9. The Truth Will Out
Téana had heard that the city sometimes had processions run through it, but had never realised how ostentatious they were – or how sprawling. It wasn't a simple affair limited to the few who could be bothered to go and watch. The morning after she saw Ammon at the well the streets were choked with people, all flocking in the same direction. The celebratory atmosphere was impossible to ignore. Usually frugal Egyptians cavorted wearing every scrap of jewellery they owned. Street-sellers hawked foods she had never even heard of. Everywhere she went, people whooped and sent up prayers praising the world and everything in it. It was like someone had crushed poppy seeds, burned them and wafted the fumes into everyone's houses.
Hopki explained that the statues of the gods from the temple were being escorted through the city by a convoy of guards, priests and representatives of the pharaoh's sacred court. The idea was that by having them circle the city, the gods would be pleased enough to bless the new king's reign and smile upon the rest of Egypt during his tenure. The installation of new pharaoh was an important event and nothing was being left to chance. For weeks all prayers in the temple had asked for sacred signs to show that the gods sanctioned the claim to the throne by the old pharaoh's son. Commoners weren't allowed inside the temple, so until the procession started nobody had known whether or not those prayers were successful. Now it seemed the coronation could go ahead safe in the knowledge that the gods approved. It was a time to finally end the time of mourning after the death of the old king.
"They put a lot of stock in some old statues," Jono remarked when Hopki had gone to fetch his sandals so he could join in with the celebrations. His old feet were callused from going barefoot for years, but his legs had begun to bow outward and his arches had collapsed, making it difficult for him to walk without support. "I mean, they're just carved rocks."
"You're still thinking like a tribesman," Seren said, surprising them all. "You have to start thinking like an Egyptian. To them, those statues aren't just rocks; they're the symbols of the gods here in the mortal world. It's like having a little piece of their gods with them all the time."
"Gods, goddesses, idols, temples – pah," Jono said contemptuously. "The Great Spirits are in everything, no matter where you go. You don't need to say some specially-worded prayers for them to hear you."
"Still thinking like a tribesman." Seren shook her head. "You need to make more effort to fit in here, Big Brother."
"Maybe, but that doesn't mean forgetting all our own traditions and beliefs, Seren."
"I didn't say that. I said you need to understand how the minds of city-folk work if you're ever going to stop feeling like an outsider."
Jono blinked at her. "Seren … we are outsiders."
Seren looked down at her feet. She had her hand around the turquoise pendant. There was an uncomfortable moment wherein Maibe and Téana exchanged looks and Jono just stared at his sister.
"Seren, you do remember we'll be moving on from here eventually, don't you?" Jono asked. "This isn't our home."
Sadly, Seren nodded. "I understand. We're Wandering People. Home is wherever you can see a horizon to follow, but I … I like it here. I like having a place to come back to that doesn't move. I like having a cellar and a kitchen and a bedroom. I like living with Hopki and learning about Egyptian customs and things. People here don't treat me like I'm different just because I'm not as strong as them." She blushed. "When I fell down the other day and dropped my stick, a woman I didn't even know came to help me up. She gave me some of her water and stayed with me until I stopped feeling dizzy. That never would have happened in the tribe. I know it's not a huge thing to base an argument on, but the Egyptians in the city have treated me better over the last moon than our own people did my whole life."
"Seren …" Jono trailed off, leaving an even more uncomfortable silence.
Téana was rocked by the realisation that Seren didn't want to leave the city even when it was safe to do so. This wasn't something she had factored into their plans – nor was the little voice that cheered when she brushed against the thought that maybe they could stay. They had a place to live, after all, and Hopki could claim they were distant relatives of some kind. The tribe rarely came down into built-up areas unless trading. If they lost their accents, learned how to fit in and didn't stand out too much, it could work. Plus the city was where Ammon lived, of course. She felt heat rising into her cheeks and instantly shook it away.
"Women have more rights here, I've noticed," Maibe said suddenly.
Jono looked up. "What?"
"In the city. Maybe in all of Egypt. They treat their women better here than in the tribe with those outdated Elders in control. You can do things here that you can't out there." She gestured expansively.
Jono narrowed his eyes. "Does that mean you want to stay, too?" There was no mistaking the thinly veiled accusation in his voice, as if the idea offended him.
"No, it means I've observed that women have more rights here." Maibe shrugged like this wasn't important to her. "Certainly more than the tribe ever afforded us."
Jono looked at Téana. "I suppose you want to stay as well?"
Téana was taken aback. "Um …"
"Big Brother, please don't be upset." Seren touched his elbow. Her voice was quavery. She hated making him angry.
The irritation visibly drained out of him. He couldn't deny Seren anything. "I'm not upset, just surprised. I didn't know you felt like this." He turned to face her. "Do you really want to forget the tribe that much?"
Not one of them could have blamed her if she had. They were each painfully aware of all Seren had suffered at the hands of tradition and the customs of their people. Still, to run away from the tribe was different than forgetting all about it – that was like splitting open their chests and pulling out their organs to see firsthand which they could live without.
Seren shook her head. "Not forget. I'm still one of the Wandering People in my heart, but maybe … I'd like to be something else as well."
"Egyptian," Jono said with resignation. He obviously couldn't forget that Egypt had not always been kind to the Wandering People. He had gone through the training of a warrior, after all, even if he had never taken the Warrior Test, and the training indoctrinated young men to distrust anyone beyond their own people.
"No, something new." Seren smiled. "I want to be Seren, sister of Jono, Maibe and Téana. That's who I want to be. We're a tribe all of our own now, so we should make our own customs and decide for ourselves what we believe in."
That made much more sense than any of them wanted to admit. Seren was the youngest, the weakest and, in many ways, the most innocent amongst them, but it seemed she was also the wisest in her own way.
