Merwet eyed the white limestone pillars and the granite floors. Her eyes flicked up towards the nobles drinking pomegranate wine and eating figs, cheese, and cakes sweetened with dates and honey. The chatter from the feast hummed down every corridor leading away from the banquet hall. Merwet stood in the shadows with her arms crossed over her chest. She evaluated the room- where she would dance, how close to the throne, the number of guards surrounding Aknadin. She had one chance, and if she failed, she'd be impaled on a pike and her soul would be damned. Things had to go just so.
They announced her to the acting Pharaoh, Aknadin, and she strolled to the center of the hall and walked into the light of the lamps and dropped to the ground. She prostrated herself against the floor and kissed the granite. It was bitter against her lips. That she bowed low to this vile false-king was unforgivable, but she only had one chance to make things right for the entire kingdom, so she swallowed her pride, played the part of the pretty slave girl, and allowed one of the other dancers to blindfold her.
They gave her a sword bound in gilded and jeweled ribbons. She'd requested a naked blade, but the priests refused. For her safety, she’d been told, but she knew it was to protect Aknadin from would-be assassins- like herself. No matter, she’d bound the ribbons herself, and a specific pull would free her blade when the time was right.
The music filled the air and the noble chatter stilled. Merwet rolled her stomach, poised like a cobra ready to strike. The black wig hiding her honeyed hair was thick and heavy and a burden on her neck, but she kept her spine straight as she started to curve her hips back into a figure eight. She shimmied, twirling the sword around her body. Merwet enjoyed the dance. The sheer control she had of her own body as she shook her shoulders and then rolled from her chest to her belly. She balanced the sword on her head, freeing her hands to move with the rest of the body. She sank to the floor again, not to humiliate herself in front of the mock-Pharaoh, but as a demonstration of her strength and agility. The sword held in place- her balance perfect as she knelt and swayed her arms like copper snakes. The translucent linen draped across her body clung to her from the sweat of her dance, but that was part of the distraction. She didn’t need to remove the blindfold to know that the guards would be staring with slack jaws as she rose back to her feet and gave another roll of her body.
She took the sword from her head and twirled it. Merwet leaned back to avoid her own swing then flipped and spun, preparing for the grand finale. She spun, spun, spun on her toes with the sword always twirling, always mesmerizing her audience. Then the music slowed, winding down as the song reached its end. Swiveling her hips, Merwet held the sword in flat palms as if presenting it to the Pharaoh. It was a gesture to honor him, but as the last notes sang through the air, Merwet stepped back, tugging at her lead ribbon and causing the jewels and gold to flutter away from the sword’s sharp edge.
She leapt into the air, blind, but that’s why she had memorized the layout before the dance. Mid air, Merwet ripped the blindfold from her face so she could aim right for Aknadin’s heart- she would not leave anything for Annubis to weigh. Everything was just so as she flew towards her mark.
However, before the sword could sink into the imposter-pharaoh’s flesh, Merwet stopped. She did not choose to stop, in fact could not have chosen to stop with all her weight and momentum hurdling towards her mark. Nonetheless she froze mid-air, breaths away from her target and unable to reach it.
“Thank you, Mahad,” Aknadin said as an oily grin spread across his face.
“My Pharaoh.” The magician bowed.
Magic, Merwet realized. Her plans, her skills, her only chance to free a kingdom, all destroyed because a single mage could freeze a person mid-air. Merwet ground her teeth. She did not fear death. She did not fear oblivion, but the fact that she had failed in her mission was unbearable. The family she'd lost, the women currently suffering as slaves because of the color of their hair, the future girls stolen from their mother’s arms for the same reason- she had gambled her soul to avenge and save them… and she had failed.
“It was a brave attempt.” Aknadin continued to grin. “Yet foolish. The gods protect the just and punish the wicked. Likewise, I have been protected,” the smile widened by the slightest margin, “and you will be impaled at dawn.” He turned to one of the priests standing near his throne. “And great thanks to our loyal sister, Isis, for warning us of this traitor’s foul murder attempt in advance.”
The woman, Isis, bowed. “I was only performing my duty to the throne, my pharaoh.”
“You I hate more than any of the others.” Merwet spat at the priestess’s feet, unable to do anything else as she hung suspended in the air. “You must know why I’m fighting, and yet you serve a slaver who is not our king!”
Shocked gasps filled the room. Everyone knew that Aknadin was only acting as regent. For the young boy’s safety, it’d been said, but Merwet suspected that the true pharaoh would never reach a safe age as long as Aknadin controlled the kingdom.
