Feathers are smooth and strong, made to stroke cleanly through the air like a polished blade. Underneath, though, the barbs cling together with sharp little hooks, forming spiky connections beneath the sleek surface. So it is with order; even the temples of the gods must be shaped from stubborn rock to a perfect surface. The king and the architect, the priest and the musician, the midwife and the brewer all shape the world with their hands and their hearts, and each one labours to make a green-blue feather for the wings of Ma'at.
This is the story of Sobekneferu, King, Beloved of Ma'at.
Sobekneferu, newly made King, gazed at the blue tiles of her audience chamber. The weight of the unfamiliar crown on her head made her feel both clumsy and exalted, but underneath it all lay dread. She looked at her hands and wondered at their lack of strength, and missed her King-Father again. She even missed her King-Brother, weak though he had been. She didn't know where to start or what to do, but she was King and would have to find a way.
All her servants had left her and the room was silent. Dust had crept in the open window and snuck under the door, but she did not summon them to clean. It seemed fitting to sit in the room, slowly dimming in the twilight, and let the sand gather. Soon enough, the sand would gather in every corner of this bright palace, for Sobekneferu would be the last King of this line. She despaired at the task she'd been left.
Looking up, Sobekneferu blinked as a vision appeared before her. The room seemed suddenly brighter and Sobekneferu straightened as the figure approached. She caught her breath as she recognised the young woman, sceptre in one hand and ankh in the other, each feather on her arms gleaming with light. Sobekneferu slid from her throne and bowed before the goddess.
"My Lady," she stammered, "forgive my unpreparedness."
The goddess lifted her up and smiled at her. Sobekneferu stared at her, hardly able to believe that Ma'at was there with her. She thought guiltily of her despair and her wish to be rid of the burden of Kingship, sure that Ma'at could see right into her heart.
"You are not so unprepared, Sobekneferu King," Ma'at said. "Yet you are eaten with despair, when you still have work to do."
Sobekneferu hung her head, ashamed of her thoughts.
"It is true, you will be the last King of your line, and this palace shall wear away into dust and blow away over the sands, but that is Ma'at. I would see you, last King, be Ma'at too." She tilted Sobekneferu's face up towards her and smiled down at her, infinitely understanding and unforgiving.
"You must find joy in your resignation, for this is your task, last King. You must do Ma'at, you must be Beloved of Ma'at, even when you believe it to be wasted. You must leave your Kingdom in order, so that not even the chaos of your passing shall truly destroy the Lands. One day, there shall be another King of the Two Lands, and that King shall inherit what you leave. Leave order. Leave balance. Leave truth."
Sobekneferu felt her heart shift, from despair to new hope. She would pass, and so would the works of her fathers, but Ma'at would endure, and the Lands would endure, and Sobekneferu would make it so.
"I understand, my Lady," she said. "I shall serve Ma'at, for the time still to come."
Ma'at leaned down and kissed her on the forehead, her lips lingering there like fire, and the weight of Sobekneferu's crown was lightened, and she felt blessed purpose fill her. Closing her eyes, she saw Egypt for a moment as Ma'at saw it, a complicated piece of order from the sky, threaded through with the river.
When she opened her eyes again, she was alone. She looked round her room and frowned at the gathering darkness. She briskly rang the bell, and her servants came in, and the palace came alive with the will of the King.
Sobekneferu waited impatiently as the architect paced solemnly towards her and made his bow. His slave followed, arms full of scrolls. She directed them to the table, where the architect painstakingly unrolled each scroll and weighted them with small polished stones. She restrained herself from taking them from him and looking at them directly. Eventually he was done and ready to show her his work.
The architect was good at his job. Sobekneferu could almost see the temple before her, rising from the sand in perfect proportion, the wings of the building as orderly as the wings of Ma'at. The heart of the temple was carved and decorated with blue tiles, and she knew the goddess would find it pleasing. She sighed happily and put her hand on one of the scrolls, tracing a finger over the shallow steps and the graceful columns.
"Have them carved into stone tablets," she said, finally. The architect shot her a quick, uncertain look. He'd no doubt assumed they would start building immediately, but she knew she would never see the temple finished. "Make two sets," she continued. "One will be entombed with me, and the other stored in the secret recess we had made in the Temple of Mut. See it done."
He bowed and murmured his acknowledgement of her order, then slowly gathered up his scrolls and bowed himself out of the room.
Sobekneferu retreated to her throne and rang for a slave. She was tired, and her crown sat heavily on her head. She was reaching the end of her labours; indeed, her work would be done once the plans were copied onto stone and stored safely for the King who would come to reunify the Land. She felt war on the edges of the Kingdom, could see the restlessness of the people, and her sorrow for them was infinite. Still, she had done what she could, to keep the heart of Egypt safe for the uncertainty that would reign after her. She knew she would be followed by two more, weaker and split, dynasties, whose hands would not encompass the Two Lands, and whose failures would be followed by Chaos.
She thought of the far future, when the King of the Two Lands would come again, and Egypt would again know Ma'at. She knew he would find the stone tablets, and Ma'at would have a home on the Earth. She was satisfied.
She rang the bell again, though her hand seemed very heavy. The door opened at last, and Sobekneferu blinked at the figure walking towards her. The great Wings of Ma'at opened, and Sobekneferu understood at last.
"Come, Beloved of Ma'at," said the goddess, and it was no effort at all for Sobekneferu to follow.
A dusty band of men gathered in front of a pile of rocks that might once have been the base of a pyramid. It was worn down, and few cut stones were left intact, but there might be a possible entrance. It was worth a try, at least. Together, they heaved a few rocks aside and found a rough-cut tunnel. It was bare, lacking the fine decoration they were expecting. They held up their lamps, but only one inscription could be found. One man copied it, while the others poked around, but the passage was bare and the tomb was empty. They left without ceremony, shoving rocks haphazardly over the entrance. They were there for treasure, not for mysteries.
The copy of the inscription ended up in a museum, where it languished for many years, until a poor student, in disgrace with his supervisor, was ordered to copy and translate it, and many other such unattributed inscriptions. The supervisor didn't even look at it, beyond checking that his unfortunate student had done it, but it endured still. It read:
The Wings of Maat are wide and strong, and by their wind beat back Chaos.
The Eyes of Ma'at are keen, which see the Order of the Land as She soars above us.
The Feathers of Ma'at are made from Justice and Truth and each one measures a Heart.
I am the Beloved of Ma'at, and the beauty of the crocodile is the teeth of Her Honour.
In the halls of the dead, Sobekneferu smiled with understanding and Ma'at herself shrugged her shoulders, for her wings are eternal, and death will tell us all if we, too, are beloved of Maat.