Migdol Gate, Medinet Habu
With the arrival of Femi and Lotus, we could no longer rely on Overseer Peynok to give us the Pharaoh's schedule. The Pharaoh would promise to attend the ladies but then not turn up, sometimes without sending an apology. Other nights when he wasn't scheduled to turn up, he would bound through the Migdol Gate and catch us all by surprise.
Because of this uncertainty, I had to do make up for Queen Tyti, Queen Tiye and Lady Iset every day in case the Pharaoh arrived. Their hearts weren't in it unless he was actually announced and they would look round for me to discretely dot their lips and blush their cheeks. I took to wearing a special sash where I could hide some essentials without having to haul my case around.
Bee quietly kept me on track.
"My lady, you will need to send word to your Father soon. Are you any closer to finding any plot?"
"No I've tried, I've been . . . . I've been too preoccupied with settling in and gaining their trust"
"Maybe now you can start asking them more personal questions."
"And how am I supposed to do that? Good morning your majesty, how's your marriage with the Pharaoh?"
"Well, no. . . but the longer this goes on, the longer a plot has to ferment."
"If there is one at all," I said. "I haven't seen any signs of a plot. I've heard not a word against him – from queen or servant. I don't have any avenues to explore yet."
"Maybe the arrival of Femi and Lotus will trigger something," Bee suggested.
"Hmm. They have fast become the Pharaoh's favourites. If he does visit the harem he spends the entire night in his harem bed chamber with them."
"I've seen him," Bee lowered her voice to a whisper. "I see him at night. He arrives in secret, when the ladies are all in bed."
"How do you know this?"
"I keep watch. I stay in the shadows in the garden and watch the Migdol Gate. I've seen him hurrying across the courtyard in a dark cloak to their rooms."
"I wonder why he comes in secret," I mused. "Maybe he doesn't want to talk to the other ladies. Or let them know how often he visits the girls. Either way, if the ladies find out they won't like it. The Pharaoh is the centre of their world."
"Besides," Bee added. "It is not as if it is a pleasant thing to watch. . ."
I nodded. Depending on how much wine the Pharaoh drank, he would pull at them and touch them in full view of all of us. It was at these points where he looked less like a demi-god and more like a sodden old man in a tavern; I hated to watch it. The girls didn't mind; they would squeal and try to scamper away, and I never once saw humiliation in their expressions. I shivered as I remember the kiss Min and I had shared on our hill and what he had said to me afterwards. I could not imagine Min treating me like that, either alone or in front of people. For a second I missed him.
"Perhaps you can start reading letters?" Bee suggested. "Since you have access to their rooms?"
"I don't want to do that. If they caught me going through their things I'd be thrown out of the harem. It's too risky."
"Well – what about the servants? The maids, the butlers, the cleaners, the chefs and pantry boys?"
I was lucky that as a Master Adorner I could have the best of both worlds; the Queens of Egypt saw me as a lady in waiting rather than a servant, and the maids & servants saw me as an assistant, rather than a harem lady. I could hear what both sides were saying.
One night Queen Tyti called me to her chamber to mix a fresh batch of my anti-wrinkle cream. She'd called for me quite late so I missed eating dinner with Queen Tiye and the others. When I emerged from her chambers the harem courtyard was silent and still, although I saw a faint light coming from the servants' back staircase - hopefully they'd still be eating.
I headed down the stone steps to the windowless servants room and sure enough I heard the buzz of the maids and butlers talking and laughing. The group was dotted about the reed mats around the warm and dimly lit chamber. Beer jugs and baskets of half eaten bread rolls littered the floor. It reminded me of the tavern back home.
The pantry boy Paibakhamana raised his jug to me in a mock salute. "Amunet it's not like you to spend your time with us lowly servants!" The maids giggled.
"When you start paying my salary I'll spend more time with you," I snatched his beer and took a long draught. It was not as sweet as the beer from upstairs but it was still delicious.
"We were just talking about the workmen due in the building," Overseer Peynok said. "They are due to start work in the next few days."
"Oh what work are they doing?"
