by Isa Prospero
Nemet had always kept a respectful distance from scribes until marrying one. As far as he was concerned, that was more than enough interaction with their kind.
Yet avoiding them in Ansah seemed harder every day.
The man who walked into his shop wasn’t wearing anything as obvious as the imperial seal around his neck, nor was he decked in precious jewelry. His skirt was undyed linen, identical to the one Nemet himself wore, and his chest was bare like a laborer’s. But there was a special sense one acquired after committing a certain kind of crime, a sense that allowed Nemet to pick out a noble from the crowd, the same way a hound’s ears would prick up at the approach of danger.
The man had perhaps over forty years on his back. Lean, bald and hawk-eyed, he examined the toy-filled shelves with a quick glance until his eyes alighted on Nemet’s worktable. The man smiled. It was a pleasant smile, almost genuine.
“Ah,” he said. “What a fine piece.”
He meant the game of anet Nemet had been carving, a gift for the son of a neighbor. He slid it across the table carefully. The two-tiered board with Tuma on the top and Asar on the bottom represented the soul’s journey from the middleworld to the nether one. The two planes were connected by spiraling stairs where players would place their pieces according to dice rolls. Every child across the kingdom played it. It was an easy way to explain the journey they would one day make, a path full of obstacles until they finally faced Asar and the god would let them in his fields for all eternity—or not.
Priests complained the game was a gross simplification that ignored the complex hierarchy of the gods, while scribes, for all they prepared those very souls for the path, honored no one but Toh, master of glyphs.
But then again, scribes, as Nemet well knew, could have very little reverence for the gods. That happened when you wielded divine powers yourself.
The man touched the Tuma figurine with a callused finger. Nemet straightened his shoulders and rose from his seat. He towered a palm over the man, was a decade younger and had a build acquired from hard labor that the stranger had clearly never known, but had to force his voice to remain steady.
“Are you looking for something in particular?” His tone was familiar, as if fooled by the man’s appearance.
“I am,” the man said, removing his finger from the game. Dark eyes focused on Nemet. “Your wife.”
She was in the kitchen behind the shop, weaving a basket among clay pots and baking boards as the warmth and whiff of fresh bread drifted from the oven wall. Truly, Nemet thought, the image of domestic peace and obedience.
“My love,” he called, clearing his throat. “This man wishes to speak to you.”
Hatshe raised her eyes calmly, and Nemet gave her a pointed look behind the man. She examined the stranger with a cursory glance that probably gathered more than Nemet had been able to and tilted her head slightly.
“Did you not find what you wished at the front, sir?”
That smile again. “I’m here for your specialized services, my lady.”
Hatshe didn’t appear concerned. She simply set the basket aside and gestured toward a stool by the opposite wall. “What can I do for you?”
As the man sat, Nemet found himself leaning against the doorframe, blocking the exit. It was not unusual for Hatshe to be sought out in this manner, but it was usually housewives or farmers, not scribes. He wondered how many glyphs the man was hiding in his skin, under that linen skirt.
“It is I who wish to do something for you. My name is Kephet. But perhaps you do not remember me?”
A flicker of surprise crossed Hatshe’s face, unsettling her fine features for a second. The shock was quickly smoothed over, leaving behind the tiniest of frowns. She now gave the man her full attention—something people often found overwhelming.
Nemet narrowed his eyes. The name meant nothing to him.
“Of course,” said Hatshe. “We met twice, was it not?” The man nodded. “How did you find me?”
“One of your spells. A maid was caught in a brawl yesterday and brought to justice, and I couldn’t help but notice she had an amulet. When I opened it, I was struck by the glyphing. It was elegant, concise. I recognized its signature immediately.”
“I’m honored,” Hatshe said flatly.
Nemet watched one and the other, like a spectator in a ball game. He felt the tenseness in the air and in his wife’s shoulders, though he suspected only he could tell the latter.
Then Kephet said, “I never believed your father killed the queen,” and Nemet breathed in sharply.
Hatshe didn’t hesitate. Her voice was a slave master’s whip crackling in the air. “No one who knew him could believe such a lie. One would have to be incredibly gullible not to think there was something foul at play.”
Kephet’s voice was conciliatory, almost sorrowful. “Certainly. The circumstances were… odd. I had a chance to work with your father for a few years before the Plot, for which I am grateful. I learned a lot from him. After his death, as I’m sure you know, attempts were made to find you.”
“Made by Hotep, you mean.” Her words were clipped. There wasn’t even the ghost of a smile on her face as she pronounced the name of the High Scribe.
Kephet acknowledged it with a nod. “And by myself,” he admitted. “I feared you might have been killed or were lost and helpless in the city…”
“I was young, but never helpless.” Her chin rose. “My father saw to that.”
Kephet bowed his head. “I’m pleased he did. At the time, I hoped to repay your father’s teachings by helping his daughter, but when there was not even a whisper of your whereabouts for months, I gave up. Which is why I was so satisfied to find your spell, after all this time.”
“Tell me,” Hatshe said, her tone deceptively tranquil. “This woman you caught. Did she give my location willingly?”
Kephet smiled. “Fear not, I did not harm her. Merely eased her sentence in return for her cooperation. I hope that, when I say what I came to say, you will judge it was worth it.”
Nemet didn’t like a single part of this conversation. He was always filled with anxiety whenever someone came to Hatshe for a spell, fearing precisely what was happening now—that she would catch the eye of a scribe. They could imprison her for this, or worse. The fact the man knew who she was, who her father was—something she had never openly admitted even to Nemet—made his skin prickle with concern. He and Hatshe could probably take the man down, if it came to that. By Asar’s scales, Hatshe could do it without his help. But he didn’t want to kill a man to hide a secret, creating a whole new kind of trouble and diminishing his chances of ever walking the fields.
Still, if it meant protecting his wife…
Hatshe took the bait. “What is it you came to say?”
“Your father’s last words to me,” declared Kephet.
Hatshe reined herself in, but the flicker in her lined eyes was as famished as a jackal’s. Nemet grew cold, a pool of worry settling in his stomach like bad beer. Hatshe hated the Empire. She hated it in a quiet, dedicated way, feeding a constant and simmering rage, and since the day he met her, Nemet feared one day she would no longer be satisfied with casting illegal spells and would do something truly reckless. Now Kephet was giving the kick that would break the dam.
“Tell me,” she demanded.
Kephet glanced at Nemet. Hatshe set her jaw and made a gesture—Go on—and he began. “When the queen died, your father immediately set upon her embalming. The palace was in panic, the pharo locked in his quarters. The child hadn’t been allowed near his mother during her illness and your father said it was better for him to be kept away, since he judged the disease contagious. Not long after that, Hotep accused him of poisoning Nenuah and had him locked up. While awaiting trial, your father called me one last time. Hotep was away with the pharo, so I managed to sneak in. Ankhmese seemed concerned, even afraid, though not about his own fate.” A note of confusion crept into Kephet’s voice, as if twelve years hadn’t been enough to clarify this strange behavior. “I admit I thought he might be lost in his own head. He didn’t sound like himself. I asked him about you, and he said I needed to find you. A natural concern for a man facing execution, I thought, so I expected him to ask me to care for you. But that wasn’t it. He told me to give you a message.” He paused. Hatshe awaited without moving a muscle, her control as tight and precarious as a tensed sistrum string. “He said the queen knew the truth, and that she would only give it to you.”
“The queen?” Nemet spoke up for the first time. “The dead queen?”
Kephet nodded. “I took it for a deranged man’s ramblings. He looked caught in a spell.” He looked over at Nemet to explain. “It’s not unheard of for scribes to strain themselves beyond what their body and mind can stand. I assumed he was worn out from the funeral rites and didn’t know what he was saying. I told him the queen was being entombed as we spoke, but he just made me promise to give you the message.”
Hatshe sat completely still, eyes fixed on some far point beyond the room’s wall.
“My father would never wear himself out,” she said quietly. “He could perform a funeral spell in his sleep. Hotep must have done something to him.”
The man looked down in silence. He didn’t appear uncomfortable at the accusation, but he must have been. As a scribe, he would be working under Hotep’s command, even if not directly under him.
As if following the same reasoning, Hatshe’s gaze focused again on the man, cold and piercing. “It was him, wasn’t it? Without my father around, he became the only scribe near the pharo.”
“Your father never had any pretensions to High Scribe,” Kephet answered, skirting the question. His lips curved upwards. “In fact, he was horrified by the prospect. Said he’d rather work the fields or lift building blocks all day than be High Scribe. He was content to be left with his studies. Besides, he and Hotep were colleagues. Not the closest of friends, but not bitter enemies either.”
“That’s what makes it betrayal,” Hatshe said, rising suddenly to her full height. “You cannot betray your enemies, after all.”
She walked up to the window, hands balled into fists. Sunlight poured into their home and kissed her ebony skin. Nemet braced himself, body tense as he waited to follow her lead, whatever it might be. Hotep. Of course his wife would make an enemy out of the second most powerful man in the realm—or the most powerful man in the realm, if the tales of his influence on the pharo were to be believed.
“That is all in the past,” Kephet said. “When I saw you were alive, I felt it was my duty to tell you this, though I don’t see how the message can be anything but delirious.”
“Don’t you?” Hatshe turned her head and gave him a deliberate look. “Tell me, are you a royal scribe, Kephet?”
“I teach. It is at times a thankless task, but I prefer it. It is not in my nature to be a servant in a nobleman’s house—as it was not your father’s. He was a difficult man.” Hatshe bristled and he added quickly, “Brilliant, unparalleled at his work. But difficult. He never cared for politics and was tough to please.”
“While Hotep was always pleasant,” Hatshe said, anger finally tinging her words. “Always the diplomat. Subservient. Respectful. Envious of my father’s talent.”
