Upper Egypt, 1153 BC
They were swarming out of the dark alleyways and hidden side streets with weapons and voices raised. Their red fire torches cast long, menacing shadows on the walls as they stormed straight towards us – and there was nothing I could do to stop them coming.
I felt Min's hand snatch mine. He hauled me towards him and together we slammed into a shop doorway. Their knives screeched across the walls as the men thundered past us, knocking people out of the way and smashing property.
"Bread for work!"
"Death to the overseers!"
"Pharaoh must pay!"
I allowed myself to exhale; they weren't vandals or a street gang. The tomb workers were striking over bad pay again. They wouldn't be interested in a shopkeeper like me or a scribe like Min; it was the tomb overseers who should be shaking with fear at this moment. I could feel Min's steady heartbeat as his larger body shielded me from their view; he did not move a muscle until the last of the hoard had vanished into the darkness.
"There'll be trouble in town tonight," he said. "Let's go sit on our hill for a bit, away from the taverns until it calms down."
"Do you think my shop will be all right?" I asked. "I can't bear the thought of Father returning to a ransacked store."
Min squinted down the night time street. "They look like they're heading west towards the overseer offices. I should think the shop will be safe tonight."
We kept to the shadows and hurried up the high street towards the town outskirts. The hill sloped towards the night sky and we clambered across to our favourite grassy ridge. I shifted in the grass, tucking my linen shawl around my chilled shoulders; the Peret season was fast approaching and its fresh breeze was gently nudging the scorching nights away for another year. I breathed in the warm earthy smell of the hillside.
Min said nothing and settled back on his elbows so he could gaze up at the clear, twilit sky. Khonsu's moon was big and full tonight. The god's silver light gently illuminating the market town below us. Shadows drifted across Min's peaceful form, outlining the roundness of his belly, the ample frame of his shoulders and his long intertwined legs.
"Will you go on strike too?" I asked, pulling my bare knees into my chest for warmth.
"No point. Lots of apprentices are begging for a place to work and there's not enough for everyone. If someone falls off a ladder or hits his hand with a hammer there's a queue of young boys waiting to take his place. Better to be silent for now and hope conditions get better later. When do you think your father will get here?"
"Any day now. I doubt he's found me a husband in Thebes; as long as I'm selling cosmetics he doesn't care if I'm married. Although it would do me some good to get out of this town, even if it is with an old fat husband."
"What's wrong with here?"
I thought about the customers in my shop that morning. A girl had staggered in with a crying baby on her hip and a small boy clasping her hand, pulling at her like she was a rag doll. Her son dug his dirty hands into my urn of red ochre, sending an obnoxious cloud of crimson over my other customers. The mother asked about a new black galena I had in from Aswan but as I looked into her tired eyes, I secretly thought that the most expensive make up couldn't hide the missed opportunities on her face.
"Nothing's wrong with it," I said. "I just need a bit more excitement. I feel like I age ten years every day I live here. Strikes just remind me that the world's changing. It doesn't help that we live so close to the tombs; we're surrounded by death. I don't know how you can stand to be in those underground chambers every day."
Min smirked. "It's something you wouldn't understand, Amunet. I may be down in the tombs all day but I enjoy it. If I'm alone, working by the lamplight calms me - I love the smooth feeling of the walls once they've been chiselled and plastered, waiting for that splash of colour. And if the others are there, we swap stories and jokes. We're creating art that'll last a thousand years - your art washes away when the sun is too hot!"
I nudged him in the ribs. "At least my hands aren't permanently stained with ink."
He waved his blackened scribe's fingertips in my face and I batted them away. He closed his eyes and sighed, leaning back to rest on his elbows again.
"I'll be alright," he said. "I'll carry on with my apprenticeship; move out of my family's house and into my own. I've just been so busy lately; I'm still painting that mural in Heterpheres' front room and she keeps changing her design. That Will I've been setting up for the architect has been changed yet again - he's argued with his son and now he wants. . "
I interrupted him. "I'm not sure what I want at the moment. I'm lucky enough to have a choice but that makes me feel restless. I want danger and adventure; I want one of those romances from the old tales. Something that makes me feel something."
We looked down into our small market town where the oil lamps were being extinguished ready for another black night. I wondered if Thebes ever slept, if the lights ever went out.
"I'm getting chilled now, it's quite late."
Min nodded. "I'll walk you home."
I stood up and brushed the hard dust off my hands, feeling the cool breeze tug at my skirt.
"Amunet. . ." Min started.
He said nothing more.
