And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh's daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses, and said: 'Because I drew him out of the water.'
The waters of the Nile flow slower in the hot season. There is no rush; all of Egypt converges at the Delta, gods and kings, farmers and artists, nomads and beasts and insects and slaves, trudging legs through sand and dust, always one beat behind their natural pace. Even the sun, Moses reflects, has slowed down, and he imagines the giant scarab rolling it across the sky, sluggish in the heavy heat.
The air is quiet. No wind, just the murmur of the river, the chirps of frogs, and a faint clink, clink, clink of tools on stone from the faraway distance, turning lifeless sand into monuments.
"What are you thinking about?" Rameses asks, breaking the silence.
Moses does not need to open his eyes to know exactly how his brother looks: stretched across the stone-paved embankment like a drowsy tiger. His eyes are closed against the light, simple bracelets glinting golden in the sun, his face relaxed but for the slightest raise of the brow, of lazy curiosity.
"I am thinking," Moses says, "of sand."
"What of it?" There is a smile in Rameses' voice.
"Well," Moses considers, and digs his toes into the muddy riverbank. "There's a lot of it, for a start."
"Once again, Moses, your royal blood reveals itself in astute observations."
Unwittingly, Moses feels his lips curve upwards. "I was thinking of how closely you resembled a noble animal I saw last night."
He can hear the rustle of Rameses shifting beside him. Probably folding his hands under his head, but it's too much of an effort to check. "A hawk, I presume? A lion?"
"A goose," Moses replies smoothly. "She had your nose."
White heat falls on his bare chest from above and sun-warmed limestone burns from below, and they're both nothing compared to the warmth he feels at the sound of Rameses' short burst of laughter. That has always been his job. He is the brother with no responsibilities, other than the one he's assigned himself: not to let Rameses drown under his.
Moses opens his eyes, and blinks until they adjust to the brightness, then turns his head to the body beside him. Rameses is just as he imagined him, contently laying on his back and resting his head on folded arms. The sun has inched forward in the sky. They are due back in the palace soon.
"Ready to go, Rameses?"
Rameses opens one eye and squints. It's fairly unflattering. "Try again, with some respect for your elder this time, eh?"
Moses rolls his eyes. "Is the future Morning and the Evening Star nearly finished with his afternoon nap?"
"The future Morning and the Evening Star is..." Rameses pauses, then leaps to his feet in one graceful jump that for a moment makes Moses wonder if predator blood actually does flow in his veins. "...hungry," Rameses announces. "And tired."
"Napping is hard work," Moses says gravely.
"Not napping," Rameses rebukes, dusting himself off. "Communicating with Ra." He extends a hand, barely waiting for Moses to grasp it before tugging him up to his feet.
"Perhaps you could suggest that he take a day off," Moses says. "The sun deserves a rest. I'm sure no one would notice."
"All of Egypt in darkness?" Rameses muses, beginning the walk back. "I wager I would even be doing the people a service, if only so that they would be spared the sight of your ugly face for a day."
"Sadly, they would still be able to smell you."
"For your information, this perfume was a gift to me from the ladies of the court."
Moses makes a face. "I admit Hotep and Huy have rather shapely calves poking out from under those dresses, but I'm not sure they qualify as women."
Rameses spins in his place, continuing to walk backwards and talking at the same time. "Are you sure you want the post of Royal Chief Architect?" he asks dryly, and it's really quite miraculous that he doesn't fall into the river. "Because if I were Father, I'd appoint you as Court Jester. You have those funny ears that go with it too, and we could have Hotep make you a hat--"
Rameses meets the water with a splash, and Moses doesn't bother trying to hide his laughter.
"You!" Rameses sputters, pointing.
"I did nothing," Moses protests. Stumbling into Rameses' side had been mostly unintentional.
"...Says the Morning and Evening Pain in my Side." Rameses sinks up to his nose and narrows his eyes like a crocodile. The water around him glitters like a halo. He surges up again. "You do realize this means war, brother."
Already another grin is beginning to spread on his face, and Moses is willing to bet that there will be a chariot race before the end of the day. And that they are going to be late again. And that, in the near future, he is probably going to get very wet.
Father will not be pleased. But Father does not understand how much Rameses needs this. Brotherhood. Boyhood. An hour's worth of not being the divine light of his people.
One day Rameses is going to be a great king, and Moses will be right behind him, lightening his load.
For now they are boys together, and Rameses' vengeance is swift but not merciless.
