How the time flies! Already it is Kebi's wedding day. Dressed in a long tunic with pearls, amethysts, and lapis lazuli sewn into it, my cousin looks as radiant as any bride should. Her eyes are lined with kohl and her lips dabbed with rouge, and in her ears she wears a pair of silver hoops which Hime and I got her once for her birthday. She turns away from talking to her new husband, Anu, for a moment to see me peeking out from the screen behind the stage. Her lips quirk in amusement and she gives me a small wave and sees me return it before whispering something to Hime, who sits next to her sister with Itennu and Shemeit on her other side. Hime, her pregnancy now very visible and nearly over, giggles, and it gives me the sudden urge to be over there with them. But as at Hime's wedding, I am the last act, once again the singer/dancer, and though I am honored to have been asked to perform, it also makes me sad that this time neither Kebi nor Hime will be playing with me – the time for such playful things is gone now.
But I cannot dwell on my sadness for too long, because there is my cue. I throw myself into the dance, twisting and leaping, using my body as a symbol of the elation I feel for my cousin. This is a happy day for her, and I am will not let my own sentimental feelings get in the way of her joy. The steady beat of the drums keeps me grounded and focused, as the bells and harp lift me the height of my imagination.
Lovely as always. There! There they are! The gods have finally deigned to speak to me again. Oh, how happy their presence makes me! It lifts my spirits immediately, and now my mood befits a wedding celebration. Beforehand, when I danced at Hime's wedding, I could not match any voice with one god, especially not lost in the mingling of words in my head. Now, though, I can pick out Lord Sutekh's voice — lower, more harsh sounding than the rest. See, now he laughs in my head, amused. Can the gods read my thoughts when they crowd into my head, I wonder? I do not know, and the idea almost frightens me, but they wouldn't hurt me, surely?
Never. As before, one voice stands out among the rest: that of the gentle, fatherly voice. I would not let them, my child. I will protect you. I smile at the voice's declaration and finish the dance, gasping for breath. The gods depart, fading from my consciousness one by one. Sutekh is the last to go, except for the gentle one, who usually stays after the dance anyway.
Won't you remember our dream, my dear? I fear you will need to before the night is out, Sutekh says before he leaves, traces of anger and — worry perhaps? — hiding behind care-free amusement. I almost frown, worried myself, but I cannot let that show; I will deal with it later. I smile and graciously accept the applause my routine brings, and sit down next to Hime, and the feast commences.
(I must resist, several times, from looking in the corners of the room to see if anyone is there.)
At some point, Hime turns to me, and her blue eyes look worried. She clenches the tablecloth and the smile she sends my way looks strained. "Auset," she says, "I need – I need to tell you something."
Curious, and a little worried myself, I stop eating and face her completely, giving her my whole attention.
"Alright," I reply. "What's wrong, Hime?"
"Oh, well, nothing's wrong, per se," she says, laughing nervously. I raise an eyebrow, not believing her. She sighs, then continues, "Well, really, nothing is wrong, it's just I – well, I'm being silly. I just had a bad dream last night, with you in it, and it scared me. It just felt so real, you understand. But it's nothing."
"Are you sure?" I ask, placing a hand on her shoulder. The dress she wears is very short-sleeved, so most of her skin is exposed. When I touch her shoulder I nearly draw my hand back, shocked at how cold she feels. Hime doesn't seem cold; she's not hugging herself for warmth, nor are her teeth chattering, but why does she feel so cold?
My cousin waves away my question. "Yes, I'm sure," she answers. Her smile is much more relaxed now. "Let's just enjoy the party, alright?" Slowly, I nod.
"Alright," I say. And she speaks no more of it throughout the night.
While I try not to let my worry show during the celebration, I cannot help but wonder about Hime's attitude. I also wonder about Lord Sutkeh's words. Surely he was talking about the vision he'd shown me from his past, the scene with Shemeit, Meti and Itennu (and Kamenwati's) mother. That was the night that I both became a woman, and finally believed what Kamenwati had told me so long ago. I even entertained the idea that I, too, might have godly blood — maybe my father is Lord Heru, perhaps, lord of all Kemet? Or Lord Djehuti, god of knowledge and writing, maybe, or Lord Chons, the moon god? I've always loved nights when the full moon was out — but surely I was being silly. I am not like the mighty god-kings who could boast Ra or Amun for their fathers, no matter what Kamenwati thinks or how exciting it might be.
