amphorae of wine. Didn't really do that well out of the deal, to be honest."
"Thanks, guys," said Arthur bitterly as they bundled him down the stairs and out to the waiting gang of slave-traders.
* * *
Arthur wasn't sure what to expect from slavery, but he was determined to look on the bright side. After a leisurely journey south through the desert (the slavers didn't bother tying him up, since anyone who ran was likely to die of thirst if they weren't devoured by wild beasts) he'd ended up in Egypt, which had several advantages. The climate was dry and warm, unlike those rainy northern lands of which he'd heard; the Egyptians were pretty civilised, as late Bronze Age societies went; and the local dream-interpretation business, formerly the purview of the priests, was being opened up to all comers.
Finally the caravan arrived in Itjtawy, the capital of Egypt at that time. There was a lot of waiting around, and then the indignity of a, frankly disorganised, slave auction: at the end of it all, Arthur found himself the property of a man named Cobb, chief of security to the Pharaoh Saito. He soon realised that he'd fallen on his feet. Not only was Cobb a decent human being who treated his slaves as members of the family, he was a genuinely likeable man. Arthur found himself becoming ... well, he was a slave, so he couldn't call his relationship with his master 'friendship'. But he worked hard, maintained a pleasant demeanour, and within a year he'd been promoted to the head of Cobb's household.
Somehow Cobb's wife, the beautiful but slightly unhinged Mal, had discovered Arthur's knack for unravelling the true import of any dream. It seemed he couldn't go about his duties without her springing out from behind a piece of sculpture, pleading with Arthur to come to her bedchamber for a spot of oneirism. Arthur had actually succumbed to her blandishments on one occasion, when Cobb was away on business. Mal's dreams, however, were full of storms, earthquakes and other catastrophes, and Arthur, found them terrifying, not to mention bewildering. The usual platitudes about the harvest, the weather and the flocks weren't going to cut it with Mal.
Mal's daily refrain of 'come and lie with me, Arthur!' would have been tolerable -- if tiresome -- had she exercised some discretion. One day, though, her interruption came at an especially inopportune moment. Arthur had been tallying Security's wages, and two burly men from the Pharaoh's special guard were waiting impatiently for him to finish his work so that they could lug the heavy clay tablets off to the Treasury. Halfway down the last column of figures, Mal burst into the room where Arthur was working and cried, "Arthur, you have to come to my chamber and lie down with me again! I've had --"
Then she saw the two guards, who were goggling at the word 'again', and shut her mouth with an audible click. Too late. Over Arthur's voluble (though humble) protests -- even over the protests of Cobb, whom Mal had run and fetched as soon as she'd realised what was happening -- Arthur was dragged off to the Pharaoh's prison, there to languish until he died.
* * *
Prison was quite a comedown after life in Cobb's house, but Arthur was not a man prone to despair. Besides, he was meeting all manner of interesting people. The Pharaoh Saito's rule was generally a clement one, but no man could rule such a vast kingdom without making enemies.
His new roommates included two men who'd formerly served in Saito's household. Yusuf, an amiable chap whose robe smelt faintly of cats, had been a magician, specialising in the manufacture of potions from an array of secret ingredients. Yusuf's downfall was due to his association with the foreigner Eames, a tattooed barbarian in gaudy robes who'd come to Itjtawy as a painter of murals, but whose true talents seemed to be gossip and mimicry.
"Honestly, Yusuf, if he'd just get over himself and marry her --"
"Ssssh!" said Yusuf, casting a meaningful look in Arthur's direction. "The Pharaoh's ears are everywhere, and we are already victims of his displeasure, due to your indiscretions."
"Mine? If your latest concoction had --"
"My potions were not the problem," said Yusuf huffily, his fists clenched. "They made him eminently suggestible. And you were supposed to be suggesting that the Minoan princess was the only bride for him!"
"Saito's mistress didn't seem exactly enthused at the prospect of him marrying Ariadne," said Eames, with a honeyed tone that reminded Arthur of his former colleagues. "She was very ... persuasive on the subject."
"So instead of dreaming about Ariadne he dreamt about that --"
"Excuse me, but did you say something about dreams?" enquired Arthur, as much to avert imminent fisticuffs as because of any real interest in the pair's machinations.
"What if we did?" retorted Eames, turning his back on Yusuf and sauntering over to where Arthur leant against the prison wall.
"Professional interest," said Arthur coolly. "I used to interpret dreams for a living."
