Upper Egypt, 1153 BC
They were swarming out of the darkness of the alleyways and hidden side streets with weapons and voices raised, their bare feet barely making a sound on the pavement. Their fire torches cast long, menacing shadows on the street walls as they ran straight towards us - there was nothing I could see that would stop them coming.
I felt Min's hand grab mine, hauling me towards him and together we slammed into a shop doorway. Their knives screeched across the walls as the strikers charged past, knocking people out of the way and smashing property on the street.
"Bread for work!"
"Death to the overseers!"
"The King must pay!"
I didn't feel as frightened now that I knew who they were; the tomb workers were striking over bad pay again. They would not 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; only then did he drop his protective arm and stand back from me.
"There will be trouble in town tonight," he said stiffly. "Let's go and 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 earnestly. "I cannot bear the thought of Father returning to a ransacked store."
"The rioters seem to be heading west towards the tombs and the overseer offices," said Min, staring down the night time street where they had vanished. "I should think your shop will be safe for tonight."
We kept to the shadows and walked hurriedly up the high street towards the outskirts of our market town. The hill sloped sharply upwards towards the night sky and we clambered across to our favourite grassy ridge which jutted out over the rest of the hill.
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 touching the grassy hill on which we sat and dimly illuminating the market town below us. "Will you go on strike, Min?" I asked.
"No point. There are lots of trainer scribes begging for a place to work and there are not enough places for everyone. It's better to be silent and keep your place for now, and hope the conditions get better later. "
Shadows drifted across Min's peaceful form, outlining the roundness of his belly, the ample frame of his shoulders and his long intertwined legs.
"When do you think your father will come home?" he asked.
"I don't think it will be long now," I replied, pulling my bare knees into my chest for warmth. "I'm going to go to old Mekhet's store and pick up some of those sesame seed buns he likes; apparently they just don't taste the same in the city."
"Why is he coming home now? Just for a break? Or do you think he has found a nice, old husband for you in the city?"
I thought for a moment then shook my head.
"I doubt it. He's happy for me to take care of the shop while he works with the constabulary in Thebes. I don't think it matters to him one way or another if I am 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 remembered the customers in my cosmetics shop this 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 daughter promptly dug her dirty hands into my urn of red ochre, sending an obnoxious cloud of crimson over my other customers. The mother enquired into a new black galena I had in from Aswan but as I looked into her pale, tired eyes, I secretly thought that even the most expensive make up could not hide the missed opportunities on her face.
"Nothing is wrong with it," I shrugged. "I think I just need a bit more excitement. I feel like I age years living here every day. The workers on strike just remind me every day that the world is changing. It doesn't help we are so close to the tombs; this town is surrounded by death. I don't know how you can stand to be in those underground chambers every day."
Min snorted and rolled onto his back to star up at the darkening skies. "It's something you wouldn't understand, Amunet," he said in a tone he knew would annoy me. "I made be down in the tombs all day but I actually enjoy my time down there; if I'm alone then working by the lamplight calms me. If the others are there, we swap stories and jokes. We are creating art that will last for a thousand years - your art washes away when the sun is too hot!"
I chuckled and nudged him in the ribs. "At least my fingers are not permanently stained with ink!"
He waved his blackened scribe's fingertips in my face and I batted them away playfully. He closed his eyes and sighed happily, leaning back to rest on his elbows again.
"I think I'll be alright," he said. "I'll carry on with my apprenticeship; move out of my family's place and into my own. My brother already has a son so I don't have to marry if I don't want to. I've just been so busy lately; that Will I've been setting up for the architect has been changed yet again; he's had an argument with his son and now he wants. . "
"I'm not sure what I want at the moment," I interrupted. "I'm lucky enough to have a choice but it does make me feel restless a lot of the time. I want danger and adventure; I want one of those romances from the old tales. Something that makes me feel something strongly."
