“One more lap!” Ahira called out to his advisor, Shemaria.
“No, Your Highness, now!” Shemaria hollered back. “You need to be in the car in ten minutes and you still need a shower.”
Ahira didn’t even slow his stride while making the final turn around the track. “I can run the four hundred in forty-seven flat. Chill out. I’m doing one more lap.” He kept going but upped his pace to a sprint to appease his advisor.
Less than a minute later he sprinted straight into the bathroom and had the shower full blast in less than two. His all-natural body wash with essential oils acted as shampoo, deodorant soap, and body lotion all in one and before he could count to thirty, he was reasonably clean.
He slipped on a linen shirt over his still wet body, shook his head to let the droplets of water fly out of his hair, and pulled on a pair of linen bell bottoms, commando since underwear was only necessary when running, and he was done with his workout for the day.
“You are not wearing that to the Tribute Festival,” Shemaria insisted. “Your black suit is hanging right here along with shined shoes and a necktie.”
“Oh, heck no,” Ahira said, slipping on his leather sandals. “I’m not sitting in a car for two hours in a monkey suit. Just get me there early enough to change in my hotel suite before my meeting with the king, or I can change in the car.”
“You’d take your clothes off in the car? With Eliab and his advisor… and his sister?” Shemaria hastily grabbed the garment bag containing Ahira’s suit and hurried after him.
Ahira managed to climb into the passenger seat of Shemaria’s SUV nine minutes and forty-five seconds after being told they needed to leave in ten minutes. “Fifteen seconds to spare,” he said proudly as Shemaria clamored to slip into the driver’s seat.
“I will not allow you to get naked in front of your best friend’s sister,” Shemaria said, clicking his seatbelt into place.
“All bodies are beautiful in God’s eyes, and our body contains our spirit, so our skin shines with life,” Ahira said. “We all have a body. All bodies look alike. She has no reason to be embarrassed about my body any more than I have reason to be embarrassed of hers.”
“I hope the hotel gift shop sells condoms or we’re in trouble,” Shemaria muttered.
“My body and her body will never join as one until we have been joined in holy matrimony,” Ahira said. “So, steady your breathing and calm your heart. All will be well, my friend.”
“Your Highness, I am not your friend. I am your advisor,” Shemaria said. “And I’m advising you to not take your clothes off in front of Deborah. Am I making myself clear?”
“As clear as the sparkling droplets of water that cleansed my beautiful body not seven minutes ago.”
“What commandment did I break that God is punishing me with the assignment of following around the least reverent prince in all of Israel?”
“Relax, it could be worse.” Ahira fought the humor pulling at the corners of his mouth. “If God really wanted to punish you, he would have assigned you to Gil.”
“I shudder.” Shemaria physically shook his body for emphasis and they both laughed. Prince Pagiel of the House of Asher was a total stoner and arrived at any required event with bloodshot eyes and smelling of weed. How he functioned in society was beyond Ahira’s understanding.
Ahira would never partake of any substance that could possibly inhibit his body from experiencing the fullness of God’s Spirit. Deep breathing while inhaling the minerals surrounding him in the air and soil was all the high he would ever need.
That, and he very much looked forward to the day when he and Deborah could be joined in all ways physically possible. Shemaria hit that nail square on the head. Not that Ahira would ever admit to the truth. Not that Deborah’s older brother would ever allow them to marry.
Eliab, Prince of Zebulon, had been Ahira’s best friend since they were babies even though they lived thirty minutes apart and represented separate territories.
When Eliab’s little sister developed into the voluptuous woman she was now, Eliab stopped inviting her to join them on adventures. His refusal had barely interrupted their courtship. Ahira and Deborah just had to get creative at hiding their attraction for each other.
At nineteen, Deborah was only two years younger than Ahira and had been agreeable to the notion of becoming the Princess of Naphtali since her seventh birthday party when she realized Ahira was a prince. Heck, she’d already been the Princess of Zebulon since she was born, so she wouldn’t be changing her lifestyle. She’d just be changing her tribe.
And she loved Ahira. And he loved her. And, yes, they’d seen each other without apparel more times than Ahira would ever admit to anyone, especially her brother or his advisor.
They loved to go skinny dipping in his private hot springs near his palatial home in Tiberius. Deborah had a best friend just down the street who covered for them all the time. Her brother never questioned why Deborah spent so much time with her bestie, Rebecca. Apparently, he didn’t realize Rebecca lived less than a quarter of a mile from Ahira.
Ahira didn’t even feel guilty about the time he spent with Deborah. Since they’d never had sex, he didn’t see anything wrong with the fun they had. As long as he continued to hear God’s Spirit guiding him, Ahira knew he was living according to God’s plan. Intercourse was reserved for marriage. Anything else was fair game. Or so he thought. He was pretty sure Deborah’s brother and parents wouldn’t agree, but whatever.
As Ahira contemplated his relationship with his future princess, Shemaria drove toward Nazareth. The last few miles created a flutter in Ahira’s stomach that disappeared the minute the SUV pulled up to the Zebulon’s compound and the front door opened revealing the love of his life and her older brother.
His habit was to run to Eliab’s arms and give him a much longer hug than normal friends would, then he would release Eliab and pull Deborah into his arms for a nice, long brotherly hug. During that hug he would take a dopamine hit of whatever essential oil she was diffusing through her silky skin. If they were turned far enough away from everyone else, he would kiss her neck or rub her back or whisper a little message.