The next day I opened the shop but it was strangely cool and my regulars were forgoing their lipstick and skincare for a cosier day indoors. I left the shop floor to get ready for Father's arrival. I brushed my long black hair, stuck an iris at my temple and dabbed some lavender on my neck. I wanted Father to see that I could cope as a young woman on her own.
I set out the sesame buns on the table in our backroom and brought out some of our finest Cretan wine that I'd been saving, as well as some roast duck and late plums.
He was late. I busied myself with chores - sweeping up the excess soot from the kohl and grinding tough fenugreek seeds to make wrinkle cream. It was relaxing to make; grinding the seeds with a stone pestle to make a fine powder, adding rose oil for its soothing scented properties and then a thicker oil mixed with watered honey to finish the thick, creamy texture.
It was my favourite recipe from my mother's book. She'd kept scraps of spare papyrus and jotted down how to make creams, mix a particular shade of eyeshadow, or sketch an interesting nail pattern. Father gave them to me when I became old enough, and I began adding my own. I bought a pretty cedar box to keep them in and Min decorated each page with gorgeous drawings of Hathor, perfume bottles, ladies in gowns and ornate jewellery. I kept linen parcels of dried grass scented with cinnamon inside so there was a lovely familiar scent every time I opened the lid.
I'd been selling a lot lately for a silver deben per pot, or a bag of wheat if I was running low - the harvests had been bad again this year. I'd made quite a bit of profit from raising my wrinkle cream prices. I smiled to myself at how well I had done on my own; I was old for an unmarried girl; 18 was old enough to gain some piteous questions from some of my older clients.
"You seem to be doing well all by yourself."
"Hasn't your father put forward anyone for you, dear? I have a wonderful son, very handsome. . . ."
The shop darkened and Father stood in the doorway.
I forgot about being a young business woman and bounded across the shop floor into his arms.
"How was your journey?" I asked, breaking free and staring into his face. He looked older, his skin was paler and his hair was now a dusty grey colour instead of the usual sleek black.
"I'm well, just tired", he replied, leading me into the backroom where I'd laid out our meal. His servant from Thebes brought his bags from the boat and laid them down by the table. I pointed him towards a water jug on the shop floor and he gratefully sloped out, leaving us alone.
Father took a gulp of the wine and smiled. "Ah. Home."
"Mmm. Certain circumstances in the city made me postpone my return trip."
He bit into the sesame bun and nodded with pleasure. "The bakers in Thebes just don't compare to the small one here."
We sat in a comfortable silence as he ate his meal. He glanced around the backroom; the sacks of ingredients where in order though somewhat low, the stone floors were swept and dry.
"You've done so well, Amunet," he said and I saw a bit of colour return to his unshaven face. "I knew I could leave you in charge. You always had a good head on your shoulders - it pains me to take you away from here."
My heart skipped a beat. Perhaps Min had been right. Father had found me a husband in Thebes. An old, stooping scholar limped into my head and behind him marched a rough soldier with large, hairy fists. At once I regretted being so nonchalant when Min and I had talked about marriage.
"We're going to Thebes?"
"Yes, before Peret is over; I've got a few things to do here first. There've been issues in the city that I need your help in."
I wasn't expecting him to say anything of the sort; Father had hundreds of royal constabulary officers working for him to keep order in Pharaoh's capital. They dealt with petty and organised crime, liaised with the royal court & carried out the punishments it set. He was a well trusted and respected man in Thebes – I'd never dreamed that I could help him in his work.
"You need my help? But what can I do except apply cosmetics?"
"That's exactly the kind of skill that I need."
"Are we to open up a shop in Thebes too?"
He glanced back towards the shop front where the servant boy had apparently dozed off. Father leaned forward so he could lower his voice.
"Amunet, from your experience in the shop, have you learnt much about the court ladies?"
"The harem? Not much. I only really know the court fashions by what our customers ask for. You know, if they're all asking for a particular shade of green for their eyes etc it probably means thye've seen a royal lady wearing it."
"His Majesty's harem is a palace within a palace, a most private and secluded place. Those that live there are those closest to the Pharaohs heart, if not to his power and wealth. His queens and wives reside there with their children and their children, his sisters and female relatives, all together in one palace. They are those who carry the divine blood, who are the most influential, and the most beloved."
I frowned – I'd never given the harem much thought before. Father continued.
"Someone in the court vizierate took me aside in secret, and told me to investigate the harem for treasonous plotting."
"If the harem consists of the closest family & friends that Pharaoh has, why would they commit treason against him?" I asked.
Father sat back in his ebony chair and considered me for a moment.
"Has everything been peaceful here at home? No riots? No trouble at all?"