"I don't think it's quite that simple, Seren," said Maibe. "But it's a lovely idea. Giving up our identities and rebuilding them from scratch, on the other hand … that might be a little too much for the first task of our new tribe. We'd have to start a bit smaller." She looked pointedly at Jono. "Like learning that not all Egyptian rituals should be mocked just because they talk about gods we don't believe in."
Jono muttered something, but reluctantly agreed with her.
"You're coming too?"
"'Too'? Were you planning to go without us?"
Téana stared at Jono. "No," she lied.
"Seren wants to see the procession for herself." He didn't need to say any more than that. Seren had experienced another blind spell and Jono was aggressive in his commitment to making sure she had memories to sustain her when her sight failed completely. "Hopki's going, but it's safer if we all go together."
Téana thought fast. "I don't really want to go."
"No. I think I'll stay here today. If the house is silent I can concentrate and perhaps meditate a little. Maybe a Vision will come to me in those conditions."
She didn't need to say any more to convince him. Jono made sure Maibe and Seren covered their faces with veils in case they were spotted, put on a headscarf of his own to cover his sandy hair, and hustled the other three out, leaving Téana to contend with her thoughts alone.
She sat on the roof, apparently trying to commune with the Great Spirits but really watching the others' progress down the street. She waited until they were out of sight. Then she waited a bit longer to give them enough time to properly embed themselves in the crowd. Hopki had said he wanted to go to the far end of the city where the crowds would be thinner, so they wouldn't have to fight to get to the front and would be able to see the procession as it passed by. Still, there would be few places along the route that weren't teeming with people.
When she couldn't wait any longer Téana rose, tidied herself and also left the house. At the doorway she paused to look at the painting of Bes and the small offering Hopki had placed in the shallow dish beneath it.
"Do you really guard this home and those in it?" Téana wondered aloud. "Even us?"
The painting said nothing, only stared at her with unremitting eyes. Téana found it difficult to reconcile these lines of ink with the goddess they were supposed to represent. Seren's turquoise pendant popped into her head and she sighed. Processions and ceremonies could be as elaborate as they liked; people would always find most comfort in the simplest things.
Ammon had said to meet him by the well again. He hadn't known about the procession. How could he, when nobody had been told until this morning when the temple opened its doors to announce the gods approved of the new pharaoh? A mob of revellers had the well in a stranglehold when Téana arrived. She hovered around the edge, tugging at the edges of her headscarf. It was a nervous gesture that only increased when people brushed past, laughing and calling to each other like children even though they had to be thrice her age. There were so many of them. How was she supposed to spot Ammon like this?
In the end she didn't have to.
"Téana." He crept up behind her – or maybe he walked normally and she just didn't hear his footsteps against the roar of the crowd. Either way, she whirled to greet him with a noise not unlike a goat that had been kicked up the backside.
"An interesting greeting." His hood was pulled further over his head today, casting shadows over his face and obscuring much of it. "It is good to see you. I had thought you would not come."
"I … had to wait for an opportunity to leave the house." She drew in a breath. She had decided to tell him everything and leave him to do what he would with the information. Not even Seren's admission that she wanted to stay in the city had changed her mind. If she truly felt as strongly about Ammon as she thought she did then she couldn't lie to him anymore. His reaction would prove whether it was, in fact, love or just infatuation. Perhaps it was cowardly, but the idea of taking great risks and lying to Jono and Seren only to discover her 'love' was as fleeting as a Storyteller's tale terrified her. She had so much lose no matter what she did. "Ammon, I have to tell you something."
Ammon cut her off. "I do not mean to silence you undeservedly, but I would rather we moved to a less crowded area." He pulled on his hood as if trying to stretch the linen to cover his face even more.
Téana frowned. "Won't your master let you out even to see the procession?"
"Your master." Maybe she had used the wrong word. At his silence she added, "The scribe you're apprenticed to."
"Oh. No, I am meant to be making preparations for my, um, graduation to the status of full scribe, but I left to see you."
Téana was both touched and concerned. "You mustn't keep dodging your duties on my account, Ammon. You'll get into trouble."
"Any amount of trouble is worth the risk if the prize is seeing you."
Her face flooded with colour. "Ammon, I-I …"
"Hush. I, too, have something important I wish to say to you, but not here." He glanced around. "Follow me." He held out his hand for her to take. "I shall find us safer spot where we may talk privately."
"In a city swarming with people on the day of a procession?"
His smile turned her knees to water. "You would be surprised."
The sacred court was in uproar. People and rumours sped through the halls of the palace faster than fire through dry tinder.
"The Pharaoh cannot be found!" slaves hissed to one another, able to talk freely when they were alone.
"He is missing."
"He has been kidnapped."
"Kidnapping? From under the noses of the six priests?"
"There is no trace of him anywhere. Priest Mahaad went to fetch him from his studies and found him missing."
"I heard his scrolls and stylus were scattered on the floor like leaves after a storm."
"Kidnapped! The Pharoah has been kidnapped!"
"But if the pharaoh is missing … what does this mean for us?"
"Egypt is doomed!"
"Do the dignitaries know? What will they do when they find out?"
"Priest Isis is searching for him even as we speak, but her Millennium Necklace is clouded."
"Priest Seto wants to send soldiers into the city."
"How would they know where to look?"
"There would be chaos if he drew attention to this misfortune."
"The Pharaoh is gone!"
"Please, Two Ladies, preserve us!"
"The prince is missing!"
"May the gods save us all from this disaster!"
One person who was listening to the mutterings of the slaves really wished they had something else to talk about. Mana heard all this and shut her eyes in disappointed frustration. "Oh, Atem, you didn't."
