Giggles echoed across the decorated hall, streams of gold and scarlet crimson drooping between solid pillars of painted peacock emerald and sapphire, visions of past and present dancing from one wall to the next. The warm floor was blanketed with green palm leaves, the rising scent of crushed natural juice lingering in the air, blending with the mix of tangy herbs and hot spices.
At the head of a table laden with food sat Pharaoh Akunumkanon, king of Egypt, living God, smiling warmly at his loyal confidants and his close family. Warm grey eyes wrinkled at the corners, old hands clasping a chalice of blood-red wine. His shadow was tall, his posture rigid in his seat, robes of silk mauve folding over his shoulders like the smallest peninsula of a waterfall. By his side sat his wife, Halima, the queen, a beautiful and stunning creature carved by the blade of the Gods themselves. Emerald eyes were lined with kohl and her skin was marked with the ancient tongue of Egypt, almost every inch exposed. Their fingers were entwined, both of them wearing binding bands of gold and silver, eye-red rubies set as pair in each.
Exotic dancers frolicked up and down the long, wooden table, painted all colours like the walls, silver and black hair glittering in the crackling firelight of torches.The night was hot; the whole of autumn had been hot, the river Nile dry and shrivelled, the land starved. The sun had disappeared beyond the grand horizon of brazen sand dunes curved like waves against a backdrop of deep orange. Night had crept upon the people of Egypt like a jackal in the shadows, yet the frivolities continued, the harmonic sound of harps and the soft tap-tap of drums drifting from the noisy palace to those beyond gold tipped gates.
Attention was drawn to the shrieking boy at the far end of the room, legs flailing helplessly, screaming for aid, giggling and squealing. Arms pinned by his head by a blond youngster of his age, another tickled his sides, an older youth, dark-haired and tall for his age, muscular too. His grin was wicked, easily avoiding floundering limbs. Giggles grew louder until they were disruptive and in a voice of liquid, rich, authoritative and commanding like her husband, the queen said, "Boys! Let Yuugi be."
The reaction was instantaneous, both tormentors rising to their feet to bow apologetically, derisive grins hidden beyond veils of long hair. The smallest youth, Yuugi, recovered on the floor, breathless with a content smile on his face. Chatter rose again until the three of them faded into the pleasant hum. They drifted out onto the grandeur balcony, thick green ivy smothering the posts that held it up, carved in the shape of serpents.
"Are you afraid, Yuugi?"
Yuugi blinked owlishly at this older cousin, smoothing out the crinkles in his pale shendyt(1). He rolled his shoulders as he stood, straightening to his full height and then slouching resignedly. "I am not scared, Seto, I just do not wish to ask her."
Seto smirked, dusting sand from his knees as he stood from his kneeling position, arms hanging through the gaps in the balcony from where he watched the young girl below, quietly plaiting her hair with silver ribbon. Seto patted Yuugi's shoulder roughly, his smirk widening with salacious glee. "Yes you are, prince. Are you afraid Atemu will disapprove?"
Yuugi frowned slowly, glancing between Seto and the female imperial who, having finished with her hair, had moved on to reapply the kohl to her eyes, checking her reflection in the pool beside her. Yuugi was smaller than his brother and his cousins of the same age, a defect he endured caused by a millennia of unions between sister and brother upon the throne. His own parents had been a rare exception, no sister born to the mother of the pharaoh, and he had married the woman he loved, a second cousin to him. They had two children, Atemu and Yuugi, rare twins in a lineage of kings, but it had come with a price.
"No," Yuugi said quietly, eyes falling to the grass down below, the man-made levels of trickling streams sinuously snaking between the verges, lilies of white, pastel pink and yellow bobbing on the surface. "I do not wish to ask her. It is not courteous to say such things."
The other youngster with them laughed obtrusively, throwing his head back in delight. "You are a prince and she would be flattered. Look at her! She is beautiful!"
Yuugi smiled sheepishly, shaking his head. Silk hair to his shoulders was tied at the base of his neck, and he fiddled with the ends nervously, rocking back and forth on his heals as the other two impatiently waited for his response. They were teasing him again, he knew, but all the same, it hurt to-
"Yuugi? Here you are. I have been looking for you."
