"Atemrut," I call worriedly. Somehow the four year old has escaped me once again, and of course it is at the most inconvenient of times. I promised Atem we would leave for the temple before sunset and now Ra has already begun his descent towards the horizon. By the Gods I swear, when I find this child, he too will look like the flat art on the walls.
The incenses that struggle with the warm breeze are nauseating to me. I remember how fond I used to be of the palace scents, but more and more it seems my nose has rejected them. The watchful guards positioned all throughout the palace offer me no comfort either. They stand there all day, supposedly minding every motion and detail, and have sworn oaths- each and every one of them- to protect the pharaoh and his family. And still they can offer me no assistance, not even a simple hint of direction, as to the whereabouts of my son.
"Dear Amun-Ra, Atemrut. Think you I am in any health to be running through these halls after you? I swear, when I find you…"
"Mana? Who are you talking to?"
I leap in surprise, and the baby doesn't seem to be enjoying any of my movements. Amunkesut greets me in the hallway with a quizzical look to her face. Sometimes I forget how much she's grown. Atem's first born is now a beautiful young lady and so much like her mother that I often think she is a mere apparition of her. Already four nobles, two of which are princes, have requested her betrothal to them. Atem has- at least for now- left each without a reply.
"Only myself again. Don't judge me."
She smiles in the rolling of her eyes.
"Tell me, dear. You haven't just so happened upon seeing a naked four year old boy running ramped about the palace again, have you?"
"No." she laughs. "But I can help you look for him."
"Oh, thank you. Thank you! Your father is going to kill me."
"For losing the heir to the throne and his only son? Yes, I dare say he will."
I pause only to give her "that look". We can hardly hold our serious glares for too long before they collapse into glee and laughter. I tug on her hand and lead her down the hall. While it is somewhat painful for me to bend so low, we still keep our eyes near the floor for Atemrut's tiny feet and wiggling toes. I am surprised that when we tease aloud for his reaction, there is not a sound that follows. My surprise soon turns to worry. From the moment he could walk, he's had a liking for augmenting trouble around here. Most of it I like to attribute to his half-sister Khepri's influence- the candid, untamable girl she is- but I can't fully swallow that. I fear that Atemrut has lost himself in the palace again, perhaps have even wandered as far as the pantries or gardens, or maybe has snuck into another vase. If so, it should be forever 'til we find him.
I know firsthand how good of a hiding spot the palace vases can be.
More chortles topple down the hall before us. Khepri is there running circles around Atem and little Hatti. She walks all by herself now. Hatti, I mean, who is only a year or so older than Atemrut. It's clear progress from the day in the gardens when I watched her chubby legs take their first steps. Amunkesut releases my hands and offers me a sly wink as she slips away to her half-sisters and father.
"Fear not, Lady Mana. I'm sure they've painted a marvelous sarcophagus for your sovereignty." she smirks. I feign a whine and pout for her amusement and mine. Atem finally makes his way to me and greets me with a gentle kiss. He has one arm behind his back and well hidden under his violet cloak as if holding something I am not meant to see.
"My Mana. She wears so little jewels and still I have every reason to show her off." he says.
"You're pharaoh, father. Is that not enough to show off?" Khepri snorts.
"Were I a servant, it'd be the same."
"Even with this bulging belly of mine?" I blush.
"Oh yes. All the more reason. Now, are we all set to leave? The priests are all prepared for us at the temple."
"About that…" I cough my words and turn my head as if that could save me from having to explain any further.
"Oh, nothing. I just need to…um… yeah." all the hand motions I'm giving mean nothing although I try to make them say everything.
"Mana." Atem lifts an eyebrow as he usually does when he inquires me out. It is that and his touch that unravels me into submission. Sometimes I think there is warning in the tone of voice he gives me, but with all the best intentions. I close one eye for the outburst of rage I know Atem is not going to have. It's just not in him to yell at me so crossly, but it's all in good fun.
"Well I… I mean… you know." I can't possibly tell him I've lost his son for about the- um… fifth, no, sixth time? "I love you." I finish it off with the saying he's always loved to hear from me. Although, this time I squeak it like a little mouse. Not very romantic, I know.
"You can't find Atemrut, can you?" his expression is all too knowing.
"Of course not! No, no. My handmaiden has him!" I fib.
"Right His disappearance would be another of your mishap spells, I assume?"
"Ouch. Did you hear that, Atem? That was my heart cracking. I hope you're very proud of yourself."
I hear a chorus of snickers from below us. Hatti and Khepri are trying not to laugh, but the other comes from behind Atem's neck. His cloak shifts in a flow that does not match Atem's slight movements. My mouth opens in what I can only describe as some strange amalgam of surprise with a pinch of embarrassment and a ready stance for laughter.
