Sometimes, when Amneris went out in the streets of Alexandria, she was frightened by the sound of the voices around her. They clamored in her ears, strings of incomprehensible syllables, hard-edged and solid as bricks, and she wanted to block them out, wrap veils around her mouth and eyes and ears until her world was nothing but what she knew, sure and familiar and safe.
But sometimes she wanted to open up her mouth and drink in the words. Sometimes, she wished she knew Egyptian, so that the sound of her own voice might disappear into that of her people’s, like a libation of wine would vanish in the ever-flowing currents of the Nile.
But she could not forget that her chiton curled around her, and her hair was straight and brown, and her voice rose and fell in the long vowels of the language of her forefathers, which could never be transliterated into bright, mysterious hieroglyphs, and she did not belong to this land, for all that it belonged to her.
The eyes of her new slave were unsettling. They gazed out at Amneris, wide and furious, eyes that had seen fires reflected in them. The girl’s shoulders were slumped inward, her feet were bare, and her wrists were still chafed from her shackles. But her head was lifted and her eyes were unblinking.
Amneris could have had her whipped merely for the insolence of staring so, but something prevented her. Instead she asked, “What is your name?”
“Aida,” the girl said. The name sounded sad and beautiful, like a wail. It only occurred to Amneris later that Aida had understood Amneris’ Greek without a question.
“Come then, Aida,” she told the girl, forcing her voice into the royal cadences of command, “arrange my hair for me.” She thought if she stared longer at the girl’s eyes, something might happen to her, change her. Place Aida behind her then, hands in her hair, where Amneris could not see her eyes.
“I don’t know how.” The answer was blunt and abrupt, but came in clean, serviceable Greek.
“What do you mean?”
Amneris was sure she did not simply imagine how Aida lifted her chest and opened her shoulders at that moment, pride glowing upon her like jewelry. “In my home country, I was not a slave.”
The words felt that they came from Amneris almost involuntarily, sharp-edged and snapping, “But you are now.” Aida crumpled in on herself, eyes falling to the floor. It was as though Amneris had hit her. The girl’s shoulders began to shake, and Amneris realized she was crying.
Compassion stirred in her, if only for Aida’s queenly eyes. “It’s all right, child,” she said, “I will show you what I need from you.” She placed a palm upon Aida’s bare shoulder. Her skin was very warm.
Alone, Amneris visited the temple of Isis. It stood isolated, outside of the city, where the air smelled of growing things. Inside the temple it was dark and cool, and in the glowing light of the braziers she could only barely make out the bright paintings on the wall. They showed the goddess, crowned with the red sun and curved bull-horns which distinguished her. Amneris looked at the paintings, at the image’s long, flat feet, at the straight dress which clung to her skin. The goddess was so beautiful. Amneris was taken by a desire to pray to her - for a good marriage, children, the power to safely govern Egypt - but she realized that she knew none of the prayers or epithets, none of the means to properly address the goddess. She remembered processions to Isis, festivals in her honor, in which Amneris and her father every year took part, but she could not recall anything that was spoken there. She could remember prayers to Demeter, who some, she knew, claimed was the same, but they seemed profane, insulting in the soft strangeness of this place, incense thick in her breath.
How would she ever rule her people, if she could not even properly address their gods?
Aida was very beautiful. Amneris liked to watch her as she went about her work, back curving beneath the light linen of her dress, the long, tight braids of her dark hair falling over her shoulders like snakes. Her beauty of course was, along with her inexplicable knowledge of Greek, the reason she was there, serving in Amneris’ chambers, rather than doing labor somewhere she would never be seen. Amneris was pleased with it, the way Aida effortlessly ornamented her, one kind of beauty laid against another, and each heightened by the contrast. But she found herself consumed with the need to understand where the girl had come from, how she had learned the tilt in her chin and the wide strangeness of her eyes, so like the images on the temple walls. “Who are you?” she asked Aida, but, with an edge of bitterness or sarcasm in her voice, the girl would always answer only, “Your slave, my lady.”
Slowly, she took Aida into her confidence. It was traditional, was it not, for a princess to have a maid she trusted with her secrets, to whom she spoke with a freedom impossible with those of her own class? And Aida could not be a spy - she was too unguarded, too free with her emotions, ever since the first day when she cried before Amneris. She told Aida of her father’s wish for a male heir, of her own constantly faltering marriage negotiations. In return, she asked Aida of her country. At first, she received only brief, curt answers, short enough to skirt the edge of rudeness. But, eventually, Aida began to speak more freely, stumbling over the Greek with which she normally was so adept in her haste to describe the air, the earth, the food, the language. She spoke on the edge of joy and tears, at once exalted and sorrowed.
She did not tell Aida when she gave herself away. It was little things - saying ‘my father’ when she should have spoken of the king, describing the royal palace with suspicious familiarity. Eventually, the shape of Aida’s story became clear, and Amneris held it close to her, elaborating upon it in her imagination, finding a strange gratification in imagining the tragic details of her capture, the noble bravery of her decision to conceal her identity from all she encountered. If someone had asked Amneris how she felt in knowing who it was she kept as her servant, she could not have answered. The feeling was too strange, too multi-faceted, too unlike anything else she knew. But the awareness of it stayed with her like a knot in a smooth piece of weaving. She could not forget it.
And neither could she forget Aida standing before her, eyes flashing. In my home country, I was not a slave.
In Amneris’ home country, she would not be a princess.
Sometimes, Amneris wanted so much. She looked at her country and she wanted to take it into herself, devour it like Cronus eating his children. She looked at hieroglyphs and wanted the possession which was knowledge, the sure confidence of seeing and understanding and never doubting. She looked at warm-skinned Aida, with her goddess eyes and her hair like a river of snakes and wanted to put her hands on her and say, of her, of the words, of the country: mine.
She belonged nowhere, she belonged to nothing. The ancient pharoahs had been their god incarnate, owing as much to their country as their country owed to them; but she was only herself, princess by some accident of fate which had made her forefather the savior of Egypt, Ptolemy Soter, king in Alexander’s wake. Her body felt small and limited and all she wanted was to take in more, possess more, hold it all against her skin and to her lips and call it her own.
But she could possess nothing, not even Aida, not as the girl blushed and giggled at the general Radames’ touch, not as she could see love lightening her steps, turning those wide, staring eyes away from Amneris and upon another.
Bile rose in Amneris’ throat, and she seethed with jealousy.