We were silent for a moment, looking down into our small market town where slowly, all the oil lamps were being extinguished ready for another black night. I wondered if Thebes ever slept, if the lights ever went out. I doubted it and shivered.
"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.
I got up early the next day to open the shop and get ready for father's arrival. The day was strangely cool and it seemed my regulars were forgoing their lipstick and skincare for a cosier day indoors. I left the shop floor to brush my long, black hair (I preferred to style my own hair instead of wearing the heavy wigs in fashion just now), stick an iris at my temple and dab some lavender onto 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 behind the shop and brought out some of our finest Cretan wine that I had been saving, as well as some roast duck and late plums.
He was late arriving; I spent most of the day doing chores in the shop, sweeping up the excess soot from the kohl on the floor and grinding the tough fenugreek seeds to make wrinkle cream. I had been selling a lot lately for one silver deben per pot or one bag of wheat if I was running low; the harvests had been bad again this year so I was happy to receive grain as payment as opposed to gold or other goods. I had made quite a bit of profit from raising my wrinkle cream prices. Women didn't seem to care since they had been worried about the hot summer sun creasing their skin and word was spreading fast about how good my cream was. I found it strangely relaxing to make; grinding the seeds with hard wooden pestles to make a fine paste, adding rose oil for its scent and soothing properties and finally a thicker oil mixed with watered honey to give it a thick, creamy texture.
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;
"Well you seem to be doing well dear, all by yourself."
"Hasn't your father put forward anyone for you, dear? I have a wonderful son, very handsome. . . ."
The shop suddenly darkened and Father stood in the doorway, blocking the sun but smiling just as bright.
I forgot about being a young business woman and bounded across the shop floor like a cat into his arms. It felt good to be protected again.
"How was your journey?" I asked, breaking free and staring into his face. He looked older, more tired and his skin was paler than it was when he left last year. His hair was now a dusty grey colour instead of the usual sleek black, although he smiled brightly as he always did.
"I am well, Amunet, just tired", he replied, leading me into our backroom where we kept our stores and where I had laid out our meal. His servant from Thebes had brought his bags from the boat and laid them down by the table. I pointed him in the direction of a water jug on the shop floor and he gratefully sloped out, leaving us alone.
Father took a gulp of the wine and smiled contentedly.
"Mmm. Certain . . . circumstances in the city made me postpone coming back when I wanted to."
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, and the room had the same warm and restful atmosphere that had always been.
"You have done well, Amunet," he said affectionately, and I saw a bit of colour return to his grey, 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 this place."
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 mind, and behind him marched a rough soldier with large, hairy fists. I suddenly regretted being so nonchalant when talking about marriage with Min.
"We are to both go to Thebes?"
"Yes, before Peret is over; I have a few things to do here first. There have been issues in the city that I need your help in."
I was not expecting him to say anything of the sort; Father was an officer in the King's royal garrison stationed in the capital. He had hundreds of men working for him to keep order in Pharaoh's city, dealing with petty and organised crime, liaising with the royal court system & carrying out the punishments it set. He was a well trusted and respected man in Thebes and I had often wanted to join him at his offices and see the prestige that had befallen him. I had never dreamed that I could have helped him in his work.
"You need my help? But what can I do except ladies make up?"
"That," my father replied "is exactly the kind of skill I need."
"Are we to open up a shop in Thebes too?"
He glanced back towards the shop front where the servant boy was lounging, apparently dozing 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 and their fashions?"
"The harem? Not much really; I know that is where the King keeps his women and that they are unable to leave. I only really know the court fashions by what our customers ask for; if they are all asking for a particular shade of green for their eyes etc. I'm afraid I don't know much more than that."
"His Majesty's harem is a palace within a palace, a most private and secluded place. Those that live within the harem are those that are closest to the Pharaohs heart, if not to his power and wealth. His queens and wives reside there, all together in one place with their children and their children, his sisters and female relatives. They are those who carry the divine blood, who are the most influential, and the most beloved."