Yuugi turned at the entrance of his brother, a delighted smile spreading across his face at the sight of his brother."Atemu!" he exclaimed, relieved to be saved from an awkward situation. He was in Atemu's arms the next moment, leaning up to kiss his cheek fondly. Atemu, skin freshly oiled and glowing with unearthly beauty, eyes lined pristinely like his father's, garbed in low hung ivory blooms sealed at the ankle where there were black sandals dotted with gold sequins. Every inch the future king, a symbol of perfection, a leader for the people of Egypt.
Long, nimble fingers caressed through the hair of his twin, marvelling at the softness. His eyes were thin against the moonlight, suspicious of what he had encountered. Seto's grin made him uneasy and protectively he cradled Yuugi.
"Papa asks for us," Atemu said softly against Yuugi's ear, continuing to stare at his cousin with deadly, warning eyes of bubbling scarlet. "He and mamma are retiring to bed soon. They wish to say 'happy birthday' a final time before Ra's voyage is complete."
Yuugi smiled and nodded, pressing close to Atemu's side as he was led inside. They were twins, but Yuugi was obedient to his brother, the first born of the two of them and inevitably, next in line to throne.
Despite the king and queen departing the celebrations, the court knew the party would continue long into the night and carry over into the morning in the way it often did. The youngest members of the court were ordered to sleep early, but that no longer included Atemu, now a man in the eyes of his father. Yuugi was an odd exception, suffering with an overprotective mother, and amongst his peers he was ridiculed.
Akunumkanon's harem had scattered around the hall, entertaining guests, offering their services to willing clientele. It was something the younger household members were used to seeing, though some still struggled to understand it. Atemu had never shown any particular interest and steered Yuugi away from roving eyes and teasing fingers.
"My sons!" Akunumkanon exclaimed, drawing one to each side to embrace them both. Each of them snuggled against his side, clinging to the thick fabric of his outer robe now tied around his neck to keep the chill of night at bay. "It has been a marvellous day! Praise the moment Min(2) graced us with such glorious children."
The two brothers smiled fondly, leaning in to the kiss pressed to each of their brows. The queen stepped in to have her say, kneeling down to both of them to bring them to her bosom.
"Atemu," she whispered softly in a voice Atemu had always adored. He smiled for its sweet and supple tone, inhaling a scent of oranges. "Be sure to have Yuugi in bed by twelve. It has been a tiring day and he is in need of his rest."
"Mamma!" Yuugi instantly protested, pulling back to glare. Chubby hands on little hips, he continued, "I am not a little boy! I do not need to rest anymore than everyone else."
The queen cast a look between her twins and then kissed them both goodnight, ignoring her youngest son's comment entirely. She knew what was best. When both sovereigns were gone, Yuugi pouted, but said nothing, shoulders heaving in defeat.
Atemu chuckled gently, turning to Yuugi to embrace him. "She worries, brother. You have only recently recovered from your last bout of sickness. She wishes to protect you."
"And the Gods mock me! Along with everyone else in this city. They treat me like an invalid, Atemu. I am not an invalid!" Yuugi ranted suddenly, stomping a foot in aggravation. It was unlike Yuugi to let his temper fray so easily, but… "It is not fair! I am thirteen, as are you, and yet I am not granted the same dignity and respect!"
Atemu nodded his head in understanding, fingertips caressing Yuugi's cheek. The action calmed his brother and Yuugi sighed, his irritation fading as he tilted his head into the soft touch he loved. Atemu cupped his cheek, thumb smoothing beneath lidded eyes. "You should get some rest though, brother. It has been a long day and none of us wish you to fall ill again."
Yuugi was about to retort, but a single finger was pushed to his lips. "I am retiring to bed too, do not get upset."
Frail shoulders heaved and Yuugi conceded with a soft sigh, shuffling forward to press his cheek against Atemu's bare chest, comforted by the slow beating of his heart. His hand was grasped, squeezed, and he was lead out into the main palace hallway, shadows and brief flickers of merry-makers dancing between stone pillars decorated with false events and stories, fairytales and myths and wild, ridiculous legends.
