The Migdol Gate
Migdol Gate, Medinet Habu
I slipped quickly into the harem palace life; besides my cosmetic duties I had a lot of time to watch the harem ladies to see how they whiled away their days. Lady Tyti knew everybody's business and was very popular with the harem children, playing hide and seek with them, challenging them to board games and marbles. They had a boat racing contest on the garden lake one afternoon which even Queen Iset came out to watch. One girl was so upset when her little papyrus boat sank as soon as it touched the water that Prince Pentawere took off one of his rich leather sandals and tied a bit of linen to it like a flag and she raced that instead. She lost of course but he was her hero for the day.
Queen Tiye played with her cat Bastet most days and enjoyed reading and writing plays. My favourite play of hers was one based on a religious text, whereby Osiris was unsure which of his young sons should succeed him; the debauched and slow god Seth or Horus who cried when he was beaten? He called on my Lady Hathor to help him choose, to which her answer was simply to strip off her clothes to show how little she cared. We acted out the play one morning, with Lotus playing the part of Hathor and Pentawere acting the part of Osiris. I was the cosmetics artist for the play and I had fun painting on exaggerated makeup and making the ladies laugh.
These activities could only take up so much of the day, and so much of the conversation. Often the harem inhabitants gossiped about those who were not present, or of the political snippets they got from the world outside. We looked forward to the days His Majesty would arrive for supper, as there would maybe be dancing, a play, a game of charades and other harem outsiders we could talk to. We never knew when the King would attend as sometimes he would promise to come but would then be called away by the court at the least minute. Sometimes he would arrive out of the blue and everyone would be pleasantly surprised. Because of this uncertainty, I had to do make up for Queen Iset, Queen Tiye and Lady Tyti every day in case the King arrived. Their hearts never seemed in it however, unless he was actually announced and they would look round for me to dot their lips and blush their cheeks in quick, discrete movements. I took to wearing a special sash where I could hide some essentials for them without having to lug my case around, which did put the end to my open gown habit unfortunately.
Femi and Lotus had fast become the King's favourites. After the Banquet he would visit nearly every night; sometimes to have dinner with us and disappear to his bed chamber with them, or he would arrive at secret at night when we were all in bed. I watched him arrive one night in a dark cloak and hurry across the deserted chamber to visit them at night. No one mentioned their rise in favour and they kept themselves to themselves. We had learned that they were sisters from Nubia but they seemed unwilling to mix with the rest of the harem ladies. It was my opinion that this annoyed the women more than the fact they were favourites. Being young, beautiful and arrogant did not help matters.
I looked forward to the King's visits as you never knew who would accompany him. Prince Rameses would sometimes attend especially if Princess Tentopet was with us at the time and not in the Divine Adoratice Chapel. He was a quiet and studious man, not prone to loud laughter although his smile was completely infectious as he had beautiful straight white teeth. He was very quiet, and I wondered if he was chronically shy around others, although he was taken increasingly more responsibility in the kingdom so I heard, even granting new offices to well-deserved patrons, and sitting at his Father's right hand. He was even starting to look like his father, with a slightly over zealous appetite and a growing belly. Prince Pentawere lived in the harem itself, but was of course free to journey to the other parts of the palace if he was required in the military courts or at his father's side. He was always splendidly dressed; he always wore the whitest tunics, the most polished gold and lapis lazuli necklets and belts. He was every inch a prince; I noticed that Princes Rameses did not take to sitting next to his younger brother, or talk much with him.
I did start to talk to the harem men once I had gained the trust of the women; it would never do to be friendly with the men first if this place belonged to the women. I felt much better about harem life talking to them and felt less judgemental towards Lady Tyti whom I had always thought was a bit disrespectful in terms of how many men she flirted with in the palace. Her favourite butler was Henutenamon, the man who was always to be found at her side when she was lounging in the garden. I half thought he was in love with her it was quite sweet to watch them together. It was always a bit funny when she lost complete interest in him at a seconds notice, and his face would droop as she'd turn to someone else in the group to talk to.
