A.N. – Hey, everyone, I'm alive! I'm SO sorry this has taken me so long, but have no fear, I will keep working on this! College is kinda tough right now, but maybe with NaNoWriMo around the corner, it'll give me the right inspiration.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy!
"Per-roh has accused you of using magic to bring death and great woe to his house. Tomorrow, you stand trial for the murder of the king's son, Prince-General Amenmose of Kemet."
The words echo in my mind, clear as a bell, yet I still can't make sense of them. Murder the prince? The king's own son!
"What would ever make you believe that?" I cry, dumbfounded. "Wh-why?"
The burned guard looks down at the ground for a moment, then looks back up at us. "So the king says, so must it be," he answers in a monotone, shrugging.
"Well, that's just –" I stop myself before I add an actual act of blasphemy on top of these false charges. Swallowing, I ask instead, "What possible reason could we have for bringing harm to the prince?"
Amosis shrugs. "Why should I know? As far as I'm concerned, demons have no reason for the destruction they cause."
Demons? They think we're demons? Fear fades away for a moment, and my bewilderment turns to anger. "That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard," I hiss, grabbing the bars that stand between us and the guards. "It's – it's unbelievable! Preposterous! Just...plain crazy!"
"Auset –" Kamenwati warns, just when I start to feel the burning warmth in my hands. I look down to see that the two metal bars I've grabbed are glowing red. I snatch my hands away, frustrated at my lack of control. The guard with the burn mark looks between the bars and me, then clears his throat a bit.
"You could be a magician," he grants, surprising me. "I've seen men wield fire in their hands before. But magic used in anger, used for evil – still seems rather demonic, don't you think?"
I stare at him in response, unsure what to say; Kamenwati is equally silent. It's relieving to hear Per-roh, or his court at least, could come up with another explanation for our powers that doesn't involve being demons. But that still doesn't prove that we didn't use them to harm the prince, and if Per-roh is so convinced of that, I doubt any words from me will change his mind, no matter what Leah saw.
The guards apparently take our silence as their cue to finally leave. Amosis shakes the bars a bit (staying clear of the still faintly glowing ones), as if making sure they are secure. With a satisfied nod, he turns to leave. "Have a good night you two," he says, heading out the door with his torch. "Come, on Iritis."
The burned guard, Iritis, gives us one last glance before following, his steady footsteps soon fading as he catches up with his partner. With them gone, we are given unto darkness.
I slump forward, resting my forehead against the bars of the cell. I can still feel some residual heat from the bars I grabbed, but they are cooling, and it's not an uncomfortable feeling.
"I've made it worse, haven't I," I moan. "I didn't think it could get any worse, but I've gone and done it!"
Kamenwati puts his hands on my shoulders and gently pulls me away from the bars. "No, no. I doubt there's anything you could have done to make this situation worse." He pauses, then says, "I can't believe that that's the reason we're here, though. I didn't even know the prince was dead. Amenmose, I mean."
"I didn't know either," I agree, leaning back against his chest.
Per-roh Aakheperkare had six children, four sons and two daughters. The youngest, Princess Nefrubity, died a year after she was born, and the second eldest prince, Wadjimose, died some years ago from an illness that spread across the kingdom and even into the royal palace. Now, with the apparent death of Crown Prince Amenmose, the Great Overseer of Troops, Per-roh has only three remaining children: the Princess Hatshepsut, daughter of the Great Royal Wife Ahmose, and two sons, Djetumose and Ramose, with another wife, Lady Mutnofret.
"I wonder how he died," Kamenwati muses, voicing one of my own thoughts. "It must have been very sudden, indeed, for the Per-roh to suspect demons."
"And recent," I add, "if we haven't heard about it."
It takes some time for royal messengers to deliver news across the kingdom, but something as important as the death of a royal prince would have been top priority and sent out to all the cities and towns immediately.
Oh, yes, it was sudden indeed, Lady Het-Heru answers with a sigh. A hunting accident, if you can believe it! A mishap with his chariot! Oh, that poor boy. I admit, I was surprised when he died – I had foretold a long and happy life for him! His brother Wadjimose, too.
Before I can even think of a reply, my father asks in response, his tone thoughtful, Did you tell what you had seen to Per-roh?
Of course! Het-Heru sounds offended at the idea that she hadn't done her duty.
Then maybe, Sutekh says in a tone that is somehow grim and musing at the same time, that is why Per-roh believes someone murdered them. Why he refuses to accept reality and looks for someone to blame.
