After hours spent standing in the courtyard listening to Pharaoh’s account of his own greatness and then seeing him climb into a waiting palanquin, my emotions were conflicted. On one hand, I was surprised and, if truth be told, a little offended he still hadn’t called for me. But my shock at discovering Pharaoh wasn’t the wise and handsome man I expected was mixed with relief at not having to face him immediately. I needed time to reconcile myself to this new image of him.
Back in my chambers, I sank onto a couch and peeled off my bangles, stacking them beside me on the cushion. They had been heavy and hot against my skin in the day’s heat. And this was still shemu, supposedly the coolest time of the year. Ahmose and Merytre stood together at a window, talking quietly as they looked out over the gardens three stories below.
“What did you think of him?” Ettu asked as she poured some melon juice. She held up the jug to ask if I wanted some and I nodded. My throat was parched.
I searched for a response that would be honest enough without revealing my disgust.
“He wasn’t as I expected,” I said at last.
Ettu brought me a mug and I drank gratefully, as much to give myself time to think as anything else. Indeed, the flabby, pompous man we had spent half the day waiting for was nothing like I had imagined. He bore little resemblance to Khaemmalu or Sutem or any of the other Palace guards I had seen. His shaved head was where any similarity with those men ended. They had muscular physiques from working or training. He had the softness of a man who did nothing but laze around on couches and eat far too much good food.
But worse than his appearance was what I had learned about his mind. His speech, for which hundreds of Ornaments were kept standing in the sun for hours, was a monotonous accounting of his own greatness. The sun rose because of him. The Great River flooded at the appropriate time and to the required height because of him. We ate and drank and were clothed because of him. Apparently everything which was right or good occurred because of Pharaoh, in his own mind at least. He said nothing of any importance. No mention of Nebtu, who had been missing for more than a week. No discussion about politics or the state of the country or the welfare of its people. Nothing about anything other than himself.
It was my own fault really. There was no reason to expect he would be anything like I had imagined. But still, I was bitterly disappointed. I had expected Pharaoh to be a wise and intelligent man, even if he wasn’t handsome. Well educated. Someone who knew his own mind and had definite opinions, yes, but a man who took advice from those around him and considered the value of their views, like my father. Wasn’t that what the ruler of a country should be like? But it was clear Pharaoh was a man who liked the sound of his own voice more than he liked truth.
Ettu’s voice drew me from my musings and I realised she was still waiting for me to expand on my brief answer. I didn’t want to reveal how foolish I had been.
“I don’t know what I expected.” It wasn’t true, but she wouldn’t know. “I suppose I might have thought more of him if he hadn’t made us wait so long and then if his speech had…”
My voice trailed away as I realised it mightn’t be wise to criticise the man Father had sent me halfway around the world to marry. Ettu gave me a hurt look and turned her attention to fussing over Ahmose, making sure the old woman was comfortable in her chair.
It wasn’t that I didn’t trust Ettu — her stoic acceptance of the role of thief when Tiye’s missing finger ring was discovered on her person told me clearer than anything else I could trust her. But I feared my dislike of Pharaoh revealed too much about my own character. Father had sent me to seal the alliance between Babylon and Egypt. That was my duty and it mattered little what the man he had offered me to was like. But I couldn’t say this to Ettu. It wouldn’t be the truth.
“Do you wish for me to go to Tall and Half tonight?” Ahmose asked, waving away Ettu’s fussing. “I can try again to understand whatever it is Tall thinks you should know.”
Careful! Pharaoh! Danger! That was the message he sent back with Ahmose last time. The warning was clear, although the nature of the danger still eluded us.
“You went out only last night. I think you should rest tonight.” If Tall could tell her more, it would be valuable information. But Ahmose was an old woman — fifty years at least — and I couldn’t expect her to spend every night wandering the streets of Thebes. “Besides, is it safe for you to use the potion so often?”
“I suppose if I start glowing in the dark, we can assume not,” Ahmose said.
I laughed, surprised at her humour, although I didn’t miss that she hadn’t really answered my question. I would ask her again, but in private. Maybe she didn’t want to worry the others.