“You will grow to love the king,” Isis spoke with her head bowed and her fingers laced together. She looked up at Merwet with a strange, desperate look in her blue eyes. “This is the prophecy I give you.”
“Never.” Merwet spat again, at the priestess and at her prophecy.
“Take this blasphemous assassin away from my sight!” Aknadin shouted.
He did not like others mentioning the true pharaoh. People disappeared when they spoke too often of him, but Merwet was already damned so she screamed.
“You’re a false god! The country suffers each day you rule! If the gods valued any justice they’d send a plague to kill you-”
The guards pulled her down and punched in in the jaw. Her head jerked to the side. She tried to fight, but three soldiers restrained her and dragged her across the polished granite floor towards the dungeons.
“If she says a single word more, cut out her tongue, but keep her alive until dawn. I want the entire city to see what happens to blasphemers that would dare attack me.” Aknadin gestured for the guards to remove Merwet from the banquet.
She clenched her teeth, so hard she felt that they might crack, but she didn’t curse the guards as they dragged her. Even when they pulled her down the stairs and bruised her limbs and hips, she kept silent. She did not want to lose her tongue. She’d hold in every curse and sharp remark until the stake pierced her body, and then she’d wail out a curse on Aknadin with her last breaths. She dragged her feet, and kicked out, and made their job as difficult as she could, but she did not speak.
They threw her into a cell and left her in the dark. Merwet growled, clawing at the rough stone floor. She hated the dark. The priestesses at her temple kept her and the other honeyed-haired girls underground in small cellars so the slavers couldn’t find them. The cruelty had saved her from getting driven like cattle to another land to be some foreign king’s bed slave, but even now the darkness felt like hands choking her.
She wept bitter, bitter tears as the night stretched on. She couldn’t judge the passing of time in the dark, didn’t know how long she had until morning and her death. The tears burned her face and brought her a fever. If the gods were kind, they’d let the fever take her life before dawn, but Merwet didn’t trust in the kindness of the gods.
Torchlight cast eerie orange light against the stones. Merwet smeared the tears away from her cheeks and pushed herself to her feet, vowing to meet her death with rage and hatred instead of fear.
Instead of a guard, Merwet saw a figure in a blood-red cloak. She glared at the figure creeping through the dungeon with a torch in hand.
“What’s this? These dungeons were empty this morning.” The stranger laughed. “What could you have possibly done to get thrown in here, pretty as you are?”
Merwet couldn’t see the entire face below the hood, but the smirk on the stranger’s face irritated her. Nevertheless, she forced herself to stay composed. Merwet thought the stranger might be a way out of the palace.
“You’re not a guard or a priest, could you be a thief?”
“Not just any thief. I’m the King of Thieves. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance.” They bowed low, mocking Merwet. “Now, if you excuse me, I have business to attend to.”
“Prove it. Prove that you’re that thief and not some imposter. If you were the King of Thieves, you could break me out of this cell with hardly any effort, right?”
“True. I could.” His smirked grew. “But why would I? You’d slow me down, and maybe even alert the guards to my presence- you’ve been caught once tonight already.”
“The priestess saw my plans in a vision, otherwise I would not be caught,” Merwet snapped. “But look, I’ll make it worth your while.” She started plucking pins from her hair. “Free me and as soon as we’re out of the palace, I’ll give you a kiss.”
“Ho ho!” The Thief King laughed. “What a tempting prize! If I were here to steal some baubles or trinkets or even an entire bag of treasure, I wouldn’t be able to resist you. Unfortunately I’m here for something more important.”
“And what is that?” Merwet asked, pulling down the wig from her head.
“Vengeance. I want Aknadin’s throat- hello, what do we have here?” The thief stopped their speech when they noticed Merwet’s golden hair spilling down her shoulders. “Haven’t seen hair like that since I was a child.”
“You know that Kemet is the only land with golden-haired men and women because we are the children of Ra.” Merwet fluffed her hair, noticing the way the thief stared at it. “And you know that Aknadin sells the sun god’s children as slaves because he loves gold more than the sun.” She leaned against the bars, her lotus-colored gaze aimed at the thief. “You want vengeance? So do I. I’m here for pointing a sword at that swine-fucker. The only reason he still breathes is because Isis foretold my assassination attempt and Mahad had a spell ready to stop me.”