That's hardly sound logic, Lord Djehuti protests. Then there's a pause, and the god of knowledge admits, But, then, mortals are not always as logical as they wish to be, and grieving ones even less so.
I let the gods' voices fade into an incoherent murmur, not wanting to hear their theories right now. Perhaps I should, perhaps it would help me get through to Per-roh, but right now I can't bear to listen. Everything that has happened since Karga is beginning to take its toll, and all I want to do right now is rest.
I step away from Kamenwati and, my eyes mostly adjusted to the dark now, make my way over to the wall; putting my back to it, I sink down to the cold ground. This prison cell is by no means comfortable, but at least the wall provides a back rest.
Kamenwati comes over and sits down next to me, and we reach for each other's hands at the same time. We are quiet for a long time, just breathing, just being.
"Well, you know," Kamenwati says after a while, stroking my hand, "it could be worse. They could be torturing us for a confession."
A shiver goes down my spine at that thought. He says this casually, but it is no laughing matter; there is no quicker way to end a trial than a confession of guilt, and torture is often employed. I used to think, as many do, that such confessions were of course truthful - how could Ma'at abide it otherwise?
But having the great Per-roh against me, having Bast, a goddess herself, against me, for a crime that I have not committed makes me wonder if a tortured confession is any good at all.
A sudden thought comes to me, and I can't help the bubble of mirth that comes forth. "Well," I say, "I can't imagine they were any worse than Aunt Merit's punishments." I can't help myself and soon began laughing uncontrollably as an image of Aunt Merit storming into the dungeons and reprimanding a bewildered guard - "No, no, all wrong! I'll show you - this is how you beat a back!" - unfolds. My body shakes with laughter, and I lean forward to avoid hitting my head on the wall behind me.
I can feel Kamenwati watching me, and his voice is hesitant, as if not sure what will and will not upset me as he says, "Well...your aunt seems...almost as worse as my stepfathter."
My laughing fit winds down then, and only a few more chuckles escape before I can speak. "Well, no," I reply, "she's not...she's not that terrible. I mean...we've never gotten along, but...I know she cares about me, in her way."
Despite my joke, I know Aunt Merit is no torturer, and would certainly never do anything like that to me. Once, when I was eleven and earned her ire for something, she ordered a servant to discipline me, as happened many times before.
But that time, the switch drew blood, the first time that ever happened during a beating.
Immediately Aunt Merit stepped in, snatching the rod away and ushering me into the house to clean the wound. It wasn't deep or even very big, but she still fretted over me as if I opened a vein; once she was satisfied I was taken care of, she spent the next two hours yelling at the slave who'd done the beating.
"I'm sorry," she told me later that night, one of the few times she ever deigned to apologize to me. "I forget, dear. I forget how much you're like us. I didn't mean to go that far."
I shake my head, pulling myself out of the memory. What a strange thing to say, now that I think about it. "I wonder," I muse, "I wonder if...if Aunt Merit knew. Or suspected. Or maybe...maybe she just knew there was something different about me. That she could be rougher on me than her children."
"Doesn't mean she had to be," Kamenwati points out, voice harder than before. I begin making circles in his palm with my thumb, hoping to calm him.
"You're right," I agree. "But still. It's something to think about."
"Mmm. Yes, I...aaaah..." Kamenwati's words are swallowed by a deep yawn; surprised, I glance over at him, even though I can't see much in the dark.
"Are you tired? Oh, well, stupid question, of course you are," I say.
"No," Kamenwati refutes quickly, before yawning again. I giggle as he lets out a sigh. "Alright, maybe a little. I thought for sure all the adrenaline would keep me awake, but..."
"Well, it wasn't as if we were planning on escaping tonight," I point out. "And we're going to need all our strength to face...whatever comes tomorrow. So we really should get some sleep."
There's the sound of movement as Kamenwati shifts around. "Well," he says after a while, "I've slept in worse places."
That surprises me, though why anything about Kamenwati should still surprise me, I'm not sure. "Have you really?"
A pause, before he finally admits, "Well, maybe just as bad. It's debatable." Then he squeezes my hand. "But I've never had you beside me before, so that alone should make it a thousand times better."
I smile in the dark, hoping maybe he can see it. "Same for me," I say softly. I lean forward, trying to determine where his mouth is, and plant a kiss there. I'm a little high, landing on his upper lip, but he wastes no time in directing me to the right position. We hold the kiss for a little while, the heat of the moment and his body so close to mine chasing away the damp and cold.
Finally we break apart, and I start to lean backward. Kamenwati pulls my arm, however, bringing me close again.
