On the twenty-eighth day, in the second month of Akhet, the pharaoh with ten daughters had a son. This son was not born in the usual way, springing from a seed planted in the king's great wife; he fell from the sky, his skin pale as the stars, his eyes green like the Nile. Because he was a rare gift thrown down in fire, they named him Merysiamun, beloved son of Amun, and all agreed that he would be the greatest ruler of them all.
They made a procession on gilded longboats, the king Nebkheperamun and his great wife Meritaten, ten daughters, and the son of the god, along the river to show Mery the world he would guide, and to show the world that their next pharaoh had come. Lamps glowed in every window, salt and oil mixed to burn the whole night through; and only one window remained dark. Panek, who did not scrape his face, who kept his wig too long, but advised the king well, poured his oil on the ground and closed his house to the celebration, for a king with a son had no need of a vizier as an heir.
Tossing a pair of counting sticks, Menneferet laughed and walked her lioness to the lucky square on the board. Sunlight danced off the garden pond, speckling her face with golden light. The beads in her plaited wig chattered when she moved, and the always inscrutable curve to her eyes crinkled with amusement. "I didn't mean to beat you again."
Mery pursed his lips, hands clasped as he leaned forward to examine the board. In his mind, he imagined all the possibilities- if there might be a move he could play to win, figuring in bad fortune for his sister-wife as a variable. Faster than a blink of an eye, he weighed what was left of the game, and finally shook his head. She had beaten him again. With a genial smile, he conceded. "You're the queen of Senet."
"I'm just lucky," she said. Sliding open tiny drawers, she fit the pieces in their places, her hands careful and delicate with their favorite toy. Her hands had always been careful, petting Mery when he was new and naked from the sky; teaching him to hold a cup of beer, helping him straighten the awkward double crown he had to wear in ceremonies.
He grew protective of her, too, happy to give up his dates because she liked them best, holding her close against his chest when crowds swelled around them. It only seemed right that the daughter named eternal beauty became the god's wife on their shared fourteenth birthday.
With a smile, Mery stretched to brush the tip of her nose with a water lily. "No, you're good." He brushed her cheek with the flower, tempting her to look up but she continued her task. Soon, all the pieces of the game were tucked away, but she still didn't meet his gaze. A wave of tension creased her upper lip, drawing a half-moon above the bow. Mery slid closer, draping an arm around her shoulder. "Nefer, what's wrong?"
She tried for a smile, glancing sidelong at him. "Nothing, I..." Finally, she managed the smile, a bittersweet quirk at the edges of her mouth. "I just always want things to be like this."
"They will," he promised. Tightening his arm around her, he dipped to catch her eye, color staining his perpetually pale cheeks. He loved looking at her, her strange, untouchable beauty almost magic. She was meant to be spoiled, and saved, and safe, and as he stroked her arm gently he murmured another promise. "You're my queen, Nefer. I'll never let anything change."
"Superstition is the difference between what a man sees and how he chooses to explain it."
Panek paced the courtyard, his lion's voice echoing off brightly-painted limestone. Each long stride pulled the neat folds out of his skirt, and his sandals snapped on the flagstones, punctuating the lesson. Cutting a hand through the air, he drew imaginary diagrams as he continued. "A superstitious man believes that mosquitos come after the floods to remind us to be humble. A wise man looks into a puddle and sees that they merely grow in untended water. From dung, dung beetles, from water, mosquitos... are you paying attention, Sennakhti?"
Lazily turning an ox-tail whip over in his hands, Sennakhti waited for a long moment before looking up. Newly shorn of his sidelock and disdainful of wigs, he cut a striking figure among the court's children, tall and bald, with purple glass studs glinting in his ears. His brows rose, an impudent curve painted on his mouth. "I'm sorry, did you say something, father?"
"Your appreciation for all things mediocre grows tiresome, Sennakhti." Panek circled his son, taking the whip from him with calculated grace. He swung it, silken strands whispering in the air as he spoke. "I am trying to help you meet your destiny; we are men who direct the rise and fall of empires."
Sennakhti stood in place, turning his face up to gaze at an endless silver-blue sky. "And here I thought that the pharaoh had something to do with it."
The whip fell over Sennakhti's shoulder, and Panek leaned after it, turning just enough to make sure his face could be seen. "The king only holds the flail and crook, Sennakhti, but the vizier tells him when to swing..." He emphasized the point, slapping the whip against Sennakhti's shoulder, just enough to sting, then slowly pulled it over the round of his shoulder, almost gentle. "And when to still."
"You should mention that the next time you're in court." With one finger, Sennakhti pushed the whip aside. He turned, fighting back a taunting smile. "I'm sure your brother-in-law would appreciate your... unique perspective."
Folding the whip over, Panek narrowed his eyes. "Luxury has spoiled you. I should have sent you to the Army instead of trying to train you at my feet." He shrugged, a careless gesture as he took a pomegranate. "No matter, we'll rectify it now. I hear..." He paused, breaking deep crimson seeds from the fruit, "That the prince could use a dog-master when he visits Abu Simbel."
In the darkest room of the Southern Palace, Mery smoothed a cool, wet cloth to Menneferet's forehead. Abu Simbel boasted none of the pleasures of their home in Thebes- the courtyards here had no reflecting pools, only stone walks flanked by prickly Juniper and aloe, and the desert swallowed up any breeze that tried to stir. The only relief from the unrelenting heat was shade, and nightfall. Menneferet never traveled well, and only a few days in the arid southern town had leached her strength. Leaning over to kiss her softly, Mery squeezed her hand. "You should get some rest."
She squeezed back, her lashes fluttering just a little. Sweat washed away some of her color, painting her in pale, dreamlike shades. She barely moved her mouth to ask, "Stay with me?"
Reluctant, Mery shook his head. "I wish I could. I'll be back soon." He kissed her again, tasting her sweat on his lips as he stood. An ache filled his chest as he carefully disentangled his fingers, smoothing her hand over her breast. He knew the servants would take good care of her, bringing her drinks cooled in the well, and new cloths when she needed them, but he hated leaving. Their hands wouldn't comfort like his could. "We'll go back to Thebes soon, Nefer."
That promise raised the slightest smile from her before she relented to sleep.
A wake of dust plumed beneath the wheels of the chariot. Women gathered up their children and men stepped back, staring at the wide swatch Sennakhti cut through the city. He was a stranger to them, the chariot and transparent linen he wore evidence that he was no ordinary citizen, and it was safer to avoid him in his mad ride than to risk offending him by allowing themselves to be run down.
Sennakhti raised his head, letting the wind cool his bare skin. Abu Simbel stagnated, the ripe scent of garbage perfuming the air; a scent little better than the fetid humidity in the dog kennels. He had decided to do his task well, mostly because he thought success would annoy his father, but he refused to pretend humility. He'd always had the best of things, whatever pleased him easily within his grasp, and he refused to rusticate himself to prove a point.
The chariot rumbled beneath his feet, the vibration spreading pleasantly across his skin, and digging deep into his bones. Most people walked from place to place, but he preferred the chaotic speed and sensation of riding. He steered toward the bright flash of colors that signaled a bazaar, already tasting sweet dates and bitter beer on his tongue.
Urging his horse on with promises of honey, Sennakhti nearly toppled the chariot in a wide swing around a corner. His heart pounded as he twisted the reins in his hands, shifting his weight back and forth to settle the chariot's wobble. When he looked up, he saw a flash of green, bright and wide, and then he saw nothing but black.
"You saved my life."
Scrambling up from the dust, Mery turned to find the viceroy's son already offering his hand. His focus a little blurry, he marveled at the way his own pale skin melted into Iwyt-Hebeny's dark, mixed up as to where one started, and the other stopped. Still dizzy from the sudden explosion, it took him a moment to remember that he'd pushed Hebeny out of the way of something, and another moment to realize that the something had been a chariot. Mery didn't feel any pain, and as Hebeny brushed him off, he realized that his skin remained unbroken. He turned his head up to the sun, to his real father, and quietly thanked him.
Nearby, a crowd started to gather, hissed, hushed voices gabbling over the remains of an upturned chariot, one wheel still spinning. Dark eyes glanced from Mery and Hebeny, and the murmur grew heated. The boy in the chariot had struck the god-prince, and would have to be punished. Hands started to rise, ready to fall, they stilled when Mery parted through them. "Let me pass. Please let me pass."
He knelt beside the body, staring at a boy motionless but for a trickle of blood running down the side of his bare head. Feeling his father sun beating down on his shoulders, Mery reached out and touched the boy's brows, telling his eyes to open. Deftly, he shifted, performing the ritual with slow confidence. Amun had thrown him from the sky, Mery was sure he could open the boy's mouth and make his ka fly back in, if he said the right words. Telling his beaded ears to hear again, Mery touched them, then his nose, and told him to smell. The crowd murmured and backed away, sharing a collective gasp when Mery bent his head to part the boy's lips. Exhaling into his mouth, he said Osiris' spell, then listened. No breath came, and he tried again, thinking the incantation as he breathed into him again.
Finally, the boy sputtered, eyes snapping open as he pushed himself onto one elbow. When his gaze settled, he looked up and saw a god, gold flashing in the sunlight, and eyes green like the river. Swallowing at the sharp dust in the back of his throat, he murmured, "I thought I hit you."
"You did." Hebeny pushed his way to the front of the awed crowd, his mouth set in a furious line. "And you almost hit me, too."
Feeling too many eyes on them, Mery helped the boy out of the dust, saying just loud enough to make his point to the crowd, and to Hebeny. "It was an accident." Leading them both away, toward the prancing, furious horse still halftethered to the chariot, he started to smile a little. He knew the legend that made him, he'd even seen the strange, metal cradle that had delivered him to the pharaoh, but he'd doubted himself, sometimes. Now there was no question; not for him, or for the people of Abu Simbel, who'd seen him return an ended life. He spread his hands, palms upturned. "What's your name?"
