I dream of blood. It drips from my hands and splatters on my face. The coppery tang of it is in my throat and nostrils. I am sitting in my bed, my feet tucked beneath me, clutching a man to my chest. His blood soaks the fine linen sheets.
He pulls away to lie back on the cushions and stare up at me with grey eyes. His gaze holds mine, filled with pain and bitterness, but also, strangely, gratitude.
I shudder as his blood runs across my belly. It is hot and drains from him far too fast. The light in his eyes dims as his spirit departs. I do not know who he is. I only know that I love him more than life itself. And I have killed him.
I woke to a hand on my shoulder, shaking me gently.
“My lady.” It was Istnofret, one of the ladies who attend me. The other two, Charis and Sadeh, stood behind her. “It is time to leave.”
As I rose from my bed, the dead man’s face was still fresh in my mind. He has blond hair which curls around his ears in soft wisps, yet we Egyptians are dark-skinned with ebony hair and midnight eyes. I wonder who he is. I hope I never find out. In my dream my heart was breaking even as I slid the knife into his belly. I felt like I died with him as his blood soaked my bed. I held him in my arms during his final shudders and once his spirit was gone, I kissed his face and closed his eyes.
There is another ending to my dream, one which comes to me almost as often as the first. In that version, the man lives. He smashes rocks with a heavy mallet. Sweat drips from his brow. I see only a glimpse of this future, nothing more than a moment. Is he building something? Clearing rubble?
Ever since I was a young girl, I had dreamed of different futures. I never knew what decision I made would result in which outcome, and it was often not until later that I even realised the significance of what I had done.
My thoughts were interrupted as Charis straightened my dress, tugging the skirt so that it fell more perfectly around my ankles. Sadeh touched up my makeup, adding kohl around my eyes and rouge to my cheeks. Istnofret adjusted the placement of my wig. Once all three of my ladies were satisfied with my appearance, I left my chambers, surrounded by my personal guards. Istnofret and Charis trailed behind, chattering quietly between themselves, while Sadeh remained in my chambers.
As I walked, the images of blood and death began to fade, replaced instead with thoughts of another dream that was heavy on my mind at present, for like the one in which I killed the blond-haired man, I had dreamed it several times. In one future our city, Akhetaten, stood strong and proud. Its whitewashed buildings gleamed in the sun. Its people were fed, well-occupied and content. The royal tombs in the cliffs that surrounded our desert city were filled with the bodies of my family, and our dynasty ruled Egypt for millions of years.
In the other future, the city had disintegrated. Not a single wall stood taller than knee-high to show what the city had been before. Strangers — foreigners — walked amongst the rubble and destruction. The royal tombs were empty, their contents looted, the bodies gone.
We reached the chamber I had been summoned to and I waited in the hall while two of my guards lit a lamp and checked inside. It took them mere moments for the room was small with not even so much as a window. There were no chairs or wall hangings or chests. Anyone lying in wait would be exposed but, still, protocol required that I wait while they checked and so I did. Never let any man say that I did not know what was required of me.
“My lady.” Intef, the captain of my personal troop, stepped aside so I could enter.
I nodded my thanks to him. It was a strange location for a meeting. The chamber was barely the length of two men and half as wide. It had probably been intended for storage but was currently unused. Its whitewashed walls displayed a painting of Akhenaten my father, may he have eternal life, making an offering to the sun god, Aten. Light from the oil lamp fixed to the wall flickered across the images, making my father’s hands look like they were moving.
I had lingered in my chambers in the hope of keeping Pharaoh’s advisors waiting and I was annoyed to find they hadn’t even arrived yet. I disliked being summoned to this meeting without even a hint of what it was about.
Two of my guards took up position beside the doorway. The other three waited in the hall, along with my ladies. They followed me everywhere, half a troop of guards and at least two of my three ladies. The gods forbid that the queen should desire a cup of beer or a fan bearer or a scribe, and have nobody to fetch them for her.
The chamber was stifling and already sweat trickled between my shoulder blades. I wiped my damp palms on my skirt. Istnofret darted into the chamber, bearing a linen cloth.
“My lady, let me wipe your brow,” she said.
I submitted while she dabbed the cloth across my forehead and briefly below one eye. I wasn’t sure whether it was her sweat or my own I could smell.
“It is so hot in here that your kohl is running,” she said. “Would my lady like me to send for a fan bearer?”
“No. This will not take long.”