"Repair work mostly. Fix worn stonework, replace old furniture etc. They will be accompanied by soldiers for security but nothing to be alarmed about. Her Majesty has decreed that since the Opet celebrations are going to take place here, the rooms need to be improved. "
"It'll be nice to have more men about the place!" said Athena. She was wearing a plain Egyptian gown today instead of her colourful Mycenaean attire. She perched on a man's knee, easy in their company. Evidently non royal concubines were welcome down here too.
"I will have no inappropriate behaviour with these workmen," said Overseer Peynok. "I don't want to hear any scandalous stories about loose maids sleeping about in this palace. It's the last thing His Majesty needs at the moment."
"I was only joking Master Peynok . . ."
Everyone went abruptly quiet; Lotus and Femi were standing in the doorway. I watched Paibakhamana and Maira's eyes drift up and down their bodies. For a small second I felt sorry for the sisters. A very small second.
"Forgive us but we missed dinner with their Majesties; we were hoping that we could join you?" Femi said sweetly.
"Of course Mistress Femi, Mistress Lotus," said Peynok. "Please take a seat. Bee - pour them some beer."
They sat opposite Paibakhamana and me. As general conversation filled the Servants chamber again, the dancers sat in silence. It was going to be up to me to make conversation.
"So. Prince Pentaweret said that you met him whilst he was defending the Hittite borders?"
"Yes that's true," said Femi. "He helped us to repair some damage to our house when our village was caught in the middle of a raid."
"You Egyptian?" Paibakhamana asked.
"We were born on Egyptian soil to Nubian parents. Take from that what you want."
"Well I asked the question to get your answer, rather than my own interpretation of it."
There was an awkward silence and Lotus was the one to speak next.
"Our brother Binemwese is stationed in Thebes as Captain of the Nubian Archers," she volunteered. "He left home so long ago. We knew he was out there somewhere but this is the closest we've been to him. It makes me happy thinking that he is just on the other side of these walls."
"Do you wish you could go see him?" Athena asked.
"No," said Femi. "My sister and I have everything we could ever want here. We are favourites of the Pharaoh with the finest clothes and the most expensive perfumes, our own maids and chambers. Why would we want to go back outside?"
"Well enjoy while you can because it won't last," said Yenini, one of the harem scribes. "I've lost count how many papyri and paintings I've had to dedicate to one lady favourite or another."
"He won't tire of us," said Femi.
"So sure? The Pharaoh has been on the throne for thirty years and has had the most beautiful and influential women in his bed. What makes you so different?"
Femi leaned forward with her eyes narrowed. Lotus fixed her eyes on the table.
"Because we do things that he could never have imagined."
"That's quite a claim," said Athena, taking a sip of beer.
"It's the truth! His Majesty is a very experienced man, so he needs young and beautiful women like us to show him new things. . ."
She whispered the most explicit things that I'd ever heard. Paibakhamana threw back his head and roared with laughter and I became conscious that my jaw was hanging open. I had never even thought about the things these sisters had done; it was so sordid. I glanced at Peynok - he'd surely disapprove of royal mistresses sharing the Pharaoh's bedroom fantasies, but he was immersed in eating his dinner. Femi looked satisfied with herself as she sat back.
"Nothing can unseat us now," she said.
"That's what Lady Beset thought," I said. "And look what happened to her. The Pharaoh used to come to the harem every night to see her; it was widely said that he loved her more than the Great Royal Wife herself. At this moment Lady Beset is crying alone in a sub-standard room, worrying that she and her daughter are to be sent far away from everything they know."
"You dare to warn me?"
"Femi, I'm sure Amunet didn't mean. . ." Lotus began.
"Of course I dare," I replied. "There's no point in you two . . . working as hard as you do to throw it all away because you're over confident. You have an amazing opportunity to support yourselves until the day you die – grasp it with both hands."
"That's something they have already done," Paibakhamana sniggered.
"We can take care of ourselves, Amunet" said Femi. "We always have. You don't know the suffering we've endured and the choices we've had to make. We're here now. No one is going to unseat me. No one is going to threaten me. And if we can't take care of ourselves then Prince Pentaweret will. I've always been able to persuade him."