“Praise opens many doors and closes many eyes,” said Kephet, rising from his seat. “I am pleased to find you alive and well, and must urge you not to do anything… ill-advised. This is all ancient history, and no good can come from trying to settle old scores.”
The scribe turned, but Hatshe’s words stopped him before he reached the door. “You do understand the message, don’t you?” Nemet took a deep breath. That tone was dangerous. He should know; he’d heard it enough times. “Surely you figured out he left me something with her—in her bier. A message. The truth.”
Kephet looked back at her and took a long moment to reply. “I am only a messenger,” he said quietly. “And advise caution and wisdom in all things.”
When Nemet returned after seeing Kephet out, Hatshe had her fingers entwined and pressed together so hard they hurt. It had been a long time since anything had truly unsettled her, and she had almost forgotten the feeling. And still, amidst the thousand thoughts that battled in her mind, a more trivial worry concerned her.
“Are you angry?” she asked as he stepped inside.
Her husband seemed startled by the question. “Why would I be angry?”
“I kept this from you,” she said. “My past.”
He surprised her by cackling, a true laugh that threw his head backwards. “My light, I would have to be truly dim not to realize where my gifted scribe of a wife got all her knowledge—not to mention her extensive collection of secret scrolls. I am a simple man, but not a simpleton.” His voice became lower and somber. “I knew whose daughter you were. But I do not like this man finding you now, and with this message. Who is he? What does he want?”
“Kephet was my father’s last apprentice. Now he works for Hotep.”
“He’s dangerous,” Nemet said flatly. “This story about your father aside, he knows what you do. He could get you punished for scribing without a license. People are grateful to you, but the Empire can push them beyond what they can stand, and they must think of their own families first. If they ask for witnesses…”
“I don’t think he wants to see me dead. And if he wanted to blackmail me, he could have done so already.” She shook her head. “No. He came to give me the message.”
“Ah, the message.” Nemet rolled his eyes. “Tell me you don’t believe him.”
“I believe no one on this earth except you,” she replied simply. “But whatever his reasons, what he said feels real. I always thought my father had been surprised by the accusations of treason, but he might have suspected Hotep was setting him up. Maybe he didn’t have time to save himself… but if there was something he needed to protect, what better hiding place than with the queen who was about to be buried inside her pyramid for eternity?”
“Kephet wants you to go after this,” he warned.
Hatshe nodded. She’d come to the same conclusion. She also knew she was going to do it.
“I can’t ignore it.” Her voice was firm, but her gaze was apologetic. “For so long, I searched his writings for any message, any sign of what could’ve made Hotep want to see him dead. There was nothing. But I knew it had been Hotep, even if I wasn’t sure why. I tried going after him, you know. I was so angry… But the one time I tried invading the palace, I realized that if I was caught I’d meet the same end as my father. So I studied and stayed hidden, and tried finding the truth through other means.”
“Other means?” he asked.
“I did many things you don’t know about.” She hesitated. “I spied on noblemen. Threatened scribes in training.” He met these revelations without reaction. “Slept with the priestess of Iksa. Repeatedly.”
This earned her a raised eyebrow. “The virgin priestess?”
“She’s only prohibited from sleeping with men.”
“I’m sure the priests would appreciate the distinction.”
“But then,” she continued, “then… I started to heal. To forget. I met you, and let myself settle.”
Lost to guilt and shame, she almost didn’t hear Nemet. “It is not a bad life, the one we have.”
“Oh.” She walked up to him and held his face between her hands, meeting his eyes straight on. “It is a very good life. But I live it at the expense of forgetting what was done to him. The girl I was would be disgusted.”
“This whole story sounds like a trap.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “But please try to understand. I can’t pretend I never heard what Kephet said.”
“That’s what makes it a good trap.” Nemet sighed and kissed her, sweet and slow. She enjoyed the moment, losing herself in his arms as she suspected it would be a while before peace found them again. “Well,” Nemet said finally, “if we’re doing this, sooner is better than later. And may Asar forgive us.”
“Us?” she asked.
“You’re robbing a tomb, my dear,” he said. “Luckily for you, you married a tomb robber.”
The day Nemet asked her to marry him, she took him by the hand.
In her house—the house she had taken him the day they met, the house which he hadn’t left since—she led him past the cramped rooms into the root cellar and made her way between sacks of grain towards a spot on the ground, indistinguishable from any other spot. At least until she murmured a glyph under her breath. On the dirt floor, the outlines of a trap door appeared. Hatshe pulled it up and murmured another glyph, this one repeatedly, until torches on wall sconces began lighting the way down a second underground room.
Nemet followed her, only slightly surprised. The light cast shadows on the walls, displaying the thousands of carved glyphs that covered them. Later she would explain they served many purposes—no one could hear them while they were there, nor find the door that led downstairs. And, more importantly, no fire could catch on the thousands of papyrus scrolls that filled the shelves lining the room.
Hatshe looked at him. “This is what you’d be marrying into.”
He looked around, swallowing hard. He knew what she did. He was afraid of it. And he loved her.
“Explain it to me.”
“You never ask about my work.” Her tone was teasing, though fond. “Too superstitious.”
“Respect is not the same thing as superstition,” he replied, the argument a well-worn one. “I’m just more comfortable leaving divine powers to divinities. But I’ve done things. Worse than looting corpses under rocks, you see. So,” he said, placing a quick kiss on her forehead and accommodating himself on the ground. “Teach me the ways of the gods.”
She smiled. “Glyphing has nothing to do with the gods.”
Nemet touched the necklace around his neck, a leather string holding a pendant with a carved image of Asar. The god held his crook and flail, his body wrapped in linen and his head encircled by a crown proclaiming him Lord of the Netherworld. Hatshe’s lack of devotion disturbed him, which was why he prayed twice as hard—for himself and her. He had no wish to be divided from his wife in the fields of rebirth.
He didn’t understand how one could be a scribe and not be fearful of the powers one wielded. Glyphs and spells made him nervous. Tomb robbers knew enough to stay alive, but every piece of knowledge had been acquired thanks to the blood of some poor bastard who hadn’t made it. He’d be glad never to step inside a tomb again in his life.
Hatshe sat across from him on the floor of the cellar, setting a blank papyrus roll between them. “Spells are the language of the world,” she began. “The words we speak derive from what was this language once. What most people call gods is simply the part of the world that still answers to that speech—though I know you will disagree. It doesn’t matter for now, let’s focus on the practical side of it.”
He nodded, and she smoothed the papyrus under her hand.
“This language, as you know, is not available to everyone. And I don’t mean just because the scribes hoard knowledge and only distill it to their pupils as they move up the steps of their apprenticeship. The truth is we know only a fraction of it and have to guess our way blindly through a lot. Like speaking to a foreigner when you only know a handful of words in their language and are trying to improvise the rest. Most of a scribe’s job—in theory—is finding new words and new ways of saying things.”
“There are different ways to cast the same spell, then?”
“Oh, infinite,” she said. “You see, a spell is a command you give to something or someone. If I want to make this room impossible to find, for instance, I can tell the walls to let no one in except who I bring, or just the person who knows the right words, for instance. But I’d need the words for that, and words are tricky things.” She smiled ruefully. “I can say wall, but that means nothing. I need to command these four walls, so I need to specify that. But I don’t necessarily know the word for walls and, even if I did, that means a vast area to command. But if I break down the spell into smaller units, then I can command each part separately. So if I have a name for each wall, that makes it four times easier to cast the spell. If I command each brick separately, that means I can make the spell much more powerful. If I could command each grain of sand in each brick…” She trailed off. He felt himself frown, and her smiled widened. “And still,” she added wryly, “that leaves the question: in what order do I command each grain of sand?”
“All right,” he interrupted. “That sounds like madness.”
“It’s because it is. I could spend my entire life trying to find the words to command each grain of sand in this house. Of course, if I did, I could make it fly.”
She didn’t sound like she was joking.
Nemet took a deep breath. “So you make do with what you do know.”
“Exactly. A quick spell has vast words, words that encompass many tiny parts of a thing. Wall. House. Nemet. That kind of spell demands strength from the person who casts it. The longer the spell, however, the more you’re getting at the heart of things. The less effort it takes and the more power you can throw into it. That’s why it took me days to ward this room, and why the walls are covered in glyphs instead of a simple phrase etched on a corner.”
“What about the glyphs?” he asked. “They’re not necessary for the spell.” He knew that much, because she’d made him memorize a few that could help in a pinch. He didn’t like to imagine himself doing such a thing, but had obliged her. He’d drawn the line at learning glyphs, though, arguing he’d never remember them anyway.
“They are and they aren’t,” she said. “There are two kinds of spells. Ones that do an irreversible thing, and ones that maintain a certain state. Oh, don’t make that face, it’s quite simple.”
“Imagine a woman walks into our house and asks me to ensure she won’t become with child again. There are many ways I can do this. One of them would be to cast a spell that shriveled or burned out her womb.” With quick strokes of a reed pen, she etched a line of glyphs on the papyrus between them. “This would be effective, but painful—not to mention cause a number of unpleasant side effects that would probably kill her. Also, it’s crass. Like making love by bending a woman and having your way with her. Another way,” she wrote a new series of glyphs in a quick scrawl, several lines appearing on the papyrus under her practiced hand, “would be to command her womb to not take seed. This requires a longer, more elegant spell.”
“You give them the amulets with the written spells,” Nemet understood, “because the spell is still working.”
“Exactly! Glyphs aren’t magical on their own.” She pointed at the ones she’d just written. “Another scribe could use this to cast these two spells, but they’d have to direct the spell towards the person they want to reach. Imagine if I cast this without focus—every woman in the city could become barren. Of course, a spell so wide would probably drain the user to death. That’s why it takes years to become a full scribe. Glyphing is a work of balance, of trial. That makes it dangerous.”
