Series: The Amarna Age #1
Release Date: 2018
Genre: Historical fantasy
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Eighteenth dynasty Egypt. A country in chaos. A teenaged queen fights to save her throne from the men who control Pharaoh.
I dream of blood. It oozes across my thighs and drips from my hands. It splatters on my face and along my arms. The coppery tang of it is in my throat and nostrils. I am sitting in my bed, my feet tucked beneath me, clutching a man to my breast. His blood soaks the fine linen sheets.
He pulls away from me to lie back on the cushions and stares up at me with clear blue eyes. Some would call those eyes cold. I call them honest. His gaze holds mine, wide with pain, but also calm with understanding, and bitter with resentment. I shudder as his blood runs across my belly. It is hot and drains from him far too fast. The light in his eyes dims as his spirit departs.
I do not know who he is. I only know that I love him more than life itself. And I have killed him.
I wake to a hand on my shoulder, shaking me gently.
“My lady.” It was Istnofret, one of my ladies-in-waiting. The other two, Thetis and Sadeh, stood behind her. “It is time to leave.”
I sat for a few moments, fuddled with sleep, the dead man’s face still fresh in my mind. I do not know who this man is, the one I dream of so often. He has blonde hair which curls around his ears in soft wisps, yet we Egyptians are dark with honeyed skin, ebony hair, and midnight eyes. Sometimes I wonder who he is. Sometimes I hope I never find out.
Thetis straightened my dress and Sadeh touched up my makeup, adding more kohl around my eyes and a touch more rouge to my cheeks. I left my chambers, surrounded by my personal guards. Istnofret and Thetis trailed behind, chattering quietly between themselves, while Sadeh remained in my chambers. The images of blood and death began to fade from my mind.
We reached the chamber I had been summoned to and I waited in the hall while two of my guards checked inside. It took them mere moments for the room was small with not even so much as a window. There was no furniture or curtains or chests. Anyone lying in wait would be exposed but, still, protocol required that I wait while they checked and so I did. Never let any man say that I did not know what was required of me.
“Clear, my lady.” Intef, the leader of my guards, stepped aside so that I could enter.
I nodded my thanks to him. The chamber was barely the length of two men and half as wide. It was a strange location for a meeting such as this. The chamber had probably been intended for storage but was currently unused. Its whitewashed walls displayed a painting of my father, Akhenaten, may his ka rest in peace, making an offering to the sun disc, Aten. Light from the oil lamp fixed to the wall flickered across the images, making my father’s hands look like they were moving.
I had lingered in my chambers in the hopes of keeping Pharaoh’s advisors waiting and I was rather annoyed to find they hadn’t even arrived yet. Two of my guards took up position on each side of the doorway. The other four waited in the hall, along with my ladies. They followed me everywhere, six guards and at least two of my three ladies-in-waiting. Apparently the gods forbid that the queen should desire a cup of beer or a fan bearer or a scribe and have nobody to fetch it for her.
The chamber was stifling and already sweat trickled between my shoulder blades. I wiped my damp palms on my skirt. Istnofret darted into the chamber, bearing a linen cloth.
“My lady, let me wipe your brow,” she said.
I submitted while she dabbed the cloth across my forehead and briefly below one eye. She stood so close that I wasn’t sure whether it was her sweat or my own I could smell.
“It is so hot in here that your kohl is running,” she said. “Would my lady like me to send for a fan bearer?”
“No. This will not take long.”
“A chair perhaps? My lady could sit in comfort while she waits.”
“I’m fine.” My tone was a little sharper than she deserved. Istnofret gave my forehead one last dab and then backed away with a low bow. My ladies would usually not bow to me in private but they were always careful to observe all social expectations in public.
The lamp flickered and dimmed. The guards by the door tensed, no doubt thinking this part of some elaborate plot to assassinate me, but with another flicker, the lamp resumed its steady burning. I almost wished it would go out, for the chamber might be a little cooler without the flame. The air in here was stale and I was starting to feel light-headed from the heat. I wished Pharaoh’s advisors would hurry up.
As soon as I had received this summons, which was conveyed to me by the careful words of a messenger, my stomach started to roll. Why would Pharaoh’s chief advisors wish to meet me in such an isolated place? I had no fear that they intended me harm, not with six of our best guards by my side, and if nothing else, my ladies would scream for help. But these men would usually barely look at me. When I spoke, they would ignore my comments and direct any response to Pharaoh himself. So why did they now suddenly want to speak with me alone?
I felt sure that this would be a moment that would split my future. Ever since I was a young girl, I had dreamed of different futures. Dreams in which the result of a decision I made would take my future in one direction, while another would take it somewhere else. I never knew what decision would result in which outcome, and it was often not until later that I even realised the significance of what I had done.