Athena caught my eye and snorted. Femi may be beautiful but she was a conniving little bitch.
"I'm sure you can," I replied, a little too sweetly. Lotus's eyes flicked up to mine and she gave me a weak smile.
"Suppose I'd better get your likeness then," Yenini said. "He'll be asking me to devote love poems and songs to you two sooner or later. New mistresses is all I need - I won't have time to do the Peret harem expenditure."
"How long have you been a scribe?" I asked.
"Since I was a young lad," said Yenini. I noticed he had those curious green eyes that Lady Iset had. "My Father moved to Memphis to learn the craft and naturally I followed in his footsteps. I enjoy it which is a blessing; there aren't many occupations that are also enjoyable."
"I quite enjoy mine," I said. "Are your family still in Memphis? Do you see them often?"
"My parents are dead now but I have a wife and young children living in Thebes. I stay in the harem but I go home on festival days. I miss them but I do send home little picture books for the children which my wife says they love."
"That's really nice," said Athena. "I wish I could read and write, it looks so relaxing." I thought of Min and his ink stained hands, painting pictures that only the dead would see.
"Its hard work," said Yenini. "And expensive. I go through so many pots of ink. I send whatever money I have left home to my wife but she goes hungry a lot of the time. My wages have not risen in line with the food inflation."
"How awful," said Lotus. "Your wife and children starve whilst you have to write down how much exotic food the Pharaoh can eat for his dinner."
"I have to inspect his fully stocked larders then go home to bare food baskets," said Paibakhamana. "It just comes with the job"
"It's so sad, I don't have any family in Thebes," said Bee.
"Yes but we're your family now," said Athena, putting her arm around the girls shoulders and squeezing her.
"Well said," said Paibakhamana. I looked at him curiously.
"I take it you don't enjoy your job?"
Paibakhamana shrugged. "I always wanted to be a royal chef. Might get a bit more recognition, more money and food in my belly. But there's no point dreaming – right now the Pharaoh doesn't know my name. I'll never rise in this lifetime so I may as well just accept that. So what about you Amunet? Husband and children on the outside?"
"I'm a businesswoman. I have no time for those things at the moment."
"You're as snippy as Queen Tyti tonight!"
"Paibakhamana..." Overseer Peynok warned.
"If Queen Tyti was an animal. I'd say she'd be a falcon," said Athena cheekily. "She's serious, unyielding and weighed down in tradition!"
"What about Queen Tiye?" someone asked.
Athena twisted her neck as she thought. "A cat! She's looks beautiful but if you cross her when she's angry she'll take a swipe at you!"
"Do Lady Beset!"
"A puppy who's had its tail trodden on and her bowl taken away."
Everybody sniggered but I felt uncomfortable. "That's a little unfair; the woman had dreams which have now burned to dust – can any of you say that you've never achieved a dream? Should she be persecuted for her disappointment?"
"Well maybe if she smiled a bit more and remembered where she came from I'd feel a bit more sympathetic," saod Paibakhamana.
"Enough," said Overseer Peynok. "They are your masters and you will not disrespect them in their own house."
I grew to like Paibakhamana; he was like a cheeky cousin. He was my age so we had a lot in common. Sometimes I'd find him skivving off work, sitting under the same willow tree on the lookout for Overseer Peynok. I enjoyed sitting with him to get a break from the womanly chatter. Sometimes the old harem scribe Yenini joined us.
"Being old and infirm means I can't be on my feet for so long," as he slowly lowered himself to the grass.
I loved his droll sense of humour and Yenini had seen it all before; he had served the Pharaoh Setnakht before the current Pharaoh and had seen the entire harem turn around.
"Ah yes, back then the harem was run by the Great Royal Wife and Kings Mother, Tiy-Merenese. Now there was a love story. The Pharaoh's father worshipped his mother, he had concubines but none of them were even worth a mention. I certainly didn't have to write poem after poem about them – it was all for Queen Tiy-Merenese."
"What was she like?"