Hatshe herself had had no formal education, as far as he knew. The Empire was unlikely to let a woman who’d been educated in their ranks roam free, after all. But it didn’t surprise him that she saw herself as an exception, and he knew she was confident in her skills.
“Glyphs are what we call anchors,” Hatshe continued. “They immobilize a spell that was cast. As long as they are written, the spell will continue to work. I can’t command a womb not to take seed forever just by speaking the spell, unless I never stop. With spells of staying, you require glyphs. Think of the Book of the Dead, for instance.”
He nodded. “It protects the dead in the fields beyond, giving them a way to fight off the trials they’ll face.”
“Religious nonsense,” she waved him off. “The part that matters is the section of spells that keep the body conserved. A new Book has to be written for each person and their name added to it, so the spell is directed towards them. It’s the longest spell known to us, the one most of our collection of true words comes from. My father always said the Book could be much improved, but no one dared to, since the priests would judge it heresy.” She paused suddenly, lips pressed in a thin line as she gave him a cautious glance.
He’d made the connection already, of course. Head Embalmer. It had been a prestigious position, and in the end a dangerous one for her father. The Embalmers’ Plot, they called it, when the nobleman Surepen and his family were discovered to be in league with the embalmer Ankhmese to murder the royal family and put Surepen on the throne. All the accused had been executed without mercy. The walls of the palace had thereon been closed; the pharo remained behind the protection of his Head Scribe and the new regent: Hotep.
For Nemet, it had been palatial intrigue, nothing to do with him. Now he tried reconciling the two parts of the woman he hoped would be his wife—the one he loved and felt he understood and this other, younger version of her who saw her father killed and grew with a darkness in a corner of her heart.
“That’s why we erase glyphs when we rob a tomb,” he said, to break the silence and dispel the shadow in her face. “To make the spell ineffective.”
“Yes. I hear that tomb robbers have secrets they pass down to one another.”
“I don’t know where you hear such lawless things,” he said. “But yes. You can’t deface an entire pyramid’s worth of glyphs; the rooms you go through are sometimes the height of twenty men. But there are certain glyphs a robber is trained to recognize.”
“Keywords,” she said. “Erase the right ones and the spell can’t sustain itself. You’re lucky most scribes are conventional like an old crone. If they were more daring, there might be new words for every tomb, new traps.”
“On behalf of every lowlife in this town, I thank them for their laziness.”
“But knowing a few keywords isn’t a guarantee, you know.” She frowned as if disapproving of the recklessness of all the practitioners of his former profession. “Even I can’t read a whole room of glyphs in a glance.”
He fought back a smile when she turned her serious brown eyes to him. Nemet knew that look. It was the look she’d given him when they met. It was the look she’d had when she informed him he would no longer be a criminal. It was the look that could get him to do anything.
“This is who I am,” Hatshe said, open hands gesturing to the room around them. “There are many women in this city who could make you a happy home, none of them a criminal and a fugitive.”
He took her hands over the papyrus and entwined her callused scribe fingers in his own.
“But where would be the fun in that?”
The moon shone, bright and blue, over the Valley of the Tombs. The pyramids spread across the sand, opaque jewels scattered on a silk garment. The cold wind bit and howled between the enormous constructions. Two figures skulked in the dark, black dots amidst infinity, faces protected by cowls. They both murmured under their breaths—one a long litany of a spell, the other a prayer.
Asar would forgive him, Nemet reassured himself, as he was not about to rob the queen’s grave, exactly—simply recover something left, rightfully, to his wife. When it was time for the scales to be weighed, he knew his heart would be heavy with his former crimes, but hoped this would not be one of them. They wouldn’t disturb the queen, after all.
Hatshe cast a spell of concealment to get them through the necropolis’s guards, but stopped as soon as they were out of sight. It was better to risk it, she said, than wear herself out before they even began. The queen’s pyramid was not the highest or the most impressive construction—in truth, it was a hastily finished thing, since her death had come years sooner than expected.
Still, its side looked tall and unbreakable, a flat expanse of rock with no visible entrance. Robbers would normally burrow a tunnel and try to find a passage underneath rather than seek the actual entrance, which could mean whole nights of searching. Of course, robbers rarely had a scribe along.
He and Hatshe stopped morningside. Hatshe placed a hand on a rock almost as high as herself and started speaking. Sometimes he felt he almost understood parts of her spells, one familiar sound or another evoking the flicker of an idea within him, but most of it usually sounded like gibberish. Now she closed her eyes and murmured several meaningless sounds in quick succession as he watched and waited. Nothing happened for several moments. Then her eyes opened and the tomb groaned, a creature awakening from a deep slumber. He stepped back as dust trickled from a point a hundred palms above them, the rocks around it shifting and crumbling.
The movement stopped. Hatshe looked at him and grinned.
They climbed. Their fingers fought for purchase on the rough stone slabs as they drew themselves up the giant steps with effort. Nemet didn’t look back, focusing on their goal. Twenty palms, then ten. They reached a landing where the stones had caved in to create a narrow dark passage. Nemet peered in, conscious he would rather be doing almost anything else than going into that passage.
“You don’t have to,” said Hatshe, reading him easily.
He shook his head and stepped inside. She came after him, taking out a torch strapped to her back and murmuring until it caught fire.
“Is that not a staying spell?” he asked, partly out of curiosity, partly to distract himself. They’d barely gone inside and the air was already heavy, dust specks floating around the flame. Twelve years was not a lot in comparison to some of the other tombs, but the smell was still strong enough to make him feel as if he’d stepped inside his youthful nightmares.
“Once I light it, the flame lives on its own,” Hatshe explained briefly. She began examining the walls of the entrance, which leaned upward and met in an arch above their heads. The corridor was filled with glyphs and Nemet could read some of them—which meant they were low-level writing, the kind even a craftsman’s son could pick up at a school.
“What nonsense,” Hatshe muttered, her voice small in the echoing tomb. “Threats and curses. These aren’t even glyphs. They do nothing.”
“Except scare off potential robbers.” One of the columns promised Asar himself would banish the heretic who disturbed the dead to the river of oblivion.
“Few of them are as pious as you, my love. Come.”
The flickering flame lighted their way through the passage. Spiders scurried at their approach and Nemet pushed aside their webs. Hatshe kept a careful eye on the walls, eventually murmuring some disapproval of the craftsmanship, but it was Nemet who noticed the floor and stopped her with a hand around the waist.
“Wait.” The block of stone beneath them was not as tightly connected to the others around it. Nemet touched it with his foot and felt it dip slightly. “It’s a trap door, maybe a well.” Ahead of them, only darkness. He scowled. “We’ll have to jump.”
Hatshe threw the torch ahead of them. It flew in an arc and fell after the block, illuminating a landing that branched into three sets of stairs.
“It’s not so far,” said Hatshe. He stopped her again and pointed. On the walls ahead, right above the steps, there was a glyph he knew well. If they jumped the whole wall would collapse. Hatshe made a sound of annoyance, probably more at not noticing the glyph than at the challenge it presented.
“We can’t deface that from here,” he pointed out.
“We can,” she said. “But it’s risky.”
“I think we’re beyond worrying about that now.”
She raised her eyes towards the ceiling, then gingerly touched the wall to her right and murmured softly. Nemet held his breath. He recognized the words just as the wall cracked. So that was what risky meant—she might bring the whole pyramid down on them if she lost control of the spell. He stayed rooted to the spot as a tiny crack burst in the wall and snaked towards the glyphs. There it made the wall expel paint and chips, distorting some of the glyphs there, including what he figured was the keyword.
Hatshe pulled back her hand and they waited for a moment, but the pyramid remained in one piece. “That wasn’t so bad,” said his wife, flashing a smile.
He wiped his brow. “I’ve never been more relaxed.”
They jumped across the block to the landing, where nothing horrible descended upon them. Nemet released a pent-up breath. The three sets of stairs faced them, and Hatshe turned inquiring eyes on him. He examined the paths. Pyramid architecture couldn’t always be predicted, and generally presented one or two surprises, but one thing was usually true: the builders always protected the treasures the most. Jewels, food, drinks and other artifacts the dead would take with them were kept in a separate chamber from the sarcophagus, which meant they were in relative luck, as most tomb robbers—and consequently, protections—focused on the valuables. It was not easy to take a coffin through narrow stairs and out of a tunnel, not to mention the fact that, despite what Hatshe might think, robbers might steal from the dead, but avoided disturbing the actual body. There were limits to what even lowlifes would do.
So he pointed to the left, where the stairs turned down. He picked up the torch to light their way, and Hatshe no longer scoffed at the glyphs she found but instead kept a steady spell—annulling them, perhaps, but Nemet didn’t know and didn’t want to distract her by asking. They descended narrow passageways and took wrong turns once or twice, turning back when they found other traps. Finally, one of the passages widened and they stopped at a wide double door made out of stone and entirely filled with glyphs. Hatshe frowned as she approached it slowly.
Nemet kept the torch near so she could read the inscriptions. They made no sense to him; few resembled the glyphs he knew. Hatshe stood a long moment in front of the door, then removed something from her waist. A chisel.
One of his chisels.
“That won’t work on stone,” he said. “It’s for woodcutting. I use it for games and toys.”
“I adapted it a little,” she said, showing him the handle. There were glyphs there.
He scowled. “How many times have I told you to ask before—”
But she was already working on the door, spelling all the while. She wasn’t defacing the door as much as adapting the writing on it, making cuts in some glyphs and turning them into others, connecting two or three to make something else. When she was done, the door groaned, shifted and opened inwards.
