A.N. – Hello, everyone! The world is very different from the last time I updated, and I sincerely hope that you are all safe, sane, and healthy during this perilous time in our lives.
For my faithful readers, who have followed this story for many years, thank-you so much for your support and encouragement! I am beyond honored by it. And if you're a new reader whose recently discovered my story, then thank-you so much for stopping by!
I hope you enjoy!
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.
For a moment there is silence in the room, everyone waiting for the king to make the first move. Off to the side of Per-roh's throne are three smaller seats, each occupied, by Hatshepsut and two boys who must be her brothers, the princes Djehutymes and Ramose. I desperately want to look at the princess, to have at least one friendly face here, but I dare not glance away from my king.
Finally Per-roh speaks. "State your names."
I swallow, but just as I told Hatshepsut mere hours ago, I say, "I am Auset, daughter of Neijiri, daughter of Meritamen and Kawab the scribe of Zawty."
Kamenwati moves so he is beside me, and the movement gives me comfort. "I am Kamenwati, son of Shemeit of Zawty."
The king tilts his head slightly, regarding us. "Have neither of you fathers? Did your mothers bear you as virgins?"
To name our fathers would no doubt brand us liars or blasphemers. I think for a moment, then reply, "My mother died giving birth to me, and I was raised by her brother, my uncle. I have never seen my father in the flesh."
Kamenwati shrugs and says, "I was disowned by my family after my mother's death. I have no father among the men of Kemet."
Per-roh's mouth presses into a thin line. But he merely nods in acknowledgment and then turns towards an official standing off to the side of the dais. "Very well. Read out the charge, counselor."
The counselor clears his throat and steps forward. He holds a small piece of papyrus in his hands and, holding it in front of him, he reads,
"The two who stand here before the great Per-roh, King Aakheperkare, Lord of the Two Lands, Auset and Kamenwati of Zawty, are accused of murder, treason, and blasphemy, through the act of killing His Royal Highness, Crown Prince and Great Overseer of Soldiers, Amenmose of Kemet, beloved of the gods, son of the king."
Hearing the accusation against us once more sends a shiver down my spine. How did Per-roh come to suspect us in the first place? Our lives in Zawty were so far removed from the capital.
The counselor then turns to us. "How do you plead to these horrific charges, Auset and Kamenwati of Zawty?"
"Not guilty," I respond immediately; Kamenwati follows suit a second later. The counselor nods, and a few feet behind him, I see a man sitting down, writing on a small desk in front of him. It must be a scribe, recording our trial. He makes me think of Uncle Kahotep, and my heart clenches.
"So noted," the counselor says. He looks around at the room, then asks, "Is there any person here who would speak in defense of the accused?"
Silence. Just as I thought there would be. We have no friends among Per-roh's court, and who would dare defy the king when he so clearly wants to see us punished? Unless...I glance quickly over at Princess Hatshepsut. She said she would help us, didn't she?
Almost as if she has read my mind, the princess stands up on the dais. "I will speak in defense of the accused."
Silence once more, though this time it is shock that stays everyone's tongue. The counselor's eyes have gone wide, and after a minute he stutters, "Your Highness, t-there is no reason that - that you -"
"So she has said, she will do," interrupts the king, who looks over at his daughter and gives her a regal nod. "Go on then, daughter. We will hear you."
The princess nods and descends the dais. Once on the floor, she stands in front of her father before dropping into a graceful, sweeping bow - hand pressed against her heart, left leg pushed behind her, head hovering just above the ground - that shows deference to the Per-roh but denotes her own rank at the same time. The intricacies of the royal court, where a man is not just a father and a girl not just a daughter, must be complex indeed.
At her father's command, Hatshepsut rises and gazes up at him. "Great one and honored father, I confess to you, that I have had contact with one of the accused." She gestures behind her, towards Kamenwati and me. "The woman, Auset of Zawty, I have spoken to her and heard her story from her own lips. I do not believe she has lied to me. She maintains their innocence, and I give witness to this."
Per-roh regards his daughter thoughtfully. "You have spoken to her, in private? You went to the holding cells beneath the palace, then? Against my wishes?"