The tall and muscular standard bearer Kara was also a regular at the palace, albeit stationed in different places depending on his shifts. He was my favourite; rather like a cheeky uncle and he always spared a moment to wink at me, to make fun of me or to tell me to come sit with him and the other men and maids once the ladies had retired to bed. I began to look forward to our senet games in the moonlight – he would call in the maids he was friendly with and harem scribes to join us – the Libyan man Yenini and the old Egyptian Mai. They would draw us funny characters in chalk on the flagstones before rubbing them out, telling us to hush our laughter before the whole palace woke up. I was lucky that to be a Royal Ornament 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 that tidied their chambers and swept the floors saw me as an assistant rather than a lady. They were more open to gossip about the women then the men were.
"If Queen Tiye was an animal I'd say she'd be a cat!" said Bee cheekily. "She's got soft paws and beautiful fur, but if you cross her when she's angry she'll take a swipe!"
"What about Queen Iset?"
"A falcon! Serious, unyielding, weighed down in tradition."
"What about Lady Beset?" I asked.
"A puppy who has had its tail trodden on and her bowl taken away."
Everybody sniggered. "That's a little unfair; the woman had dreams which have now burned to dust – can any of you say that you have 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."
nSometimes I tried talking to Kara about the riots outside to try and get some snippets of information to report.
"I don't blame them for striking to be honest," he told me. "My brother and his wife had to shut their shop as they could no longer afford the expense and the taxes. 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 occupation soon."
"Do you ever feel . . . angry towards the government for putting you in this position?"
"No, these things happen from time to time," Kara said wisely. "The king and government do the best they can but it they need to pay an army to defend our borders. What else can they do; let our enemies wash over the borders? No, better to stay Egyptian and poor than to server foreigners who want to drain us dry."
"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.
"Who says that?" he asked me sharply.
"No one," I replied hurriedly. "I can just imagine some uneducated farmers in villages saying such a thing."
I was careful not to bring up the subject with Kara again; I needed his friendship. But I was no closer to telling Father anything useful; I bet he knew more being on the outside than I did being on the inside. How could things trundle along like this? We were at the centre of a kingdom that was complaining and striking outside; how could we all face the same routine, day in and day out?
I visited Lady Beset one morning. We had not seen her or her daughter in a week or so and Queen Iset requested that I go and see if they were all right.
Lady Beset had her chambers on the second floor of the Migdol Gate at the end of the corridor. Princess Tentopet had told me that she had 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 had 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, reading from some papyrus leaves. Her baby daughter played on the floor with painted blocks.
"Good morning Lady Beset," I said in a chirpy manner. "I haven't seen you in so long, I have missed your company!"
She simply raised an eyebrow at me. I handed her the small gift I had brought her; a mirror surrounded by Hathor's cow horns. Not as beautiful as my own of course but I had hoped it was a thoughtful gift. She took it from me slowly and a sad smile crossed her face.
"How are you?" I asked softly.
"Not good Amunet, I am not good."
I sat on the vacant chair before her and leaned forward to listen to her.
"It is only a matter of time now Amunet before the end."
"The end? Are you sick? Please, let the Queen send for a physician or a priestess and we can make you well again. It just does not do to give up hope."
"I am not sick Amunet but I am broken hearted. It is 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 am to be cast out I would rather it is done in private."
"Gaurob . . .?"
"The King has numerous harems dotted around the country but the only real one is her with their Majesties. But you have seen how many people he keeps here; he cannot keep all of us wives and mistresses, and our children and staff. When he tires of a concubine, or the woman is an old aunt or niece or daughter he's not close to, he sends them away to another harem. He sends low ranking children away too, or barren wives or foreign women who cannot speak Egyptian. Out of sight and out of mind."
"Is Gaurob far away?"
"It is near the marshy hunting ground of the court, but the King never goes there. It is a house of spinsters, making the royal clothes every day until they die unmourned. That is where I will be sent. I just know it."
I felt a stab of sadness for her. "You don't know that," I said gently. "I don't know the King that well, but even I have seen that his mind is changeable. He will be bored of Femi and Lotus after they become the norm."