The square chamber inside was empty except for the heavy slab of stone in the middle, above which lay the sarcophagus of Ansah’s last queen, gleaming gold and blue and green with gems. Nemet froze at the entry, breathing hard. There was no place more sacred and close to Asar than a grave, and he felt invisible eyes on them, judging their every move. He murmured a prayer and a promise they weren’t there to disturb.
Hatshe had already moved forward, taking the torch from his hands and perusing the glyph-covered walls to fight off any other spells. Meanwhile, he approached the bier carefully. The mask was pure gold; the rest of the coffin was painted in different colors with masterful strokes. He’d never seen a royal casket before. Commoners had wooden ones which were glyphed depending on how much they could pay, but the care that went into the one in front of him was astonishing. Every corner of the surface had some symbol or prayer or drawing to bless and guide the queen in the netherworld. Ever so carefully, he moved closer and examined the painted hands on the lid, crossed over her chest.
Then he frowned and peered closer.
“Darling?” he asked.
Only then he noticed Hatshe was hunched near the entrance, carving a corner of the wall. She did something that made the entire room tremble—and the sensation of eyes on him diminish—and rose.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Is this your name?”
She approached the casket and read the small symbols on the lid. Then smiled. “Ah, yes.”
“This can only be opened by me.” She ran her hands lightly over the lid, caressing the symbols. He understood—as Head Embalmer, her father would have had access to the bier. Then he thought about what she’d said.
“Opened?” he squeaked.
“Yes. There’s probably the same glyph inside, so even if someone defaced the one on the lid, they still couldn’t open it.” She stepped back. “Try it.”
“You won’t be able to,” she explained, then finally noticed his expression. “Oh, what did you think we were doing?”
He shook his head. “My dear, you can’t…”
But Hatshe pushed the torch into his hands and started speaking under her breath, hands flattened over the casket. A puff of dust burst from under the lid as if it had breathed out a long-held breath. Then she put her fingers underneath it and pushed it up and sideways to reveal a peek of the body inside.
“Help me,” she ordered, and he had no choice but to do so lest the whole lid tumble to the floor. When he set it leaning against the casket, he saw the other side was indeed glyphed, and recognized her name there again.
Then he raised his eyes and saw her—the queen’s linen-wrapped body lay in eternal rest, every band of the fabric glyphed. The Book of the Dead. The spells that would permit her body to remain whole so her soul could complete its journey beyond. But there was something else inside, which shouldn’t be there. A scroll of papyrus, tucked tightly beneath the queen’s feet.
Hatshe’s face was painfully tight as she removed the scroll. Nemet thought he couldn’t have called her attention if he were being devoured by crocodiles.
“Is that it?” he asked.
Hatshe gently began to unfold it, and he realized her eyes were brimming with tears.
“This is it,” she whispered.
It was his handwriting. She recognized it from the hundreds of scrolls and annotations he’d left behind, writings she had read and memorized years ago. But this—this was like listening to his voice again, saying something new, and her hands shook as she unwrapped the scroll further. It wasn’t a message, however. It was a spell. A spell more intricate and detailed than any she had ever seen.
She couldn’t understand it. Many of the glyphs were unknown. Others seemed familiar, but incomplete or torn, like a flower whose petals had been plucked and thrown to the wind. She started murmuring the glyphs under her breath, hoping the sounds would help her make sense of it. Nemet said something, but the words sounded garbled and distant. She ran over the lines, feeling the surge of power that came from speaking true speech. This too, like the spell, was different than anything she’d ever experienced—the power didn’t seem to come from her, but wash through her, as if it weren’t feeding on her to be cast.
In a corner of her mind, a warning flashed that she should lay down the scroll and take it to study at home, but she realized with a jolt it was remarkably difficult to stop the flood of words. No, not difficult. Impossible. They took her along despite her will and her voice grew stronger as she spoke, though she didn’t will it to be so. Hatshe realized she hadn’t been able to understand the spell because its syntax was different than usual—the glyphs created not a string of words but a net, glyphs woven in lines that began to intersect with one another. Then she caught a glimpse of the meaning they formed, the command they ordered. Her heart skipped a beat. Panic gripped her. She had to stop.
The glyphs led her in a wild run, racing and gaining a momentum she couldn’t stop as unbelievable power ran through her. She should be dead. She would be, if she were wielding the power, but the power was wielding itself and she was only a channel. In a corner of her mind she realized her father couldn’t have wanted her to cast this, especially not in this place, and that she was a fool. But as the last words of the scroll approached, all she could do was brace herself to avoid being taken alongside the wild current of the spell. At the last glyph, it released its hold on her suddenly, leaving her shaking and dazed and pouring its magic on its goal.
The queen drew a breath.
Nemet cried out, dropping the torch. It rolled on the floor and cast shifting shadows inside the chamber. He stumbled back to the wall, eyes wide as moons. Hatshe registered this vaguely, her own gaze flitting back to the reanimated corpse, her mind strangely blank. She didn’t even understand how she’d done it. The queen pawed at the sides of the bier with linen-wrapped hands, then at her own body and face, a meaningless growl emerging from her throat. She sat up.
Hatshe swallowed, her own throat dry.
“We have a problem,” she said.
“I can think of at least five,” Nemet replied, glued to the wall.
She scanned the scroll in her hands. “I don’t know how to put her back to sleep.” There was nothing there indicating how to undo the spell, and she’d need time to figure out what the spell even consisted of. “We’ll have to bring her with us.”
Nemet made a strangled sound.
“And we have to leave quickly, because I’m pretty sure this was a trap, after all.”
He pulled his eyes from the embalmed corpse for the first time. “What do you mean?”
“I’m the only one who could’ve taken this.” She raised the rolled-up scroll before tucking it in her shirt. “Anyone who read the inscription on the bier would know this.”
“And would’ve needed you to get it.” He closed his eyes and released a breath. “And would be waiting for you to come out with it.”
She didn’t reply, as it was evident she was a larger fool than she’d suspected—and Hatshe hated being a fool. Instead, she went to the queen, who was still groaning inside her wraps. They couldn’t leave with a corpse. Well, not one who couldn’t see where it was going, anyway. Hatshe grabbed the queen’s arms and the dead woman stilled for a second, then tried to free herself from her grasp with doubled strength.
“Be still!” Hatshe hissed. “I’m trying to help!”
To the sound of Nemet’s murmured prayers behind her, she started unwrapping the queen’s face. She said a spell as she did it, so that the loss of the glyphs wouldn’t make the exposed skin crumble. She shuddered to think what would happen if the woman lost her face. Would she walk around without a head?
Focus. She murmured glyphs from the Book of the Dead, the familiar spell comforting after whatever magic it was she had just performed. The queen’s face emerged from the wrapping and her eyes opened—terribly, relentlessly alive. She was lovely, thought Hatshe. And utterly confused as she stared at Hatshe, opening her mouth as if looking for words she no longer knew.
Did the dead remember how to speak?
“We have to leave,” she told the queen. Without the anchoring glyphs, she would have to feed the spell herself. It shouldn’t be so hard to make the glyphs work without touching her face directly, but that was one of the improvements her father spoke of and which were never really worked on, since the dead never complained about the wrappings. She was sure she could devise a way, but there was no time now.
She already felt the spell taking its toll on her as she helped the queen out of her coffin, unwrapping her legs so she could move. The woman looked around the tomb, then down at herself, a frown marring her features like furrows crossing a field. Hatshe removed her own cloak and draped it over the woman, hiding most of the bandages.
Then she turned to Nemet, who looked like he was ready to lie down on the casket himself. “My love?”
“Hm?” He was gripping the pendant on his neck with a trembling hand. “Leave. Right.” He shook himself and looked at Hatshe—and only at Hatshe. “If they’re waiting, they’ll have seen how we came in.”
“You said there are tunnels.”
He nodded. “There might be a door. Maybe not. Sometimes there’s just a labyrinth. We’d have to open it by force, but that might take days and we don’t have the tools for it.”
She gritted her teeth. “I can cut open a way, if it comes to that.” She didn’t mention he might have to carry her home in that case, and she didn’t think about what would happen if she lost control of the spell that was holding the queen together. It was best if he wasn’t aware of that particular problem.
Nemet took up the torch with unsteady hands and led the way out of the burial chamber. Hatshe grabbed the queen by the hand and followed him. They had walked part of the way back through the corridor they’d come in by when they heard the sounds. Muffled steps, right ahead. It was almost nothing, just the soft patter of feet, but any movement not theirs in the tomb felt like a shout.
Hatshe dropped the queen’s hand, her heart fluttering in her chest. The woman had spoken, her voice gravelly as if—as if she’d been lying in a coffin for twelve years.
Hatshe turned to Nemet. “Find us a way,” she whispered urgently.
“My son,” the queen repeated, wrapped hands pawing at her breast.
“He’s fine,” Hatshe assured her. “Don’t worry. We’re leaving.”
Nemet ran through a corridor and down stairs they hadn’t gone up before. There was no time for subtlety or careful assessments. They passed through defacing the walls with quick, efficient strokes.
“They took him,” the queen moaned.
Hatshe murmured comforting nonsense, her mind racing. Kephet had set her up. Was he working for Hotep? Who else, you fool? She’d always known Hotep had been involved in her father’s death, but now that she had that spell she was no closer to figuring out why. Why did he want the spell? And why now? Hadn’t they known about the bier? She was sure she left plenty of traces behind in the past twelve years. She hid herself by a combination of glyphing and discretion, but also counted on the fact that no one had wanted much to find her after those initial months. Her father’s collection was a huge treasure, but she made sure to make it seem as if he had destroyed it before his death. Ankhmese’s daughter had probably died trying to escape. Who would fear a girl?
But this… if they wanted her to open this tomb, a dedicated search could have found her much sooner. She was missing a piece of the story, and until she had it she was as useless as a spell without a keyword.
