Over two thousand baskets of food sent out, one to every wife of a soldier, just to provide cover for giving Bathsheba a pressed orchid. This was ridiculous. He had to stop taking next steps.
The next day, David was determined not to give anyone any reason to wonder about him, question his actions, or speculate about what might be going on in his mind, so he gathered all his advisors and finally dealt with all the people hanging around the palace looking for favors or decisions. He received messages from King Hiram of Tyre and King Nahash of Ammon and dictated measured responses in return. He made a decision on a land dispute between two villages, and eleven other disputes among village elders. They didn’t even break for the midday meal, but had food brought into the throne room and ate while they worked. He received reports on his fields, his flocks, his storeroom of taxes and gifts, and the level of water in all the pools and cisterns. By mid-afternoon, they’d managed to clear all available business.
David leaned back on his throne, his face glazed with sweat, feeling a sense of accomplishment he hadn’t in days. “Why don’t you all go home and rest. I’ll see you tomorrow, or even the day after that, if nothing comes up.”
His advisors barely had energy to smile at the idea that nothing might come up. The shuffle and scrape of their sandals on the floor was louder than their conversation, but David managed to hear one man say he was going home to pour a bucket of water over himself.
That’s all it took. David had thought about Bathsheba only two or three — or four — dozen times over the course of the morning. His mind produced a perfect image of her tipping a cup over her head, the water rolling over her skin. He gripped the armrests and tried to keep himself in the throne room, but it was futile. He somehow managed not to race to the roof.
She wasn’t there.
Of course she wasn’t there. It was the heat of the day. Only crazy people were up on their roofs where there was no shade. Disappointment knifed through him. He needed to see her again.
He scraped his fist against the stone of the parapet. He either had to stop looking for her, stop imagining her, or stop fooling himself.
Stop fooling himself, it was. He swept over to the guards at the tower and asked them to have Ahithophel and Abigail and his kitchen manager brought to him in his throne room. He waited, in a daze, in his private rooms until a servant told him everyone was assembled.
David smiled and held his arms open as he entered the room. “Thank you all for coming. Especially you,” he turned to Ahithophel. “After you left such a short while ago, I was thinking back to the good advice you gave me about the issue in Bethel. I thank the Lord for you, Ahithophel.” David had to clear his suddenly thick throat. It made him sound overcome, which his audience seemed pleased by, but he knew it wasn’t with gratitude: it was with guilt at bringing the Lord’s name into this mess. He swallowed hard and forged ahead. “You and your family have been faithful to me since before I was king of Judah.”
“My lord,” Ahithophel said. “It has always been our honor to serve Israel and her rightful king.”
“Now you have three generations involved. You at the palace and your son and the husband of your granddaughter in the Thirty. I’d like to bless you and your entire family by inviting you to dine with us at our family meal this week. Abigail, do you think we can handle a few more?”
Abigail was always ready to extend hospitality — a trait David was counting on. She smiled with genuine pleasure at him and then at Ahithophel. “Of course. So long as you understand that the king’s table at family dinner is different than it is for official business.”
David managed an easy-sounding laugh. “That’s an understatement. With all the talking and laughing and singing—”
“And bickering amongst the children,” Abigail added.
“Can’t forget that.” David winked at her. “My six wives will be there, along with around twenty of my children, so any number you bring will fit right in. How many is your family here in Jerusalem?”
“I’m overwhelmed, my lord.” Ahithophel bowed his head.
“Let’s not play the game of you refusing because your family is not ready or not worthy, and then I insist, and you refuse, and I insist, and finally you agree.” David clapped him on the shoulder, and let his hand rest there. “Let’s just get straight to the part where you tell me how many extra people to expect so my kitchen manager can plan accordingly.”
Ahithophel sighed. “With the army away, our number in Jerusalem is small. It’s just myself and my wife, Elias’s wife and three younger children, and Bathsheba, my granddaughter.”
David grinned. “We’ll expect you all here tomorrow evening.”
The next day, David flitted from one room to the next, ducking in and out of the servant’s hallways, practicing all possible routes. He took a bath, oiled his skin and hair, and changed his clothes four times, finally settling on his first royal robes, made after he became king of Judah. The red embroidery had faded, but the linen itself was so soft and smooth, it flowed like warmed olive oil over his skin. Then he warmed up his voice twice, hung about the kitchen to taste the food and had them changed three dishes, and fussed with the scented water bowls on the low table.
When the servants began filing in from their hallway with the food, he hurried back to his room. The king shouldn’t be the first one there. He waited, his back flat against the inside wall next to his door, and counted to two hundred before sauntering back to the dining room.
The room was in barely controlled chaos, which was good. He wasn’t prepared for the jolt of seeing Bathsheba this close. She was even more … everything in person. Her skin glowed and her hair was as dark as the night sky.
He didn’t know how long he’d stood there when Abigail walked up to him, put her hand on his upper arm and steered him towards his place at the middle of the table. She leaned close and whispered, “She’s beautiful.”
David frowned. “What? Who?”
Abigail gave a low chuckle. “I’ve been married to you long enough to know that look. Will we have to make more room in the family wing soon.”