"Did you now?" said Eames, and his smile became several shades brighter. "What a coincidence! It just so happens that myself and my acquaintance here have been plagued by nocturnal ... visitations lately. In fact," and he winked, "there's been quite a run of crazy dreams at court. Perhaps you'd care to tell us what our particular dreams actually meant?"
"I've nothing better to do," said Arthur, shrugging. "Go ahead. Tell me what you dreamt, and I'll try to make sense of it."
Yusuf shouldered his way past Eames. "Mine first," he said. "As a native of this land, it's sure to be more relevant."
"I'm a stranger here myself," said Arthur, "but I'm sure you're right."
"I dreamt that I was brewing a very special potion for the Pharaoh," said Yusuf. "I set down the flask in front of him, but just as I did so some painted foreigner," he glared at Eames, "put another flask on the table. Then my cat jumped up onto the table and knocked over the foreigner's flask, and where it spilt, the cedar-wood cracked and burnt. And then Pharaoh drank from my flask, and the cat jumped into Pharaoh's lap and started purring. And then I woke up."
"Clearly," said Arthur, ignoring Eames' eye-rolling, "this is a good omen: you will save Pharaoh from a dreadful fate. Also," he added hastily, in case Yusuf was religious, "you are evidently under the protection of the cat goddess, what's her name, Bastet. With her favour, you'll probably be out of here pretty quickly."
"Excellent!" said Yusuf, beaming. "I--"
"My turn," interrupted Eames. "Hopefully mine will be just as favourable. Are you ready?" He assumed a dramatic pose, his revoltingly colourful coat sending up clouds of dust as it swirled around his ankles. "I was in Pharaoh's palace, plastering over a rather fine scene of the Pharaoh hunting with leopards. Once that was covered up, I began to paint something more in the Minoan style -- you know, birds and flowers and plenty of tits. Maybe a labyrinth or two. The Cretans do like their labyrinths."
"That doesn't sound --" began Arthur.
"Then the dream shifted," Eames went on, his tone rather more salacious, "and I was on a couch in one of the guest chambers, entirely naked, with a lithe and handsome young man who ... mmm, now I come to think of it, Arthur, that'd explain why you looked so famili--"
"You're obviously doomed," snapped Arthur, trying not to blush at the sheer heat of Eames' appraising gaze. "Pharaoh Saito will probably have you executed before the week's out."
"It will give me immense pleasure to prove you wrong," purred Eames.
"Dream-interpretation is seldom a specific art," admitted Arthur.
"Well, there --"
"But I've never been wrong before. Perhaps you could take your mind off it. Maybe paint something here in the prison? Brighten up the place before you go?"
Eames and Yusuf said nothing more to Arthur, though they whispered furiously to one another in the corner of the prison. And before sunset, the Pharaoh's guards came to take the two away.
"Don't forget to put in a word for me!" Arthur called after them. "That is ... Eames? I'll understand if you don't feel you can give me a good reference."
* * *
Left alone in the prison (well, as alone as was possible given the plethora of other prisoners) Arthur was at leisure to contemplate his fate. If Pharaoh Saito was likely to execute those two just for conspiring to set him up with a Minoan bride (no doubt there was some political rationale: the Minoans were top dog in the Middle Sea), surely Arthur -- accused of sleeping with his master's wife -- was utterly doomed.
It was a shame Eames hadn't stayed in prison a little longer, though. Arthur had rather liked being the object of the barbarian's blatant interest: it had been quite a while, what with one thing and another, since he'd succumbed to languorous looks, and Eames had looked at him in ...
"Arthur!" bellowed the warder, startling Arthur out of a vague dream about Eames' eye-watering garment and how it might be removed. Burnt. Arthur hadn't even realised he'd fallen asleep. "Is there an Arthur here?" came the warden's voice, closer now.
"There is," said Arthur, hitching his robes about himself and rising to his feet.
"The Pharaoh has sent for you," said the warden, clapping Arthur on the back. "Nice knowing you, mate."
* * *
In short order Arthur found himself before Pharaoh Saito's throne, forced to his knees in obeisance. Out of the corner of his eye he glimpsed a quick, encouraging smile from Cobb, his former master, who stood at the Pharaoh's right hand. The throne room was vast, and full of people: courtiers, slaves, supplicants and guards. The walls glowed with murals (one of them a rather nice hunting scene, with leopards) and the pillars gleamed with gold and lapiz. The air was thick with costly perfume, which did not quite conceal the reek of unwashed flesh that wafted from the left of the hall, where a number of other prisoners waited. Presumably they were there to beg for mercy, or something.