She scowled, turning another corridor with the queen mewling next to her. She was missing several pieces, actually, and the pounding in her head wasn’t helping. Glyphs weren’t called anchors for no reason—a spell weighed when held too long.
They turned another corner and found themselves facing a blank wall. The sounds of steps had turned from muffled to very distinct, and they were definitely coming their way.
Nemet swore and turned to her.
She braced herself and focused. Open a way. Right. Hatshe was skilled and could make commands as refined as any noble’s pet scribe, but there was a satisfaction in casting simpler, rougher kinds of spells. Destruction spells were easy—or easier, in comparison—and didn’t require anchoring, just a burst of energy. Of course, blowing up a whole tunnel took quite a lot of energy.
Nemet grabbed her by the arm before she could begin. “Can’t we fight?”
“If Hotep is with them, I don’t have the energy to fight him now, especially not with Kephet or some other scribe to back him up. Our protections won’t be much good in a close fight either.”
“Hotep?” The queen’s voice startled them both again. She turned her head towards the oncoming sounds, her sculpted eyebrows furrowing deeply.
“Your Highness?” Hatshe called.
But the queen’s face was contorted by hatred, and she didn’t seem to hear. The name had awakened something in her, and her body shook as she stared in the direction of their approaching pursuers.
Hatshe breathed in sharply. The same energy she’d felt when casting her father’s spell was circling the queen now, an almost tangible shimmer. Before she could do anything, the queen pounded a bandaged fist to the wall ahead and the surface cracked, shuddered and burst open, creating a rough tunnel—the work of a hundred men in a single moment. Hatshe couldn’t have done that even if she spent her entire life force. The pyramid shook, the ground beneath them shifted.
Nemet swore again.
“Come on,” she said, and pulled them both behind her, a sweaty hand and a bandaged one. She would think about this later. She would deal with this later. There would be time when her husband was safe, after they left these encroaching passages. At her house, with her collection near her and plenty of time to explore her father’s spell. Then she would understand all of this and make them pay…
The stone around them grumbled like an old man rousing. Nemet panted beside her. “If she does that again the whole thing will come down on our heads,” he shouted. “The whole thing might already!”
Hatshe nodded. For a second she considered using the queen’s obvious hatred of Hotep to put them face to face—whatever power the queen had might be enough to destroy half a dozen scribes—but another burst like that would be bad for all of them.
Besides, Hatshe didn’t know the truth yet. And if she killed Hotep now, she might never know.
She turned to look at the queen and startled. “I don’t think she’ll be doing any of that,” she said, a knot in her throat. The queen’s eyes were rolling backwards, and Hatshe had to brace her body to keep her upright.
The makeshift tunnel met another one ahead, and they climbed some stairs. Right after, shouts rose behind them as crumbling stone caved in. Blocks fell, lifting a thick cloud of dust and blocking the passage. Hatshe hesitated, then turned to the only available path as the stone settled behind them. The corridor ran straight ahead and ended at more stairs. They ran. Every breath burned her lungs.
They reached the landing and found a simple wooden door.
“Workers’ entrance,” Nemet said, his chest heaving.
“There might be someone waiting,” Hatshe warned, a hand on the door. It was stuck and she murmured an angry spell to break the lock. “Who knows how many people Hotep brought?”
Dust fell in rivulets over their heads. “Not much choice,” Nemet said. “Let’s get out of here.”
She nodded and pushed the door open into the blissfully chill night air. Only then did she realize how clogged it had been inside—breathing in now was like a bath on a scalding day. There was no one waiting. The queen managed to run along—quickly, if not elegantly—the cloak hiding her bandaged figure as they fled in the night.
Hatshe’s body protested the pace, but they would need another hiding spell to get through the perimeter. Anchoring was already leaving her sluggish, the urgency of escape the only thing keeping her moving, but now it was vital that—
A rumble of thunder filled the night. A chill ran over her spine. They stopped and turned back. Queen Nenuah’s pyramid was collapsing, slabs of stone tumbling down to the sand and lifting clouds of dust that rose to the moonlit sky. Hatshe gritted her teeth. Great. Nemet would never let her forget this. She’d probably need to say prayers every day for a year until he deemed her penitent enough.
She shook herself and resumed their run in the desert, the brief pause making her aware of how tired she truly was. If she stopped again, she’d…
The sand dipped suddenly and she lost her balance, falling on hands and knees. She looked back over her shoulder. Figures in the night. Two—no, three—covered in cloaks. At least one of them was a scribe. Though she couldn’t see or hear him, it must be his power commanding the ground beneath them. Sand siphoned off into channels and Hatshe had to pull the queen so she wouldn’t be caught in a rut.
Until suddenly the sand wasn’t just going down, but coming up—coils of it rising from the ground like desert snakes and lashing against them.
If she had any breath left, she would swear. Instead, she ran, lungs burning, spleen aching, grabbing the queen’s wrist like a vise and hearing Nemet panting a few feet behind her.
Her heart twisted sideways when she heard his shout. She skidded to a halt and looked back. A sand snake had coiled itself around Nemet’s ankles and pulled him backwards. The scream left her in a rush. “No!”
He struggled against the binding. Two other coils wrapped around his wrists and pinned his arms down.
“Go!” Nemet yelled. “Get away! Now!”
Hatshe breathed hard. The sand had calmed around her and the queen now that it had Nemet in its grasp. Their pursuers approached fast. If they got her now, they would defeat her. They would get her father’s spell. And they would kill them both.
“I’ll be back for you,” she promised.
He nodded once, not a hint of doubt in his face.
It felt like ripping her soul in half, but she turned and ran, pulling the queen in tow. A hundred paces or so ahead, she paused and looked back.
Two men, faces hidden, pulled Nemet up. A third one approached slowly, clearly in command. His face was covered and far away, but she could picture it. She remembered it. He put a sack over her husband’s head and the other two led him away. The leader stood in the desert and looked out, as if he knew she was there, watching.
Hotep had killed her father, and now he had her husband.
She was waiting for him when he came. Hatshe stared at the scribe from behind her husband’s worktable, her face as stony as her heart. Kephet bowed his head.
“You traitorous vermin,” she greeted.
“You complicated things quite a bit, my lady.”
“I am not yours,” she said. “Nor a lady. I am a scribe.”
“You are in a difficult situation,” he corrected, and looked around the shop, as if searching for secrets behind the toys on the shelves. “You and your accomplice.”
It took her a second to understand. They had followed them through the tunnels until the pyramid had caved in—the only thing they saw was Hatshe and a cloaked figure escaping in the night. They didn’t know she had resurrected the former queen of all the Upper and Lower Lands. Finally, one stroke of luck.
When she had come home the night before, she had locked herself and the queen inside the scroll cellar, making preparations in case of an attack. But in reality didn’t expect one. They had Nemet. They had her cornered.
“Don’t trouble yourself with that,” she said flatly. “Tell me what you came to say. Your master sent his errand boy again with his conditions?” Her lips twisted in a thin, disparaging smile she hoped would rankle him.
“If you had simply handed over the Book, none of this would be necessary,” he said, as if speaking to an unreasonable child. “Now, with a pyramid destroyed, you understand the High Scribe wants reparations.” He paused, but she waited in silence. Finally, he stated his business. “The Book is the price of the destruction you caused. Your service will be required in exchange for your husband.”
“And what service is that?”
He approached the worktable and placed his hands on it, leaning towards Hatshe, eyes on hers. His voice was quiet but reached her clear as glass.
“You will kill the pharo.”
It was a good thing she’d been making an effort not to show any reaction. Her mind worked fast, Hotep’s trap taking shape. The timing of her discovery became clearer. In a few weeks, the pharo was set to marry and assume his rightful place as ruler, and Hotep would go from regent back to mere scribe. But with the pharo dead, who else could take his place but the regent?
But why embroil her in this? Just to place blame? It seemed too much trouble. And where did her father’s spell come into it?
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but that sounds like treason.”
“You will come with me to the palace,” Kephet continued. “Once the deed is done, you and your husband will be free to leave.”
She didn’t restrain her reaction this time, giving a loud, humorless laugh. “Oh, certainly. We will all go our separate ways and no further harm will befall us.”
“I’m afraid you don’t have a choice,” Kephet pointed out, his tone entreating as if he truly cared for her wellbeing. “Your husband—”
“My husband,” she hissed, leaning across the table until her face was a palm from his, “will be treated like an honored guest.” She smiled. “You think you can blackmail me? I was born into power. Raised by the greatest scribe this empire has ever known, and he has taught me from birth. I could cast spells before I could speak. Anu sak neh pen-ra.” She spoke the glyphs matter-of-factly and watched Kephet blanch as his body failed him. He gripped the edge of the worktable and breathed in sharply, legs buckling. She grasped his jaw with iron-hard fingers, nails biting into skin. “I will come to Hotep in three days. If you send spies to follow me, they’re dead. If you wage an attack on this house, I will burn the Book. Any harm that comes to my husband during this time will be done to his captors a hundredfold. This you will tell Hotep.” She opened her hand and released the spell, and he scrambled up, arrogance wiped from his face. “Go.”
When she was alone, Hatshe released a shuddery breath and slid to the ground, sweating and shivering. The hard part started now.
He was running, lungs burning in his chest. The guards were somewhere behind him. He considered dumping the bag, but he couldn’t afford it, could he? He’d come this far. A prayer for forgiveness left his lips. It was hard to be pious when there were mouths to feed.
He jumped over mounds of trash and veered into the tight alleys of the leatherworkers’ quarter, bare feet pounding on the ground. The moon shone above, blue and beautiful, but that night Nemet would’ve loved if it were only a sliver and didn’t make the streets so visible. Shouts rose behind him and in a moment of distraction he stumbled over a rock and rolled to the ground. He fell on his side, rasping the skin on the right side of his body.
