Muwatti, Princess of the Land of the Hatti, Daughter of the Great King Suppiluliumas,
By this time, the head of the Thracian slave known as Thrax would have reached you. I hope that your honourable father is pleased that his friends in Egypt acceded to his request to return the slave’s head. But today I write to you as a woman, not as a queen. Thrax was my lover and I would dearly like to know what crime he committed for your father to request his head. I have heard rumours and what was possibly a half-truth from Thrax’s lips. I beg you to tell me what happened, if you can.
I think that you might understand a little about the situation I find myself in, given your own status. It is not easy to be the one set apart from all others and Thrax was the sole indulgence I have ever sought. Now he has been torn away from me and I am adrift, seeking answers which are not to be found here. It is difficult to know who to trust for one in my position, or yours, and perhaps his death serves some purpose if it establishes a stronger relationship between my country and yours.
Lady of the Two Lands, Great King’s Wife, Mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt, Great of Praises
The days after Thrax’s death passed with agonising slowness. From hour to hour, I alternatively grieved and berated myself for not trying harder to avert the fate I had foreseen for him. I blamed Thrax for his crime, whatever it was. I blamed myself for falling for him. I thanked Isis that I wasn’t carrying his child. I cursed her for the same reason.
The question of what exactly Thrax had done in the land of the Hatti consumed me. It haunted my every waking moment and wove itself through my dreams at night. When at length the reply came from Suppiluliumas’s daughter, it seemed that the truth was indeed as Ay had said. Thrax’s father had taken a small armed force to Hattusa. Muwatti said that her father had been unsure of the man’s intentions, for the number of men with him were nowhere near what he would need for an invasion. Nevertheless, Suppiluliumas would not tolerate an armed force entering his territory. The Thracians were soundly beaten and Thrax’s father and all of his men were killed in the battle. Thrax, who the Hittites believed to be his father’s second in command and heir, was allowed to remain alive in order to suffer punishment for his father’s arrogance.
I didn’t know how to feel about this. Some days I couldn’t understand why Thrax didn’t tell me the truth from the start. At other times I thought that of course he wouldn’t have, for he would have believed I would turn him in. But who would I have turned him over to even if I had thought I should? Who would have listened to me if I had tried to tell them that Thrax was running from a just punishment? I wondered why I had not questioned the fact that he so eagerly accepted sanctuary. In fact, when my brother had extended an invitation to stay at the palace, Thrax immediately assumed he offered sanctuary rather than mere hospitality. Why did I not think this strange? Questions burned inside of me. Questions for which there would never be an answer.
As the weeks passed, I began to forget details and I hated myself for it. The exact shape of his chin, the hue of his eyes. I could barely remember the feel of his fingers or the shade of his skin. But what I could not forget was the star inked on his shoulder — the mark that showed he was the property of the Hittite king. That image was branded on my mind. Would I have still fallen in love with him if I had understood what that star meant?
Three weeks passed and I had not left my chambers once. Behind my closed door, with Intef standing guard outside, I felt safe. I hated that everyone knew of my indiscretion. How could I be trusted to choose a man myself after that? Day after day, I waited for a summons to meet with Pharaoh’s advisors to account for my recklessness. I knew they would allow me no further opportunity to choose for myself.
Eventually, my ladies began to hint that I had mourned long enough. Charis made comments about the benefits of fresh air and exercise and Istnofret muttered about how long it had been since I had attended dawn worship. Only Sadeh did not care if I never left my chambers again. She too was content to sit indoors or sleep all day. Likely she didn’t even notice that I was doing the same.
I ignored Charis and Istnofret’s comments at first, but as the weeks passed, their suggestions wormed into my brain and I began to feel a longing to be outside, to feel the heat of the sun on my skin, the breeze rustling my skirt. To smell fresh, clean air. To see more of the sky than the tiny patches that were visible from the windows of my chambers.
The season of akhet, when the floodwaters rose to cover the land, was drawing to a close. Soon it would be peret, when the waters receded, and then shemu, the harvest months. Then akhetwould come around again. The endless cycle of seasons. Inundation, emergence, harvest. Over and over. But not for Thrax. There would be no more seasons of growth or renewal for Thrax, either in the mortal world or the Field of Reeds, for I had little doubt that he would have failed the Negative Confessions. His heart had likely been eaten by Ammut, the Devourer. The matter of his heart was a moot point, though, for without his head, Thrax could not be resurrected in the afterlife.
It was late akhet when Istnofret and Charis finally managed to talk me into visiting the bazaar. I had no wish to be seen in public. To know people were staring at me, whispering about me. To see that they still looked to my stomach before my face. I detested their silent questions and accusations but I could not stay in my chambers forever.
As I followed Intef out to where my palanquin waited, I tried to block out the sounds of Istnofret and Charis quarrelling, something that had been happening frequently ever since Charis had announced she was with child. She was several months along now, far enough for her belly to be protruding but not far enough that she felt she could not walk to the bazaar. Istnofret disagreed and they bickered all the way through the palace. Once I was in the palanquin and raised up onto the shoulders of the slaves, and surrounded by the sounds of a full squad marching around me, I could no longer hear their argument.