Lady Beset shook her head and smiled slightly.
"No, I am not worried about them. Other women have come and gone but he has not 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 did not talk to the other women, in my arrogance I thought I didn't need them – women that the King has loved for years and years! I cannot even blame another women for my fall; it is all my 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 even begin to imagine what you have been through. But even if the worst should happen and he sends you away, you would 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."
I must have said the wrong thing as Lady beset straightened up in her chair.
"I can manage Amunet. I have gotten this far – I will push forward now. Thank you for visiting me."
I headed back down to the courtyard where Queen Tiye was holding her usual court. There were a group of musicians playing a jaunty tune, young women bathing their feet in the water of tying flowers into each other's hair, and butlers laughing and offering drinks. I did not want to tell this sunny group about the other woman's misery; she had told me something personal, and it was not as if they couldn't guess already.
"She's unwell; not an affliction or anything serious but I think she needs her rest in a quiet room."
"A likely story!" said Tiye, her eyes flashing. "I will wager the coronet I'm wearing that she's up there worrying about Gaurob!"
Queen Tiye could see through lies. Sometimes I felt uneasy talking to her as if she could see through my outward appearance and deep into my thoughts. Of course she was not going to accept my feeble cover story.
"No need to wager anything," I said. "I'll admit that is what she said. She knows the humiliation is coming and she wants it to be private when they tell her."
"What a defeatist attitude," said Lady Tyti. "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. However 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 Tyti.
"Of course I wouldn't. Nobody is higher than the Queen of Egypt and those that think they are should suffer the consequences."
She stroked Bastest on her lap lovingly as she spoke.
"Ah my son! How was court today?"
I turned to see Prince Pentawere strolling across the garden towards us, the sword at his belt glinting in the sun.
"Court was interesting my lady mother," he replied, picking up a cool beer from Henutenamon'stray. "They were evaluating the new tax law the government passed in early Peret."
"Oh? What was their verdict?"
"Unfortunately they have decided to keep it," Pentawere said, shaking his head. "I had hoped that Pharaoh would listen to local nomarch government representatives as to the hardships the law is inflicting on the country but he seems to be following in his father's footsteps. He is pouring half the tax money into the priesthood without making any attempt to gain something in return. Of course, the Amun priesthood supports him unwaveringly so any opposition to the law were silenced quickly."
"My son is there nothing you can do to make them see sense?"
"I have tried lady mother I have tried. The Pharaoh is adamant he is following the correct path, and Prince Rameses of course supports him. They will not listen to me in financial matters."
"Seems to me that this is not a financial matter, but a matter of national security as well."
Everyone turned to look at me as I spoke; I could not believe the words were coming out of my mouth. I had become so comfortable in Queen Tiye's presence that I had quite forgotten myself. Tiye tipped her beer cup to her lips and smiled over the rim; others raised their eyebrows in surprise, including Prince Pentawere. "National security?" he repeated.
"Well . . . it is 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 and the rioting and demonstrations will just become worse. It could even put the Pharaoh's seat in jeopardy. Surely the safety and strength of the Pharaoh is the top priority?"
Prince Pentawere banged his fist on his chair arm.
"Yes Amunet! Exactly! I could not have stated it better myself!"
I flushed with pride.
"This is something that Father just cannot see," Pentawere continued. "He remembers the glorious years where all of Egypt had a common enemy. But now that those enemies have been vanquished, he is unable to accept that his new opponents could be his own people."
"Son, keep your voice down. . ."
"I speak out of love for the King! If he does not take care then I will have to do it for him."
He turned to me and touched my arm. "Amunet, if I was to become King 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. He was charming and rebellious; unlike any other man I had met.
"Amunet I think I'd like to try something different today," Queen Tiye said lightly. "What colours have you got that would complement my cheekbones?"
Great Queen Iset called me to her chamber to mix a fresh batch of my anti-wrinkle cream late that night so I missed eating dinner with Queen Tiye and the others. When I emerged from the chambers the harem courtyard was silent and still, although I saw a faint light coming from one of the servants' back stair cases and hoped they would still be eating. I headed down the stone steps to the windowless chamber and sure enough I heard the buzz of the maids and butlers talking and laughing. The group was dotted around the warm and dimly lit chamber in a relaxed manner, and beer jugs and half eaten bread rolls littered the rough stone table top.