"Sennakhti," he said, tensing a little when the prince's hands clasped his face.
"You proved I'm a god, Sennakhti." He kissed him on the mouth, then stepped back. "Will you carry my sandals for me?"
Dubious, Hebeny stared at the two. "He nearly killed u... me," he said, then bowed his head when Mery looked his way. He knew better than to question a prince, but he couldn't leave it at that. It didn't make sense to reward the boy with a place in court for driving like a madman. "He could have hurt a lot of people."
Mery shrugged. "He paid for it with his life, didn't he?" Nodding toward the palace, he walked, expecting them to follow. "You'll be my general, Hebeny. My father's general argues with him, and he hasn't lost a battle yet."
Sennakhti and Hebeny slowed, watching the prince stride away from them. In just a few minutes, Mery had given them both entrance into the inner court, and from their matching, uncertain expressions, it was plain they'd be watching each other for the first sign of failure.
That night, a river of beer flowed through the great courtyard, bringing laughter and red faces with the tide. Only Hebeny kept his regular color, a smooth brown rich as the silt from the Nile, but he sang instead, competing with the dancing girls for attention. With great ceremony, Mery anointed him with beq oil, and promised to bore him with a hundred years without war. He bowed before Sennakhti, and promised him a hundred years without chariots, which made the court laugh.
Some of the raucous celebration quelled when Menneferet appeared for a bit of honeyed bread. Unsubstantial, she moved like a ghost, curling herself beneath Mery's arm when he introduced her to his newest confidantes. Offering each a smile, she took their hands and thanked them for service to her husband before melting into Mery's protective shadow again. She stayed only long enough to eat, taking milk instead of beer, then allowed her ladies to lead her back to her chambers.
"Your sister doesn't seem well," Sennakhti said. He peeled a bit of slick quail, biting half of it off for himself, and offering Mery the rest.
Taking the morsel, Mery sighed. "The heat's making her sick. The palace isn't helping, either." Chewing slowly, he rubbed the grease from his lips with the tips of his fingers. "In Thebes, she has her own garden. I wish she had one here."
"Don't wish it, do it." Sennakhti tossed a bone to the dogs and picked up a steamed egg to share. "Send a messenger tonight, have him send back all the things she likes. By this time next week, she'll be ankle deep in lotus petals."
Raising his brows thoughtfully, Mery leaned forward for a bite of the egg. His strange eyes darkened, then brightened when he smiled. "I could do that."
Sennakhti popped the rest of the egg in his mouth. "You should do that."
Always on display, Mery had long grown used to people staring at him, but he shivered at the way Sennakhti's keen eyes bored into him, as if they could pierce his skin and divine his decision by gaze alone. Feeling the back of his neck grow hot, Mery plucked up an onion to slice and laughed. "Then I will." Offering a thick, white piece to Sennakhti, Mery smiled curiously when he waved it away.
"Keep your aphrodisiacs; perhaps you can think of another way to bring some of the princess' happiness back."
Turning the scored bulb in his hand, Mery considered its general uselessness. He and Menneferet hadn't tried to make a son- the pharaoh had his health and his youth, and showed no signs of needing great-heirs just yet, and they were happy lying curled in the dark and trading sweet kisses. Rather than share all of that, Mery changed the subject. "Are you always this bossy?"
Sennakhti's teased with a smile over his beer. "I was under the impression you wanted my advice."
"I do." Mery snapped the slice of onion in half, offering part of it to Sennakhti again. He could run faster than the wind, and carry masonry blocks in two hands; he could raise fire with his sight, and gaze past stone walls, but he wanted to learn how to peer into someone the way Sennakhti did. "And I want you to share an onion with me before my bath."
Raising the onion to his mouth, Sennakhti's gaze never wavered. "Then I will."
Stepping into the pool, Mery untied the linen knots at his shoulders and let his kalasiris float away behind him. The water wasn't as deep as the bathing pool in Thebes, rising only to the curve of his hips, but it was cool and scented with cinnamon and almonds. Sinking to sit, he spread his arms on the edge of the pool, and sent away the watermasters with nearly-imperceptible flicks of his fingers. His long body wavered beneath the water, painted paler through the rippled surface, making scars and imperfections where there weren't any.
By the guttering light of an oil lamp, Sennakhti brushed the sand from Mery's sandals. He listened to Mery splashing, settling with soft, pleased groans. The tall stone walls caught every sound and amplified it; he could hear Mery breathing and the scritch of his nails against the edge of the pool. Putting the sandals aside, he buried his hands in the well of natron salts, and carried them to the water's edge. Stepping in, he wore his robes just as the water-masters would, the sheer fabric painting itself along his body.
"You don't have to..." Mery started, then trailed off when Sennakhti stroked a handful of salts over his arm. They rasped on his skin, tumbling their bitter scent as they scrubbed away stubborn sand and dust. Small tides and eddies teased over him as Sennakhti moved, and Mery closed his eyes, settling to enjoy the unintended liquid caresses. Strong hands rough with salt coursed up his arm, spreading over his shoulder; he leaned his head back to feel them clasp around his neck. A press of thumbs on the underside of his jaw tightened his skin until he could feel the progress of his breath into his body.
The water-masters, small, birdish women, were efficient with their technique. Quick and thorough, they could bathe him in only a few minutes, leaving him well scrubbed to soak in peace. Sennakhti, however, took his time. Straddling Mery's lap, he dipped his hands into fresh salts and rubbed their grain into Mery's chest, long, slow strokes that teased dark nipples to hard peaks, and left Mery's flesh tingling. Just as casually as he had mounted his lap, Sennakhti slid off on the other side, scrubbing down to Mery's fingertips in slow, kneading circles.
Stealing a glance, Sennakhti caught Mery watching. He could read the sleepy slope of Mery's lashes, the full, soft part of his lips. Beneath his touch, Sennakhti measured his breath, smiling faintly that it had grown shallow and restless. He made a cup of his hands to rinse the natron away, then slipped beneath the water once more. Instead of rising again, he laced his fingers with Mery's, stroking the flat of their shared palm against Mery's thigh.
With casual ease, Sennakhti propped himself on an elbow, stretching long fingers to wipe the carnelian paint from Mery's lips. Each time he stroked his mouth, he stroked beneath the water, a slow progression until their fingers grazed over the arch of Mery's erection. The bath echoed with waves washing against the edges of the tub; the lamps guttering with low, smoky light. Shadows canopied them, and the Wadjet eyes carved into the pillars watched without blinking.
Fingers pulling on his mouth, teasing his length, Mery's breath faltered and he turned, trying to skim closer to each touch. Parting his lips, he tasted the salted tips of Sennakhti's fingers, and rolled their joined fingers to clasp over his cock. The need for unspeakable things pounded in his blood, a mouth on his mouth instead of washing fingers that slid away to wipe the kohl from his eyes; harder strokes by an unfamiliar hand, instead of his own shaped touch. He blinked, seeing himself deeper in Sennakhti's gaze; Sennakhti, whose make up hadn't even smudged, whose robes clung jealously to his skin.
Straining for a taste of him, Mery jerked to a stop close to his mouth, fingers suddenly firm in his hair. The short tether only sharpened his need and he pulled against it to try again. Salted, spiced water teased the part of his lips, cool traces instead of the heat he could feel radiating from Sennakhti's skin. He took a breath to demand and found it wrenched out on a moan when Sennakhti tightened their joined grip over his cock. Fast, hard heat engulfed him, churning the water with each pull, and when Sennakhti's swirled their touch over the head before sinking down again, Mery forgot to want anything but more of that.
His gaze stuttered, catching glimpses of a perfectly painted mouth, and a field of yellow stars etched on the lapis-blue ceiling. Water slapped at his chest, fine droplets striking his face as he sank and rose at once; hips thrust into their grip, his shoulders, then his chin kissed by the waterline. Everything tightened- his nipples, his skin, his chest around each strained breath, and when he cried out, the sound of his rasped voice startled him. In a dreamlike haze, he was only vaguely aware of the hand in his hair, keeping his face above water.
Before Mery caught his breath, Sennakhti slipped away, fluid and lazy as he stepped out of the pool. Rivers streamed down his legs, leaving lakes in each footprint, and he collected a fresh linen for Mery to wrap himself in. Instead of returning to his side, he merely folded the cloth within arm's reach, and knelt to murmur, "Serve your princess; it's not just a garden that will make her smile." His gaze lingered for a moment, smoky as the lamps, and then he was gone.
Success gilded the days in Abu Simbel. With Hebeny and Sennakhti at his side, Mery had secured new trade agreements for gold and lapis from Nubia, and offered promises of continued peace. He'd learned the city streets, and offered sacrifices at the temples, shoulder to shoulder with the priests and the people. The magistrates had brought several special cases to his throne, and he'd made good decisions, leaving almost everyone happy- at least, they seemed happy, which Sennakhti said was the best he could hope for. These were his father's responsibilities in Thebes; Mery's first taste of wearing the double crown agreed with him.
The garden's arrival made a jubilant mood at the Southern Palace even more festive. People lined the canal roads from the river to the palace to watch as servants dragged sledge after sledge of live plants through the city. Cornflowers bobbed with shy, blue faces, fig trees dropped overripe fruit that children dared to dash out and capture. The scent of roses and jasmine sweetened the hot afternoon air, the blooms as regal as the architects who walked alongside them with planes and bevels in hand.
When the front gates opened, Mery led Menneferet from her cool, dark room to see the procession. Lacing his fingers with hers, he smiled over her knuckles as he pressed a kiss to the back of her hand, tending a secretive smile when she blushed and didn't quite meet his eyes. Whether they had a son within the year or not was entirely up to the gods, but she smiled more now in spite of her heat sickness. Slipping an arm around her waist, Mery turned her slowly to see the first splashes of living color in the desert- a cart piled high with red poppies and yellow chrysanthemums.
