Gathering Storm
Book I: Papyri of Setekh

I


The golden sun beat down on the parched land, rocky crags
casting dark shadows across the desert sand. To the west
loomed a range of bare peaks, a narrow pass winding over a
low shoulder between twin rises. All knew how tight that
natural stricture was; only a single chariot could make it
along the track at any given time.

A multitude of eyes remained focused on the pass; though
most were some shade of brown, a few were some hue of green
and even fewer were some color of blue or gray -- and all
were protected by the sun's glare by a lining of dark khol.
At the moment, such protection was unneeded; the spectators
seated upon the temporary stands were sheltered from the
blazing rays by brightly colored canopies. The jewel-like
tones of the canvas were bright against the arid landscape
and brilliant, cloudless, azure sky. Banners floated in the
heated breeze; though little air stirred from off the
distant shores of the Great River.

Though comfortable in the growing temperature, a number of
the spectators made up for the lack of briskly moving air by
gently waving hand-held papyrus fans before themselves.
Brightly painted scenes in the land's distinctive artistic
style adorned the objects; equally bright was the glint of
gold and the myriad of precious stones forming jewelry and
protective amulets alike. Pleated linen clothing, sheer and
bleached white, contrasted sharply with the shades of
golden-tan skin common to the individuals gathered to watch
this climactic event. Even more valuable metals and gems
adorned the clean, well-groomed, ebony tresses of the
people. Hidden for the moment by the shade stretched over
them, the iridescent rainbow sheen that gave the people of
the Great River a mystical beauty remained unseen. In the
bright rays of the unforgiving sun, those same black locks
would blaze with shimmering highlights of deepest crimson,
green, blue, golden-brown, maroon, or violet.

The temporary stands had been constructed in a loose
U-shaped formation, giving all there an unobstructed view of
the narrow pass. A number of cubits away, a pair of sturdy
poles thrust upward from the ground; between them stretched
a thin linen ribbon of bright red forming the finish line of
the race in progress. Next to each pole flanking the
earthen course stood a stern-looking official. A pair of
servants attended each of them, one to fan the noble with a
brightly-colored, ostrich-feather fan and the other to hold
over them a small, personal sunshade. The High Priestess of
the sun temple and the Queen's Chancellor deserved no lesser
treatment; their auspices made the outcome of the race legal
and binding.

Crowded into the stands were the nobles of Tawy, gathered
there to witness the sun goddess's will in regards to the
securing of the Divine Throne. The covered bleachers made
three sections, one to the south of the finish line, one to
the north and one dead center. The contestants of the race
would halt there in the "winner's circle" before the
gathered nobility of the Two Lands -- including the royalty
watching from the opulent central box. The days-long
contest swiftly approaching its final outcome would end
here, in front of the twin princesses.

To the teenaged girls' left were seated the governors of
Ta-Resu. With their families and servants in attendance,
the nobles of the harsher southern territories of Tawy
quietly talked among themselves while they scanned the
pass's horizon for any sign of the race's participants. The
motifs of vulture and papyrus blossom decorated the sunshade
and brightly-colored banners, unmistakably labeling that
section as reserved for the use of those from Ta-Resu.

Mirroring their noble cousins, the overseers of the northern
territories within the lush delta of the Great River also
conversed and waited for the ending of the contest. Lotus
blossoms and cobras decorated their stands, symbols from the
time the Two Lands were separate realms. Though the
territorial wars between the twin lands were long since
swept away by the unification of the two under the Divine
Throne of the sun goddess, there remained a rivalry. Those
of Ta-Meht -- who dwelt within the well-watered, fertile
delta -- regarded their Ta-Resu cousins as harsh and
abrasive; the Ta-Resu saw the Ta-Meht as soft and indolent.
However, all those attitudes had been suspended for the
moment. The people of Tawy -- the Khemet -- were united in
bearing witness to the making of history.

The central section held the seats for those of the royal
household. The sunshade bore the image of the symbol of
Unification within a sun disk flanked by a vulture and a
winged cobra, pinions extended in an attitude of protection
-- a design echoed by the tapestry hung behind the royal
twins. Tall fan-bearers to either side of the portable
thrones kept a soft breeze moving over the princesses with
fluttering ostrich feather fans. Around the pair sat the
officials of the palace, each one there to serve these
latest bearers of the divine blood. The girls were silent
at the moment; the sounds of desert creatures, soft
conversation and the peddlers hawking thirst-quenching
drinks of fruit juice, wine, or cool water all that
disturbed the stillness of the royal box.

The twins were attired as befitted living goddesses on such
an auspicious occasion. Identical in appearance, their
unbroken descent through mother to daughter from the sun
goddess herself evident in their radiant beauty and
well-formed bodies, they breathlessly awaited any sign of
the approaching men. Vulture-shaped crowns of gold and gems
embraced their bead-adorned, braided tresses; more jewelry
glinted from the broad collars, arm bands, bracelets and
belts they wore, all decorated in protective or royal
insignia. Dark kohl outlined their large, golden-brown eyes
and a light dusting of gold enhanced the rich tones of their
tanned skin; the snowy brilliance of their long, pleated
linen gowns was a stark contrast to their bodies.

As befitting her station, the eldest of the girls sipped
refreshing juice from a golden chalice. Her portable throne
was the larger of the chairs and decorated with engravings
of the sun goddess Riyat during Tawy's Golden Age when the
deity had ruled the land. The crown princess was further
designated from her twin by the golden sun disk affixed to
the crown perched on the heiress's ebony-tressed head.
Turning her gaze to her sister, the girl lowered her goblet
and cupped it between her slender, ring-bedecked fingers.
"So the final act is almost upon us . . ."

"I'm nervous, Niet," the younger twin replied, her voice a
softer echo of her sibling's sultry tones.

"So am I, Nebt-Het, but it is as tradition and Ma'at demand.
The Prince Consort must be one worthy," Niet responded.

"I'm not questioning that," Nebt-Het quickly said while she
rubbed her silver chalice with a well-manicured finger. Her
long-lashed, golden-brown eyes focused on the juice within
the container. "And I'm thrilled that the finalists are
those who wear our tokens as our favorites, but . . ."

"You hope for the younger brother," the eldest princess
finished.

"He's handsome, charming, everything I've ever dreamed of in
a man." Nebt-Het blushed even as she confirmed her
sibling's observation. "Ever since he came to my rescue
when we were but children . . ."

"He's but a year older than we are, yet even then he had the
bravery of a lion. Still, it took his brother to save the
both of you from the crocodile."

Nebt-Het frowned. She took a sip of her drink before
responding, "Amon is six years older than Setekh. He was
nearly a grown man when that happened." The graceful
princess had long been convinced it had been an extremely
brave and heroic thing for the then nine-year-old prince to
have done.

The white-clad royal recalled that day as if it were
yesterday. One moment Niet and she had been splashing
playfully in the still waters along the banks of the Great
River, and the next there had been a young boy with
fiery-highlighted ebony hair plunging into the cool liquid,
shouting and thrashing about with a formidable-looking piece
of wood. The reptilian had been startled out of its
stealthy approach, but the snap of its jaws had wrenched the
slender tree limb from the child's grasp. The crocodile had
hissed and lunged, the twin princesses had screamed and the
reddish-haired boy had disappeared under the water's
surface. Then had come a harsh shout and another figure had
run into the water. Diving gracefully into the river, the
lanky but well-muscled teenager finally emerged with the
thrashing reptile in his strong grasp. A number of vicious
plunges with a sturdy knife sent the animal to the lair of
Sobek the Crocodile Lord even as the waterlogged younger boy
finally surfaced and gasped for breath. Nebt-Het was
certain it had been in that moment -- of the siblings, she
had been the one closest to the silently approaching death
-- that she had lost her heart to the brave boy. Though his
older brother had been the one to slay the beast, it had
been Setekh who had first braved the crocodile's wrath.