"Hi, mommy!" Atemrut shoots his head out of his father's cloak. He throws his arms around Atem and I am still so amazed by their similarity. Aside from his lack of hair, I'd say Atem has only grown another head on his shoulder. Atemrut's practically bald head is the only thing that sets them apart for now. What little hair the boy has is tied traditionally to one side where each blonde, magenta, and black strand of hair entwine together.
"I guess it's just his adventurous nature; quite possibly from his mother."
Atem shrugs with such a victorious smirk on his annoyingly irresistible face. I love him- really, I do- but I want to shove him into something potentially dangerous right now. Of course, without our son on his back. That would be counterproductive.
"Oh, I don't like you right now, Atem. I really don't. You have no idea how sick I was with fear, and here you had him the whole time." I laugh away my worry.
"But you lied to me. Mana, how could you? Were it not for the children here, I think I could very well shed a few tears." he teases.
I purse my lips, having been caught in his playful trap.
"Oh, hush. Let me wallow in my shame." I fan my pretend tears and the children all laugh.
Atem pleasures me with the sight of his most charming of smiles. It's the one that says "I love you" without his lips ever parting, the one that shows he's proud to call me his queen and his wife, the love of his life. He helps Atemrut navigate out of his cloak and passes the child along to me. My son gladly accepts the change in host clings to me warmly. He tries to wrap his legs around me, almost seated atop my pregnant stomach, and fits his head perfectly around the curves of my neck and shoulder.
"Well, I think that's just about everything now. I couldn't go anywhere without my handsome Atemrut II. Oh, and you're all dressed too finally. Much better."
Sometimes I feel bad for the guards and servants who take us from place to place. I love all of Atem's children so very much, even the girls who aren't of my own blood. But, understandably, the servants may very well feel differently about that- especially when they're all together like this. Amunkesut and Khepri can bicker about everything created by The One Who Made Himself Into Millions. Hatti squeals and leaps at anything that intrigues her (basically everything), and even my own Atemrut can be quite the hand-hands?-ful. I don't even want to imagine what my new little one will be like. It is times like these that help me to understand why my parents had sold me off in the first place.
We reach the temple just as Ra touches the rim of Akhet. As per usual, the citizens who have heard somehow that we'd be arriving all gathered around to pay homage to their pharaoh. I'm still not used to all this respect, how so many bright eyes look up at me with hopes, well wishes, and prayers. Atem takes my hand in his. He knows the attention is overwhelming to me and moves to comfort me. Of course, Nefemnah and Anahknemrure's daughters are basking in the praises. They've grown up in this life as the princesses of Egypt, while until only four years ago, I was living as a servant.
Atem hurries me inside, urging his daughters to follow. My stomach is too sore to continue holding Atemrut, so I place him on the ground and at first am hesitant to let go of his hand.
"I won't go anywhere this time." he chuckles. I smile proudly at him, that beloved child of mine, and let his fingers pull away from mine because I can hardly stand to let him go.
The priests are all welcoming and nodding merrily. Some pubescent students are instructed to watch my children as a bony priest leads me and Atem further back into the temple. The incenses are heavier here than in the palace and I have to do all I can not to vomit on these sacred floors. We stop at a statue of Osiris, the ruler of life and death, and at first are silent in prayer.
The priest then busies himself with his blessings and scriptures. I place a hand on the arch of my stomach, feeling for the life inside. She obliges with a small kick. I know it is a girl this time. There is no way that kick, and all the fussy ones before now, belong to a boy's. They do not feel as Atemrut's did before I birthed him; they're much too demanding and attention seeking. I lift Atem's hand to her as well and she knows it's her father who presses so softly against her. All Atem and I can do without disturbing the priest is smile at one another, so much so that it hurts at the corners of our mouths.
The old man asks for the blessings of Osiris and his lady wife Isis upon me. He requests that Hathor keep me well and that Heqet protect the child when I should see the time of delivery. He takes oils, each one cleansed and consecrated, and gently adheres them to my forehead and the round of my belly. It is the same process Atem had gone through with all his children and I had seen done when I was pregnant with Atemrut. And I am thankful. I don't like to think about it, not in the very least, but Atemrut II could have been like Atemrut I had he not been consecrated.
With that thought, I bow my head to pray for his little soul. It's been so long since I'd thought of the sight, and with it I wish the priest could sing me a spell to swipe all the memories away. For four blissful, rewarding years, I have so scarcely thought of her. That's how she would have wanted it; for me to never look back. Sometimes, before I take rest in the dark at Atem's side, she will slip into my mind. I don't know if it's the shadows of night that help her enter, but on the nights that she does, it's just her smile that I see. Just the laugh that so very few knew she had hidden in her bosom.