But Sutekh has got me thinking that way again. What will happen tonight? Will it be something awful? Oh Lady Auset the Divine, I pray, possessor of magical protection, goddess for whom I am named, I beg you not allow any evil to befall this night. I do not wish to mar Kebi's special night.
After a while, my fears slip to the back of my mind as the celebration goes on smoothly. Hime and Itennu have left a while ago, Itennu carrying his sleeping daughter in his arms. Uncle Kahotep is talking with Anu's father, Imhotep, while Aunt Merit and Imhotep's wife, Ati, have their own discussion. Baraka seems to be gambling with Imhotep's three other sons. Kebi and her husband are giggling and talking by themselves in the corner, and I smile at the overall scene. However, I do not feel like being around them at the moment. I sneak out to the garden on the side of Imhotep's house, basking in the light of Lord Chons' moon. I cannot see the garden as well as I would like in the dark, but it is peaceful, and I like it here, so I stay.
Are you troubled, my child? The fatherly voice is back, and just hearing it makes me feel better. He's right, though; I am uneasy. I am hoping the night will end well, but I have a feeling that it will not. And, if it does not, what is my role in all of this? What does it mean, to be a god's daughter? I do not know myself as such — I hardly know if such a claim is true or not.
As I am musing, I hear a clatter and exclamations from the house. I turn quickly, sneaking a peek through the doorway, and am astonished to see Per-roh's own royal guards burst into Imhotep's house. I am terribly frightened, but I have to go inside, to be with my family, to prove innocence—
No! The fatherly voice is harsh, and there is a buzzing noise in my head, which sounds almost like growling, like that of a dog. Don't go in, Auset. You must stay here. Stay here! Not having to think twice, I obey, stepping further into the shadow, crouching behind a statue of Lord Djehuti. I cannot see much from where I am, but I can hear the soldiers rummaging through the house, and the sounds of Imhotep, Anu, and Uncle Kahotep's protests. Huddling on my knees, fear more than obedience keeps me there. What's happening? Is this what Sutekh meant? Oh, Auset, why did you not grant my prayer?
I hear the creak of the garden gate and catch my breath. Are the guards going to search the garden? Will they find me? What will happen if they do? My heart hammers against my chest, and a sheen of sweat covers me like a blanket.
"Auset? Are you here? Auset?" I release my breath in a whoosh of air. It is Kebi! I stand up too fast for my cramped legs, and nearly topple over; the length of my dress, nearly to my ankles, does not help either, and as my bracelets clink together I'm afraid someone besides Kebi will hear. When I finally right myself, I am just able to make out my cousin, squinting in the dark.
"I am here," I answer, speaking just loud enough that she can hear me. My cousin follows the sound of my voice and finally she reaches me. Her face is pale and drawn, her eyes undeniably fearful. She grasps me by the shoulders.
"Auset," she breathes, "you must go. Leave, right now, and go to Hime's house."
"What?" I ask, baffled. I am to flee, like a thief in the night? Like a tomb robber who has committed crimes against the gods and Per-roh? Is that what Kebi is saying?
Her nails bite deeper into my skin. "You heard me," she insists. "Go to Hime's house. Quick, before the soldiers catch you. Please, cousin."
"They want me? Why? For what possible reason?" I sputter, flabbergasted. I have always been a law-abiding citizen; how is it that I am now being hunted by the highest law in the land?
"They said they wanted the niece of Kahotep the scribe, for questioning on charges of..." Kebi falters for a moment, and she has to clear her throat before continuing, "charges of treason." I nearly faint. Treason? Treason? I have been accused of the highest crime? How?
Finally I find my voice, and exclaim, "I have done nothing of the sort, cousin, I swear it on the Lady's name itself! I am innocent!"
"Yes, yes, I know that," Kebi soothes. She risks a look behind her at the house, where I see the men arguing with Per-roh's guard. She turns back to me, her face exasperated.
"Yes, I know that, but the guards do not. They're prepared to haul you to Per-roh's palace in chains. Do you understand that, Auset? Father and Imhotep are doing what they can to stall, to argue, but they can't keep it up forever!"