I stayed silent, frowning slightly - I had never given the harem much thought before. My father continued.
"Someone from within the court vizierate has taken me aside, in secret, and told me to investigate the harem for treasonous plotting."
"But if the harem consists of the closest family & friends that Pharaoh has, why would they commit treason against him?" I asked.
My father sat back in his ebony chair and considered me for a moment.
"I take it everything is peaceful here at home? No riots? No trouble at all? Not in the surrounding areas? Min and I got caught in one yesterday. They don't hurt anybody but the knives they carry certainly get their point across."
"Well . . . there has been some trouble. Nothing serious but the tomb workers have had a pay cut and they've been striking for a few days now.
Now I was even more puzzled as to why I was being taken away. "No, nothing like that. Why, is there trouble in Thebes?"
"There is trouble up and down the country," Father said flatly. "After the tomb strikes at Dier el Medina a few years ago, people are getting more and more angry. 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 did not flood last year and the soil was not sufficient. The taxes seem to be spent on keeping Pharaoh comfortable while his subjects starve outside his palace walls."
"I have not seen any of this here . . ."
"We are a self sufficient town," said my father. "We live on a good, fertile land where we all grow our own food and trade with local, similar towns. We have enough; the people in Thebes and Memphis 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 angry and it's only a matter of time before something terrible happens."
"Is this why you seem so . . . tired?" I ventured.
"Yes, you could say that," sighed my father heavily. "Unrest is widespread in the capital. Every minute it seems my officers are dealing with petty theft. I am unwilling to press charges on a starving woman who steals bread from the bakeries to feed her children – but the baker she steals from works hard and is barely making ends meet himself. It is difficult, difficult."
He took a sip of wine and savoured the famous Cretan sweetness. He clicked his tongue appreciatively.
"You will have lots of this, where you are going."
"Yes," I said, suddenly startled by the fact I had not pressed for more details. "What has 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 has said that there was been a lot of activity and buzz around the harem, the most secluded and secret of royal sanctuaries. More so than normal, so it seems."
"He believes that there is someone inside the harem, a prince, a concubine, a servant or even The Great Royal Wife herself, who is stirring up rebellion against the king by sending messages out to the people."
"Well, does he have evidence that points to that?" I puffed. "If I was a lady locked up, with my family on the outside living amongst rioters, I would be sending messages out every day to see if they were safe."
"Exactly Amunet, exactly!" my father said excitedly. "That's exactly the problem! There could be a plot, or there could be nothing. And to a royal concubine, let alone the Queen of Egypt of a crime they have not committed could be seen as treason. They would burn me and any accuser alive and have my ashes scattered to protect the lady's honour."
I shuddered at the very thought; of fire licking at your feet as you struggled against the faggot, knowing that not only was your body burning into thick, black smoke but your soul was being burned into something worse: non existence.
"Please, do not speak of fire."
"The vizierate contact has not mentioned to the Pharaoh that the harem, or part of the harem could be plotting against him; the Pharaoh loves and respects every single occupant. If we are to approach the king, we must do so with solid evidence. And we must find some - the consequences of a harem plot coming to fruition are unthinkable; they would be a powerful force if they sided against the king, 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? Even if it was for their freedom, they would have nowhere to go. Would they?"
"This is where you come in," he said, with a touch of pride in his voice. "I am a well established officer, known to the court and to Thebes; neither I nor one of my officers can waltz into the harem and ask 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 Royal Ornament, an artist, a lady of adornment. 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 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 rooms and running fountains, lapis lazuli adorned princes and princesses lounging on exquisite cushions and drinking the finest 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 manners - perhaps even find a man worthy of the old tales. 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?" I asked quietly.
"When we get to Thebes you will accompany me to the constabulary. You will meet the officers who will work for me and most importantly my superior; the Medjay. We will go over your security arrangements. Although I do stress this is a dangerous task."