"A kindly woman, never raised her voice. Always calm. Rameses permitted her to live here after he became Pharaoh, and Queen Tyti was elevated to the title of Great Royal Wife. Setnakte's other women - sisters, aunts, concubines were all sent to Gaurob. I remember the day they packed the wagons and set out. It was a sad day."
He started to doodle on the flagstones – I loved the little drawings he did. Min used to doodle at my house too when he was bored.
"Did Rameses move his own women in on the same day?" Paibakhamana asked.
"Not the same day but a few days after. First it was just Queen Tyti and some of the chosen family members. But then concubines started to come in from all over – a Hittite princess, aristocratic ladies of Egypt – even whores from the streets of Thebes."
"Think you'll see a harem turnover again?" asked Paibakhamana.
"Well I would never dream of wondering when our Pharaoh will pass into the next world," said Yenini carefully.
"The riots outside may decide that . . . " I murmured.
"I don't blame them for striking to be honest," Yenini said, stroking his white beard. "My brother and his wife had to shut their shop because they couldn't afford the taxes with falling sales. I send some of my pay packet home to them so they can feed their children but I don't know how much longer I can sustain that. I'm just hoping he'll find another job soon."
"Do you ever feel . . . angry towards the government for putting you in this position?"
"These things happen from time to time," Yenini said wisely. "The Pharaoh and government do the best they can but they need to pay an army to defend our borders. What else can they do; let our enemies swarm over us? No, better to stay a poor Egyptian than to serve foreigners."
"Some would say that the money for the army and the temples could come from the royal gold rather than the peasants homes. . " I ventured.
"As if Rameses would allow that," Paibakhamana said. "He'd eat gold if he could."
Yenini glanced at the guards by the garden wall. "Hush boy. Amunet, its best if you don't talk about this subject here. It's a sensitive one and you never know who is listening."
I visited Lady Beset one morning. She and her daughter rarely came out of their chamber now and we hadn't seen them for some time. Queen Tiye requested that I go and see if they were all right.
Lady Beset had her chambers on the first floor of the Migdol Gate. Lady Iset told me Beset once had the best apartments on the third floor which had magnificent views over the Sacred lake but she had been demoted a floor once she'd given birth to her daughter. I knocked on the door and announced myself before barging in any way.
Lady Beset sat in her darkened room while her baby daughter played on the floor with painted blocks.
"Good morning Lady Beset! I haven't seen you in so long, I've missed your company!"
She simply raised an eyebrow at me. I handed her the small gift I'd brought her; a mirror surrounded by Hathor's cow horns. Not as beautiful as my own of course but I'd hoped it was a thoughtful gift. She took it from me and a sad smile crossed her face.
"How are you?" I asked softly.
"Not good Amunet, I'm not good."
I sat on the vacant chair and leaned forward to listen.
"It's only a matter of time now before the end."
"The end? Are you sick? Please, let Queen Tiye send for a physician or a priest of Sekhemet and we can make you well again. You can't just give up hope."
"I'm not sick, I'm broken hearted. It's likely that his Majesty will send me and my daughter to Gaurob. I wait for the message every day now telling us to leave and the terror of it is making me avoid everyone's company. If I'm to be cast out I'd rather it's done in private."
"Gaurob . . .?"
"The Pharaoh has numerous harems dotted around the country but the only real one is here with their Majesties. But he can't keep every wife, mistress, child, aunt and maid. When he tires of a concubine, or a relative gets too old, a child gets too difficult or the foreign woman can't speak Egyptian, he just sends them away. Out of sight and out of mind."
"Is Gaurob far away?"
"It's near the marshy hunting ground of the court. It's a house of spinsters who make courtiers clothes every day until they die. That's where I'll be sent. I just know it."
I felt a stab of sadness for her. "You don't know that. I don't know the Pharaoh that well, but I have seen that his mind is changeable. He'll be bored of Femi and Lotus after they become the norm."
Lady Beset shook her head.
"I'm not worried about them. Other women have come and gone but this time he hasn't spoken to me in months. He used to come to the harem to see me and only me; a simple maid was chosen over the Queens of Egypt! It was like a fairy tale, I loved him and how he made me feel. But I didn't talk to the other women. I was so arrogant I thought I didn't need them – women that the Pharaoh has loved for years and years! I cannot blame any other woman for my fall; it's all my own fault. He has grown bored of me, my own self. That is what hurts me. And everyone outside this door knows it!"