"But would it not be better to show myself, and prove my innocence?" I question, flabbergasted over Kebi's reaction.
"No!" My cousin's voice is harsh, and I wince. Her eyes soften and she pulls me into a quick embrace, giving me a tenderly kiss on the forehead before pleading,
"Please, Auset, you must do this. Cousin, dearest cousin, one who has a place in my heart reserved for her, you must listen to me. Heed your cousin's words: run from here, and go to Hime's house. Tell her that you have been falsely accused, that you need to stay with her." Kebi swallows and glances behind her once more. She turns back to me and continues,
"I beg of you, Auset, my cousin, go to Hime's house now. There you will be safe, and we can proceed from there."
You should listen to her, instructs the voice. My throat constricts and I must blink back tears. Kebi is just trying to protect me, like the kind older cousin she is. She is the youngest of Uncle Kahotep and Aunt Merit's children, but she can be just as friendly and considerate and motherly as Hime sometimes.
"Alright, Kebi," I say. "I will go to Hime's. I...I am just sorry this had to happen on your wedding night."
Kebi looks relieved, and gives a small laugh. "Oh, my sister," she says, and I am surprised, and pleased, at the added endearment. "Oh, my sister, this day, my wedding day, has been one of the best. But what will be better is the day when my younger sister can walk as the innocent, righteous, and free Kemetian that she is." She gives me another kiss on the forehead, hugs me tightly once more, and pushes me in the direction of the outside before slipping back toward the house.
I am just far away enough from the house so that, when Per-roh's guards burst into the garden a few moments later, they do not see me sprinting away into the night.
"Hime!" I shout, bursting into her home. It is dark and empty, and feels cold, too, without people bustling around. "Hime!" I must tell her what has happened. I must prove that I am not guilty of treason, no matter what Per-roh thinks I did. I must make sure my family is safe afterwards. There are so many things I must do I am not sure I can do them all.
"Auset?" Hime appears in the hall, looking at me with a bewildered expression on her face. Flustered looking slaves move about about her, looking worried. Though they all seem tired, not one of them, oddly enough, looks as if they were just awoken. "What are you doing here? What's wrong?"
Winded and somewhat hysterical, I manage to tell my cousin what happened at the wedding feast. At each word she grows paler and paler, until she resembles a corpse. Still, though, she tries to soothe and comfort me, telling me that of course I can stay until things get sorted out. I am so tired and so relieved I fall into Hime's embrace. I gaze over her shoulder, not really seeing, but then something — someone — catches my eye.
"Kamenwati?" I shriek, flabbergasted at his appearance in my cousin's home. I have not seen the man in nearly three years, and this is our first meeting since then? Not, of course, that I have ever thought that I would see him again, that is. But still...
Kamenwati smiles at me, his signature half-grin-smirk that I at first found distasteful, but now I am hit with a sudden longing for it. Hime seems surprised by my shock as she looks between her brother-in-law and me.
"Oh," she says, "that's right. You didn't know he was here, did you, Auset?" I stare at her. Then my shock twists into anger and, ignoring my cousin for a moment, I turn on Kamenwati and say accusingly,
"I thought I told you to stay away from my family." Kamenwati regards me thoughtfully, and I want to scream at him. He seems little changed from the last time I saw him: perhaps a little taller, a bit more muscular. He has obviously been working hard, some sort of physical labor.
"That you did," he responds lightly. "And I have kept my promise. But Itennu is my brother, and his daughter is my family. You cannot forbid me from seeing my own, can you? And if we happen to share family — well, so be it." I can scarcely believe my ears — or my eyes, for that matter. I whirl on Hime.
"What are you thinking?" I hiss. The un-awoken appearance of Hime's house makes more sense now, seeing as she had been entertaining a guest. "Does Itennu know about these — these late-night visits? Where is your husband, anyway?" Hime's concerned face twists into a bitter scowl.
"At the temple," she says scornfully. I blink, once more bewildered. Itennu is at the temple? At this hour? Alright, I can see why Hime might resent that, but...