“A chair perhaps? My lady could sit in comfort while she waits.”
“I’m fine.” My tone was sharper than she deserved. Istnofret gave my forehead one last dab and then backed away with a low bow. My ladies seldom bowed to me in the privacy of my chambers, but they were careful to observe all social expectations in public.
The lamp dimmed briefly. The guards by the door tensed, no doubt thinking this part of some elaborate plot to murder me, but then the lamp resumed its steady flickering. I almost wished it would go out, for the chamber might be a little cooler without its flame. The air in here was stale and I was starting to feel light-headed from the heat. If Pharaoh’s advisors did not arrive soon, they would likely find me passed out on the mud brick floor.
As soon as I had received this summons, conveyed to me by the careful words of a messenger, my stomach had started to churn. Why would Pharaoh’s chief advisors wish to meet me in such an isolated place? I had no fear that they intended me harm, not with five of our best guards by my side, and if nothing else, my ladies would scream for help. But I had never met with these men without Pharaoh. So why did they now suddenly want to speak with me alone? Was this moment the one that would determine which future lay ahead of my beloved city?
I straightened my back and prepared myself to face whatever the men had to say calmly and with firmness of purpose. I would do what I thought was right for my country, regardless of whether it was what they wanted or not. They might control Pharaoh, but they did not control me.
Footsteps in the hallway tore me from my thoughts. Three men entered. Too few for the number of feet I had heard. It seemed they too had brought guards. What presumption. These men did not rule Egypt, regardless of what they thought. They had no entitlement to personal guards. But they used Egypt’s resources as their own and so long as Pharaoh was too young to take back his own throne, they would continue to do as they pleased.
“My lady.” Grand Vizier Ay offered a shallow bow. The courtesy was brief enough to be offensive and I gave him a pointed look. Our relationship had always been tumultuous, a constant shifting of power. I might be Queen but he was Pharaoh’s Voice and thought himself superior to me. He studied me with cold eyes which perched above a beak-like nose. I kept my face blank and tried to conceal how much he repulsed me.
The other two men bowed more deeply. Still not the courtesy I should have been afforded, but it was better than Ay’s. I nodded at them. Ay would notice I had acknowledged their respects but not his and would know I intended it as an insult.
Advisor Maya was a small man with curved shoulders and a crooked back. He peered up at me through watery eyes. Advisor Wennefer towered over him, although if Maya were to stand up straight, they might be of a similar height. Wennefer’s face was narrow and his eyes were so close together that he had the appearance of a permanent frown.
I turned away from the men and pretended to study the images on the wall. My father’s gaze was fixed on his god, as it had been throughout his life. He was the most devout man I had ever known, unlike these with me who worshipped power and authority.
“Why have you called me here?” I asked, without turning back to face them. I sounded strong. Confident.
“To safeguard the future of our country,” Ay said.
“How?” I kept my gaze fixed on the wall but my stomach was tied in knots.
“Pharaoh is weak,” he said. “His health does not improve and in fact he grows increasingly feeble. It is time we began to make plans for his succession.”
The air rushed from the room, leaving me gasping for breath. I steadied myself with a hand on the wall, leaning closer to it as if inspecting some finer detail.
“His health has been poor since birth,” I said. “He has ruled for four years without this being a problem.”
“He is too fragile,” Maya said. His voice was slightly more conciliatory than Ay’s. He, at least, was pretending I had a choice in this. “We are vulnerable with such a Pharaoh on the throne. It is only a matter of time before some other country realises our weakness and invades. We cannot afford a war right now, not with the royal treasury still so empty.”
“If Pharaoh were, may the gods forbid it, to die without an heir,” Wennefer said, “the country would be thrown into chaos.”
“We cannot afford to wait any longer.” Ay cut in before Wennefer could say anything else. “Our position is untenable.”
“What exactly are you proposing?” I kept my back to them. I would not face them until I was sure I had my emotions under control. Pharaoh was not only my husband, but also my little brother. He was of our father’s blood, thus providing a clear line of succession to the throne. If these men intended to displace him, it meant they were planning his death.
“He must be replaced,” Ay said. “We will choose a stronger Pharaoh and you will marry him to legitimise his rule.”
He was not going to pretend I had a choice. This was a directive from the men who controlled the throne and he intended to leave me in no doubt about it.