Niet laughed. "I'm not maligning the desire of your heart,
beloved sister. It was brave of him, but it was still Amon
who had the strength to dispatch the crocodile. I'm certain
had it been Setekh who was fifteen, then he would have
killed it."

"His lack of years compared to his eldest brother hasn't
seemed to dim his chances in the contests. If anything, he
seems driven to surpass Amon in all things," the other
princess said.

"All those who entered the contests strove for power," Niet
gently reminded, "and that the two left remaining are the
men who truly love us is Riyat's blessing."

"They both love you," Nebt-Het corrected. Her expression
became a crestfallen one as reality was brought home to her
once more. She had longed to marry Setekh, to fill the
place in her affections she knew only he could belong, but
the reddish-haired prince had eyes only for her bolder
sister. Both Setekh and his oldest brother Amon had courted
Niet since the twins had become of marriageable age two
years ago. From the sidelines Nebt-Het had sadly watched as
the one of her desire did all he could to best his brother
in winning the affection of the future ruler of Tawy. The
occasions in which she had actually been able to enjoy
Setekh's companionship had been either in public gatherings
or had been at the insistence of Niet -- the outgoing sister
had fretted at her twin's growing unhappiness.

"They both love the idea of becoming the Prince Consort,"
the royal heiress responded. "In time, I'm sure either one
of them will love me as a person rather than see me as a
duty to be handled while holding the power of the Consort.
I'm equally certain that whomever wins you will come to love
you. Both of them are fond of you already."

"Niet, please," Nebt-Het implored, "don't. You and I both
know that they strive to see who wins you. I am merely what
the loser will receive -- "

"Enough," the heiress interrupted, her voice taking on the
unmistakable, hard edge of royal command. "I refuse to let
you think of yourself as some inferior prize. Whomever wins
you wins a place closer to the Throne that no other will
have. He will have first choice among any office I deem
worthy of his talents. He will be family to Auset herself,
a bond that anyone else in this realm would envy. Though
both Amon and Setekh have divine blood within them, their
children through us will be more divine than any child they
could sire on another woman. You are a royal princess of
Tawy. That is a rich gift, even if the Consort's Throne
does not come with you."

Nebt-Het blushed again. She took a long draught from her
silver chalice in an attempt to hide her embarrassment at
being chastised. Truth be told, she had gone to sleep every
night of the trials with a prayer that Setekh would prevail
over all save at the end. A guilty hope on her part, to
wish for her desire to prove himself the best in all the
land but do so in a way that he fell short of winning the
hand of the heiress. She had seen in his eyes how much
Setekh had desired to marry Niet and become Tawy's next
Prince Consort -- and her heart raged at the thought of
anyone, even her sister, of having him when she could not.

That had been the reason for her insistence on presenting
her token of favor before Niet had awarded hers. The
ceremony had taken place at sunset the first day of the
contests. The inspection of the High Priestess and the
Queen's Chancellor of the candidates and the following
trials of Questions and Games had eliminated a number of the
field almost immediately. Where the two officials had
weeded out those of poor health, unsound minds and
physically limited, the tournament of Games had let only
those of strategic mind and quick wits continue on to the
remaining trials. While the men had been engaged in their
battles over the senet boards, the twin royals had
circulated among the hopefuls, watching their use of
strategy and putting them to the trial of Questions. Niet
and Nebt-Het had been required to give to each man a
hypothetical situation that was some moral dilemma and
they'd been expected to have removed from the contest any
candidate that had answered in a way that would have upset
Ma'at -- the correct Order of all things. A merry feast had
taken place at sunset to give thanks to Riyat for the
successful conclusion of the first day; during the revelry,
the princesses had called forth to their table the candidate
that had impressed them the most.

A tradition steeped in time, the awarding of the tokens were
intended to show all whom the princess favored out of those
vying for her hand in marriage. A hopeful suitor could have
refused the favor, but to do so would be seen as inviting
horrible luck to plague him in the following trials. Even
so, when Nebt-Het had approached Setekh and held out her
silver moon pendant, she had held her breath in near-terror.
She was certain that had he wanted her sister so much more
that he would have dashed aside the piece of jewelry
engraved with Nebt-Het's royal name and titles. The look in
the youth's sapphire-blue eyes had held a disappointment
that had momentarily hurt the shy princess, but Setekh had
graciously thanked Nebt-Het for the honor and had slipped
the sturdy chain over his head.

It hadn't helped Nebt-Het's feelings at all when Setekh's
displeasure at Amon being awarded Niet's golden sun pendant
had been painfully evident on the younger brother's handsome
face. Still there had burned within her a love and
possessiveness that had swollen in pride each time she had
seen Setekh bearing her token throughout the remainder of
the trials. He had outstripped all in everything save his
greatest rival, his own brother Amon. One by one the field
of suitors had been whittled down until this final day.
This last event would see the winner declared; the chariot
race even now taking place was the tiebreaker between the
finalists: Amon and Setekh, brothers and rivals.

"It's been interesting, watching the two of them," Niet
softly commented. She guessed that the blush gracing her
twin's cheeks was from embarrassment; both of them were well
aware of the heiress's impending elevation to the identity
of Auset, queen of Tawy and living avatar of the sun goddess
Riyat. Though they had always been close as children, Niet
sensed a growing distance surrounding her beloved, gentle
sibling. That Nebt-Het had been fretting over Prince
Setekh's determination to take the Consort's Throne as Ausar
explained much. Niet knew how deeply the other princess
desired the handsome youth. "In the contests of military
might and strength, Setekh has bested all, including his
older brother. But in those tests of diplomacy and gentler
arts, Amon has prevailed."

"Amon's no slouch when it comes to strength and might,"
Nebt-Het replied. "Should the nomads or foreigners decide
to harry our borders, he would be a good general."

"Indeed, but the talent for war seems to have been given to
the youngest sibling."

"Tawy has seen peace for many years. To have one skilled in
the arts of civilization would serve you better to maintain
Ma'at," Nebt-Het countered. Her sister sounded as if she
were thinking over the merits of Setekh claiming victory.
Nebt-Het's grip tightened around her silver cup. She didn't
want the much older Amon.

The royal heiress noted her sister's fingers blanching from
the pressure of a tightened grip. "And one with Setekh's
talents would best serve Ma'at as a provincial ruler,
defending our borders," Niet said in reassurance. Of the
brothers, Amon would certainly make the better Consort in a
purely political sense. That Niet herself was quite taken
with the man's appearance and charming personality only
helped. She had certainly enjoyed all the attention the
male siblings had given her in an attempt to win her heart,
though everyone involved knew that the ancient tradition of
the Consort's Trials would determine who would ascend to the
Divine Throne with her. Guilt had torn at Niet, however,
when she became aware of how set Nebt-Het was on Setekh
somehow taking second place in the Trials and thus winning
the hand of the younger princess; Niet had done all she
could to gently guide Setekh's interest to settle on
Nebt-Het in response.

Nebt-Het's expression instantly brightened. "He would be
perfect for such a position, Niet. I know he'd be able to
keep our people safe from any incursion." (So she truly
*does* favor Amon after all . . .)

When her sister smiled, it was as glorious as the golden
rays of the life-giving sun. The twins were identical in
appearance yet Niet acknowledged that her sibling had an
indefinable something that made her the more physically
beautiful of the pair. Perhaps Nebt-Het's gentler, more
graceful personality gave her an aura of mystic serenity;
Niet certainly was more outspoken and invariably took
command of her surroundings. Having been raised with the
knowledge that one day she would become Riyat's living
avatar, the heiress demanded proper respect and expected to
have her orders obeyed. The knowledge of her destiny gave
her a self-confidence and powerful presence hard to ignore.

