A Game of Senet – Chapter One

The day I learned Ishtar had probably been murdered was the day my life changed forever. No longer was I the innocent woman sent to Egypt to seal the alliance with Babylon. No longer did I walk the hallways of the Palace of the Ornaments and think this was a safe, if restrictive, place to live. No longer did I look into the faces of the women I passed without wondering how many carried their own secrets. Their own pains. Their own plans.

We said little as Half prepared to leave. He would return to Pharaoh’s palace to listen for news of a woman’s body being found and confirm whether it was Ishtar. Ahmose had readied two doses of her invisibility potion for him: one to get him out and another so he could get back in. That was all she had left of the herbs for her special potion, and with the butler, Weren, sniffing around in search of anyone using magic, she couldn’t re-stock. There would be no more opportunities for any of us to get out of the Palace grounds again until it was safe for Ahmose to get more of the herb that gave her potion its potency. 

In the sitting chamber, I sat with Tall on one side and Ettu on the other. Tall flapped his hands, his worried gaze darting between me and Half, who was talking quietly with Ahmose. I couldn’t tell who he was more concerned about. Ettu gave the appearance of being as calm as ever, although the tight way she held her body told me she was coiled like a spring. 

I wondered whether Ahmose was telling Half about some other magic that might be useful for him while he undertook such a dangerous venture. It had been less than a season since he and Tall fled Pharaoh’s palace, with Half mortally injured after being stabbed by a man Tall knew as Userhet. Userhet, believed to be a guard, likely still stalked the hallways of Pharaoh’s palace and might well try again to kill Half if he saw him. Maybe we should send Tall with him. If it hadn’t been for him, Half wouldn’t have gotten out last time. Before I could voice my thought, Ettu spoke.

“Will you write to your father?” she asked me. “To tell him…”

Her voice trailed away, but I knew what she didn’t want to say. I took a deep breath, testing my words before I replied. Tears welled and I blinked them away. I had already cried so much, I would have thought I didn’t have any tears left. Apparently I did.

“Not yet,” I said when I thought I could speak through the lump in my throat. “There is still a possibility she will be found safe.”

Ettu shot me a look that clearly said I was deluded, although she was kind enough not to say the words. Too many women had disappeared and we had traced Ishtar’s movements on the night she disappeared all the way to Pharaoh. We knew some women were never seen again after meeting with him, and Khaemmalu’s friend believed Pharaoh’s captain and his second disposed of their bodies for him.

“I know it’s a small possibility,” I added hurriedly, “but I have to believe she might still be alive.”

“So where is she then?” Ettu asked gently. “If she is safe, why has she not returned?”

“Maybe she angered Pharaoh and he had her imprisoned,” I said. “Maybe he has locked her away to…” Torture her. Abuse her. “For some reason we can’t fathom. I don’t know. But until someone has seen her body, I can’t tell my father. It will break his heart.”

Ishtar had always been his favourite daughter, right up until the moment she told Father she was with child. He had already promised a daughter to Pharaoh to seal the alliance with Egypt and it was supposed to be she who went, but he could hardly send Pharaoh a pregnant bride. So he sent me in her place. Never mind that I had no wish to leave my home and spend the rest of my life in a land that was as foreign to me as living under the sea would be. 

But however angry Father was with Ishtar, he was even more incensed when the babe didn’t live to be born. He sent her to Egypt anyway to be my maid, as punishment for her failures, both in finding a way to avoid being sent to Pharaoh and then failing to deliver his grandchild. I had wondered whether he had another motivation, one he wouldn’t have admitted to anyone: that by sending Ishtar, he could ensure at least one of his daughters would bear Pharaoh a child. She was, after all, the beautiful one.

“I don’t suppose Pharaoh will write to your father in the meantime,” Ettu said.

I studied my hands. The neatly trimmed nails. The well moisturised skin. Such soft, tidy hands. The hands of someone who did nothing useful all day and who had far too many maids to attend to her. It gave me time to sort through my thoughts and to find something I could say without bursting into tears.

“If he is responsible for her disappearance, I can’t imagine he would,” I said. “I expect he will pretend he knows nothing. Forget he ever knew her, as he did when I asked him about Nebtu’s disappearance.”

Ettu shook her head.

“This is such a wicked place,” she said. “How can these people stand to live in a place where a woman goes missing and is simply forgotten? Her maids assigned to someone else, her chambers occupied by a new woman.”

“Do you think her maids have already been reassigned?” 

Should I ask for Belet-ili? Did I have some obligation to her since she was sent here with me? But she didn’t know about Half and Tall. Dare I risk someone else knowing, especially if that person might tell Nammu? I had no doubt Nammu still waited for a chance to seek vengeance on me. She had accused me of asking my father to send Ishtar’s maids to Egypt with me, and she had claimed Ishtar was the one to tell her such a thing. I never did get a chance to ask my sister whether that was true. No, don’t think it. She will be found yet. She will be safe. I will ask her after she is found.

When I didn’t reply, Ettu looked to Merytre, who shrugged at her.

“I have only ever been reassigned because my mistress chose her favourites and didn’t want me anymore,” Merytre said. “Not because…”

We all knew what she avoided saying. Not because her mistress had died. It seemed I was the only one who thought we might still find her.

“Go check on Belet-ili later this afternoon,” I said. “Find out if she’s heard anything about being reassigned.”

“Are you thinking of bringing her back here?” Ettu asked.

I sighed, my gaze drifting over to where Half and Ahmose still talked quietly, then to Tall beside me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know whether we can trust her. Even if we wait until Half leaves, there is still Tall to consider. We can hardly keep him locked in a chamber all day and night so Belet-ili doesn’t find out about him.”

“Even if we did, it wouldn’t take long before she realised something was being kept from her,” Ettu said. “We would have to take food in to him and empty chamber pots. She would quickly notice something suspicious about a locked chamber that required us going in and out of it several times a day.”

“Me!” Tall said. His voice was rather morose. 

Ettu quietly translated his comment for Merytre.

“No, you aren’t causing any problem.” I hoped I had understood him correctly. “We will do whatever we must to keep you safe and if that means we can’t bring Belet-ili here, then that’s the way it will be. Besides, she has given me no reason to do her any favours.”

What had I been thinking? Belet-ili was far too close to Nammu, who we definitely couldn’t trust. It was Nammu who stole Tiye’s jewels and told Panouk she had found them in my chambers. As best I could figure, she did it because she blamed me for my father sending her to Babylon without Ishtar. 

It would only take one hint from Belet-ili for Nammu to realise something illicit was happening in my chambers. She would go straight to the administrators and would take great delight in it. I couldn’t afford to give Panouk or Amankhau any reason to search my chambers again.

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A woman wearing a white gown and a multicoloured flat collar walks past a paved area surrounding a pool. In the background stands an Egyptian temple and trees.