Kara raised his jug to me in a mock salute. "Amunet it is not like you to spend your time with us lowly servants!" The maids giggled.
"Well when you pay 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 still delicious.
He clapped me on the shoulder and I sat down at his side to nibble some bread. I always enjoyed the bread from the royal bakeries more than the bread at home - there was a lot less grit in the dough.
"Amunet we were just talking about the workmen due in the building," Peynok said. "They are due to start work in the next few days."
"Oh what work are they doing?"
"Repair work mostly. Fix chipped stonework, replace old furniture, develop supplies etc. They will be accompanied by soldiers for security but nothing to be alarmed about."
"It will be nice to have more men around this place!" chuckled one of Princess Tentopet's maids.
"I want no inappropriate behaviour with these workmen," said Peynok sternly. "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 . ."
Suddenly everyone went quiet; Lotus and Femi were standing in the doorway. I watched Kara and Henutenamon's eyes drift up and down their bodies and for a small second I felt sorry for them. A very small second.
"Forgive us but we had missed dinner with their Majesties; we were hoping that we could join you?" Femi said sweetly.
"That would be a first. . ." someone muttered.
"Of course Mistress Femi, Mistress Lotus," said Peynok politely. "Please take a seat. Bee pour them some beer."
The dancers sat opposite myself and Kara. As general conversation filled the chamber again they sat in an uncomfortable silence; it was going to be up to me to make conversation.
"So ladies; Prince Pentawere said that you met him whilst he was defending the Nubian borders?"
"Yes that is true," said Femi. "He helped us to repair some damage to our house when our village was caught in the middle of a raid."
"Are you Egyptian?" Kara 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 t."
Femi was the one to speak next.
"Our brother works in Thebes as a market seller," she volunteered. "It makes me happy thinking that he is just on the other side of these walls."
"Do you wish you could go and see him?" I asked.
"No," said Femi shortly. "My sister and I have everything we could ever want here. We are favourites of the Pharaoh himself; we have the finest clothes, the most expensive perfumes, our own maids and chambers. Why would we want to go back outside?"
"Well enjoy while you can because it will not last," said Yenni, one of the harem scribes. "I've lost count how many papyri and paintings I have had to dedicate to one lady favourite or another."
"I don't think he would tire of us," said Femi.
"Why are you so sure? The Pharaoh has been on the throne for 30 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 focussed her eyes on the table.
"Because we do things that he could never have imagined."
"Well that's quite a claim," said Kara, taking a sip of beer.
"It is the truth! His Majesty is a very experienced man now, so he needs young and beautiful women like us to show him new things. . ."
She leaned forward to whisper the most explicit things that I had ever heard. Kara threw back his head and roared with laughter and I became conscious that my jaw was hanging open unattractively. I had never even thought about the things these sisters had done; it was sordid and deeply unpleasant. I glanced at Peynok to see if he had heard since he would surely disapprove of the royal mistresses telling the servants about the Pharaoh's bedroom fantasies. Femi looked satisfied with herself as she sat back.
"Nothing can unseat us now," Femi said.
"That's what Lady Beset thought," I said. "And look what has happened to her. The King used to come to the harem palace 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 asked.
"Yes I dare," I said sharply. "There is no point in you two . . . working as hard as you do to get to where you are and then throw it all away on being 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 Amunet," Yenni sniggered.
"Thank you for the advice Amunet but we can take care of ourselves," said Femi.
"I'm sure," I replied sweetly. Lotus's eyes flicked up to mine and she gave me a weak smile.
"I suppose I'd better get your likeness then," Yenni said. "He'll be asking me to devote love poems and songs to you soon; I won't have time to do the harem expenditure."
"How long have you been a scribe?" I asked.