Her confession shocks me. Not only did the princess break the rules to come talk to us last night - I suspected that from the beginning - but she admitted so readily to her father and king that she disobeyed him. Is this truly all for our benefit? Perhaps it is just that she believes so much in the dreams the gods sent her. Or is there some boon that she will gain from all of this?
"But," Hatshepsut adds, "I had good reason to disregard your wishes, great one. I was visited in a dream by the gods themselves, who led me to the dungeon to speak with Auset."
Her words cause a stir among the crowd, as they exclaim and murmur amongst themselves. With a raised hand, however, Per-roh quiets them as he looks at Hatshepsut, considering. After a while, he nods and says,
"We have heard your testimony, daughter, and thank you for it. You may go now."
Hatshepsut pauses for a while, before saying, "All respect due, honored father, but I would like to testify further."
"There is no need for it," the king replies. "As I said, you may go now."
The princess lingers a moment longer, as if she wants to argue. But finally she nods and, with another bow, returns to her throne. On the side of her, one of the princes is fidgeting, looking bored with the events. His brother nudges him with his foot, and he stills.
I refocus on Per-roh, nervous. How has his daughter's words affected him? I spare Hatshepsut another glance, but she has turned her face towards her father, and I cannot tell what she thinks of her testimony.
Per-roh turns to the counselor again. "Proceed," he says, as if nothing has happened. My nervousness grows.
The counselor clears his throat and nods. "Yes, of course. Is there any other who would speak in defense of the accused?"
No one else steps forward. The princess, though influential, was the only voice on our side. After a while, the counselor nods again, and the scribe makes another note.
"Very well. Is there any person here who would speak against the accused?"
A man steps forward, a soldier by his dress, one I do not recognize. He has broad soldiers and large hands. "I will speak against the accused."
At Per-roh's nods, the soldier comes in front of dais, bowing before the throne three times as Kamenwati and I did when we entered. The soldier rises, and begins,
"I am Captain Menefer, who has overseen the capture of the accused. I have a collection of accounts from my men that state these two are capable of acts of great magic, which they have used to assault the warriors of Kemet, and evade arrest to be brought before Your Majesty and plead their case, which surely any righteous and innocent person would not do. The man, Kamenwati of Zawty, controls the desert sands as easily as breathing, and the woman, Auset, can shrivel a man's arm like salt."
I shiver at the reminder of Pa-neck's hand, withered and useless after my power. No doubt the soldiers he told about our presence in his home wrote to Captain Menefer and informed him of that encounter.
"Thank-you, Captain. Is there anything else?" Per-roh asks.
The captain shakes his head. "No, my lord."
"Very well. You may go." After the captain has bowed again and left the floor, Per-roh looks around the room. "Are there any other witnesses, either for or against the accused?"
No one else steps forward. Everyone looks to the throne, waiting, with bated breath to see what the king will do. I glance over at Kamenwati from the corner of my eyes; he stares straight ahead, his posture rigid.
"Very well," the king says. "The witnesses who have spoken have given us much to discuss." He looks directly at Kamenwati and me, and I tense up as well.
"It is clear that you two are not merely mortals, but are touched by the other world." Per-roh gestures towards his daughter. "The princess believes, and would have us believe as well, that you are innocent, that the gods have proclaimed you are to be saved."
I swallow, hoping that Per-roh will see the truth of his child's words.
"However" - my hope deflates at his next words - "the captain's men, good men who serve our land faithfully, have witnessed that you use the desert, the dreaded Red Land, against them. That land belongs to Sutekh, who is known for his trickery and deception, and hatred for his brother Lord Wor-seer and all his brood."
Well, he's not wrong there, Sutekh admits.
Not now, Sutekh, hisses my father.
"Therefore, how are we to know that you two are, indeed, god-blessed, and not demons deceiving my daughter? That you are not the demons who murdered my son and are now simply trying to escape justice through more dark magic?"
"But your Majesty, that is ridiculous!" I exclaim, unable to stop myself. "We are not demons! The gods have blessed us with magic, yes, but that does not mean we have used it for evil! We would never dream of harming the royal family! Why do you continue to believe so?"