Tears splashed down her cheeks and I had no idea how to console her.
"I can't begin to imagine how you feel. "
Beset's eyes flashed at me. "He will pay if he sends me away. I will make sure that I haunt his thoughts and disturb his sleep; he will regret ever looking away from me."
"Hush. . ."
"He deserves it."
"Look, should the worst happen and he sends you away, you'd still have your little one and you would be surrounded by women in the same situation. You may feel more comfortable there instead of sitting here alone in your chamber, worrying yourself sick."
Beset straightened up in her chair. "I can manage. I've gotten this far – I'll push forward now. Thank you for visiting me."
I headed back down to the courtyard where Queen Tiye was holding her usual court. Musicians played a jaunty tune, young women bathed their feet in the water and tied flowers in each other's hair. Butlers laughed at their jokes and poured drinks. I didn't want to tell this sunny group about Beset's misery; she had told me something personal. Besides, it wasn't as if they hadn't guessed how Beset felt already.
Queen Tiye flicked her feline eyes at me, stroking Bastet's soft fur with one manicured hand.
I sat at her feet and picked a daisy to play with. "She's unwell. Nothing serious but I think she needs her rest in a quiet room."
"A likely story," said Queen Tiye. "I'll wager the coronet I'm wearing that she's up there worrying about Gaurob."
Lady Iset sniggered but didn't even bother to look up from Maira massaging her feet.
"No need to wager anything," I said. "I'll admit she said she's worried about Gaurob. She knows the humiliation is coming and she wants it to be private when they tell her."
"What a defeatist attitude," said Lady Iset. "If I thought I was going to be banished, I'd be down here showing everyone how dull things would be without me."
"So you would. But she doesn't know for sure she'll be banished," said Tiye. "If she came down here and had a drink with us then she would realise it's probably not as bad as she thinks."
"Would you welcome her if she came for a drink?" asked Iset.
"Of course I wouldn't. Nobody is higher than the Queen of Egypt and those that think they are should suffer the consequences. I'm just saying I think I'd respect her more if she showed that miserable face of hers."
She looked up from stroking Bastet. "Ah my son! How was court today?"
I turned to see Prince Pentaweret strolling across the garden towards us, the sword at his belt glinting in the sun. He had a different lioness design painted in his chest today. I instinctively put my hand to my hair to smooth the ends over my collar bone, and many other ladies did the same.
"Court was interesting," he replied, picking up a cool beer from Maira'stray. "They were evaluating the new tax law the government passed in late Akhet."
"Oh? What was their verdict?"
"Unfortunately they've decided to keep it," Pentaweret said. "I hoped that Pharaoh would've listened to the local government representatives whilst they spoke of the hardships the law is inflicting on the country. He is pouring half the tax money into the priesthood without making any attempt to gain something in return. Of course, the Amun sect supports him unwaveringly so any opposition to the law was silenced quickly."
"Is there nothing you can do to make them see sense?"
"I've tried, mother I've tried. The Pharaoh is adamant he's following the correct path."
Queen Tiye rubbed her chin. "Maybe I could speak to him . . ."
"No point. The Crown Prince and Vizier To support him. None of them will listen to me in financial matters."
"It doesn't sound like a financial matter to me. More of a matter of national security."
Everyone turned to look at me as I spoke; I couldn't quite believe the words had come out of my mouth. I'd become so comfortable in Queen Tiye's presence that I'd quite forgotten myself. Tiye tipped her beer cup to her lips and her eyes glittered over the rim; others raised their eyebrows in surprise. Prince Pentaweret blinked.
"Well . . . it's my humble opinion that setting a tax to complete religious works in these strained times is not just a matter for the Treasury – the common people have been pushed to the limit these past few years; a crippling tax may tip them over the edge. The rioting and demonstrations will just get worse. It could put the Pharaoh's seat in jeopardy. Surely the safety and strength of the Pharaoh is the top priority?"