"Mery, what have you done?" Menneferet leaned back against his chest, blinking in amazement.
Kissing her temple, Mery smiled. "I just wanted to make you happy."
Menneferet bit her lower lip, her eyes widening when a full-grown sycamore fig rattled by. Draping her arms over Mery's, she turned her cheek against her shoulder. "I can't believe you did all of this for me."
In response he tightened his arms around her; smiling over her shoulder as he watched greenery and brilliant buds march past. A long row of palms rustled, verdant slashes that passed to reveal Sennakhti standing on the other side of the gate. Sennakhti lifted his chin, his expression smooth but for a quietly victorious bent to his brows. Mery nodded in thanks, a thousand secret conversations held in a single gaze. He hadn't learned Sennakhti's trick to looking inside someone yet, but he could feel a subtle shift, a glimmering of understanding when they looked long at each other.
When a young boy ran up to press a scroll into Sennakhti's hands, Mery turned his attention back to his princess, and her garden. Even as he promised her geese and songbirds for the new trees, he could feel the lingering warmth of Sennakhti's presence drifting away.
"Fond greetings, my son," the scribe read, his ink-stained fingers smoothing the cheap, thick papyrus under a patch of brilliant sunlight.
Sennakhti paced the courtyard, rolling a cool stone between his fingers. Recognizing his father's stilted voice in the scribe's low baritone, Sennakhti planned a hundred responses, each of them more curt than the last. He studied the fall of shadows from the roof, hearing the rambled greeting but not really listening. There would be a point to the letter; the descriptions of the weather and the latest additions to the family tomb were just chatter to disguise his motives.
Running his hand across the papyrus to keep track of the lines, the scribe took a deep breath and continued. "I understand you've ingratiated yourself to our most beloved prince. A wise man never counters luck when logic will do, but I must say you were fortunate he is so forgiving. In another time, you would have been pierced with arrows and left in the desert as a feast for scorpions and jackals."
"Sorry I disappointed you, father." Waving the scribe on, Sennakhti settled himself on a stone bench, pressing the tips of his fingers together. The stone still caught in his hand, Sennakhti balanced it with slow, rubbing glides.
"Nevertheless, I'm pleased to see you taking your new position so seriously. You were always fond of grand gestures, and I can see the stamp of your seal on this request for an entire garden for our most beloved princess. A man should be untroubled by marital complaints so his mind can be free to address other problems; and only one more so than the son of the king's..." The scribe trailed off, folding his wrinkled mouth in curiosity when Sennakhti flipped the stone across the courtyard. "Should I go on?"
Sennakhti laced his fingers together and nodded, a muscle ticking in the hard line of his jaw. "Please."
"As there are rumors of intrigue at the king's court regarding your young confidante, and you seem to have a grasp on his intents, I believe your talents are being wasted so far from home. There is a place for you at the council table here in Thebes. I won't expect a letter as you can arrive just as quickly as a piece of paper. Father."
Pursing his lips, Sennakhti smoothed his hands together as he stood. "Send a response; just reuse that piece." He took long, purposeful steps, stopping behind the scribe to watch him uncover the ink-block and wet it. Dictating, Sennakhti twisted his signet ring free and leaned over the scribe's shoulder to rub thick, dark paint into its grooves. "I'll return when my lord prince sees fit."
He didn't wait for the words to dry before he pressed his mark to the scroll.
After dinner, a long-limbed harpist curled around her instrument and stroked a silvery melody from its strings. As servants cleared away cups and swept scraps out for the dogs, Mery poured a cup of beer and rested his eyes as Sennakhti and Hebeny talked low under the music.
"You have to consider how you make your alliances," Sennakhti said, picking his fingers against the edge of the table. "Their fathers and mothers, the friends they had as children, their goals and motives. You can't continue to fill your court on whim with people who entertain you."
Hebeny snorted, raising his cup. "Like he did with you?"
Narrowing his eyes, Sennakhti nodded. "Precisely."
Rolling a bitter sip of beer on his tongue, Mery finally smiled and peered through his lashes at both of them. "Are you trying to resign?"
"Not me." Spreading his broad hands, Hebeny sat back, challenging Sennakhti with carefully chosen words. "I'm not the one telling you how to run your court."
Sennakhti rolled his lips, thinning the painted color and catching some on the tip of his tongue. His gaze simmered, glowering briefly. "I had a message from home. My father seems to think that someone is using your name to plot against your father. He wanted me to go back to Thebes to advise him."
Uncertainty marred Mery's smile, and he leaned forward. "What did you say?"
"I go where it pleases you." His hands itching, Sennakhti picked up his knife to roll between his fingers. "My father believes that a vizier holds the pharaoh's strings, that true power lies in the advice that..." he waved the knife, indicating himself, and Hebeny, "Trusted advisors impart. We are the men who will drive your empire."
A flash of annoyance crossed Hebeny's face, and he put up a hand between himself and the knife. "Speak for yourself."
"I'm repeating my father, not myself." Replacing the knife, Sennakhti smoothed a hand against the back of his head. "But if he says there's intrigue, it exists. He has more than a passing familiarity with ambition."
Rubbing his thumb against the lip of his cup, Mery examined his reflection inside it. He knew ceremonies and history, rituals and ways to greet kings; he'd just started to learn the actual work of being pharaoh. Now they were talking politics and intrigues, and it weighed uncomfortably on his shoulders. Swirling his image away in the beer, he raised his head. "What should I do?"
Hebeny spoke first. "Stay here. Whatever they're doing, the king knows about it, and he knows you're not behind it. Let them hang themselves."
"Or go back." Sennakhti took a sip of wine to wet his mouth. "They waited until you left; they're too cowardly to act in your name when you're there to actively contradict them."
Pulled in opposite directions by two pieces of sound advice, Mery stood, still holding his cup. Only the harp spoke for a moment- long, mournful chords that reverberated and sank to lingering silence. Raising his drink, Mery stepped down from the dais and murmured, "I need some air." He hesitated, then parted the curtain that led to the courtyards. "Come to me in the morning. I'll decide then."
Mery gazed at the half-moon, waiting for his indecision to pass. He expected an epiphany, for his blood to settle, then sing with instant certainty. Gods weren't supposed to agonize over decisions- his father hadn't hesitated to send him to Abu Simbel to practice the art of kingcraft; and his father, the pharaoh was a -god-. It must have been a good decision; if he were meant to return to Thebes, the pharaoh would call.
Trailing his fingers against the compound wall, Mery wandered from the court into the yard. Cattle, fit for meals or sacrifice, lowed in their thatched pens, and Mery changed his path twice to keep from stepping on an aimless gosling. Basking in the cooler night air, Mery sipped his drink and measured in the other direction. He couldn't read minds; it wasn't likely his father could, either. If the intrigues were kept secret, he wouldn't know to call.
Which he decided was ridiculous. The vizier wouldn't write to his son, but fail to speak to the king. Running his fingers through his hair, Mery stopped to inhale the scent of burning wood still rising from the bread ovens. Setting his cup aside, he took a step closer to the oven. Shimmering waves radiated from the daub-brick surface, and Mery pressed his splayed fingers against the stone.
It felt like a long look from Sennakhti, a sudden flare of heat that glimmered down to an indescribably pleasant sensation. Sometimes, it didn't even take a look- catching a hint of the cinnamon cream he rubbed into his hands could stir the heat, just as it stirred when he watched his scarred mouth caress words when he spoke. Mery felt no need to define it; the sensation made his heart run fast and his chest tighten. He knew that it was good.
But maybe that was a bad way to make a decision. With a sigh, Mery pushed away from the oven and walked the path toward the gates. He missed the palace in Thebes, and his secluded balcony that overlooked the Nile. In the summer, he could measure days by the height of the corn, nights by the passing of the stars- things seemed so much clearer there. The epiphany would have come there, he suspected, and turned to walk back inside.
He jerked his head up. Someone shouted at the front gate, and Mery could hear the rustle of soldiers and guards heading that way. Curious, he followed the rising voices, trying to make out the matter that disturbed a peaceful night. When he turned the corner, he saw open gates, and shielded soldiers circling around something low to the ground.
"It's a small favor to ask," a woman cried, but she silenced when the soldiers hauled her to her feet. She didn't wear a wig, her dark hair bleached almost red by the sun, and her clothes were simple. She yanked against the offending hands clasping at her wrists, struggling and trying to free herself. Her kohled eyes were wild in the dark, searching for any kind of escape. "Let go of me!"
"Enough!" Mery waved his hands, scattering the guards who'd slipped down from their posts to watch, and approached. When the soldiers realized who spoke, they set the woman free, backing away but still standing close enough for vigilance.
A soldier carrying a spear tried to explain. "She's a beggar, my lord prince. They know they're not permitted, but they camp at the gates."
Tugging her linens smooth, the woman straightened regally. "I'm not a beggar, my lord. I'm Nebtaweret, and one of your people. They turned me away when you heard cases, but I had to come back. You're the only one who can help me."
She had a soft face, wrinkles at the edges of her eyes, and lines lightly etched around her mouth from years of smiling, though she didn't smile now. In little ways, she reminded Mery of a mother- not his own, who wore smooth regality on her timeless face- but the women who tended their children up and down the streets with fond, firm hands. "Let her in."
As dubious guards cleared the path, the woman shook her head, turning the palms of her hands up to him. "Come with me. Bring a guard. Bring a hundred, it doesn't matter. Just please, come help."
Wavering, Mery tried to summon advising voices in his thoughts: what would Hebeny say? How would Sennakhti disagree? But he had only his own counsel at the moment. Determined to make at least one decision swiftly, Mery nodded and held out his hand.