The guards appeared at the mouth of the alley, lances in hand, dark outlines against the sky. Nemet’s mind swam, consciousness threatening to fade. He only knew two things—that he needed to escape and that he would never manage it. The bag had rolled away, a hint of gold peeking from inside. All that effort and risk…
He must have closed his eyes, because the next thing he knew he was opening them. Standing above him was not a guard but a woman. He turned his head and saw two bodies lying on the ground. The guards? The woman’s eyes were lined with kohl and striking. He slurred something and she smiled, slow and curious and beautiful as the moon. Nemet thought—a thought so vivid and sure that it burst through the confusion and the pain—that he would die for her.
The pain. The pain on his side… the pain on his side was…
He awoke with a gasp. The dream—the memory—faded like fog as he felt at his naked hip. The touch of his own hand made him gasp, bringing him forcefully into consciousness. He blinked, accustoming his eyes to the brightness of day, and looked down. He’d been burned.
The memory was foggy and he didn’t chase it. The events of the night were vivid enough; he didn’t need one more nightmare. Hatshe had escaped, and he’d been captured. No doubt his captors had noticed his protection glyphs, the ones Hatshe had inked into his skin shortly after they met. The spell wouldn’t deflect a blade at close quarters, she’d warned him, but it would give him an advantage in a fight. She had crafted it herself, especially for him. He’d been pleased, and flattered, and also afraid. With the years he’d grown used to them, but now only the pain of the burn remained.
His skirt was lying next to him and he put it on, feeling marginally less vulnerable. He looked around. The room was small and empty, with a barred window. Across from his prison, another tower rose. Pushing against the bars to see either way, he saw the nobles’ quarter at his right, with its opulent palaces, and the city beyond, a sprawling web of mudbrick houses and busy streets and alleys. It was a vantage point he’d never had before, and for a second he enjoyed the view. But there wasn’t much vantage in being a prisoner. He knew where he must be: the palace.
It would’ve been too much to hope that the High Scribe wasn’t involved. If Hatshe was going to piss someone off, it had to be the godsforsaken regent of Ansah.
He looked at the city and worried. Was she at home now, planning a rescue? What about the… He felt ill at the memory. The queen. Asar’s mercy, what had she done?
He felt a pang of longing for his tools. They were his comfort and peace; his hands felt naked and useless without them. But Nemet knew that what he really craved was his life, their life, which was now spiraling out of control. He would find no such comforts here, and it was no good to hope for a stroke of luck. Better to confront the facts. They’d taken him not only because he was easier prey, but as ransom. His hands tightened into fists. They would use him to force Hatshe to hand over her father’s scroll—and maybe more. To use her powers and knowledge for some convoluted plot. And she would do it.
No—she wouldn’t do it, but rather attempt to rescue him and in the process get her revenge, unleashing the fury that had been simmering under her skin all these years. To do so, she would have to come into a heavily guarded palace filled with scribes. Nemet was aware his wife was extraordinary even among her kind, but she wasn’t invincible. Her protections could be burned away. She could be overtaken, or tire herself out, or a number of other horrible scenarios he could all too easily picture.
Rage unlike anything he’d ever felt before made his blood boil in his veins. He would not be the cause of her death.
He needed to leave.
The deceased queen Nenuah sat in a chair among the scrolls, staring blankly ahead. Hatshe had spent most of the previous night writing a spell to free her of the wrappings. She recast the spells of conservation of the Book of the Dead and glyphed them painstakingly into slabs of wood, then stored them among her father’s collection—the safest place she knew. Now the queen was free of her bandages, wearing one of Hatshe’s dresses, and looking almost like a normal person.
“My son,” she murmured again. It was the only thing she said. Sometimes, her eyes gained some clarity and she looked around the enclosed space, expression frightened.
“Your son is fine,” Hatshe said. Except for the fact his closest advisors are trying to have him killed. “Now, do you remember Ankhmese?” she asked for the fiftieth time. The queen had recognized Hotep’s name in the pyramid, so there was no reason for her not to recall her father. Oh, she knew she was treading delicate ground. She’d seen what the woman could do—an entire pyramid collapsed after a single burst of power—and if she decided to do the same thing here, Hatshe wasn’t sure her protections would hold. Maybe it wasn’t the wisest thing to attempt to remind the woman of the past.
But she found out she couldn’t help it.
For the first time, the queen’s eyes suddenly flickered with recognition. “Ankhmese?”
Hatshe forgot caution in a second. “Yes! The physician and embalmer. Do you remember him?”
“He was there,” murmured the queen. “He said he would…”
“There? Where?” she pressed, but the queen lapsed into silence again, brow furrowed.
Hatshe growled quietly and forced herself to turn aside. She couldn’t spend three days hoping to get something out of the woman—she had work to do. So she settled into a corner of the cellar and spread the scroll she’d retrieved from the bier. Her father’s masterpiece. The Book of the Living, he’d called it, the words scrawled at the bottom. She couldn’t contain a smile. It was like him to create something to rival the gods.
Her smile died as she recalled the conversation with Kephet. He’d said they wanted “the Book”. So they knew what it was, and what it did…
Or did they? She hadn’t known—not until casting the spell. Hatshe examined the intricate glyphing in front of her. When she’d read it for the first time, it had been like a child repeating an adult’s words without understand their meaning. Now she needed to decode it, and the task, despite the circumstances and the cold fear in her gut from knowing her husband was in the hands of murderers, made her excited as she hadn’t been in a long time. New glyphs. New paths to explore and knowledge to uncover…
On the first day, she marveled—at her father’s elegant writing, the sure strokes of his pen, the way he chose and combined familiar glyphs. Her eyes prickled at seeing glyphs she herself had used in the same way, torn apart and recombined, finding ancient meanings in half-glimpsed sounds, the two of them arriving at the same place in different time and places. She knew the work was brilliant, the most brilliant spell she, and possibly anyone, had ever read. Her father hadn’t just brought the queen’s life force back—that was easily enough done, though considered dark magic, since it involved taking someone else’s life force. That kind of spell, though relatively simple, didn’t bring back kah—the soul. And though the queen was off-kilter and confused, she recognized names and had some memories. In all her readings, Hatshe had never found anything remotely similar attempted. Even considered.
On the second day, she gave herself over to frustration. After going through the glyphs she knew and recognized, there remained the fact that two thirds of the spell still made no sense to her. How could the queen perform magic without spells, and what power had she gained in the process of coming back to life? How had Hatshe performed the spell without spending herself entirely? What strange force had coursed through her, so different from any magic she had ever cast before? She picked up scrolls from the shelves, unearthed works she hadn’t read in years, tried to guess the original forms of the glyphs, made lists of possibilities and reached few conclusions. She was missing something vital—whatever it was that had powered the spell and allowed the queen’s soul to return to her body. She became tired and annoyed, and snapped at the queen to stop babbling more than once.
That night, she went up to the house to sleep in their bed. Next to it lay the game of anet her husband had carved her years before. The spiraling piece was modelled after the Book of the Dead, emulating the trials and the final judgement of Asar. The winner was whoever reached the fields of rebirth first.
On the third day, she understood her father’s Book. And for the first time in as long as she could remember, Hatshe was well and truly afraid.
For a toy maker, he was being heavily guarded.
His cell was way too high for an escape. Not that there was any chance of getting through those iron bars in the window. The door, a heavy copper thing, remained closed. And six men lined the corridor outside his door at all times. Many hours after he woke, bread and beer were shoved through a small opening in the bottom of it, and Nemet threw himself to the ground to take a peek at the guards. That’s when he saw the men. He tried talking to them, but that earned him nothing but silence. He tried screaming, and that earned him some screams back, but only to shut him up. So he decided to just listen. Six bored soldiers posted in a corridor?
Sooner or later, they were going to talk.
On the third day, they did.
“Why do we have to stay here?” asked one in a tone dangerously close to a whine. Nemet heard the shuffling of feet, the leather of their uniforms creaking.
A gruffer voice replied. “Orders from the regent.”
“I know that, but all of us? Who is this guy?”
“None of your business! Just shut up and pray the regent doesn’t find reason to flay us alive.”
They didn’t stay quiet for long, but conversation veered toward more trivial matters. And that was that—at least until the next changing of the guard. The new sentinels seemed to pick up the conversation from where the others had left off. Apparently, the palace had been alight with rumors about his arrival. The most popular theories were disgraced noble, conspirator or spy.
One of the new men scoffed so loudly at this Nemet could hear him through the door. “You just don’t know how the regent works.”
“Oh? Please enlighten us, Shosh, since you know the ways of the regent so well.”
Nemet could almost see Shosh’s self-satisfied smirk. “Think back on our orders. Why take risks capturing dangerous people when you can just convince them to do what you want?”
Silence. Then, quieter: “Who do you think he is?”
“Probably someone’s father,” said Shosh, “or lover.”
Shosh, you’re not the dumbest bastard around. No, that must be Nemet, for not realizing something obvious sooner: the guards weren’t posted there to keep him in his cell, but to keep Hatshe away. The regent knew she would try to get him out. The men’s orders were likely to keep their eyes open for any attempted invasion.
Now, if Nemet could only give them one…
He leaned against the door and closed his eyes, hand moving unconsciously to grasp Asar’s pendant around his neck. Nemet tried to go through life without thinking of glyphing. He and Hatshe had reached a tacit agreement in which he pretended not to know what she did and she pretended to accept his beliefs. But he wasn’t a fool. Glyphs were powerful and useful, and in the streets where he was raised, knowledge of them was the highest currency.
Hatshe thought the same. She’d insisted on teaching him spells, despite Nemet’s distaste of the idea—despite his assurance that he’d left his old life behind and wouldn’t need them. Hatshe had looked him straight in the eye. “You can’t leave a life behind,” she’d said. “Only drag it alongside you.”
