Her first night in the palace, Anck-su-namun lays her head down upon her carven bedpost and relearns herself.
Her body is not used to this: this lassitude, the smoke of torches in her eyes, the scent of lotus heavy in her hair. Her bare skin, washed clean of its paint now but still recalling its lines. She has been made new: drawn into her new body, her consecrated body.
She is Pharaoh’s. Though not yet, not tonight. Tonight he fasts, as he has fasted all week, for the beginning of flood season, abstaining from meat and from the pleasures of the flesh in hopes that the Nile will be disciplined by his will just as he has disciplined the flood of his desire. His carnal needs. Of which she is one—though one of a series of new girls brought here. She mustn’t think of them, she thinks now. She must only pay mind to herself. It is all she can do not to appear colt-legged, sheep-eyed, any kind of animal-foolish. She must be sharp in her girl’s body, her girl’s mind, her beauty.
She has called the attention of Egypt himself and she must earn it. She will be the first to kneel at Egypt’s feet, the first chosen. There will be no other girls tomorrow night.
The wood of the bedstand embraces the back of her neck. Beneath her head, Hathor spreads her arms, curves them high. Her horns carry Anck-su-namun’s head, and her upswept joyous arms. She is a promise of love, lushness, even in cold wood.
As she falls asleep, she relearns herself, smudges her whole history away from her thoughts. I have no mother, no father. There are no children that call me sister. I am Egypt’s now, Egypt’s alone.
She belongs to her country, now, to its gods. Above, below, and here on the earth.
When Pharaoh breaks his fast, the whole palace feels it. Anck-su-namun wakes that morning with the sense of approaching flood. Heat makes the air shiver in waves, like water. She slips into the sunken pool before she can be painted, submerges herself up to the nose and eyes like a crocodile and waits to calm down. She must settle into her skin; she must impress Pharaoh.
She is massaged late in the day—after the royal wives, she thinks, but by the same capable hands. The maidservant smooths the knots from her shoulders, the tension from her neck, makes her queenlike in her own body. Then the painting, the black lines, the gilt lips, her hair brushed and oiled, for it is thick enough to hide a man’s hand in and she needs no wig. She is vain of this. Vanity is currency here. Within the gold circlet placed over her hair, the maidservant pins a cone of fatty scented soap onto her head. She feels it begin to melt already as she walks past the torches on her way out of her rooms, the soap and fat kissing her scalp. When she moves, her hair swings against her hips and the scent of lotus is so strong that she feels as though she is drunk on herself. The weight of the cone on her head makes her draw up her neck, balancing. She walks newly careful, now. Careful of her balance, careful of the eyes that will brush her over. Now she only has other women’s eyes to go on, but a few of the royal wives narrow theirs and Shepsenut, who oversees the women, nods her approval.
Nile has been kind, else they would not be celebrating, else the fast and the veil of piety would continue. Even mere days into palace life, Anck-su-namun can sense that it is a veil, that flesh-and-blood pleasure and ambition seethe beneath. Pharaoh Seti, though god himself, is less reverent than some that have come before. His palace is vibrantly carnal; the food is honeyed, his wine thick even watered, the air heavy and sweet as in a garden, and he prefers his women exercise rather than lounge about the palace. Within the chamber, Anck-su-namun has watched some of his women train, catalogued the smooth roll of their bodies and the abuses of Ti-Nefer the exercise-mistress. One of her compatriots knows how to juggle, another to stand on her hands. Every woman in the palace can dance passing well, herself included.
They will be on display tonight, challenged in their freshness and newness. Anck-su-namun itemizes the sweet soreness of her muscles and the stretch of her neck and swears she will walk into the feasting-hall tall and high, that the light will be brighter where she walks, that she will not be wide-eyed and gape-mouthed but prepared to meet her god and all the more beautiful for her assurance. Beautiful as statues, clever as Isis, lovely as Hathor. She walks in as though she balances horns atop her head. A maid standing at the mouth of the doorway drapes her neck with flowers.
But there are so many places for Pharaoh to rest his eye.
At the feast, Pharaoh’s eyes are tireless in exploring the room as he eats. Anck-su-namun eats little to nothing. Every rich bite seems its own full meal. She drinks instead, to occupy her mouth. Rests the gold rim of the cup against her lips and watches Pharaoh watch the women. Tries to get the measure of him: he’s shorter than she thought, but what of that? Short and hairy as Babi, but what of that? Gods come in all shapes and sizes, and the pschent crowning his brow makes him taller than any man in the room save the priest at his side. His laugh, when it comes, is guttural and loud. He is flanked by gilt-skinned priests, to Anck-su-namun’s partial surprise—as if in reminder of how he has abstained and what he is allowed. What is he not allowed? He is Egypt, this is his. Everything in the room is a part of him: the gilded tables, the pigeon and oxflesh that fill their mouths, the barley-beer sweetening tongues and wine thickening throats, the wives on chairs and women on stools and stretching acrobats and maids kneeling on the floor and the flower-garlands wilting on all of their necks. Women everywhere Anck-su-namun looks. Wives and women, a band of sem’ayt playing the sistrum and ney-pipe quietly. The sense of overwhelm that she has been pushing off all day threatens to overcome her now; her stomach clenches, a starving woman at a feast, around her fear. She swallows, lifts her chin, feels lotus-oil dripping slow and thick along the back of her neck. There is no flood, she reminds herself, though all the world around her shimmers and swims.
All this spectacle, this richness, this tapestry, is Seti’s Egypt set in a chamber. Egypt is good because he is good, and the priests will allow him his restless eyes and restless hands. Gods come in all shapes, all sizes. They will know that better than her. Even at his right hand, there is a priest, black-clad and shaven-headed, somber in the shadows, wearing the crest of the temple of Osiris around his neck. His eyes are coal-dark and deep-set. The shadows in the room seem to flock to him. Perhaps that is why he is there, to be Pharaoh’s shadow, Pharaoh who is all sun. Perhaps that is why he sits at Pharaoh’s side, closer than any but Pharaoh’s sloe-eyed eldest daughter.
A maidservant makes the rounds of the long table, offering a bowl of perfumed water. Anck-su-namun dips her fingertips and is given a lily for her trouble. One of his wives is given a sistrum; she joins the sem’ayt and sings a sweet hymn to Hathor as the table is cleared. Then the sweetness and quiet of the music is changed. The sem’ayt have drums, too, and cymbals. With every clash, the light seems to flicker brighter; every beat of the drums, Anck-su-namun feels echoing in her down to her bones. Settling, hard and low, between her legs. Her heart is in the music, although she does not rise to dance.
The girl beside her—Rodophis, another new and untried—sits with her eyes glassy, her full lips parted. Anck-su-namun straightens and forces resolve. Sebi, who can juggle, rises and a maidservant steps toward her with a golden case in her hands. She opens it and reveals a set of juggling balls, each painted and carved with a different of Pharaoh’s divine emblems. “A gift from Pharaoh,” the maid says, and Anck-su-namun can see Sebi’s hands shake even from across the lambent room, even before she picks them up. The balls go rolling after only two drumbeats. Anck-su-namun catches one underfoot, picks it up. Gold and lapis and carmine. The wedjat-eye stares up at her from the paint; she blinks and swears it blinks back.
“May I see?” whispers Rodophis, and Anck-su-namun hands the ball over wordlessly. “How fine!” the other girl says, and Anck-su-namun remembers that the girl’s father was a merchant, turned luckless. Far from poor, but far from rich. The other girl’s story opens up to her and she tries hard not to cringe back from it. No one here will know me so easily. I am not past; I am future, am Egypt’s.
“Do you discard a gift so easily?” comes a voice from the other end of the table, and she looks up. Pharaoh, his voice canted surprisingly high. Nasal, even. He is looking at her intently. The other two balls are lost somewhere in the room. Hers, with the eye, is the only one he has followed. She is the one to whom he looks now. Not Sebi, not Rodophis, no one else in the room.
“A gift? It was not for me. I cannot juggle.” She splays her hands easily. Her fingers are long and spread like petals, inked with black and gold. “It would be wasted in my hands.”
“Then what can you do with your hands, girl?” Pharaoh asks, leaning in, and she feels the certainty go from her. His eyes are hungry; she does not know the words to respond to it, or whether she is speaking to a god or a man. Her lips part, gold flaking onto her tongue, but she has nothing to give him.
This is a lie.
This, she knows, is a lie.
She raises her eyebrows and smiles, waiting, waiting. Waiting for the rest of the feast, through honeycakes and honeywine. And the honeyed ending: when he rises to leave the feast, he puts out a hand for her to follow. She has been chosen.
Returning to her chambers, after she is—had, after he has her, after—she is troubled.
Beneath his linens, his double crown, he was shorter and more rounded than she expected, and the hair covered him from head to toe, and she tried hard not to question the gods.
