I burst into the house, meaning to tell Papa about how I had just seen a man bite the head off a scorpion, and all without being stung, which seemed almost magical to me. Papa and my brother Intef, who was younger than me by two years, were sitting together on a rug. I retrieved my daggers from their various sheaths attached to my limbs and lay them neatly on a shelf.
“Close the door, Tey dear,” Papa said to me. “I am sure the neighbours do not want to see how many weapons you have on your body.”
“Better they know, so they do not think to be creeping around in the night,” I said.
Papa was never comfortable with people knowing about my weapons, though, so I closed the door as he asked. I sniffed the air, hoping someone might have made dinner, but the only aromas were a bunch of marjoram hanging from a hook to dry, Papa’s cypress and myrrh perfume, and the neighbour’s jasmine shrub, the scent of which seemed to linger in the air even after I closed the door.
“What are you talking about?” I asked. “Intef has a funny look on his face.”
“Nothing that concerns you,” Intef said. “Why don’t you make us a meal and let the men finish their conversation?”
Irritation filled me and I breathed deeply to calm myself, just as Papa had taught me. I rested my fingertips against the smooth iron blade of one of my daggers. Its presence reassured me, even if I didn’t intend to stab Intef with it. Not yet, anyway. Once I was sure I could speak without trying to kill him, I raised my eyebrow.
“Really?” I asked. “Do you want to re-think that?”
His expression told me he already regretted his words, but he would never admit it.
“No,” he said, giving me an insolent look.
Before he could say anything else, I snatched a dagger from the sheath around my forearm and threw it in his direction. I had spent hundreds of hours practising this move but rarely had opportunity to use it. The dagger passed so close to Intef’s head that it nicked his ear before it landed, tip first, in the wall.
“I thought you already put all your daggers on the shelf,” Intef said as he touched his ear and looked at the blood on his fingers. At least he had the sense not to scream or cry. He might annoy me, but he accepted his punishment without complaint. I could respect that.
“Stupid boy,” I said. “As if I would leave myself unarmed. One never knows when a dagger will come in handy.”
“Well, you have used it now,” Intef said. “Maybe you could get around to making that meal?”
I grabbed the dagger from my other forearm sheath and sent it flying towards the wall. It nicked his other ear on its way.
“I think you can make your own meal,” I said and went into the other chamber. My stomach growled, reminding me I hadn’t eaten today, but I didn’t want Intef to think he had won and I could hardly make a meal for myself but not Papa. My throat was dry and I wished I had at least brought a mug of beer with me.
I closed the door so they wouldn’t realise I was trying to listen to their conversation. I already knew Intef was captain of the new queen’s personal guards. The soldiers had been gossiping about how Pharaoh’s senior advisors wanted their own man in the position, but the new queen stood her ground. Intef had been only seven years old when he decided he was in love with her and he had spent the last eight years learning how to protect her.
I would never have said it to him, but his single-minded determination impressed me. It motivated me when I wondered whether I should give up on my own goal of learning a soldier’s skills. After all, it wasn’t like I could ever work as a soldier. The idea of a woman soldier was ludicrous, but I had always felt drawn to that life. I could never explain why, even though Papa had asked more than once. It was my destiny, that was all I knew. My fate.
I couldn’t make much sense of their conversation at first. They were planning a journey of some sort, although Intef wasn’t the one who would be travelling. He had been charged with sending somebody — or more than one somebody — to a safe place. Once I understood that, it wasn’t hard to figure out who they were talking about: the queen’s younger sisters.
There were six princesses originally. The new queen was the third born. Two older sisters and one younger had all gone to the West. Her two remaining sisters were children, young enough to still let their hair grow in the sidelock of youth. I had seen them as they rode past in a palanquin on their way to bury their father who went to the West just a couple of weeks ago.
It seemed there had been some threat made against the youngest princesses. I guessed somebody — perhaps Pharaoh or his senior advisors — feared the young princesses being used by an opposing political faction to steal the throne. Intef feared the queen herself would be assassinated to make way for one sister or the other.
The queen had no desire for either herself or her sisters to be killed, so she ordered them sent away. That was Intef’s task. He had to find a way for the two princesses to leave Akhetaten and escape to a place of safety.
My breath caught in my throat and for a moment, I couldn’t think. I inhaled, held my breath, exhaled. I needed to be calm for this. I already knew I would volunteer to take the princesses. Not that I had any particular interest in the girls themselves — I had never wanted babes of my own — but the idea of fleeing the city with two princesses who were in danger of being assassinated gripped me. I had always believed I was meant for something more than the tedious reality of wife and mother. Something that would let me use my hard-won skills. This was what I had waited for.
I would be their guard. Their guardian. I would keep them safe. We would travel to a new city. Maybe even a different country. We would know nobody and have nothing but each other. This was the destiny I had trained for.
When I opened the door between the chambers, Papa obviously knew what I intended even before I spoke. Perhaps he guessed from the look on my face, or perhaps he knew me too well. He didn’t argue. I had made up my mind and he knew well enough that nobody had ever been able to dissuade me once I had. It was Intef who didn’t understand.