"Min and I got caught in one yesterday. They don't hurt anybody but their knives certainly get their point across."
"There's trouble up and down the country," Father said flatly. "After the Deir el Medina tomb strikes a few years ago, people are getting angrier. Rameses' battles with the Libyans and the Sea People, although brave, have done nothing to extend our borders and have exhausted Egypt's treasury. Harvests are poor again since the Nile didn't flood last year. People see the taxes are being spent on keeping Pharaoh comfortable while they starve outside his palace walls."
I glanced at the door. "Father that borders on treason; Pharaoh is a god on Earth – he has the people's interests at heart. Besides, it's not been that bad here . . . the tomb workers are striking but everybody else just keeps their heads down and does the best they can. . ."
"It's not that bad here because we're a self sufficient town," said Father. "We live on good, fertile land where we all grow our own food and trade with local, similar towns. We have enough; the people in Thebes and all the other cities do not. They are starving and watching the court go by with their gold jewellery, heavy wigs and full bellies does nothing for Pharaoh's popularity. People are starting to mutter and it's only a matter of time before something terrible happens."
"Is this why you're so tired?"
"You could say that," Father sighed. "Unrest is widespread in the capital. Every minute my officers are dealing with petty theft. I'm unwilling to press charges on a starving woman who steals bread from the bakeries to feed her children – but the baker she steals from is barely making ends meet himself. It is difficult, difficult. Fights have broken out in the city and in the palace complex itself; treasonous writings have been smeared on walls – it's worried us at the constabulary because only those with a decent education could scrawl such things. This is not a peasant's revolt though they are the ones who suffer the most."
He took a sip of wine, savouring the famous Cretan sweetness and clicked his tongue.
"You'll have lots of this, where you're going."
"Yes," I said, startled by the fact I hadn't pressed for more details. "What's all this got to do with the harem, and with me?"
"Well," he said, putting the cup down. "My contact at the Vizierate is a most unflattering character, though highly placed and well informed. He said there's been a lot of activity and buzz around the harem, the most secret of royal sanctuaries. He believes someone inside the harem is stirring up a rebellion against the Pharaoh by sending messages out to the people. It could be linked to an assassination attempt. And it could be anyone who lives there - a prince, a concubine, a servant or the Great Royal Wife herself."
"Just because the harem is sending messages doesn't mean anything," I said. "If I was locked up and my lived family on the outside amongst the rioters, I'd be sending messages out every day to see if they were safe."
"Exactly Amunet, exactly," Father said excitedly. "That's exactly the problem! There could be a plot, or there could be nothing. And to accuse a royal concubine, let alone the Queen of Egypt herself of a crime they have not committed could be seen as treason. They would burn any accuser alive and scatter the ashes to protect the lady's honour."
I shuddered at the very thought; of the hot grill searing into your back as you writhed on the fire, scorching like a lump of meat and knowing that not only was your body burning into thick, black smoke but your soul was being seared into something worse: nonexistence.
"Please, do not speak of fire."
"Because of this, the vizierate has not mentioned to the Pharaoh that the harem, or part of the harem could be plotting against him. Plus any hint of a plot organised by the Pharaoh's own family would be the most dishonourable gossip – we'd have to conceal it from the public. If we are to approach the Pharaoh, we must do so with solid evidence. And we must find some evidence- the consequences of a harem plot coming to fruition are unthinkable; they'd be a powerful force if they sided against him, especially if they had the military on their side."
"Surely the members of the harem are happy enough?" I asked, rather lamely. "They are beloved of the Pharaoh, they are surrounded by luxury and prestige. What would be the sense in rebelling; for their freedom? Where would the go?"
"This is where you come in," he said. "I'm known to the court and in Thebes; neither I nor any of my officers can waltz into the harem and start asking questions. Nor could I send a servant boy; would a queen talk intimately with a servant boy? I should hope not. You are to return to Thebes with me and become a Master Adorner. You will take your brushes and pestles and ingredients, and attend the harem ladies each day. You will gain the trust of the men and women there and report everything to me what they say. I and a small, secret group of officers will monitor the situation from outside and if you feel you are in danger we will remove you, quickly and silently. Will you do this for me?"
I thought of vaulted palace chambers and beautiful water pools, lapis lazuli adorned princes and princesses lounging on exquisite cushions and drinking the richest wines. I thought of myself leaning over the queen's long, manicured fingernails, painting delicate henna patterns whilst sitting in the finest linen gowns watching the royal dancers entertain. I would talk with the royal family, the family of the gods and be able to learn their ways and manner. Then I thought of strangers plotting, lurking in the dark shadows, the damp smell of blood, a dagger in the gloom and me, a spy, in the middle of it.