"And may the Gods forever cherish and protect you." the priest's voice surfaces once more. He places a kiss below the diadem on my forehead, sealing the spells with his holy touch. My daughter is now blessed and protected by the Gods, if being the seed of our godly pharaoh wasn't enough to ensure her wellbeing.
Each of my children hand me a bright lotus flower when we return to the mouth of the temple. I make sure to kiss each of them on the cheek as I accept their gifts of health and endearments.
"Back home then? I surely wouldn't mind a little time to do nothing but be with my family."
"Yeah. You really need some, father." Khepri tugs on his hand. "You have to spend more time with us! We miss you!
"Of course, princess. I enjoy your company very much."
"And mine too?" Atemrut gave a mighty grin.
"Absolutely, my son. I love all your company."
Atem meets my eyes and I think he sees something in mine that has not been there in so very, very long. It changes his violet orbs into a mirror where I can see what he sees. I have thought of her and it has left its marks upon my countenance. I have no regret for all that had happened, but there is a noticeable shine of "what-ifs" aligning like the stars in my eyes.
"Mana?" his tone is softer than before as if not to alarm the children.
"Please, go on home." I smile with a whisper. "There is something I need to do."
He knows. There's no way he could miss it.
"Shall I come with you?"
"No. No, that's not necessary. Besides, the children can hardly stand the suspense of your companionship any longer. They miss you."
He nods, but I feel there is a little hesitance in him.
"Then you will be alright?"
I want to laugh. Not at him, of course, but simply because I feel that it would best answer his question.
"I don't mean to mock you, love, but I don't think going for a walk after sunset is the worst situation I've ever encountered."
Words have caught in his throat. There's a ray of foolish, and perhaps childish embarrassment dappled over his cheeks. He only looks this way when I have bested him in some way or another, showing a glimpse of the dominance that brought me to the crown I wear.
"Liar. Of course you mean to mock me." he shakes his head playfully.
"Only when you offer up the chance."
"I see. Well, just don't attempt to cast any spells should you come across any trouble. You may hurt yourself."
I smack a dramatic hand over my heart.
"Oh… it's still cracking, Atem. My heart! Another apprentice-magician joke, is it? Like daggers!"
We laugh, but not as long or as pleasingly as expected. He looks at me for a moment when we calm. We're smiling, but it doesn't feel like it anymore. He looks at me to admire my strength and my courage, to remind me that the Gods gave them to me for a purpose. Whenever he looks at me as he does now, it is like a protective charm waved by a wand or written into scripture. Nothing can harm me now.
He pulls me in for a kiss. We always kiss as a farewell when he leaves for other lands, or business. We kiss goodnight and good morning, as greetings and as apologies. But I hadn't felt a kiss like this. This one said 'fill your chalice, not empty it' more than any other taste. Well, if such a thing could have a taste anyways. Our kisses went like the Nile floods; and after replenishing the land, it would slowly drift back away.
Atem gives me one more safekeeping look before he's shuffling all the children to his sides and guides them back to the guards who would carry them home. I wave as they go and the children yell their goodbyes.
"I'll be home soon!" I promise them. "Behave, all of you!"
"Are you sure you don't want me to accompany you?" the guard who escorted me here asks again.
"Yes. Please, just stand watch by the entrance. I won't be long."
"Yes, my queen." he bows his head.
It is strange to think that I am entering the tomb of my husband. One day, and one I hope stays many years away, his body will lay stiff here in the heart of it. And then I in the room beside it. But for now I can ignore all that, for I only need to navigate through the catacombs that house lesser regality. The sun can no longer reach here, and the torch I carry hardly scathes the blackness. The tombs are a place I never wish to go. It always brings such sorrow to know who sleeps here; to know that they should not have to be. But here I am. I stand before the tomb of Amunet.
One deep breath, and I enter.
There are few paintings in the tomb and little treasure. I had to beg the priests, mostly Set, that nothing be painted that could condemn her of any chance of a happy other-life. Therefore, they painted nothing, because there were also so few things to condone. Her sarcophagus is not as the other hemet's. It is wood instead of gold and the details are miniscule. The canopic jars all rest at the wall's edge. Other than that, there is very little to the room but what I had brought the last time I was here. No one but myself and Atem left her any gifts for the afterlife. Firstly, no one thinks she'll ever make it there. And second, these gifts are meant to honour the dead, which hardly anyone wish to do for Amunet.