She knelt and did what he told her was dutiful and good: honor in her hands and her lips. She kept kneeling as he stood behind her, as he turned her over, as his hands were hard on her hips and her palms ground against the floor. Egypt, she tried to think, tongue between her lips. Egypt. Egypt, slipping further and further from her grasp with every thrust of Pharaoh’s thick body.
She could not sleep for the echo of his heavy breath in her ear, his laugh: that laugh of his was not the laugh of a god.
The next day her head is clouded and sounds echo in her ears and there are bruises in the shape of Pharaoh’s fingerprints on her hips. Not hard ones. She has done worse to herself after a bad day of training and tumbling. Had worse practiced upon her—before. The maid paints over them in the morning with whorling strokes, saying nothing. By the end of the day, when Anck-su-namun washes the paint off, they are almost invisible.
Then she is called back to Pharaoh’s rooms and she feels the hands close upon her again. The maidservant kneels before her, retouching her lines at midnight. “You have good skin,” she says softly, and Anck-su-namun thinks of the way it heals unscarred, the way bruises fade quickly from beneath her smooth sunstruck limbs, and she does not thank the maidservant. She waits in silence, still so as not to smudge the brush. Foolish. Pharaoh will mar it with his hands the moment she arrives in the royal bedroom: but is that not the point? To be untouchable to the world and endlessly marked by Egypt-on-earth?
The night leaves her with paint on her palms and blood in her mouth.
She thinks that a god would be—if not kinder, then defter, surely.
She thinks that her country is not like this.
She thinks that Seti is different when he takes off the double crown, when Wadjet and Nekhbet no longer watch the world from his brow, when the only eyes he looks with are his own. The vulture and snake do not care as he cares for her flesh.
The god he has claimed, has been claimed by, has been named for, is one of chaos, of the dark. Seti would master floods, master darkness, master her as he would master all his women. Seti the god is chaos, and Seti on earth must control that chaos. His divine work is to lay a hand over all unruly things, to subdue them in Egypt’s name.
In Egypt’s name, she feels her heart becoming unruly when he touches her, and she forces her body very still for it.
Before the gods, she is nothing but penitent. But there is no penitence in her when Seti takes her body, no reverence, no devotion. Only pain and perseverance, her teeth gritting and waiting for it to be over.
The next night’s banquet, Seti asks two of his women to fight.
They are acrobats, unpainted, naked but for the flowers twined in their hair. Not concubines and certainly not wives. Maidservants in sheer stripes and braided wigs bow to them, offer them golden caskets that look heavy as children. There is deceptive strength in the palace’s dutiful maidservants, Anck-su-namun thinks, watching their steady hands opening the caskets. Revealing sets of golden tridents, whose tips glint in the light, sharp as crocodile teeth. They lay golden masks over each other’s faces, gently caressing each other’s cheeks.
Ti-Nefer, who trains acrobats and harem women alike, claps her square hands and the acrobats bow to each other. Raising their tridents, they begin to fight, or to dance. Either.
Their bodies whirl in the light, all long pinwheeling golden limbs, the tridents slashing past each other and casting gold streaks in the air. Anck-su-namun can feel every slash as though it crosses her own throat. Each time tears a gasp from her throat. Her skin is whole but her breath is ragged at the edges. Her fingers itch to check the smoothness, the wholeness of her skin, but she forces her palms down against the table: touching would smudge her paint. She must get used to this. Not even she can touch herself, not like this. Only Pharaoh.
And the sharp, swinging golden points of the tridents, slicing against skin. Never breaking. Never cutting. Only taunting, dancing with danger.
The muscles of her thighs tense as she watches. She wants to offer herself up to them, to let something break the relentless black lines crossing her body and marking her Pharaoh’s. To test this clean-healing untouched skin of hers.
“Are you all right?” Rodophis asks her, and she does not answer, only shakes her head, hard. Her hair slips over her skin, flicks the other girl’s shoulder. Of course she is all right. She has grown less circumspect about eating at the feasts and has devoured bread and handfuls of green onion and half a whole wild duck breast tonight. Gorged herself on sharp flavors and melting fat, washed in glass after glass of wine. She feels drunker off duck fat than off the wine; her body burns from within, wanting to work, to run, to run away. Or to dance, perhaps, for dancing is sometimes like running.
“It’s beautiful,” she replies, though it comes out snappish. Pharaoh is rapt with it, and that excuses her fascination, her bone-deep intensity, the heat in her cheeks. That which catches Pharaoh’s eye is inherently beautiful, inherently glorious. Rodophis should know that, anyhow. Rodophis, who has not yet been summoned, who has no reason to think otherwise.
The priest of Osiris is looking at her again. This time she raises her chin, looks back at him so deeply she thinks she can see the gates of the Duat. Let him look back, let him see into the heart of her. There is nothing but the desire to please Egypt, to do obeisance to the gods governing her land. It is not wicked that she will not settle for less. It is not wicked to keep looking for those gods.
I have been good. I have done as I have meant.
Wine and lotus and the drumbeats are working on her, working on her heart and her flesh like massaging hands. There is no fear anywhere in her any more, and even the priest is handsome by firelight.
When he turns his head, she feels as though some of the light has gone from her. That she has been cast into the shadows when she is not being watched.
The tridents slide together and catch their prongs, and the acrobats sink into splits on the floor. The dance is finished and Pharaoh claps louder than before, louder than for dancing or for juggling. He laughs, and his mouth is so wide she thinks she can see into his dark and shining throat. “Well done,” he says, “well done. Will any of my women have a go?”
Something keeps her still. Sebi tries the mask on first, twirling and giggling and dangling the tridents in her hands and getting knocked off her feet in the first go. Her waist bends like a lotus stem, and she makes a beautiful spectacle. Hati-abet after her, the one who can stand on her hands, deft-bodied but holding the tridents awkwardly. Giggling too. All in fun. The acrobats are gentle with all of them. Pharaoh’s pleasure makes him glassy, but he says nothing, just applauds and applauds. Next to him, the his daughter picks at her nails and fidgets until at last he claps a final clap and turns to her.
“All so graceful, but none I daresay as graceful as my daughter. Nefertiri, will you show off your training?”
The sloe-eyed girl at his right side rises and bows to him, kissing his cheek. She sits closer than any of his wives, close as Pharaoh’s own hand. Less than a week in the palace and Anck-su-namun has heard of his love for her, better than for any of his wives it is whispered, for her mother was his favorite and she died giving birth as though making room in the world for her daughter. She is beautiful as her name, competitively beautiful. Unreachably near Pharaoh, and made of him. She must resemble her mother, for she is all long limbs and soft lily flesh. Except she has the same dark, hungry eyes. The world is hers, which she must know. She is also not a god. Only god-touched. Egypt-blessed, but not Egypt. This too she must know. She takes a mask and a set of tridents and adopts the beginning stance, her other arm stretched behind her, her feet steady beneath her.
She is a little less graceful, a little less pliant than the acrobats, but she strikes harder. When the acrobat flinches from her swing, it is not pageantry, even though there is grace in the way she shivers and slides aside. The princess swings a foot behind her ankle and sweeps her to the floor, pressing the trident’s edge to her throat. Of course the princess must win—must win against such ornamental women, in any case. Pharaoh claps louder than ever, shouts praise of his flesh and blood in the name of Egypt.
Standing, the acrobat still flat on her back, the princess bows and begins to walk back toward her father. He opens his arms. “The princess Nefertiri,” he says, “unchallenged and undefeated, still. Unless anyone here would like to give the challenge.”
The women around her hardly stir. This is a different game, one where victory matters both more and less. His daughter is not competition for his bed, surely. Only her honor is at stake now, and to defeat her—who knows whether it would please or vex him?
Who indeed. Anck-su-namun rises before she can think better of it.
“I will try,” she says.
The laugh dies on Pharaoh’s lips. Not for displeasure. She sees herself reflected in the shine of his eyes, lithely drawn but suffocatingly small. Let his flesh and blood try to land a scratch on her. As she walks up to the center of the room she is aware of how her shoulders roll, her hips, the long muscles of her legs. A maidservant offers her the tridents. “If you like,” she says, and Anck-su-namun pries at the vaguery:
“You can have something else.” The maid’s eyes dart around the room. Statues of Seti in ebony and sandstone stand in silent watchful obedience on all sides of the room, and each carries a different weapon. The message is plain: Pharaoh fights with his hands, like his soldiers, equal to any weapon his enemies might carry. She tilts her head.
She is not trained with the tridents. But one of the statues has a spear, and she thinks unbidden of flood seasons in years past, of her father and his little bark on the swollen river, and of what it is to put a spear between a hippopotamus’s eyes.
I have brought down bigger game than you, princess.
The maid follows her gaze and takes the spear from the stone Seti’s hand without needing to be asked. Behind her, the fleshly Seti bellows laughter. “Ambitious! See you do not end up gutted, daughter.”