Prince Pentaweret banged his fist on his chair arm and made me jump.
"Yes Amunet! Exactly! I could not have stated it better myself!"
I flushed with pride.
"This is something that Father just cannot see," Pentaweret continued. "He remembers the glorious years when all of Egypt had a common enemy. But now those enemies have been vanquished, he just can't accept that his new opponents could be his own people."
"My son keep your voice down. . ."
"I speak out of love for the Pharaoh! If he doesn't care about this kingdom then I'll have to care for him."
He turned to me and touched my arm. "If I was to become Pharaoh I would make you my one of my Vizierate. You understand the populace. You understand the dangers the monarchy faces."
I smiled brazenly into his face; he was so different from the other men we had in the harem. My arm tingled where he had touched me and I felt stupid.
"Amunet I think I'd like to try something different today," Queen Tiye said lightly. "What colours have you got that would complement the shade of my eyes?"
Charismatic Prince Pentaweret back from the front bringing two Nubian dancers Femi & Lotus who have captured the Pharaoh. Great Royal Wife Tyti mourns three sons. Beset worried about Gaurob. Iset flirts with servants. Servants hall calm. Families outside the walls.
My original message included the black shadow who had followed me from Thebes to court. But I scratched it out. Father didn't have to know about my nightmares.
The Shemu summer season was starting to drift into the palace in searing waves and no matter what I did or where I went, I felt sticky and unpleasant. It was so uncomfortably hot that I couldn't remember being in a worse temper. I couldn't sleep at night and I demanded that I have a jar of chilled almond milk in my chamber every night to cool me down.
Once morning after waking up soaked in my own sweat, I asked Bee to throw cold water on me and I threw away my leather sandals, just so that I could feel the shaded stone on my burning feet. I took to wearing an unfastened thin linen robe around my shoulders so that when I walked it sent cool waves around my damp body.
I still got up early before anyone else and attended Queen Tyti. She wore her same crimson gowns and heavy jewellery and the dense perfume she had worn at the end of Peret. I dreaded going into her stifling chambers now.
When I emerged the ladies were sitting in the garden shade – the heat even stopped Lady Iset from sleeping late into the morning. They all wore the thinnest gowns and ordered ostrich and reed fans to be around them at all times. I squinted – I hated how bright the coloured harem walls were under the scorching sun.
"Dear Amun it is already unbearable and it's not even midday yet!" complained Lady Iset. Maira fanned the ostrich feathers more vigorously.
"I am sick of seeing that cursed blue sky," said Athena, glaring upwards. "The same old blue expanse without a damned cloud on it."
"Thebes must be unbearable," said Queen Tiye, sitting with her slender legs uncrossed for once. She pushed Bastet off her knee. "All those people squashed together in the baking sun, shoulder to shoulder with sweaty worked and manure encrusted animals. At least in the Migdol Gate we have space to move and fresh air to breathe."
There were unenthusiastic murmurs from the girls at her feet.
"Where are Femi and Lotus today?" Queen Tiye asked.
"They never sit with us," said Lady Iset. "I don't know anything about them – except that they come from Nubia."
"They do keep themselves to themselves don't they," said Queen Tiye.
"It's very rude," continued Lady Iset. "They should be begging for our favour as the new favourites. It would give us something new and pretty to look at any way."
The Migdol Gate clanged and Overseer Peynok arrived with his morning tablets. He was sticky already with the effort of climbing the stairs, horrible beads of sweat glistening on his chubby brow. Like Queen Tyti, he still wore the thick shendjet kilt and bejewelled collar as he always did. No wonder he was so uncomfortable – why can't he adapt to the seasons like Queen Tiye?
"Good morning your Majesties, it will be another hot day today I fear."
"Give us some good news today Peynok," said Lady Iset, rolling her head back on her neck.
"Unfortunately the Pharaoh will be attending court business today. But he has sent you the pick of the shemu harvest for your enjoyment – an abundance of fruits and the freshest flowers from Thebes and the surrounding countryside."
He clicked his fingers and Paibakhamana and some of the butlers marched up the servant stairwell with sacks and closed boxes. Lady Iset and some of the others squealed and forgot how hot it was, rushing to the presents their Pharaoh had sent them.