"How will you protect me?"
"When we get to Thebes you'll accompany me to the constabulary to meet the officers who work for me and the Medjay. We'll go over your security arrangements then."
"The Captain of Thebes," he replied. "He's not quite the top of the constabulary but he's the highest officer who is aware of the possible plot. It is imperative that you understand that you'll not just be a Master Adorner." He grasped my shoulders. "You must understand that you'll be working as a spy. You must report to us when we tell you to, you must give us the right information."
I had liked the idea of being a court lady much better than being a spy; at least I could have been confident in my own abilities.
"Father, I would not disappoint you in something so important. . "
"We'ill go over the details once we reach the Theban constabulary," he reassured me. "We will prepare you."
I told Min I'd take half a day off so we could spend an afternoon together doing nothing in particular. I'd had a busy morning; I'd done numerous manicures with this summers fashionable orange henna, facials for a large group of women on their way south for a party, and spent hours weaving bronze beads into the top layers of a thick elaborate wig. Apart from the pain it caused me in my upper back leaning over it, the hair had smelled musty as though it had had one too many perfumed wax cones melted over the top.
I told some of my regular customers about my expected journey to Thebes. Neferue, a well-to-day lady who lived in one of the larger villas on the outskirts of the town, came in for her weekly pedicure and was greatly interested in what I had to say.
"Oh Amunet! How I wish I was in your place! The parties my dear, the parties! You'll feel like one of the gods themselves!"
I smiled vacantly as I knelt at her knee, her naked feet propped up on my little stool as I bent over them with a file and some almond oil.
"If you don't mind me asking, my dear, who sent for you? I doubt you've ever been to the capital in your life! How do they know of you?"
"I can't remember the name," I muttered. "My father has a friend in the harem guards and I suppose they must have mentioned me to the ladies."
I dipped my thick brush into a jar of watery henna and gently swept it across her toenails, careful not to stain the cuticles.
"Well! I'm having my nails done by a Royal Ornament!" Neferue exclaimed. "I've heard such stories about the palace! I've heard the Pharaoh goes to the harem every night to throw large banquets for his wives and lovers! I've heard the servant girls dance naked and it sends them all wild with lust, though they're already wild on wine!"
"You seem to have heard a great deal."
Neferue didn't hear me.
"Just think Amunet!" she said, her eyes shining. "You could catch the eye of the Pharaoh himself!"
I was surprised that Neferue could say anything to make me think but this last statement made me pause; what if the Pharaoh saw something he liked in me? Just for a second, I thought of the favours, riches and compliments that would be lavished on me. The god on Earth, picking a mere mortal like me oouot of a crowd and transforming me into a goddess. I snorted. The Pharaoh was surrounded by tens of gorgeous, well born women every day.
Later that day Aeser, a local fisherman, popped in to buy some of my lavender leaves for his wife. When I mentioned I'd been summoned to Thebes as a Master Adorner, his face darkened.
"If Amun doesn't need to have a harem then I don't see why the Pharaoh should have one. Ladies shouldn't be locked up like that, I reckon. I've heard he lines them up every night like cattle - queens, sisters and whores together and chooses the ones he wants."
It was hard to find a middle ground; Neferue spoke of drunken depraved banquets and Aesar was certain the women were imprisoned sex slaves, never allowed to see the sunlight or to say no to the Pharaoh. Father painted a picture of shady apartments where potential assassins lurked, knives tucked into their linen pleats. The fact was no one knew anyone who'd lived in the harem.
I was dealing with a customer when Min arrived early clutching a large beer jug and sporting that wide grin that I'd come to know so well. He hung back near the doorway, trying to make me laugh.
"So you're saying the applicator should have a rounder edge?" the woman asked.
I nodded. "It makes the kohl line look smudged when you draw it on. You don't want it too fine or you'll look like a wooden doll. I'd try these ones." I indicated the basket of applicators I had in stock. "I'll give you one for 2 debens or a patterned shawl. I'm partial to a nice shawl."
"I have this one in my bag," the woman said, producing a cheap looking piece of cloth with a gorgeous painted fish and water motif.
"Done, but you are robbing me," I said happily, plucking a smaller applicator from the basket and handing it to her. "I expect to see you in here buying my kohl from now on – nothing works as well as my kohl."
Once she'd gone, Min closed the shop's woven shutter, blocking out the weakening sunlight and cheerfully shook his jug.