“I’m not a hippo,” Nefertiri says sullenly. When Anck-su-namun turns around, spear in hand, mask shadowing her eyes, the princess has her own mask still balancing on the top of her hair. With a hand on her hip, she is looking down at her own reflection in one of the tridents, shaking her hair out in a way that pleases her better to look at. She looks up at her own pace. “Ready?” she asks, only half-challenging. The other half is all boredom. As she slides the mask over her face, it is clear to the last on her face that she expects nothing.
Anck-su-namun readies the spear in her hands.
Think of it like a second limb. A longer arm, a bracing leg, whatever you need. Part of you.
The fight goes quicker than she expects. She is a better dancer than the princess—she, who is trained for show. The princess is defter with her tridents, more practiced with them in her hands. She darts with them, hard and near enough to graze Anck-su-namun. The points make it past the twirling guard of her spear once or twice, close enough that she can feel cool metal on her skin. No cuts.
But she’s not a huntress, the princess. She’s a tease.
The princess is all strutting, all lazy showing-off; she expects to win the bout. Takes it for granted. After just enough expected show, Anck-su-namun loses patience. Enough, she thinks. Enough pirouetting, enough tossing her hair and perfuming the air around her with lotus oil, enough kicking her long legs that the pharaoh might look between them. Enough pageant. Anck-su-namun gets the spear behind the princess’s leg and, with a quick tug, brings her to the floor.
The princess’s fall is not graceful. Her elbows smack against the sandstone tile beneath them, her stomach, her face. Moving in quickly, Anck-su-namun presses a knee to the curve of the princess’s lower back, lets her spear rest in the hollow of the princess’s skull. Just long enough.
She stands, puts the spear on the floor beside the princess, and bows.
The pharaoh sits, still as one of his statues, enthroned in his stillness. Stillness emanates from him, plagues the room. She shifts in the silence, the fear she’d left behind suddenly creeping up on her.
It is the high priest who begins to clap.
He is Pharaoh’s right hand, and after a moment Pharaoh raises his left.
A smile, though delayed, makes its way to his face and she feels the breath go from her as though a hand has been lifted from her throat. Beneath the fall of her hair, she darts a glance at the priest, but his face is impassive. She can find no trace of approval nor disapproval, hatred or love, no thought of her or of the princess. Only his hands move, sonorous as a drum until she sits back down.
Behind her, she hears the princess complain, “the balance was off, I wasn’t prepared for a spear-fight—”
“Then train for one next time.” Seti slaps a hand on his daughter’s hip as she sits beside him once more. “Train with her. That’s something I’d like to see.”
The princess raises her dark eyes, her sullenness turned to real dislike. She’ll never forgive me, Anck-su-namun thinks, but can find no room in her heart to worry about the hatred of a teenage girl. Not when she has her father to contend with. Her father, Egypt’s lord.
“You,” he says, looking at her now “I will see in my chambers later,” and she shivers.
This night, she speaks to him, emboldened with wine and the fury of the fight. “Let me look at you,” she says, when he gestures for her to kneel on fours. “I would look at you.” I would see Egypt, she thinks. I would see my god. I have tried so hard to see divinity in this.
Without a word, he clips her cleanly across the mouth, knocking her gilt-painted lips into her teeth. She tastes blood and does not speak again.
Once Pharaoh has dismissed her for the night, the royal servants bathe her shaking body, sponge away the smudges of paint and dress her in clean linen for her return to the women’s quarter. They too are silent and for a moment she allows herself to believe in something, to think that they are washing her clean.
Yet once she is out of the bedchamber, once the heavy lime-carven door shuts behind her, she finds that her feet are shaking beneath her, that her belly lurches, that the air in the palace is too hot and still to be borne. Silent at night, but for the patter of her feet up and down the halls. She ducks outside, gasping for air.
Outside is no less muggy, but she feels less suffocatingly under Seti’s hand. Moonlight drops an illicit kiss on her bare skin, one that pleases her until she thinks of Pharaoh’s licensed kisses, and her stomach roils.
She stumbles into a patch of papyrus and heaves up half a feast into the bush. Her mouth stings, and her throat.
Careful with her hands, she pushes her hair from her sweaty face, feels choked by the scent of lotus emanating from her. When she looks up, she sees marble steps before her and a green-carven door, its entrance wound in broken string. She is at the temple of Osiris, she realizes. Unsealed, waiting to be sealed again at dawn and opened again at day: the relentless ceremonial opening and closing like the god's own death and resurrection.
She’d like to visit a god before bed. Before she goes to bed like this, bruised and nauseated and full of treasons and blasphemies. (He’s not a god, her thoughts are whispering, every sore step more treacherous than the last.)
Inside is even more terrifyingly quiet than the palace at night. She has never been in a temple after-hours, with no chanting priests, no burning incense and natron lighting the walls and perfuming the air. The sense of sleeping divinity permeates the cold marble, and the thought of waking it makes her at once longing and fearful. Her bare feet are quiet on the floor, and the darkness blurs the paintings below and around her even as her eyes adjust. Only the statue of Osiris is clear before her, though the shadow leaches the green from his face. The pschent on his head scrapes the ceiling, and the crook and flail in his crossed arms are each as long as her legs. She bows deeply, pressing her cheek to the floor.
“I have nothing to offer,” she whispers. She wishes the statue would release its flail and bless her with the touch of its, His, great green hand, that she might have proof that there is something great in the world, something bigger than this. “Only my devotion. Only my heart. Tell me I am using it aright.”
“What are you doing here?”
The voice is so deep and clear that for a moment she thinks the statue speaks. No. There are footsteps behind her, heavy and male, and she turns to see the high priest, linen hastily pinned around his hips.
It was not the firelight that made him handsome. Not the wine. She measures him in spite of herself, clear-eyed through the shadows. This is treason, she thinks, but there are such greater treasons in her heart already. They are in the temple—his temple, or in any case his god’s. Surely there is a kind of privacy in that. Surely it cannot matter.
“I woke you,” she says. “Only you?”
“I sleep nearest the altar.” The high priest, she thinks. Of course he sleeps nearest to his god.
“Why are you here?”
She begins to stand and finds herself wavering again. Before she can collapse back to her knees on the temple floor, the priest is there to catch her, a hand on her elbow, a hand on her hip.
“Are you ill?” he asks, and his mouth is so near her ear that she can feel his voice as clearly as she can hear it. That voice she had mistaken for the god’s.
“No,” she says and finds herself giggling. “I'm reverent. I'm just full of wonder.”
She feels his body stiffen, his arms pushing her from him. “Still drunk from the feast.”
“I am no such thing.” As best she can, she straightens her spine, her shoulders. “How dare you accuse me of such? I have come from Pharaoh’s own chamber. Surely standing beside the sun of Egypt must burn my flesh clean inside and out.”
“Ah.” He says nothing, then. She feels him breathe, a kind of resigned sigh. What she does not say of Pharaoh, she suspects he hears. It is Pharaoh, after all, who appoints the priests. The high priest sits at his right hand, whispers in his right ear. If there is any kind of thought in the man’s head, he will know Seti for what he is.
And his women for what they are: coveted and forbidden.
His hands are still on her. She thinks there is a kind of softness in it that is so new, so strange, so accidental that she could nearly cry. Perhaps she is still drunk. Perhaps her doubts and her fears and the warm print of the high priest’s hands are the ghosts of insufficiently watered wine. The warmth she feels means nothing, she thinks. It comes from softness, from recognition. Not from him—from the high priest, the keeper of Pharaoh’s counsel and his gods, however handsome, however sonorous his voice and careful his hands. Yet it is forbidden all the same.
Since she became Pharaoh’s, she has been touched every day: the massages and the paint, the drape of lilies around her neck at every feast and Pharaoh’s own hands in the shadows. Yet when she moves through crowds, people move from her, and as long as she is Pharaoh’s painted woman, she is rendered untouchable. This is what the paint is meant to keep off: this, the high priest’s gentle hand on her bare arm, on the curve of her waist through fine linen. Washed clean of Pharaoh's smudges, but only now. That he has had the fortune of catching her at an hour where she could be caught—this is an accident, and a dangerous one.
Carefully, he releases her. First the hand on her shoulder, then the one on her waist. Her skin cries out for contact, so suddenly, so fiercely, that she feels heat staining her cheeks from within.
“May I—” Her throat is raw, as though she has been screaming aloud. “Will you give me some water?”
“Of course,” he says and goes from her into the shadows. She sits, crossing her legs on the floor, and he returns with a cup full to the brim. She sips carefully and looks up at him over the brim, where he stands over her.
“Challenging the princess was rash,” he says.
“It is no bad thing to challenge her,” he says carefully.
The shadows draw them on to frankness. She can feel them, close and pressing around them, the underworld's listening ears. “Did you fear for me, priest of Osiris?” she asks, half-teasing. Why should he fear for her? She is Pharaoh’s girl. Pharaoh’s piece of nothing, she thinks. If he is not a god, then what is she?