Nebtaweret led Mery down a narrow street, deep in the heart of the city. Surrounded by tiny mudbrick houses stacked four high, and plastered so close together he couldn't even tell the difference from one home to another, Mery tried to imagine what it must be like to live in such a tight space. Lamps flickered in a few cut-out windows, but most were dark, and Mery could hear scores of people murmuring and snoring at once. Close behind Nebtaweret, he ducked to enter one of the apartments, suddenly very grateful for the wide, high-ceilinged chambers in the palace
Inside, the deeply medicinal scents of fenugreek and mustard tainted the air. Trying to breathe shallowly, Mery narrowed his eyes to adjust to the darkness. The tiny apartment was orderly with a few rough hewn benches and homespun pillows filling much of the space; someone had carved a niche for a small statue of Isis, overlooking the cooking pots stacked neatly against the walls.
"Here," Nebtaweret said, sitting on the edge of a bench and reaching out to stroke something on it. She smiled weakly when Mery came closer, leaning back to let him see. Her hand stilled on the round curve of a young boy's cheek. Not even old enough to shave his sidelock, he didn't move under Nebtaweret's touch. His lashes lay in half-moon curves on his cheeks, peaceful and still.
"Is this your son?"
Touching the boy's mouth, Nebtaweret nodded. "My husband and I fostered him; he wasn't born to us, but he's our son all the same." With gentle, tending strokes, she straightened his braid, gazing down at him with tears shimmering in her eyes. "His father didn't want him, he had visions that came true. They frightened him, but not me."
"I don't understand how I can help." Mery knelt down beside the bench, drinking in the tender way she stroked the boy's hair. "My father only keeps priests as prophets in his court."
Nebtaweret smoothed her hand over Mery's, and pressed it against the boy's chest. She finally looked up, waiting for him to realize that the skin beneath his palm had turned cold. "He was in so much pain, and the doctors did nothing. I watched the light go out of him, and I know he's just one boy to you, but he is everything I have. My husband's gone, my lord prince. I have no other son. Please... please help him."
Cold clenched in Mery's chest, his eyes widening when he realized what she wanted. There were already songs about Sennakhti's return, lyric poems describing the moment Mery breathed his ka back into him. The chill broke with determination, and Mery took a deep breath. Rising on his knees, he whispered Osiris' spell, pressing the tips of his fingers to each eye and willing them to see. He followed the ritual, each touch, and every prayer, then leaned over the boy to breathe into his mouth.
The chest rose, then fell and stilled, so Mery tried again. A long shiver passed through him, the cold lips beneath his stiff when he blew into them, but he kept trying. Time slipped away slowly, breath after breath, counted in agonizing measures of waiting, and starting anew. Pulling back to center himself, Mery ached when he heard Nebtaweret crying. Leaning in again, a little more desperate with his prayers, Mery reasoned it out- he was a god, he'd already worked this spell once, it should work again.
It didn't. He tried until his mouth turned numb, but the boy never rose. His eyes refused to see, his ears to hear, his heart to beat. Wiping the back of his hand across his mouth, Mery looked up, the ache of failure sharpening to a deeper wound when he saw the slide of tears down Nebtaweret's cheeks. His voice cracked when he whispered helplessly, "Anubis' will is greater than mine."
Stumbling into Sennakhti's chambers, Mery pulled at the gauzy curtains to spread them. Nebtaweret's son had hollowed him out, leaving an empty, aching void that he didn't know how to fill. Raising a hand over Sennakhti, Mery hesitated to touch him. He'd never seen his face clean of kohl and rouge, nor realized how dark the wound on his forehead had been- without his paint, his eyes closed in sleep, he seemed impossibly quiet.
Afraid to touch him, Mery held his breath. Maybe the spell only lasted a short time; maybe he was never meant to work it at all. He forced himself to brush his fingers against his cheek, steeled to feel the cold of death on his hands.
"Mery?" Sennakhti's lashes fluttered, and he lifted his head. Still half in dreams, he didn't have a chance to ward off the sudden press of lips against his own. Mery tasted of beer and desperation, his breath hard, and mouth harder, softened only by long strokes of tongue. Without thought, Sennakhti brushed his hand against Mery's hair, drawing back enough to murmur into his mouth, "What happened?"
"Terrible things," Mery said, terrible things that he explained in a rasp, between kisses, still trying to scrub away the sensation of death on his mouth. He described all of it, how he'd waited for an epiphany, and failed to be a god, and everything in between. He spread his hands on Sennakhti's flesh, soaking up his warmth, crossing over his chest to feel his heart beat again and again.
When all of the story was out of him, when he'd finally reassured himself of his one success, he laid down next to him and bartered another kiss for his decision: they would set sail for Thebes in the morning.
Standing on the bow of the boat, Hebeny curved his hand over his brow and frowned. Thebes shone brilliantly at sunset, its pristine limestone stained crimson and gold, pillars and needles casting dusk-plum shadows that stretched toward the eastern horizon. Temples rose up in the middle of the city, and the docks opened out onto real roads, paved with stone, but something was missing. "Where are all the people?"
"I don't know." Sennakhti rolled a string of beads- a gift from the princess- between his hands. Aside from a few dockworkers, the landing was deserted. They'd sent messages ahead, letters to announce their progress from each stop on the long sail home; someone should have been waiting to meet them.
When the boat slid to shore, dockers captured it with ropes and moored it in place. In an instant, the peaceful ride ended, servants swarming to land with laden trunks, the skilled among them scurrying to construct the litters that would carry the prince and princess to the palace. Sennakhti laced Mery's sandals, distracted and scanning the docks for any sign of an envoy. Even if they'd come ashore at midnight, the palace should have sent someone to raise a lantern to lead them home; a daylight landing should have meant a coterie of princesses to greet them, flowers and music, and people lining the streets to get a glimpse at the royal heirs. Sennakhti's throat closed when an envoy finally arrived.
Taking long, measured steps, Panek walked through the bustle of servants, white robes flapping around him. His arms crossed over his chest, he came to a stop in the middle of the dock and waited. He made himself a statue, fixed in place with affected nobility.
Grinding his teeth, Sennakhti finished the knot on Mery's sandals and stood. "My lord prince, my lady princess, the vizier's come to greet you."
Hebeny stepped down first, offering his hand to Menneferet to steady her. Thanking him with a brilliant smile, she glowed in the sensuous palette of a Theban sunset. Mery followed her, brushing a lightly possessive touch down her spine. Sennakhti stepped down last, keeping himself a few paces behind them, his expression cool and blank as new limestone. Closer now, he could see the crook and flail in his father's hands, and his heart sank when Panek sank gracefully to kneel before Mery and Menneferet.
"My lord king, my lady queen, I offer my condolences and my service." Panek's gesture of reverence wavered when he glanced up through his brows, hands raised to offer the crook and flail.
Mery's smile faltered. Slipping his arm around Menneferet, he opened his mouth, then closed it again, trying to find the right question to ask. When nothing came, he cast a pleading glance in Hebeny's direction.
At a loss, Hebeny took a deep breath and asked "Why are you calling them king and queen?"
Distress wrinkled Panek's brow, his voice mocked with an edge of regret. "I can see my messenger moved too slowly." Still holding the flail and crook, he leaned his head back to look up at Mery. "Your parents rest in the temple of Amun, my lord. I'm afraid they're dead."
An unnatural quiet had settled in the halls, servants performing their duties with rote efficiency, the musicians and dancers retired for the long seventy days before the funeral. Even the animals in the menagerie seemed to sense the loss, only the occasional coo of mourning doves rising up from the cages.
After shutting the new king and queen away to grieve in peace, Sennakhti searched the palace for his father. It didn't take long to find him; Panek hadn't lowered his voice- it carried into the clear night air for anyone to hear, ordering more shabtis and scarabs for two royal tombs, more gold inlays and gemstones to properly honor the dead. If Panek mourned, extravagance comforted him, adding a full-sized gopherwood boat to the growing list of honors. Interrupting his shopping, Sennakhti slipped under the shadowy boughs of an acacia tree and cleared his throat.
"I'll only be a few minutes," Panek said, refusing to dismiss the artisans until he was quite finished with them. Joining Sennakhti beneath the tree, Panek brushed off his hands as if he'd been laboring rather than dictating. "Welcome home, son."
"And what a welcome it was." Exhaling mirthless laughter, Sennakhti reached up to grasp a low branch and asked, "So how did it feel to be pharaoh for the entire walk to the docks?"
Panek ticked his tongue against his teeth. "I see that death hasn't tempered your tongue."
"If anything, it's loosened it." Narrowing his eyes, Sennakhti kept his back close to the tree's trunk, rolling his head lazily to follow Panek as he tried to circle. Each turn stretched his lean body, twisting muscle and making the few inches he had on his father seem like a foot. "I'm fine, by the way."
Folding his hands together, Panek just sighed. "What is it you want, Sennakhti? If it escaped your attention, I'm more than a little busy at the moment."
The branches shook when Sennakhti stretched again, letting his gaze wander slowly over his father's face. "What happened? I know you'll have to explain it to the king and queen in the morning, but indulge me. How did they die?"
"I thought I was sufficiently explicit in my letter to you," Panek said, quirking a brow. "Which you ignored, I might add."
No longer amused, Sennakhti let go of the tree. "You really expect me to believe that they were assassinated? From rumors to murder in less than three weeks, that's a first."
Half-nodding, Panek rubbed his thumb against his chin. "It surprised me, too. They were extremely well organized, but..." He shrugged, offering a transparent smile. "When it's your own servants who turn on you, that... that's especially shocking. The cook has already been sentenced; I'm sure we'll root out the rest of the traitors in short order. Such a shame they won't live to see their plan come to fruition; they'll be dead long before the coronation."
Sennakhti flattened his mouth into a tight line, slipping away from his father. "That -is- a shame." Turning, he walked away, his eyes fixed firmly ahead of him, even when Panek called out a wish for restful sleep and pleasant dreams.
