Obadiah pulled his horse up beside Prince Ahab. “The king will kill me if he learns I let you roam the valley without guards.”
“Just be careful you don’t push that old fellow too hard, my prince. Shame to over stress such a weak old thing.”
“What a sad excuse for a live animal under you, Biah. Poor old Lavan. You’re the one who should worry about stress.”
“Just remember, Ahab. Relax. You ready?”
Obadiah pulled the reins up short and crouched low over Lavan’s withers. He gripped the barrel chest with his legs and thrilled to the ripple of muscles.
Prince Ahab pulled Shochar up beside him, also bareback. He gathered the reins, stretched an arm forward, and dangled a pine cone between them.
Obadiah nodded, and the cone dropped.
Heels hit belly, and Lavan shot into a gallop. “Go, go, go.” Obadiah did not turn to see if Ahab was beside him. That look cost him the race three weeks ago. “Go, Lavan, go. This one’s yours.”
They thundered west through the grass beside the Beitshan-Megiddo road. As they rounded a boulder, a pair of acacia trees came into view—the finish line.
Lavan lowered his head, pointed his ears toward the acacias, and thrust ahead. A few more lunges would shoot them between the acacias.
A beautiful black nose edged up on the right.
Obadiah yelled, “Go, Lavan. Go, go, go.”
The black nose moved even with Lavan’s white and then a nostril’s width ahead.
The acacia trees shot by, and Lavan slowed. Obadiah sat up and braced his knees to absorb the trot. Prince Ahab bobbed beside him on Shochar. “You thought you had me.”
Obadiah waved at Shochar. “Where’d your old nag find it, anyway?”
Ahab slapped the black neck. “You’ll never know, Biah. You limp along on that sorry old scarecrow you call a horse. But when that pair of acacias comes into view, Shochar just loves to reach inside and come up with one more win for the prince.”
An arrow whistled past Ahab’s ear and thumped into a tree trunk. He ducked, and another thunked in beside the first.
“Get out o’ here!” Obadiah flattened out on Lavan and kicked him into a dash for the fort. Ahab came right beside him on Shochar. The gate closed behind them, and a boy jogged out to them from the headquarters compound. “The king wants to see you both right away. I’m to take Shochar and Lavan.”
“Let these horses drink two swallows, no more, understand?” Obadiah waited until the boy faced him. “Brush them down and then let them drink two more swallows. No more. I’ll be out to check on both horses.”
They trotted Shochar and Lavan up the hill, through the gate, and to the far end of the street. They dismounted at the headquarters compound, and Obadiah handed the reins of both horses to a guard. “For the boy coming behind.”
Obadiah and the prince jogged up the path and brushed past more guards into the headquarters.
Obadiah slowed his steps.
King Omri paced at the door, chin high, cracking his knuckles one by one. “You were racing in the valley alone. You left fifty good men in the compound who could have protected you. A mere scouting party from Cyprus or Syria could have cut down my right hand man and my son in one afternoon.”
Obadiah blushed and ducked his head. No way could the king know about the arrows, yet a proper show of humility never hurt. “My fault, your majesty.”
His anger behind him, King Omri laughed. “Excuses later, Biah.” He turned to the prince. “Who won?”
Ahab’s grin split his face. “Tell him, Biah. Three races in a row this week you stole from me at the last second. I want to hear it from your own mouth. Tell him I won.”
“Oh, phsst!” Obadiah waved him off. “I had you and you know it. I don’t know how Shochar did it.” Obadiah chuckled. When the prince lost, his pout dampened the fun. But when the prince won, they both celebrated.
King Omri joined his chuckle. “Maybe tomorrow I’ll officiate.” He opened the door and pushed both boys into the sitting room.
Obadiah and the prince plopped down on bear skin rugs and turned to a low table where bowls overflowed with grapes and wine waited in cut-glass carafes.
“Not here, boys. We’ll use my interview room.”
Obadiah had never heard of the interview room. He shoved himself to his feet and let a slight groan escape his lips. Another day maybe he could enjoy these bay windows which looked out on white doves who chased each other through olive trees.
The king ushered them through a small door onto a cold marble floor squared by four walls of smooth-cut limestone with one tiny window higher than Obadiah could reach. “Get your bones in here and watch.” He pointed to three low, square, marble armchairs. “Sit.”
Obadiah cringed and slid it back on the pile. Did the king want lessons?
Obadiah leaned forward. “Um, sir, we thought we heard the boy say you wanted both of us, but maybe you only want the prince?”
King Omri laughed. “Relax, Biah. I’ve got something coming for you.” He nodded to a guard, leaned forward, and rubbed his palms together. “Send Arza in.” His voice sounded eager.
Arza entered with short, jerky steps. He blinked rapidly, bowed, straightened, and bit at his lip.
King Omri slapped at the stack of accounts. “These don’t add up.”
Arza stiffened, and Obadiah gulped. How would the garrote feel as it tightened around Arza’s neck? Ahab touched his own throat.
King Omri gave a soft chuckle. “I found fourteen times in three months when you stole from Elah and now from me. And I’m no accountant.” He shoved the top scroll off the pile, and it rolled over and settled next to Arza’s foot. “How else are you cheating me?”
He bowed his head. “Too many ways for you to understand. Even if I showed you.” Arza reached for the king, but the guards held him. “Please, my king,” he whimpered. “I can save you money. Lots of money.”