There is an uproar at my words, at my audacity to address the Per-roh at all, let alone in such a manner. People yell and curse at us, and a guard moves toward us, a hand on his weapon as if he intends to strike. Kamenwati shoves himself between the guard and me, clutching me close to him; his body is tense, muscles coiled and ready for action. The particles of sand on the ground begin to twitch, answering his call. My heart races, fear coursing through me.
Then the Per-roh slams his staff on the ground, reverberating throughout the courtroom. Everyone stills, holding their breath, looking up at the king. Kamenwati is still wary, holding on to me, sand hovering in the air.
"Enough! Fall back!" the king snaps at his guards. "I will have order in the courtroom! The gods are watching us, Lady Ma'at watches us. Have you no shame?"
The guards reluctantly pull back, giving me and Kamenwati room to breathe. Once everyone has calmed down, Per-roh looks in our direction.
"I will answer your question, girl," he says. "In a trial for your life, you deserve to know that much." He pauses. I watch him closely, wanting to catch every word.
"As you know, my youngest child, Nefrubity, died when she was only two years old. Two years later, a plague struck our land, and made its way even into this royal abode. My son Wadjimose perished along with many others." The king pauses again, looking at the air, reminiscing. "And now my eldest, my dear son, my heir, Amenmose, has got to be with the gods."
Per-roh continues, "My children were promised glorious futures. Told to me by the great Lady Het-Heru herself. And yet, despite being told my sons and daughter would lead long, successful, happy lives, they were all cut down in the prime of their youth. What should I believe from this? That the gods were wrong?"
No one answers this rhetorical question. And suddenly, I cannot help but think of the story I told little Shemeit, of the young prince fated to die by a crocodile, dog, or snake. In the end, he survives and out-maneuvers his fate. Kamenwati thought it meant we would be safer if we left Kemet entirely. But what if the real lesson is that the gods are sometimes wrong about mortals' fate?
I am never wrong, Het-heru suddenly snarls inside my head. I wince at the sensation it causes, a burst of pain within my skull. After a moment, she adds, more gently, But, perhaps, I am not always right.
"There is a way you might prove to me your innocence," Per-roh says. I perk up, waiting with bated breath to hear what he will say. The king continues, an earnest note in his voice, "Do this thing for me, and it will prove to me that you are not demons seeking to destroy my family and my kingdom. That you are not the ones who brought death to my son."
"How?" I breathe.
"Bring him back to life."
My hope wilts at his words. That is the proof he demands? An act that the gods cannot accomplish? Not even the goddess of magic herself, the great Lady Auset, was able to prevent her husband Wor-seer from slipping back into the underworld after piecing his body back together. It's impossible for me, a half-mortal, to do something like that, even if Anpu is my father.
It is forbidden to us, especially to me and those others who oversee the dead, my father confirms. Not even Sutekh would dare defy those laws.
Shemeit would still be alive if I could, Sutekh murmurs softly.
I have never lost a child, and I never knew my mother, but I have wished many times that I could have her with me, just once. Even when we know a great paradise awaits our loved ones on the other side, the Field of Reeds, we still wish to bring them back. Is it some form of selfishness, to keep them with us, and away from a life without us, no matter how brief? Maybe. Maybe Per-roh himself does not know the reason he wants his son back.
But then, he doesn't have to know why. He just has to want it.
In my mind, I reach back to the day Kamenwati told me that he and I were children of gods, to when I called him a liar and refused to listen to his words. I had been so dedicated to what I had been taught to believe, I didn't want to know anything that contradicted my viewpoint. Right now, Per-roh is the same; he clings to his version of the truth, and no one dares contradict him.
But sometimes, you must venture away from what is comfortable to find the truth. And sometimes, it takes another person to get you started on that path.
I reach out, trying to find my connection with the gods in my head. I have an idea, I tell them. But...I need your help. All of you. Father, you are guide of the dead and overseer of the scales; Lord Sutekh, you reveal the past. I am a god's daughter, and as such, I implore your aid.