Overseer Peynok knelt in front of Queen Tiye. "And for you my queen, he sends you a bouquet of the finest jasmine flowers, and a new scent bottle."
He produced the most beautiful and delicate white flowers and Queen Tiye took a deep breath of the scent. "They are beautiful; a gift from the countryside. Please tell his Majesty I think of him often and that I miss his company."
"Tiye they have melon!" said Lady Iset. "Paibkahamana, can you instruct the chefs to chill this so we can eat it cold later?"
"The cooling cupboard in the basement may be too full my lady, we may need to take something out."
I had a thought. "Is there cucumbers in the cooling cupboard?"
"I think so yes."
I turned to Queen Tiye. "My queen I could make a cooling face mask made from cucumber if you would allow it – it is perfect to soothe scorched skin."
"Yes of course – Paibakahamana, give her everything she needs."
He wandered over to me and give me a mock bow. "Whatever you command my lady."
I smacked him on his bare shoulder. "Don't make fun! I need four cucumbers from the pantry to make this – have you got enough?"
"I don't think the kitchens can spare that many."
"Can you just check? As long as there is enough for the Pharaoh to eat then I really don't see why it's a problem."
"I'll check for them don't you worry. Are you really that stressed over cucumbers?"
"It's this heat. I'm sick of it. And I'm sick of looking out the same windows to see the same bit of sky and the same bit of earth and the same bit of horizon."
"Most people don't have such a beautiful view."
"I'm just having a bad week. Sometimes I feel like it's a cruel joke to view the orchards and gardens but have no way of getting there."
I'd begun to long to feel the dry grass of home beneath my toes or an unheeded wind blowing my hair around my face. Sometimes I lay awake at night thinking about how cool and sweet the orchard would be. If I could just walk in it. Just once.
I followed him down to the pantries and kitchens. It was too hot for me to make the face mask in the main kitchens so I ordered Bee to bring my cosmetic case to the cooling stores where it was quiet, dark and as chilled as it could be.
Paibakhamana brought me four cucumbers, some chicken eggs and a small bunch of spearmint. When I pulled a face at the size of the bunch he shrugged.
"The Pharaoh had a stomach ache after the banquet and ordered some medicine to be prepared. Cut down our mint supply quite a bit."
"I suppose it will have to do . . ."
"If only the royal pig didn't eat so much when he got here, he wouldn't need to keep taking medicine."
"Hush!" I glanced at the dark doorway. "You don't know who could be listening."
Paibakhamana shrugged and sloped out.
There's something beautiful about taking raw ingredients and blending them to make something magical. I sliced the viridian skin off the cucumber so I was left with the juicy pale green core. I grinded it into a loose paste in a limestone mortar along with some roughly torn mint leaves to release the oils. I held a couple of leaves back for decoration and scent – who could not love the cleansing scent of peppermint and cucumber?
Finally, I separated the egg whites and mixed them together until they were a light froth. The older ladies would want a mask that dealt with their wrinkles too. The mixture was now a light luxurious fresh scented mask.
I found a clean alabaster store jar that had been kept in the storage for some time so it was chilled to the touch – that should keep the mask cool, at least for long enough for me to apply it.
Queen Tiye was still sat under her fan while the little harem girls paddled their feet in the pool. "Is this my cucumber mask?"
"It is my lady. Bee would you perform a foot massage on her Majesty please? Just tilt your head back your Majesty so that your neck is comfortable."
Athena and Lady Iset observed with interest as I gently cleaned Queen Tiye's make up off her face and patted it dry. Then using my clean hands, I smoothed the cool mask onto her hot skin. Queen Tiye's eyes fluttered closed as I massaged the mixture into her pores.
"We'll just leave that on for some time. Cucumber adds water back into the skin so it becomes softer and more relaxed. It'll also reduce swelling and stinging if you have such pains. The natural oils from the mint is for its cooling and healing properties, and gives it a lovely fresh scent too. The egg white is for tightening the skin to make it more youthful than it already is."
