It might have been only hours or days later that I awoke, but sunlight broke through the narrow windows and into my dreams. I stirred restlessly, and blinked open my eyes. My surroundings caused me to stiffen and immediately shake off the last vestiges of sleep. Never in my life had I awoken in a furnished room.
Slowly, I let my muscles relax. The thin sheet was a cool barrier between my skin and the always heavy air of Egypt. The bed beneath me cupped every curve, hollow and angle of my body, an entirely new experience. As I relaxed, the memories of the previous... well, the last time I had been awake, came flooding back.
I remembered Seth carrying me to this room, and a warm green light. I had awoken some time later to Isis' hand cool on my forehead. In a fog, she had fed me broth and bread, and given me a clean sheath dress. All the while, she had spoken in her melodic voice, but I barely registered the words. After I had changed clothes, she had helped me back to bed and taken the bandage off my foot; before she could do more, I had drifted back into slumber.
The ivory tower had come clearer to me in my dreams this time. It stood in the middle of lake, under the earth and beyond the reach of mere men. "Go," a voice had said, and I stepped into the water, aware that while I couldn't swim, I could not fail to reach the tower. I had taken one last bubbling breath before the dream faded and I saw black.
I had the distinct impression that I had slept a long time, and I felt better for it, regardless of the eerie qualities of my dream. Despite the dull throb of my injured foot, I felt strong and limber. I sat up in bed, only to tense like a feral cat in danger again.
By the open balcony was a young man, seated before a small table. He appeared to be studying the table intently, and hovered a hand above the table. I focused my eyes and noticed small wooden figurines. Though he looked down at the board, I caught a glimpse of a high forehead and a straight nose. His hair was undoubtedly the most prominent feature of his body however; it protruded above his head in a great mass of violet, black and gold locks, arranged in an angular fashion about his head. A glint of a golden headpiece caught my eye. Perhaps he is one of the priests here? I wondered, brushing a dark lock of hair back from my own forehead.
At this moment, he looked up, and a pair of deep violet eyes arrested any further movement on my part. They were set in an angular face, nearly heart shaped. A dark shadow seemed to lay across his countenance, marked by a furrowed brow and a determined set of his mouth. For a moment a chill caressed my spine, but when his eyes met mine, a smile broke across his lips and reached into his eyes.
"Good morning," he said, in a voice that at once was powerfully commanding and yet gentle. "I trust you've rested well?"
I nodded, unsure of my voice.
"Come, join me." He motioned me over, and I rose from the bed. Isis' sheath still hung loosely about my bony frame, and I bunched the fabric of the skirt up to avoid tripping. A second chair sat before him, and I slid into the seat, keeping my eyes demurely low.
"What is your name?" I asked. My voice was still rough from sleep, and cracked mid-sentence. The man smiled and rose, crossing the room to a stand with a pitcher and goblets. He poured a moderate amount of a dark liquid, then crossed back, handing me the goblet before taking his seat again. I noted his clothes as he had poured the glass: starched white linen, obviously a finer texture and quality than the roughly spun fabric I was used to, the fabric pulled into a traditional kilted fashion. A light cloak of deep purple hung about his shoulders, fluid about his back and falling to mid-knee. Sandals of a dark brown leather laced up muscular calves.
"You may call me Atem." He smiled again, and I took a sip from the goblet. The wine was cool and tart, and I smiled back.
"Thank you," I said shyly. "I am Kisara." I looked down at the table before us and saw a board marked out, three by ten squares, and a handful of pieces scattered across the board.
"Have you played Senet before, Kisara?" Atem asked. I started and blushed, looking back up.
"No, I've... I've never had the chance to learn."
"It's a fairly simple game," Atem began, "with each player having five pieces. The object is to move all of your pieces across the board, without allowing your opponent do the same." While I sipped my wine, Atem began to explain the various rules and moves that one could make.
"So from this square, I must throw a three to move off?" I queried, holding up the piece in question.
"Correct," he replied, sounding satisfied that I had caught on so quickly. I set the piece back down and as Atem reached again for the throwing sticks, our hands brushed slightly. The slight touch set off goosebumps up and down my arms, and I pulled my hand away quickly, asking a question to deflect his attention.
"You must play very often, yes?"
"It is a favorite at court, and I must admit, I do not care to lose. It does me good to practice like this," he said with a bashful grin.
"You are at court? You live in the palace?" Any rapport from the game I felt slip away. Obviously Atem was some sort of noble or perhaps a vizier. And teaching Senet to a beggar girl?
"Yes." I could see he was choosing his words carefully. "But I like to get away from the palace when I can."
"What brings you here?"
"I came here to speak with the High Priests last night, and before I could return, the floods struck. Of course I could not travel through the high waters, so I spent the night here. And what of yourself? Surely a similar story?" He looked up at me, his eyes questioning.
"I... I suppose you could say that," I lied feebly. "I was caught in the storm as well, and came here to seek shelter."
"Where in the city do you live?" he asked casually.
Before I could think of an answer, the door behind us opened, and Isis entered the room. The litheness of her stride reminded me of stories of a panther, with the feline grace of her movements.
