Even as a small girl, I knew my dreams were not ordinary. I thought maybe that meant they were important.
I used to tell my older sisters about my dreams. Sometimes they would laugh at me and sometimes they would frown. It was presumptuous for me to imagine my dreams might be important. After all, I was only a child, and a girl child at that, even if I was a princess and daughter of Pharaoh himself.
It was a long time before I understood that sometimes my dreams told of possible futures. One dream, two outcomes. Two futures. Eventually I realised my true dreams always revealed a future that was a result of a decision I myself made, although it was never clear to me exactly what that decision would be.
As a child, my dreams warned of small things. One decision would mean a secret kept hidden between sisters; another meant the sister responsible punished. Like the day my oldest sister, Merytaten, used a stick of charcoal to draw a face on Aten.
It was a nice face, I thought, with a cheerful smile and eyes that seemed to twinkle. But our father was Not Impressed and we three oldest sisters were brought to stand in a row in front of his throne, shame faced and heads hanging. He spoke not a word, merely sat back and waited for one of us to confess.
We were silent even as we darted glances between ourselves, as if each sister sought to assure herself of the others’ loyalty. I kept my lips fastened, determined that if anyone were to tell on our sister, it would not be me. But as the hour dragged on, and still we stood in front of Father, and still he waited, my feet itched. My palms tingled and my lips wanted to shout Merytaten’s name. I closed my mouth even tighter. I would not betray my sister.
I had seen the possible futures more than a week ago. In one, we three maintained our silence and eventually one of the administrators came to discuss some important thing or other with our father, and we were dismissed, free to run out to our mother’s pleasure garden, where we hid in our secret place in the shrubbery and giggled about our escape. In the other future, it was me who weakened and eventually I blurted my sister’s name. Our father said not a word but gestured for her to approach him. Sniffling, she did so, and he turned her over his knee and soundly smacked her behind.
So I squeezed my lips tight and waited. But inside my head, I screamed her name and I didn’t know how much longer I could keep my silence. I looked up at our father, just the quickest of glances, and found him looking straight at me. As soon as I met his eyes, my resolve crumbled.
“It was Merytaten,” I said, then cried as I watched my sister punished.
She didn’t speak to me for the rest of the day, but by morning her behind no longer hurt quite so much and she agreed to forgive me, if I promised never to tell on her again. I swore it would be the first and only time I betrayed her.
Under other circumstances, my gift of premonition might have meant I would be a priestess. If we were still permitted to worship the old gods, I might have served Isis or Hathor or even Sekhmet. But because my father was Pharaoh, and I was a princess, that life was not intended for me. So I never told anyone other than my sisters about my dreams and eventually I stopped telling even them.
I would have been quite satisfied with the life of a priestess. Had I been free to choose, I would have devoted myself to Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess of chaos. One of the servants had been a priestess of Sekhmet many years ago before my father banned the old gods. If I begged her, and if there was nobody around to overhear, she would tell me about Sekhmet. Lady of Life. Lady of Terror. The goddess with her dual aspects of life and death, healing and plague. There was much I didn’t understand about the gods, but Sekhmet seemed the most interesting of them all.
But because I was a princess, it was intended that I would become the bride of a man who would be useful to my father. A Strategic Alliance. I could say the words long before I ever understood what they meant. An Important Marriage. I would be Useful To My Pharaoh. I didn’t want an Important Marriage. But the old gods were outlawed and Aten didn’t need priestesses, not when he had my father to intercede with him.
“Who will be your heir?” I asked Father one day.
We three oldest sisters had stood beside the dais during Father’s audience. He sat on his throne and images of Aten looked down at us, favouring Pharaoh with his life-giving rays. Did Aten listen as the viziers reported on the state of the country? Or were such things as boring to him as they were to me?
But now the audience hall was empty and we girls were permitted to play. We chased each other around the dais while our father watched with an indulgent smile. My mother had sat beside him during the audience, but she made her excuses as soon as it finished and had already left, gone to do something far more important than watch her daughters run amok.
Father gave me a long look as if assessing whether my question about heirs was frivolous or serious. At length, having decided I was indeed serious, he gestured for me to come closer. I climbed up on the dais and he pulled me onto his lap.
“I don’t know yet, little cat,” he said. “If I had a son, he would be my heir, but although Aten has blessed me with many daughters, he has not yet seen fit to grant me a son. I do not know how to decide such a thing. How does one choose a man worthy to be Pharaoh? Surely the gods should decide, not I.”
“I will be your heir,” I said, decidedly.
He tipped his head to the side as he studied my face.
“You, my dear daughter, will have a Very Important Marriage. You will marry a man who will help the throne.”
“I will never marry,” I said. “I want to be pharaoh.”
“Women cannot be pharaoh,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean you cannot be useful.”
“Hatshepsut was pharaoh.”
“Where did you hear such a thing?” A flash of anger, his voice brittle.
I was startled. My father had rarely ever said a cross word to me.
“I- I don’t remember,” I stammered.
I couldn’t tell him that the servant — the one who was once a priestess of Sekhmet — told me of the woman pharaoh who had ruled the Two Lands. Hatshepsut’s husband was pharaoh, but when he died her son was too young and weak to rule, so she did it for him.
“Women cannot rule,” Father said. “They do not have the temperament.”
“What about Mother?” I asked.
His face softened.
“Your mother is different. Special. But even she could not be pharaoh.”
“I think she could.” My voice was tentative now, uncertain. “I think mother would be a good pharaoh. If I cannot be your heir, maybe she can.”
He considered me, a strange look on his face.
“You say the oddest things sometimes, little cat. I do not know where you get such ideas from.”
I shrugged and looked away, lest he press me further about where I heard about Hatshepsut. The servant would lose her job if I told him. He laughed and pulled me closer for a hug.
“Your mother would be a terrible pharaoh. Women are not meant to rule.”
Maybe some women are, I thought, but I didn’t say it aloud. It was the first time I realised that sometimes a girl has thoughts she should not speak.
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