Yuugi remained close as always, feeling safe and at ease by his brother's side. He loathed to be treated like a little boy by his family and friends, but by Atemu… It made him smile contentedly to experience his brother's gentle red eyes on him, strong arms keeping him close. It was rare for them to be apart, except when Atemu's nose was buried in scrolls and parchments, learning, memorising, working towards his future position as king. It was tedious, tiring and stressful, and no matter how much Yuugi pleaded, Atemu would not lessen his workload. The day of his accession could happen at any moment and he had to be prepared. He absolutely had to be, no matter the distractions of childhood. Atemu, at thirteen years of age, was more a man than any man in Egypt.
He perched on the edge of Yuugi's bed when the smaller of the two of them crawled under the single white sheet. Atemu had kept an eye on him as he bathed and washed in the royal baths. Yuugi disliked others watching him, but the queen had insisted someone be with him at all times and so Atemu happily complied. He dried his brother, mindful of easily bruised skin, oiled him and dressed him in an elaborately decorated shift before ushering him into bed.
Smiling when Yuugi entwined their hands, Atemu leaned over to nuzzle noses with him, softly kissing his cheek. Yuugi mewled, head turning a fraction and their lips quickly and briefly met. Atemu jerked away in surprise, lightly smiling.
"What did you do that for?" he chuckled, tweaking Yuugi's nose. It wrinkled in response, the hand smacked away.
"I felt like it," Yuugi said, leaning over to awkwardly hug his twin, burying his head beneath Atemu's chin. "I love you, Atemu."
Atemu sighed. "I love you too, sweet brother."
Ra rolled a cautious sun behind the dunes where the blue-black of night remained, stars dwelling within its sheath, prepared to give way to the deep red-orange of morning.. A midnight chill still lingered on the honeyed surface of the sands, cooling the soft painted gold stone of the Temple of Horus, the rigid falcon set in stone sitting grand behind the altar, silver- blue and pale green adorning the gold tipped headdress of Ra's dearest son, keeper of Upper and Lower Egypt.
The bronze-toned youngster, now the tender age of sixteen, lowered graciously to his knees beneath the massive archway, Nut's body curving above him, crowned head bowed in respect, arms outstretched with a bowl settled easily in his palms and laden with myriad fruit. Ochroid jewellery shimmered in the firelight, smouldering incense embracing the air and a mysterious chant greeted the silence, a song of dedication, adoration.
He stood slowly, knotted shendyt grazing the floor as he rose. A bare foot, the left, slid forward, silked head still lowered in respect as he placed the offering down upon a stone pedestal, sliding back on the same foot to kneel once more, blessing, thanking, praying to the great deities to let Egypt continue to flourish, the Nile to flood each year, the harvests to be good and the soil to be rich and fertile.
With a final, silent prayer, he rose from his subservient pose, walking backwards with his eyes remaining low until he'd passed the great gateway to the main section of the temple. Behind him, priests scurried to and fro, making sure the fires remained perpetual, illuminating the faces of the God's that stood tall, past pharaohs that told history across the expanse of flaxen alabaster.
Letting a scarlet eye rove across the sky, he gripped the reigns of his steed and swung up into the saddle, adjusting the cloth that hung around his waist. A faithful servant handed him his mauve cloak to wrap around his shoulders. Superbly crafted eyes were caught beneath lowered eyebrows, morning crimson hidden deep in scarlet.
Something in the back of his mind sparked. He sighed, trying to decide what the feeling was and then, glancing over his shoulder, he gave his steed a swift kick and swept across the desert.
"Yuugi, I said 'do not tilt your arm past your shoulder'! Keep it bent. Why are you not listening to a word I say?!"
The class sniggered at Yuugi's fifth attempt to throw the javelin past the white chalk line on the soft, fresh grass, whispering amongst themselves. It was early morning and the sun had just peaked, shadows stretched, the breeze from a cool night clinging onto the breaking morning.
The youngsters of the palace always rose before the sun with their elders and tutors, dragged from slumber, all except Atemu, who was up earlier to visit the temple and then to begin his lessons, which were always separate from those of his brother and family, aiding him to concentrate without distractions. His personal tutor and Akunumkanon's advisor, Shimon, insisted on no interruptions, determined to mould Atemu into a fine future king. He was already well on his way.