“Fine,” I said. “I will do it.”
Intef gave me a blank look.
“Do what?” he asked.
“I will take them.”
I rolled my eyes. He wasn’t as stupid as he pretended to be sometimes.
“Does your new queen know how dense you are?” I asked. “The princesses, obviously.”
“Take them where?”
“I will figure that out. But for their safety, I will not tell you.”
He shook his head, his face still bewildered.
“You are going to take my lady’s sisters away?” he asked. “But who will guard them? Who will provide for them?”
“I will guard them. I will take them to a place where nobody knows who they are and I will keep them safe.”
“But why? You don’t even know them.”
“Think of the adventure, Intef. We will leave and go somewhere new with nothing but our wits to keep us safe. This is what I have waited for all my life. This is what I have trained for.”
“But what husband will want you with someone else’s children trailing after you?”
“Have I ever said I wanted a husband?”
“But that is what—”
“Do not dare tell me that all women want a husband. I do not. I will not be stuck inside, forced to clean up after a man and wash his clothes and bake his bread. I do not want to bear children and spend my life praying I will survive their birth and they will survive long enough to grow up. I want to be free. I want to live my own life. I want an adventure.”
Fortunately for Intef, Papa cut him off before he could say anything else stupid.
“I am very proud of you, Tey,” he said. “But are you ready to walk away from your family and never see us again for the rest of your life? So long as they live, you can never return.”
I went over to him and leaned down to kiss his cheek. When Papa was standing, he and I were of the same height, but sitting here on the rug right now, he looked much smaller than he was. It was the first time I had ever seen him look old.
“Dear Papa, I will be sorry to leave you and even sorrier that you will have nobody other than Intef to look after you in your old age. But this is what I have been preparing for. I am sure of it.”
Papa rested his hand against the side of my face and gave me a sad smile.
“I know you do not ask for my permission,” he said. “You have already decided and it is no less than I would expect of you, but go with my blessing, dear child. May Aten watch over you and your young charges.”
“Thank you, Papa,” I said. “Intef, I am going to get a couple of hours’ sleep, but I will be at the palace at dawn. Bring them to the west entrance and make sure they are ready to leave. And take this.”
I retrieved a dagger from beneath my shirt — it was the last one I had on my body, but he didn’t need to know that — and held it out to him.
“I noticed you don’t have one of your own,” I said. “You will need one if you are to be the queen’s captain.”
Intef took the dagger from me. To my surprise, he looked like he was about to burst into tears.
“But this is your favourite,” he said.
“And now it is yours.”
I felt a little teary myself as I returned to the sleeping chamber to make my plans.
I supposed folk thought there was something wrong with me and I had often wondered if they were right. At seventeen, most girls my age were already married and had at least a babe or two, but ever since I could remember, I only wanted to be a foot soldier like my father. I admired the physicality of it. The discipline of training, the dedication to squad mates. The possibility of adventure and being in the heart of intrigue.
But of course a girl cannot take up her father’s trade. If I wanted employment, I could have sewed or baked bread or brewed beer. I might have learnt to sculpt or carve or paint tiny beads for rich women to wear on the ends of their braids. Such crafts required talent, though, and I was lacking in any such thing except when it came to the skills of a soldier.
If I was a boy, they would have expected me to be a foot soldier. It was expected of Intef, although he too had chosen his own path. He didn’t want to be merely a foot soldier, but the captain of the queen’s personal squad. It had never before occurred to me to feel sorry for my father that he had two such independent minded children.
Having noticed my interest in his occupation when I was very young, Papa taught me how to use my dagger to take down a man, or to kill him if he was already down. He taught me other ways to kill a man too, ones that didn’t need a dagger. I learnt to identify a trained man and one who carried hidden weapons, as well as how to tell when a man was trying to be unseen. I learnt to follow and be unseen myself, and I learnt to stay motionless for hours at a time. Sometimes I wondered whether my father was merely trying to keep me quiet and occupied when he bid me lie behind a bush or a large rock and remain out of sight for half a day. It was not until many years later when I stole away with two princesses that I had cause to be thankful for such training.
When my father had taught me all he could, I used my ability to be unseen to spy on the soldiers as they trained. Not just my father’s squad, but any soldiers I could find. I studied what they did, then practiced it myself. They ran laps of the city and hiked in the desert to make themselves stronger. They learnt how to survive on limited rations and even less sleep. I learnt those things, but even that wasn’t enough for me. I spent countless hours tracking the wild creatures that lived outside the city of Akhetaten. Learned how to feed myself with nothing but what I could gather or hunt. Learnt to find water in the desert.
As soon as I understood what the quiet conversation between Papa and Intef was about, I knew this was my life’s purpose. This was what I had trained for. All those hours of instruction with my father, and many more hundreds of hours of training and practice on my own, it all led me to this.
The two princesses needed to escape and they needed someone to protect them. That someone would be me.
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