The priest is silent for too long. “I would fear for anyone who fought Nefertiri under Seti’s eye,” he says at last. “She is accustomed to winning and he is very proud of her. And it is a blood sport.”
“Do you see any blood on me?” Placing the cup to the side of her, she raises her arms, stretches her legs. Her long, whole body. Every unbroken inch. Let him look.
He casts his eyes down, and she feels that odd coldness, that creeping shadow that came upon her when he looked away from her at her first banquet. “Keep looking,” she says, and his eyes on her are wary this time, the contemplation in his thoughts guarded from her. The high priest confides in no less than Pharaoh himself, has no reason to unburden himself to one of his women, not even a wife. Yet she's a piece of Pharaoh, she thinks, as little as she likes the thought. The ambition in her hungers to hear him speak, and something more. Unguard your thoughts, High Priest. I am worthy, I am equal.
“What do you ask of me?”
Her mouth is dry, her head heavy behind her eyes. She drinks again, thinking. I am a piece of Pharaoh and so are you. I am in pieces, by and for Pharaoh's hands—are you? “ Osiris was cut to pieces by his brother,” she says. “By Seti. It fell to Isis to wander the world until she had found all the pieces and could put him back together. To do that she had to know every inch of his body. To memorize it. Is it not the duty of the priest of Osiris, then, to put bodies back together after they have been torn apart by—” She swallows. “By chaos?”
His eyes are wise in the dark. “By Seti?”
“Yes,” she whispers.
When she had fought the princess, part of her had wanted to gut the girl and part of her had wanted to dive onto the tridents. To feel something deep and clear take hold of her, even if it was pain, to drown out her doubts.
“You were not hurt today,” the priest says, half-reluctantly and far too late, “and you fought well. Where did you learn to fight like that?”
“My father was a hunter.”
The dry tongue, the suffocating familiarity again. She drinks deep and hard, cold water numbing the back of her throat. “But I did not come to the palace to talk of my family. Of the past.”
Silence. He takes the cup from her hands. It goes lightly; she realizes it is empty. Then he offers his hand down to her and she takes it, standing back up. Her hand rests just as lightly in his. Just as empty. She wonders if Osiris has woken, if he watches over his temple, if he approves.
There is nothing evil here, nothing blasphemous. She knows that absolutely.
“You will not be torn apart,” says the priest at last, and she looks up at him.
“Do you promise?”
“In the name of Osiris, I believe in this. And—” He hesitates. “If it does not disturb Pharaoh’s sleep, then the temple is your sanctuary. You will not be torn apart in the palace, but if you are confused and afraid then you may come seek succor.”
“From Osiris,” he says with gentle stress. “From any god with whom you need speak. I do not know what you needed with the Lord of the Underworld tonight—”
“This was nearest,” she says flatly and the priest is startled into laughter. She looks up. “And I am glad—” She falters, uncertain to whom she owes her gratitude. Man or god.
She takes her hand back, or he releases it. Either way, palm slides from palm and she is hit with the same wave of loneliness. The statue did not bless her, but he did. Meaning it or no.
“Are you so kind to all women in the palace?” she asks, feeling perverse, and he stares at her.
“I wouldn’t know. None of them have ever stumbled into the temple in the middle of the night before.”
She looks down, uncertain whether she wants to laugh or be sick again. “Well, thank you for the water. Thank you for the—for clapping, at the feast. Thank you for the benediction, Priest of Osiris.”
“You are welcome, bride of Egypt.”
“Anck-su-namun,” she corrects, and he nods solemnly.
She leaves the temple in blessed confusion. In her bed, his name will ring in her ears and his face will follow her into her dreams, sometimes green-cast, sometimes gold, sometimes pale in the moonlight and sculpted all the way down to the edge of his pinned linen—
She awakes, sweating, fighting with herself, excusing herself. She has seen the god’s man without his robes in the unsealed temple: who would not be confused, confused even into desire, by the sight, by the hour, by his voice in the darkness and his body in the moonlight? Such a man is close to the edges of the world. Confusion follows him. She is blameless for it, as she sleeps, she thinks insistently, turning and turning and seeing him, feeling him, still.
Such a man, with surprisingly gentle hands.
The next night, Pharaoh does not summon her. The next night turns into the next week, and Anck-su-namun is at once relieved and restless. Her thoughts are not so smothered up in doubts when her body is her own—yet this means she is untouched completely, except for by the maidservants.
At least there is training. Ti-Nefer is half in love with her now that she has beaten the princess, which makes her twice as loud and ungentle in the training room. Anck-su-namun leaves her sessions sore and sweating, her palms greasy with the touch of gold. But she feels herself growing better, the muscles in her body turning tight and corded and clever. The tridents keep both hands busy, and the sweat sends her paint running down her legs in rivulets. She earns her cuts, her bruises. Massages them, salves them, loves them as she watches them heal.
None so deep that they mar her beauty: Ti-Nefer is sensible of her duty to her women. Even when Anck-su-namun is reckless, even when she lays her flesh up to the tearing sharpness of the trident-points like a challenge. She takes her mask off midmatch once, and Ti-Nefer drops the trident and slaps her. “What do you think the princess would do if you were so careless?” she snaps. “And what would you be to Pharaoh with such a face? What would you do here?”
Anck-su-namun shivers, angry in her perfectly preserved body.
On days without training, her paint is immaculate from morning to night, from brushstroke to sponge bath. The perfection makes her mad in her own skin: she may as well be a statue.
She lights incense at Hathor’s temple, learns new hymns to the goddess of love, tries to make herself pious. The high priestess of Hathor is cheerful, her voice on the hymns a thing of honeyed glory. Her short body and broad clever face seem oddly familiar: Anck-su-namun learns that she is Seti’s half-sister by a woman who had never become a wife, a princess-priestess. After that, the temple of Hathor seems smothering after that, the air too thick with natron and fragrant smoke and honeycake.
Her desire to seek succor is no less, but for the life of her, she does not know which god or goddess would listen to her. Hathor is not right, and she does not wish to seek the counsel of Isis, bride of Osiris.
“Pious Anck-su-namun,” Sebi teases her. “Don’t you get bored at the temple?”
“Don’t you get bored at the mirror, looking at your own face?” she snaps back, and then none of the women bother her. She should be sweeter, she knows, less sharp, but she does not trust them and she does not trust herself. So spending days in and out of the temples is a thing more common among the palace wives than of its pretty nubile impatient girls—it protects her from her doubts, from the threat of treason ever at the back of her tongue.
She watches other girls go in and out of Pharaoh’s rooms, and none of them seem anywhere near so troubled. Rodophis weeps after hers, and Anck-su-namun listens guiltily from her own solitary bed as Sebi and Hati-abet comfort her. They speak of sex and marriage and duty in sincere, concerned voices until Rodophis is wiping her eyes and nodding. Blasphemy doesn’t touch their lips. Egypt doesn’t cross their tongues.
Just once she dreams of her family, her father—
overturned in his bark on the river, spear snapped and jaws crashing down; her mother—
who would not leave their house though a hurricane swept over the sand, who sat grief-stricken as the storm brought down the roof; her brother—
twelve and in a soldier’s camp or maybe on the ground, now, learning to fight Hittites, no longer a child—
she wakes with the heel of her palm trapped within her teeth and is desperately grateful that her body knows to keep her from screaming, from giving herself away. She breathes hard and forces herself to remember: you are nobody’s, you are Egypt’s.
The thought does not comfort her as it did on the first night, for when she says Egypt she does not think of the short coarse man wearing the pschent, of the bruises on her knees and the cut on her lip. She is still looking.
Yet she must look here. The palace is Egypt’s beating heart, whomever rules it. She seeks purity here, divine absolution from a family that left her alone in the world, for if she is not wiped clean she fears she will die like them. That the flood will rise, the spear will break, the jaws will come snapping over her.
A week of strange tense freedom, then Shepsenut who rules the woman’s chamber and knows such things first comes to her flanked by two maidservants carrying paint and oils and tells her she is wanted this evening. All afternoon she is bathed and perfumed and massaged and oiled, intricately painted with long black lines, from sunup until the light is slipping down in the sky. By sunset, her lips are gold and her eyes are ornate as the wedjat, her body painted up and down with black lines. Sunset turns the light in the chamber red, red on the reflection of the pool. Her heart batters at its bone cage.
“Be careful,” Shepsenut says once she stands, painted and beautiful, and it is all she can do not to run.
“I will take the air,” she says, and she finds herself walking along the sandy strip of road outside back and back and back to the temple of Osiris.
The evening offering is being made as she steps inside, a line of reverents and priests paving down the center of the temple. The doors have been sealed, and she watches High Priest Imhotep at the head of the line break the seal and untie the cord around the temple doorknobs. As the reverents file inside, she follows them and waits at the unsealed doors.