The radiant expression was a reward that warmed Niet. Riyat
willing, Amon would emerge the victor of the chariot race;
Nebt-Het would be ecstatic at winning her heart's desire,
the dashing elder brother would make a worthy Consort and
husband, and everyone involved would be joyful with the
results. Niet had no reservations at all about her twin's
ability to win Setekh's affection. The four divine-blooded
people already regarded themselves as good friends. Their
mutual descent from the sun goddess had ensured that the two
sets of siblings interacted within the same circles of power
and influence.

Pleased at diverting the other princess's attention to more
pleasant thoughts, Niet took a drink of the refreshing juice
and then set her goblet down on the small table at her side.
Slender fingers curled around a protective amulet of amber
carved in the shape of a scarab beetle. She lifted the
object up to her deep brown gaze and stared into the depths
of the honey-hued stone. Magically connected to the golden
sun disk worn as her token, the scarab gave Niet a way to
sense where Amon was along the racecourse. "He nears the
pass," she announced, "and at the moment he's trailing
behind his brother."

(No . . . Dear Riyat, please . . . Don't let him win . . .)
Fear filled Nebt-Het. Her hand tightened around her goblet
once more as she reached out and picked up a charm from the
table next to her portable throne. An ankh carved from an
iridescent seashell, it was her link to the moon pendant
worn by Setekh. She gazed into the shifting rainbow
patterns while her mind searched for the magical presence of
the prince of her heart.

Joy, pride, a fierce competitiveness -- those were the
feelings that washed over the shy princess's awareness.
Nebt-Het concentrated on the sensations, her deep brown eyes
narrowing. The thunder of hooves, the taste of hot air, the
feel of sweat, the violent bouncing and racing speed the
reddish-haired man felt became clearer to the woman
desperately awaiting the end of the race.

***

He was as swift and free as a falcon. Mind sharp as talons,
his entire being wrapped itself in the moment. The sway and
bounce of the chariot, the galloping horses, the tension of
the leather reins in his hands, the heated desert air
rushing past and cooling his sweat-soaked, tanned skin --
all of it was merely an extension of himself. He could hear
his rival's team thundering close behind him. (I refuse to
eat my brother's dust!)

He stood proudly in the gilded wooden vehicle with sandaled
feet braced wide apart. The strong straps that served as
reins were looped around his wrists and gripped tightly in
his hands. His lean, athletic form was bare to the
blistering sun save for the tightly wrapped loincloth
underneath a short, pleated kilt of white linen girded in
place by a gem-adorned flexible belt of golden plaques
linked together. The silver moon-disk pendant hanging
around his neck bounced against his glistening chest with
every jostle of the chariot. Shoulder-length black hair
shimmering with deep crimson highlights streamed out behind
him as he urged the magnificent team of desert horses ever
faster.

The last set of markers before the rocky channel of the pass
-- tall white poles gleaming in the harsh light, each
accompanied by an official from the Sun Temple -- blazed by
in a bright blur as Setekh set his sapphire blue gaze on the
cleft in the arid ridge. The red and black ostrich feathers
affixed to the bridles of the twin black equines rippled
with the animals' nodding at every powerful stride they
took.

Beyond that rocky gateway lay destiny. The cumulation of
the Consort's Trials came down to these final moments, this
last stretch of land. At the end would be marriage to one
of the royal twins and the concurrent power such a position
would give. Although he strove against his older sibling in
order to win the hand of the heiress and thus take on the
identity of Ausar the Divine Consort, Setekh had to admit
that Nebt-Het would also be a worthy prize. The gentler
twin was much like the moon -- whose symbol he wore as her
favor -- in that despite existing in the circle of Niet's
greater glory, Nebt-Het possessed a mystic beauty and
pleasant nature that would be as welcome as an oasis in the
desert.

Setekh turned his dark azure gaze from the raceway long
enough to spot Amon. The older man was gaining ground after
having coaxed his team of white equines into giving more,
the green and black ostrich plumes decorating the animals'
heads nodding with the swift movement. Strong of limb,
broad-shouldered, his black hair graced with lapis-blue
highlights, Amon handled his chariot as skillfully as
Setekh. Like his brother, the handsome prince was clad in
sandals, loincloth and kilt, bejewelled belt and princess's
token. Though the mid-morning sun was already making heat
shimmer along the horizon like phantom pools of water, the
race itself wouldn't last an extended period of time in the
blistering temperature.

Setekh suppressed a growl. (I will win this! I will prove
that I am the better man . . .)

The fiery noble yanked his attention back to the race course
and shouted at his team, encouraging them to accelerate.
For as long as he could remember, he had been constantly
compared to his older brothers. The middle brother Heru-Ur
was a quiet one, content to devote himself to clerical work
and the sacred calling of scribe. Dedicated to the temple
from birth since their parents already had an heir to carry
on the family business of provincial rulership, Heru-Ur was
something of an enigma; Setekh had been only five when his
middle brother was turned over to the clerics for full-time
training.

Six years separated the heir and his remaining sibling.
Amon watched over Setekh those times their parents were
otherwise occupied, and the reddish-haired prince came to
dislike the age difference. While his noble sibling was
allowed to do interesting things or go to interesting
places, Setekh would often be told that he would have to
wait until he was older. Their parents had been proud of
their heir's accomplishments, and while they were equally
pleased by their youngest child's works, Setekh was never
sure if he had earned their praise on his own merits or if
he received them simply because he modeled himself on his
successful older brother.

He admired Amon deeply, but feared being lost in his
sibling's shadow. In time, Setekh's desire became not to
simply be like Amon but rather to surpass him in all things
possible. However Setekh still deeply loved his brother
despite the rivalry.

The silver pendant the reddish-maned prince wore bounced
solidly against his chest as one of the gilded chariot's
wheels rolled over a stone lying on the rocky ground. The
sensation brought the token to mind -- and with it came the
memory of the jewelry's owner. That first night had been an
exciting one; the party and royal feast welcome revelry
following the beginning of the trials. Both princesses were
enchanting, their beauty dazzling all those there. They
were the current mortal daughters of Riyat and it showed in
Niet's commanding presence and Nebt-Het's serene aura. Well
aware of his placement among the survivors -- only Amon had
scored better -- Setekh had been mildly surprised when his
name had been called first. The moment had given him an
opportunity to preen before all the other hopeful suitors,
and he had been glad for the opportunity.

Yes, he had been somewhat disappointed when it had been
Nebt-Het and not her older twin that had stood at his
approach. He had never made it a secret that he desired to
ascend to the Consort's Throne. Yet he knew how special it
was to be chosen by either princess to carry her token
through the remaining tests. Dozens of men had gathered for
the traditional winning of the royal princesses. Only two
would have the mark of royal favor, and he would be one of
them. He had felt so proud in that moment as the gentle
Nebt-Het settled the pendant's chain around his neck.
Noting how frightened she looked, however, put him ill at
ease, feeling awkward about how to reassure her. He had
grown up in her company since their mutual descent from the
sun goddess had seen to it that their families moved within
the rarified atmosphere of the royal court of Auset; he knew
the twins almost as well as he knew his own eldest brother.
But at that point in time, the full weight of reality --
they were adults engaged in holy tradition to determine the
future course of the entire realm -- settled on Setekh's
shoulders. The woman before him was no longer his familiar
playmate but rather the divine-blooded sister of the next
incarnation of Riyat.