“Or what?” With a final deep breath to compose myself, I turned around and swept a frosty glare over all three men. “You forget yourselves. I am Queen of Egypt and I am not subject to your commands.”
Ay took a step closer and I forced myself to stand my ground.
“Do I need to remind you, my lady” — heavy sarcasm emphasised my title — “that Pharaoh rules with our support? He is but a child and his hold on the throne is tenuous at best.”
I returned his stare. “If anything happens to Pharaoh, I will be the first to accuse you.”
“And who would believe you? A young queen, still grieving the loss of her parents and now distraught at Pharaoh’s untimely death? All would know that your mind was not sound.”
I glared at him, letting my eyes say the things I could not allow to come from my mouth. In truth, I was shocked. Ay had always been careful to sound respectful before, in his words at least, even if his tone or his eyes said something else. He must be very certain of his own power to speak to me in such a way. He waited, his gaze still mocking me, and eventually I broke our stare and looked to Maya and Wennefer.
“Have you nothing to say for yourselves?” I asked them. “Do you let Ay speak for both of you?”
“We support the throne, my lady,” Wennefer said. “We will do whatever we must to ensure the safety of Egypt’s future.”
I looked at Maya but he looked down at the ground. Of the three, he was the weakest, the only one that I might possibly persuade to another point of view if I could speak with him alone. I flicked my gaze back to Ay.
“Pharaoh needs an heir,” I said. “If the succession is assured, we will be in a stronger position.”
“And you will produce an heir?” Ay’s tone was skeptical.
“I will,” I said. “But you know the timing of such things cannot be guaranteed.”
“You may try to shirk your duty to Egypt, but we will not allow it to happen.”
“I have never shirked my duty.”
He raised one hairless eyebrow. “Then prove it. We shall choose a suitable man and send him to your chambers.”
“I will choose for myself,” I said.
“He must be of Pharaoh’s bloodline.”
“I am of the same bloodline as Pharaoh. Any child I bear will be of his bloodline, regardless of who his father is.”
“There are certain other prerequisites a man must meet in order to be suitable to sire the heir to the throne,” he said. “It would be more appropriate if we made the selection.”
“It is my bed he will come to, and I shall decide who he will be.”
We stared at each other for a long moment.
“He must be of noble birth,” Ay said. “We will not tolerate an heir born of a man of lowly status.”
“Fine,” he said. “You may choose. But do not take too long or we shall make the decision for you.”
I drew my shoulders back and didn’t let the shudder that passed through me show.
“It is agreed then,” I said, and swept out of the room.
As I left the chamber, my guards surrounded me, two in front, one on each side, and one behind. Everywhere I went, I was encircled with guards.
My ladies waited some distance down the hall, far enough away that they would not have overheard anything but close enough to hear if I called for them. They stopped chattering as I approached and sank into deep bows. We walked swiftly through the palace with not a word spoken. Somehow Intef, who always walked in front of me, unfailingly knew exactly which direction I intended to go, for when we reached the hallway that would lead to either my chambers or out to my private pleasure garden, he turned towards the garden.
I waited in the hall while Intef and his third in command, Renni, checked the garden for hidden murderers. A cool breeze wafted in through the open door, wicking the sweat from my skin. At length they returned and I was permitted to enter. Intef and Renni took up their positions by the door and the rest waited in the hall. I had little privacy these days but I was at least permitted to be alone in my garden.
Tension drained from my body as I walked amongst the lush greenery. Sycamore and acacia trees provided shade, and rows of poppies and chrysanthemums filled the garden with colour. I wandered aimlessly for some time before choosing the path that led to the pond in the garden’s centre. The pond was rectangular, perfectly proportioned and pleasingly symmetrical. Papyrus grew along the edges and pink lotus floated on the water’s surface. A family of brown ducks had recently taken up residence and as I watched them bob up and down in the cool water, I wished I could join them. If I was still merely a princess, and not a queen, I might have.
I sat on a wooden bench in the shade of a half-grown sycamore. A servant boy approached bearing a tray with a mug of melon juice. I accepted the mug with a nod of thanks. One of my ladies must have ordered it for me.
For a while I sat and sipped my drink, letting the cool breeze and the sound of the splashing ducks ease my tension. Once I had cooled down, I let my mind turn to the conversation with the advisors. Whether Pharaoh continued to rule or was quietly replaced — was that the decision that would determine Akhetaten’s fate? Perhaps, perhaps not. There was no way to tell yet.
