Our arrival into the Egyptian harbour city of Rhakotis was nothing like I anticipated. I had pictured the five of us standing triumphantly at the prow as the ship drew into port. Intef on one side of me, Istnofret on the other. Renni and Behenu behind them, Mau perhaps already tucked into her basket and slung over Behenu’s shoulder. My babe still secure in my belly or, at the very least, cradled in my arms.
Instead, I had only my shadow for company. I glanced down to where it stretched along the deck, attached as always to my soles.
“I suppose it is not what you pictured either, Shadow,” I said. “Do you feel his loss as keenly as I do?”
But my shadow didn’t respond and although I had not expected it to, I felt all the more lonely. Did it blame me for the loss of both Intef and his shadow? Did it hate me now? We had built some level of trust in the hours we were separated while in the underworld. No doubt that was ruined now. Istnofret disturbed my lonely thoughts as she came up behind me, accompanied by Renni.
“I am well.”
“Renni thinks it best we hide your face, so I brought you a shawl.”
“Why? It is unlikely anyone here would recognise me and, besides, I look nothing like I used to.”
“There were many images of your face in Memphis,” Renni said. “Murals, statues. Plenty of opportunities for someone to recognise you. Possibly lots of motive too. There might be a reward for information on you.”
“Surely not after all this time. We have been gone for, what, two years?”
“Must be close to that,” Renni said. “Still, I think we cannot afford to risk it until we know what the situation here is. We have heard little from Egypt for some time now.”
Intef would want me to do whatever Renni said, so I took the shawl and draped it over my head.
“How do you feel?” Istnofret asked as she fussed over the shawl, positioning it just so.
“A little tired but well enough.”
I didn’t miss the concerned look that flashed between them.
“Renni-“ Istnofret started, but he already nodded.
“As soon as the ship docks, you and Behenu find somewhere she can rest while I go secure lodgings.”
“I really am only a little tired,” I said.
“We cannot risk it,” Renni said. “You know what happens when you get too tired.”
The times the Eye had twisted my mind had all been when I was tired. We didn’t know for certain that fatigue was what allowed the Eye to influence me, but it was our best guess. The Eye made me crave power. When I was under its spell, I would forget that my friends were no longer my servants and would expect them to carry out my orders. I would believe I was queen again. We all feared what I might do if I sank too far under the Eye’s control.
We left the ship as soon as we were permitted to disembark, carrying our various bags and packs. We had only brought as much food as we would need for the eight-day journey from Crete to Rhakotis, but we had accumulated an unwieldy number of other items on our travels, including cooking pots, blankets, warm clothes and our hide shelter.
“Wait over there in the shade,” Renni said. “Try not to engage with anyone. We don’t want any rumours spreading, especially not before we know whether anyone is watching for Samun.”
“Shall I come with you?” Behenu asked.
“No, wait here with the others. Your face might be recognised just as easily as Samun or Istnofret. It would only take one person who worked in the palace, or who had reason to go there at some point, for word to get out.”
“Nobody will remember me,” Behenu said. “I was just a slave. Nobody ever even saw me.”
“Or me,” Istnofret added. “It is only Samun we need worry about.”
“You might be surprised at how a particular face sticks in someone’s memory,” Renni said. “Perhaps you were kind to them once, or got in their way when they were in a hurry. The smallest thing could make them remember you. I will be back as soon as I can.”
We sat together in the shade and pretended to be immersed in conversation. The heat was both shocking and familiar at the same time. At least a steady breeze blew in over the ocean to cool us somewhat. I tried to stay alert to who was around us and how close they came, but it was difficult to watch without being obvious about it. This wasn’t something Intef had taught me.
My eyes filled with tears at the thought and I blinked hard before they could spill over. Why did Intef have to be the one who stayed? Why couldn’t it have been someone else? But who? Renni? Would I take him away from Istnofret so that I could keep Intef with me? Behenu? Would I deny her the chance to go home after this was all over? Istnofret even? My loyal lady and the only one of my three serving women who still lived. She had travelled all the way across the civilised world with me. There were no good answers to my question.
“Here comes Renni,” Istnofret said.
I turned to look and the shawl slid off my head.
“Don’t look up,” she hissed.
