A.N. – Hello, everyone! I'm back! Sorry it's been a while, but maybe this chapter will help. Or maybe not, 'cause it's a little bit of a cliffhanger...oops.
This may just be the penultimate chapter (though there will be an epilogue, most likely), if all goes according to plan. I am just so thankful that you all continue to come back and read this, and your support over the years has been amazing. Thank-you.
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.
I swallow the lump of fear that has appeared in my throat, and pick myself up off the ground, slowly making my way to the front of the prison cell. If the guards have come early for us, or even if another prisoner has escaped and for some reason means to do Kamenwati and me harm instead of finding a way out, then I want to be ready. I flex my fingers, and to my pleasant surprise, the tell-tale warmth of my power comes to life, the first time I've been able to rouse it consciously.
The person has uttered no more sounds since - since what, he stubbed his toe? Hit a rock? - but I can hear breathing now, now that I know what to listen for. It's a steady breathing, an even in-out, in-out, so the person is not frightened - not an attempted escapee, then. I attempt to even my own breathing, and, in what I hope is a determined voice, I call out, "Who's there?"
There's a slight gasp, as if the intruder is startled at being caught. There's a long pause, and then a sigh.
"Very well," a young, female voice answers, "You, wait there." Then the person - the girl - runs off, no longer trying to hide her footsteps. I stand there in the cell, blinking in surprise, not just that it is a girl sneaking around the dungeons, but also by her words - what else can I do but wait?
Fortunately, I do not have to wait long; the girl's footsteps return quickly, and with them comes light; she carries a torch in her hand, similar to the ones that hang on the walls. Perhaps she took one down. I shield my face with my hand at the sudden glare, squinting to adjust my eyes. Once they've accustomed to the sudden brightness, I'm able to get a look at my visitor.
Around twelve or thirteen years old, she's not quite a girl anymore, I realize; her developing breasts, already rather big, reveal her to be on the edge of womanhood. She's slightly tall for her age, and clearly well-fed, maybe even over-fed, if there could be such a thing. Bright, curious brown eyes look out at me from a round face, and her black hair has been completely shaved except for a bunch on the right side of her head, which has been braided and twisted into a side-lock.
My eyes widen at that last detail; such a hairstyle, the lock of Heru, is reserved for the children of the king, to denote their connection to Heru and the Per-roh. Surely this girl can't be one of Per-roh's children? That would make her the Princess Hatshepsut, but if that is true, what is she doing down here, sneaking around in the dark and visiting prisoners? An uneasy feeling comes upon me. If Per-roh finds out his only daughter is here, will that add to his misguided vendetta against us? Will he accuse us of harming this child of his as well?
Just as I study the girl, she studies me, her eyes roaming over my face and body, head tilted quizzically to the side. She then glances over at Kamenwati, still (to my amazement) slumbering on the floor. Still uneasy about her presence here, I step in front of Kamenwati, blocking him from the girl's sight, trying to protect his well-deserved rest.
The girl notices this, and something in her eyes lights up, as if she's discovered something wonderful. But she returns her gaze to me and asks, tone curious,
"What is your name?
I shift on my feet, reluctant to answer. Names are powerful objects, tied to a person's very essence, and to give up that information, even one's simple, every day name, and to a stranger no less, can be very dangerous. Hoping this will not offend her, I respond, "Well, what is yours?"
She laughs then, delightedly, and I am relieved she is amused instead of angry, though I am confused as to why.
The girl grins at me then, teeth nearly straight and as healthy as I've ever seen - she must be a high-ranking noble's child, if not the princess herself.
"I apologize," she tells me. "I am not used to people not knowing who I am." She draws herself up a little, very important, and says, "I am the King's Daughter, Princess Hatshepsut, child of Per-roh Aakheperkare, may he live and endure like Re forever, and his Great Royal Wife, Ahmose, Hereditary Princess and Mistress of the Two Lands."
My eyes widen. So she is the princess. I hesitate, then lower myself to my knees, bowing my head and looking at the floor; the ground is hard and hurts my knees, but I will not rise until she tells me otherwise. Despite Per-roh's unjust pursuit of my friends and me, and my own half divine status, I am still a loyal citizen of Kemet, and a daughter of the royal family still deserves my fealty.
"Oh, please," the princess says in a soft voice, "there is no need for that. You may stand."
I do as she says, brushing the dirt off my knees, trying to, somehow, appear presentable, though after weeks traveling the desert in the same clothing, without washing myself, and having to rip apart my dress, I'm not sure why I even bother.
We stare at each other, until finally she prompts, "And your name?"
I can hardly refuse to tell her now, not only because of who she is, but it is only right that I respond in kind.