"Since I was a young lad," said Yenni. My Father moved from Libya to Memphis to learn the craft and naturally I followed in his footsteps. I enjoy it which is a blessing; there are not many occupations that are also enjoyable!"
"Mine is quite enjoyable," I said.
"Mine too," said Kara. "I stand around and look menacing and I get paid for it."
We all laughed and I started to feel more sociable.
"Are your family still in Libya, Yenni? 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 obviously but I have festival days off and I go home then. I do miss them, but I do send home little picture books for the children which my wife says they love."
"That's a lovely gift," smiled Tentopet's maid. "I wish I could read and write, it looks so relaxing."
"It is hard work," said Yenni. "And expensive; I go through so many pots of ink!"
I remembered Min's ink stained hands and thought of him down in the darkened tombs, painting pictures that only the dead could see.
"I've got some brothers living in Thebes," said Kara. "They run a tavern on the east side. If I get any time off I'm down that tavern; best beer in Egypt!"
"It's so sad, I don't have any family in Thebes," said Bee sadly.
"Yes but we are your family now," said Tentopet's maid, putting her arm around the girls shoulders and squeezing her.
"Well said," said Kara. "So what about you Amunet? Husband and children on the outside?"
"No I am a businesswoman. I have no time for those things at the moment."
Beset is worried she'll be banished from the harem as she has fallen in the Kings favour. She could be harbouring a grudge against the King but she seems to accept that it is her own fault for getting into the situation. Lady Tyti continues to complain about harem life and how bored she is. Princess Tentopet can move in and out of the harem freely and I have seen her carrying rolls of papyri out the front doors on more than one occasion. The Great Queen Iset keeps to her own chambers; I don't know what she must do in there as it is so hot and stuffy. There are two new favourites to the King – Femi and Lotus are Nubian dancers and he spends all his time with them. They have a brother who works outside of the harem, but I do not think they are involved in anything; they are such newcomers to this place.
Queen Tiye is always surrounded by courtiers but since she is the Chief Royal Wife out in daylight and a most engaging woman, it is not out of the ordinary for others to gravitate towards her. Prince Pentawere is the most intriguing man. The Heir Apparent Prince Rameses is quiet and thoughtful; he doesn't say much when he is here but he watches everyone through beady eyes. I have made friends with the harem servants as you instructed; Kara the Standard Bearer makes me laugh, Henutenamon is one of the butlers, and I fancy half in love with Lady Tyti, and Peynok the Harem Overseer is of course free to come and go as he wishes. There are two main scribes; Mai and a Libyan called Yenni who are top of their field in writing and
One morning I was combing Queen Iset's hair in long soft strokes whilst she stared into her mirror. Princess Tentopet lounged in her usual spot in the shadows and unusually, Prince Rameses was present. He sat stiffly in his chair looking through reels of papyri although he had cast aside his royal crown to reveal his shiny bald head and serious expression.
"The Temple's builders have said it would take them until the end of Shemu just to source the stone from the quarries," he said. "I was hoping we would have completed the work before the Opet Festival but it looks as if there will be scaffolding and the like around during the ceremonies."
"Can we not wait until after the festival?" Queen Iset asked. "So many people come to see us I wouldn't want their views clouded by ugly scaffolding."
"No mother, Khonsu cannot be kept waiting on account of our vanity."
"I suppose so; it reminds me that I need to organise my costume for this year actually."
"Will you stay for dinner tonight my husband?" asked Princess Tentopet.
"I'm afraid not. The Overseer of the Southern Treasury has come to Thebes to discuss the building works; Father is
We all silently noted that the Pharaoh would not be visiting the harem palace tonight. In the conversation pause, we could hear angrily raised voices coming from the courtyard, and heavy footsteps from all over the building thudding towards the commotion. My eyes flicked to Queen Iset.
"Yes Amunet we should go and see," she said. "Why they think it is appropriate to behave like this in His Majesties house . . ."
She swept to her open chamber doorway with Princess Tentopet and I following close behind her.