“I could go,” Ettu said. “There might be news about Pharaoh’s visit today. Someone should go to them as soon as possible.”
I supposed they were all wondering the same as me: why Pharaoh hadn’t yet summoned me to meet him. Had my Father done something to offend him? Had relations between Babylon and Egypt cooled to the point that Pharaoh didn’t even want to meet the Babylonian princess sent to marry him? Would anyone tell me if the terms of the alliance had changed? Probably not.
“If anyone is to go, it should be me,” Ahmose said.
One look at her wan face told me she didn’t have the strength for another night so soon spent walking all the way to Pharaoh’s palace and back.
“You can give me the potion ingredients and tell me what to do,” Ettu said. “There is no reason it has to be you. There are three of us to share the burden.”
She nodded towards Merytre, signalling it was she, and not me, who Ettu considered the third person. Merytre was swift to agree.
“It isn’t hard, is it?” she asked. “You just have to see the guards’ faces and then drink the potion, right? It worked for Ettu the time she went out.”
“Well, yes,” Ahmose said. “The knowledge is in the ingredients. Once the potion has been prepared, it should work for anyone.”
“Could Tall and Half use it?” I asked. “If you prepared extra ingredients, could someone take it to them so they could come to us?”
Ahmose tapped her chin as she considered my questions.
“I don’t see why not,” she said. “As long as they don’t mix it until they need it or it will lose its potency. But are they not more valuable to you in Pharaoh’s palace?”
“I agree,” Ettu said, although the look on her face said she was torn. I supposed she would like Half to be here. “They are our only source of information from outside the Palace of the Ornaments. We can trust nobody else to tell us the truth, rather than what the administrators want us to know.”
“Merytre?” I asked. “What is your opinion?”
She hadn’t met Tall or Half, but I wanted each of my companions to feel like their views mattered. We needed each other if we were to survive in this place. Merytre opened her mouth, but stopped and gave me a look that seemed filled with uncertainty.
“Go on,” I said. “We should each have a say in such an important decision.”
“If it is as Ettu says,” Merytre said, hesitantly, “that you can trust what they tell you, then I agree there is more value in leaving them where they are.”
“But if there is any danger to them, we should retrieve them at once,” Ettu said.
“How would we do that?” I asked. “So far, we can get a message to them, but they have no way to send anything to us.”
“Could we give them a code word?” Ettu suggested. “They could send a message to the Palace, something unimportant and uncontroversial which that scribe, Pentau, would have no reason to censor, but if they use the code word, we would know they are in danger and someone can go get them.”
“What if Pentau doesn’t pass the message on, regardless of its contents?” Merytre asked, seemingly emboldened now. After all, she was the one with the most experience in how the Palace functioned. “It is quite possible that any message from unknown men would not be forwarded.”
“What if they pretended the message was from my father?” I asked. “Perhaps with news from home. We could agree on something specific, like that my mother is ill, so that if such a message arrives and it contains the agreed wording, I would know it isn’t really from Father.”
“Even that might not be passed to you,” Merytre said. “We have no way of knowing what Pentau would see fit to censor or withhold entirely.”
“So how do we arrange for them to send us word if we can’t trust that any message will be forwarded?” Ettu asked. “It seems the only solution is for them to use Ahmose’s potion and come to us without warning. They would have to wait in the grounds somewhere and hope we find them.”
I stared down at my hands as we pondered the problem. My nails were perfectly shaped, my skin smooth from the perfumed oils my ladies rubbed into my skin every day. I was more used to my nails being ragged and untended, always too busy as I was with learning and with a distaste of being fussed over by maids. These looked like the hands of a stranger.
Our musing was interrupted by a knock at the door. Ettu was quick to get to her feet and answer it.
“A visitor for Lady Kassaya,” came the smooth voice of Panouk, the Palace’s chief administrator.
Ettu’s body shielded the visitor from my sight, so it wasn’t until she thanked Panouk and ushered the woman into my chamber that I saw who it was. I stared at her for a long moment, too stunned to speak.
The woman gave me a shaky smile and burst into tears.
“Ishtar,” I finally managed.
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