This story is VASESHIPPING
Guten Tag, readers. I'll have you know that I worked really hard on this one. Not saying that I haven't worked hard on my other stories, but this one in particular went through boot camp. So, please, I would really appreciate your thoughts on this. I mean, is it too much? Too awkward? I dunno.
This story was translated by:
(Moshing in the Rain)
Native English Speaker and Reader of My Stories
It never used to be like this. I never, in all my days, imagined a life like the one I lived. But even though I knew that I had been rotting from deep within, the satisfaction was well worth the sacrifice. The taste of blood became necessary; a habit even, or else I could not feel so accomplished. I soaked in the odor of the others' fear, I cuddled in the bitter cold of their slander, and somewhere among these terrible triumphs, I found a fetish for the screams they'd cry, begging me to stop. Oh, but I could not for I had found my sanctum, what gave me this thrilling pleasure of domination.
My hair used to be so fine. When cut, wigs of my darling black hair sold for prices only the nobles could attain. And my skin, how I wish it was free of these scars. They were small at first, concealable, but they became larger and deeper as time went on. My skin used to be my greatest beauty. People would stop me in the street and compliment me, they'd say 'Your skin is so radiant and smooth, your arms must be Pharaoh's comfort'- or words to that effect. But if Pharaoh had found any comfort in these arms of mine, it was because I'd ensured that all other arms had quivered and ached.
But it never used to be like this.
Granted that there was ever present tension, but only a faint hum when listened for. Pharaoh had done his best to keep us all separated. With every wife he took, he had a palace built for them. It was a common belief amongst us wives that the closer the palace was to Pharaoh's, the more he preferred you. As logical as it may have seemed, I found no truth in it. What showed Pharaoh's pleasure in your company were the gifts. I could tell how many times any of the hemet* had slept with Pharaoh by her many treasures; far too great to be of her own earnings. Pleasing Pharaoh was no easy task. He was the king who already had everything. A slip of the dress or a flash of leg was fairly common when one of us wanted his golden attention, but only one of us would be able to keep it. There could only be one Queen of Egypt.
However, if I were to proclaim a point in which this silent war truly began, it would be when Pharaoh Atem took his seventh and final wife; Sitamun. I don't wish to insinuate that it was her fault this all began, it was inevitable regardless, but I can say that her arrival made it all happen faster. Sitamun, unlike the rest of us, wasn't so anonymous upon her arrival. Her name had been mentioned in whispers and in a few stories on the walls. She was Pharaoh Atem's cousin who stemmed from his mother's side of the royal family. And the fact that she shared the pharaoh's blood made her that much more of a threat to me and the other hemet.
I knew that if I were to be queen, I'd have to steal his attention. I would not cower as many of the other's had. I would slip into my most elegant tunic, have my servants brush my hair more thoroughly than before, and paint my kohl* to perfection in order to show up the bride at her own party.
I remember arriving there; how the royal palace illuminated most of Egypt after the Aten-disk sunk below the sands. You could hear crowds of people chattering and laughing even from the palace entrance. It was just as it had been for my marital feast, oddly enough, and probably as it was for the others' as well. For me, this was like returning home- one day this palace would be wear I dressed in the morning, ate at dinner, and birthed my children. We would have six or seven, of course, and surely one would be Pharaoh's heir.
"Welcome back, Lady Amunet." a servant escorted my handmaiden and I out of my personal sedan chair.
"Thank you. I am not late, am I?"
"Not at all. Pharaoh and his bride have not made their entrance yet."
"Excellent. Mana," I firmly called for my handmaiden. The small girl whipped around me and bowed. "Come along now. I do not wish to miss the arrival of a new hemet."
The great doors parted before us and we began our way inside the royal palace. Every hall was swarmed with conversation and incense, majestically carved from the purest of alabaster. Great pillars lifted the high ceiling, and hardly a single wall went unpainted. Torches marked our path towards the banquet hall, but the rooms were so vast that I began to feel eyes watching me from the darkness. Perhaps it was only the anticipation of the night that should follow that teased my nerves into such knots, but the faint voice that told me I should not have come was plenty unsettling. Still, I'd been determined not to let Mana see that I'd been second-guessing myself.
"Keep up, Mana. And do fix that hair of yours. You may only be a servant, but you are my servant. I can't have you looking like the common slave."
"Yes. Sorry, ma'am. It's just that I've been so preoccupied with grooming you that I guess I forgot to take care of myself-"
"I didn't ask for a story, regardless of how well you tell them. Please, Mana," I grabbed her by the shoulders just before we slipped through the entrance of the banquet hall, "do not embarrass me. This is a very important night for me. Should you find any way, no matter how miniscule, to ruin this, you will not have a single meal for a week. Do I make myself clear?"
"Good. When we enter, be sure to smile and stay only a few steps behind me. You may be polite and greet people, but do not converse with anyone without my permission." I patted down her hair and brushed sand from her dress.