"It occurs to me that I don't really know anything about you, apart from your profession and your name." Téana nervously linked her hands behind her back to stop herself picking the skin around her fingernails raw. She wasn't sure why she had said it, but the silence between them as they walked made her uncomfortable. They usually talked, or if they were quiet there was none of this strange tension she sensed now.
Perhaps it was the procession. Perhaps knowing the statues of the gods had left the temple and were in the city weighed heavily on him. She didn't know enough about Egyptian religion to know how this event might affect people. Maybe he was worried they would fall and smash. Whatever the reason, Ammon was clearly preoccupied as he led her through the city.
"Some things are … difficult to share," he said now.
"Oh, right. Everybody has things they'd rather not share. That's all right. I didn't mean to -"
"Not you. You have shown great faith and shared everything with me. You have answered every question I have ever asked of you."
Not strictly true. "My mother always said I run off at the mouth too much," Téana babbled. "Before I was apprenticed to Otog, that is. She and my father didn't really speak to me after that. I think they were a little bit scared of me, actually. Girls aren't meant to be seers, so they had no idea how to react or what to do with me until it was decided I would live in Otog's tent and learn from him. After that they were happy to leave me alone and just wave to me at whole-tribe gatherings. I walked with Otog when we moved camp and they walked at the back with my new sister."
"You lived with a man?"
"Not that way. Otog was more like a brother, although most of the time he seemed like he didn't know what to make of me, either. He never treated me badly and he was a good teacher even though he'd never done it before."
Ammon was silent for a while. "My mother died bringing me into the world," he said softly.
"Oh, Ammon, I didn't mean for you to -"
He held up a hand. "No, it is only right that you should know something of me apart from my profession and my name." His smile was meant to be reassuring, but it was so thin it did little to encourage her. "I knew nothing of my mother except what my father told me. He always talked of her with the most respect and admiration. He said he loved her as soon as he met her and knew it to be love even though they had never spoken a word to each other. Of all his wives, she was the most exalted. My … nursemaid, I suppose you could say. A man called Siamun who helped to raise me; he told me that my father's heart never recovered from her loss and that he devoted himself to protecting me because I resembled her. He poured his hopes from the future into me and would have no other children after me. It was … rather stifling, actually, but I was a dutiful son."
"My father died. Quite recently."
"Ammon … I don't know what to say."
"Now there is a first." He gave her another thin smile.
Téana's heart ached, but her mind snagged like torn linen on something he had said. "All his wives?"
"Yes," Ammon said blithely, as if this was no great thing to him. "But my mother was his Great Wife and all others came second to her, even after death. My father should have chosen another Great Wife from amongst them but he refused."
"I didn't realise Egyptians took more than one wife."
"Only some Egyptians."
"In my tribe it was one man for one woman until death. The Elders had to give permission for the wife or husband who survived to remarry, and the Elders chose who it had to be." She wanted to ask whether Egyptians were allowed to choose who they married for themselves but the woprds stuck in her throat.
"I am afraid I must once more ask you a question now, Téana," Ammon admitted. "What would happen to you if you returned to your tribe?"
"I'm not sure. I'd be punished, of course. Women who disobey are always punished. I'm too valuable to kill, but probably I'd be marked so everyone knew what I'd done as soon as they looked at me."
She pulled a face and gestured vaguely to her face. "Others have to be able to see if you've done wrong. Men have to know you're tainted so they don't compete for you."
"You mean scarred?" Ammon asked darkly.
She nodded. "I might be given to one of the men who recaptured me, to bear some children for him. He'd have gained great honour in the Elders' eyes and that would be a fitting reward, since I'm a seer. My movements would definitely be restricted to stop me running away again, but broken limbs are difficult if the tribe intends to move on soon. There'd be no point in going to all the trouble to bring me back only to injure me so badly I died on the journey to our new encampment, so I might be guarded, or chained to something inside my new husband's tent and then attached to him during the journey. That's all a worst case scenario, of course." At Ammon's unblinking stare, she grew uncomfortable. "I've, ah, had time to think about this. A lot."
"Téana, do you trust me?"
She was surprised at the unexpected question. "Of course."
"Then I will ask you to trust me when I say I have a way to preserve your safety against those who pursue you. I have a way to stop these terrible things from happening, even if they were to attempt to capture you."
She was even more surprised at this, especially since he lapsed into silence again, as if interrogating the next words he wanted to say. Ever since they met today, Ammon had been jumpy but serious. His eyes cast around constantly, until she wondered whether his master could be in more than one place at once. She looked around too, but since she didn't know what the man looked like she couldn't be of much help as Ammon led her through the backstreets until they reached a secluded place that was ridiculously near the marketplace, considering how quiet it was. The procession would pass right through the marketplace, but you would never have known how near they were by the quiet around them.
"You certainly do know all the ins and outs of this city, Ammon," she said needlessly.
"I am used to sneaking around in it and getting from place to place without being seen."
"I'm surprised your master has kept you around long enough to graduate. It sounds like you spend more time escaping than attending to your studies."
"I have been a good student all my life. It is only of late that I have become restless enough to flee my duties – though I always return to them and I always perform to the utmost of my abilities after I do. Soon, however, I will have no time at all for this sort of thing and will devote my life to those labours."
"Oh." Téana's heart sank. If the life of a scribe was so demanding, she may never see him again even if they did remain in the city. Her thoughts, made gloomy by what her life would be like back in the tribe, darkened further.
"That is why I must speak with you now. I may not have another chance to ask you this."
Something in his tone made her wary. The decisiveness bespoke a decision finally reached. The backs of her arms and neck prickled. "About what?"
"You say you cannot stay in the city after the threat of your pursuers has passed because you do not feel safe in this place."
"I … might have said something like that."
"But I do not wish you to leave." He was so blunt about it, holding her gaze and watching her reaction. "I would like you to stay here. With me."