I had known from the first moments of learning that I would be queen to my young half-brother that I would be required to bear an heir. With my brother’s physical ailments, it was unlikely that he would be able to produce a child, so I had always known that it would be someone else who fathered my babe. I would do my duty, there was no question of that, regardless of what Ay might insinuate.
By my age — seventeen — most women were long married and had already started the endless cycle of pregnancies and births and babes. I had foolishly let myself believe that my status as queen might allow me to wait a little longer. Childbirth was risky and even if the mother survived, the child would likely die before the end of its first year, so I was in hurry to subject myself to that. But it seemed I could wait no longer.
Ay, Wennefer and Maya controlled the throne. They had been my father’s most trusted advisors and in his unfettered devotion to his god, they had been allowed far too much freedom to make the decisions that my father did not want to be bothered with. It was they who had decided that my little brother would become Pharaoh after our father’s chosen heir had died only two years into his reign. It was they who had decided I would be Tutankhamen’s queen. It had to be me, of course, as the highest-ranked woman of royal blood. My mind ventured dangerously near sad memories of my late mother and my sisters, and I swiftly turned my thoughts away. I was queen now and Egypt was my responsibility. I would not let her down.
My headache began to ease with the fragrant breeze and the peace of the garden. For a while I simply sat, not even thinking, just being. The wooden bench was hard beneath me although not uncomfortable, for the seat was gently rounded. When I ran a hand over its surface, it was smooth with not a splinter to be found.
Of course there would be no splinters. Not in the queen’s pleasure garden. Everything here was perfect. There was not a leaf out of place, no duck excrement on the paths. Every bush and tree and shrub was trimmed and orderly, symmetrical and perfect. And yet every time I sat here, I ran my hand over the bench, seeking a splinter, a fault in the grain, some small imperfection. I would have liked to have known that I was not the only imperfect thing in this garden. My reluctance to put my own life at risk in order to begin producing heirs was just one sign of my imperfection. A more perfect queen would not hesitate.
A splash brought my attention back to the lake. A pair of ducks still cavorted there and I watched them until they finally climbed out of the lake and shook off the water. Without their splashes, the garden was almost silent. There were no birds or bees, only the rustle of the wind in the leaves. It was like I was suddenly the only thing left alive in the garden. Images from my dream of a deserted Akhetaten rose again in my mind. I had seen the Great Temple a shattered ruin, with nothing but the lowest layer of its foundations left. The palace was mostly gone too, its mud bricks smashed or disintegrated. The private chapels, the granaries, the sculptors’ studios, the bakeries, all gone as if they had never existed.
This place was my father’s dream, his sacred city for his god Aten, built in the desert where the ground had never been consecrated to another god. Pure. Unspoiled. Holy. I prayed that his ka would never see his city demolished and yet I felt the truth of my dream. It seeped through me, along with the knowledge that there was a choice to be made. A choice that could stop this from happening. If only I knew what the choice was and whether I had already made it. I was roused from my thoughts by the arrival of the ladies who were my personal attendants.
“My lady, are you well?” Istnofret and Charis were standing just a few paces away.
“I’m fine.” My tone was curt and I hoped they would understand my unspoken request to be left alone, but as usual they either didn’t notice or they ignored it, instead taking my response as an invitation to crowd around me.
“My lady, you must be famished,” Charis said. “Should I call for food for you?”
“It was so hot in that horrid chamber,” added Istnofret. “I could summon a fan bearer for you.”
I didn’t try to conceal my sigh of frustration. They meant well, but they knew I hated being fussed over.
“I need nothing,” I said.
“Have you finished your drink, my lady?” Charis leaned over to inspect the mug, now sitting empty beside me on the bench. “I’ll send for another.”
“I’m really not thirsty.”
“It is so hot today.” Istnofret fanned her face with her hand. “Surely a fan bearer or two would make you more comfortable out here.”
“The breeze is quite pleasant enough.”
“Perhaps you would like to return to your chambers and rest?” It was Charis’s suggestion but Istnofret quickly agreed.
“Oh, yes, my lady, you have not been sleeping well lately. A rest would do you good.”
“Ladies, leave me.”
“Leave.” My voice was sharper this time and they dared not disobey.
With pleas for me to summon them should I need anything, they finally retreated and I was left once again to the peace of the garden and the breeze and the pond.