"It smells divine," said Lady Iset. "I'm next!"
Once I rinsed the mask off, Queen Tiye touched her cheeks lightly to fee the difference. "Amunet that is a recipe for your cosmetics book I think."
She called Overseer Peynok and insisted that a fresh order of cucumbers was added to the pantry lists. I ended up using all the mixture before I could get to Queen Tyti, who remained in her chamber.
The hot days started to burn together. I got up early, I attended Queen Tyti in silence, I sat with the ladies in the gardens, then lunch, then more sitting, then dinner and finally bed.
I walked the same passageways, sat in the same rooms, talked with the same people. The opulent chambers, the stunning jewellery and the best food became normality. When you see an amethyst jewel for the first time, it dazzles you with its colour and its brilliance. But if you see it every day, it becomes ordinary. When you taste a cinnamon and ginger bun for the first time, the flavours crackle on your tongue like a fire torch – but eaten every day, you come to expect the familiar pop. I began to long for the cheap beer Min and I had drank on our last day together.
I sauntered around the harem trying to find a painted story or a picture on the walls and columns that I hadn't seen before. I once found a small, rather sweet inlay of Queen Tiye low down on a pillar; she was depicted naked, holding a lotus flower to the Pharaoh's nose as he reclined on his throne. I pressed my fingers to the cool colourful stone and felt how smooth the carving was.
I knew that my only escape from this world was to find treasonous activity and report back to Father but as hard as I tried, my letters to him contained nothing of interest. No one acted suspiciously or voiced any bad feelings towards his Majesty; except Paibakhamana but as a lowly pantry boy, he wasn't even allowed near the Pharaoh's food.
But everyone had a reason to at least disagree with him. The spurned and mourning Great Royal Wife, bored Lady Iset, any discarded concubine, Queen Tiye and Prince Pentaweret whose fortunes would die with the Pharaoh, the pious Princess Tentopet. Even the Crown Prince, constantly compared to his charismatic brother, walking behind his elderly father.
There were so many people who could pass messages to the outside world that it was difficult to make a concise list of names. I toyed with the thought of reading the ladies' personal letters since their rooms were not locked but I squirmed at the idea – and of the thought of getting caught. Whoever was involved in any plot was staying quiet and still for the moment.
One night Bee brought another shipment of cosmetics from Father up to my room. It was as exciting as opening a gift - a box full of beautiful things. There were a mixture of new perfumed oils (I made a mental note to pass these to Queen Tiye), some new bright lip colours for Lady Iset and some traditional Udju eye paste for Queen Tyti. I was hoping for some word from Father, maybe a letter to say he'd received my messages and that I was doing what he expected me to do, but there was nothing. There was however a letter from Min.
Things are tough here; the tomb workers are striking again and this time they broke into the overseer's house. People are scared to go out at night. Some won't even open their shops in daylight now. The temples are filling up with offerings to the gods from desperate people; there are bouquets of flowers and jars full of grain, even though no one can afford it. I was mugged last night; they stole my leather bag and broke my arm. I would take time off work but with so many others striking I need to be there.
I think about you every day. You seem to be everywhere I go - on the street, on our hill. I hate walking past your darkened house now because I know you aren't there. It feels like you won't be coming back. Do you know if you will be? I can come and get you in Thebes if you like. I have always wanted to see the city. Please write to me soon; I feel ridiculous to say it but I feel so happy when I see the city messengers walking down the street.
I put his letter carefully in my personal box.
"What does your Father say, my lady?" asked Bee.
"It's not from him. It's from an old friend back home."
"Oh. How nice of him to write to you."
I shrugged. "It's sweet but Min's making a mistake. I just happened to have left home when things started to get difficult for him."
"Ah. And he associates you with the good times."
I flicked my eyes to Bee. She was only a young thing but I bet she sees more than most adults.
"Maybe. Maybe that's all it is. But now that I've seen men like the Pharaoh and Pentaweret, a letter is not going to impress me. If Min wants to prove himself then he needs to be more creative."
"I don't know do I. That's up to him," I turned to get ready for bed. "It serves him right for kissing me like that on our hill," I murmured.