Forget prickling; now the back of her neck felt like it was trying to concertina her spine by tightening all the skin along it. Her shoulders rose. A sour taste appeared in her mouth.
"To that end, I have a way to achieve what you desire and what I desire. Become my wife. I am of marriageable age and my family is wealthy enough that I would not mind forgoing a dowry. My household has the means to keep you safe against anyone who would do you harm, no matter who they are or how strong they might be. By doing this you could maintain your safety for the rest of your days and never have to worry about returning to your tribe. And by becoming your husband, I could keep you with me for always. I confess, Téana, that I have … deep feelings for you – feelings I did not ask for, that I find difficult to comprehend, but which I cannot deny. I finally understand what my father meant when he talked about how he loved my mother. I am unsure how you feel about me, but even if you do not love me in return I would not withdraw my offer. No matter what, I wish you to be safe."
Téana was flabbergasted. His wife? After she had spent so much time and effort convincing herself that even a passing romance was a flight of fancy? It was as if the Great Spirits had collaborated with whatever Egyptian god controlled cruel practical jokes. To hear that Ammon loved her … it was too much to handle. She opened and shut her mouth but no words emerged.
"With the death of my father I am the head of my family," Ammon said when she didn't answer. "You could become a part of it no matter what anybody else said. I will not lie; there would be opposition, but my status would allow me to overrule any dissent."
"You'd do that for me?" she managed to say.
Ammon's expression cleared. "Without hesitation."
"But why? Why would you go to so much trouble?"
"It may seem strange, but I do believe I love you, Téana. Marriage here is not always arranged by our elders, as in your tribe. Some of us may choose our wives and husbands, and accept or reject their proposals."
"You … love me?"
"I am not well-versed in love and do not know if our conversations and meetings can be counted as courtship, but I cannot deny this. It is as close to the feeling as I have ever come. I cannot divest myself of it, nor do I want to. It is you I think of when I wake and you I think of before I sleep. You have done things to my mind and occupy a place inside it that has never been explored before – though I would like to explore it more in future."
"B-But … I'm nobody. You're a scribe – a noble. You couldn't possibly … I'm not even Egyptian. I'm sure there are laws against this sort of thing."
"I am above such laws."
She shook her head. "That's infatuation talking. I may not be a native to this city or this country, but I know nobody's above the law. You're as bound to it as … as the Ppharaoh himself!"
Was it her imagination, or did he flinch at that? Téana barely registered it. She was too bust trying to calm the conflicting feelings fighting for supremacy inside her. She was simultaneously delighted, terrified, dismayed and numb. Only Ammon's solemn face told her he wasn't joking.
"Infatuation?" he repeated. "Is that what you believe this is?"
"I can't speak for you, Ammon. Only you know the true extent of your own feelings."
"And your feelings?"
"That is what I said. What are your feelings, Téana? What do you think of me?"
"I … I don't … I can't …" Recalling Otog's instructions on how to calm herself down when agitated, Téana shut her eyes and tried to blank her mind. She may as well have tried to put out the sun by throwing a jug of water on it. Her thoughts skipped around like head-butting goat kids and her chest fluttered wildly. "I'm not worth what you're suggesting, Ammon."
"I haven't been entirely truthful with you."
"I do not understand. You have always been open with me, whether it is proper or not. That is one of the things I admire about you. You are not as bound by social propriety as so many women I talk to. You feel before you think."
Keeping her eyes shut, she told him about Jono, Maibe and Seren; about how they had fled the tribe together and how they were relying on her to keep them safe now they had taken such a huge leap into the unknown. She blurted everything so he wouldn't have a chance to interrupt. When she had finished she waited for his response.
"And this is significant … how?"
His reaction startled her. "I lied to you."
"You omitted certain truths. That is not the same as lying." On this point he was emphatic – almost strangely so.
"A-and I can't leave them, even to marry you. We're … our own little tribe now," she stuttered, thinking about what Seren had said. "We need each other. I couldn't make myself happy and abandon them."
"But that is easily rectified."
"Yes. Simply claim them as your blood-kin and they, too, will become a part of my household. They will become as protected as you."
Téana gaped. "You'd be willing to take on three extra people?"
"If keeping them safe ensured your acceptance, then yes, I would. It is a tiny price to pay to have you by my side."
"Ammon … you hardly know anything about me. Not really."
"I know enough."
"Do you? Do you really?"
"Are there any more secret travelling companions I should know about?"
Her chuckle was mirthless. "No, just those three."
"Then I see no reason why you cannot become my wife. If you agree to it, of course."
"But I could be a terrible person! You've spent only a handful of hours with me. You can't just sign your life away based on that."
"You are not a terrible person," Ammon said so seriously that she clamped her teeth shut, biting down on her next comment. "I said I know enough. That is one thing I do know. You did not lie to me. You tried to protect those you care about. You did not know whether I meant them harm and acted accordingly. That is commendable and only proves the impression I already had of you: that you are a kind and good person with enough compassion inside her to encompass all of Egypt."
She didn't know what to make of this remark.
"Answer me simply, Téana. Do you feel anything for me except friendship?"
"I … yes." The confession fell from her lips like an unlocked shackle. "I feel more than friendship for you."
Something flashed across Ammon's face: Hope? Relief? Pleasure? It was hard to tell amidst the folds of his hood. He stepped closer, his voice low. "Would you become my wife if you could?"
"Yes or no?" The authoritative note was unmistakable. It was the mark of nobility.
She couldn't. She couldn't. Not without asking the others first. Not without … but her stomach was churning, her palms were sweaty and she wanted this. She did. To spend her life with Ammon? It was more than she could have dreamed of, but … she couldn't! Why couldn't life be simpler? She squeezed her eyes shut again, trying desperately to calm her thoughts. Her eyeballs actually stung. She realised belatedly that frustrated tears were beaded at their corners.