I sighed. They meant well, I knew that. They never meant to irritate me but so often my temper seemed short these days. Besides, I could not afford to let them in too close. Not after what had happened to my mother and my sisters and my father. Not after the dreams of the blond man who I knew I loved more than anything in the world and yet who might well die in my own bed. It seemed that everyone I loved was destined to die. So I refused to let anyone get close, but sometimes it was hard to remember that I must hold my ladies at a distance. It was my own fault when they were too casual with me.
My thoughts returned to the blond man. Who was he? And when would I meet him? I was sure I had never seen him other than in my dreams. How was it that I loved him so much? And what could he possibly do that would make me kill him?
I slept restlessly that night and woke in the morning with my skin clammy and my bedsheet sweaty. I half-expected that if I were to look into my hand mirror, I would see a shrivelled mummy staring back at me.
My ladies were uncharacteristically quiet as they helped me to bathe and dress. I stood in the bathing stall as Sadeh and Istnofret poured buckets of water over me and scrubbed my limbs with natron salt. Charis, who was in charge of my wardrobe, waited in the dressing chamber where errant splashes of water could not fall on my clothing. It would dry in moments on a day like today but she considered it unseemly for the queen to wear a gown that was not immaculate.
Today she had selected a pale green dress of the finest linen. She fussed around me, arranging the dress so that the almost-sheer pleats of the skirt fell pleasingly to my ankles. She draped a diaphanous shawl made from the same fabric around my shoulders.
“This will be lovely and cool today, my lady,” she murmured as she pinned the shawl’s edges together on my chest. “It is so hot out.”
Standing this close to her, I could feel the heat from her body and see a bead of sweat trickling down her neck. Words rose to my lips, an offer for her to sit with a cool drink while I finished dressing myself, but I swallowed them down. It was unfair to raise a servant above her place in life, to give her expectations that would not necessarily be met. People were happier when they knew their place. So I said nothing, but I did stand as still as I could to make her job easier.
When Charis was finished dressing me, I sat on a low stool for Sadeh to do my makeup. She was the youngest of my three ladies and of a similar age to myself. A bold and unashamedly sexual creature, she regularly regaled us with her exploits with various men and women. I was never entirely certain whether to believe her tales, although I was aware that we Egyptians were considered debauched by peoples who thought themselves to be more civilised. Sadeh’s tales were entertaining if nothing else and left me a little in awe of her. Today, though, she was silent as she applied kohl around my eyes and a deep ochre paste to my cheeks and lips.
“Which wig would you like today, my lady?” Istnofret asked as Sadeh was working on my face. Her deference surprised me for my ladies knew their tasks well and seldom asked what I wished to wear. I shrugged. Despite her question, she would have already decided which wig would match best with my gown.
“Whichever you choose.”
The wig Istnofret settled over my shaven head was fashioned of hundreds of tiny plaits. The braids came down to my shoulders and were woven through with little bells which tinkled charmingly when I moved my head. It was the lightest of my wigs and far cooler to wear than a headful of real hair would have been in this heat.
“That will suit fine,” I said.
She bowed and backed away.
I looked at the three of them, standing some distance from me, eyes cast down respectfully and not a whisper of gossip coming from any of them. Why were they acting so strangely? I opened my mouth to ask but closed it again. I needed once again to remind myself that these were my servants, not my friends. Our disparate statuses meant they could never be my friends.
Within the privacy of my chambers, I could hear nothing from the rest of the palace, so it took me by surprise to discover the chaos outside when I opened the door. Servants hurried along the hallways, their bare feet slapping on the mud brick floor. They bore woven baskets filled to overflowing with cloth and statuary, candles and food. Others carried heavy chests between two or four of them. Those who were empty-handed were almost running in their haste. Two of my guards, Intef, who had served me ever since I had become queen, and Khay, his second in command, flanked my door. Three more stood against the opposite wall.
“What is happening?” I asked.
“Pharaoh’s orders, my lady,” Intef said. “The palace prepares to move.”
“Move? Move where?”
“To Memphis. I’m sorry, my lady, I assumed you knew.”
“Memphis?” My thoughts were slow and I couldn’t immediately grasp what he meant.
“Pharaoh is returning to Memphis. We leave in three days.”
I felt the blood drain from my face as images from my dream flashed through my mind. My father’s sacred city demolished. Nothing left standing taller than knee height. Gone, all of it. Akhetaten would not disintegrate like that unless it had been abandoned. A city made of mud bricks needed constant maintenance to remain standing.