In fact, no one but a single priest of Anubis, Atem and I attended the funerary service. We were the only ones that mourned. It was he and I, alone with the hastily wrapped body of a mist. I remember us standing there silently. Maybe we prayed, but even that didn't feel appropriate. We simply looked on. I don't recall crying, or feeling anything at all really. I was neither joyful nor sad, not hopeless but not hopeful. She wasn't even supposed to be interred here, not after everyone heard what she'd done. But I had Atem allow it.
Amunet was cold and murderous, that is true. She was a sinner. But she was also alone and tormented, having been choked by the shadow of her father. She was empty. I'm sure there was a time when she longed for that fatherly affection or the kiss of a mother. I'm sure she had once loved or at least thought she had. But that dried up even before I laid eyes on her. In so many ways, I loathed her. I cursed her under my breath or into my pillow for being so twisted and so foolish. I wanted nothing to do with her, and still I wanted everything. Somehow she was a friend. Somehow; a teacher and enemy too.
The flowers I had left were bleak and brittle atop her wooden prison. I took the lotuses the children had given me and offered them to her. In some small way, it brightened the room.
"You almost broke me." I say to her. "If Lady Ranno had died that night, I'd have probably fallen to pieces. Even if we were to have swept me up, still I fear that something would have been left behind. Yet you spared her, and me as well. Did you even know why you did that; why you let us live?"
Still a part of me survives that believes she will awake with an answer hidden in her wry smiles. I can see it now; Amunet stepping out of the dark and sharpening my mood with some clever retort that I am meant to decipher pensively. But the darkness doesn't oblige.
"I am queen now, Amunet, and with child. I've birthed Atem an heir. I've named him Atemrut II. You don't need me to explain why; after all, your intellectual capabilities was always one of your better qualities. But I'm sure you saw this all coming. I mean, I know that it was never your intention to have me queen, but you must realize that it may not have ever happened without you. You stirred time- shook it even- and opened its floodgates. Perhaps Atem and I, both as lovers and as rulers was pre-destined, but I know that this fate would be many years away if we'd never met. So I wonder, dear sister, was it you that was the evil needed to bring good? Were you the dark to show me what light was? Was this all your terrible, wonderful purpose upon the earth?
Forgive me. I digress. Oh! I brought you flowers. Well, they were blessings from my and Atem's children, but … I think you should have them."
I think still that there is a reply hidden somewhere in the shadows. I know there is none, but I never stop hoping there is closure in this. I keep my chalice full, never emptying it. Which means I need the brave and the cowardly alike. For me to stand above the sights I've seen and the lives lost, nothing can be forgotten. Those are the steps of my past. I've climbed every one of them to the very top where I stand now. If I forget or regret them, there'd be nowhere to stand. And I am very much aright with that. I accept everything that's happened. I embrace both the love and the hate I bear for Amunet. I cannot will time to stop, reverse, or speed up. And I never would want to. Nor would she.
"Why do I love you, Amunet?" I feel a single tear exploring the side of my cheek. "You were cruel and deceitful. Those who have heard the tale of your death say you had no heart for an arrow to pierce, but I know better. I always used to think that your chalice was as empty as you were. Amunet, if ever that name held a soul, you were a breathing, beautiful stillborn that I loved with all the hate I had in me."
I stand, removing my hand from the flowers and her sarcophagus.
"Tomb raiders will be disappointed here, and one day history may live to forget you. But I will not."
The baby strums a beat within me. I feel her reaching and turning about.
"Well, I must leave you now. I feel that without a word you have answered questions I've not asked. Goodbye, my lady. My dear sister."
I think the shadows shuffle as I am about to step out, and wisps of my hair curl to greet a whisper rushing over my ears. There is something whole and beating in it. I like how pleasing it sounds and the warmth it comforts me with. I want to look back, but stop myself. That would ruin this feeling, this moment. There is no need for me to look back because I am here now. I have already climbed those stones and swam those rivers. I am where I belong, no longer questioning the position of my life, and knowing my purpose could never be more prevalent than it is now.
I look forward.
Thank you for reading!
And my very special thanks to you, Kochou-Hime / El3v3n.
Your reviews have been a continuing inspiration and I always look forward to them. You have been such an awesome supporter (and hater at some times) and your input is truly informative and constructive. And I don't think I've ever had a reader who could see as deeply into the characters as you. Thank you so, so, so, so much.
(You should all check her out! -Pen name: El3v3n- This girl has helped me so much and her stories are simply fantastic!)
You have been amazing as well. You always seem so "in-to-it" when you review and I love your optimism and different perspectives on the story. Your insight is both entertaining and valuable. You have been so helpful and kind to me. Thank you!