Lady Beset was howling like a strangled dog, on her knees in front of Overseer Peynok who stood stiffly and unmoving before her. The tears where streaming down her face in sticky black globules and dust coated her knees. Her small daughter sat on a small wooden chest next to her wailing like her mother although I suspect she did not know why, being so young. I knew Beset's nightmare was coming true; she was being sent away and she had received the order in front of the entire court. Queen Tiye and Lady Tyti sat unmoving in their chairs behind the awful scene and neither were smiling.
Beset took rapid uneven gasps of air. "Please Peynok! Did his Majesty not send any other words? Surely he would come and tell his daughter himself?"
"I am sorry madam but this is the King's wish . . ."
Queen Iset strode through the throng of people who had come to stare and a hush descended. "What is going on here?"
Overseer Peynok bowed reverently before her. "His most Gracious Majesty has requested that Lady Beset and her daughter prepare to be moved to the Gaurob Harem at once, for there is limited room in this palace."
"Why is it me to who is to be sent away?" Lady Beset sobbed. "To grow old and die forgotten? It is to make room for them, I know it is!"
She pointed directly at Femi and Lotus who stood watching with everyone else. Lotus flinched as Beset pointed, whilst Femi raised her chin a little.
"I will not go! How can he send away his mistress and daughter without saying goodbye? This is a conspiracy – he would have at least come to tell me himself that we were being sent away. I will not go. You'll have to call the guards to drag me down those steps."
"Really madam," Queen Iset said. "Did you not foresee this outcome when you became His Majesties favourite? The Gaurob Harem is a beautiful place where you and your daughter will be cared for, for the rest of your lives. How can you be so ungrateful as to turn your nose at that?"
"But this is our home," Beset wailed. "I have always worked and lived here, I don't belong anywhere else."
"The King's word is the word of the Gods," Queen Iset said. "If he says you no longer belong here then you must leave. How dare you make such a scene; do you have no dignity?"
Queen Tiye raised an eyebrow and Peynok stepped towards Queen Iset, staring at his own feet.
"My gracious lady, the woman is clearly upset. . ."
"Peynok! I order you to take Lady Beset's chest to the boat waiting down river. Lady Beset – I truly wish you the best of luck and I sympathise with your situation. But please make no more exhibition of yourself in His Majesties House."
Peynok immediately obeyed and Lady Beset let out a long wail.
"Queen Tiye, my Lady Tyti; will you not help me?" Beset cried.
Lady Tyti did not move at the sound of her name; she continued to stare at Beset without any obvious emotion on her face. Queen Tiye shook her head.
"Lady Beset; you must obey the Pharaoh's wishes. There is nothing you or anyone else can do."
Lady Beset opened her mouth as if she would argue and then closed it again. It was a pitiable scene as she slowly got to her feet breathing heavily. I put both my hands to cover my eyes but could not help peering through them; I wanted to say something to her, say anything that would make her feel better but there was nothing that came to my mind. Nothing would make Lady Beset happy at this moment.
Queen Iset turned her back sharply on the scene.
"Come Amunet, Tentopet."
She glided back across the courtyard, servants and harem ladies and children parting silently as she did.
"Don't you all have work to do?" Queen Iset asked.
There was a flurry of activity around us as we followed Queen Iset back into her chamber. She sat herself back down in front of her mirror and did not say a word. I pulled out my comb and resumed brushing her wig.
"That was most awkward," said Princess Tentopet.
"It was most unnecessary," Queen Iset retorted. "How could she make such a scene? It only proves she was not fit to be here and that His Majesty was right in ordering her away."
"Don't be too hard my Lady," I whispered. "The woman has lost her home and her dreams all in one day. I am not surprised she took it badly."
"Lady Beset has had great fortune to have the opportunities that she has had and she must have known they would come to an end one day. "It is far too hot in here," Queen Iset said crossly, fanning herself with her hand. Princess Tentopet picked up a large feathered fan and moved it gently behind the Queen.
"She perhaps did not want to address it," said Tentopet wisely. "Some people find it easier to carry on as they are, rather than face their fate."
"My Lady, I have always wondered. . . but thought it impudent to ask. ."
"What is it Amunet?"