"I can see what you are thinking," Hime says, interrupting my thought process. "But it is not like that. Kamenwati truly does just come to see Shemeit." I truly want to believe that, and most of me does, but there is a very small part that is — jealous of Hime. I know I am the one who ordered Kamenwati never to come near me again, but due to, well, recent revelations, I've found I've missed him. Oh, I've missed him terribly.
Kamenwati looks between us, then takes a step back. "I think I'll just stay back here for a bit," he says nonchalantly. "Let you two settle things." He makes a purring noise in the back of his throat, like a pleased cat, before moving to another room. Kamenwati has always brought out mixed emotions and reactions in me — right now I want to throttle him.
My cousin regards me. Then she offers me a smile, and I feel horrible for being angry at her. How could anyone be mad at sweet, lovable Hime, or suspect her of any wrong-doing? Hime puts her arm around me and leads me to her bedchamber, some of her female slaves flocking around us, almost protectively. Most have their heads down respectfully, but there is one who openly stares at me. She is tall, with almond skin, brown hair, and hazel eyes. Her facial features are that of a Hebrew. I am uncomfortable under her gaze, and look away, just in time to see Hime flinch and grasp her stomach. The slaves press in closer, and then it is I who have an arm around Hime as she bends over as far as she can with her baby-belly.
"Hime!" I exclaim. She waves her servants and me off, and then straightens.
"I'm fine," she insists. "The baby's just...kicking rather hard tonight." I don't believe her but I don't know how to contest her claim, and besides I have other things to worry about now.
When we reach Hime's room, she dismisses all of her slaves except three, one of which being the tall Hebrew slave. My cousin sits us down on her bed and takes my hands, looking at me kindly.
"Oh, dear cousin," she says, "I am sorry such ill has befallen you. I believe you are innocent, and I pray that this ordeal ends soon for you. You may, of course, stay here as long as you like. Though I have a feeling you will not." I look at her sharply, puzzled.
"What do you mean?" I ask, cautiously. Hime smiles fondly at me and smoothes back my hair.
"Oh my dear, I am not sure you will believe me," she says quietly.
"Oh, cousin, do not say that," I protest. She looks down, contemplating, then looks back up at me, biting her lip.
"Well, cousin, you know how, tonight, I told you I had had a dream about you? The one that felt so real?" She pauses while I nod. "Well, what I dreamed was exactly what happened to you at Kebi's wedding tonight. I thought at first it was just silly things, or perhaps a result of the – ugh – the pregnancy." Hime winces again but valiantly continues,
"But with tonight, I feel they must be...must be visions. From the gods, you know." She laughs weakly and then moans again. I am about to say something, but she keeps talking, "And would you like to know what I saw, Auset? In my dreams? You. You're running — afraid, and hunted, but you aren't alone. There are at least two others with you. And I'm – ugh – well, I'm dead."
"Dead?" I echo, startled at the turn of events. Hime nods.
"Oh, yes. Can't you feel it, Auset? You of all people?" She laughs, seeming not-all-concerned that she is going to die in...twelve hours. I know the exact time; why do I know that? What's wrong with me? How can I be so sure? But I am drawn out of my thoughts by another gasp from Hime, which sounds louder and more painful, and then my cousin is sliding off the bed, hissing in pain, and where she sat is a big, sticky pool of blood. I gasp and drop down next to her as her slaves hurry to their mistress' side, trying to shoo me away, but I hold tight to Hime, terrified of what happen if I let go.
"Hime, Hime," I whisper, shoving away a servant at my side even though I know she is trying to help. "What do I do, what do I do, stay with me, Hime!" My cousin reaches out to touch my cheek, stroking it lovingly once before her hand drops weakly; her touch, once more, feels like ice.
"You will know what to do when the time comes, little sister," my cousin answers, and that is the last thing she says to me as I am ripped from her side and moved out of the room, a waste of space that should be occupied by the physician or midwife one of the servants had sent for. I bite back a sob as Hime begins screaming, and the perfect image of her cold, still body pops into my head and refuses to leave, no matter how much I will it.
A.N — So what do you think? I had planned on Kamenwati and Auset having a bigger reunion but that will have to wait until the next chapter.
* Djehuti – "he who is like an ibis", Egyptianized name of Thoth, god of wisdom, measurement, magicians, and scribes