"My name is Auset," I begin. "Daughter of Neijiri and -" I break off, uncertain if I should say who my father is. Though I desperately want to proclaim my father's name, if for no other reason than to prove that I do have one, I fear the consequences of such an action. Boasting divine parentage without proof is akin to blasphemy, and with the Per-roh already viewing Kamenwati and me as rivals, I don't want him to become even more hostile. So I clear my throat and begin again,
"I am Auset, daughter of Neijiri and niece of Kahotep the scribe, children of Kawab the scribe and Meritamen of Zawty."
The princess nods, taking in my words. She has an intelligent look in her eyes. "Auset...like the goddess."
"Yes, like the goddess." It is not unusual to name children after the gods, but usually it's with a modifier or ending, such as my grandmother's name, Meritamen, "Beloved of Amun"; it is rarer for a child to be simply called after a deity.
For a while after that, the princess stares at me, tapping her fingers against her thigh. Finally, I dare to ask,
"If I may, Your Highness, but what...exactly...are you doing here?"
My question seems to bring her out of her thoughts. She blinks at me, then glances to both sides before leaning in conspiratorially, whispering,
"I wanted to talk to you before my father does. He says the two of you killed my brothers."
I straighten, ready to defend myself this time, and calmly, now that i know what the charges against us are.
"We have done not such thing," I tell her. "By Ma'at, by Re, by all the gods, I swear we are innocent."
Hatshepsut regards me carefully, then nods slowly, thinking, before giving another, more definitive, nod. "Alright. Alright, I have decided. I am going to put in a good word for you."
I pull back, startled. This child is just full of surprises, isn't she?
"I...I don't understand. What do you mean? And...and why?"
"I'll tell Father to be kind to you in the trial," the princess replies. She grins. "I'm his favorite, you see. He'll do what I ask."
Well, if the gods can't through to him maybe his daughter can, I reason. And another ally is always welcome. But something still doesn't seem right.
"But, why help us at all?" I ask again. "Is it only because you believe me, that we are innocent? That's certainly enough, of course, but...but Your Highness, you are the princess of Kemet, likely the future queen, and, as you say, your father's favorite. Why are you sneaking around the palace dungeons to talk to a couple prisoners?"
The princess' grin fades, and she stares at me, face unreadable. Finally she nods. "Yes," she says. "Yes, when my father passes from this life to become a living Wor-seer, my brother Djeutimose will become Per-roh, and the living Heru, and I will marry him and become the queen. And when he dies, he will become the living Wor-seer, and our son will be Per-roh and the living Heru, and so on.
"But I will not be anything but the queen. I will never be a living Heru or Wor-seer or Auset, I will not become one with the gods at death though I may be placed among them. Do you understand?"
Hatshepsut's eyes widen, and her voice becomes more animated. "But then I had a dream. I dreamed I was the Per-roh, the living Heru, sole ruler of Kemet. I brought a time of peace and prosperity to our land. Me. No Djeutimose, no son. Just me.
"And then I was a hawk, like Lord Heru, flying over the land, looking over my kingdom. I glanced down and saw a small group crossing the dessert, and when I swooped down to look at them..."
Hatshepsut blinks then, as if coming down from the wonders of her dream. Continuing in an almost nonchalant tone, she says, "Well, now that I've seen you, I know that you were the ones in my dream. You, and that man," she points to Kamenwati. "And there were two other women, and two children."
I draw back in surprise. "You...you saw us? In your dream?" Had the gods granted her this vision to aid us?
Father...Lord Sutekh...did one of you...?
No, not I, my father replies.
Wasn't me, says Sutekh.
I turn my attention back on the princess. "And? What else? What happened next in your dream?"
"The sun spoke to me," she answers. "Amun-Ra himself. He told me a great destiny awaited me, but if Ma'at was defiled with the blood that was both innocent and of the gods themselves, then it would set Kemet on a dark path, and chaos and death would soon follow, and the Throne of Heru would be no more."
I shudder, both at the image the words contain, and that they are so similar to the prophecy Sutekh told me, that the children of the gods would bring chaos, death, and woe to the Throne of Heru.
Hatshepsut comes closer, placing the hand that is not holding the torch on the bars; the fire's brightness, more intense due to the proximity, makes my eyes water for a moment, but I am grateful for the warmth, little though it is.
"I know I can make Kemet great," she says urgently. "If I'm only given a chance, that great destiny, that time of peace, I can bring it. So I promise you, Auset, daughter of Neijiri and niece of Kahotep of Zawty, that I will do everything in my power to make sure Father frees you. I won't let innocent, godly blood be spilled."
"Thank-you, my princess," I reply, in a soft voice. Her tone is earnest, and I believe she will indeed do everything she can to help.
The princess nods, then backs away. There's a beat of silence, and then she says, "I'll go now. You should rest before the trial, and I need to compose what I will say to Father."
