Fort Jezreel, Jezreel Valley, Israel, 877 BC
1 Kings 16:8-27
Obadiah huddled by a vase of tall, yellow lilies just inside the door.
The chief bodyguard poked his head in and looked past him at the king, “Execution stakes, my lord?”
“Right. Make sure you have enough for the children.” King Omri waved a hand at him. “Who knows how many that dog’s been breeding?”
Prince Ahab gave a quick, high-pitched laugh. “Tell him, Biah. This week you swiped three races from me at the last second.” He flipped around and faced Obadiah. “Let him hear it from your own mouth. Tell him I won.” Ahab jabbed his finger in Obadiah’s chest. “Tell him.”
Obadiah hunched his shoulders together. When Ahab lost, his pout dampened Obadiah’s victory. And when Ahab won, they both celebrated. But never before while picturing a garrote closing around the throat of a child laced to a stake.
A servant held out a bowl, and Obadiah splashed water on his face. “I had you, my prince.” His banter came out too soft, so he barked, “But you won.” He took the towel from the servant’s arm and buried his face in the cloth.
King Omri chuckled and pushed both young men ahead of him. “Tomorrow I’ll officiate.”
Obadiah squinted at the king. What kind of man gave instructions about strangling children, turned around, and joked about racing horses?
A servant hurried forward with a broom. Obadiah lifted a foot and knocked his sandal against his calf, littering the shiny marble with bits of grass and dirt. The servant swept the corner and pushed a foot-washing bowl toward him. Obadiah knit his brows and shook his head. How to escape the king’s quarters?
Ahab, however, plopped onto a bear skin rug next to a low marble table. He tugged on a bowl of glossy, dark red grapes and grabbed a bunch. With his teeth, he plucked a grape and grinned as a servant poured wine from a cut-glass carafe.
“Not here, boys.” The king gestured to a small doorway in a dark corner. “We’ll use this room.”
A sigh escaped Obadiah. A king should conduct business by these latticed windows that looked out on white doves chasing through almond trees in blossom. He shoved himself away from the corner, took a cup from the servant, and followed the king onto a stone floor squared by four smooth-cut limestone walls with one tiny window higher than Obadiah’s reach.
“Get your bones in here and watch.” The king sat upright in a short, marble armchair.
Obadiah shivered in the naked room. He turned for a last look at the almond trees and perched on the edge of a chair beside the king.
Ahab slouched in a matching chair on the other side of the king.
At their knees, a pile of scrolls lay on a low marble table. Ahab opened one, turned up his nose, and tossed it to Obadiah. A financial account.
Obadiah cringed and slid the scroll back on the pile. Did the king want lessons? “Execution stakes” still pinged in his brain. He set his cup on the table. “Um, my king, maybe you need to talk with the prince?”
King Omri laughed. “Relax, Biah. Something’s coming with your name on it.” He nodded to a guard. “Send Arza in.” The king leaned forward and rubbed his palms together.
Arza entered with short, jerky steps. His white tunic and purple turban contrasted with the solid gray uniforms and checkered headscarves of the guards on either side. He blinked, bowed, and bit at his lip.
The king pointed to the stack of accounts. “These don’t add up.”
Sweat dampened Obadiah’s forehead. How would the noose feel as it cut into Arza’s throat?
“Fourteen times in three months you stole from King Elah and now from me.” King Omri waved, and his fingers brushed the pile. The top scroll fell, rolled, and settled next to Arza’s foot. “How else are you cheating me?”
“Too many ways for anyone but an accountant to understand, sir. Even if I showed you.”
Obadiah sat up straight. Why wasn’t Arza defending his bookkeeping?
King Omri waved to the guards. “Set the strangling of this man and his family for noon tomorrow.”
Before Arza’s face could hit the floor, two guards gripped him by the arms. He squirmed and blubbered as they dragged him out.
The king turned to Ahab and then Obadiah. “You’re wondering why he didn’t defend himself. He’s been caught before. Captain Zimri noticed four gray geldings prancing in front of Arza’s new chariot with its silver-plated rail.”
He raised his finger and caught the eye of a guard. “Park that team and chariot where his family can see them from their death stakes.”
The king tapped the pile and stood as scrolls rolled across the marble. He strolled back into the room of red grapes and latticed windows. He accepted a cup from a servant. “You boys were with me when I got the message that Zimri had murdered King Elah and his clan.”
Obadiah nodded. A neat row of stakes had decorated the Tirzah ridge, the tallest for King Elah’s wife, with descending stakes for his children.
The king sipped his wine. “My people sniffed out the story. Captain Zimri had spies in the capital. They informed him that Arza, the king’s accountant with the silver-plated chariot, had new furniture, five extra slaves, and a wife draped in fine linen.
“So, Captain Zimri cut a deal with Accountant Arza. Invite King Elah over, get him drunk, and leave the door unlatched. Zimri slips in, cuts the king’s throat, and promotes himself from captain to king. He lets Arza keep the books and his head.”
King Omri gave a soft laugh. “Their scheme worked until I got there.”
“Such a waste.” Ahab turned to his father. “Arza’s shrewd. Couldn’t he save us money?”
Obadiah examined the marble floor. Work with Arza? Not even Ahab could be that naïve.
King Omri pressed his lips tight together and heaved a sigh. “My hands are full with the Assyrians and that upstart Tibni. Arza is a two-time loser. I don’t have time to watch him make a third try.”
Ahab’s shoulders slumped. “I see.”
Obadiah pulled his wine cup to his chest. This king-prince talk had nothing to do with him. He cleared his throat. “My king, I should brush down the horses.”
“The horses will wait, Biah. I let Arza hold the accounts long enough to prove my suspicions, but finances belong in your hands.”
Obadiah pushed aside images of Arza kicking at the stake. He studied his reflection in his wine cup. “I’m inexperienced, my king.”
“Two years ago I put you in charge of the headquarters stables, then the cleaning crews and the kitchen. And last year you took over purchasing. I’ve watched your every move, Biah, and I see how you do things. You’ll supervise a few experts who keep the actual books. You’re young, but you’re my right-hand man, and people even appreciate how you’re such a fanatic about the Lord.”
He poked Obadiah’s shoulder with his fist. “You think handling the accounts is a big deal? Wait ’til you see what’s on Shemer’s hill.”