"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 will not just be a Royal Ornament," Father said earnestly. "You must understand that you will be working for the constabulary as an officer. 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 an agent; at least I could have been confident in my own abilities.
"Father, I would not want to disappoint you in something so important. . "
"We will go over the details once we reach the constabulary in Thebes," he replied reassuringly. "We will prepare you."
I had told Min I would take half a day off work so we could spend the day together doing nothing much in particular. It had been a busy day; I had done numerous manicures with orange henna (which seemed to be the summer's fashionable colour), performed facial massages on a large group of women who were going to a bigger town to the south for a party, and I had also spent hours painstakingly weaving gold and bronze beads into the top layers of an extremely elaborate wig. Apart from the pain in my upper back, the hair had smelled musty, as though it had had one too many perfumed wax cones melted over the top. I confess I tried it on and as I looked into the large shop mirror, I half expected to see Hathor laughing and pointing at me because I looked utterly ridiculous.
Min arrived early to my shop, clutching a large beer jug and sporting his wide, daft grin on his face that I had come to know so well. I was dealing with a customer at the time and he hung back near the doorway, trying to make me laugh.
"So you are saying that the applicator should have a rounder edge?" the woman was asking me.
"Yes, it makes the kohl line look smudgier when you draw it on," I explained. "You don't want it too fine or you'll look like a wooden doll. I would 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 but which sported the most gorgeous pattern of a 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."
"Amun forbid," the woman said cheekily and called out a goodbye as she left the shop. Min closed over my woven shutter, blocking out the weakening sunlight and shook the beer jug he was holding cheerfully.
We spent a pleasant evening lounging in my small garden behind the shop, drinking cheap beer and snacking on red grapes. The Peret season was definitely setting in, the leaves on our few trees were turning to delicious shades of russet, warm sienna and rich umber. We fashioned small, papyrus boats and raced them in my small, grey pond where both vessels slowly rotated for a few minutes before sinking amongst the reeds. I always had a happy, contented feeling when spending time with Min, even when we were doing nothing; I was comfortable yet I had the feeling like it could not last, like something had to happen. I had never experienced this feeling as strongly as I did now, and 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 that night. For now, I wanted things to stay the same as they always had been – the peace and the country beer that had always tasted so fresh yet was always too familiar.
As the excitement of my forthcoming journey excelled, I began to tell 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!" she exclaimed, shaking her silly head. "The parties my dear, the parties! You will 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 am to go to Thebes as soon as my father has finished making arrangements here."
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 King goes to the harem every night to talk to his sons and throw large banquets for his wives and lovers! I've heard the servant girls dance naked before them and it sends them all wild with lust, though they are already wild on the finest wine!"
"You seem to have heard a great deal," I remarked drily.
Ironically, Neferue didn't seem to hear me.
"Just think Amunet!" her eyes actually 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 in me something that he liked? Just for a second, I thought of the favours, riches and compliments that would be lavished on me, until I realised that the Pharaoh was surrounded by tens of gorgeous well born women. He was also said to be pushing old age away now, with less strength each time. The more I considered the idea of myself as a concubine, the more preposterous it sounded.
Later Aeser, a local fisherman, popped in to buy some of my lavender leaves for his wife. When I mentioned that I had been summoned by the royals to Thebes as a Royal Ornament, his face darkened.
"If Amun doesn't need to have a harem then I don't see why the King should have one," he muttered. "Ladies should not be imprisoned in such a way. I've heard he lines them up every night, queens, sisters and whores together and chooses the ones he wants, like cattle."
It was hard to find a middle ground; Neferue spoke of drunken, sexually depraved banquets and Aesar was certain the women were imprisoned sex slaves, never allowed to see the sunlight or to say no to the king, the God on earth. My father painted a picture of shady, shadowed apartments where potential assassins lurked, knives tucked into their linen pleats. The fact was no one knew anyone who had lived in the harem or knew how they lived; occasionally at certain festivals people would see the Great Royal Wife, the Pharaohs chosen queen, but whether she was happy with her status it was hard to tell.