She grabbed the shawl and managed to stop it from falling off completely, although I ended up with it mashed against my face. She quickly draped it back over my head again.
“Keep your head down. Behenu, did anyone see?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I have found somewhere for us to stay,” Renni said as he reached us. “It is just for a couple of nights, but it will give us time to seek out news and make a plan.”
I started to ask a question, but he quickly shook his head.
“Not here. Wait until we can be assured of privacy.”
I snapped my mouth closed. It was a good reminder that no matter how much Intef had taught me, there was still much to learn. I had no idea how he and Renni constantly remembered all these things.
Renni led us to our accommodation. It was a small cottage comprising no more than a single chamber which felt rather cramped once we were all inside, but it had four walls and a roof and a door which locked.
“We don’t have many supplies left.” Behenu was already digging through our packs. “I suppose there is enough for tonight but that is all.”
“I am going out for a while,” Renni said. “See if I can hear some news. I will get supplies.”
“Where will you go?” Istnofret asked. “I am not sure it is any safer for you than for us.”
“Someone has to go,” he said. “We all know that. Yes, it could be you or it could be Behenu, but it may as well be me.”
“But if something happens to you-“
“Then you will have to protect Samun.” He touched her cheek gently. “It is a risk we must take.”
At length she gave him a reluctant nod. “Be careful.”
“I will. I will be back as soon as I can.”
He disappeared out the door. I didn’t miss the fact that he took his pack. The one that had the Eye stashed at the bottom. We had agreed it would be best if I didn’t have access to the Eye until the time came to use it.
I paced around the chamber for a while.
“Samun, you should lie down and rest,” Istnofret said.
“I am not tired anymore.”
“Well, I am, so I should think everyone else is too. You know you need to be careful when you are tired.”
I swallowed my irritation. I had promised I would pay heed any time one of them said I was too tired or acted irrationally. We had been afraid that such proximity to the Eye might make its effect on me stronger, but it didn’t seem to be the case. Fortunately, when the Eye twisted my thoughts with images of power and glory, I usually said something odd, which would alert the others. They would encourage me to rest, but even just being aware of it seemed to nullify the Eye’s effect somewhat.
Renni was gone for hours. Istnofret grew increasingly anxious, although she did her best to hide it. But she kept slipping over to peek out through the shuttered windows and even when she sat, she was still in motion, tapping her foot or fiddling with a loose thread on her skirt.
“Don’t worry about him,” Behenu said to her at one point. “You know Renni can look after himself.”
“Yes, but he is one man,” Istnofret said. “At least when he had Intef with him…”
Her voice trailed away and I tried to pretend I didn’t notice them both shooting me anxious looks. We hadn’t really talked about what had happened. How we needed to leave one of us behind as a companion to Keeper of the Lake in order for the rest to be allowed to pass through the gate they guarded. Intef had insisted on being the one to stay. He was so furious that I gave our daughter to Osiris as payment for the Eye that he hadn’t even been able to look at me afterwards. He hated me so much that he would prefer to live in the underworld with whatever manner of creature Keeper of the Lake was. He was rarely far from my mind and I supposed the same was true for the others, given the number of times they mentioned him, then quickly changed the subject. Footsteps on the path outside distracted me from my miserable thoughts.
Istnofret opened the door before I even had time to wonder whether it was him. Renni rushed inside, pushing her back in, and quickly shut the door.
“What did I tell you about staying out of sight?” he asked. “That means you do not open the door and you most definitely do not go outside.”
“But I was sure it was you,” Istnofret said.
“I probably would have done the same thing if Istnofret had not gotten there first,” Behenu said.
“Promise me you won’t do that again,” Renni said. “No matter what you hear outside.”
She hesitated and he gave her a stern look.
“Please, Ist. With the news I have, it is more important than ever that you do as I say.”
“Fine,” she said, a little sulkily. “I was just anxious to see that you were well.”
“As you can see, I am fine, but we have trouble. I ran into someone we all know… Khay.”
Enjoyed this sample? Buy now:
Buy direct from the author – enter coupon code YOJE4SB3OR on the payment page for a 25% discount
Amazon – Australia, Canada, US, UK
Other retailer links available here