I nod, and she turns away from me, carrying the torch with her. As before, the darkness comes upon us.
I go and lie down next to Kamenwati, arranging myself carefully, so I don't disturb him. Warmth radiates from him, a comfort in in this cold, damp prison. I take a deep breath, trying to calm myself, and soon fall, gratefully, into a sleep without dreams.
The painful screeching of metal upon metal is what wakes me, after what seems like only a few minutes; my eyes snap open and I jump up from the floor, panicked. Kamenwati is also up, body tense, standing between me and the cell door, where two new guards stand. One has his khopesh sword drawn, and I realize he must have drawn the blade across the prison bars.
"You're up now, good," the guard with the sword says. He is very tall, with bulging muscles and tanned skin; light from a new torch on the wall hides his face in shadow. His partner, who is as black as the soil after the Innudation, is the same height but with a smaller build. He holds a length of chain with manacles on it.
"It is time for you to see the Per-roh," the khopesh guard says. He motions with his head. "Come on, let's get going. You don't want to keep the king waiting."
Kamenwati turns to me. "Are you alright?" he asks. The bits of sand particles at our feet shift and slide, as if caught in a breeze, and he leans in and says quietly, "If you want, I'm still willing to bust us out of here. We can pick up Leah and Chaia and the girls, be out of here before the dust - or the sand - settles. Just say the word."
I laugh a little, but his tone and expression are serious. I shake my head and reach up to touch his face. "No...no, as much as I appreciate that offer. But, I don't want to live as a fugitive." Being on the run for even a week taught me that it wasn't want I wanted for myself and my future, even if I was with a man I cared for and friends to look after me; it certainly wasn't fair to my nieces, either. "No, I want to face Per-roh directly, once and for all, and make him see the truth. I want him to declare us innocent and let us go on with our lives."
Kamenwati nods, understanding. "Alright."
"Are you done?" the khopesh guard asks, sounding half annoyed and half amused.
Kamewnati turns back to him and shrugs. "If we must be," he says lightly. The sand stops moving, and he grabs my hand, entwining his fingers in mine; we step forward together.
The khopesh guard unlocks the door and opens it slowly, keeping a careful eye on us, sword leveled as we step out of our cell. The other guard comes over and snaps the manacles on our wrists. Kamenwati's expression sours, and I am no happier at having to wear the heavy metal again. At least the guard lets us keep holding hands.
The manacles guard steps away and begins walking down the hallway, in a direction we have yet to go; Khopesh gestures with his weapon, and we follow after Manacles. The way is lit by a row of torches along the way, giving a wonderful view of more mud-brick walls and dirt floors. The floor is cold, and occasionally I step on a pebble or bigger rock, but hardly even feel it; what is ahead of us is worth worrying over far more than a sore foot.
Be brave, my princess, my father tells me, voice tender. I am with you, daughter, always.
Yes, Father, I reply.
If this doesn't go well, many will pay for it, Sutekh promises. Starting with you, Bast. Don't think I've forgotten about you.
Shockingly, I don't care what you remember or forget, Sutekh, says Lady Bast, her voice as cold and cutting as a knife. I shiver involuntarily at having her in my head once more. I have done my duty to the throne; that is all that concerns me.
You'll care when I come and rip your throat out –
Hey now! Let's be positive, shall we? More encouragement, less threats of disembowelment, alright? interjects Lady Het-Heru.
Killjoy, Sutekh complains
My wife is the goddess of joy. How could she possibly kill it? wonders Lord Heru.
Sutekh ignores him. And besides, Het-Heru, I wasn't threatening to rip her guts out, it was her throat. If you're going to interrupt, at least pay attention first!
Bast sighs. See why I don't attend Tawaret's centennial family reunions? It always ends up like this.
I furrow my brow as the crowd of godly voices begins to make my head ache again. Then my father clears his throat - do the gods have throats, when they're inside my head? - and the deities' bickering fades away.
Is that better, Auset? asks my father.
Yes, Father, thank-you. I don't know how he made his fellow gods stop arguing, or perhaps he sent them away, or blocked me from hearing them; whatever he has done, I am grateful.
Eventually we arrive at a staircase, made of the same mud-brick as the rest of our surroundings. The guard in front, after taking down a torch from the wall, goes up the steps. It is too narrow for anyone but one person to go up at a time, and Kamenwati gestures for me to go up first, keeping himself between me and the guard at the back. As I follow the first guard up the steps, I feel Kamenwati's breath on the back of my neck as he whispers to me,
"As much as I like the idea of being in a dark space like this with you, this isn't quite how I would plan it."
I manage a smile. "Well, if we survive this, we can try out a few different plans. Hopefully with just you and me."
He sighs, sending a shiver through me, as he says, "That would be nice."