"Well . . . I have often thought that when I marry I will be the one and only wife of my husband. But here in the harem there is one bull, and so many women and they all live together in harmony. How can that be? How did you feel when Beset rose in the Pharaoh's favour?"
"If you are asking whether I was personally jealous when Lady Beset captured my husband then the answer is no, I wasn't."
"No. Beset was the newest fashion; she was unspoilt and new. But I will always be the Great Royal Wife, and the future King's Mother. Nothing can unseat me; I am Mut on this earth and I know my path - it has been written and carried out by the greatest lady ancestors before me. The problem with Beset was she did not have a path in life - she wandered down the lane and changed direction if something caught her eye. Neither Lady Beset, Femi or Lotus, or any other woman will shake my duty to my husband; to support him in all that he does and to bear the next King of Egypt."
I nodded and continued to fix her hair. Tentopet fanned us both in graceful movements.
"You must not make the same mistake as Beset, Amunet," Queen Iset said. "You must have a calling in life and not just wander aimlessly in per suit of pleasure. What can be worse than lying on your deathbed and realising that you have never lived?"
I thought of what Lady Tyti had said about harem life; living the same day over and over again until you are not really living, but just passing time until death came for you.
"Some would argue that experiencing all the sights, sounds, sells and feelings in life is what makes it living."
"People who think that contribute nothing on this Earth. They are self-serving, pleasure seeking individuals who will be judged as such when their time comes."
"My Lady Mother how right you are," said Princess Tentopet. "We all must contribute something, no matter how small."
I stayed silent. Queen Iset was lucky she had her duties written down and many ancestral examples to follow. The rest of us had to make our own way and it was not for us to judge what anybody else's journey may be.
"Amunet I fancy the traditional kohl today."
Beset's departure seemed to herald the start of the Shemu season. It was drifting 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 could not remember being in a worse temper. I threw away my leather sandals so that I could feel the shaded stone on my burning feet and get some temporary relief. 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 could not sleep at night and I demanded that I have a jar of chilled almond milk in my chamber every night to cool me down.
The harem ladies didn't seem to mind the heat; the seemed to move about in refreshing breeze that only they seemed to be able to feel. They were interested in the abundance of fruits that the Shemu season brought, along with the fresh flowers and new perfumes that were sent in from Thebes and the surrounding countryside.
I'll admit it was not just the heat that made me uncomfortable. For months now I had walked the same passageways, sat in the same rooms and talked to the same people. My chamber, the garden and the Queen's private chambers were my home now and I was beginning to forget the opulence of my surroundings – what was the point of luxurious surroundings if you had nothing to compare it to? They just become ordinary. I found myself trying to find a patch of wall art that I had not seen before, maybe a story or a picture that I had missed on a wall or window sill somewhere. I once found a small, rather sweet wall inlay of Queen Tiye low down on a pillar; she was depicted naked except for a headdress holding out a rose to the King to smell. I pressed by fingers to the cool colourful stone and felt how smooth the carving was. I was sick of the same views outside the windows and columns of the palace; the same bit of sky, the same bit of earth, the same bit of horizon. On the bad days it felt like a cruel joke to view the horizon and the outside world yet have no way of reaching it. I began to long to feel the dry grass of home beneath my toes or an unheeded wind blowing my hair around my face.
My only break from this world was to find any treasonous activity and report back to Father but as hard as I tried, my letters to him contained nothing of interest. No one seemed to act suspiciously or seemed to bear any bad feelings towards his Majesty. There were so many people who could pass messages to the outside world that it was difficult to even make a concise list of names. I toyed with the thought of reading the ladies' personal letters in their chambers since the rooms were not locked but I squirmed at the idea – and of the thought of getting caught.
One night Bee brought another shipment of cosmetics from Father up to my room. It was as exciting as opening up a present - 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 Queen Tyti and some traditional Udju eye paste for Queen Iset. There was also a letter from Min.
Things are getting tough out 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 as it just feels that 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 in my letter box. Min was making a mistake; I happened to leave home just as things started to get difficult for everybody so he has just associated me with the good times. It servers him right for kissing me like that on our hill.