Fear, awe and gravid seriousness had filled him as he felt
the weight of the moon-disk pendant settle on him. When
Amon was then called forward to receive the golden token of
Niet, Setekh had felt a momentary sting of disappointment.
If Nebt-Het hadn't chosen him first, would Niet have picked
him to wear her sun-disk? It was a question to which he
would never know the answer. The disappointment had then
settled into a fierce competitiveness. He had been
determined to show them all that he could best Amon and be
the next Ausar.

(But what if you fail? What if your brother manages to win
the race?) whispered a voice in the back of Setekh's mind as
he aimed his team of galloping horses toward the cleft in
the rocky ridge. What if . . . ? Then he would have as his
wife the quieter twin, the one that had seemed to follow him
around with an almost puppy-like adoration. It wouldn't be
a horrid fate to have as a mate and partner the girl who had
admired him so. There were worse ways to spend a lifetime,
and Nebt-Het's apparent devotion certainly stroked the
reddish-haired prince's ego.

Setekh certainly wouldn't die if he were not fated to become
the next Ausar. (But I'm going to do my best to succeed,)
he reminded himself. He pulled his thoughts from the
enchanting twins and glanced to the side -- only to discover
that Amon was racing next to him. During the reddish-maned
prince's distraction, the more mature sibling had come from
behind to pull even. Neck and neck the two teams of horses
galloped over the sun-baked earth; dust swirled in the dry
air after being disturbed by the pounding hooves and
metal-rimmed, spoked wheels. Setekh shouted hoarsely for
his black steeds to increase their speed and shook the
leather reins. Noting the decreasing distance between the
chariots and the narrow pass, the slender man leaned his
weight to the left and gently pulled the horses that same
direction.

Sparks flew from the hubs as the brothers' chariots
momentarily rubbed against one another. Cursing under his
breath, Amon was forced to the left in order to avoid
further entanglement; to refuse to give way to his sibling
would only risk both of them breaking their necks in a
crash. Eyes the same blue as the waters of the Great River
stared forward as the athletic man judged the remaining
distance. It was obvious that Setekh was lining up with the
entrance to the pass. Amon would either have to drop
behind, pull forward or force his brother back to the right
in order to avoid being driven into the steep cliff lining
the raceway. Since he wasn't willing to chance injuring
either one of them by trying to shove the other gilded
chariot back, the bluish-haired prince opted to attempt to
coax even more speed out of his white horses.

Amon certainly understood his brother's drive and tenacity.
The baby of the family with siblings both six years and
three years his senior, Setekh had never been one to sit
back and hold a place seemingly in his brothers' shadows.
No, the redheaded boy had always striven to make a spot of
his own choosing, through his own strength. Amon had wished
many times that their parents hadn't stressed so much the
responsibility their eldest child had as their heir. More
than anything he wished his baby brother could find
happiness in just being himself, yet Setekh seemed convinced
he could only succeed by being in direct competition with
Amon.

The aqua-eyed man loved his brother deeply; Amon had always
been willing to do anything -- save besmirch his own honor
-- to see to Setekh's happiness. There had been a closeness
there that had somehow been lacking with the more studious,
more introverted Heru-Ur. Amon had done all he could to be
a close friend as well as a protective older brother to
Setekh; it hurt to see the growing competitiveness between
them as Setekh struggled to achieve his own identity.

But Amon also loved Niet. For many years he had considered
the twins like sisters, but as they had blossomed into
womanhood, Amon found himself drawn more and more to the
confident, intelligent crown princess. She could have been
disinherited by her mother, the former Queen Auset, and he
would continue to seek Niet's hand in marriage and jump
through any hoops of tradition in order to have her at his
side. He cared little for the fact that the royal heiress's
husband would become the Prince Consort, but he would
certainly perform Ausar's duties to the best of his ability
should that be his fate. It was Niet the woman he wished to
share his life, not Niet the queen -- though he certainly
wouldn't kick the avatar of the sun goddess from his bed
given the chance.

The sophisticated noble had been annoyed to be reminded that
the royal girls could only be won in the traditional
Consort's Trials. Established in a harsher, less certain
time, the contests ensured that the next generation of
divine blood would be sired by only the best in the land.
Now the twins were locked within a prison of mystic
ceremony; it galled Amon slightly that Niet couldn't choose
her own mate, but even he was loathe to risk upsetting Ma'at
for the sake of love. No, the proper way -- the Khemet way
-- would be to act according to Ma'at and accept the
results. It would be if it was meant to be.

Thus he had entered the trials and found himself once again
in direct competition with his adored sibling. In striving
to achieve the love of his life, he was competing for the
very same thing Setekh hoped to grasp. The honorable man
even now hoped that Setekh didn't view Amon's participation
as a deliberate attempt to snatch away something the younger
one deeply desired. Urging his horses to run faster, Amon
hazarded a look to the other contestant. (Do your inner
demons drive you so, dear Seti? Would you strive so hard if
you knew a loss would gain you the love of a woman devoted
to you?) Pride and frustration warred within Amon's noble
heart. Though he admired his brother's courage and
perseverance in chasing after the dream of becoming Tawy's
next Ausar, he resented the fact that should Setekh win, the
older sibling would lose the one he desired more than
anything else.

Onward they raced, the canyon walls looming over them.
Sooner or later one or the other must give way or ram into
the unforgiving stone. Sparks flew again as Setekh nudged
his chariot against the other vehicle; the slender youth was
determined to win the developing contest of skill and wills.
Amon grumbled again and drifted closer to the cliff. Not
much distance remained. He would have to do *something* now
or crash.

Amon's strong arms pulled back on the reins sightly before
yanking them to the right. The white equines slowed their
gallop then veered into the black animals to their side.
Neighs joined Setekh's vehement shout as the reddish-haired
prince guided his team away from the other chariot. Amon's
baritone shattered the arid atmosphere as he shook the
reins; the well-trained team under his command surged
forward in an attempt to pull ahead of their rivals.

(Oh no you don't!) Setekh refused to lose, especially to
his brother. The temperamental sibling pulled on the reins
and guided his black horses to shove back against the other
racers. The gold-covered chariots rammed together with a
force that made both men sway, though each brother kept his
footing.

(Dammit!) Amon ordered his team away from the others. A
frantic glance to the left revealed the jutting earth
uncomfortably close. The even-tempered noble braced himself
in preparation to speed ahead when one of his wheels ran
over a large rock just to the side of the cleared
racecourse. Having broken from the cliff after the clerics
of the Sun Temple made their final sweep of the route, the
stone was too big to be ground into the sandy soil by the
momentum and weight of the speeding vehicle.

The chariot leapt from the ground, propelled by the impact.
Amon dropped the reins and desperately grasped the golden
sides in an attempt to keep from being thrown while the
chariot careened forward on a single wheel. Sunlight
flashed off the yellow metal covering the wooden core of the
vehicle and startled the pair of snowy-hued equines; the
animals shied and slammed into the other team in a desperate
attempt to get away from the unexpected, bright threat.
Setekh's horses neighed in protest and veered to the right
while the sudden shift of momentum nearly sent the
fiery-tempered charioteer over the side. He shouted in
consternation and fought his horses for control, the other
rocky wall of the narrowing passageway too close for safety.

Much to Amon's relief the other metal-rimmed wheel landed
back on the parched earth. He darted forward and caught the
flapping reins; his athletic form settled back into the
unconscious stance of a practiced charioteer while he
wrapped the leather straps around his wrists and tightened
his grip. Once more in command of his team, he guided the
galloping horses into the mouth of the pass. He looked back
over a broad shoulder, aqua eyes staring through his
windswept, bluish-black hair for any sign of his brother.