Perhaps it was the excitement of heading to the festival that increased his level of awareness, or the knowledge that they’d be spending a week at the same hotel a few suites down the hall from one another, or just that they’d been apart for too many days. Whatever the reason, Ahira had to force himself not to take Deborah in his arms and kiss her until neither of them could see straight. His whisper was soft but insistent. “Let’s get married.”
“Okay,” she whispered back. Not even a hesitation. They knew they were getting married someday, so the declaration didn’t spring forth out of the blue sea.
They ended their stolen hug and Ahira spoke to both Deborah and her brother Eliab. “Dang, I missed you guys so much! How long has it been since we’ve gotten all three of us together?”
This was a running joke between him and Deborah. They’d seen each other last week but they couldn’t remember the last time all three of them had dinner or attended a church service or gone boating on the Sea of Galilee. So they tested Eliab’s memory to help them remember also.
“Was it our mom’s birthday party last month?” Eliab questioned his sister.
“That sounds about right.” Deborah nodded and smiled.
Moshe, Eliab’s advisor, interrupted their reminiscing. “Let’s talk about this on the road. We’re going to be late.”
“And we can’t be late,” Shemaria echoed Moshe. “The Prince of Naphtali decided running several thousand miles this afternoon was more important than getting dressed.”
“I’m dressed.” Ahira raised his arms flamboyantly as if showing off an extravagant wardrobe rather than displaying the simple all-natural linens he wore.
“You need to be wearing your suit and tie,” Shemaria said through clenched teeth. “My job is to get you to the Tribute Festival looking like a prince, and if I can’t even do that, they might fire me.”
“I told my advisor I’d be more than willing to change in the car.” Ahira blinked his eyelashes with fabricated innocence, leading Eliab right into the trap he’d set.
“In front of my sister?”
“It’s not like she hasn’t seen me naked before.” In response to Ahira’s statement, Eliab growled at his best friend. “What? We took baths together when we were two or three, right?” He didn’t mention they’d taken a shower together last week. That wouldn’t go over well.
“You’re not changing in front of my sister, Your Highness,” Eliab insisted.
“Well then, we’d better get to the hotel on time, Your Highness, so that I can make it up to my suite and change into that very uncomfortable suit hanging in a garment bag in the SUV.”
“Hop in, guys,” Moshe said, climbing into the passenger seat beside Shemaria, who would be driving all the way to Jerusalem.
“I get the third row!” Ahira always took the back so that Deborah didn’t have to. He would seem like a gentleman if he didn’t have ulterior motives. Whichever side of the middle seat Deborah sat in, Ahira could snake his arm around and hold her hand or touch her waist or play with her hair. As far as he knew, no one had caught on to their game.
In reality, they were playing a dangerous game and getting caught was inevitable. They’d play as long as they could though.
Before they’d even left the Zebulon’s driveway, Deborah blurted out, “This is my first festival. You guys have to tell me what to expect.” She was only nineteen and their father had decided she was too young last year.
“A lot of prayers,” Eliab grumbled.
“It’s amazing,” Ahira added, his tone completely opposite of that of his friend. “Every morning there’s a prayer meeting and we actually get to pray at the temple mount. A few years ago, that would have been unheard of. Now that our kingdom is at peace, anyone can pray on the temple mount. You can just feel the Spirit of God as soon as you step inside the Jaffa Gate.”
“I was under the impression that you feel the Spirit of God everywhere you go and anytime you want.” Shemaria’s brows creased and he glanced at Ahira through the rearview mirror.
“Doesn’t everyone?” Ahira wondered out loud with stars in his eyes. “We are all connected to the minerals in the earth and the oxygen in the air, and all living organisms.”
“You’re such a tree hugger, Your Highness,” Eliab said. “How are we even friends?”
“I’m pretty sure we were best friends even before we came to earth,” Ahira said, then his tone shifted, and his eyes drifted to Deborah. “We were destined to be together since the premortal existence.” Thankfully no one seemed to notice the change except Deborah, who immediately changed the subject as a distraction.
“Okay, so in addition to prayers, what else will we be doing?”
“Well, tonight there will be a lighting ceremony, and tomorrow there will be a tree planting ceremony. Each of the princes brings a branch from a tree in their tribal region and presents it to the Levites as a tribute. Then an almond tree is planted in recognition of the ancient prophet, Aaron’s rod springing forth shoots and blossoms even though the branch had been severed from the tree.”
“And then what?”
“A water drawing ceremony is on day three and that is accompanied by a parade. Everything we do is symbolic and based on a miracle or event that happened in ancient times. On day four we have a feast with lamb as the main dish. And then on the last day, we have a grand ball where everyone dresses like princes and princesses.”
“What if nobody dances with me?” Deborah pouted.
“Your brother and I will dance with you,” Ahira said, knowing she’d set him up. “Right, Eliab? We won’t let you sit out a single dance.”
“Uh, I hope to have a woman to dance with who is not related to me,” Eliab said. “I’m not getting any younger, you know. Gotta get married eventually, right?”
“Then I’ll dance with you myself,” Ahira said with conviction. “I’m not related to you.”
“Oh, thank you, Ahira,” she said with exaggerated appreciation. “I was afraid I wouldn’t know anyone.”
“I won’t let you out of my sight, I promise.” Ahira wanted to jump up and down and kiss Deborah but knew this wasn’t the time or place.
Deborah squeezed her brother’s arm with both hands and leaned against his shoulder. “I’m so glad you’re my brother. You have the best friends.”
“If you say so, little sister.”
“I do,” she said definitively.
Ahira couldn’t wait to hear Deborah say those words across an altar where she would pledge her love to him. And he would say the words right back. And mean them with all his heart.
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