I strode down the hallway. My guards mobilised within moments, surrounding me swiftly. Intef and Khay positioned themselves in front of me before I had taken more than a few steps.
“Take me to Ay,” I said.
We set off at a brisk walk. Despite the business of the hallway, a path appeared ahead of us as if by the force of my glare. Servants quickly moved out of our way, standing with their backs to the walls and their heads bowed as I passed.
The image of Akhetaten crumbling into dust stayed in front of my eyes as Intef led me to the chamber Ay had claimed as his own. As Grand Vizier and a senior advisor to the throne, Ay had apparently decided he needed his own audience hall. It was another of his presumptions.
Ay sat on a large chair in the centre of the room. He leaned against its back and rested his meaty hands on its arms. I was almost surprised that his chair didn’t stand on a dais, for he had gone to great effort to make himself look like Pharaoh. Maya and Wennefer were nowhere to be seen but I had no doubt that they too were involved in this scheme.
Ay was listening to a short, fat man as I entered the room. I recognised his face but could not recall his name.
“What is the meaning of this?” I demanded.
The man hesitated, pausing mid-sentence as he looked from Ay to me and back again. He started to object to my interruption, but Ay waved him away. The man scurried off without another word. Obviously one of Ay’s minions; I would have to find out who he was. I glanced at Intef and saw him note the man’s face. He would know what I wanted without the need for words.
“Something troubles you, my lady?” Ay’s tone was light. Obviously whatever troubled me was insignificant to him.
“Why are the servants packing?”
“Pharaoh has decided that it is time he returned to his ancestral home. The court, of course, will be moving with him. He feels we have lingered in this gods-forsaken place for long enough.”
“He has decided, or you have decided?”
Ay narrowed his eyes at me. “I have given Pharaoh my advice on the matter and he has made his decision.”
“Pharaoh is a twelve-year-old child,” I snapped. “He is hardly capable of making a decision like this. Why was I not consulted?”
“Why, my lady?” Ay shrugged. “You were sleeping.”
“You could have had me woken. Or you could have waited. Why, after four years, was it so urgent that the decision needed to be made this morning before I rose?”
Ay stretched his arms wide and shrugged again. “Pharaoh has spoken, my lady. I merely carry out his will.”
I glowered at him but I had no proof that he had done anything wrong. I could ask Tutankhamen about their discussion, but I knew from past experience that he would become confused if I tried to establish whether a decision was his or Ay’s. Ay was very good at leading my brother into exactly the decision he wanted him to make and afterwards Tutankhamen could never quite say whether the decision was his own.
“Why don’t you go back to your chambers, my lady?” Ay’s tone was respectful enough, but his words made it clear he was mocking me. “Perhaps you could sleep a little longer. The sun has only been risen for a few hours. And as you can see, everything is under control.”
“I demand an audience with Pharaoh,” I snapped. “This decision is not his alone to make.”
“You question your Pharaoh’s orders?” He raised his eyebrows at me. “How impertinent of you.”
“We cannot leave Akhetaten,” I said. “You do not know what you have done.”
“What I have done, my lady, is carried out Pharaoh’s instructions.”
“This was our father’s city. He intended for us to live here, even after his death.”
“Your father now resides in the Field of Reeds, may he have eternal life. The affairs of Akhetaten are no longer his. Egypt cannot afford to maintain the court in such an isolated location where so much of what we require must be brought to us by boat. Your father led us to ruin and expenses need to be curtailed. The court must return to Memphis.”
“Akhetaten will not survive if we leave,” I said. “The city can only endure as long as her people are here.”
“A city made of mud brick will not last forever and your father was a fool to think it would. In Memphis, the temples are made of stone. It is a city built to last for millions of years.”
“We can’t leave.” Desperation surged through me but I didn’t know how to convince him. “I need to speak with Pharaoh. He can be made to see reason.”
“He has already seen reason,” Ay said. “It is a sensible decision and if there is nothing else, I have work to do. My lady.”
I felt the insult he intended at the way he had tacked on my title and it rattled me. The balance of power in our relationship had shifted recently and I did not know how to restore myself to the higher position.
“I am not leaving until I speak with Pharaoh.” I crossed my arms over my chest and glared at him. “Pharaoh and his Great Royal Wife will discuss this and we will make the decision together.”
Ay leaned toward me and lowered his voice.