She watches as he raises his hands, as he makes the gesture of ma’at to the statue. Behind him, his greengold-painted priests carry incense, natron, copper, oil, paint. He carries nothing to offer. Only, in his empty hands, the promise of rightness. The promise of his soul. The hymn in his mouth is low and powerful, his voice catching in the stone and in her marrow. It wrings devotion from the core of her. Her fingertips are shaking as she listens, shaking for their emptiness, for the nothing she has to offer the god.
Last time I offered the god my heart. Was that not enough?
He turns, the god’s name in his mouth, and his eyes are on hers and his voice cracks like a seal.
She feels the crack rend through her. Feels the sudden silence like a thousand sticking needles in her skin. The echo of the broken note lingers, high and shuddering in the air, only for a second. Then he is singing again, low and clear and whole again, face calm as the statue, but his eyes will not turn from her. He advances, slowly, his priests sweeping his footsteps and those of the ecstatic procession behind him. She feels the advance like an army, feels his eyes open and dark and hot on her face. Like gates to the Duat, she had thought the first time, and she feels the earth threaten to open up underfoot, to swallow her and send her to the underworld with an untried heart, and her ears are ringing, and she runs.
It was more than enough. I did not think when I offered. I will not get it back.
She cannot eat a thing at the dinner banquet. Cannot lift her glass to drink, so powerfully do her hands shake. Rodophis has learned better than to ask after her well-being; she talks to Hati-abet on her other side and does not look at Anck-su-namun. So much the better.
In his chambers, Seti asks her: “Have you learned your place?”
Her eyes are downcast. She does not turn them up. A broken hymn burns on her tongue, so she stays silent. Seti puts a hand on her cheek but does not force her gaze to him. “Well, well,” he says, curious and as ever easily amused. “You’ve learned reverence well.”
He puts a hand between her legs and she gasps. His fingers are unwelcome, but they are touching floodland. Heat courses through her, her body tight with fear and desire. She shudders, and it is not for him, but when he turns her over on the royal bed and enters her, she feels some of the madness go from her, some of the anguish. Pharaoh is laughing, his hand on her throat. She mustn’t hear it, mustn’t feel it. Must only feel the corded heat thrumming within her body, making her heart hot, her thighs tremble.
She cries out as Seti thrusts in her, a cracked note, an hours-late echo. Borrowed devotion and real despair.
If he was a god, he’d hear the hymn in it.
Instead, he rolls off her and pats her on the rump. “You’re a lovely woman, Anck-su-namun,” he says. “Egypt is pleased.”
He says her name oddly, she thinks as she leaves. Skirts the ankh and lands hard on the amun. Bypasses Life and lands on the god in her name: she was named in honor of the Lord of Heaven.
Every time he calls her, every time her name rests on that clumsy tongue of his, that tongue that should have been graceful above all, she feels less consecrated. Amun, king of the heavens, is distant in his divinity. She does not feel him watching her.
A different god has interceded in his absence: one to whom Life matters above all things.
The land calms, tests her body and her piety. She fights and does not go to temple. Does not look up at dinner or in bed with Seti. Life makes her sore and weary.
Sleep keeps her uneasy. Returns her to the temple. Recalls the high priest singing, the smoke of incense casting his face in greenish god-reflecting shadows. Recalls the smooth expanse of his skin beneath his robes—no, she thinks, still just sensible enough even in dreaming, and forces her head above the dark dreamwater. Wakes gasping in the dark. Night after night, sore and shaking and alive.
How she would like to bend her head in prayer, but she does not trust herself alone with the gods. She will ask herself the wrong questions. It is the exercise-room that becomes her temple, where she tests the limits of what her body can do.
She throws herself wall to wall in the room, until even harsh Ti-Nefer cries out, “Calm down, girl!”
She thinks: If I am strong I will weather the world better, the gods’ tests and Pharaoh’s. Things will hurt less. She thinks, too: Let me work until I faint, let me batter myself until I am too weak to protest. Let me be either unbreakable or broken. Let me not be so soft, so easily touched.
The fingerprints of the gods are not sloughed off so easily.
The waters of the Nile rise and fall, turning the land fertile and the soil soft, and still she is not washed clean. Planting-season is upon the land, then, with Seti as hungry to plow as his farmers, cutting swaths through his wives, taking multiple women a night.
And the mysteries of Osiris approach.
Through the window of the women’s quarters she can hear them building the ceremonial barque for the god’s lost body, can see it in the distance if she looks hard enough. New-painted color on it, brighter by the day. Around her, excitement thrums. The festival is no simple day at the temple; the rites of Osiris are solemn, sure, but full of wonder. And for all that each one of them in the quarter is consecrated to Egypt, their lives are skint of wonder.
On the day of ceremony, she wakes up to cries in the distance. Rodophis is sitting by the window, staring outside. When Anck-su-namun walks up beside her, she nods toward the temple.
“They are killing the god,” she says with soft reverence.
Killing Osiris, that he may be resurrected. Yes. There is no living, in his legend, without the death first. Still, the cries scratch gooseflesh up from her skin despite the heat of the day. She wraps her arms around herself and listens and shivers.
That night Seti holds a banquet so heavy that it makes the table groan. “Sustenance upon sustenance!” he calls, raising his cup, and everyone at the table falls upon the meal as though they have been told by heaven itself that it is divine to devour. In a sense, they have. For Egypt, for fertility, and by their drunk and happy Pharaoh. Seti eats with both hands, talks with his mouth full, spreads his hands benevolent and wide. High Priest Imhotep is not at his side. She envisions him in the barque, arms crossed like the god’s, and shudders. Drinks deep. Eats as she cannot with the priest present. Fights after the feast, when Seti asks, her body moving thoughtlessly through the circling motions. Nefertiri has not fought her since the first round. They each take one of the most skilled acrobatic pair; each of them win. Nefertiri makes a great show of not watching during Anck-su-namun’s fight. Her eyes are on her nails, restless along her plate. She skirts over the women, looking at eunuchs and Med-Jai guards. Though Anck-su-namun is the only one with whom she has a grudge, the princess does not as a rule make friends with the pharaoh’s wives or women.
Anck-su-namun watches her opponent with only half a heart. Outside the window, she hears chanting, growing closer, closer. After the fight, when Seti rises to clap, the audience-spell is broken and some of the women run to the window to look out. Anck-su-namun strolls up behind them and watches as the carven barque rolls up through the street. Torches follow it, and a seeming endless line of priests sing the god’s praises. Jugs of water in their hands to moisten the earth around them, handfuls of grain scattered in their wake. The barque circles the walls of the palace, once and again. She hears their cries come up to the palace:
Here, we find the legs of Osiris!
Here, we find the thighs of Osiris!
She feels their cries working up her body. Her legs itch to run; she feels warmth tensing her thighs.
The cries grow fainter as they circle around the walls of the palace. As distance renders them silent, she drinks and drinks, waiting, waiting. Beside her, Rodophis leans back with a laugh and knocks into her shoulder, then flinches back when she sees Anck-su-namun’s face. What must she see? What awful mystery written in me?
Anck-su-namun feels it is wasteful and foolish to pray now, to distract the gods’ attention: still, she prays to whomever is listening.
Please, in your honor, do not send me to Seti’s bed tonight.
The cries grow louder once more, circling back around the palace Here is the finger of Osiris! she hears. Here is the arm of Osiris!
Every inch of her is quaking. It takes an effort to keep still.
Seti points to her with one of his hand’s two index fingers. No. She squints. One finger, pointing beside her. An inch off the mark. Rodophis is chosen. She rises fluidly. Her smile looks real. Beside Seti, the princess turns her cheek, not disgusted, merely bored. The cries glance off her.
Here are the lungs of Osiris! Here are the intestines of Osiris!
The women empty from the feast hall, scatter outside to watch the procession. Sebi and Hati-abet run ahead of her and Anck-su-namun tries to hide herself behind them, to smother herself in their laughter. Outside the moon is high and the world smells of wet earth. The soil seems to sigh underfoot.
The priests are raising the bright Djed pillar that symbolizes the god’s spine at the base of the temple steps. At the head of the procession, a man in a beaten-metal hawk mask stands. His hands are raised, the high-priest’s crest around his neck. Even without it, she would know him.
Her feet are slow, stumbling underfoot. She has lost Hati-abet and Sebi in the procession and they would not think to look for her—not sharp-tongued hard-bodied hard-hearted Anck-su-namun who keeps so much to herself. Where she approaches the crowd of worshipers, they flinch from her, and even in the crowd, no one touches her. Ah, yes: she is Pharaoh’s, even here.
She retreats from the crowd, shaking; if she stays, she will find her paint smudged and someone, a priest, a soldier, Shepsenut, will make her account for it. But she cannot leave. The force of reverence crushes around her. The high priest’s voice has her in her gut.