Setekh was only paces behind the other hopeful suitor, his
body and arms locked in a struggle against the panicking
ebony horses. Amon watched long enough to assure himself
that his sibling was moving away from the rocky embankment
before turning his attention fully on maneuvering through
the winding pass. From this point onward, it would be
impossible for Setekh to pull ahead until after they emerged
out the other end. There was a short straightaway beyond
the end of the cleft before the finish line would be
reached; a skillful driver could still overtake a leader to
win the race there.

The thunder of hooves, the jingle of tack, the rattle of the
chariot, the hot wind blowing over his sweat-cooled skin
filled Amon's awareness as he guided his team along the
treacherous path over the shoulder of the ridge. Wise in
the ways of his sibling, the even-tempered prince expected
Setekh to hold back just enough to allow both of them
through safely before making one final, desperate challenge.
Amon would need his wits about him to fend off the other
determined man.

The mouth of the pass loomed before him. Setekh shouted,
yanking hard backwards and to the side while he struggled
against his spooked equines. The twin black steeds darted
in the direction they were pulled but just a moment too
late. The momentum of the shift made the lightweight,
gilded vehicle slide over the thin layer of wind-blown sand
covering the previously cleared, heat-baked ground; the
chariot slammed into one of the formidable cliffs guarding
the start of the narrow path. The axle snapped in half with
a resounding crack, a wheel spinning off to rebound against
the stone wall. Setekh's horses screamed in fright at the
unfamiliar sounds and sensations of the vehicle slamming
against the ground and plowing a furrow in the arid earth
with the shattered shaft of the axle. They reared and pawed
the air, the torque too much for their harness to withstand.
Leather snapped as the animals broke free and galloped ahead
in terror; though trained to pull a chariot in
short-distance races and in flashy parades, the clanking,
dragging monster behind them was something unusual,
frightening.

Setekh hung onto the sides of the vehicle, praying to Riyat
that he would survive the ordeal. The jolt of losing a
wheel had damned near thrown him from the swiftly-traveling
chariot. His knuckles turned pale with the force of his
grip; the reins had been abandoned in favor of trying to
protect himself from the unyielding earth. Sapphire-blue
eyes widened in shock as his mind registered his team of
horses breaking the traces. The last memory he had was of
closing his eyes and bracing himself as the sturdy pole
affixed to the yoke dived toward the barren, desert ground.

***

"Oh no . . . No!" Nebt-Het's suddenly numb fingers almost
dropped the pearlescent ankh she held. All too intense had
been those moments of shock, fear and pain that had filled
her senses before all contact with her favored one was lost.

The other princess's outburst startled Niet. "What's
happened?" she asked, turning her gaze to stare at her
sister.

"Something's happened to Seti," the gentle twin replied in a
panic-tinged tone. Nebt-Het hastily set aside both ankh and
goblet and gathered up her fine linen garment in preparation
to stand. It wouldn't do to trip over the hem of the long,
loose-fitting gown in her frantic haste.

**What do you mean?** asked a gruff, deep voice within the
twins' minds. A dark figure moved from the side of Niet's
portable throne. The sound of a bejewelled collar of golden
links rattling filled the area as an ebony-furred jackal
stood, shook itself and then trotted over to look up at the
distraught young royal.

Both girls stared at the beautiful, sleek animal. Though an
average person knew the jackal as merely the pet of whomever
sat upon the Divine Throne, those within the heart of Court
and palace knew the truth. The canine body housed the mind
and soul of a man, a prince of Ta-Resu eternally cursed by
the first Queen Auset who ruled over the united realm of
Tawy. Death was a luxury long denied the former noble; he
was bound in unending servitude to whomever ruled the Two
Lands.

"I . . . I felt fear, then pain . . . then nothing,"
Nebt-Het sobbed while swiftly rising from her seat. "What
if he's out there dying, Anpu?" That thought alone was
enough to make her heart skip a beat in terror.

**Then he's not fit to be consort to either of you,** the
jackal responded, his mind's voice holding a matter-of-fact
tone.

While the gentler twin sobbed at the condemning words, Niet
fixed the sable animal with her deep brown gaze. "How could
you say that about your descendant?" the crown princess
asked, incredulous. "Have you no care that your flesh and
blood may be turning to dust?"

"He's proven himself to me," Nebt-Het insisted. She grabbed
handfuls of her gown and ran from the royal box. She didn't
care if tradition stated that a contestant couldn't seek
help from outside sources nor could a princess aid one
carrying her favor. She couldn't let her beloved friend die
out in the desert.

**Nebt-Het!** Anpu shouted while galloping after the fleeing
girl. Realizing that his canine body couldn't keep up with
the younger princess, he appealed to the other twin. **Niet!
Tell her that she's not supposed to interfere.**

The heiress stood, hands gathering the soft linen of her
impressive gown while she rose to her golden-sandaled feet.
"Seti's proven himself to me as well. There's no point in
allowing him to die. Both finalists were tied in score;
both are worthy." Bead-weighted raven-hued braids swung
with her graceful walk as she followed behind her sister.

**But this isn't how it's supposed to be done . . .** Anpu
protested while he gave chase to the girls.

"This is a different time. The world's no longer so harsh a
place that it demands the sacrifice of a man otherwise
worthy of wedding a royal princess," Niet replied, her tone
leaving no doubt that her decision was final.

The ebony-furred jackal growled deep in his throat, the
canine version of an exasperated sigh. Although he was
certain that neither Ma'at was threatened nor would Riyat be
angered by the royals' actions, he was compelled by his
curse to advise them to the best of his ability. They were
the current mortal daughters of the sun goddess and
maintaining the Order of all things was their responsibility
-- and he was bound to remind them of their duties to their
people.

The watching crowd fell silent then murmured in abject
surprise as the twins marched toward the finish line. A
breeze of desert-heated air ruffled hair and clothing, made
ostrich feathers ripple and gently swung the bright red
ribbon stretched between the final set of poles while the
gathered nobles watched and the princesses drew close to the
officials waiting there. Such behavior by the girls was
unprecedented. Something drastic must be going on.

She would be too late. Fear gripped Nebt-Het's heart, a
dismay as deep as any felt by a woman believing she was
losing her beloved mate. The emotion goaded her into
action. Her skirts held up off the sand-swept earth and
giving all tantalizing glimpses of her well-shaped legs and
silver sandals, the usually-serene royal ran toward the
narrow pass. Despite the blistering sun and the worried
shouts of the High Priestess and the Chancellor, the younger
sister dashed onward, ignoring all but the need to reach her
fallen love's side.

"Your Highness?" shouted the sun goddess's highest cleric as
the white- and silver-clad princess sped past. The light
footsteps and the scent of Nebt-Het's perfume revealed to
the priestess whom it was rushing across the sandy soil.
Stunned, the elegant woman remained in place with mouth
slightly open and slender, tanned arm outstretched toward
the ever-fainter sounds of the girl's delicate stride.
Sightless amber eyes gazed unfocused in the direction the
girl had headed. The hot wind ruffled both the cleric's
bead-decorated, braided, amber-black hair and her
see-through, pleated linen overdress. A pectoral collar of
brightly colored flowers woven together by papyrus strips
graced her shoulders, gold and gem-studded jewelry shimmered
from wrists and ankles and a sleek-fitting underdress of
gold and amber cloth hugged her tantalizing form.

"Prince Setekh's been hurt, and my sister fears for him,"
Niet answered while drawing abreast of the cleric.