The guard in front takes a last step, before turning; the light from the torch illuminates the frown on his face. "This is not the time nor the place," he snaps. He moves backwards to let the rest of our party emerge. We're in a small antechamber, with a few pillars and a door.
The front guard points to the door. "Through there, Ma'at willing, is truth, and justice, and, if need be, your judgement. Do you understand what awaits you?"
I swallow. "Yes," I say softly.
Kamenwati eyes the door. "The Per-roh is there."
The guard nods. "Yes. When you enter, you will keep your head down, and then prostrate yourselves seven times as you approach the throne. At the last time, you will wait until His Majesty gives you leave to rise."
Kamenwati's hands curl into fists. "And if we don't?" he asks. Sand and other dirt particles begin swaying on the floor.
The guard's frown deepens, but before he can say anything, I rest a hand on Kamenwati's arm; our shackles clank together.
"It's alright," I tell him. "We're so close; let's see how it goes first." Turning to the guard, I repeat, "It's alright. You don't need to answer that."
He eyes us dubiously, but eventually nods. He places his torch on the wall next to the door and then pushes it open, arm muscles bulging as he does so. He steps through, and after a moment, I follow, Kamenwati right behind me.
As instructed, I keep my head down, staring at the floor. It is made of the same mud-brick as the inside tunnels and most houses in Kemet, but completely smooth, and white in color, most likely from limestone paint. It sparkles in a patch of early morning light that must be coming through a window or two to the east. On either side there are white stone pillars, carved with symbols of protection and words of praise for the gods and the royal family.
I begin the first of the seven bows, getting on my knees, lowering my head to the floor, and then pressing my body flat against the ground. I stay like that for a moment, then, hesitantly, rise and creep forward a couple inches. Nobody stops me or yells at me for disrespect, so it must be the correct amount of time. I lower myself for the second time, repeating my actions, and behind me I can hear Kamenwati slowly - reluctantly - doing the same. When I am on the ground for the seventh time, only a few feet from the throne, I wait there, holding my breath, body tense.
Then a deep voice says, "You may rise."
Kamenwati and I comply, picking ourselves off the ground and standing. At first I keep my head down as well, but, hesitantly, I decide to look up, past the gilded steps and the bottom of the jewel-encrusted throne, to finally see the god, the king, the man who has pursued us all this time.
This is my first view of the king, Son of Ra, Lord of the Two Lands, Per-roh Aakheperkare
He is wearing a white tunic, underneath a red shirt that stops above his bellybutton, and a red-and-white shendyt, a type of kilt or skirt. On his feet he has long white socks and gold-colored sandals that were no doubt made of leather. A red gem - probably a ruby - hangs from a long gold chain around his neck, reaching to his chest, while a handful of shorter gold necklaces encircle his neck. He clutches in his right hand a crook, and upon his head sits the nemes, a cloth headdress that covers the back of the king's neck and flairs out past the sides of his head; it is white in color, with a red uraeus - a stylized figurine of a rearing cobra - attached to it by a red-and-white striped seshed, or metal band.
Per-roh's face is well proportioned, with a straight nose and full lips. His eyes, rimmed in black kohl, are a brown so dark they appear black. His gaze is hard, searching, and I shiver at the intensity of it. My heart thumps painfully against my chest.
This is it, I realize. No matter how this turns out, there is nowhere else for us to go now.
The end of our journey... has finally begun.
A.N. – I told you it was kinda cliffhanger-y, didn't I?
I'm really happy I've reached this chapter in the story, because I've had the Hatshepsut-talk scene in mind for a looong time; despite the few, rather major, changes this story has undergone in development, that scene, or at least parts of it, has always been a part of Auset's story. So I'd love to hear what you think about it.
A little ancient Egyptian clothng history – the nemes, uraeus, and seshed that Per-roh wears are all pretty much as I described them. I doubt the kings of Egypt wore these all the time, and I actually couldn't find what their "casual wear" would be, but I figured that an important trial like this in front of his court would require the full regalia.
Hatshepsut – daughter of Thutmose I and his Great Royal Wife Ahmose, and the only daughter of his to survive to adulthood. She eventually married her half-brother Thutmose II after the deaths of the first two crown princes. They had a daughter together, Neferure, and Thutmose had a son with a lesser wife, Thutmose III. Thutmose II died while his son was a toddler, and so Hatshepsut became his regent. She eventually assumed full power and declared herself Pharoah, even wearing masculine dress and the fake beard. She also claimed to be the daughter of Amun-Re to further cement her claim to the throne. Unlike her father's and stepson's reigns, which involved a lot of wars and conquests, Hatshepsut focused on Egypt's domestic issues, and ordered a lot of building projects, ushering in a time of relative peace and stability.