“Hmmm…” The Thief King stroked his chin. “Very well. I’ll free you. You can hold Aknadin down as I slit his throat, but I’m warning you, if you do anything to compromise my own vengeance, I’ll either leave you for the guards or kill you myself.”
“Don’t be so cocky. Isis may have already warned them that you’re here.”
“No.” The Thief King smiled again. “Her powers come from the Tauk, and none of the Millennium Items would ever betray me.”
“You sound confident. Is there something about you I should know?”
“You’re already talking too much. Quiet, or I’ll leave you in this cage after all.”
The thief produced two long wires from his sleeve and worked the lock until Merwet heard a click. The door swung backward and she was free.
“Thank you,” Merwet said.
“Where’s my kiss?” The thief asked.
“You’re not done earning it yet, not until I’m out of the palace.”
“You’re the type that cheats at sennett, aren’t you?” The thief snorted. “Better put that wig back on. If we are caught again it’s better you die with me like a thief than be sold as a slave.”
“Place it on my head,” Merwet ordered.
“I’m not your dressing servant.” The thief snorted.
“I can’t see if it’s straight or not. Help me so we can hurry up and go.”
She expected another argument, but the thief merely snorted again and situated the wig on Merwet’s head, helping her pin it back in place.
“There. You’re a dark-haired beauty once again. Can we go? I’d like to lick Aknadin’s blood from my dagger before the sun strikes the palace walls.”
“Sounds better than wine. Let’s go.” Merwet led the thief to the stairs.
Merwet watched, with great amusement, as the so-called King of Thieves knocked the guard in the back of the head.
“What’s the matter?” she whispered as they marched down the hallway. “Too soft to kill the guards?”
“I’ve killed my share,” the thief answered, “but I don’t see the point of killing someone from behind unless it’s necessary.”
“Well, I’m sorry if my quaint thief ways don’t hold up to your ruthless assassin’s standards.”
“It’s practical,” she hissed. “Each guard we kill along the way is one less to fight later.”
“Then suit yourself.” The thief handed her a dagger. “I’ve always had enough stealth not to have to fight when I don’t want to, but you can’t seem to shut up, so you'd better take this and be prepared.”
Merwet took the dagger handle. They hid behind a pillar as two more guards walked past. Merwet and the thief stepped behind them. The thief smacked their guard in the back of the head, but Merwet slit her guard’s throat. She spat on the corpse. They’d been two of the bastards that dragged her downstairs, so after killing the first, she crouched down and plunged her dagger in the second guard’s kidneys.
“Was that really necessary?” The thief raised an eyebrow.
“This is how I pay back those who hurt me.”
She held out the underside of her arm. Fingertip-shaped bruises littered the delicate skin along with scrapes and bruises from being dragged. The thief reached out, brushing his own fingers against her skin.
“I did not know. We’ll kill every we come across, then.”
“Thank you.” Merwet cleaned her blade and stood up.
They made their way through the maze of hallways. Merwet glanced out the windows, trying to discern the time and how long she’d been imprisoned. By the stars peeking above the palace walls outside, Merwet figured it was an hour or so before dawn. They needed to hurry.
“This way,” the thief whispered and dashed left.
Merwet followed, but the distinct sound of Mahad speaking echoed down the hallway. She grabbed the thief’s red cloak.
“That’s priest Mahad. He’s too strong, we should hide.” She pulled the thief into the closest room.
“I could have handled it without hiding.” The thief frowned.
“He’s too strong. I was keeping us out of trouble,” Merwet argued.
“I’m not afraid of any of the priests, and you’re supposed to be staying out of my way, remember? Not dragging me around.”
“Well excuse me for trying to save your life, you ungrateful bastar-”
“Excuse me?” A third voice, soft and meek, called out. “Who’s there?”
“Fuck. Look, you pulled us into an occupied room.” The thief groaned. “Now we have to kill them.”
They marched into the main bed chapter and gasped in union at what they saw. The bed itself was extravagant, carved from wood instead of stone and covered with embroidered drapes of fine linen. A young man sat at the foot of the bed, a collar around his throat. It was gold, and jade, and lapis lazuli, but it was a collar all the same. The gold chain connecting it to the bed did not make it less degrading.
“Pharaoh.” Merwet prostrated herself against the rug.
She knew it was the Pharaoh- the real Pharaoh. His hair sprayed from his head like a royal crown, gold, onyx, and ruby- Merwet was a child of Ra, but the Pharaoh was the embodiment of Osiris and it showed in the wild hair and deep royal violet eyes.
