Author's Notes – Special thanks to "Lucidscreamer" for her patience and willingness to answer my questions on Ancient Egyptian practices and such. Lucid – you know I'll always listen to you ramble! ::hearts!!!:: And thanks also to MyAibou for beta'ing, and Lunnaei for being my support and first ear. You guys are the best! XD
Disclaimer –"Yu-Gi-Oh!" and all related characters, events, and concepts belong to Takahashi Kazuki and any other related owners/distributors/producers. I get no monetary benefit from this. My benefit is the enjoyment of dealing with beloved characters.
Chapter 1 – Graven Images
The child darted in and out of the shadows along the portico framing the courtyard, fine leather sandals making only a whisper of sound over hard-packed earth. He paused once, ducking back behind a column as a group of servants stepped out from an entryway. He held his breath as they passed, laughing and chatting on their way to the kitchen, then hurried through the same doorway to skirt the edge of another, smaller courtyard. A pair of patrolling guards forced him to dodge behind another column – Argh, where was a pot when he needed one? – before he could enter the building, crossing the private audience chamber to finally slip into the hallway of the royal residences, stealing into his father's room when another guard turned to respond to a question from a servant rounding another corner down the hall. The boy threw himself on the bed, finally releasing the tears he had been holding in since leaving the scribal school at the House of Life on the other side of the royal complex.
He hated that man sometimes. Hated him! He . . . he knew he shouldn't, knew the gods demanded that one maintain a just heart, but he couldn't help it! Never mind that his tutor was First God's Servant of Sutekh, a well-learned teacher, and one of the Sacred Chosen who bore a Treasure of the Thousand Years of Stability. And his father's brother on top of all that. The man could be such a monster! He was a crocodile that just loved to find every little flaw and gnash at it with wickedly sharp teeth.
It wouldn't be quite so bad if Akh-n-aden was equally as picky and harsh on all of his students. . . but he wasn't. Far from! It was only his six-year-old nephew, Atem, on whom the priest was so hard. The child's back still smarted from the lashes of that hateful palm rib for giving a wrong answer. He wasn't the one who had been wrong! It was his tutor who refused to explain the lesson enough that Atem could get the right answer. It wasn't fair! Atem felt certain sometimes that his uncle – no, he couldn't even bring himself to think of the awful man as such! – that Akh-n-aden wanted him to fail, that the man kept trying to beat him down out of some kind of spite.
People said that it was because Atem was the eldest – indeed only – son of the Great Royal Wife, which made him "First Son of the King, of his body" and thus most likely choice for the throne of the Two Lands after his father, Pharaoh Akh-khnum-ka-nen. The priest was merely doing his duty, making sure Atem above anyone else would be ready for such immense responsibility when his time came, but the child, with a mind sharp beyond his young age, could see in Akh-n-aden's eye that it went deeper than that. Much deeper.
He wished his father were here. Even as pharaoh, Akh-khnum-ka-nen always made time for his son when Atem really needed it. Unfortunately, pressing business had carried the pharaoh away to some far-off country weeks ago, and it would be another few weeks before he returned, assuming all went well.
Head settled into the padded cradle of his father's headrest, arms wrapped around its stem, Atem wondered how long it would be before someone came looking for him. He had slipped away from his tutor when the man was momentarily distracted with some of the other priests, claiming a trip to the toilet with an upset stomach. His stomach had indeed been upset, though it had nothing to do with his bowels.
It was only a moment before the sound of footsteps stopping just outside sent the child rolling off the opposite edge of the bed with a sharp, muffled gasp of alarm, slithering underneath as the hall guard opened the door to check the room. The child knew that the guard would not bother looking under the bed. The frame stood too low to the ground for a normal intruder – presumably an adult – to fit without lifting the frame a little, but slim, agile Atem fit quite comfortably. Still, he held his breath and offered silent prayers to Aset to protect him, as she had protected her son Heru-sa-Aset from Sutekh, when the guard crossed to the bed. He listened as the guard grumbled to himself about the carelessness of the servants and belatedly realized that he must have knocked over his father's headrest in his haste to get out of sight. The guard paused an instant at the bedside, presumably righting the headrest, then left the room.
Only when the door latched closed once more did Atem release the breath he had been holding, the soft puff of air disturbing a fine layer of dust that swirled away from him across the mosaic tile floor. He crawled back out from under the bed, brushed himself off, retightened the tie of his kilt, and combed his fingers back through his hair. He was proud of his wild mane, thick and long, unlike all other children his age that bore the customary sidelock of youth. When he was born, he already had such a full head of dark red hair – rare but not unheard of – that his father forbade the royal hairdresser from shaving it. Within a year, it had darkened to its current near-black but, in the sunlight, it still betrayed a sheen of brilliant red highlights. He had his mother's hair, and his father loved it.
With a huff, Atem plopped down on the bed and fell back to stare mournfully at the decorated ceiling, ignoring the sharply-burning lines across his bare back and the soft protest of the tight, reed latticework under the folded-linen mattress.
"Now what do I do?" he asked the painted ibises circling overhead, mindful to keep his voice soft so anyone in the hall outside couldn't hear him. He dreaded the even worse beating he knew he would get if-… No, be honest, he admonished himself with an audible sigh. When he was caught. "I know, I know!" he moaned at the birds, all but hearing their cries of rebuke. "I shouldn't have run away from Akh-n-aden. Hmph, you deal with him for a few hours, and then you can scold me, all right?"