"I am told," intoned the Pharaoh, "that you have the gift of explaining dreams."
"O Pharaoh," said Arthur, "I am but a humble slave --"
"Indeed," said the Pharaoh testily. Arthur stole a glance at him. Pharaoh Saito looked tired: there were dark circles beneath his eyes: he had clearly not been sleeping well. "I," said the Pharaoh, "have had a dream. You will tell Me what it means."
"O Pharaoh, I shall do my best," said Arthur.
"I dreamt I was in a great Labyrinth," said the Pharaoh. "Above Me I could hear the bellow of bulls, and the sound of music. There was a girl there in the labyrinth, and she said she would help Me, but I did not trust her. Then I found the door and came up into the sunlight. But before I could speak, the bulls trampled Me beneath their hooves."
Arthur swallowed. Bulls? Music? The word 'labyrinth' nagged at the corner of his mind. "I," he began, and swallowed again. His throat was very dry. (Prison rations had been sparse.)
"O Pharaoh," came a familiar voice, "let me give the prisoner refreshment, so that he may speak?"
It was Yusuf. At Pharaoh Saito's assent, he came forward with a flask, ornately decorated with birds and flowers. Arthur nodded his thanks and drank gratefully, though he nearly gagged on the strong acrid potion within.
"It's Minoan," murmured Yusuf, holding Arthur's gaze. "The flask is Minoan. And the wine."
Suddenly Arthur knew what he needed to tell the Pharaoh.
"The girl in the labyrinth, O Pharaoh," he declaimed, "is Your bride-to-be." (The capitals came easily to his tongue.) "Her name is Ariadne and she is the daughter of the Minoan king. The meaning of the dream is this: that if You do not wed her, the Minoans will trample Egypt beneath their ... hooves."
Somewhere near the throne, a lady of the court fainted noisily.
"It need not be a marriage in anything but name," appended Arthur, resolutely not glancing to his left, where one of the prisoners -- a fellow in a vividly-dyed robe -- was trying to attract his attention. "Oh, and the princess Ariadne would probably be glad of a few homely touches, if Your Highness happens to number amongst His household any mural-painters acquainted with the Minoan style."
"I ... see," said Pharaoh Saito. Was that amusement in his voice? Arthur stared intently at the marble floor, hardly daring to hope. "I have checked your references -- My servants Cobb and Yusuf speak highly of you. And many of My household have reported startling dreams of late: perhaps their dreams have meaning too, though obviously not as much meaning as Mine. I believe I shall retain you as Chief Oneirologist to the Court."
"Thank you, o Pharaoh," managed Arthur.
* * *
To Arthur's immense relief, his predictions proved accurate: at least, the Pharaoh did take King Minos' daughter as his bride, and the Minoans did not invade Egypt and raze the Pyramids, Sphinx et cetera to the ground beneath their hooves, or armies. (In truth they were too busy inventing syllabary writing and watching bull-dances.)
Ariadne's arrival heralded a fashion for all things Minoan: Eames's mural-painting skills were much in demand, and he was able to purchase ever more flamboyant attire from foreign traders. Yusuf spent a great deal of time closeted with Ariadne, trading recipes for occult elixirs: in time, the two of them discovered a tincture that restored Cobb's wife Mal to herself. Cobb, overjoyed at this development, still found time to rule the palace in all but name.
Arthur, with his usual forethought and attention to detail, had sent a letter to his old boss Jacob back in Canaan. I hear times are hard in the old country. Why don't you pack up shop, accept the very reasonable takeover bid that the Pharaoh will soon be making, and relocate the business to Egypt? The dream-interpretation business is booming here, and all the sheep are out in the countryside where they belong. Love, Arthur
Jacob's arrival, in the company of a number of Arthur's ex-colleagues -- who were smart enough to pretend that they'd always known he'd go far, and not to admit their own role in said journey -- took care of the courtiers and their tedious, repetitive accounts of palace politics, which freed Arthur for more high-profile work. The Pharaoh Saito became obsessed with prophetic dreams, and spent much of his time in an opiated daze (several of Yusuf's cat's kittens curled companionably on his bed), waking only to recount his poppy-fuelled phantasies to his bemused but acquiescent Chief Oneirologist.
And at the end of each day, Arthur would leave the Pharaoh's palace, and go home to the mud-brick house he shared with a barbarian mural-painter, and the two of them would sleep dreamlessly in one another's arms.