It's too hot outside anyway, Moses reasons, and dives in the water.
And I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt.
When Moses returns, it is not to home.
It feels like it at first: Here is the spot where we bathed in spring mornings. Here is the roof upon which no female cat bore less than ten kittens. Here are the stairs where you fell and broke your nose -- do you remember? Here is where--
Here is where the water-soaked bodies of dead infants were collected by Father's laborers so that they would not drift near us as we bathed. Here is the roof where overseers whipped men for taking too long to eat their rations. Here are the stairs where an old man collapsed under the weight of the bricks he was carrying and tumbled down until rolling to a stop at our feet. We didn't notice. We were late for court again.
Egypt smells clean, not like desert and asses and dung and dust. Even now. Moses walks through streets and passages he would know with his eyes closed, sidestepping slabs of stone and toppled columns; the hail had been devastating. But those are the only obstacles that block his path. Even after all this time, the priests all know he has direct access to the Pharaoh.
It is late in the evening. Rameses sits, as usual, on his balcony, hidden by the shadows of Anubis and Seth. In the beginning, Moses had approached these conversations with anticipation; now, more than anything, it is with despair that guides him.
"Your Majesty," he sighs, announcing his presence.
Rameses looks at him. It's always the same look at first, always lasting just long enough to add another crack to Moses' heart, to make it slightly more difficult to breathe. It's a kind of innocent, desperate hope -- Rameses wants to believe, every time, that Moses has returned to him, to say Brother, you've finally come to your senses -- but then his eyes transform into realization, then hurt, then icy coldness and Pharaoh's face becomes unreadable again.
"Pharaoh," Moses says. "The God of the Hebrews--"
"Oh, spare me the speech, Moses," Rameses snaps. His voice is sharp, but otherwise he does not move. "I've heard it enough times. I am growing weary of your voice. You could try making some variations, just to spice up you routine."
"I was just about to," Moses replies instinctively. "Let my people dance."
Rameses cracks a smile. "There, see? That's something I can work with."
Sometimes Moses thinks that maybe all he needs to do to free his people is to return after all. A sacrifice he would gladly make -- perhaps, in truth, not even a sacrifice at all --
But it is not his choice to make.
His fingers tighten around the staff the Lord has given him. "Pharaoh," he says quietly. "Thus sayeth the Lord: Let my people--"
It is as simple as that. One word. One verdict. Dooming no one but himself.
This is not the same Rameses he grew up with. This is a Rameses molded by the harsh demands of their father to be another colossal, unreasonable architectural feat, a Rameses betrayed by his brother and the loneliness of the throne.
This is a Rameses whose heart has been tampered with.
Moses hates his father for what he's turned Rameses into, but he hates God more.
"Prepare your people," Moses says tiredly. He already knows how this will end. "There are locusts coming."
"Egypt will survive." Rameses' smile is cold. "I have so far. The frogs were a nice touch, by the way. Heqet's priestesses were pleased. The coming year, they promised, is to be fruitful."
"Heqet does not exist."
"I'm afraid we shall have to disagree on that. You may leave."
In Midian, Moses was a stranger in a strange land; now he is on familiar soil, but a stranger nonetheless. He is older, and wiser enough to know that he is not wise. He is humble enough to know that he is nothing but a tool in God's hands, a single pawn in the great book of history that is being written all around them.
But a tool in God's hand may break as it forces the stuck thing to yield. He is not Aaron, strong and caring and a born leader, and he is not Miriam, whose passion and courage can, will, survive anything.
"Rameses," Moses tries, one last time.
"I said leave."
Pharaoh doesn't look at him as he departs.
And it came to pass at midnight, that the LORD smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the first-born of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the first-born of cattle. And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt.
Moses skids down the stairs from the throne room and manages to make it to an abandoned courtyard before his knees are too weak to hold him up. He doesn't think -- doesn't think, doesn't think, can't think -- the floor scrapes against his hands and there is bile in his throat and he has to gasp for air, it's done, it's over, we killed them all --
When he sobs, it's more than he has ever sobbed in his entire life. It's dirty and painful and too much emotion for his body to contain, and that he thinks maybe he's playing God's instrument again, a vessel to pour tears through; instead of a storm of rain God is using Moses to weep for thousands of children and it's all too much, and his nephew is dead, and Moses knows that he will never be forgiven.
It is early dawn when Miriam and Aaron quietly finish rounding up the people. The morning star is dim in the sky, eclipsed by a harsher light.
Moses leaves it behind him, and begins to march.