I took a good look over her. Her thick brown hair was hard to tame, but it was better than usual, tied back with lace and swept out of her face. I'd taken the liberty of purchasing her a new tunic; I mean, there was no way she was going to wear the short, overused one. It was custom fit, addressing all her curves and edges, and was held together with a blue sash. I'd had her groomed and bathed, but I had to admit that most of her grace was natural. No doubt that Mana was beautiful for one of her class- no, even for royal standards. What made her more rare in beauty than most was her eyes. Anyone who knew her would have sworn they'd been made of jade. And for that, I resented her from the start.
"You look wonderful." I smiled. She bowed her head, knowing the hate I had in my heart whenever those words fell from my mouth. It hadn't been the first time I complimented her, but it was no daily occurrence. And she knew, Ma'at Almighty, she knew I hated that it was true.
"Thank you, Lady Amunet. It is all thanks to your kindness and generosity."
Liar. Anyone with manners would know that was the politically correct response. I thought I'd be the one to show up the bride, not Mana- not some peasant girl! But I had a composure to maintain and the public eye was also a public mouth, so beating my servant wouldn't have done me any good there.
"Yes, yes. Now, I need you to take watch. Inform me if there are any other of Pharaoh's wives who have come to do as I have."
"I will not let you down."
"You best not."
We swiftly turned the corner and were immediately struck by the festivities. The hall was carefully lit so that no corner was dark and every face could be seen from across the room. I was bombarded by smiles and bows, those who knew of me backed away from my path.
"Lady Amunet, how nice it is to see you again. Your room has already been made for you." a familiar, tender voice swept into my ears. Isis stood before me, her crystal blue eyes already latching to my skin.
"You knew I'd be coming?"
"With my Millennium Necklace, I was able to see all the guests who'd arrive many days before the celebration. I was worried that someone with evil in their heart would come to hurt our Pharaoh."
I should have known. She was a part of Pharoah's council and the holder of the Millennium Necklace. I supposed I had been away for longer than I thought.
"Oh, yes, how could I have forgotten? Well, I do thank you for your readiness. You are most kind."
"It is no problem at all. You are one of the royal wives after all." she bowed her head and had vanished into the crowd within moments. I prayed in my mind that Ma'at would not see my cheap greetings as lies, for I found little amusement in talking to that woman. She was indeed kind, but conversation was something I had to be in the mood for. And I most certainly was not feeling it then. While still trying to flick away that incessant voice that told me I was making a mistake by being there, I had to remain confident and mindful.
"Lady Amunet." Mana appeared from the crowd.
"Yes, what news?"
"None are here but Ranno. She sits alone at a table nearby."
"The quiet girl?"
"Why is she here? Everyone knows she refused to give herself completely to Pharaoh on the night of their marriage. She can bear such societal frowning?" I found myself searching the room for her gentle face. Surely enough, she was there, sitting alone at a long table. Ranno had an unmistakable face; always so wide-eyed and awake. Of all Pharaoh's wives, she had to be the least conniving and cruel. He simply married her for her looks and her soothing voice whilst she sung at one of the desert temples, which inevitably saved her and her family from poverty and starvation. As sad as it was, none of us wives felt sorry for her. There was something so condescending about her presence; and truthfully, I don't know what for.
Her eyes finally collided with mine and she stood abruptly I was almost surprised how quickly she reacted- but then again, Ranno had always been so full of energy. She slipped past a few people to get to me and I cocked an eyebrow with irritation. Personally, I would have rather spoken to Isis than Ranno. Ranno was so detestable and only due to her innocence. She never spoke ill of anyone or anything, avoided confrontation, and was the human equivalent of a frightened mouse.
"Well, well. Ranno, how lovely to see you."
"And you, Amunet. I had hoped I would not be the only hemet. Sitamun deserves to know the truth. And with more of us here, I feel it would only make her believe me. No one should have to fall into this ugly game as we had. The other hemet are not as kind as you are, they will surely make easy work of Sitamun-she is quite young, Amunet, not yet sixteen. All the other hemet care about is getting to the throne and themselves. Oh, I've begun to trust so very few in this world."
"Oh." I had to take a moment to sort my thoughts. Was she insinuating that I was one of the few she trusted, that I was not so heartless and beastly as the others were? If so, Ranno had been more foolish than I thought. But she was right. If Sitamun was truly so young and she was related to Pharaoh, then the royal hemet would ensure she was the first to go, myself included.
"And by 'truth', what is it that you mean? Pharaoh's marriages are quite public, so I find it hard to believe that someone of her status would not know of them."
"No, that is not it. What I mean is that she deserves to know that this union with Pharaoh is dangerous. The hemet are ruthless, intimidating women and will try to make her run. And even if she truly does love Atem," a blush fell upon her cheeks as she looked off into the crowd, "she will not be able to see him much."