The crowd parts around her like water. She feels every stranger’s step away from her casting ugly light on her presence, unwelcome in the crowd, irreverent in the ceremony. At the foot of the steps, the high priest looks up, and his eyes are hooded as a hawk’s own by his mask, but she feels him seeing her.
She thinks: I could be deep in the river and he would see me. I could be trapped in the Djed pillar and he would see me. I could be in the Duat itself and he would know to look for me.
She is drunk, foolish beyond foolish, awestruck, godstruck—she tries to laugh, to laugh at herself, but it sticks in her throat. Tonight is somber.
Here, she hears the deep voice at the head of the procession, is the heart of Osiris!
Anck-su-namun raises her fingers to her throat, careful only to touch the necklace with which she has been adorned this evening and not the painted skin below. The metal is skin-warm nonetheless, and she can sense her pulse on the other side.
Here is the heart tendered up to Osiris. What does the god make of it?
High Priest Imhotep turns from the pillar and walks slowly up the steps, kneeling at the door to the temple. Thrown open, she can see a new statue of Osiris inside, cast in gold. Pharaoh has complained of the expense at dinner and in bed. The complaints melt away now in the face of magnificence. She cannot bear to hear his voice, even inside her own head.
Masked Imhotep kneels in the doorway, and his voice echoes beautiful and terrible within the brass-mask:
Osiris, King of the Living, Lord of Love, Lord of Silence—
Your son does you honor, your son makes you whole.
Anck-su-namun realizes that her palm is against her mouth, that she can feel the gold paint flaking from her lips, that the flesh of her hand is against her teeth as when she wakes up screaming. But there is a great cry around her, drowning out whatever terrible sound she might have made, and the doors to the temple shut behind him with awful finality.
The cry is cut for just a second.
Then the priests carrying water fling it from them, soaking earth and worshipers alike, and it goes up again in double volume. Behind the priests, worshipers—from all through the city and beyond, commoners must have come up from every village nearby, she thinks—dance to drumbeat and pipesong and holy outcry and follow one after another, some of them carrying figures, some of the figures dancing on strings, some of the carriers dancing with them. Far ahead she catches sight of the other women, their own tight-crowded knot set apart and untouchable from the crowd. The air is full of smoke, fragrant with flowers and roasting meat. Her stuffed stomach twists. And the cry continues on:
He is whole! He is living! He rules the living, Osiris, Osiris!
They will leave the temple, pass into the night. Anck-su-namun watches one after the other. An hour of passing, until everyone seems to be stepping through honey. Slow, so achingly slow, even in their wildness. Until the wildness is in the distance and she can see the backs of every last reveler, until the priests on the steps take their incense and their water and follow the procession.
The doors to the temple are closed but not sealed. Heavy, but when she pushes, they groan open. They are made to be opened, or perhaps the god has her hand.
High Priest Imhotep kneels before the statue, unmasked. His shaven head glints with the reflection of the gold. She steps in, her feet catlike, shadow-muffled. Her breath is louder than her steps, she thinks, but he does not look up all the same.
“Is the god whole in truth?” she asks, her voice echoing off the stone around them, and his whole body jolts. She watches him uncoil, moving fluidly from his knees to his feet. He is magnificent, she thinks in spite of herself.
“What are you doing here?” he asks—again.
“It is the Feast of Osiris,” she says steadily, “and I am in the temple of Osiris.”
“The celebration is outside.”
“The revelry is outside. I do not need revelry. I came to the temple. I wished to do obeisance.”
The sigh he sighs seems to come up from the belly of the earth. “What do you ask of the god?”
“Nothing profane,” she says. “I swear. I swear in Osiris’s name. I swear on His lungs, His finger, His arm, His heart—”
“Anck-su-namun,” he says, and she feels a flush go through her, feels her body remade in all its scattered parts. He has never said her name before. It catches rough in his throat, sticking on the ankh.
Life, she thinks, Life, and steps closer to him.
Lord of the Living, make me brave.
“I can feel my body dying under Seti’s touch, under Seti’s claim. I am becoming a statue, I am becoming a carcass, I do not know whether I am calcifying or rotting here, but this body is not mine. It is his. Except when you put the god together. You knit his flesh together and you knit mine. You made him live and when you called him to life, you called me too.”
For all the wine she has drunk at the feast, for all the headswimming smoke outside now, she is sober as the moon now. The god’s hand works on her heart; it beats steadier than the distant drums. She looks above him into the golden face of Osiris and lets him take her confession:
“Seti is a man, not a god. Not Egypt. I will die purposeless and rotten if he is all I have.”
Imhotep hisses in a breath but says nothing. No cry of treason, no call for her head. She steadies herself and keeps her eyes on the god’s face.
“I can feel Osiris, or Isis—I do not know who it is working within me. They do not show me their face when I am dreaming. They show me you instead. Some force in the heavens brings me here.” She takes a shaking breath. His silence threatens to leave her alone in the temple, alone and terrified.
But she does not think she is alone.
“How is it for you?” she asks, soft.
Imhotep raises his hands in shaking benediction, offering ma’at, offering his soul in his empty palms, but not for the statue. For her, and her fingers curl, her nails press into her hands. Her heart is so heavy and wild inside her she thinks it will burst from her body and jump into the Duat. To sink its scales, to be devoured.
“I do the Lord of Silence homage every day,” he says, “and I think of you. I cast my eyes from the statues of Isis, for they all wear your face. If I had any shred of honor left in me, I would admit that I am polluting the temple, I should have my priests rend me limb from limb and scatter me through the kingdom—but that I think I would keep calling to you, even scattered. I feel rent apart already. I can hardly speak—”
“Please,” she says, reaching out.
“I know you cannot, but—”
His hand meets hers, palm to palm, and all her skin flares to life. She can feel shadow and paint, the way they reinvent her, the way she is reinvented by this, too. Every inch of her is newly, absolutely aware. She thinks of him catching her, hands an easy accident on her body, her body clean from the royal bed, and she is laughing, wild and high as the pipesong outside. She wants to wrap clean arms around him, press a clean cheek to his, to feel every inch of him, but she feels the way the paint lines her skin like cage-bars, the reminder that she is not to be touched.
Oh, oh for a body that’s hers!
He doesn’t question her laugh, the despair in it. Despair echoes in him too; she sees it, the look in his eyes, the wretched longing as he reaches in. As he presses a palm to the untouched underside of her jaw, the bare skin, all the while looking at her like she is the night’s greatest marvel, and like touching her is anguish equal to the murder of his god.
“I swear by the gods,” she says, “there is no inch of me, in this cage, that doesn’t want you.”
“What can we do?” he asks her, and she steps closer, raises her face in his hands. Lays a palm carefully against his chest.
“What we can,” she says, and he lowers his head.
High Priest Imhotep’s lips brush over hers, soft as a whisper, and even that is enough to send a shock through her body. She arches up, sighing, wanting more, but his nose touches hers and they are separated, if only by a breath. When she looks at him, eyes low and lidded, she sees flecks of gold on her lips. She has marked him already, with half a kiss.
But Shepsenut will not wonder at her faded lip-gilt, she thinks, not when she has come from eating and drinking, and the freedom of that sends a surge of hunger through her. She kisses him again and truly, flush and hot, her mouth drinking his in.
She is clumsy, a little; she has only her instincts to look to. Seti does not kiss her much, and the kisses in the royal bed are not like this. The greedy swipe of Pharaoh’s tongue has not prepared her for this, for this wanting. She thinks that she could devour him, lips to heart, and not be sated.
In all her life, she has never wanted anything so clearly, not for herself, not like this.
Her fingers curl into his robes and she sighs. Her tongue flicks into his mouth, tasting the gold she has left on his lips, and a sound comes from the base of his throat, ecstatic and awful.
Imhotep’s hands are clasped to her cheeks, Imhotep’s hands slide into her hair, lifting it up from her neck. Her greatest vanity, heavy with braided-in gold leaf, slick with fragrant lotus oil. It has never been more beautiful than when he lifts his mouth from hers and presses his face against it. When he raises his head and looks at her again, breath rough, she sees how the oil makes his cheek shine, how his lips are still aglitter with her gold, and she traces the marks she has left on him. Sweet-smelling, shining, allowed. No one asks the high priest to account for the marks on his body, she thinks, bitter, hungry, and she leans back in and bites his lip.
He cries out, and there is a kind of relief in the sound, as though the pain makes the world sense. It hurts her to hear; she wants to do it again. She draws her fingers over the mark of her teeth, over his flushed and swelling bottom lip. “I’m sorry,” she says softly, “I don’t know what I’m—”
“No.” He looks at her seriously, cupping her face in his hands. “Consume me. Do what you can to me. If you kill me yourself, perhaps I will go to the Duat with a somewhat lighter heart.”