The others youngsters of the palace, however, saw lessons as an opportunity to entertain themselves, and some even saw it as a chance to tease the younger of the two princes of Egypt.
"Why do you not actually try, little Yuugi?" Seto snorted mockingly, tapping the head of his javelin against the ground. A servant dusted his hands and he gripped the body of his weapon loosely, muscles barely flexing as he launched it. It sliced through the air, sticking into the ground and juddering to an absolute standstill. Seto smirked triumphantly. "Like that."
Yuugi flushed at the second round of giggles from his cousins, eyes drawn to the ground in shame. His own javelin had not even stuck into the ground, lying several meters from everyone else's. He was trying so hard! Why could nobody see that?
"Excellent, Seto," Karim announced, appointed as tutor to the children of the court in the ways of war. He was a mere few years older than his pupils, but an excellent teacher. All the same, Yuugi did not seem to be able to concentrate and had always floundered. "That demonstrated the poise and elegance of a true warrior of Pharaoh! You should each follow Seto's fine example. Now, collect your javelins. That is enough for today."
Loud chatter quickly rose and dragging his heels, Yuugi bent down to pickup his weapon, disappointed in and ashamed of his performance. Seto's taunts never helped to ease the pressure on him, and their tutors, Karim and the others, were always hard on him. He was expected to be so much, to amount to everything Atemu was, but he could not. He was not studious. He was not an athlete. And he would certainly never be at the standard of being that his twin was.
"I can do nothing right," he murmured to Jounouchi, another cousin, as the fair haired boy fell into step beside him. "I try and I practise and yet I never improve. I should be getting, at least, a little better by now. Atemu would be so ashamed if he knew what a…a…waste his brother is. I am a disgrace to my family."
"Yuugi, that is not true!" Jounouchi protested, pausing before a servant lumbering a basket of apples, pinching one from the pile and moving on. He bit into it hungrily. "He would rather you be honest with him. He just worries, like the rest of us."
Yuugi sped his walk, features darkening. Worry. Concern. Worry, concern and damnable worry! Constantly! He was not going to drop dead at any given moment!
"I have enough people to worry about me," Yuugi said, keeping a check on his temper, "without Atemu doing the same. He has enough to cope with, without his mind tarrying on my inadequacies. I would prefer him never to know. You will not tell him will you, Jounouchi?"
Jounouchi shrugged. "If you wish me to keep it to myself then I shall, but I think he might be hurt that you kept it all from him."
"Then I shall have to work harder ad harder until I am worthy. He never has to know," Yuugi said, determined. He could do it if he set his mind to it and practised every day. Eventually, perhaps, his elders would deem him worthy to stand proud as the twin of the future king. Perhaps.
"You should not compare yourself to him, Yuugi. Or Seto for that matter. You are each completely unique and have your own strengths and weaknesses," Jounouchi said, frowning, thinking the statement over. He smiled then. It was Atemu who had spoken those words originally. He hoped, coming from him this time, that they would have a similar affect.
Yuugi smiled lightly. "I have more weaknesses than strengths, Jounouchi."
Jounouchi was disheartened and he sighed, for the moment defeated. With a quick farewell, they parted ways and Yuugi headed towards the kitchens for a snack, if one of the servants would take pity on him, as they often did, in conflict with the orders of the queen not to allow her son to eat anything she had not approved.
Yuugi rarely listened to her motherly, controlling and overprotective demands and often did the opposite, including sneaking out of the palace in the middle of the night with Atemu, something neither of them told anybody. It was something they shared alone and one of the opportunities they had to spend time with one another. They cherished it as much as the time they had spent hiding in the extravagant golden pots dotted around the palace, waiting for someone to discover and chastise them for acting so inconsiderately, worrying their parents, their family and their friends.
A warm wind squeezed between the gaps in stone and tile and Yuugi sighed, pausing to cast aside his leather sandals, leaving them for a servant to collect and return to him. The floor was cool against his feet and he grinned, dancing on the spot in glee. The gold disc hanging around his neck felt heavy too and halting once more he reached behind to unclasp it, letting it noisily clatter to the floor.