Suddenly, something touched the back of her head. Her eyes flew open in time to see Ammon's eyes far close than expected, and getting close. She didn't even have time to protest before his mouth was against hers. It was a clumsy movement. Their teeth clashed, sending a shockwave through her gums. Then her lips softened against his and he tilted his head to one side so his noses didn't bump into hers. Instinctively, Téana tilted her head in the opposite direction. She was a little taller than Ammon but somehow that didn't matter. After all, she didn't have feet anymore. She didn't have hands or arms, either; or a swirling stomach, a tight chest, or knees threatening to go out from under her. All that was left was her mouth, which registered Ammon's like something in a dream. His lips were dry until her own mouth moistened them. Up close he smelled of some kind of spice and oil that had been rubbed into his skin. When he breathed out through his nose she felt the air against her face; and when he brought his other hand up to her cheek it was super-sensitive to his touch.
"I can't just become one of your wives," she murmured when they broke apart. "I wouldn't want to share you."
"Then I would make you my Great Wife," he murmured back. "I would have no need of others if I had you." He kissed her again, far more forcefully.
A dull but insistent throb started low in Téana's belly. Ammon's hands tugged at her headscarf until it fluttered to the ground and he was running his fingers through her hair. She tried to do the same to him, pushing back his hood. He resisted a little, but his hands were occupied so she managed despite the protest mumbled into her mouth. Her eyes were closed but she felt the coarseness of his hair – his own hair, not the slick falseness of a wig.
What they were doing was improper in the extreme, especially in public where anyone could happen across them, but they couldn't stop. Around them the world had slowed and would not speed up again until they were ready to let go of each other. The hesitant feelings they had each been questioning were confirmed once and for all with that kiss.
Téana felt like she was caught in the few seconds between sleep and waking when you're not sure whether the world is a dream or not. Yet the feeling went on and on, and the press of Ammon's fingertips against her scalp, along her jaw, thumbing the corner of her eye and smearing the kohl there – that was all too real. He was a physical anchor to the present and everything that lived there.
Reluctantly, she pushed against his shoulders. "Ammon, stop."
Equally reluctantly, he did. "What is it?"
She looked at him. This was the first time she had ever seen him with his hood down. His hair had been loosely tied back, but a number of curious spikes had worked their way free of – helped by her own hands. He had hair of colours that should not have been possible, which lent him an ethereal air when combined with his eyes. The overall effect was like one of the wall paintings of gods and goddesses around the city.
Téana took a steadying breath. Her lips still tingled. "I can't, Ammon. I can't marry you."
He frowned. "Why not?"
"Because … because …" Because the thought terrifies me. Because we're so different. Because your world isn't my world. Because saying yes and then having it taken away again when people find out and stop us would be just too painful. "Just … because."
"That is not a real answer."
"Your family -"
"Did you not hear me? I said I am head of my household. Nobody in it could challenge me if I do not wish it."
"They'd never accept me, let alone Jono, Maibe and Seren as well. When you first met me you called me a barbarian. I may not know much about this city, but I know that isn't an unusual view of the Wandering People. I've been listening to people ever since I got here. I know most of them only think of tribes like mine as useful for slaves, and you'd never be allowed to marry a slave."
"I do not care what they think. They will do as they are told." Ammon was vehement. "And you are not a slave."
"I could have been. Would you still think of me the same way if I had been?"
"That is not a question that can be answered. You are not a slave. You are Téana, former seer of the Black Dragon tribe. You can become Egyptian, or as close as makes no difference."
"What if I don't want to?"
"Why are you insisting on difficulties where they can be overcome?"
"I'm just trying to point out that things are far more complicated than you want to believe they are."
"I love you. That is all I need to know. You did not kiss like you want me to leave you alone. You kiss like you feel the same way I do."
"I …" Téana couldn't deny it.
"I have the means to overcome any difficulty and if you do not wish to become Egyptian and adopt all our ways I will not insist on it."
"But other -"
"I love you. To change you would be to lose what made you run across my mind like a wild horse from morning until dusk. This is what I want, Téana. My household cannot deny me this, not now."
"Not after losing your father?"
"Not after everything that has happened. Not after the sacrifice my father made for them – and me. Not after …" He let out a sharp exhalation, not quite a sigh but close. "You say yourself that you are not versed in the ways of this city, but you are also unaware of the history of this land beyond how it affected your tribe. That much I have learned as we have talked. You do not know of the great war that claimed so many lives – soldiers from other countries who raided outlying villages, killed the men and took the women and children. Huge battles where the ground ran red with blood from our soldiers' severed hands, stacked high in piles that rotted in the sun while their murderers counted them. I was only a baby, but the wars remained as I grew. My earliest memories are full of that stench blowing in on the evening breeze, when the heat of midday had done its worst. My family suffered during that time. The years following my mother's death were nothing but bloodshed and tears, leaving my father no time to grieve. He just wanted the war to be over but it seemed never-ending. Siamun told me of the long nights he spent staring at nothing by the sky, as if searching for a solution in the stars, but none ever came."
Téana didn't know what to say. This confession was so unexpected it rocked her like a club to the head.
"I devoted himself to my father as I grew," Ammon went on. "I wished to be the perfect son to him; to follow in his footsteps and make him proud of me. Most of all I wanted to take his pain away. I wished for there to be a perfect world where men did not have to set aside their own grief to contend with the aftermath of other men's cruelty. He did so much, but I could not save him at the last. All my dreams and great plans to make a world where he could be happy, thwarted by sickness and even more death."
"So no, Téana, my household cannot deny me this happiness. I will not let them. I am the master there, not them, and sometimes it would benefit them to remember that." Suddenly it was as if all the fight went out of him. His shoulders slumped and the skin around his eyes and mouth was tight with grief. "Please. I will fight for you. I will make a home for you. I will honour you and your kinfolk. Please, Téana. I … I do not wish to lose you."