"Here," he says, "lie on me. You can use my lap as a pillow."
"Oh, I can, huh? But what about you?"
"I told you, I've slept in bad places before. I'll be fine."
I hesitate for a moment, but then decide to give in and lay my head on his lap. My neck is still at an odd angle, but it's definitely better than placing my head on the stone floor or wall. "Thank-you," I murmur to Kamenwati. He doesn't respond, and after a while, as his breath deepens and slows, I realize he's fallen asleep.
Deciding to follow both his lead and my own advice, I close my eyes and drift to sleep.
The dreams come, or, more accurately, the dream visions. Colors swirl before my eyes, and then the image of a house comes into view. I frown as I look it over, thinking it seems familiar but...off, somehow.
I don't get a chance to think about it too much, because the scene shifts to inside the house, in the kitchen, where a man and woman sit, a baby on the man's lap; the woman's back is to me and the man is looking down at the baby, bouncing it on his knee, so I can't see either of their faces.
But then the man looks up, over at the woman - his wife? - and my eyes widen in shock. He's younger and thinner, but this is definitely my Uncle Kahotep staring back at me. It is confirmed when he asks, "Do you want to hold her, Merit?" in my uncle's voice.
"I'm fine," the woman, a younger Aunt Merit, then, replies, voice tight. Uncle Kahotep sighs and stops bouncing the child. Who is it, I wonder? Uncle Kahotep said "her", so it has to be either Hime or Kebi.
"Come now, my love, don't be like that," Uncle Kahotep says in a pleading tone. "You've hardly touched her since she came. What do you have against her? She's a child, a babe, for Ra's sake!"
"But whose child is the question," Aunt Merit answers, crossing her arms over her chest. "Why, she could be the child of a murderer, or a thief or vagabond or - or - a tomb robber!"
Uncle Kahotep's face hardens. "I know exactly whose child she is," he responds. "She is my sister's child, and needs a good home to take her in, and that is all I need to know."
"You aren't concerned about her heritage at all?" Aunt Merit presses. "You don't think we should...investigate more? By the gods, Kahotep, your sister died! And that...that... rat of a man just left her! What kind of blood do you think runs in her veins?"
Me. They're talking about me. That baby Uncle Kahotep is holding is me. I examine my baby self, looking into my own turquoise eyes. This younger version of myself is curiously looking around, and starting to squirm in Uncle Kahotep's grasp. My uncle glances down for a moment, as if deciding what to do, and in the end places me - her? - on the ground, where the baby begins crawling around.
"You think I don't think about that every day? How much I would love to know who her father is, so I can send him along to the afterlife and have Ammit eat his heart?" Uncle Kahotep shakes his head."But, Merit, my love, my sweetness..." He gets up and moves closer to Aunt Merit, reaching out and taking one of her hands in his. "You know how much I love you. I would never want to upset you, especially after a few months ago. But you're not going to move me on this. I am not going to abandon my niece. I hope you can come to accept that."
Aunt Merit is silent, which is startling to me. She always has an opinion. Uncle Kahotep sighs, and then looks down at Baby Me, who has found a ceramic pot to grab onto, standing on wobbly legs.
"I'm going to look over some of my work," my uncle tells his wife. "Just watch her for a little bit, alright? Make sure she doesn't get into trouble."
"I'm not your servant," Aunt Merit says stiffly, but doesn't seem too angry. "And I am a mother. I know how to look after a baby."
"Of course," Uncle Kahotep concedes, before rising and heading to his office, in the back of the house. I hold my breath as Aunt Merit stares at Baby Me, watching as she toddles around the room, finally stopping in front of Aunt Merit's chair and reaching her arms up.
A long staring contest ensues. The baby's wide turquoise eyes stare into Aunt Merit's dark brown ones, neither looking away.
Finally Aunt Merit makes a "Hmmph!" noise, and scoops the child up, placing her on her lap. "You'd best not get used to this," my aunt warns as my toddler self giggles, pleased with herself. "That pleading look isn't going to get you everything. I am going to be very tough on you, I'm warning you now."
Her words, which I know to be true, are hard, but still I can see it – a small uplift at the corner of her mouth, the beginning of a smile.
My aunt and uncle's house fades away then, until its's no more than a shimmer of heat in the air. Images pass by then in a blur – endless stretches of sand, the Sacred River rising and falling with the years, great monuments being built, some fading away as they become buried. The images finally slowly down and settle on a house, another that I recognize, and this time immediately – it is Kebi's new father-in-law's house, her husband Anu's childhood home.