Hours passed for minutes and years all at once for Mery; long nights soaked with Menneferet's tears endless; mornings watching the guards take members of his father's court one by one to be judged sped by in an instant. They became a blur of faces; the head of the guard, the overseer of the granary- it seemed like everyone who'd ever held his father's sandals had betrayed him; everyone but a few administrators and the vizier. All in Mery's name, all in pursuit of putting him on the throne sooner, rather than later.
Thrown from the sky by Amun himself, the gods intended him to rule right away. Proving his godhood in Abu Simbel, he had taken his place among the pantheon. The old pharaoh, the old god, should have died that day, or listened more closely to the portents and stepped aside. The explanations didn't make sense, no matter how hard Mery tried to understand. Mery nodded when Panek detailed each traitor's role in the plot; he closed his eyes when the judges gave their verdicts.
Playing dress-up in his father's double crown, Mery hardened himself to the sentence that came with each conviction. Men who'd served his father, who'd served him all through his childhood, were pierced by arrows, and left to die in the sands, their names erased from all records- the utter negation of their existence so terrible and final, Mery didn't think he'd ever forget their names.
At the tomb, holding his sister-wife's hand, he practiced strength as he watched Panek lay the adze on the sarcophagus, opening his parents' mouths and eyes for the next world. The words stuck in his ears, prayers he'd come to hate, and considered the heresy of banning them. If Anubis and Osiris were so jealous of their dominion, let them perform the ceremonies.
Once the tombs had been sealed, sound came back to the palace. Hundreds of voices gabbled and demanded; decisions on trivial matters, matters of minor importance, matters of war and state. Mery wanted to clutch his head and shove them all away, but this was his now. He kept his father's judges and priests, made new keepers of the guard. Just as he'd promised, he named Hebeny the commander of his armies; Sennakhti would no longer carry his sandals, but be Known to the King- his most trusted, intimate advisor. In the late hours after the funeral, drinking together in the garden, Mery explained all of this with a low, soft voice that seemed much too old.
"The judge Wosret would make a good vizier," Sennakhti said, after most of the positions had been filled. "I watched him during the trials- he weighed all of the evidence, and didn't enjoy the sentencing."
Smoothing his hands down his face, Mery shook his head. "Then I need him as a judge. I'll keep Panek. My father trusted him."
"But you're not your father." Sennakhti tried to keep his voice even, smoothing the tight edges of his expression with a long sip of wine. "You have to make your own court, with men -you- trust."
Mery tipped his head back, staring at the full field of pale stars above him. "I do. I guess I do. Look, he tried to stop this, and he didn't rest until everybody who forced me to be king stood trial. He proved his loyalty."
"Or he proved his ambition." Knotting a string of beads around his fingers, Sennakhti twisted them as he spoke, watching Mery's profile and trying to read his thoughts. "You remember what I told you in Abu Simbel."
"And I remember that he warned you," Mery snapped. Turning his cup, he glared over its rim and rubbed it against his lower lip. "He warned me. If it makes him feel good to think he's powerful, then let him think it. It doesn't matter as long as he gives good advice."
Picking up the jug of beer, Hebeny shook his head. "It's your court, Mery. Maybe it should be all yours."
"It is mine!" Standing up, Mery took a few aimless steps before turning around, his eyes flashing. He fluttered his fingers around the cup to keep from breaking it, beer splashing over his skin as he demanded, "Or do you want it to be yours, Sennakhti?"
Sennakhti leaned back, folding his expression over slowly before answering. "I want it to be yours without question. My father is a priest, he is your uncle by marriage; when your parents died, he moved two steps closer to the throne."
Furious, Mery threw down his cup. "He was my father's best friend!"
"But he's not yours."
Hesitating, Hebeny seemed to shrink a little before speaking. "And you don't know what he's thinking Mery. You don't know him."
Sennakhti twisted the beads sharply and filled in the spaces before Mery could reply. "You don't have an heir; you don't even have a daughter to marry another prince. I told you, you have to think about everything when you choose your court. If you make my father your vizier, he has a compelling reason to turn the other way when the next plot arises."
"We have a pharaoh." With a pointed edge to his voice, Mery crossed his arms over his chest and dared both of them to argue with a single glance. "I don't need an heir, I can't die. You both saw that."
"Even Osiris died," Hebeny put the beer jug aside. "Just because we don't know how to kill you doesn't mean somebody can't figure it out."
Laughing bitterly, Mery swept the remains of the cup away with the edge of his saddle. "Are you two trying to figure it out?"
"Excuse me, my lord king." Sennakhti offered a stiff, formal bow before retreating. Every angle of him flashed like a knife as he stalked away, his head held high and shoulders broad and square to carry the insult.
Finishing his drink in silence, Hebeny watched Mery through the corner of his eyes. When he finally seemed to settle a little, he offered quietly, "It couldn't hurt to be careful. Keep Panek, just give him another job."
With a flash almost too fast to see, Mery swept the remaining jugs and cups away, pottery shattering on the pressed earth floor. "I made my decision!" He looked vaguely sheepish over his second display of temper, but didn't let his voice waver. "I'm done talking about this."
Hebeny bowed his head in respect, but refused to nod and agree.
Closing her eyes to allow her ladies to brush kohl around them, Menneferet listened as Mery struggled with his speech. Outside the palace, bumble bee voices hummed and gathered strength; the people of Thebes gathering to see their new pharaoh officially seated on the throne. Menneferet would have preferred a quiet ceremony, or none at all. It seemed wrong to have a celebration her parents couldn't attend. "I think we should change our names," she said, then parted her soft lips to a rouge brush, trying to talk without ruining the carnelian shade her ladies applied. "You take Nebkheperamun, and I'll take Meritaten."
Mery stopped reciting. "I don't know, Nefer..."
"They shouldn't have died," she said. She leaned her head back and hissed softly when her ladies wrapped the cool gold pectoral across her chest. "It would honor them to take their names."
Sinking down on a bench, Mery propped his elbows on his knees and sighed. "But it's a dishonor to the names they gave us."
With the pectoral snapped firmly together, Menneferet waved the servants away. When she turned toward Mery, she looked like a memory. Smooth cream darkened her skin, the lines around her eyes wide and edged with green malachite, and her mouth had been painted thinner than its shape, in a brilliant crimson. Instead of the soft colors that had always favored, she'd painted on her mother's facequeenly to be certain, but nothing like herself. "I guess it doesn't matter to you that there's a stain on that name, then."
"I was just their excuse." Mery swallowed the sour taste in the back of his throat. "They tried to use -me-, I had no part in it."
"Prove that." Strange, fiery lights danced in her almond eyes, her newly thin mouth set firmly. She went to him on silent feet, sinking to her knees to spread her hands and beg. "Start over with me, brother. I want to praise your name, not hate it."
Stunned, Mery laced his fingers with hers. "You... you think I did this?"
"They killed Nebkheperamun for Merysiamun." Shaking her head, Menneferet cast her eyes down. "I don't want Merysiamun to be my great king."
Moments after the crowning of Pharaoh Merysiamun, the new queen Meritaten disappeared inside the palace, claiming exhaustion. She'd stood by his side just long enough for all the people of Thebes to see her and hear her new name. Curious murmurs rose up when she left, keen eyes searching for some offense that would drive her away. Covering the tension, Hebeny hinted that there might be a new prince in a few months, encouraging the nobility to forgive her early exit.
Left queenless on the dais, Mery waved for the feast to begin, drowning his sullen expression in a cup of wine. Hebeny made conversation, but Sennakhti only performed his duties- tallying the sacrifices made in Mery's honor, tasting his food and drink with cool efficiency. The lingering gazes were gone, his touch only serviceable.
The gifts, at least, offered a distraction. Mery found his own smile when a flock of doves were set free in the courtyard, an offering of peace from the Hyksos king. The Hittite king sent two half-starved geese- the paucity of the gift a taunt from their most unctuous neighbors. Gold from Nubia and Kush piled around the royal table, lush decoration for the exotically dark dancers sent from Libya, whose wide hips swayed with suggestive promise.
Hebeny's father, the viceroy of Kush, sent an Apis bull for sacrifice, and the court offered hunting hawks on tannedhide tethers. Surrounded by these riches, Mery's dark mood slowly faded. He could reason with Menneferet later; he hoped Sennakhti would come around on his own. After the Syrian magician turned a staff into a snake, and a pair of Phoenician tumblers amazed with their agile tricks, Panek interrupted the celebration with a sharp clap.
"My lord king," he began, raising his hands in supplication, "It has been my honor to serve this house all my life, and it will be my honor to serve you until the day of my death. As a token of my loyalty, and my gratitude, I'd like to present you with my gift, if I may."
Though he could feel Sennakhti stiffen next to him, Mery smiled brilliantly. "I would be honored."
Quiet murmurs ran through the guests as Panek took an ornate box from a young servant. Raising it high, he carried it with great ceremony to the dais. "This is a crown only you could wear, my lord king." He opened the lid with the tips of his fingers to reveal a polished gold band edged in onyx. Panek lifted it into the light to reveal a facing of dual emerald green cobras, sculpted serpents of Wadjet.
Mery's smile faltered. He reached for the crown then curled his fingers away from it, recoiling in pain. Sweat broke out on his skin, and he pushed himself back, struggling for a breath. Hebeny sprang to his feet, clearing a path off the dais as Sennakhti helped Mery to his feet. Turning to listen to Sennakhti's whispers in his ear, Mery raised a hand to his guests. "This gift is too great for me to keep from my queen. Enjoy the feast, I'll be back soon."
As Hebeny led Mery away, Sennakhti snapped the box closed on the crown and took it with a grim smile. "Thank you, father."
Snapping the box closed again, Sennakhti set it aside, watching and waiting for the color to return to Mery's face. He and Hebeny had taken the crown apart to test it, and now it lay in pieces, closed up under a gilt lid. They'd rubbed bits of its gold on their own wrists, then Mery's, nothing. The same for the onyx; it left only a cool trace. The Wadjet cobras felt strangely warm to them, but harmless. Not so when Mery tried to touch them; a quick, green poison darkened his veins, bringing sweat to his skin and draining his strength.