He studied them for a moment and sighed wistfully. Sometimes, he wished he was a bird. He could fly and go anywhere in the Two Lands that he pleased, and he wouldn't have to do scribal work or listen to the nurses reprimand him for getting dirty when he played. Most of all, he wouldn't have to deal with Akh-n-aden anymore.
He repressed a shudder as the thought brought the image of the man, unbidden, to his mind, and ruthlessly he cast it aside before it could take hold of him. It was the one thing he could never let himself dwell on, for it would reveal a weakness in him he could not afford to have known.
Akh-n-aden, quite frankly, frightened him.
He gritted his teeth in disgust at himself even as he sat up and hugged his arms about him, subconsciously aching for his mother's reassuring embrace, but he couldn't completely banish the phantom of his tutor from his mind. The man didn't even have to be angry at Atem to look menacing. As if his lined and weathered face weren't enough, the beard and mustache just beginning to streak unevenly with age, his mismatched eyes unnerved most anyone who looked at them. The right was a dark slate-grey, as cold and hard as the stone whose color it shared. And the left… the left…
From what he had been told, the man had lost it five years before, when Atem was but an infant. That was when all of the Treasures of the Thousand Years of Stability had been forged, gifts of the gods to help his father and the forces of the Two Lands to turn back the tide of foreign hordes invading their sacred home. Of the seven Bearers of the Items, Akh-n-aden was the most grotesque as only he bore his as no other did – physically imbedded into his body, in his skull.
He was the Bearer of the Eye.
Atem scrubbed his hands over his face, trying without success to drive that cold Eye from his imagination. He let his hands drop into his lap with a sigh and looked up to study the images on the walls instead. He had always loved his father's room, with its frescoes of cool marshlands, gathered gods, and protective glyphs. He had similar paintings decorating his own room, but his father's were far nicer. Of course they were – they had to be! They oversaw the comfort and protection of the Lord of the Two Lands in his time of vulnerability, while he slept.
Atem stood and crossed to an image of Heru, the god whose ka his father shared, and set his hand reverently over the deity's breast. "Great One, lord of the sun and of light, patron of the king, beloved of your people," he whispered, "please, tell me what to do. Help me know how to handle my tutor who demands so much of your son. He is strict when others are around, abusive when their backs are turned, and his eye is cruel. Please . . . please help me."
He had no doubt that the god heard him, whether or not he chose to reply. In every painting, every graven image, was the life of the one it represented. He knew it from palace and temple walls, from the countless statues and stelae, and from the paintings in his father's tomb that he had visited once alongside his maternal grandfather, Si-Amun, when the priest went to inspect the ongoing work. Upon his death, Akh-khnum-ka-nen would journey to the Underworld where he would dwell with the gods forever, and should his body ever be damaged or his mortuary cult fail, the images and inscriptions could replace them in sustaining his immortal existence. Just as the mere speaking of a statement had the power to cause it to be, so did an image share reality with its physical counterpart.
One small finger traced the curve of the collar that Heru wore, with its tiny amulets worked into the pattern. All of the gods wore or carried various accoutrements of protection and power, just as their people did. Atem looked down his bare chest to his own protections, one a hoop of thick, gold wire with two carnelian snake's heads on either side of a lapis lazuli Bes-head pendent, and the other –
He gasped in alarm. His Eye of Horus, the one he wore on a thong around his waist - missing! The knot must have come loose again, and this time he didn't notice in his flight from his teacher. He stomped a foot, fists clenched at his sides in silent anger at himself. How could he have let himself lose his udjat, his most powerful protective amulet?!
He stopped at a thought, his eyes going once more to Heru and his collar. If drawings on the walls of a room could protect someone, wouldn't drawings on one's own body be even more powerful? A person can leave a room, or lose his pendent, but amuletic drawings on one's own skin could never be left behind, lost, or stolen!
Atem raised his hands and bowed to the image of Heru with a quick, murmured prayer of thanks, sure that the god had just given him a sign, and hurried to put his new plan into action. Wouldn't his father and the priests be impressed with his ingenuity! And if he drew enough powerful glyphs on his body, even Akh-n-aden surely would never be able to touch him again!
He had no lack of amulets to copy. His father's jewelry chest held more necklaces, earrings, finger rings, bracelets, and pectorals than ten men could ever hope to wear. Atem pulled out his favorites. Now all he needed was something to draw with. He scanned the room, and his eyes fell on his father's cosmetic case over on a table. Of course! He could use his father's kohl! Carrying the chosen jewelry over with him, he climbed up on the stool, opened the case, and picked through the jars of body oils and salves to locate a blue faience tube the length of his small hand with its polished wood applicator stick. He laid out the various amulets on the table before him and got to work.
Before long, he had his udjat drawn out and had added the inverted-triangle shape of his father's most potent amulet around it. If an udjat was a powerful symbol of protection, then how much more so was the one on the face of the unique plumb bob puzzle amulet, the Weight of the Thousand Years of Stability? Above that, he added a winged scarab holding a solar disk that reached up to his collarbones. More images covered the sides of his belly and chest as well as his shoulders and down his arms. Using a hand mirror, he drew a vulture on one cheek, a rearing winged cobra on the other, and a winged solar disk across his forehead. Then, he turned to sit on the table and start work on his legs.
Author's Note: Please be sure to check my bio page for any updates, etc. Thanks!