After so long secluded in my chambers, the noise of the bazaar was overwhelming. I had forgotten the crush of the crowds, the aroma of roasting meats, the crying and singing and calling of children at play. Vendors hawked their wares. Folk pushed and shoved to get to where they wanted to be.
Istnofret had expressed a desire for a new pair of sandals and, to my relief, this row was less crowded. Here, at last, I felt like I could breath again. I had little interest in the endless row of blankets with various sandals set out upon them but I followed Intef and hoped Istnofret would make her decision quickly. We were about halfway down the row when someone brushed past, jostling me as they went. I might not have thought anything of the encounter except that something small was shoved into my hand. I closed my fingers around it.
The person hurried away and was quickly lost in the crowd. A linen shawl was draped over their head and from the back, I couldn’t tell whether it was a woman or a man.
“Hey,” Intef called after them but the person didn’t stop. “My lady, are you all right?”
“Just weary. I would like to sit while Istnofret does her shopping.”
Intef swiftly procured a low stool and positioned it in a shady spot beside a mud brick wall. I surreptitiously inspected the item in my lap.
It was a tiny papyrus scroll, not even the length of my smallest finger. Glancing around to ensure that nobody was paying attention to me, I unwrapped it. Remember the children of the mother.There was no room for anything else, but when I turned it over, there was a second message written on the back. They still watch you.
I rolled the scroll up again and hid it in my hand. My heart was pounding but I tried to keep my face expressionless. Who was the writer? Was it the same person who had pushed it into my hand or were they merely a messenger? Was anyone watching me with more than passing interest? Was the person who had stabbed me in the shoulder also here? It seemed I had an ally somewhere, possibly nearby, but I must never forget that I also had enemies. And both were unknown.
The scuff of a sandal told me Intef was behind me. I would never hear him unless he wanted me to and I had no doubt that he already knew about the scroll.
“Help me up,” I said and as I gave him my hand, I slipped the tiny scroll into his palm. After he had aided me to stand, he held his hand briefly above his eyes, shading them from the sun. If I didn’t know he had the scroll, I wouldn’t have realised he had something concealed in his palm.
He met my eyes but gave no indication that anything had happened. A couple of surreptitious hand movements brought the rest of the squad closer, although they were still far enough away that an observer wouldn’t notice anything deliberate in the way they had wandered nearer to me.
“We should leave,” Intef said quietly into my ear. “Tuta has gone to fetch Renni and your ladies. Tell me what the scroll says.”
It was only then that I remembered he had once told me he could not read.
“On one side it says remember the children of the mother. And on the other, they still watch you.”
He nodded once but made no response.
I looked around as I waited and caught sight of a young boy. I couldn’t be sure but I thought it was the one who had given me the flower and told me that I was being watched. Perhaps it was not the same boy though, for he was taller and skinnier than I remember. But then, it must have been a year since I saw him last, so of course he would have grown. As soon as the boy realised he had been seen, he slipped away. I turned to mention him to Intef but Charis and Istnofret returned at that moment, accompanied by Renni and Tuta. Istnofret clutched a pair of sandals. I was pleased that she had at least had time to secure her purchase.
“My lady is tired,” Intef said. “It is time to leave.”
My ladies said nothing but their faces were pale and their eyes wide. It was clear that Renni or Tuta had said enough to alarm them. Charis was walking with a hand pressed beneath her belly. She looked tired, although I knew she would probably not admit it in Istnofret’s hearing.
Very shortly afterwards, I was back in the palanquin being hoisted up onto the shoulders of the slaves. I spent the journey back to the palace examining my feelings and realised I was more tired than I was afraid.
I was tired of being watched by unknown persons. I was tired of grieving. I was tired of being angry at Thrax and Ay and the unknown men who had tried to kill me. I wanted to crawl into my bed and sleep for a year.
Would there ever come a time when I was not being watched? When I would be free of intrigue and spies and assassins? I supposed it was my lot as queen to suffer such things but sometimes I dearly envied my sisters who I had sent away. Removed from all responsibility. Free to live their own lives. Free to choose their own path.
But I was not being fair to them. I had taken those choices from them when I sent them away. It was to ensure their safety as much as my own, but still, the decision was mine and they had been sent away with no more than the clothes on their backs. They did not know where they were going and I presumed they did not know the one who was sent with them.
Intef had told me once that their guardian was a friend of his. Someone close to him, who he knew without a shadow of a doubt that he could trust. A brother perhaps, or one of his fellow guards? It occurred to me that I didn’t know whether he had any brothers. A cousin maybe, or an uncle. I could not even begin to guess why that person had agreed. Did he know he was shepherding away two princesses before they could be assassinated? Perhaps he didn’t know the identity of the girls entrusted to his care. Perhaps he only knew that he must take them far away and protect them. What had he been given to make him willingly give up his life for such an undertaking and who had arranged whatever payment was required? Such questions plagued me and I knew it was unlikely that I would ever know the answers.