There was a particular dream that was heavy on my mind at present, for like the one in which I killed the blond-haired man, I had dreamed it several times. In one future our city, Akhetaten, stood strong and proud. Its whitewashed buildings gleamed in the sun. Its people were fed, well occupied and content. The royal tombs in the cliffs that surrounded our desert city were filled with the bodies of my family, and our dynasty ruled Egypt for years upon years.
In the other future, the city had been razed to the ground. Not a single wall stood taller than knee high to show what the city had been before. Strangers — foreigners — walked amongst the rubble and destruction. The royal tombs were empty, their contents looted, the bodies gone.
Was this moment the one that would determine which future lay ahead of my beloved city? I straightened my back and prepared myself to face whatever the men had to say with calmness and determination. I would do what I thought was right for my country, regardless of whether it was what these men wanted or not. They might control Pharaoh and the throne, but they did not control me.
Footsteps in the hallway tore me from my thoughts. Three men entered. Too few for the number of feet I had heard. It seemed they too had brought guards. What presumption. These men did not rule Egypt, regardless of what they thought. They had no entitlement to guards. But they used Egypt’s resources as their own and so long as Pharaoh was too young to take back his own throne, they would do as they pleased.
“My lady.” Ay offered a shallow bow. The courtesy was brief enough to be offensive, but I pretended not to notice. If I said anything, I would be accused of acting like a child. He studied me with deep-set eyes which perched above a beak-like nose. I kept my face blank and tried to conceal how much he repulsed me.
The other two men bowed more deeply. Still not the courtesy I should have been afforded, but it was better than Ay’s. I nodded at them. Ay would notice I had acknowledged their respects but not his. He would know I intended it as an insult.
Maya was a small man with curved shoulders and a crooked back. He peered up at me through watery eyes. Wennefer towered over him, although if Maya were to stand up straight, I guessed they would be of a similar height. Wennefer’s face was narrow and his eyes were so close together that he had the appearance of a permanent frown.
I turned away from the men and pretended to study the images on the wall. My father’s gaze was fixed entirely on his god, as it had been throughout his life. He was the most devout man I had ever known, unlike the men here with me. I wasn’t entirely certain of where their loyalties lay, but I knew they did not have Egypt’s best interests at heart.
“Why have you called me here?” I asked, without turning back to face them. I sounded strong. Confident.
“To safeguard the future of our country,” Ay said. “To do your duty.”
“And that is?” I kept my gaze fixed on the wall but my stomach was tied in knots.
“Pharaoh needs an heir,” he said.
The air rushed from the room, leaving me gasping for breath. I steadied myself with a hand on the wall and leaned closer to it, as if inspecting some finer detail, while I recovered.
“He has needed an heir for four years,” I said. “Why now?”
“You know Pharaoh’s health is fragile,” Maya said. His voice was slightly more conciliatory than Ay’s. He, at least, was pretending I had a choice in this. “If he were, gods forbid, to die without an heir, the country would be thrown into chaos.”
“We can’t afford to wait any longer.” Ay cut in before Maya could continue. He was not going to pretend I had a choice. This was a directive from the men who controlled the throne and he intended to leave me in no doubt about that. “You have taken too long already. You are required to produce an heir within the next three moons.”
“Or what?” I turned to look at them, sweeping a frosty gaze over all three. “You forget yourselves. I am Queen of Egypt and I am not subject to your commands.”
Ay took a step closer and I forced myself to stand my ground. I would not appear weak by stepping back away from him.
“Do I need to remind you, my lady” — heavy sarcasm emphasised the title — “that Pharaoh rules with our support? He is but a child and his hold on the throne is tenuous at best.”
I returned his glare. “If anything happens to Pharaoh, I will be the first to accuse you.”
“And who would believe you? A young queen, still grieving the death of her parents and now distraught at having failed to produce an heir before Pharaoh’s untimely death? All would know that your mind was not sound. If you were hysterical and needed to be confined for your own safety, who would question that?”
I glared at him, letting my eyes say the things that I could not allow to come from my mouth. He waited, his gaze still mocking me, and eventually I broke our stare and looked to Maya and Wennefer.
“Have you nothing to say for yourselves?” I asked them. “Do you let Ay speak for both of you?”
“We support the throne, my lady,” Wennefer said. “We will do whatever we must to ensure the safety of Egypt’s future.”
I looked at Maya but he looked down at the ground. Of the three, he was the weakest, the only one that I might possibly persuade to another point of view if I could speak with him alone. I flicked my gaze back to Ay.
“Three moons, you say. You know that such things cannot be guaranteed.”
“Three moons, my lady,” he said. “If you are not with child by then, we will take steps to ensure that it occurs. You may try to shirk your duty to Egypt, but we will not allow it to happen.”
“I have never shirked my duty.”
He raised one hairless eyebrow. “Three months. Or we shall choose a man for you and see to it that he gets you with child.”
I drew my shoulders back and didn’t let the shudder that passed through me show.
“Three months,” I said, and swept out of the room.