You should know, he hadn’t replied.
In the end, Hatshe could be very persuasive—if not with words, with action. And he could be a lovesick fool.
So Nemet got up and crossed the cell to the window. He couldn’t take on six men, so first he needed better odds.
Here’s what he knew about glyphing: it was easier to break things than mend them.
“When you say this spell,” his menace of a wife had explained, “be sure you’re facing what you mean to break.”
She hadn’t said how far away he could be standing, so he was hoping the tower would still be in range. Otherwise, he’d probably make his own cell collapse on itself and die in the process.
No pressure. He looked ahead. If there was someone on the other side, he hoped they were nowhere near that spot. He said a quick prayer for forgiveness—just in case—and then there was nothing to do but stop dallying.
“Kthem paq ari,” he whispered slowly. “Ger maa.”
Hatshe had said he would know if the spell was working. And Nemet did. The words had barely left his lips and his blood swirled and chilled at once. His hands, clasped around the bars on the window, became clammy. His breath faltered. His stomach felt empty and his arms heavy.
Oh, and the tower wall exploded.
Stone shards and jagged blocks burst outward. He scrambled to the side as a splinter whistled past the window bars. His guards shouted; feet hurried away. And, as he expected, soon enough his door clanged open.
“Come on!” cried a single guard whose voice he recognized as Shosh’s.
“Where?” he asked calmly from the back of the cell.
The man growled and leapt across to grab him. Nemet moved fast, though his limbs tried to keep him lethargic. The magic was leaving him slowly, but there was no time to sit back and regain his strength. He twisted and circled Shosh, placing an arm around his neck and choking the guard until he dropped to his knees, then pushed his head forcefully to meet the cell floor. The man’s body became limp as arms and legs sprawled.
It would’ve been faster and safer to kill him, but Nemet had promised Asar he never would again—and better to die than to break such a promise. He removed the man’s armor and placed him in the darkest corner of the room.
Then dressed himself in the guard’s clothes and breathed in.
“Pu hethu ba-k met unru,” he started, “net a-nek ubak.” He kept up the litany under his breath as he walked through the door. “Pu hethu ba-k.”
“This will make you unimportant,” Hatshe had said. “It will make all eyes look away from you.”
“Net a-nek ubak…”
Nemet had invaded tombs filled with traps, where a false step and an unseen glyph could kill a man or doom him to forgotten depths—but he’d never taken a longer walk than the one out of the corridor.
As he turned the corner and found himself alone, he took a shuddering breath. The spell faltered and he instinctively picked it up again, realizing it was easier to keep going now that he’d started, almost as if he had grown used to the magic—or the magic had grown used to him. What a strange experience it was. Unlike the previous spell, this was one of staying, which made Nemet its anchor. The magic was taking a harsher toll on him. He felt as if he waded through water or sweated out a slow-burning fever. It was an effort to keep his wits.
But he had to. He was out of his cell, but still inside the palace. He had to move.
He started going through corridors at a normal pace—the first rule of trying to escape unnoticed, and one that had little to do with spells. The palace was a maze and, as he distanced himself from the cell, the flurry of movement caused by his little distraction diminished. He crossed the paths of serving girls, scribe apprentices and guards who seemed unperturbed by any fugitive prisoners.
He figured his cell was on the fourth or fifth floor, but finding stairs was a challenge. Every time he saw someone he forced himself not to turn around but keep the spell up and walk past them. He had made it to the first floor when he truly got lost and wandered into a deserted hallway. He was about to turn back when a familiar voice made him stop short.
“—will see through it.” Kephet. The sound came from behind a door.
Perhaps this hallway was deserted because the palace inhabitants knew better than to walk into it. Run, thought Nemet. Just run the other way.
“Of course. Ankhmese raised her in suspicion as well as scribing.”
He breathed in sharply. He’d only heard that voice once, two days ago, in the Valley. The man hadn’t identified himself, but from the way the others had hurried to obey his every word, he figured he’d been taken by the regent and High Scribe himself.
“That’s why we must make sure Hatsheptut has no choice in the matter,” Hotep continued, annoyance tinging his voice. “When she arrives, I’ll make her see that.”
So Hatshe wasn’t at the palace, but Hotep expected her to come. It also seemed no one had informed the regent of his escape yet. Shosh and his buddies were probably trying to find him before letting Hotep know what had happened—trying to avoid some of that skin flaying, probably.
“There’s another problem,” Kephet said. “The girl.”
Hotep scoffed. “Nefersit? The things you worry about.”
“She’s close to him,” Kephet argued, slightly defensive. “Treats him more like mother than bride. She’ll make a fuss. And she dislikes you. She suspects you don’t have his best interests at heart. Suppose she goes to her family with her suspicions?”
“Don’t be a fool,” Hotep snapped. “She won’t go anywhere. She’s seen too much already. And that will be a much easier job. Think you can handle one powerless girl?”
Hotep’s voice became sharper and clearer and Nemet scrambled away before they approached the door, turning a corner and taking the first corridor he saw. His heart pounding, he lost himself again until he emerged at a courtyard. People milled about, servants carried loads of laundry and scribes in training moved quickly with their writing tablets under their arms. He stayed in the shadows, resuming the spell of concealment and calming his heart. Beyond the courtyard, a number of guards dressed like him lined the palace gate. The gate. All he had to do was keep the spell up and go through it…
Nefersit. That was the name of the pharo’s bride. As the pharo approached adulthood, the noble families had demanded he marry, and offered a parade of candidates. Or so the rumors went. Nefersit was chosen, the daughter of a rich noble family who would soon be their queen.
Or not, if Hotep had his way.
Nemet looked at the gate and the bustling city beyond. His wife was somewhere out there, and if he could reach her before she came to rescue him, they could run, leave the city, and rebuild their lives in some distant place where the Empire couldn’t reach them. All he had to do was let Hotep murder that girl.
He wondered how much that would weigh his heart in the scales.
Then gritted his teeth, turned his back to the gate and went back in.
When the Embalmers’ Plot was discovered—or invented—and her father killed, he didn’t go down alone. Hotep claimed Ankhmese was helped and sponsored by the foremost nobles at the time, led by the nobleman Surepen. According to the regent, they murdered the queen and were about to kill the infant son to make their move on the palace, crowning their own son and starting a new dynasty. Father, mother, son and a number of uncles and cousins also implicated were executed following Ankhmese’s murder. But one member of the family survived. Sitiah, Surepen’s daughter, escaped the massacre and ran to the temple of Iksa begging exile. The girl was hidden, and her youth, beauty and talent in glyphing led her to be made priestess. No one spoke her real name again.
Hatshe took years to uncover the story. Then she went to the survivor, hoping to find some clue to the truth and hopefully an ally in revenge. She hadn’t achieved either, though the time they spent together had not been entirely wasted.
Now as she left the house with the resurrected queen at her arm, a cloak over the woman’s head, Hatshe hoped fervently Sitiah would remember her with the same fondness.
“Well, look who’s out of her tomb!” said a lively voice. “Haven’t seen you in days. Has Nemet closed shop?”
Neighbors. She’d rather deal with Hotep’s spies. Unless the baker’s wife was one of Hotep’s spies…
“He’s sick,” she said stiffly. The woman looked at the queen, who was turning her head with a vacant stare. The streets around them were filling up with people and some glanced their way, nodding respectfully to Hatshe. “My cousin, Teti,” Hatshe explained after an expectant silence. “She’s staying with us for a few days.”
“The fields…” The queen murmured. “The glorious fields…”
“She’s not well,” Hatshe whispered. “I’m taking her to the temple.”
“I thought there was nothing you couldn’t handle,” the woman said with a wink.
She forced out a smile. “There are some things beyond me. Now I really must g…”
“And Nemet? You’re leaving him alone and sick?”
In an instant, Hatshe’s mood turned sour. Her voice had a harsher note than intended as she replied. “He’ll be fine. Do you think I’d abandon my husband?”
She pulled the queen along.
The temple of Iksa was always teeming with supplicants, a long line of the sick that hoped to receive the goddess’s blessing. There was no blessing involved, of course—just a number of healing glyphs the priests would cast for those who could pay. For those who couldn’t, that meant days of waiting and hoping to be chosen as one of the lucky ones who got seen for free. She bypassed them and turned to the priest organizing the line.
“I’m here to see the priestess,” she said.
The man looked her up and down, taking in her appearance. He didn’t linger on the queen, as if a babbling woman was a common sight. Around here, it was.
“Line,” he intoned.
Hatshe approached him with a furious look that was barely feigned. “She healed my cousin and two days later she’s dim! You’ll take me to the priestess or every nobleman in this city will hear how well the priests of Iksa heal their supplicants, and your coffers will be considerably lighter. Perhaps then you’ll be able to focus on your praying, and do the job properly.”
The priest gave her a high-nosed, distasteful look, but she could see she’d made the right call with her ruse.
She pulled the queen along. Nenuah followed meekly through tall columns, releasing senseless murmurs every now and then which only served to confirm Hatshe’s story. They finally reached a small waiting room where a nobleman sat with a little boy, both of them reflecting silver and gold out of necklaces and earrings. The man who led them approached a guard near tall engraved doors. They argued quietly for a moment, and Hatshe gritted her teeth. The noble and his son were giving her suspicious looks.
She pointed at Nenuah. “The priestess blessed her but…”
“She will see you now,” the man from the line cut in sharply. And to the noble: “This will be quick, my lord, and the delay will of course be discounted from your donation.”