"We'll have to have another made, someone we trust." Sennakhti fingered his lower lip. "I'll find a jeweler tonight; you can tell the court Menneferet was so touched, she wanted to keep it at her bedside."
Hebeny stirred honey into a mug of wine, his sloe eyes fixed on his task. "Her name's Meritaten now."
"Our lady queen," Sennakhti said shortly, clasping his hands together. "With any luck, we'll have a duplicate in the morning. You can wear it when you go to the temple, and we'll keep this between us. I saw the look on his face; I don't think my father had any idea this would happen. We'll let him believe you were just overcome with emotion."
Swallowing some of the sweetened wine, Mery shivered. "I don't understand. Wadjet's supposed to protect me."
Sennakhti shook his head. "She does, she always will. It has to be the stone."
"We need to find out where it came from." Hebeny sat down next to Mery, helping him steady his hand around the mug. "You should tell him the queen liked the crown so much that you want to surprise her with one."
Rolling his lips in his mouth, Sennakhti stilled for a moment, then nodded- agreeing with himself. "It's a good plan, but you should ask. He knows you're devoted to her; he won't question you the way he would me."
"All right. I'll wait a couple days, to let the rumors die down."
Clearing his throat, Mery interrupted. "Do I have a say in any of this?"
Hebeny and Sennakhti fell silent, exchanging glances. Whatever say Mery had, they'd made their decision, and they'd carry it out.
"There's an old man in the carpenter's village, Setimose. He used to make trinket jewelry for Menne... Meritaten's dollscopies of her crowns and earrings." Setting aside the mug, Mery squeezed Hebeny's hand in thanks. He offered a different kind of thanks to Sennakhti, a long gaze and words weighted with import. "-We- can trust him."
Silhouettes on the top of the dune beckoned to him, two men, a woman, their faces obscured by shadows.
No matter how fast Mery ran, the sand swallowed his feet. Wrenching at invisible tethers, Mery fought to get to them, he needed to tell them something, though at the moment, he couldn't remember what. When he fell to his hands and knees he could crawl, digging his fingers into insubstantial earth, but sand filled his mouth and nose.
Mery could see hints of their faces; narrowed eyes and parted lips; they knew he was there, why didn't they help? The shifting desert hissed, endless white noise that stole his voice when he tried to call for help. A hot blast of wind swept sand on his skin; he could feel each grain shifting, settling. Forced down, Mery managed to roll overdesperate, certain they would see now that he couldn't move, but the shadows on the dune just kept waving.
The sky pulled away, from pale blue to black. The stars abandoned him, blinking out one by one, falling into the desert to become green beads among tawny sand. Cold and blind, Mery tried to call out again, but a snake slid into his throat. Its scales rasped on his tongue; fangs piercing from the inside and even when Mery managed to raise a weak hand to pull the tail, it held fast. He couldn't breathe, he couldn't even cry when the ants and scorpions came- great red tides of stinging beasts blanketing him.
Something coppery wet spilled on his chest, staining a curve on his skin and when he finally managed to raise his hand again, a dull weight struck it again and again. Everything tilted sideways, the sensation of falling pulling through his gut. Jerking his eyes open, the desert faded away to painted walls and pale curtains. A dream, a nightmare- taking sharp, shallow breaths, he pushed himself up and jolted when the heavy dream weight struck his collarbone.
His hand closed around the cool body of an asp, and he held it away from his face. Amber eyes glittered in the dark, and the snake stiffened, trying to strike again. Something milky-wet dribbled from its broken fangs, and when Mery looked down, he could see a trail of the venom smearing his chest. Flinging the snake away, Mery rolled off the bench, already swiping at the undulating streak on his skin.
Shuddering in disgust, Mery called for a water-master, and for Sennakhti. Night visits from scorpions weren't unheard of, but snakes rarely lasted long inside the compound- they made good meals for Menneferet's collection of ferrets. The bite of the stone cobras had been prophecy; Wadjet had tried to protect him after all.
After the excitement of the coronation, the palace started to smooth back into a regular, orderly pace. Mery wore the replica crown almost everywhere; it lay on his head more comfortably than the double crown, and it reminded him he met the world as the pharaoh now instead of a carefree prince. That was never more evident than at dinner, and in the evenings.
Menneferet spent most of her days in the temple; it was her right, as the God's Wife, to offer sacrifices and direct worship. She'd made herself friendly with the priests, and went out among the people, leading them back to piety. When it came to the god on the throne, however, she shared one meal a day with him- urging Mery to change his name, to join her in the house of Amun- then retired to the harem with the other royal women when he refused.
He'd spent his whole life as her pet, willing to do anything to make her happy. Lying alone at night, he wondered if she'd smile at him again if he cast off his name, if she'd welcome his kisses if he bowed to her will. It didn't seem like such a hardship when he had only silence lying next to him in the dark; but daylight came and he balked again. He -was- Merysiamun, beloved son of Amun- erasing that would defy both fathers; the one who'd thrown him from the sky, and the one who'd raised him up to the sun in thanks.
After Mery sent for him the night of the coronation, Sennakhti had warmed some, but he still kept a distance that he hadn't in Abu Simbel. He always had something to do- maintaining royal orders, overseeing the collection and destruction of the green stones wherever they were found, smoothing every decision Mery made into reality with swift, efficient ease. The chamber-masters gossiped that he slept little; brief naps in the middle of the night before he rose to stalk the palace again. Mery had his counsel, but not his attention, and he missed the flared heat in his gaze when he gave advice.
Panek... made himself useful. Mery didn't think about him much, if he didn't have to. The vizier was unfailingly cheerful and accommodated everything. He never had an opinion that didn't match Mery's, and Mery sometimes found himself trying to look into him for some hint of the ambition Sennakhti claimed he possessed. It was hard to find fault in a man who busied himself celebrating the pharaoh's name, but his company left Mery with a lingering sensation of discomfort.
At least Hebeny remained the same: dedicated when working, and playful at rest. Over the strategy board, he argued his position passionately, winning more battles than he lost. Then, sometimes, they'd slip out of the palace to play sticks and hoops, naked and forgetting for a few moments that their gaming hands also tended a nation. Hebeny brought balance when everyone else's weight dragged on one side or the other.
Days passed to weeks, and weeks to seasons. The Nile would flood again soon, and Mery hoped that in the new year, he would feel more like a king.
"I remember watching you play," Panek said, keeping his steps short to match the queen's gait. Overcast skies shielded them from the sun on the long walk back from the temple, so Panek made conversation as Menneferet counted the faces she recognized from the ritual prayers and those she'd never seen. "You wove a garland crown for your father, and he wore it for days to please you."
Jolted out of her tally of the pious, Menneferet looked up with a wide, hungry expression. "I don't remember that."
"I don't imagine you do. You couldn't have been more than two." Putting a hand on her shoulder, he guided her around a dip in the road, but didn't let go. "I have a lot of memories you don't, I'd wager."
Fixing her attention on her toes, Menneferet squeezed her own fingers and murmured, "I'm already starting to forget things. In the temple today, I realized that I couldn't remember what their voices sound like."
"Oh, my dear." Fatherly, Panek slid his hand across her back, pulling her a little closer. "Let me see if I can help... Nebkheperamun sounded like the tigers you keep in your menagerie. Low and rough. And Meritaten sounded just the way I'd imagine honey would, if it spoke."
Swaying against him, Menneferet nodded. "I think you're right, thank you." She pulled her fingers apart, then clasped them again, curling under the warm safety of his arm. Shadows crossed her eyes, creeping down her face to twist her mouth. "I don't understand why no one wants to talk about them anymore."
Panek squeezed her gently. "We all grieve in our own way, my lady queen. Some of us longer, or harder, than others." He cast her a confidential smile, turning her toward the palace with guiding touches. "Some cast it off in the glimmer of an eye."
A brief storm passed over her, lightning in her gaze, teeth grinding like distant thunder. Taking a moment to compose herself, her brows danced, then settled to a smooth, cool curve again. Finally she asked, "You miss them too, don't you?"
"In ways you can't even imagine, my lady queen." Stopping outside the palace gates, Panek slipped in front of her, smoothing his hands down her arms, trailing his touch over the gold, green-eyed serpents twined along her wrists. "I have a treasury of memories. If you'd ever like to hear them, they're yours for the taking."
Pacing the long hallway outside the scribes' den, Mery listened to the measured tenor of Sennakhti's voice inside. Animated, it rolled and flowed, and if Mery closed his eyes, he could imagine the exact shape of his lips with each sound. A low brush of his laughter rolled out of the den, and Mery's jaw tightened.
When Sennakhti backed out of the den, Mery grabbed his arm. "Come talk to me."
Sennakhti glanced down at the touch. "I take it this couldn't wait half a turn?"
Ushering him down the hall, Mery curved his own shoulders, shielding the sound of his voice to keep it between them. "What's going on?"
"I don't know what you're talking about, Mery." Slipping from his grasp, Sennakhti leaned his head back, fixing his attention on the stele at the end of the hall. "I spent the morning sending your letters, and I'd planned to check on the progress of your tomb this afternoon."
"That's not what I'm talking about." Stopping in the middle of the hall, Mery waited until Sennakhti faced him to continue. "You're not the same. Do you love me less in Thebes?"
With a weary smile, Sennakhti laughed. "You're the king in Thebes, I have more to do than wash your sandals." Faint tension squared his shoulders and he moved to brush past. "I don't have time..."
"You have as much time as I want you to have." Blocking the way, Mery searched for an explanation that made sense, the age smoothing off of him, hints of a gawky youth exposed when he looked up through his brows. "Hebeny has time."
Sennakhti lifted his chin, quietly bitter. "He's not the one trying to rule your court, is he?"