She laughs; he does not. She laughs as a way of avoiding weeping and when it threatens to fail she kisses him again, runs her tongue over the mark of her lip, her palms flat against his chest, keeping her just far enough from him not to disturb the lines on her body. The distance chokes her, tantalizes.
“You will not leave me to bear this alone,” she whispers. “Do not talk of death.”
His fingers brush her cheek, her jaw, the inch of bare neck above her thick golden necklace. Longing, curious, unbearable in their gentleness. She feels every soft touch of his fingertips like a lick of flame.
She curls an arm over her head, long and gold, and while paint lines her from shoulder to elbow the soft skin of the inside of her arm is unmarked. Imhotep raises a hand in mirror of her own, draws his fingers slowly from palm to wrist to the inside of her elbow to the side of her body, until he nearly brushes the curve of her breast. Lined. No. Shivering, she raises the other arm, lets him explore what he can with his gentle stroking fingers.
Like all good things her body can do, this is a dance.
Her eyes meet his and she nods.
Find the gates of the cage. Free me.
Her breasts, her torso, are threaded heavily with black painted lines, but an arrow of clear skin stretches from throat to navel, and his fingers trace as far as he can. The flat line of her belly, the dip of her navel, the inner curves of her breasts. She scratches softly at his robes, overcome: all sensations in her body are distilled to the brush of his fingertips. Painting her with pleasure, sure as a brush.
No agony in the world like the limits painted onto her body.
He kneels to her, then, lays his hands on her bare feet, her jeweled and chain-wrapped ankles. Up the curves of her calves, the backs of her knees, the inner curves of her thighs until the paint begins to circle them and ensnare her. He strokes the soft skin there until she is gasping. Slowly, he plants a kiss to her calf, to the back of her knee, the pliant flesh of her inner thigh.
There is no inch of her that is not afire with longing. There is no part of her that does not shudder.
Mad prayers are coursing in the back of her mind, following his touch, his tentative reverent kisses: hereisthecalfofOsiristhelegofOsiristhearmofOsiristheheartthehearttheheartofOsiris.
Where is left bare?
Her hands are shaking as she goes to the linen at her waist, shaking too hard to be steady with the strings and knots that tie it in place. Looking up, he catches her hands.
“If you are afraid, you do not have to—”
“Are you not afraid?” she whispers, almost angry.
He says, “Deathly.”
She would weep, but that it would mar her paint.
This is treason. She knows that it is. One last time, she looks up at Osiris’s face, calm and gold above them. Lord of Silence, yes, but Lord of Love as well. His brother Seti had killed him for desire and Isis had loved him enough to find him scattered all over the world and piece him back together. There would be no legend, no ritual, no temple standing in his honor if love had not put the god back together. Love is power, tenacity, divine.
This is treason, but it is not blasphemy.
Pharaoh Seti is a man, and a venal one who has used her like a dog. Yet there are still gods in the world, working their wills in Egypt, and she feels them here in the temple. Suffused with love, a love that mends, a love that exalts.
“This is good,” she says, voice breaking like another cracked hymn. “This is the first good thing.”
He kisses her hands where he holds them, and she takes them back and unties the linen at her waist.
Painted lines wrap around her waist, curl possessively around her thighs, but they do not touch the delta between her legs. Imhotep runs his hand softly between the dark curls there, and cautiously to the lips below.
His finger brushes the top of her cunt and pleasure drives through her like a scythe through wheat, so sharp that she cries out. His hand flinches back.
“Have I hurt you?”
“No,” she says, gasping, “by the gods, no.”
His hand returns, and she is cut down from within by the shocks of pleasure running through her body, she is wet as the great river, his fingers slip into her and behind her eyes she can see the priests throwing water on the land, the drive of the barque up through Egypt, the blessing, the relentless blessing—
So carefully, High Priest Imhotep kisses her between her legs, the sacred ground there, Pharaoh’s ground. No, she thinks, not Pharaoh’s, and joy blazes through her.
There are gods in Egypt, and they are good.
Her legs are shaking. Imhotep looks up at her, eyes hazy with reverent desire. She wants to tell him of her silent covenant with Osiris, of her deep understanding of what love means on the night of the god’s death and resurrection, but he stands and she finds the words beyond her, so she simply kisses him again. He tastes and smells of lotus-oil and paint and something saltsweet and new, all borrowed from her. She feels anointed in her body, her flesh resolute and hers, now.
By all the gods, those watching and those turning their backs, she wants to touch him.
She slips a hand into his robes, feels the sleek musculature of his chest and below, below. Her hand slides in a practiced grip over the thick column between his legs, fingers curling over hot soft skin, but it only takes the touch of her hand before Imhotep is shuddering against her, calling out another inarticulate broken note. He has her by the hair, where there is no risk of paint; he is beyond being careful.
She keeps her hand on him, beneath the robe, until he is still. Eyes still closed, he presses a cheek to her hair. His breath is knife-rough in his throat; she can feel its serrations through her, around her.
“I am,” he says hoarsely, “undone.”
“I don’t know what to do,” she says, and his fingers loosen somewhat from her hair but do not let her go.
“There has never been a woman before.”
The thought had not occurred to her. She understands. Priests can marry. He has not.
“None,” he stresses, “at all,” and she feels her cheeks going hot. She looks at him, the intensity of his eyes, the deep shock on his face, and she thinks that no work of the gods could have prepared them for this.
“Well,” she says, “there has never been a man for me. Not really.”
“No,” he says with what smile he can manage. “Only Egypt. And what of that?”
The next morning she wakes up after a dreamless night’s sleep and she thinks that perhaps the acts done in Osiris’s name on the night of his resurrection are absolved, impermanent.
Only her body is aglow from within, only she is full of sweet strength in Ti-Nefer’s chamber, only she feels newly made under the water when she swims in the temple pool, and when she makes her way to the banquet that night she sees High Priest Imhotep at Seti’s side and the sight of him knocks the breath from her.
Her resolutions of love flicker, fail, and she is left fearful again. Osiris, she thinks, save me.
No. She cannot plead with Osiris to be freed from the god's son-on-earth. Speaking to the god only tangles her further in the temple shadows, only pulls her closer to the underworld. If she is to save herself from this, she must try, try to turn her face to the sky.
What business has she praying to a goddess outside of her temple, when she has never been to her temple in the first place? She is alone, shivering, surrounded by the other women, starving but unable to swallow.
“Anck-su-namun,” Seti says at the end of the feast, the wrong shift of syllables in the wrong mouth, and she feels her head swimming. On the floor, Sebi and Hati-abet duel with tridents, novices and friends, flinching from each other. He is already ready for a sharper round. “I hear you’ve gained some mastery with the tridents. Would you care for a rematch with my daughter?”
Her cares are immaterial. She is as strong and as weak, as sturdy and as shaken, as she has ever been; she is, for the first time, uncertain of the outcome. But there is only one answer. She stands, bows, smiles as sharp and as predatory as she can. A crocodile rising from the waves, fearless of the hunter's edge.
Do not look, do not look—
But when Hati-abet takes off the mask and ceremonially places it onto Anck-su-namun’s own face, she cannot help but look. Imhotep is solemn and intent as ever. He gives nothing away.
The princess is not bored this time. She’s jumpy with her tridents, bouncing from foot to foot. When Anck-su-namun slips into the beginning position, the princess lifts her chin. The count and clap has hardly finished before she pounces into action.
While she is spoiled and vain, she princess is not cruel. But she likes to win, just as much as Anck-su-namun does herself. Desire and impulse make her form less graceful. Anck-su-namun slides into the dance. The tridents are different from the spear; they leave her hands free, force decisive grace from her wrists and arms. She catches the princess’s, parries, sends her out in a spin. The dance is more evenly matched this time; her body knows it better, and can fall into it without her telling it what to do.
Turning, turning, she cannot help but catch a glimpse of Imhotep through the shadowed eyeholes of the mask, and he is sitting forward, his posture tense as a lyre string. She remembers him shaking at a touch, unstrung, and feels the remembered tremor in her calves, her ankles.
In that moment of distraction the princess slashes her trident against Anck-su-namun’s thigh.
Not deep. Only painful. She hisses through her teeth and he sits up, and—Pharaoh is rising, not looking to his right, but no, she cannot risk this breach of attention. Cannot be betrayed by her body like this, when it has been made new. She spins back around and drives back hard, graceless. Beneath their dueling tridents, she drives her elbow into the princess’s ribs and is rewarded by the princess’s shocked yelp and her stumble back. Hooking a foot around her ankle, she has her. On her back, on the floor, Anck-su-namun kneeling over her.
A victory, by the edge of her teeth.
“First blood to my daughter, first fall to Anck-su-namun,” Seti says. “Interesting.” No losses for him. Only wins, and women battering each other for his approval. His smile is broad, and Anck-su-namun knows, a sick twist in her empty stomach, that she will be called to his rooms tonight.