She bit her lip; clasped her hands; felt the sensation of his fingers still pressing into her skin and remembered the feeling of rightness that had come when he kissed her. She tried not to think about the tribe and the protection Ammon offered from it. She didn't want bribery to have any place in this. instead she thought about what Ammon had told her about his life, how he had helped her fit in on that first day, how he didn't mind her disagreeing with him – even encouraged it – and sought her out whenever he was in the city. She took another steadying breath as Otog's words returned to her.
"Sometimes a seer must interpret his – or her-" A smile; that half-lidded thing that came when he was teasing her. "-gifts, but a seer is still a person, so sometimes it is the mind or the heart that must be interpreted. The trick to being a good seer is knowing how to do both – how to be a person as well as an instrument for the tribe. Not everybody gets it right." Another smile, this one a little sad and a lot frustrated. "Not even me, but that never leaves this tent. I don't want anyone saying that living with a girl has made me go soft."
Her decision was made. She opened her mouth to speak – but fell to her knees as images detonated inside her skull.
She is a great bird, swooping through the sky. She is a cloud, roiling and churning in an unnatural wind. She is a jackal listening to the hoof-beats of many horses at full gallop. She is a cobra, coiled in its rocky alcove but feeling the vibrations of passing animals that have given themselves up to the hands of men.
She is a horse, heading towards the mountains alone, not bearing her usual rider but a human-man-boy with a message that he gabbles to three other human-man-boys.
She is a grain of sand on the breeze, snorted into a giant nostril and then out again, whirling and eddying like a dancer trying to match her steps to music that was too fast. She loses herself amidst the sweating flanks and pounding hooves, and then halts as the herd of horses and strange, gimlet-eyed riders stare down at what they've found. She is air and water and land and flesh – bone and sinew and blood and skin. She is nothing, because this hasn't happened yet, and with this realisation she whirls away.
The sky is dark, though she can't tell whether from storm clouds or night. No stars shine, but the world is still lit by a flickering orange glow. A figure rises in front of her, clasping a scimitar. Its hilt is of a recognisable tribal design. The blade gleams, reflecting flames and wide, terrified eyes that stare but don't see.
She screams, reaches to stop the blade falling and then whirls away again.
Pursued, always pursued, but this time by shadows. A dark mass of stone rises before her like a pyramid, but much smaller. The feel of something small but important in her hand, rounded at one end and inscribed with symbols her fingers can feel but her mind not understand. The steady climb of stone steps, one foot in front of the other – important-essential-got-to-have-to-need-to-must-see-him …
She whirls away again, thrown off balance by the deluge of images that streak past. It's as if her face has been torn off and thrown ahead of the rest of her down a dark tunnel. She catches glimpses of possible futures, tiny squares in a wider mosaic – one green, one blue, one red, one yellow and glowing like the sun at night. Within the dazzling yellow light a face appears, framed by heavy eyebrows and a cruel sneering mouth. The owner thrusts out his arms and catches her face, cups it in his hands like a gourd, brings it to his own to whisper softly.
Then he yanks his hands in opposite directions and she screams as her whole self is torn up the middle, separating into two – the one who flies and dreams and Sees, and the one who walks and worries and only sees. He drops the two halves of her face, which land with a wet noise like a newly gutted fish. Impossibly, she stares through eyes looking in opposite directions and sees the approach of the gimlet-eyed riders again, who catch her up in their gallop and toss her from hoof to hoof until she is screaming again, this time at the familiar heads and severed hands tied to one saddle – trophies to take back as proof of a mission , Seren and Maibe stare sightlessly.
"Téana, stop screaming!"
The rider in the saddle to which they are attached smiles down at her. Usi grins. "Tag. You're it, little seer girl."
Her own scream follows her into the dark.
Téana stumbled to her feet. She was completely disoriented, barely knowing left from right, or up from down. When she blinked, the insides of her eyelids seemed tattooed with what she had just Seen, and her stomach churned in response.
No, no, no, no …
A sudden need to find Jono, Maibe and Seren burned like a torch doused with the foul smelling fuel 'petroleum', which thieves used when raiding tombs. A thief-tribe once tried to trade it for Black Dragon goats, but the Elders refused because it was smelly and the fumes made people ill.
Téana shook her head. The mind does strange things when under extreme stress. Hers sought out innocuous memories and facts to conceal and disguise what her inner eye kept throwing up. The tribe wasn't her family anymore. She had run away from them. The tribe was … was full of enemies … dangerous … couldn't go back, not ever … there was so much blood …
Focus! She had to focus. She had to … what? Find Jono, Maibe and Seren, that was what.
The blood. The blood! It was their blood. Only she could stop it from happening – only she could keep them safe. Nothing else mattered. Nothing.
But what about …?
Warm lips and hands in her hair. Blood and kicked up hooves. The smell of spices and oil recently rubbed into Ammon's skin. Usi's mocking face. Everything blurred together in her mind until she could barely extricate them from each other. Blood and sand and laughter and someone's mouth against hers, all so important, but in different ways she was in no fit state to distinguish between.
Her thoughts bounced around like peas on a drum skin, half-convincing her she really was a horse, or a cobra, or a mass of floating nothingness that only ended when she crashed into walls, or fell over and proved she still had a body. The sensations were fleeting. Her mind reeled like a flock of disturbed sparrows. Sparrows were bad luck, weren't they? Egyptians believed they were a bad omen. So did the tribe.
Not so very different after all …
The Vision was the worst she had ever experienced. Her skin felt like it had been seared by fire. When she blinked she saw grisly afterimages that made her feet speed up. Try as she might, the severed heads and hands danced on the edge of her mind. She blocked them out and changed from stumbling to running. Everything had been driven from her thoughts except the Vision and finding the others, until she was little more than a puppet motivated only by two things.