"Better," he said happily, rolling his shoulders to ease the stiffness. He did not consider a slave might steal it and moved on, his steps light and bouncy to match his fickle mood and after stopping off at the kitchens and begging the servants for a leg of chicken to satiate his hunger; he headed to the room Atemu studied in.
Yuugi paused instantly, creeping up to the partly open door to listen closely. He could see Shimon at the front of the room, a book propped up in his palms, shaking his head despairingly. Wild, grey hair swung back and forth before he slammed the book shut. "Atemu! You should know this by now! I have gone over the revolts six times! Are you even listening?"
There was no reply. "Alright, we will continue this evening and I expect you to know those scrolls inside out by then, understand?"
At the sound of papers shuffling, a chair scraping against the floor, Yuugi darted into a hiding place as Shimon emerged, long blue robe sweeping behind. When he was out of sight, Atemu entered the corridor, looking drained and weary, books under his arm and rolled up parchment under the other.
The other prince turned at the sound of his brother's voice, confused to find him waiting. "Yuugi, what are you doing here?"
"We finished practise earlier than usual," Yuugi explained, approaching Atemu to kiss him in greeting, only for him to draw back with a frown. Yuugi's expression was one of hurt and softly he said, "Atemu, is something the matter?"
"I am busy. I…" Atemu gestured to the books he was carrying, "I need to learn all of this for Shimon. I have not been concentrating hard enough and I am falling behind. I have a bit of catching up to do."
Yuugi frowned quickly. "But, we always eat breakfast together in the gardens. Can you not have a small break? You need your strength for all of the work you do!"
Atemu smiled appreciatively, expression softening to its usual gentle visage. "I am sorry, brother. I will have something brought to me as I study. If I work hard, perhaps we can stargaze tonight. I have learnt a few new alignments that I would like to teach you."
"I will not see you all day?" Yuugi murmured sadly. "Atemu, all you do just lately is study. I miss you."
Atemu sighed heavily. "I am sorry. I will find you later."
"You cannot expect him to be the same as the others, Akunumkanon, especially not Atemu! It is not his fault he is the way he is. You scold him for being different!"
Yuugi recognised his mother's voice, even though the doors to the throne room were firmly closed, one of the Akunumkanon's medjai (3) standing on either side. Yuugi frowned and crept to the door to listen closer. His parents had sent for him and already he felt a shudder of foreboding. It only grew as he stood outside, hands behind his back, rocking nervously on his heels.
"He is as capable as Atemu academically. No son of mine, son of the God's no less, will be a failure! I will not tolerate it! He will just have to work harder than his peers and Atemu."
That was his father's voice yelling, careless of those who might overhear. Yuugi smiled sheepishly at the medjai, cheeks tinted pink in shame. All three knew who the argument was about.
At Yuugi's nod, one of the guards opened the door to let him slip through.His parents did not notice him until he was stood in front of them, head bowed in respect. The argument paused and quickly Halima spoke, fearful for how much her younger twin had heard. "Yuugi! We did not see you come in."
Yuugi's nose wrinkled in discontent when her arms wrapped around him tightly and he did not return the affection, eyes drifting to his father quickly. Akunumkanon's eyes were dark and unreadable, his brow furrowed.
"Yuugi," he said sharply, slowly, wearily lowering into his thrown. Banded fingers tapped against cool gold and the queen took her position beside him, smiling supportively. "Karim spoke to us, Yuugi. He says you are struggling in his lesson. Mahaado has also hinted that you are falling behind in your studies."
"No excuses!" Akunumkanon interrupted, "From tomorrow, you will have lessons with Atemu. Shimon has already agreed to teach both of you, be it begrudgingly. You will treat him with dignity and respect."
Yuugi brightened slightly. Lessons with Atemu could only be a good thing. "I will try harder, papa. I want you to be proud of me. I want to be as good as Atemu."
"As do I!" Akunumkanon said and then his expression softened, beckoning his son closer. "Try your hardest, Yuugi. I know you are capable."
Yuugi lowered to his knees at his father's feet, balancing his head upon his legs. Halima smiled at the sight, reaching over to brush a hand through Yuugi's hair. Yuugi would try his best. He would be as good as Atemu. He would work hard. And he would make them all proud.
The ivory coloured skirt they wear
Egyptian God of fertility
First Egypt fic! Don't kill me!