"Good morning, Kisara. I trust you slept well?" she asked pleasantly. At my nod, she continued. "And I see that our Pharaoh has perhaps been teaching you Senet?"
"Pharaoh?" I gasped and turned to Atem. "You're Pharaoh Atem? Pharaoh Ankhenatem?" My eyes widened with the shock.
He smiled graciously, and nodded in assent. "I am indeed."
"But... but," I stammered, unable to form a sentence. Had I really just learned a board game from the pharaoh? The pharaoh was the closest living being to the gods, closer even than the priests themselves. His prayers rang first and foremost in their ears. And here I was, Kisara, a street rat, in his presence?
I did the only thing I knew I could do well. Or at least I tried. I pushed back from the table and past Isis, bolting out the door. I hadn't, however, remembered my injury on my foot, and had hardly made it through the doorway before I fell and cracked my head on the smooth marble.
"Kisara?" Isis turned me on my back, and through stars, I saw her concerned blue eyes looking anxiously down on me. I felt a hand grasp mine, and Atem came into my field of vision as well.
"Are you hurt?" The concern in his voice surprised me. I shook my head and the stars seemed to fade; propping up on my elbows, I rose up slightly.
"I don't think so," I said cautiously, trying to isolate each ache. There would be a knot on my forehead and my foot throbbed, but beyond that, I didn't seem to be injured anywhere else.
Atem tightened his grip on my hand and helped me to my feet. "Here, lean on me," he commanded, and gingerly, I accepted his arm. Too many thoughts clouded my mind.
"Perhaps you should return to bed?" Isis suggested, gesturing back into the room.
"No!" The word burst from me, and even I was surprised at my refusal.
"Kisara, you obviously are injured," Isis began, before I cut her off.
"Why me? Why now?" I was embarrassed that I had spoken, but knew that I had to explain myself. "I'm not ungrateful, but I've never had anyone seem to care for me in my life. I'm a beggar! A street-rat! What do the Pharaoh and a Priestess want with me?" Tears, as always when I grew frustrated or angry, rolled down my cheeks and I pulled away from Atem. He let me go, but held out a steadying arm as I stared them down. There was a pregnant pause, before Atem broke the silence.
"Perhaps we should sit down and talk?" He spoke with a sense of defeat.
Isis nodded, and looked to me. Stubbornly, I refused both the arms they offered and led the way back into the room. Seating my self on the bed, I looked expectantly at Isis and Atem as they sat in the chairs from the Senet table.
There was another stiff silence as we all avoided each others' eyes before I spoke again. "I apologize," I began shortly. "I did not mean to speak so. You have only been kind here." My voice broke, and I cleared my throat. "I simply have never lived off the kindness of others. Else I would never have gone hungry, or slept in alleyways, or..."
"No one ever wants something for nothing," Atem said sagely. I nodded in agreement.
"Kisara, please do not think we are asking anything in payment. As a priestess, I am here for the people," Isis said sympathetically. "I serve as their voice to the gods, and in return I do their work, feeding the hungry and tending the ill."
"Why then did Pharaoh come to my room?" I asked, still unsure.
"My story was true," Atem said. "I was here this past night to speak with the High Priests. Alas, the Senet board was in this room, and rather than possibly wake you with moving it, I decided to play in here." He smiled, and I looked away, shame still heavy in my chest.
"You are a very interesting girl, Kisara," Atem continued, "and clever. It took you no time at all to pick up on Senet. And Isis... she has a sense of people."
"Your kaa is as intriguing as you are," Isis interrupted, and I was slightly struck. She could interrupt the Pharaoh? "I believe that if you were given proper instruction, you might be able to become a powerful mage one day, perhaps a High Priestess if you desired."
I sat there, thunderstruck.
"I understand that this is perhaps too much for you to think about at once." Isis stood and straightened her dress. "I am inviting you to stay at the temple indefinitely, and should you decide you wish to stay, we would be delighted. You could live here, learn from myself and the other priests here."
"At the very least, you must stay until you are well," Atem added, standing as well.
"For now, I will send a tray up so that you may eat a little, and let you think things over." With that, Isis and Atem turned, making to leave.
"Wait!" I called as Isis was about to shut the door.
"Yes?" she asked, a soft smile curving her lips.
"I have a dream about an ivory tower, which stands in the middle of a lake," I blurted out. "What does it mean?"
She schooled her face carefully, but not quickly enough for me to miss her eyebrows twitch. "I haven't a clue, Kisara. Rest well. We shall speak of it later." The door closed behind her with a quiet click.
It might have been hours later, but my head still swam. Isis, true to her word, had sent the boy Djed up with a tray, laden with fruits, breads and a few pieces of meat. After only a few bites, though, I had turned away.
None of it made sense to me, that I could perhaps be a mage or priestess in the making? I would be foolish to turn down such an opportunity, but a lifetime of begging and stealing had made me wary. Things that appear to be too good to be true usually are. So why this no strings attached offer of schooling? And a home?