Whatever you need, my father responds immediately.
Oh, you've piqued my interest, Sutekh replies.
Alright. Well, then here goes...everything.
I take a deep breath, and look up at Aakheperkare, who appears tense; his back is completely straight, and his hands grip the arms of his throne. "Great One," I begin, "I cannot give you what you want. The proof that you ask for – it is not mine to give."
"Then you must be guilty," he insists, eyes narrowed at us.
I shake my head, "I cannot give you what you want," I repeat. "But I can give you proof of our innocence, proof that your son's death was not of any evil making, or at least not of ours."
Per-roh tilts his head and stares at me for a long time. Finally, as if speaking over a knot in his throat, he says, "How?"
I move forward and hold up my hands, still heavy with the shackles around them.. "I can show you," I offer. There is murmuring amongst the guards, and Captain Menefer steps forward once more.
"My lord, do not be fooled," he warns, "As I said, my men have testified that this woman mummifies the living with those hands of hers."
"Please," I insist. "I can show you the truth. You have to trust me. You have to trust the gods."
Again, Per-roh stares at me, but after some time he finally nods. "Let her come," he commands. The captain purses his lips and shoots me a warning glance, but nonetheless steps aside so I can approach the throne. When I reach the dais, I hesitate, but Per-roh jerks his head, motioning me forward, and so I climb the steps and stand right in front of him.
Per-roh's throne is smaller up-close, which surprises me, and Per-roh is taller than the back of the throne. But it is plated with gold and the arms are inlaid with rubies. A sense of awe fills me - I never imagined I would ever be so close to the throne of Kemet or its ruler.
But I have to focus now. I take a deep breath to steady myself, homing in on my connection with the gods. I can feel them, a presence in the back of my skull. My head begins to throb the more I reach for them. But I have to press deeper, access something even more powerful than their voices.
"I have seen the past and heard the future told. I have spoken with gods, and returned alive from the Temple of Anpu," I tell Per-roh softly. His eyes are wide as he stares at me, with half interest and half wariness.
My headache intensifies, but I continue, "I am the daughter of Lord Anpu, foremost of westerners and lord of the sacred land. The gods of chaos and death have followed me throughout my journey. And now, Great One, my brother, it is time this journey ended. Here is the proof you need."
With the shackles, I have just enough room to place my hands on either side of his head; he stiffens, but allows it. My hands grow warmer and warmer, until they are burning hot, but Per-roh does not scream or draw away, nor does his skin shrivel. I close my eyes, concentrating. Then, images appear in my mind's eye; from Per-roh's soft, almost inaudible gasp, I know he sees them, too.
The vast, golden desert sands, stretching on into infinity
A woman, with large, colorful feathers growing from her arms, frantically searches along the bank of the Nile
A large red snake opens wide his mouth, trying to swallow the sun
My body starts to tremble. I push through the whirling images and try to show Per-roh where Kamenwati and I were when his son died: I was in the garden, stroking our cat Nile; Kebi and Anu were there, too, laughing as Baraka tried to juggle dates.
The scene shifts, and I see an image of Kamenwati, smiling as he plays dice with a group of three other men. There is no display of power, no signs of magic, just normal people, ordinary citizens.
Suddenly, Lord Heru's voice cuts through the images. Djehutymes, he says in a gentle voice. Djehutymes, please, enough of this. I am your lord, your protector, your god. I've been trying to reach you for so long.
My lord, Per-roh murmurs back, sounding awed. Hearing him answer is slightly jarring, but I have become used to having others' voices in my head. Have I – have I really been so lost?
It's alright, my darling, Het-heru assures him, affection in her tone. You can come back to us.
But I thought – Djehutymes seems lots for words. But I was so sure –
Heru repeats his wife's words, It's alright. Now you know the truth.
The pounding in my head grows stronger, as if my brain wants to burst out of my skull. I squeeze my eyes tight, trying to block out the pain, when suddenly Per-roh stands up. For a moment, his body is pressed against mine. Startled, my eyes fly open and I stumble off the dais.