I saw it then; only a quick flicker, but I did see it. It peached her tan cheeks and lit up her eyes. Ranno was in love with the pharaoh. How quaint. She was pure and impressionable. Poor child.
"Why, Ranno, what luck. I've come to do the same. Forgive me for doubting you so." I laughed.
Now Ma'at could judge me fairly, for my lies were blatant.
"Oh, Amunet. Thank you. I always knew you could not have been as selfish as the others."
"I have felt the same towards you, dear Ranno."
That was when I could feel the heat of Mana's eyes. She knew my lies but she dared not reveal them. I had once caught her trying to insinuate my words had been false to Anahknemrure, another foolish bride of Pharaoh's. Needless to say, she's been afraid to attempt to do so again. But this was different. Mana, as much as she tried to hide it from me, was rather close with Ranno. I suppose they could have been called friends. They were very similar in age, adored laughter and their conversations, and often wished for a life of adventure and exploration.
"Mana?" Ranno's voice perked up the way it always had when she spotted a friend. "Is that you in such finery?"
Mana searched my face for permission to converse. She was usually so well behaved and easy to get along with. Perhaps I could have even called Mana a friend. She was such a good listener, and even though I knew she wished to retort to many of the things I said, she bit her lip respectfully and made the very best of it. Surely I couldn't show that sort of affection in public. It could have very easily been used against me. Such conversation between Mana and I were strictly private.
I gave her a small nod and she smiled brightly.
"Oh, Mana, you look absolutely gorgeous." she took Mana's hands in hers. "I've not seen you in so long, it seems you grow more beautiful every year."
"Thank you, Ranno. You are so kind."
"Come, Mana, let us talk by the window. It is much easier to speak of stories and adventures when sitting over the moonlit horizon."
"Lady Amunet?" Mana's voice called a few times. I had not realized I'd been staring off, pondering on some nonsensical memories.
"May I leave with Lady Ranno? Only to the window, of course."
"Yes, fine." I shooed her away. She and Ranno giggled off and I was left alone in the crowd. I could not help but wonder if that voice from before was right- if should not have come. A strange knot tied in my stomach as though Anubis had already begun removing my organs, preparing me to walk with the dead. There were so many faces around me and not one brought me any comfort or relief. The only pleasure being amongst them was imagining them bowing to me and my husband. Who in this room would paint me on walls beside Hatshepsut, Tiye, and Nefertari? Who would build statues to place throughout the land? Who would steer my decorated boat down the Nile?
I was almost shoved to the back when the crowd began shuffling away from the middle of the hall. A hush fell when a scrawny servant boy used all his strength just to bang once on the gong. Two of Pharaoh's most trusted men, Set and Mahad, were the first to march towards the throne. They ensured his safety with their Millennium Items and made sure everyone was doing what they were supposed to be doing.
"My good people," Mahad raised his arms, "we thank you all for coming to this celebration. It is now my honor to welcome our beloved Pharaoh Atem and his new wife, Sitamun."
The crowd applauded and cheered as they watched him pass to his golden seat. I, unlike the rest, hardly made a noise when my hands touched. I pushed forward to lay eyes upon the man I had married. I've not seen him for so long, not since the night after our marriage. He'd married two other ladies since then, and Sitamun would make the third.
I heard people around me gasp and "oh" when Sitamun passed us by. She was still adorned in her ceremonial tunic, her body so thin, and her hair so neatly placed. When I looked, I looked deeply into her. She appeared to be a child. Why, her breasts had not even budded She was shorter than our great king, and shared few features with him. She, too, possessed those enrapturing velvet eyes that I adored on Pharaoh. She would be easy to rid ourselves of. The girl was exactly that; a girl, not yet a woman regardless of her status as hemet. To me, and surely to the rest of the hemet, she was easy prey.
I did my very best to make myself known to her. At the last second, before she had to turn her head to see me, her eyes fell unto mine. I peered as ardently, as annoyed, and as determined to ruin her as I could. Then I eased a condescending, irritated smirk upon my lips and continued clapping for her intrusion. I watched approvingly as her eyes then darted for the floor and the worry sparkled on her childish face.
But my silent success was not long lived. In the midst of all the commotion, all that had happened seemed to slow and still. In mid clap, I found my eyes swimming to the opposite side of the room. There, I found Marhamaat staring me down. Marhamaat was not like Ranno or Sitamun. She was not as easily persuaded or frightened, nor as naïve or timid. Marhamaat was truly a challenge, and the look on her face said it all. She'd found what she came to find and would not hesitate to tell the other's of my being there. Surely this would begin our war.
End Chapter One
Hemet - Ancient Egyptian term for "Wife", but probably more along the lines of "female partner".
Kohl - Makeup worn by men and women in ancient times, predominantly Egypt, believed to protect the eye from infection and harsh sunlight.