The knot in Mery's throat strangled his voice to a mumble. "I didn't mean that."
"But you said it." Splaying a hand on Mery's shoulder, Sennakhti clapped his flesh, keeping him at a slight distance. "Which means you considered it. I have to assume I gave you reason, so the only thing I can do is prove otherwise, every day."
Wavering, Mery swallowed again, guilt closing his throat and squeezing the breath out of him. He did say it, he did consider it, but he couldn't remember why. He took too long to consider it, and he jerked his head up when Sennakhti started to walk away. "Wait."
With a glance over his shoulder, Sennakhti stopped, but didn't turn. "I have things to do, Mery."
"Let Panek examine the tomb. Stay with me today." Spreading his hands, Mery tried to capture their old gaze, the one that lingered and burned. " I have new onions and old questions; share them with me."
Sennakhti's brow curved as he parted his lips, breathing out the faintest shape of forgiveness.
With a smile, Hebeny nodded at the stalwart chambermasters lining the hall as he carried a bowl of pomegranates and dates into the harem. Torches lit the way, chasing away the night and sweetening the air with the scent of almond oil, and Hebeny whistled under his breath as he navigated the harem's labyrinth to queen's chambers. Every evening, he brought her some small treat from the orchard, trying to coax some of the stiffness out of her. He couldn't change her mind about the king, but he could talk to her, and listen to her thoughts, and hopefully remind her that the court remembered she was meant to be a part of it.
Turning the corner, his whistled tune ended abruptly. Instead of the guard at Menneferet's door, Panek filled the space there, a wolfish smile on his face as he pressed kisses to the insides of Menneferet's wrists. Hebeny slipped back into the corner, his nostrils flaring. He could tell by the queen's soft smile that she didn't recognize the sharp edges of Panek's, that she hadn't realized it turned to grim, determined ice when she turned her back.
Panek scrubbed the backs of his hands as he started down the hall, his purposeful stride sharp enough to echo with each step. He'd almost turned the corner when Hebeny cleared his throat.
"General," Panek said, turning a slow circle to face him. "You're a long way from the king's side, aren't you?"
Raising the bowl slightly, Hebeny stepped out of the shadows. "I'm here on his business."
Fingers curled, Panek stroked the air above the fruit, then plucked out a date. "I see. Such a loving gesture from our lord to our lady. I'm touched at their fondness for each other, aren't you?"
Hebeny bit his tongue when Panek tore off a piece of the fruit, and briefly hoped that he'd choke on it. "What about you? The last time I checked, the royal offices were on the other side of the compound."
Considering the date, Panek shrugged and popped it in his mouth. "The queen sent for me. It seems she enjoys my stories of her youth, and who am I to deny her anything?"
"The way I see it," Hebeny said, curling the bowl in his arm and stepping into fuller light, "You can tell your stories anytime. Where's the queen's chamber-master?"
Lazily waving a hand, Panek smiled. "I sent him for wine."
"Did you send Nebkheperamun's guards for wine, too?"
Laughing suddenly, Panek took a step closer. His teeth gleamed, sharp, pale bands meant to cut, slicing his voice in thin, deliberate strips. "I hesitate to ask, but are you accusing me of something?"
Refusing to back down, Hebeny took the next step forward, his chest bumping against Panek's. "Why, are you guilty of something?"
"Let me give you a little advice, General." Cold swept through Panek's tone, his eyes glittering with frigid light. He leaned in, his rough cheek rasping against Hebeny's as he murmured in his ear, "Never ask a leading question unless you know the answer. It tips your hand." He stepped back abruptly, raising the torn date to obscure a new, harder smile. "These are delicious, I'm sure the queen will enjoy them."
"I could order her to move back into our chambers," Mery said. Squeezing through the throng of Mycenaean visitors gathered in the courtyard, Mery dragged his fingers through his hair. The lack of an heir had become a topic of conversation, prophets offering up visions of a hundred strong sons and neighboring kings watching the balance of power with keen curiosity since none of those sons had yet to materialize.
"While you're at it, order her to love you, and compose poetry praising you." Smirking, Sennakhti pushed a door open, leaning back against it to let Mery through. He fell right back into step next to him, his whole body swaying with motion. "You have to bring her around, Mery. Her little fireside chats with Hebeny haven't worked, you're the only one who can fix this."
Snorting in disgust, Mery shook his head. "The only way I can fix it is by changing my name."
"It's something to consider." Sennakhti held up a hand to quiet his protest. "There's never been a king whose reign wasn't improved by the judicious application of compromise."
Mery threw up his hands, incredulous. "She's my wife!"
"She's an empire you haven't conquered yet." Turning around to walk backwards in front of him, Sennakhti smiled, radiating heat. "She doesn't want Merysiamun to be her great king, then change your name to something new, something that honors both of your fathers. She -wantsanother Nebkheperamun, but she didn't require it. Follow the letter of her law, if not the spirit. Didn't I teach you anything in Abu Simbel?"
Laughing, Mery shook his head and slowed down. "What you taught me there isn't going to help me here."
"You never know." Clapping Mery on the shoulder, Sennakhti pushed away from him. "I'm late for a meeting with the Keeper of the Library, I'll talk to you later."
Rolling his eyes, Mery nodded and smiled. "I'll hold you to that."
"Take my advice, and you'll be too busy holding something else to worry about me." With another flashing grin, Sennakhti disappeared around the corner.
Mery spun in the other direction, heading for the throne room and mulling the possibility of compromise. Caught up in his thoughts, he didn't notice Panek until he nearly crashed into him, and he mumbled an apology as he caught his shoulder to steady him.
"Accept my apologies," Panek said, running his stiff fingers down the folds of his robe. "I should have said something to catch your attention. But since I have it at the moment..."
Setting aside his considerations of Menneferet, Mery raised his brows. "Is something wrong?"
With a wince, Panek leaned away. "I'm afraid there might be. The royal architect sent word that the antechamber they were building for you broke through into another tomb. They're doing their best to repair the damage, but it's going to have to be properly closed."
Smiling in confusion, Mery shrugged. "Then they should close it."
"That's the problem, my lord. They disturbed another king's remains. It's not just a matter of mortaring the hole closed, there has to be a ritual." Spreading his hands helplessly, Panek sighed. "I'd do it myself, but I'm still unclean from the temple slaughter this morning. It would be weeks before we could get another priest to the valley."
Mery sighed heavily and nodded. "All right. Arrange a litter for me."
Bowing low, Panek smiled. "As you wish, my lord."
Storming into Hebeny's chambers, Menneferet threw back the curtain around his bed. Her fine powders and creams did nothing to hide the fury blooming crimson on her cheeks. "Where is he?"
Hebeny rolled up on his elbow, blinking in confusion. "Who?"
"Our lord king," she snapped, dropping the curtain to stalk its perimeter. "He left a message with my chamber-master, that I should meet him tonight so we could discuss his new name, but when I went to his room, he wasn't there."
Scratching a hand over his head, Hebeny slid out of bed. Pulling the curtain back from his side, he watched as Menneferet grasped the window ledge and lifted herself to peer out. "I haven't seen him, Meritaten, I don't know what to tell you."
She whipped around, the beads in her hair clattering. She shivered with anger, her transparent gown clinging to her hips, moonlight tracing a pale outline around her body. "You have to know, you're his general. He doesn't spend any time with anyone but you..."
"Hold on." Fishing his abandoned kalasiris off the floor, Hebeny lashed it across his hips and secured it with a messy knot. "Have you spoken to Sennakhti?"
Frowning, Menneferet crossed her arms over her chest. "He was busy entertaining one of the Mycenaean maidens, I didn't want to interrupt."
Hebeny reached out, smoothing his fingertips against her hand until she uncurled it and slipped her palm into his. "Trust me, he won't mind the interruption."
With murmured apologies to his guest, Sennakhti slipped out of his chamber and into the hallway. He rubbed at his lower lip, guessing where the carnelian smear of his makeup had to be based on the level of Hebeny's gaze. "I hope this is important." His annoyance faded when he saw Menneferet, replaced with instant propriety. "My lady queen, excuse me. I didn't see you there."
She answered with a disapproving frown, turning to gaze through the window.
Keeping his voice low, Hebeny pulled Sennakhti to the side. "Have you seen Mery? He was supposed to talk to the queen tonight, but he didn't show up."
Sennakhti smoothed a hand over his head. "Not since this afternoon. Have you checked the courtyards? He likes to walk at night."
"No sign of him anywhere." Hebeny cleared his throat, inviting Menneferet into the conversation when he raised his voice. "When did he say he wanted to see you?"
"At moonrise," she said, trailing her fingers along the edge of the window. Lit in silver, she should have looked soft, but anger sharpened her, honing the edge of her jaw. "That used to be our special time, but it looks like nothing's sacred to him anymore." Gathering herself up, she shared a flat smile. "I'm sorry I bothered you."
Staying her with a raised hand, Sennakhti stepped into her path. "Wait, wait. We spoke this afternoon, I know he wanted to talk to you."
Disgusted, Menneferet rolled her shoulders expansively. "I can tell." Brushing past him, she exhaled thin, mirthless laughter. "It doesn't matter. I'm sure he took one look at his cartouche, and fell in love with the way his name looked on the tomb walls. He's probably there now, repeating it over and over to himself, Merysiamun, Mery-si-amun."
"Tomb?" Hebeny ducked in front of her, spreading his hands. "What are you talking about?"
"That's why he couldn't talk to me this afternoon. He had to go see his tomb." Touching Hebeny's lower lip gently, she forced a smile for him. "It's good, really. I know what's important to him now." Slipping away, she let her touch trail behind. "I hope you'll still come to talk to me when the king takes a second wife. I enjoy your company."
Gaping, Hebeny smiled uncomfortably, waiting until Menneferet drifted away to turn to Sennakhti. "I don't know what that was all about."