"What are you doing? Téana? Téana!"
"I have to … find them …" she murmured to herself. "Where … have to … they're coming. Great Spirits save us; they know somehow… he knows somehow … not safe anymore … they're coming here …"
The sound of voices and the press of bodies on all sides. She was vaguely aware of people shouting – at her? – but she couldn't make out the words and didn't care enough to try.
"Jono? Maibe?" she called.
Something smacked into her; maybe an elbow or a foot from someone she'd shoved aside. She tripped but stayed on her feet and kept going with elbows like thorns stabbing into anyone who got in her way. She had to find them. She had to find them now – to warn them, but also to reassure herself that they were all right.
"Seren! Answer me!"
"Rude girl. Get back, you."
"Leave her alone," shouted someone behind her – so familiar and … warmth flooded Téana's chest and her mouth tingled, but not even that could stop her pressing on until she found Seren and the others.
"Hopki! Seren! Where are you? Maibe! Jono, answer me!"
Finally, one of the crowd took exception to her rudeness and knocked her back. She fell awkwardly and landed hard on her arm, twisting it under herself and crying out. Instantly, something was standing between her and the man who had struck her. Téana looked up, holding her cheek. She … knew this something. No, someone. A person. Violet eyes and … and something about a question …
Warm lips and hands in her hair. Blood and kicked up hooves. The smell of spices and oil recently rubbed into the skin. Usi's mocking face. Blood and sand and laughter and someone's mouth against hers. Was any of that real, or all from her second sight? She felt sick, her stomach bubbling like a pot of water left too long over a fire.
She stared hard at the figure protecting her, trying to slot her thoughts back into order and focus on him as an anchor. His hood was up again, but from her position she could see a few blond strands hanging around his face, plus a clear view of his thunderous expression.
The man who had struck her looked ready to strike her rescuer as well, but the woman next to him caught his arm and hissed into his ear. The man looked again an expression of pure terror crossed his face. He fell to his knees, pressing his nose into the floor and throwing his arms over his head. Téana looked around. The whole crowd was doing it. Not one person looked up after they had prostrated themselves. A few were even trembling. The procession of the gods' statues was exposed, but not one person wanted to watch it anymore.
Téana stared in wonder. Was this another Vision? They appeared to be bowing to … but that couldn't be right. Was this symbolism? When she raised her gaze her rescuer looked dismayed. He met her eyes and she read a question in them, but not clearly enough to know what exactly he was asking her.
Focus, she told herself. I have to focus. I can't afford to waste time. Jono, Maibe, Seren –
One of the mounted figures in the procession called out and her world tilted sharply on its axis again.
Her mouth became a perfect 'o' as shadows blossomed behind her rescuer. They rose around him, encircling and stroking him like a lover's hands, though he didn't seem aware of them. The shadows swelled, towering over him and all the buildings around them. It seemed they would never stop growing. As they grew they became hard-edged – not like shadows at all, but flesh. A gaping red mouth filled with razor-sharp teeth appeared, followed by armoured blue fists and shoulders as broad as the sky itself. Golden wings and claws stood out from the swirling darkness, and a pair of flaming wings framed the figure, casting his face in an unearthly glow. The beak of some huge, fiery bird loomed over his head and reached for her, evaporating when it had almost reached her face and she could see her whole body one only the size of its lower jaw.
Terror filled Téana. "M-monster," she whimpered, pointing at the last fading beast.
Another Vision. Another warning? If only she could think clearly! She closed her eyes and shook her head, pressing her face into the floor to try and order her thoughts – and so completely missed the look of shock and disappointment that crossed her rescuer's face.
Jono may have had reservations about sharing in celebrations for something he didn't believe in, but even he couldn't deny he was having as good time. People laughed and danced wherever they went. When they finally found places to wait for the priests to go past he was smiling as widely as Seren. The smell of good food filled the air. Maibe briefly disappeared and returned with a collection of sweets that made him suck his fingers to get the last scrap of taste. Say what you would about Egyptians and their overly complicated ideas about how the world worked; they still made great honey bread.
"Are you enjoying yourself?" he asked Seren at regular intervals.
"It's wonderful! I can hear and smell so many things. Everyone sounds so happy – and the statues haven't even gone past yet!"
"You'll have prime position to see them when they do," Jono said smugly. He had used a number of dirty tricks to get them to the front but he wasn't remorseful in the slightest if it benefited her.
"Yes," Seren said after a moment. "I will."
"I can hardly believe these are the same people who …" Maibe broke off with a curious frown. "What's that?"
"What's what?" Jono downed the last of his bread and followed the line of Maibe's finger.
"Some kind of commotion."
"Probably another fight," Jono said dismissively. There had been a couple between people who had drunk too much, but generally they subsided into play-fighting and rolling about because they couldn't throw a punch without falling over. "Nothing to worry about as long as it doesn't concern us."
However, it quickly became clear that this was no drunken tussle. Like ripples in a full jug after dropping a pebble into it, the crowd fell to their knees. Frantic whispering reached Jono's ears.
"It can't be him."
"He wouldn't have left the palace."
"Maybe he's part of the parade."
"Why would he be in the crowd instead of on horseback, or on a litter?"
"Maybe it's a double."
"Is it a hoax?"
"Fine then, you get to your feet if you're so sure it's not him."
"I didn't say that!"
"Then keep your head down and shut up."
"It's not possible …"
Jono didn't understand what was going on until Hopki yanked hard on his arm. "On your knees! Hurry, boy, or you'll find you won't have a neck to crane anymore."
"What?" Maibe and Seren were already down. Jono knelt next to them, bewildered, and hissed, "What's going on?"