I had never been truly faithful to the gods. Surely I believed in them, but more often than not, I simply invoked them more in foul oaths than prayer. I had a different, cynical perspective: if we all prayed for wealth and happiness and more in our lives, and the gods answered these calls, why were so many still in poverty? Why did babes die in their mothers' arms? Why did crops fail and people starve? Surely no benevolent gods would allow such things to happen.
But the events of the past day seemed to conflict with these solid tenets I held. It seemed to be fate that had led me here, and fate that had led Priest Seth into the rain to save me. Perhaps this was fated, my destiny? To be led here, to benefit from whatever I could.
The door opened, interrupting my train of thought. But instead of Isis or Pharaoh Atem, I saw Priest Seth.
"Hello," I greeted him, as he came and sat in the chair Atem had occupied earlier.
"I came to see that you were still alive," he said, his voice conveying the fatigue I saw on his face. Dark circles ringed his eyes, and beneath his headdress, his hair was mussed.
"I am. It would take more than a small cut to kill me," I said, slightly bemused. "What have you been attending to? You look exhausted."
"There are many more like you. Isis has had me bandaging and setting limbs and wiping noses since you arrived last night."
"Last night? That was hours ago. Why don't you rest?"
He glanced at me as though I was daft. "If such wounds healed themselves, I wouldn't be needed at all."
I fell silent for a moment and Seth closed his eyes. Against the dark of his lashes, his skin suddenly seemed paler.
"Thank you, for saving my life." I looked down, fingering a lock of hair that fell over my shoulder. "I cannot swim, and I would have drowned if you hadn't fished me out."
"You would have righted yourself." His eyelids fluttered, but didn't open. I didn't have an answer to that, and sat there, twisting the hair around my finger before another thought popped into my head.
"How did you become a priest?" I asked, curious.
"I was the bastard child of a woman at court, and my father never acknowledged me," he said, brutally honest. "She died giving birth and a priest who knew her said I should be raised in the palace and brought up to become a priest."
"I am... sorry." The words fell flat. In fact I was stunned; to not know one's father was a blemish I was very familiar with. "I don't know my father either."
"My mother's family was wealthy, so that can help gloss over other less appealing factors. Here at least I never need marry, and I have some sway with Pharaoh, so I can see good done in Egypt." He opened his eyes and fixed me with a piercing blue stare. "Isis has invited you to stay, hasn't she?"
"Yes," I replied, startled. "How did you know?"
"I know Isis," he stated. "She has a way of seeing things, what choices will be most beneficial. The Pharaoh relies on her sometimes, and she likes to look at the big picture, what will be good in the long run, even things are upended in the meantime. Don't trust her completely." He cocked his head to the side and peered intently at me. I blushed under his gaze, and looked away.
"You're not an idiot," Seth said finally, "and even I can tell that you've got a strong kaa. You're not meant for street life, so I suppose this is best."
"What do you mean, a strong kaa? Isis said that as well."
"Your presence. Your soul. Perhaps you have seen people and simply known they are wicked? It is their kaa you are sensing," Seth explained. "The same can be said of those who are pure and good of heart. Yours seems to be exceptionally pure and whole. You might have survived on the streets but I don't believe that is your destiny."
Destiny. I rolled the thought around for a moment before I spoke again.
"I can't help but feel like they will expect something for this. Some sort of payment," I confessed. "I know I should be grateful for the chance they're offering, but I don't want to find out it comes at a price I cannot pay."
"As I said, you're not an idiot." Seth leaned forward. "Who is they?"
"Isis and Pharaoh Atem."
At that, his eyebrows disappeared into his messy hair. "Atem was here?"
I nodded, suddenly wishing that I had not spoken.
"Then Isis does have a sort of plan in place, and Atem knows at least that there is a plan." Seth suddenly leaned forward and took my hand. Our eyes met, blue on blue. "They won't ask anything you cannot give back, but you may not want to part with their price," he cautioned. I felt his pulse skipping at his wrist. "Be wary, but you'll never have another chance like this."
"Will you help me?" I asked, aware of how alone I might be. I tightened my grip on his hand slightly.
He smiled stiffly, and let go of my hand. "I can keep an eye on you," he offered, "but don't expect me to save your life again." Despite his lack of commitment, I still felt degrees safer.
"Then thank you, again," I replied quietly.
As he rose, a final terrifying thought occurred to me. "You weren't sent by Isis to persuade me, were you?"
"Would it do you any good to know that?" Like Isis before, he paused in the doorway and looked back at me. "But it does sound like you've made a decision." And with that, he left, shutting the door behind him.
Thank, thank, thank you for everyone who wrote such lovely reviews. Please know that while I worked on this chapter, every time I wanted to hit my head on the keyboard, I instead read your kind words and worked on.
As before, please point out grammar and spelling, as well as any inconsistencies. I can only read over this so many times before my eyes and head explode. I shall attempt to fix them when I have a moment.
And as for formatting errors, please be patient. The editor has been fond of destroying my formatting as I upload these chapters and then laughing when I try to fix it.
Thank you again. See you soon.