"Worry about it later." Sennakhti reached back in his room for his sandals, slipping them on quickly. "Mery wasn't supposed to go to the valley today, we need to find him."
Raising a brow, Hebeny asked, "What about your friend?"
Tightening the last strap on his sandals, Sennakhti started down the corridor. "Helen can wait."
Night completed the valley's desolation. There should have been a fire in the distance, the scent of roasting meat leading them toward the new tomb's construction, but there were neither. The high cliff walls swallowed starlight and moonlight alike, inking the serpentine floor in impenetrable shadows. A breeze streamed past, burrowing the cold deeper into their skins, until it became an ache at the bone. In the full blaze of day, sweat would have poured from them, but the valley at night devoured light and heat.
Stone crackled beneath wooden wheels, hoofbeats slow and forlorn as Sennakhti slowed the chariot. "We should walk from here."
Hebeny stepped down and turned in a slow circle, waving his torch. Signs of construction littered the valley- piles of debris littered the walk, pottery shards and excavated stone; crude, pornographic drawings decorated stele fragments, evidence that the complex artisans had more than glorifying the dead on the mind.
After hitching the horse to a boulder, Sennakhti followed Hebeny, lighting another torch on his. They walked carefully, murmuring prayers on frosted breath as they passed familiar seals, naming their late king, and the kings who came before him, the brilliant colors on the capstones muted by fire's orange glow.
"Where the hell is it? Did we pass it?" Hebeny stopped, raising his torch above his head to try to light a wider curve around them. Another gust of wind moaned softly on the rock walls, twisting the torch flame and threatening to put it out.
Passing his hand over the torch for warmth, Sennakhti squinted at the nearest tombs. "I don't see how we could have." Taking a few steps into the dark, Sennakhti measured the piles of debris, starting toward the largest one. "It has to be here."
Narrow steps led to a recess in the cliff wall, and Hebeny cursed under his breath when they stopped at a newlysealed tomb. Mery's familiar seal emblazoned the capstone, unpainted and almost invisible in the meager light. Shoving his torch into Sennakhti's hand, Hebeny turned to dig through the rubble and produced two long, sharpish stones.
They attacked the fresh mortar sealing the tomb. It came away easily, still soft and wet. Stone chinked on stone, lone sounds echoing through the valley. They weren't cold anymore, working hard and fast to free the capstone. Sweat clicked their faces, and they stopped to rub sand into their palms. Rough edges bit cut their fingers, their blood staining the capstone as they worked their hands into the narrow space around it. Hebeny counted, and they pulled together on three. Again and again, they pulled, crushing their fingers and managing to move it only by the smallest increments. The architect had designed the capstone well, never intending anyone to remove it.
They didn't notice the first glimmers of sunrise, not until the stone had been moved enough to wedge a discarded acacia beam into it. Broken and blooded, they heaved against the lever. Scarring their chests with the rough wood, they heaved again, finally managing to crack open a space only a few hands wide.
"Mery!" Hebeny flattened himself into the space, forcing himself through it. He reached back, tugging Sennakhti's arm to fit him through. They blinked in the new darkness, stumbling on tools left scattered on the floor. With a hands against the wall to guide them, they stepped slowly, carefully through the tomb, calling Mery's name and listening to the deafening echo reply.
Taking a breath to call again, Sennakhti shuddered when Hebeny plastered a sticky hand against his mouth. He could taste grit and blood, but stilled all the same. He heard a faint moan in the distance. Following sound instead of the walls, they pushed through a pile of rubble and into a long hallway. A pale green glow illuminated the path, a sickly color creeping into the half-finished reliefs on the walls, slithering into hieroglyphs to give them unnatural motion.
They ran, crashing into the antechamber. Lotus columns rose up on every side of the room, green and pulsing with strange light. This part of the tomb had been finished, complete at every corner. Cobras and asps etched into the walls rose to strike, and in the middle of the naked floor, Mery shivered with sweat. He tried to lift a hand, but it fell heavily; his eyes rolled back at the end of a long, rattled breath.
Without speaking, they agreed, each pulling up an arm and lifting Mery between them. They struggled with his dead weight, their abused bodies already weak from the nightlong attack on the capstone, but somehow, they managed to drag him out of the tomb and into the sunlight. Rolling him out on his back, they sank to their knees, slapping his face and rubbing his hands to wake him.
When he didn't rouse, Hebeny leaned down, pressing his head to Mery's mouth. "It's not working."
"He'll breathe," Sennakhti said, grinding his knuckles against Mery's chest, willing it to expand with a breath. Without a doctor, or a healer, he could only guess what to do. They didn't have stinging beetle paste, or fenugreekslaps and pinches had no effect, and it occurred to him, absurdly, that there was no reason they should. He was away from the green stones that ate his strength, his body was motionless, and invulnerable now.
Trying to scrub away a smear of blood, Hebeny lifted his head, his eyes stinging with tears. "It's too late."
Sennakhti shook his head, pounding Mery's chest again, then stopped abruptly. Nothing could pierce impenetrable skin, but... with a guess, he pulled on his chin, parting his lips. Perhaps he only shared Mery's ka; he'd given him breath and life in Abu Simbel, his was gone, everyone said so. It was time to return it. With a tentative glance at Hebeny, Sennakhti took a deep breath and exhaled it into his mouth.
With the sun at its highest point in the sky, Panek slowly scrubbed the make-up from his face. Still wet, he put his sandals aside, and removed his jewelry. Dipping his long middle finger into a pot, he carefully smeared a trace of salted oil in his eyes. They flared instantly, swollen and red, tears pooling to wash the irritation away. Panek moved quickly, slipping from his chambers to the great hall, keeping his head bowed and widening his eyes without blinking to keep them stained.
Slowing before the entrance to the hall, Panek measured his steps as he walked inside. Curving his shoulders, walking as if carrying a great weight, he stopped in the middle of the room, basking in the way the collected court's voices hushed at his arrival. When he raised his head, he looked around slowly, faces blurred by his oily tears, but he made out the queen on the dais. "My lady queen, I offer my most humble apologies for calling you away from the temple."
Menneferet accepted the apology with a nod, spreading her hand. "I know you wouldn't have if it weren't important."
"I'm afraid I have terrible news," Panek said, revolving slowly so that his voice spread evenly through the hall. "I had word from the valley today, there's been an accident. While touring his tomb, our lord king encountered an asp that hadn't been cleared by the workmen. Those responsible for this egregious error are already on their way to meet their punishment, but..." He stopped, facing Menneferet again, blinking to let his tears fall. "It wounds me gravely to burden you with yet another loss, but it seems our lord king succumbed to the creature's poison."
"Grave wounds are shallower than I'd expected," Sennakhti said. Standing at the entrance to the hall, he held the king's flail, shoulder to shoulder with Hebeny, who bore the crook. Still bloodied and battered, they stepped aside to let Mery pass.
Shock registered in the widening of Panek's eyes, but he recovered quickly, sinking to one knee in front of Mery. "My lord king, I never would have thought to say it, but we've been blessed by false news."
"Get up." His voice had hardened, no longer uncertain or boyish. Mery took his crook and flail, waving the crook to address the whole court. "I want you all to remember what ambition looks like. What it sounds like. How well it celebrates and cries." He turned his attention to Menneferet, smouldering as he leveled his gaze with hers. "Ambition will say anything to get what it wants."
Fixed in place, Menneferet blushed, visibly swallowing as she turned her face away. Panek rose to his feet, his pretense burned away by a hard, cutting smile. "And this is the wisdom of a child unfit to rule. He allows his playmates to run you like toy soldiers. Is this the king you want?"
A low, negative murmur ran through the great hall, and Panek found himself flanked by two guards, fingers digging tight into his arms to lead him away. Whipping his head around, Panek raised his voice, "Look at this and remember how you'll be judged if you fail to entertain this boy!"
"The judges will judge." Mery raised a hand, and Wosret stood, his face blank and neutral as new stone.
Sennakhti leaned into murmur as the guards led Panek away. "You were right about one thing, father." Brows rising, Sennakhti peered into his eyes. "You never should have trained me at your feet."
The trial lasted for weeks, but after the verdict came, the sentence followed swiftly. Impaled on a stake at the edge of the Nile, workmen built kindling up from the earth to the flats of Panek's feet and set it ablaze. The steady lick of flames consumed him from the bottom up, a fire that burned through the night, and so brightly, it could be seen from the palace. By moonrise the next night, hawks had devoured what little remained of him among the char and bones.
Then began the long task of marking out his name. With chisels, they chipped around it at the temple, and in the official stele of Nebkheperamun's reign. With reeds and brushes, they painted dark scarabs over it in the library's collection. Carpenters scavenged wood from his tomb, and masons sanded the walls smooth again so the stone could be reused. No one opened his eyes or ears or mouth, he had no heart left for Osiris to weigh. Panek ceased to exist.
Standing on the balcony, Mery considered the land spread out in front of him. The crops on the banks of the river had grown high, and new apartments rose on the far corners of the city. All of this was his to protect, and his to serve. He turned when he heard footsteps, smiling when Sennakhti fell into place beside him.
With a quiet smile, Sennakhti gestured toward the sleeping town below. "Surveying your domain?"
"Trying to believe that I'm going to be the pharaoh they deserve." Spreading his hands on the ledge, Mery leaned out and closed his eyes. Wind fingered through his hair, brushing it back from his face. In moonlight, with his eyes closed, he looked young again.
Sennakhti smoothed a hand down his arm, stepping closer. "You already are, Mery."
Exhaling heavily, Mery lifted his face to ponder the sky. "My father thought Panek was his best friend. I think they actually were, once." He turned to search Sennakhti's face, his lips curved soft and uncertain. "That won't ever happen to us, will it?"
Sennakhti smiled, certain enough for both of them. "Trust me, Mery. Our friendship will be the stuff of legend."