How the time flies! Already it is Kebi's wedding day. As at Hime's wedding, I am the last act, once again the singer/dancer. I am sad that this time neither Kebi nor Hime will be playing with me – the time for such playful things is gone now. Yes, I can see Hime and Itennu and little Sheimeit at the banquet table, laughing with Kebi and her new husband, Anu*. Hime's condition is plainly visible, and she is due in a few more weeks.
Ah! There is my cue. I throw myself into the dance, twisting and leaping, using my body as a symbol of the joy I feel for my cousin. This is a happy day for her, and I am so glad she and her husband love each other as husbands and wives should. 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! Before, 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 do not know, and it almost frightens me to, but they would not 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. 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, is what Sutekh says before he leaves, traces of anger and — worry perhaps? — hiding behind care-free amusement. I 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.)
While I try not to let my worry show during the celebration, I cannot help but wonder what Sutkeh meant. Surely he was talking about the vision he'd shown me from his past, the scene with Sheimeit, 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 — but then I dismissed the notion. It could not be true, and even if it is, it is not going to change very much about my life.
But Sutekh has got me thinking that way again. What will happen tonight? Will anything? 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. But it is true; I am unsure of myself. 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, and am astonished to see Per roh's own 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 shrill, sounding panicky. Don't go in, Auset. You must stay here. Stay here! Not having to think twice, I obey, stepping furthur 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 obediance 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. 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 undeniablly 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? I have done no wrong, cousin, I swear it on the Lady's name itself!" I exclaim.
"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?"
"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.
"All right, 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. "Oh, my sister, this day, that of my wedding, 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 pushs me in the direction of the outside before slipping back toward the house.
I am far from the house just as Per roh's guards burst into the garden.
"Hime!" I shout, bursting into her home. "Hime!" I must tell her what has happened. I must prove that I am not guilty of whatever crime 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. Slaves flutter around her, looking worried. "What are you doing here? What's wrong?"
Winded and somewhat hysterical, I manage to tell my cousin what happened at the wedding feast. Hime is utterly shocked. 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 somthing — 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 accusatory,
"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. "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. Itenu is at the temple? At this hour? All right, 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 Sheimeit." 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, ah, recent recelations, 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, loveable Hime, or suspect her of any wrong-doing? Hime puts her arm around me and leads me to her bedchamber, some of her female her slaves flocking around us, most with their heads down 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 and look away.
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. In the same sentence she allowed me access to her home, and essentially blocked me out again.
"What do you mean?" I ask, caustiously. Hime smiles fondly at me and smooths 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 waves it away and gets a far-away look in her eyes.
"I have been having dreams, cousin. Odd, vivid dreams. You...you are traveling. Not alone, there are people with you, but not your family. You are scared, of those chasing after you, and of the secrets of your birth. Oh, but do not fear! Everything will turn out all right. Your father will protect you, as he does now." A pleased smile graces her lips, but I am confused. What is she talking about? How can this be all right? What secrets, and does my father really protect me now? Will I...will I meet him?
"Oh, no, Hime, surely you are mistaken," I object. She looks at me, and smiles.
"No, dear cousin — oh, no, sister; sister, yes that's what you are to me! — I am not mistaken. The gods have granted me these visions — perhaps to help ease my pain and erase any confusion."
"What pain?" I ask, still unsettled from the first thing she told me.
"The pain of death," she replies. "I thought you of all people would know, Auset. I'm going to die soon. But it will be all right, because I will die giving life."
I am about to protest her claim, but I...cannot. Because she is right; I can feel it. My Hime, my beloved cousin, she is going to die in ten hours. I take her hand and squeeze it.
"Oh, Hime," I whisper. "What do you want me to do?" My cousin kisses my forehead, just as her sister did not an two hours ago and smiles at me, a sad smile that lets me know she loves me and that she does not regret dying. She will go to the Field of Reeds* of course, I know she will. And I should be happy that she will go to that paradise — but oh how I will miss her.
"You will know what to do, when the time comes," Hime says. Then she gasps, and puts her head on her growing babe. I stand up as her slaves leap into action, brushing me aside and calling in the midwives. A swoosh lets me know that Hime's water has broken, and the babe will soon be coming.
I look at my cousin in horror. Ten hours. That is how long this labor will last, and how long Hime has left in this world.
Hime knows it, too, and still she smiles as the pangs of labor begin.
A.N-Bet you weren't expecting all this, were you? I had planned to have Kamenwati and Auset have a bigger reunion, but that will have to wait until the next chapter.
Anu – scribe
Lady Auset, the Divine, possessor of... – actual titles of the goddess
Imhotep – he who comes in peace
Ati – cushion
Djehuti – "he who is like an ibis", Egyptianized name of Thoth, god of wisdom, measurement, magicians, and scribes
Field of Reeds – the place the righteous dead went to after passing the scale test; the ancient Egyptian Heaven.