We spent a pleasant evening lounging in my small garden behind the shop, drinking cheap beer and snacking on red grapes. We fashioned papyrus boats and raced them in my grey pond where both vessels slowly rotated for a few minutes before sinking amongst the reeds. I always had a happy, contented feeling spending time with Min, even when we did nothing. But I knew it couldn't last. As the dying leaves fell from their branches, it was as if the gods were telling me there was something more for me. I did not tell Min my plans straight away. For now, I wanted things to stay the way as they'd always had been – the peace and the country beer that had always tasted so fresh yet was always too familiar.
The afternoon shifted into evening I knew I couldn't hold my news in any longer. As we sat on our hill under a blood-red streaked sky, I told Min everything that Father had said.
"So that's it really," I finished. "I'm going to Thebes – I'm going to see everything I've always wanted to see! The Temples of Amun and Mut – they're said to be the most colossal in all of Egypt. I want to see everything; the priests, the markets, the palace of Medinet Habu - the Mansion of a Million Years they call it. I bet every wall is painted in rainbow colours."
Min was silent, staring at a small lizard snuffling amongst the scrub and long shadows.
"I'll be the Queen's Master Adorner, to the Great Royal Wife herself!" I continued. "I suppose I'll lie in luxury eating grapes, trying on the royal jewellery. ."
Min snatched up a stone by his feet and hurled it at the lizard. The creature whisked away into the long grass and I recoiled from his impulsive rage.
"What a glorious life that would be!" he sneered. "Do you really want to spend your life lying on cushions getting fat? Where your sole purpose is to pamper those vain jackals? And that's if you are not killed first – how could you risk your own safety for them when they watch their people starve?"
"Keep your voice down!" my eyes darting across the silent hillside. "They are sons and daughters of the gods – it's my duty to serve them. And how dare you insult what I do! Painting a woman's face and preparing her body is an art form – it allows her to hide her flaws and make her feel confident, special, luxurious. It's supposed to connect people with the spirits and keep away demons. Someone like you wouldn't understand such concepts."
Min snorted and turned away from me; my confusion turned to annoyance.
"Think about your own duties instead of judging mine," I spat. "You serve those jackals as well don't you? Scratching images on their tomb walls, never getting the privilege of seeing those you serve as you wile away your time in the darkness like a grub."
Min turned to fix his wide brown eyes on me, his top lip curling upwards.
I didn't stop. "Maybe you're just jealous that you'll never be wanted in the city.."
"Jealous am I?" Min exploded. "I'm well respected here for my own intellectual merit! People come to me when they want written works because I've studied how to write hieratic and hieroglyphs. I do not run where I am bid, I have achievements to my name! Do you think I want to some spoilt royal dog? Petted by stinking councillors and courtiers? Will a royal servant will be fine for you Amunet, if he offers you a gold necklace?"
I sat up, a vindictive smile washing over my face.
"Ah," I began softly. "That's it, isn't it Min? You're bitter that I might find a rich, well connected man – maybe even a prince. You thought I'd have preferred a stooped, ink stained scribe."
I'd gone too far and I knew it. My anger evaporated into dull guilt as Min leapt to his feet, his shadow contorting into a twisted giant as it was cast against the grey hillside. I shot up too, my heart screaming to apologise but my pride arguing that all I had done was speak the truth. Min was jealous and he only wanted me to stay for his own selfish reasons.
"You spiteful vulture. . ." His whisper sent icy shockwaves shooting up my forearms.
"Remember it Min. If I go to Thebes I could catch the most royal of them all. I could become a Princess of Egypt and then you can paint my picture on the tomb wall."
Min thundered towards me and for a terrifying second I thought he was going to strike me. He raised his large ink stained hands, pulled my head towards him and kissed me hard.
It was horrible but exhilarating. His lips were soft but they pressed hard against mine, his tongue forcing them apart. I pressed my hands to his bare chest, meaning to push him away although my muscles wouldn't work. At that moment, I hated him though my body seized up and I was rendered dumb, intoxicated on Hathor's perfume.
To my annoyance he pushed me away first, as if I was someone of no importance to him. As if I disgusted him.
"Remember it Amunet. Remember me when a prince or a royal slave comes to you. They'll not take 'no' for an answer, unlike a scribe who seems so worthless to you."
He began striding away from me across the hillside and the sight of his back was enough to send panic quivering into my voice.
"I'll write to you," he said without looking back at me. "Even though you infuriate me and I can't bear the sight of you, I will not disappear while you risk your life for foolish dreams of grandeur."
I watched his broad form pick it's way amongst the rocks and shrubs, down towards the town. Only when he was out of a sight did I touch a finger delicately to my lips. They tingled. I let out a scream of fury and kicked a pebble on the ground with such force that it hurtled over the grass and into the darkness.