"But . . . but . . . but, Your *Highness*," sputtered the
Queen's Chancellor. Having abandoned his spot at the
approach of the twins, he halted before the two women. The
middle-aged officer was portly, a big man whose body
betrayed the fact that he enjoyed a very good life. The
kilt belted with gold around his considerable girth most
likely could have held both royal sisters within its
embrace. His broad shoulders were covered with a pectoral
collar of gem-inlaid gold that showed his position as the
head administrator of the Divine Throne's government. The
desert heat made his bare skin glisten with sweat; the
sunshine brought out the muddy violet highlights in his
raven-hued, short-cropped hair. "It's just not *proper* --
"

"I decide what's proper, Bes," the royal heiress replied.
She frowned at her chancellor with a look intended to remind
the official whom he served. The rotund Bes was nice enough
but there were times his fawning toward the princesses and
his lording it over those he considered lesser got on Niet's
nerves. Watching Bes sputter and take a step back, Niet
then turned her deep brown gaze to the priestess. "Your
Radiance, do we thwart Riyat's will in our concern?"

The amber-clad woman turned and faced the source of the
regal voice, blind eyes staring at the princess for a long
moment. Nebt-Het was already well on her way; the cleric
could sense that the more outspoken girl was equally
determined to render what aid was possible to the man Niet
had known since childhood. The High Priestess lifted her
amber eyes to the golden disk high above. Warmth caressed
her face; long ago her sight had been sacrificed to that
burning orb as a solemn sacrament. The process had been
ecstatic, giving the priestess insights into the deepest
mysteries of Riyat even as the goddess gently took away her
ability to see. In return the cleric was granted higher
acuity in her remaining senses as well as a magical ability
to know the position of things around her body. The
combination was a potent one, allowing the High Priestess to
function almost as well as any sighted person. "Follow your
heart, Your Highness. You know well the ways of Ma'at."

"Then I'm going. Come with me, Bes, Tehuti," the confident
twin requested. Niet picked up her skirts and began dashing
after the distant form of her sister. She wanted the
official observers to witness the whole of the contests,
including this unorthodox variation in the events.

"Of course," Tehuti responded. The graceful High Priestess
gestured for the Queen's Chancellor to follow while she
began walking forward at a fast pace.

Nebt-Het neared the eastern entrance of the rocky pass
through which the racers would guide their chariots. The
thunder of hooves and the rattling of tack and vehicle
alerted the gentle royal to approaching danger. She dashed
to the side as the white horses and golden chariot exploded
through the stone cleft and galloped onto the flat land
beyond. Pressed against the sun-heated rock, Nebt-Het
gasped in breaths of desert air as Amon's team rushed past.
The dust kicked up made her violently cough.

Nebt-Het neared the eastern entrance of the rocky pass
through which the racers would guide their chariots. The
thunder of hooves and the rattling of tack and vehicle
alerted the gentle royal to approaching danger. She dashed
to the side as the white horses and golden chariot exploded
through the stone cleft and galloped onto the flat land
beyond. Pressed against the sun-heated rock, Nebt-Het
gasped in breaths of desert air as Amon's team rushed past.
The dust kicked up made her violently cough.

Only a short distance now. The final stretch lay ahead.
Amon leaned forward, his being focused into this one moment.
Setekh would be close behind; even now the headstrong youth
could be urging his ebon steeds into a last desperate dash.
The normally-placid prince shouted to his white geldings,
urging them to give their all. Amon was *certain* he could
hear his brother's team gaining on him, and the finish line
loomed ahead, tantalizingly close. Aqua-blue eyes stared
straight ahead; though tempted to look about and pinpoint
his rival's location, the noble remained focused upon
winning the race. So much rode on these final seconds.

His concentration faltered as his mind registered the forms
scrambling out of his path. Startled, Amon straightened --
only to surge through the ribbon marking the finish. The
twin pieces of the sundered cloth fluttered to the dry earth
while Amon pulled back on the sturdy leather reins. The
chariot slowed and the honorable prince immediately glanced
at the royal box.

Cheers, shouts and applause greeted the victor, but no
golden smile from the woman he loved. Amon frowned,
confused, as he noted that the portable thrones were sitting
empty beneath the royal pavilion. Neither princess was
present to see the man fated to become the next incarnation
of Ausar. The tall, athletic winner ignored the adulation
of the watching crowd -- those within the Ta-Resu stands
were more jubilant than their Ta-Meht cousins because both
finalists were from a southern bloodline -- as he searched
for any sight of the princesses.

No royal smile greeted his gaze. No words of joy or relief
from his beloved called out to him. Amon stood there in
stunned silence while the crowd roared around him. Young
children, boys no more than twelve or thirteen, clad in the
garb of the palace staff ran up to the golden chariot and
team of proud, white horses; the victorious man never noted
when the reins were taken from his slack grasp by the
youthful grooms.

The jingle of a collar of golden links and the yipping bark
of an agitated jackal caught Amon's attention. A familiar,
deep-toned voice sounded in his mind, **Setekh's been hurt!
Their Highnesses went to help!** even as the well-known
figure of the ebony canid bounded toward the victor.

Fear spiked through the noble prince. He gasped in a breath
of the heated desert air while whirling around in the gilded
vehicle. No sign of his brother greeted him; so certain had
Amon been that he had never thought to glance behind to see
if Setekh followed. Realizing the enormity of his mistake,
Amon leapt from the chariot and started dashing across the
sun-scorched earth.

**For Riyat's sake, will any of you kindly wait for me to
catch up?** Anpu complained. He increased the stride of his
lean, canine body as he chased after one of his current
descendants.

"He could be dying out there!" Amon shouted back. Sweat
rolled down his bronzed skin, his muscles ached with the
unexpected demand, but all he could focus on was the fact
that his baby brother could be lying in the sand, seriously
injured. Amon would never forgive himself if something
happened to Setekh and no attempt had been made to help the
younger prince.

(And you think running off in a panic will somehow help?)
The noble cursed to spend eternity in a jackal's body kept
that thought to himself. Tongue lolling out of his mouth
while panting, Anpu jogged after the disappearing form of
his descendant.

Nebt-Het's heart hammered in fear and exertion as she
scrabbled through the serpentine passage. Finding the way
treacherous, her footing sliding on sand-sprinkled, rocky
terrain, the quiet twin slowed her pace enough to keep from
falling. She dreaded what she would discover once she came
upon the injured prince, yet love propelled her onward. She
couldn't let him die out here in the unforgiving heat. She
choked back a sob when Setekh's pair of fine sable geldings
galloped past; the normally-serene princess scrambled
faster, ignoring her occasional slips. The horses
continued through the pass toward the place where they knew
their familiar, safe stables awaited them. Their dust made
Nebt-Het cough and sweat trickled down her tan skin. Though
well-toned and in good shape -- the commander of the Temple
Guard had ensured that both princesses exercised well and
could wield a weapon -- the normally-serene woman became
aware of how much her endurance could be pushed by an
extended dash through the noontime heat.

A flash of brilliant light reflecting off gold caught the
gentle royal's attention as she scrambled down the earthen
pathway to the far entrance of the pass. Setekh's
once-proud chariot lay in a golden heap, broken and
battered. "Seti? Seti!" Nebt-Het called out in horror,
praying for any reply. Oh please, merciful Riyat, don't let
him be dead . . .

No man-made sound answered her desperate cry.

A precious tear rolled down Nebt-Het's tanned cheek.
Sadness overwhelmed her at the thought of arriving too late.
Deep brown eyes protected from the sun's reflected glare by
the lining of kohl, the shy princess scanned the crash site
for any sign of her fallen beloved. She froze as she
spotted a heap of white and tan lying crumpled against the
cliff overshadowing the mouth of the pass. "Seti! Oh,
*Neteret*! *Seti*!" the royal shouted while running across
the blasted, heated earth.