“Need I remind you of our recent discussion?”
“What does that have to do with this?”
“If Pharaoh seems to be making illogical decisions, his senior advisors may be forced to act.”
“I have said I will provide an heir. You agreed that would be sufficient.”
“If Pharaoh became persuaded that the best way forward is for the court to stay in Akhetaten, it would be difficult to convince his senior advisors that he is of sound mind.”
I hated this odious man and the way he referred to himself in the third person. “Pharaoh’s senior advisors would be well reminded of their places. Pharaoh’s decisions are not theirs to make.”
“But Egypt’s welfare is ours to guard. And I can promise you, my lady, that I will do whatever I must to ensure our future.”
I wasn’t sure whether he meant Egypt’s future, or that of the advisors, but his intent was clear. If I fought him on the decision to return to Memphis, he would ensure that my brother was quietly removed and a more pliable man placed on the throne. Perhaps even Ay himself. There was no point in trying to get to Tutankhamen to warn him. His advisors had spent the last four years convincing him that they knew best in all matters. Ay would only have to tell him that I was mistaken — or worse, meddling — and my brother would believe him. If I spoke out, it would likely only hasten my brother’s death.
I glowered at Ay. I could feel the power of the moment. This was when I determined Akhetaten’s future. Only minutes ago I would have thought there was nothing that could convince me that we should abandon the city, but I could see no alternative path. If I persisted, my brother’s days were numbered.
“We leave in three days,” I snarled, “as Pharaoh has decreed.”
I turned and left. My guards quickly formed up around me and we marched back through palace.
I waited outside while they checked my chambers, although I could see from the doorway that all three of my ladies were still in there. They would never allow someone to enter and hide in wait for my return. Still Intef was thorough and every corner and chest was checked before I was permitted to enter. The door closed behind me.
I strode over to a window and rested my head against its frame. Someone had opened the shutters for fresh air while I was gone, and I inhaled a shuddering breath. There was little breeze today, which was not unusual for akhet, the season of inundation, during which the Great River’s waters rose up over the land to deposit the rich black silt in which we would plant the new season’s crops. Not this year, I thought bitterly. Once the city had been abandoned, no one would be farming in Akhetaten ever again.
Why was Ay in such a hurry to leave? Was this all about status? Was it that he wanted the record of his life which would be inscribed in his tomb to reflect that he was the one to return the court to its ancestral home? My father had been good to Ay and had raised him well above what most men could expect. It saddened me that this was how Ay repaid my father’s generosity.
“My lady, are you well?” Istnofret approached, wringing her hands. Behind her stood Charis and Sadeh, wearing matching worried expressions.
“Why did you not tell me?” I asked. “You obviously knew, all three of you. You have betrayed me.”
They prostrated themselves, lying on their bellies on the floor.
“I’m sorry, my lady,” Sadeh said. “I didn’t know how to tell you. I know how much you despise that man.”
Charis and Istnofret murmured their apologies, too. My fury left as quickly as it had come and now I felt only fatigue. I must again remind myself that they were my servants, not my friends. Friends would have told me. Servants had no obligation to tell me anything I did not already know.
“Get off the floor,” I said, although my tone was gentler than my words.
They stood and waited for my next command, not even daring to shake the creases from their gowns without my permission. When had my ladies become so subservient? Usually Istnofret was full of fire. Sadeh was brash and cheeky. Charis, my Greek lady, was always the quietest of the three. But now all three stood meekly in front of me, with not a word coming from them.
“Am I that harsh a mistress that you fear me?” I asked.
They shot quick glances at each other, but none of them answered.
“I have never raised a hand to any of you. I have rarely even raised my voice. So why are you cowering before me like this?”
I waited but still they were silent. An edge of unease began to creep over me.
“Has something happened that makes you fear to speak to me?”
Still silence, but Sadeh raised her gaze just long enough to glance at me through her lashes.
“Has somebody threatened you?“
I cut Sadeh off. “Tell me the truth. Who threatened you?”
Again they shot glances between themselves and an edge of fear began to creep over me. What had happened that was so terrible they would not even tell me? I tried again, making my voice gentler this time.
“I hope you know that you can tell me anything. I will protect you.”
Istnofret shook her head. “You can’t protect us from this, my lady.”
Try as I might, I could convince them to say nothing further. So I told them to start packing my belongings. The court would be moving in three days, with or without me. The only thing I could do was be ready to go with it.
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