The back of his neck burned as he shook his head. “She’s married.”
Abigail gave him a sharp glance. “You are an honorable man, my king.” She pinched under his bicep and squeezed until it stung. “Remember that.”
That took some of the bloom off his mood, enough that he could function like a normal host and father for most of the meal, although he couldn’t taste any of the dishes he’d been so obsessive about earlier.
Then one of the little ones put a lyre in his lap and asked him to play something pretty. He smiled at her and snuck a glance at Bathsheba, who was looking at his daughter with hunger and longing in her eyes. Hadn’t Ahithophel said something about Bathsheba complaining about wanting a child? He snorted. He knew exactly what his advisor had said about his granddaughter. His storeroom of information about her was small, so he’d gone over and over every item he had.
He strummed a few notes, but then his fingers stuttered. What could he play? He couldn’t sing his normal repertoire. They were all songs for the Lord. Seducing a married woman by singing about the Lord’s faithfulness was wrong. All he had left were silly kids’ songs and bawdy soldier numbers. His wives wouldn’t stand for the army material, so it had to be the other.
Bathsheba clapped and sang along. David played wilder and wilder songs, hoping she’d get up and dance with the children and two of his wives, but she didn’t. When two of the younger ones cracked their heads together, Abigail suggested he bring it down. He sang a song that was usually a lullaby, but all the words about letting go of your cares, about surrendering to the night, about laying down twisted in his mind and became about other things. He closed his eyes and sang for Bathsheba.
The youngest children were almost asleep when he finished and looked around. The mothers of the little ones picked them up and carried them away, ushering everyone under ten to the family wing. His guests looked like they were getting ready to go.
No. The evening couldn’t be over yet. “Now it’s tour time,” David said. He turned to Eliab’s wife. “My oldest two boys would love to lead your children on a tour of the secret passageways and we adults can have a more sedate tour of the palace. How about it?”
It turned out that they weren’t comfortable having their children running amok in the palace, so Bathsheba offered to go with them. In the end, David wasn’t sure how he’d managed to do it or whether he’d managed to do it gracefully, but he and Bathsheba were with the children, and Abigail was taking the adults away.
David let his oldest, Amnon, lead the way to the pillar closest to the table. The children grasped hands in a line and slipped into the dark behind a banner. David maneuvered so he was second last, his left hand clasped with a child and his right reaching out to Bathsheba.
She hesitated. “It’s dark in the hallway.”
“Put your trust in your king.” The children were yanking and yelling for them to come on, pulling him farther into the hallway. He gave it one more shot. “It’ll be fun. When’s the last time you did anything just for fun?”
She grabbed the ends of his fingers and let herself be dragged into the hallway. It got darker and darker as the boys snuffed out the lamps until there was nothing to see but slivers of light where the hidden entrances were. After that, it was a small matter to detach himself from the children and lag behind.
“Uh oh,” he said. “We’ve lost them.”
Her fingers tightened on his.
“Don’t worry.” He took her hand and tucked it under his forearm. “I know these passages as well as they do. It’s my palace after all.” He slowed his pace and edged her closer to his side. “You smell beautiful, like new rain.”
“Thank you, my lord.”
In the depths of the hallway, hemmed in by two walls of stone, it seemed like a different world, different enough that he could say, “Must be from all those baths you take.”
She stumbled. “My lord?”
His heart was trying to leap out of his throat. “Your roof is visible from my private rooms.”
She pulled her hand free and halted. He stepped towards her and she stumbled back, her breathing loud in the narrow hallway.
“You have nothing to fear, Bathsheba.” It was the first time he’d said her name out loud and it rolled off his tongue like a caress. “Let’s return to the others.”
“But.” He could barely hear her horrified whisper. “But I’ve bathed up there every day this week.”
“It has been the highlight of my evenings.”
“I was just doing my purifications,” she said. “I never thought—”
“Bathsheba.” David spoke gently and didn’t reach out to her, as much as he wanted to. “Do not be ashamed that the Lord made you beautiful.”
Her breathing quieted. “You won’t tell my husband?”
David lowered his voice. “It’ll be our little secret.”
She whimpered, so he acted like it was no big deal, grabbed her hand and pulled her down to the next entrance, where he made a big show of surprising the children there and making them scream. Then those children wanted to scare the other children, which David happily encouraged, as long as Bathsheba’s hand was nestled in his. Too soon, the other adults returned. The children were gathered and good-byes were made.
David glanced at her. She was giving him one of those sidelong looks with a little half smile. It set off a sandstorm inside him. He knew a welcoming look when he was on the receiving end of one.
He managed to keep his dignity, but that only lasted until he returned to his room. He summoned the guard who’d first found Bathsheba for him and told him to bring her to him at the kitchen courtyard door. It only took a moment to change into a plain dark brown tunic and travel through the servant’s hallways to wait in the shadows. He didn’t think he drew a complete breath until he saw her face in the moonlight. They didn’t speak to each other or to the guard, although David pressed some silver nuggets into his palm.
David took Bathsheba’s hand and waited as long as six steps in before he cupped the back of her head with his palm and kissed her. The wine and figs they ate earlier tasted even sweeter on her breath.