"I don't know," Maibe hissed back. "But the nail that sticks up is quickly hammered down." It was an old saying from the tribe. Jono must have heard it a thousand times before, yet hearing it now rankled. The familiar words seemed out of place and reminded him of a life he was working to distance himself from in his mind.
"Your majesty!" barked a voice from the procession, which had rounded the corner just before the disturbance and was now halted, like a rock with a river of bent heads flowing around it.
Jono's annoyance was quickly forgotten. "The Pharaoh's here?"
"That would certainly explain why we're all kissing the ground," Maibe muttered.
Hopki was muttering something in a low monotone. Jono tried to listen but the old man spoke so quickly that his words blended together. Jono could only make out the odd word and from that construed he was praying and that the pharaoh – if that was who it really was – shouldn't have been there without a lot more pomp and circumstance.
Two horses peeled away from the procession. People parted to let them through. One bore a man with a fine black wig, the other a bald man in a long robe. Each rode with the reins folded into one hand, indicating either extremely docile horses or years of riding experience. Judging by their refined accents and the way the bald man's horse rolled its eyes at the crowd, Jono guessed it was the second choice. The upper classes could afford to learn advanced horsemanship in all their spare time. In their free hands each of the men held a bizarre item that were cast, it seemed, from solid gold – a pair of scales and a giant ankh.
The man with the ankh stopped in front of the only figure in the entire marketplace who had not bowed. It was easy to tell why. Everyone was bowing to him. His head and face were obscured but he held himself nobly against the force of the bald man's stare. Could it really be …?
The hooded figure and the bald man exchanged words Jono was too far away to hear. The hooded figure gestured with both arms, throwing them wide as if to encompass the whole city. Then he pointed at the halted statues and their irritated but genuflecting priests. The bald man traded a look with his companion and pressed the ankh to his chest in a saddle-bound bow of his own. Then he held out his hand. Evidently he expected the hooded figure to take it and became agitated when nothing happened. The figure turned to advance on one of the people on the ground behind him but doing so removed him from Jono's line of sight.
"It is the new Pharaoh," Hopki whispered feverishly. "Dressed in rags and standing among the commoners like he has nothing. Ra protect us from this scandal!"
His words momentarily distracted Jono from what was going on but everyone's attention was instantly yanked back to the scene playing out on the other side of the marketplace.
The bald man's horse shied suddenly, throwing up its head and trying to back away. The people behind it were too frozen by the Pharaoh to move and the bald man had to wrench at the reins to keep them from being trampled. He didn't curse, as Jono might have done in the same position, but his face showed frustration that matched the tautness of his arms and shoulders. Still trying to control the panicky horse, he said something to the hooded figure, who nodded resignedly and clambered into the saddle behind the man with the golden scales. The hooded face kept turning back towards the crowd as if on a string. Even as they trotted away he wasn't concentrating on where they were going, and seemed as uninterested in the gods' statues as Jono.
When he and the man with the scales had left the marketplace the bald man wheeled his horse around and raised his voice. "Citizens, do not let his disturbance spoil your celebrations! Your ruler has walked amongst you to test your loyalty to the gods when you think the royal eye is not watching, and he has found you devout. Raises your heads, your voices and your spirits and make merry, for tomorrow he will be crowned true Pharaoh over all Egypt and you, his people, will reap the rewards bestowed by the gods at this time – the very gods whose images you now see presented to you! Raise your heads and rejoice!"
A hesitant cheer went up. The boldest amongst them did lift their heads from the ground. One man, so eager to prove his faithfulness it made him reckless, jumped to his feet and let out a joyous whoop. It startled the horse, which whinnied and pawed the ground. People fell back as it pranced from side to side. It jerked its neck up and down as if trying to head-butt people like a wild ram.
Jono had seen a horse do something like this before. The tribe preferred camels, but they had traded horses a few times and he and Hondo had crouched nearby as children, watching them and wishing they could ride one. Hondo's father tried to dissuade them by saying sometimes horses got 'spooked' and lost their reason, which made them far more dangerous animals to ride than camels. This horse was agitated and Jono knew that agitation would feed itself until it became fear, and a scared animal will do anything to get away from what it believes to be a threat. This horse obviously thought the crowd, or something in it, meant it harm. It wasn't far off being 'spooked'.
Since others were already on their feet Jono took the opportunity to rise and grab Seren's wrist. "Come on, before that thing runs wild." He tried to grab Maibe's hand too but she slipped through his grasp and stood up on her own, then helped Hopki to get up.
"The king," Hopki kept muttering. "Here, and nobody noticed. The Pharaoh himself and not one person able to see his glory …"
"I thought he wasn't Pharaoh until he was crowned tomorrow," Jono said as they made their way through the rising bodies.
"He is the only ruler, coronation or not," Hopki replied.
"I think that means it's okay to call him Pharaoh already since nobody else is alive to claim the title," said Maibe. She had a hand on Hopki's shoulder to steady him in case he had risen to his feet too quickly. She was always doing little things like that, Jono noticed, though she never made a big deal out of it. It was as if she didn't want people to notice when she was being nice.
A cry went up when they had nearly reached the safety of the side-streets. The horse had finally spooked and plunged forward. The bald man thrust his golden ankh into his waistband and took up the reins with both hands. He directed the horse so it would follow its nose out of the crowd and back into the avenue of empty space reserved for the procession. The horse turned several times and bucked, catching the shoulder of someone behind it. The victim flew through the air and fresh cries sounded when the body landed and didn't get up again. The bald man was too busy quieting his horse and trying to get it away from the crowd to realise what damage it had already done.
Jono realised. Without her headscarf, it was easy to recognise the sweep of brown hair cut in an unfashionable style for the city.
To Be Continued ...