In the royal bed, when he is inside her, he grabs her cut leg so hard it bleeds again, blood smearing the lines of her paint.
After, she goes to the temple. Pushes in the unsealed door and waits.
Imhotep finds her at the statue’s foot, kneeling. She looks up at him, wordless, wretched. The abject’s pain in her knees, from the cold marble, is the least of the hurts in her body.
“You’ve come from his rooms,” he says, and she stands and nods.
That means she is clean. That the paint has been sponged from her body by clean perfumed water by the most delicate-handed discreet servants in the palace. He looks her over, mouth tense with pain as well as desire, and then his arms are around her, then for the first time there is no caution between them and not an inch of distance.
He does not kiss her, not at first. Only holds her, as though he worries she is smoke, not flesh, that she will melt away at a touch.
She presses her cheek into the black of his robes, smelling incense and natron and lamp-oil, and does not melt away. She is real. Beneath the paint, the bruises, the scratches, the sweaty print of Pharaoh Seti’s hands, she is real. Her body feels more her own than it has ever been before, wrapped up in him.
Raising her head, she finds that her cheeks are wet. That is what she gets for going out with unlined eyes: careless. The gods help her, she did not come here to weep.
Imhotep lowers his head and she meets him, kisses him with salt on her lips. Wraps her arms around his neck and lets herself be careless this time.
Clutching her waist, the curve of her backside, he pushes her up against the base of the statue and kisses her as though he’d draw the breath from her lungs, runs his hand over her as though he’d wash the touch of Pharaoh from her skin again. Too light, she thinks, too gentle. Pharaoh’s uses will not be expunged with goodness. They must be clawed from her, torn from her heart.
His hands are softer than she is used to even now, even careless, even hungry, even possessive, and she thinks of him asking her to tear him apart and she knows there is no place for gentleness here, that this is a savage thing they do. God-savage, god-bloody.
Here is the arm of Osiris—here is the belly of Anck-su-namun—here is the leg of Imhotep—
She pulls her loose shift over her head and tugs at the linen wrapped and pinned around his hips, which he lets fall. She has wanted to look at him since she saw him first in the temple, uninterrupted—here, she thinks, is what was missing when she looked at Pharaoh, here she can find no flaws, here she wants to kiss her way down every inch of flesh—but her glory is short. He is kissing her again until she cannot see, and her bare legs entangle with his, push up, wrap around his hips, and he is inside her and his presence doesn’t tear her from her body. He is looking at her, looking in her eyes, his hand on her cheek, his fingers brushing her hair, and she feels seen to the heart. Which is light, light as it beats inside her, light as it echoes the fierce cresting motion of their hips. All spirit. She does not want to close her eyes; she does not ever want to stop looking at him. This is all there is, when they are together. No pharaoh, no treason, nothing but this.
Above them the face of Osiris is calm and beyond surprise.
She whispers, as though there are secrets left, “I never felt a kinship to Osiris before.”
They are breathless, the pair of them, and lying on the ill-lain expanse of his robes over the marble floor. She presses her cheek to his, her chest to his, her anklebone against his calf. Stretches along the height of him: she wants to cover him, learn every inch of skin with every inch of hers.
“I feared the underworld's secrecy, its finality. I didn't want to get any closer to it.” Silly, now. Her hands are on the flat planes of his chest, where he wears his crest, where she can feel his heartbeat echo now. Shadow-dressed and draped over the high priest. She could not be any closer if she tried. “Now it calls.”
Imhotep draws a slow line down the curve of her spine. “He understands life better than anyone."
“And Isis?” She arches into the touch, learning her vertebrae under his fingertip, canting her hips against his. “Isis understands death, loving him. Better than I do. Death after death and I'm no wiser after any of them.” Her hair glides over his face, briefly masking his eyes, filling his mouth like a shadow. She watches his eyes close. The pleasure of it working on him, reconfiguring endlessly her knowledge of what the body is for. “I cannot hope to understand her magic. My family named me for the king of the heavens, for the lord of the sun himself, but I am not his child, for I am not bright, and I am not Isis's child, for I do not heal, and I am not Osiris's child, not like you.”
Reaching through her curtain of hair, he pushes it back and kisses her, full and reverential and disbelieving. She is not forsaken, not while she is being kissed like this. “Interpret the heavens for me,” she whispers into his mouth. “Who am I to claim as my own?”
He releases her hair. For a moment her own vision goes dark, and she does not watch his hands. Only feels them. His palms slide back down her spine, clutch at her flesh. “Sekhmet,” she hears him whisper, “the huntress, who is unstoppable when she devours.”
Yes, she thinks, pressing her hips to his, feeling him rise again beneath her and feeling desire grip her head to toe, they will be devoured by this, this force that makes her bloodthirsty and makes her drunk and yet is sacred, somehow, all the same. Yes, yes.
After that, she comes to him after every night with Seti, after every royally sanctioned bath, after the lines Pharaoh has smudged are wiped clean from her body. This is the only clean window she has: the short walk back from the royal bedchamber, in which she’s clean as a priestess.
This is wicked, she knows, she can feel the wrong working on her, poisoning her in her bones. Nights with Seti make her sicker and sicker; he is rougher and rougher the less she has to say.
The sickness makes her cruel. Ti-Nefer says, “I can see your bones, girl, you’ll make yourself weak if you don’t eat,” and Anck-su-namun spits an insult at her and twists the tridents hard enough to knock her off her feet. The other girls keep their distance by day; the gods breathe down her sleeping neck by night. She is rent apart every night, her spine in the temple and her legs in the palace and her mouth screaming til it is stuffed with Nile sand. She always wakes up before she is found.
One night she wakes and finds a snake slithering between her feet in her bed, coiling and black. Starting, she knocks her skull against her headboard so hard she sees lights for a moment, but she tries to keep still. It slides its sleek body over her body and she wonders if she will die like this, if her secret will die with her and weigh down her heart all the way into the Duat, but then it is no longer touching her and she recoils. Wrapping the snake in a sheet, she stands and shouts, “Who put this here? Who?”
No answer. Not that she expected one. Whether it is an omen or a simple act of harem cruelty, she has no way of knowing. I am Pharaoh’s favorite here, she thinks with bleak exhausted knowledge, eyes sore, heart stone.
Isis once won a boon from the lord of heaven in return for curing a snakebite. She considers offering the snake her wrist, but she does not have that much faith in the gods. Not yet.
So it is that she visits the temple of Isis, bringing honeycake, lighting incense: grace me, she begs the winged and calm-faced goddess, with a love that mends. She needs the mending badly, the magic, the healing. Less of the huntress. Honey in her mouth, not blood, while she lives. Grace in her veins, not venom. Osiris's bride's blessing. A longer life, and one worth the living. She does altogether not know what she is asking, only that she needs it very badly.
In Seti’s bed, her spirit flees her body. In the temple, she finds it again.
In Imhotep’s arms, she is put back together after every soiled night.
The peace only ever lasts as long as the pleasure. Then she is back in her body, its bruises, its scratches, its aches, its complicated hungers, and forced to think. Imhotep’s hands skim over the fingerprint bruises on her hips and the still-unhealed trident cut on her thigh as if he would stitch it together with soft strokes. He is wordless; there is nothing to say that is not futile. This is her life, her portion of Egypt. His too, now. Love tying the brutalities of their lives together.
“How can we live in his Egypt?” she whispers. “Why have the gods not come to earth and torn him from the palace? He will make the land venal and cruel.”
“Is he so cruel to you?”
“I think Seti would not be cruel if he was a—a farmer, a merchant. I think he is a man,” she says. “But he is Pharaoh, and I am his, and he is cruel.”
“Gods.” Imhotep closes his eyes. “Let his heart sink the scales, let the Devourer’s teeth make a meal of him—”
She touches his cheek. “They will.”
When, she doesn’t know. Like as not, Seti will outlive the pair of them, especially if they keep living like this. But whenever he dies, his heart will be but meat on the great scale, and the thought keeps her head up.
Everyone will come out right in the end once they die. There will be justice on the other side, in the gods’ land, at least. Even if there is none here.
In the meantime, Imhotep opens his eyes, and every time he looks at her he looks as though he is relearning what desire is, and that makes this a life worth living. She never thought she would have anything to teach the high priest, yet here he is, astonished. Her body is the Egypt incarnate here, where the kingdom’s chief priest performs acts of devotion upon it.
She comes alive here, relearning her body with a kind of fury night after night. Relearning it in gentlenes, gentleness and joy, the foremost acts of rebellion she has.
It does not last, it never lasts, but it means something, every time. It makes her mean something.
This will kill her, she thinks on the bad nights, the most tired and hungry and battered nights; this will kill them both. A fingerprint lain wrong on her would be a mark of treason, and there is no clean inch on her body.
Yet there is something on the other side of the brutality. There is no living without loving, there is no living that is not built on death. The gods taught them that first.