I brace myself, expecting to hit the mud-brick floor, when hands catch me instead. I look up to see Kamenwati, who grips me tight before setting me on my feet. The metal of his own shackles is hard and cold against my skin, but I still appreciate his efforts.
"Are you alright?" he asks quietly. I nod, before glancing back at the Per-roh. The images and godly voices have left my mind, and his, too, I imagine. But what will he do with what I showed him? With Lord Heru and Lady Het-Heru's words?
The king walks down from the dais slowly, moving each leg as if they weigh a hundred pounds. Captain Menefer approaches him, dipping into a quick bow.
"My king? Are you alright? What did she do to you? What shall we do with them?"
Per-roh ignores him and continues walking forward, stopping in front of Kamenwati and me. He stares at me, face unreadable, gaze intense. I swallow audibly and think that I should bow, but my knees have turned to jelly; if I move now I will collapse. Kamenwati's grip is practically the only thing keeping me upright, and it tightens even more as we face the Per-roh.
"You..." Per-roh begins, voice hoarse. "You..." Then he shakes his head, as if unable to say more. Finally he looks up at the court. He clears his throat.
"Take them to the first southwestern bedroom," he orders, gesturing to a man near the children's thrones.
I blink, confused. The southwestern bedroom? That sounds like somewhere within the heart of the palace, perhaps even close to king's bedroom. If he's not ordering us back to the dungeon, does that mean we are safe?
The man Per-roh wanted nods and bows, but then says in a hesitant voice,
"But...my lord, that room is..."
"I'm aware," Per-roh replies. His voice is stronger now, more confident. More like a king. "But that is my order. Counselor!"
The counselor springs to attention. "Yes, my lord?"
Per-roh stares at us a moment longer, then turns away. Answering the counselor, he says, "Today's trial is adjourned for now. We will reconvene in the morning to continue. Everyone is dismissed until then."
"Yes, my lord," the counselor replies as the scribe writes this new development down, scratching furiously at his papyrus.
Per-roh leaves then, heading for a door on the western side of the throne room. I watch him until he disappears into the doorway, uncertainty twisting in my gut. Around us, most of the guards and ministers also depart the throne room, as well as the two princes, Ramose and Djehutymes. The two guards who escorted us into the throne room, the tanned one with the khopesh and the darker one with the manacles, approach us from behind, while the man Per-roh ordered to lead us to the "southwestern bedroom" now stands in front of us.
"We'll follow your lead, Lord Khui," the darker one states.
Lord Khui is a short man with a wide forehead, a rounded nose, and dark eyes. He appraises us, eyes flicking between Kamenwati and me. Finally he nods. "Yes, well, then follow me, all of you." He turns on his heel and begins to walk towards a doorway in the opposite direction of where Per-roh has gone.
Just before we follow, however, Princess Hapshepsut steps in front of us, lips pulled into a frown. The two guards behind us murmur "my princess", but she pays them no attention, locking eyes with me.
"I'm sorry this didn't go the way we wanted, Auset," she says.
I shake my head. "No, my princess, you did what you could for us. I am eternally grateful for that."
The princess nods, but still looks unhappy. "I'll see if I can speak to my father tonight, discover what he's thinking." She pauses for a moment, then smiles. "Well, at least you're not going back to the dungeon! The first bedrooms aren't so bad, and you'll have a bed to sleep on, so it's not all hopeless!"
Her words bring a small smile to my face. "Thank-you, Princess. I'll look forward to seeing you tomorrow morning."
Hatshepsut nods. She glances briefly at Kamenwati, who merely inclines his head to her. Then she smiles again and spins away, leaving the throne room just as her family has.
"Alright, no more delays," the khopesh guard grumbles. "Forward now, you two."
And so forwards we go.
A.N. – Also I thought this was going to be the last chapter, but there's at least one more. When I'll end up posting it I don't know, but it will happen at some point!
Also, also, I realize there are a lot of things in this story that I should revise, rewrite, cut, and otherwise edit. At some point I want to do a deep macro revision for Desert Princess, though most of the basic plot will stay the same. If anyone has some suggestions, please let me know!