The fiery prince lay still, unmoving, his bronzed skin an
unhealthy-looking ashen shade. Crimson stained his
red-highlighted hair and his face; more of Setekh's divine
blood clung to the spot where he had struck the cliff.
Nebt-Het's dark gaze focused on the man's chest while she
pressed slender fingers against his neck in search of a
pulse. The feeble beat under her fingertips and the shallow
rise and fall of Setekh's chest assured her that her beloved
friend yet lived. (Thank Riyat . . . Please, Seti, don't
leave me. Wake up, please . . .)

"Neb? Where are you?" Niet frowned at the sight of the
crash site, the worst hinted at by the sight of the missing
prince's horses galloping freely back to the city now
confirmed. From the condition of the vehicle, the sequence
of events was fairly obvious. Something had damaged the
chariot to the point where the black geldings had broken
their traces. When the pole hit the sun-baked earth, the
chariot had instantly lost all momentum. Setekh had been
thrown, slamming into the cliff -- trauma that could easily
be fatal.

"Over here!" the gentle royal frantically called out.
"Hurry, Niet! He's hurt! There's blood all over! Help
him!"

The sorrow and desperation evident in her twin's voice made
Niet's own heart ache. Though she had long thought her
sister foolish for setting her heart on one man -- the
Consort's Trials would determine a husband no matter whom
Nebt-Het loved -- the crown princess couldn't deny her
sibling's request. Niet would do anything to see her twin
happy; the younger princess deserved that since she would
most likely never fulfill the destiny of their shared divine
blood by ruling Tawy. "I'm coming, Neb," the confident
royal answered.

Someone called to him, a frantic voice piercing the dark
solitude he couldn't ignore. (I was doing something
important . . .) The urgency remained, throbbing through him
like the beat of a great drum.

The heiress knelt down in the dust next to her sister.
While Nebt-Het continued to softly moan the fallen man's
name Niet swept her deep brown gaze over the prince's form.
The only obvious hurt was the wound to the head where blood
slowly dropped onto the parched earth, though the awkward
angle of the youth's right shoulder hinted at another injury
there. Scrapes and small cuts marked the charioteer's
pallid skin; they were all wounds of little consequence.

The inexorable drumbeat changed to a rushing of blood and an
inescapable pain. Taking in a breath that made his side
burst into flaming agony, Setekh realized that he hurt too
much to be among the dead. He groaned, left arm moving to
brace against his ribs; that voice calling to him still
wouldn't leave him be to die in peace. He opened his eyes
in preparation to vent what little remained of his temper --
and froze in awe at the beautiful sight.

The woman was perfection itself, her visage one full of love
and concern. The brilliant disk of the sun surrounded her
vulture-crowned head like a nimbus of divinity. (Riyat?)
Setekh's befuddled mind wondered.

"Seti? Seti, please speak to me! Don't leave me!" Nebt-Het
implored. Hope had awakened when the man groaned and moved.
Yet she was unnerved by the way his sapphire eyes seemed to
stare unfocused straight through her. "Hurry, Niet!"

Setekh heard the name of the regal heiress. His awareness
pounced on the insight, recognizing it as a clue to that
something important he had been doing. (Niet . . . Crown
Princess of Tawy . . . She who would sit next on the Divine
Throne once . . .) "The Consort's Trials," he whispered as
images flooded back to him of the contests over the last few
days. He had been proving to everyone he was the best of
the best. In the end it had come down to himself and Amon.
(The chariot race!) "Must . . . finish," he muttered,
struggling to get to his feet.

"Oh no you don't," Niet said. She ignored the crimson
liquid staining the wounded man; she spread her slender hand
over Setekh's mostly-bare chest and pushed him back toward
the earth. "You're going to stay there long enough for me
to Heal you."

Color returned to the injured prince's skin as his deep
azure eyes narrowed. Despite the pain and light-headedness,
his thoughts were quickly clearing. "No," he responded.
All of the contestants had taken a vow to accept no outside
help until the time came that they had completed the trials.
Setekh was honorable, a man of his word. He had promised
the officials he would have no aid, and he had promised
himself he would complete the contests and prove himself to
everyone.

Niet suppressed a growl of frustration. "Now is not the
time to be stubborn," she admonished.

"I vowed . . ." Setekh gathered his strength and rolled
over. As Niet glared and Nebt-Het gasped in worry, the
fiery man levered himself up to a kneeling position. "No
outside help . . . until I complete the trials . . ."

"But they're over," Nebt-Het protested. "It's been decided.
You don't have to keep going, Seti, especially since you're
hurt . . ." Enough time had passed since she had seen
Amon's team gallop by that certainly the other prince had
won the race.

(No . . .) The reddish-black haired prince closed his eyes
and fought off the heartache that threatened to engulf him.
With a deep snarl he staggered to his feet, left arm pressed
against his ribs in an attempt to ease some of the pain from
his labored breathing. "I will . . . prove myself . . ."

Niet shook her head; the movement made the gemstone and gold
beads weighing down her braids tinkle merrily against one
another. "Stand still and let me Heal you," she growled. A
softly glowing aura of golden light surrounded her hand as
she put it on the prince's distorted shoulder.

He felt the gentle warmth trying to invade his being. He
pulled away with a staggering step and a jerk of his
shoulder. A sandal drug against the sand-swept earth while
he hissed in agony. "I said 'no'!"

"Have it your way then," the crown princess remarked. She
lowered her hand and stood there, watching Setekh take
another limping step into the pass.

"Niet, you can't just let him do this," Nebt-Het protested.
Had he no idea the risk he was taking? Did he care that
little for himself and her feelings about him?

"It's what he wants," the other royal answered. "Let him go
for as long as he can." Noting the stricken expression on
her twin's beautiful face, Niet hurriedly reassured her, "I
promise I won't let him die. If he drops, I'll heal him
then, when he can't refuse or protest."

Nebt-Het nodded in agreement at her sibling's whispered
words. Somewhat mollified, the quiet royal got into step
behind her heart's desire. She vowed to be right there,
ready to assist him should he suddenly need the aid.

Heavy breathing and dragging footsteps along with the scents
of blood and sweat alerted the blind Tehuti that she neared
the missing contestant. The sounds of lighter steps and a
whiff of two distinct, delicate perfumes informed the High
Priestess that the twins accompanied Setekh. Determination,
frustration and romantic admiration helped tell the story;
Tehuti could sense those emotions within the auras of the
trio of young adults.

"Your Highnesses? Is everything all right?" boomed out the
voice of Bes. The corpulent Chancellor followed behind the
slender sun priestess. Even the leisurely walk through the
narrow, winding cleft in the ridge made the man sweat in
exertion. Noting the dusty, disheveled, bloodstained figure
shambling toward him, the governmental official halted and
stared. Surely this sorry figure wasn't the proud Prince
Setekh?

"It's all under control, Bes," Niet responded while trailing
behind her twin and the wounded man. "We're merely
accompanying Prince Setekh to the finish line."

As Tehuti stepped lightly aside to allow the contestant in
question to pass, the Queen's Chancellor turned his
muddy-brown gaze to the crown princess. "In that
condition?" he blurted.

(I will make it . . . I will show them all . . .) Setekh
didn't waste his breath on even a growl of annoyance. He
staggered forward, ignoring the pain and the heat of the
sun. All he had to do was drag himself through the pass and
across the flat straightaway waiting on the plains between
ridge and river. The distance wasn't an impossible one.

"I have little choice," the outspoken royal replied. Niet
gestured toward the wounded man. "He refuses to allow me to
help him until after he crosses the finish line."

Noting that the rotund Chancellor took a step forward and
seemed intent on trying to talk some sense into her injured
beloved, Nebt-Het shook her head and held up a hand in a
gesture to halt. "Bes, don't. The longer he's out here,
the longer it'll be before we can give him aid." The gentle
princess smiled in relief as the official backed away and
dropped into step with the royal twins. Behind them, Tehuti
turned and followed along in silence.