King Omri beckoned to the guards. “Arrange for the execution of this man and his family at noon tomorrow.”
Two guards marched Arza out.
King Omri leaned back. “Know why he couldn’t defend himself? Because this is the second time he’s been caught. The first was when Zimri noticed four grey geldings prancing in front of Arza’s new chariot with its silver-plated rail.”
He caught the eye of a guard. “Park that team and chariot where his family can see them from their execution stakes.”
King Omri continued. “Zimri’s spies reported Arza’s new furniture, five extra slaves, and wife draped in fine linen. So, Zimri cut a deal with Arza. Invite King Elah over, get him drunk, and leave the door unlatched. Zimri slips in, cuts the king’s throat, and proclaims himself king. Arza gets to keep the books and his head. It worked until the troops decided I should be king, not Zimri.”
“Such a waste.” Ahab turned to his father. “Isn’t Araz a shrewd guy, though? Seems like you could profit from his shrewdness. Maybe you could pardon him and put him to work? Watch him? If he cheats again, then the noose.”
His father pressed his lips tight and gave a heavy sigh. “For one thing, I’ve already given the order. I’m not about to confuse my men with a change of strategy here at headquarters any more than I would on the field of battle. But more important—Araz is a two-time loser. I’m not setting him up with a third opportunity.”
Ahab’s shoulders slumped. “I see.”
The king turned to Obadiah. “I let Arza keep the financial accounts long enough to prove my suspicions, but accounts belong in your hands.”
Obadiah gave the king a quick glance but then looked at his hands. “I don’t have enough work already, my king?”
“I know how you do things, Biah. You’ll supervise a few experts who keep the actual account books. You’re the right man to handle my affairs, and some people even like how you’re such a fanatic about the Lord.”
The king placed a hand on Ahab’s knee. “Biah does good work, and when we get back from Tyre, I want you to learn enough from him about accounts that when you become king, they don’t steal from you.”
Three years later, after King Omri bought the hill of Samaria, he sent Obadiah to get his olive oil business started.
Obadiah and Prince Ahab sat in the dining room of Samaria’s new inn. The smell of roast mutton wafted in from the kitchen.
“So tell me, Prince.” Obadiah dipped a cucumber slice in olive oil. “What’s it like being married to the daughter of King Ethbaal?”
Ahab rolled his eyes. “Come on, Biah. You know why my father makes those trips to Tyre. It’s a military necessity.”
Obadiah nibbled and nodded. To help secure Israel’s northern border, King Omri negotiated an alliance with the king of Tyre. In token of the alliance, King Ethbaal sent Jezebel as wife of Ahab. “But is she different from your other two wives?” Of course she was the only wife Ahab had who brought her personal army of four hundred Asherah priests to Fort Jezreel.
“Not really, Biah. What’s different is the whole thing. I’ve seen how Yedidah’s eyes light up for you. My wives don’t look at me like she looks at you. None of them. They just don’t.”
From across the plaza, the shouts of workmen building Omri’s palace mingled with the ping of hammers and the ffft-ffft of saws. The open door let in snatches of a yellowhammer’s song along with sunlight reflecting off fresh puddles. Obadiah’s driver came up the path and stopped at the door. “Twelve applicants for grove manager have arrived.”
“Thank you. Bring one in.”
The driver gave a quick nod and jogged back down the path.
Obadiah sighed. “You’re father overestimates me, Ahab. How am I going to run olive groves and still take care of business down at the fort?”
“The only thing my father overestimates is your speed. You’ve got twelve men out there ready to go to work. Just hire them, would you? So we can get going.”
“Only the good ones, my prince. Only the good ones.”
The driver led a man around the puddles and toward the door.
Ahab stood. “Here comes manager number four.”
Obadiah also stood but did not speak. Merom? How did he get in here?
Merom extended his hand, and Obadiah shied as if it came from a leper.
Ahab’s eyebrows rose.
Merom’s face lit up with a broad smile. “Good to see you again, Biah. I was glad to hear you are hiring grove managers. You know my record. Ten years at Shiloh. Every tree greener and more olives. When would you like me to start?”
Obadiah stared. Was the man as unfazed by silence as he acted?
Merom glanced toward the kitchen. “Smells good in here. Garlic and onions on that?”
Obadiah looked him square in the eye. “Actually we won’t be needing you. I’m sorry to waste your time, but there’s been a mix up, and we can’t use you.”
Ahab took a step back.
Merom glanced at Ahab, at the guards by the entrance, and then at the guard in each corner. He turned back toward Obadiah, opened his mouth, but said nothing.
Obadiah raised his chin. “I’ve got another appointment, and I’m sure you have a full schedule. My driver will show you out.”
Merom followed the driver down the path and glanced back as he rounded the corner.
Ahab edged up to Obadiah’s side. “Why did you tell that man, no?”
“Ai-yah! You’re impossible. The man’s been doing groves for ten years, Biah. Did I hear wrong?”
“You heard right, my prince. Ten years at Shiloh. Every tree greener. More olives.”
“So why wouldn’t you talk with him?”
Ahab stood in the doorway, faced Obadiah, and folded his arms.
The prince stomped his foot. “Wife, shmife. You can’t mix marriage with business, Biah. Get with the times. Everybody cheats on his wife.”
“I don’t cheat on Yedidah.” Obadiah stuck his chin up against Ahab’s chin. “And I don’t hire cheaters.” He waved at a guard. “We’re getting nothing done here. Bring me the next man.”