“Stand the fuck up.” The thief pulled Merwet to her feet. “This is no king. This is a boy that can’t stand up to his uncle.” The thief glared at the boy. “Your people starve as Aknadin gets fat. Your people cry beneath the sounds of Aknadin’s dinner banquets. Your children are sold to foreign lands and murdered so Aknadin can stay rich and powerful.” The thief marched forward. “If you’re a god, why don’t you stop him?”
“How?” The boy tugged at the chain around his throat. “Maybe I’m a god, but I was only four when my father died. I’ve been locked up in this room ever since.”
“Locked up?” Merwet frowned. It felt too much like her own childhood. “This chamber doesn’t even have a window.”
“No. It doesn’t.” The young pharaoh frowned. “I remember sunlight though.” He smiled at Merwet. “You remind me of the sun. I see it pouring from you. Could you be a child of Ra?” He glanced at the thief. “And you’re-”
“I don’t care, and it’s none of your business.” The thief growled. “You’re lucky I don’t cut your throat, but I don't want to legitimize Aknadin’s claim to the throne, so be a good boy and don’t call for the guards if you want to live.”
“Could I have some water?”
“I’m not your servant, get your own water!” The thief spoke far too loudly, but when Merwet shhhed him, he glared at her.
The Pharaoh stood up and walked to a table where a golden picture sat on an end table. He reached out, but it was clear that the table full of food, water, and wine was just out of his reach.
“Why?” Merwet asked.
“My uncle only wants me to eat and drink from his hands. He think it’ll make me grateful to him.” The Pharaoh dropped his hand. “He forgets me some days.”
“Set’s huge, floppy balls!” The thief groaned, marching to the table and shoving the pitcher into the Pharaoh’s arms along with a plate of bread and honey.
“Thank you. I thought the King of Thieves would be cruel, but you’re kinder than you want people to know.” The Pharaoh went back to his bed and sat down to eat and drink.
“First, I’m not kind, I just didn’t want to hear you crying. Second, who told you I was the Thief King?”
“I just know.” The Pharaoh smiled. “I hear the servants and guards whispering about a red-cloaked thief that steals whatever he wants and whom my uncle can never catch no matter how many guards he sends out. You’re my favorite gossip.”
“I am not gossip, and if you’re a bad pharaoh like your uncle, I’ll be your death like I’m about to be his.”
“I don’t know what makes a pharaoh good or bad, but I know slavery is wrong, so I promise if you’re successful tonight I’ll abolish it, and I will never deny anyone water because how can I be Pharaoh if I don’t have at least have the manners of a thief?”
Merwet laughed. She suspected that the little Pharaoh was being sardonic.
“Shut up, both of you.” The thief turned, red billowing out behind him. “Come on. We didn’t come here to chat. We have blood to spill.”
“Please, I know my uncle is cruel, but make his death quick.” The Pharaoh shook his head. “I don’t want him to suffer.”
“He should suffer at my hands. I’ve suffered at his.”
“So you have. I can see it in your posture. You’re hurt and angry. Both of you.” The Pharaoh stood, bowing low. “I can’t erase our sorrow, but I can pay you this small compensation- Atem.”
“Is that… your name?” Merwet asked, shocked. Names held great power, and the name of the Pharaoh could evoke the gods’ themselves. It was not something he should tell them, especially them, a thief and an assassin.
“You’re a fool.” The thief walked away.
Merwet followed the thief. They didn’t hear voices at the door, nor in the hallway when the cracked the door open. They made it all the way down the hall to what should have been Aknadin’s chambers without seeing anymore guards.
“Something’s wrong,” Merwet said.
“Yes. I’m aware,” the Thief King said.
“There should be guards here, especially after I tried to kill him.”
“Yes. I’m aware,” the thief repeated, grabbing the door.
“Are you crazy? This is clearly a trap.” Merwet tugged the thief’s crimson sleeve.”
“I don’t care!” The thief growled. “I’ve come too far to give up now. Turn back if you want, but for me, this door’s the only path.”
“Fine.” Merwet balled her fists and jerked away from the thief. “Get us thrown back into prison, see if I care.”
“If you don’t like it- leave.”
“I can’t trust a thief to do this job. Foolish or not, I’m stuck with you until either Aknadin’s dead or I am.”
“Then let’s see what sort of trap is waiting for us behind this door.” The thief pushed into Aknadin’s chambers.