The grim, silent procession made its way to the low summit
of the serpentine pass. As Setekh hobbled forward, the
sound of running footsteps broke the stillness. The wounded
prince stopped, lifted his head and scanned the immediate
area for the source of the sound. (Ah, so here comes the
victor . . .) His mouth twisted into a wry smile as the
elder brother shouted Setekh's nickname and rushed closer.

"What're you doing, Seti?" Amon shouted. It was obvious
that the reddish-haired man was sorely wounded; the normally
placid Amon didn't like the amount of blood covering his
brother's form. From the way the rest of the group was
trailing in Setekh's shambling wake, their faces expressions
of disbelief and exasperation of varying degrees, the
bluish-haired prince guessed that Setekh had refused any
offer of help. "You need medical attention. There's no
point in this."

Ignored by all, Anpu watched as the brothers stared at one
another. He had trotted on behind Amon, catching up as the
athletic prince settled from panicked sprint into a
measured, long-distance stride.

That twisted smile remained on Setekh's visage.
"Congratulations, Brother," he said through parched lips.

Amon reached out and put a hand on his sibling's shoulder.
"Come on. Let's get you fixed up," he said in a soft voice.

The smile faded; the sapphire eyes lost what little warmth
had been in their depths. "Out of my way!" Setekh insisted.
He slapped aside his brother's hand and limped forward. (I
am the stronger man. I *am* the better man . . .) If he
could not win the race, he would show everyone he had a
strength beyond that of his sibling. He *would* cross that
finish line with no help; he was *certain* Amon would never
be able to do so were their circumstances changed.

The kind-hearted prince stood there in shock, hurt and
admiration while he watched the final contestant in the
Consort's Trials struggle closer to the finish line. Though
he felt like taking his younger brother by the arms and
either shaking or strangling some sense into Setekh's thick
skull, there remained that piece of Amon that couldn't help
but feel proud at the youth's determination and will.
"Stubborn ass . . ."

A feather-light touch on his shoulder turned Amon's
attention from his dark contemplation of the limping
prince's back. He turned and found himself staring into the
compassionate gaze of the crown princess; she understood the
conflict of emotion she noted in the winner's aqua-blue
eyes. No words passed between them as Nebt-Het slipped past
the two in order to continue following her beloved. No
words were needed. In that moment Amon knew that this
marriage was meant to be. Niet and he would find happiness
and an intimacy rare to political unions.

The grim little parade wound its way through the winding
cleft. Setekh lead them all with his limping gait; Nebt-Het
walked in the prince's dust, far more concerned with him
perhaps collapsing to the ground than the gritty dirt
covering her sandaled feet and the hem of her fine linen
dress. Anpu accompanied the quiet princess, a four-legged
shadow at Nebt-Het's side. Niet and her soon-to-be husband
followed behind the worried royal, the two of them side by
side. Next was Bes, his lumbering footsteps making
noticeable thumps on the sun-baked earth, and at the rear of
the procession was the blind, serene Tehuti; the sounds of
the others and the echoes from the tunnel-like passage of
stone helped guide the High Priestess's path. With the
pudgy Queen's Chancellor just ahead, the cleric found it
easy to judge the proper place to walk.

**Just what are you trying to prove?** the black jackal
asked, speaking only to the mind of the wounded contestant.

Setekh had been long aware that merely thinking would allow
the cursed prince to hear an answer to his mindvoiced
communication. (That I am better than my brother,) he
curtly thought in reply.

**And how does this accomplish that?**

(What business is it of yours, exactly?) Setekh thought
back. A faint growl of anger accompanied the query.

**What business? In case you hadn't noticed, there's a very
upset, very beautiful girl right behind you who is worried
you're going to drop dead before her very eyes. I'm
beholden to see that the will of the Throne is done, and
right now, that will is that you will marry that princess.**

Setekh narrowed his eyes in irritation. He tried to brush
aside the canine's words, but the throbbing pain, the
feeling of light-headedness and the sun's heat made it hard
to concentrate. (Nebt-Het will be disgusted to find she
must marry a weakling . . .)

**Nebt-Het would be disgusted to find that the man she wants
to marry is so stubborn he kills himself,** Anpu growled in
reply. **You understand nothing. Pull your head out of your
supposed misery long enough to take a look at your *wife*,
Setekh.**

(Wife . . .) That one word brought home the reality of the
concept. In a mere matter of hours, he would be a married
man, his life joined in eternal partnership to that of
another. Setekh faltered, stumbling on a stone not seen as
he had turned to look at the woman behind him. Nebt-Het was
instantly there, her arms helping steady him as her familiar
perfume wafted around him.

She gazed at her beloved's bloodied face, her fears evident
in her expression. "Seti? Are you okay?" she asked.

Behind them, Amon stepped forward, intending to help his
brother. Niet gently restrained her husband-to-be by
resting an arm on his shoulder. "Just wait a moment," she
whispered. "Give my sister a chance to talk to him."

"He needs to get medical attention or Healing," the tall
noble replied, his normally pleasant voice taking on a note
of irritation. "He's growing paler with every step and his
coordination's starting to go."

"If anyone can convince him to see reason, it's Neb. Just
give her a chance. I fear that you stepping in will only
strengthen Setekh's resolve," the crown princess responded.

As much as he hated doing so -- the rivalry between Setekh
and himself was a bitter thing -- Amon did as the
vulture-crowned royal suggested. He remained at Niet's side
while their respective siblings held a hushed conversation.

Setekh looked at the princess holding him. This was the
girl that had followed him nearly everywhere, watched him as
he had learned and trained to become worthy of the title of
prince of Tawy. Those deep brown eyes had gazed at him in
something akin to worshipful adoration. Ever since he had
attempted to rescue her from the crocodile, she had been
almost his feminine shadow. Couldn't she see that he wasn't
worthy of that adoration? "Neb?" he softly asked, dropping
for a moment into the informal address they were wont to use
as friends, "Wouldn't you rather I proved to everyone I was
worthy by crossing the finish line?"

"What do you mean?" He didn't make sense. Perhaps the heat
and his wounds were taking their toll. "You don't have to
go any further. The race was only to see who would marry
Niet," Nebt-Het responded. "You already proved your worth
by forcing a tie-breaker."

"You . . . won't think less of me?" The prince's facade
cracked for a moment, showing the vulnerable boy within. He
had always been in his older brother's shadow. Even what
was his greatest triumph so far -- beating off the child of
Sobek the Crocodile Lord from the daughters of Riyat -- was
overshadowed by Amon, for it had been the older prince that
had actually slain the beast.

Nebt-Het's heart swelled with loving pride. He worried
about losing status in her eyes. She gave him a hug, as
carefully as she dared given his injuries. "Oh Seti . . . I
could never think less of you unless you died on me and left
me a widow before even the wedding. Please, my prince . . .
Let Niet Heal you. You will always be a hero to me."

He had lost the right to ascend the throne as the next
incarnation of Ausar. That hurt; he had long struggled
toward that goal. Yet he couldn't deny that there was a
part of himself that was relieved at the loss, a piece that
looked forward in joy at having this woman as his wife. If
anyone could help him get over the disappointment of not
achieving the Consort's Throne, it would be the kind, gentle
and sweet Nebt-Het. "All right . . ." Setekh said, lowering
himself to the parched ground. "I will, but only for you."

A tear of happiness sparkled in the younger princess's eye
as she helped her beloved to the earth. Holding him in her
loving embrace, she gestured for her sister to come to
Setekh's aid.