With so many thoughts swirling in my head, I knew I would have to tell Min and get them off my chest.
"So that's it really," I finished lamely. "I'm going to Thebes – I'm going to see everything I've always wanted to see! The Temples of Amun and Mut - they are said to be the most colossal in all of Egypt - the priests, the markets, the palace of Medinet Habu! I bet every wall is painted right to the very corners!"
Min stayed silent, staring at a small lizard snuffling amongst the scrub. We were sitting on our hill above the town, the sky streaking blood red above us, making me feel more uneasy than I already felt.
"I'll be a Royal Ornament to the queens; to the Great Royal Wife herself!" I carried on, hoping that Min would note the happiness in my voice and be happy for me. "I suppose I'll lie in luxury, in silks from the Orient, eating grapes from Greece and trying on the royal jewellery. . ."
Min picked up a stone by his feet in a sudden, violent movement and hurled it at the lizard. The creature whisked away into the long grass; I started in a shock, recoiling from his impulsive rage that now seemed to control him.
"What a glorious life that would be!" he sneered, his face twisting into a gruesome version of Bes, yet showing none of the god's loveable spirit. "Do you want to spend your life lying on cushions, getting fat? Where your sole purpose is to make those vain cats more pampered?!"
"Min keep your voice down!" my eyes darting across the silent hillside. "They are sons and daughters of the gods – it would be 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 is supposed to connect people with the spirits, to keep away demons. Someone like you wouldn't understand such concepts."
Min snorted with contempt and turned away from me; my confusion turned to annoyance and my brow furrowed.
"Maybe you should think about your own duties instead of judging my own," I sneered, "You serve those 'vain cats' as well don't you? Painting images on their tomb walls, never getting the privilege of seeing those you serve, while you wile away your time in the darkness like a grub."
Min turned to stare at me unsmiling, with his brown eyes wide.
"Perhaps you are jealous," I continued. "Maybe because you'll never go to the city, you are jealous of me and my. . ."
"Jealous am I?" Min exploded. "I am well respected here for my own intellectual merit! People come to me when they want written works because I have sat and learned how to write hieratic and inscribe hieroglyphs. I do not run where I am bid, I have achievements to my name! Do you think I want to become some petted, spoilt dog of the court? Or maybe literally petted by the fat, stinking councillors and royal men? Maybe a royal servant will suffice 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 are bitter that I might find a rich, well connected man, perhaps a prince. You thought maybe that I would have preferred a stooped, ink stained scribe."
I had gone too far and I knew it. My anger bled into potent guilt as Min leapt to his feet in a violent temper. I shot up too, staring into his eyes, my mind screaming to apologise and 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 dare," he said softly, almost whispering in a way that sent icy shockwaves shooting up my forearms, my heart thumping against my chest.
"I will always dare," I replied coldly. "And if I go to Thebes I could get the most royal of them all. I could become a Princess of Egypt and then maybe you can paint my picture on the tomb wall."
Min started towards me and for a terrifying second I thought he might strike me. He raised his large ink stained hands, pulled my head towards him and kissed me hard.
It was horrible and scandalous, 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 would not work. At that moment, I hated him though my body seized up in a new, pleasurable way, as if I had breathed in Hathor's perfume and been rendered dumb, intoxicated.
Eventually 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," he spat hoarsely. "Remember me when a prince or a royal slave comes to you. They will not take 'no' for an answer, unlike a poor, worthless scribe."
He started away from me, striding across the hillside and the sight of his back was enough to send panic quivering into me voice.
"Min!" I cried out, my tone half anguished, half furious.
"I will write to you," he said without looking back at me. "Although I cannot bear the sight of you, although you infuriate me, I will not disappear because of your foolish dreams of grandeur."
I watched his broad form pick it's a 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 its brothers and into the darkness.