I recover from my surprise quickly, realizing that this may be a chance to see what has become of my family in my absence. I eagerly focus my attention on the scene as it shifts from outside in the gardens where I first hid from Per-roh's guards to inside.
The guards are still present, some searching through the rooms of the house while others stand in front of my family – Aunt Merit and Uncle Kahotep, Kebi and Anu, and Anu's family – with stern looks on their faces. This must be just after I fled the garden at Kebi's insistence; they are all still dressed in their wedding finery from that night.
Uncle Kahotep is scowling at one of the guards. "For the last time, I'm telling you, this is ridiculous. My niece is a devoted, law-abiding citizen of Kemet! It's not possible that she's committed any crime!"
"All due respect, sir scribe," the guard answers, in an admittedly-respectful tone, "that's what everyone says. Surely my daughter, my son, my family member, can't do anything wrong. No one wants to believe the worst of those they love. But" he holds a finger up "you must let us do our job. The gods will protect her if she is innocent, but she must come with us to prove herself. Please don't make matters worse by hiding her." He pauses again, and then adds darkly, "Or you will be subject to interrogation as well."
The room grows even more tense at that, and I myself shiver, worried the guard will go through with his threat. Surely I wasn't shown this vision just to see my loved ones tortured?
Finally Aunt Merit stands up from her chair. She holds herself upright and looks the guard in the eye. "Well, good sir, no matter how foolishly loyal my family is to that girl, I for one will not let them take the punishment for it. Why they're so convinced she hasn't done something wrong I don't know. I haven't felt right about her since she first came into our home. I know she was destined for trouble the moment I saw her."
"Mother!" Baraka hisses, while hurt flashes across Uncle Kahotep's face. I swallow my own hurt; surely I should have expected this, but after just telling Kamenwati that my aunt wasn't so bad to me...
The guard looks pleased. Smiling, he says, "Very good, ma'am. Wise decision. Tell us where your niece is."
Aunt Merit is quiet for a moment, lips pressed into a thin line, before she finally nods. "My eldest daughter, Hime, is very close to Auset. It's likely she's fled there to hide. Search the northern district."
The guard nods. "The gods bless you, ma'am." He whistles, and his men converge in the dining room, ready for further orders. "Come on now, you lot! We're going to the northern district, we'll scour every bit of it!" The guards express their understanding, and file out of Anu's house. The head guard gives another respectful nod to my aunt, and then follows suit, leaving my family alone.
My relief that they haven't been harmed coincides with confusion as I stare at my aunt. Similar confusion appears on Kebi's as she jumps up and stares at her mother. "Mother," she says slowly, "you...you gave them the wrong information. H-Hime's house is in the southern district."
Aunt Merit rolls her eyes. "You think I don't know that, silly girl? Honestly, what kind of mother doesn't know where her own daughter lives?"
Realization hits us all at the same time. "You mean," Uncle Kahotep starts, "you were protecting Auset? Giving her time?"
"Something is truly wrong if anyone suspects that girl of any wrongdoing," Aunt Merit sniffs. "I'll admit, I've had my doubts before, and while she's stubborn, disobedient, and rubs me the wrong way, she's no criminal. And I don't care what that guard said. I would know."
Uncle Kahotep wraps his wife in an embrace and nuzzles his face into the crook of her neck. Baraka slumps into his chair, looking relieved, while Kebi grabs Anu's hand and smiles at him; he smiles back, albeit a bit cautiously. No doubt this isn't how he pictured his wedding day go –
I bolt upright, out of the dream, the memory. I look around, wondering what woke me. Kamenwati stirs a bit at my sudden movement, but otherwise remains asleep, breathing deep and even; he truly must be exhausted.
The sound of a pebble skittering across the stone floor draws me to the bars keeping us enclosed; was that what disturbed me? I try to calm my beating heart, telling myself it is just an animal, a rat maybe, making its way through the dark corridors. There's no light, after all, no torch held in a human hand. They aren't coming for us tonight.
I take a deep, calming breath, and start to settle down on Kamenwati's lap again, slowly, hoping not to disturb him. But then another rock scratches against the floor, and this time, a mild oath is heard – a low voice, said in a whisper, but still audible. My heart picks up again, urging me to flee or fight.
I was wrong. There is a human presence out there just outside our cage. Waiting. Lurking.
A.N. – Glossary:
Amosis - ancient Egyptian name meaning "born of Iah/Aah, Iah being a lesser-known moon deity, sometimes considered the adult form of Khonsu
Iritis – ancient Egyptian name, meaning unknown, held by the brother of a priest named Seneb