The man huffed. Hatshe turned to the double doors, which the guard pushed open with a ponderous groan of the hinges. They crossed over to a dark and cavernous room, the walls decorated with paintings and glyphs, the image of the goddess drawn in many different scenes. In the center, steps rose to a dais where incense burned around the priestess, a shape wrapped in heavy layers of white fabric so no lustful eyes fell upon her. Amethyst and jasper hung at her ears, around her neck and wrists. Gold glittered, reflecting the light of lamps on the walls. The priest spoke to Sitiah in low tones and Hatshe could see her frown.
Then she raised her eyes and looked at Hatshe. It had been so many years. She was suddenly aware of how much older she was, how changed. If Sitiah didn’t recognize her, she would be thrown out and would have to think of a whole new plan.
Sitiah looked at her for a moment, only her eyes visible beneath the fabric, piercing and inscrutable, before turning to the priest. Her voice rang pure and clear and echoed off the walls. “I will take care of this. You may leave.”
When the door closed behind them, Sitiah rose and padded softly down the steps. Her feet were protected by soft leather sandals. Her hands moved to remove the fabric from her face. It fell across dark shoulders as she stopped at the bottom of the stairs.
She was still lovely. Life inside the temple had been kind to her complexion, and Hatshe imagined being pampered like a queen helped too. Not that she envied Sitiah—this life would’ve been unbearable to her—but she saw the priestess maintained the delicate, smooth features she had as a young woman, her hair still braided like a child’s. Only the eyes were different—deeper, calmer, more in control.
“So you remember me,” Hatshe said, finding her throat tight. She had not treated Sitiah well, so she was stunned when the woman closed the distance between them and hugged her, abandoning all pretense of formality. Was she allowed to hug people, Hatshe wondered? Or was that forbidden too?
She released Nenuah’s arm without thinking, and wrapped her arms around her old—friend? Such things could be so complicated.
Sitiah stepped back and looked at her. “It’s good to see you.”
Hatshe smothered guilt. It was something she was expert at, perhaps even more than scribing. She’d discovered long ago that it was the only way to survive. Don’t think about how you could’ve saved your father. Don’t think about letting his murderer live free for years. Don’t think about leaving your husband in Hotep’s hands. Don’t think about exploiting this woman for your own reasons…
“Are you well?” she asked.
“Do I not look so?” Sitiah smiled.
Hatshe shook her head. She hadn’t come to discuss this—Sitiah’s choice. It was a battle she’d lost years ago. The queen moaned something and the priestess’s smile faltered as she looked at the woman.
“You need my help,” Sitiah guessed.
“Yes.” Hatshe took the queen by the hand and led her close. For a second, she was nagged by doubt. She hadn’t seen Sitiah in years. Could the woman be trusted with this? But there was no going back now. Looking closely at the priestess, she removed the cloak from Nenuah’s head.
And Sitiah blanched, eyes widening, breath hitching. Hatshe was not surprised she recognized the queen. She had been a noble’s daughter, and unlike Hatshe, who stayed near her father’s isolated quarters, she must’ve seen Nenuah many times.
“The pyramid,” Sitiah whispered.
“That a pyramid collapsed? Yes, we’ve heard.” Sitiah couldn’t take her eyes off the queen, her beautiful smooth voice turned low and raspy. “How is this possible?”
“It’s… complicated,” Hatshe said. “But it involves my father. And what happened to him.”
Sitiah turned to her, a hint of anger in her eyes. It took Hatshe a moment to realize that the anger was directed at her.
“When will you stop? When you’re dead?”
Her voice assumed the same harshness. “When he is. He and every one of his accomplices. He led me to that tomb so I would find something my father left for me. A spell. That did this.” She tipped her head towards the queen.
“What kind of spell could do this?”
“A brilliant one.” Hatshe couldn’t keep the admiration from her voice.
“She doesn’t look well. Your father wished for you to bring her back?”
Hatshe glanced away. “I’m not sure.” In fact, she was increasingly confident it hadn’t been the case, but her recklessness had guaranteed her escape and she would not regret it.
“Have you tried… undoing the spell?”
She shook her head.
Sitiah’s composure cracked. “Why not?”
It had been her first instinct at the tomb, but at the time she didn’t know how the spell worked—even now, she wasn’t confident she could undo it or what it might cost to do so. At the time she also didn’t know the kind of power the queen had… nor her hatred of Hotep.
“I don’t know if I might need her yet.”
“I’m going to the palace today. Hotep took my husband.”
“You’re married.” It seemed an odd thing to focus on, but Sitiah managed a smile. “That’s a surprise.”
Hatshe grabbed her hand. “You chose not to help me last time. I was angry, maybe more than I had any right to be, but you were right. I was young and would’ve died. But I didn’t look for this. Hotep sent one of his scribes to my home and provoked me into getting this spell for them. I still have the spell, it’s safe. But there’s more to it, there’s a plot going on here that’s bigger than what happened to me. To us.” Hatshe had lost the only family she had, her mother having died when she was still a child. But Sitiah had lost so many. Hatshe had never understood how she had holed herself in and didn’t thirst for revenge. Her anger at Sitiah’s choice had faded with time, but incomprehension remained. “Hotep is planning something,” she said. “I think he wants to take power. I have no choice but to face him.”
Sitiah’s clear eyes were concerned. “And where do I come in? And her?”
“I can’t leave her at the house. She… she can do things. She has powers. Like a scribe, but she doesn’t need glyphs to use them.”
Sitiah’s eyes were bulging from their sockets now. “So like a god?”
Hatshe ignored the question. “She’s only used them once, when she was distressed. Most of the time she just moans nonsense. Sometimes she remembers things, but it never sticks. She’s too unstable. I can’t leave her alone.” Especially not with my father’s scrolls. Not only did she fear the loss of her collection, but if the queen released a burst of power like she had at the pyramid, the entire house would crumble. Her protection glyphs would be destroyed—and there would be nothing keeping the Book from Hotep’s spies.
Sitiah swallowed, staring at the queen as several feelings crossed her face. Awe. Fear. Pity. “I knew it would come to this.”
Hatshe glanced at the resurrected corpse standing next her. “Did you now.”
Sitiah’s eyes flashed, youthful innocence buried under the sharpness of perception that made her such a good healer. “You would never be satisfied living in the shadows.”
“You think this is about me? I told you, Hote—”
“I don’t doubt what he did,” Sitiah cut in. “I don’t doubt that you still crave revenge for your father, for all the good it will do you. But you seek reparation for more than that. Forgive me if it is presumptuous of me to say so, but I know you, Hatshe. This is about what you think you were robbed of. Your life as a scribe. Your father was ambitious, in his own way, and so are you. You’ve been kept away from all the knowledge they guard at the palace. You’ve been forced to hide your talents. It must be a constant reminder of what they took from you.”
She let the words wash over her, recrimination and truth. “Perhaps,” she ceded. “But it doesn’t change anything. Last time, you chose life. I ended up making the same choice, though it came upon me so slowly I didn’t even realize. But this isn’t about seeking vengeance for things that cannot be changed.” Not only. “Whatever you think of my motives, I promise that helping me will prevent more death. Prevent a ruthless man from taking control of countless lives. Will you help me?”
The priestess of Iksa looked at her for a long moment—until something shifted and fell into place, and Hatshe knew she had won.
“What do you need me to do?”
Nemet followed a retinue of serving girls to what he hoped were the women’s quarters. This took him to yet another wing of the palace, a different set of indistinguishable corridors—but unlike the ones where he’d found Hotep and Kephet earlier, these occasionally opened up into green courtyards with flowing fountains. There was, however, a conspicuous lack of any women to speak of. Twelve years ago, noblewomen handpicked by Queen Nenuah might have filled these halls with chatter and laughter. Hadn’t the bride taken any companions?
The maids walked briskly and turned a corner, and he turned the other way. The lack of residents might work to his advantage, given he had no idea what Nefersit looked like. Moreover, this gave him a respite to let go of the spell with a shuddering breath. He leaned against a wall and closed his eyes for a moment. Hatshe always spoke of the difficulties of magic, but he’d never imagined it was so draining. His ears felt stuffed in cotton, and his chest thundered ponderously, like an overworked ox.
The halls were deserted. He would just take his chances. A few more steps and he turned a corner—and halted as he came upon two guards flanking a door.
Both stared right at him.
For a second, he panicked completely. Then the guards shifted the lances in their grasp and gave him a bored look, and Nemet strode forward.
“The regent sent me,” he told them, “to get the princess.”
The gamble was out of his mouth before he could think about it. The men shared a look and Nemet felt his insides knot together. He forced his eyes to remain steady and calm. These were not as large as the guards assigned to him, and a lot younger. Hotep perhaps judged a young girl wouldn’t need as much vigilance. If they were guarding the girl at all.
“No one told us you were coming,” said the man on the right, which was a whole lot better than What princess, you scattered-minded fool?
He contained his relief and shrugged. “You want to run it by the regent?” he asked. “He wants to see her right away.”
“Why didn’t he come, then? And who are you?” one of the men finally asked, frowning.
Nemet’s brushes with imperial guards had taught him there were two types—those filled with outrageous indignation at any apparent slight, eager for a chance to prove themselves better than the next man, and those comfortable with their position and with no need to enforce it. He tried to mimic the latter, as he didn’t have enough strength at the moment to intimidate a suckling babe.
“I’m Shosh’s replacement,” he said. Just a plain simple guard like you, he tried to convey with posture and expression. Obeying orders that are definitely not made up.
“What happened to Shosh?” asked the man on the left.
“You haven’t heard? How long have you been here?” The men shuffled and muttered something. He laughed quietly. “Listen, better here than guarding that new prisoner, which is where he’s sending everyone who annoys him.” He took a step forward and lowered his voice conspiratorially. The men leaned in. “The man won’t shut up, you can’t even have a conversation. Six of us in a corridor all day with nothing to do. I was there for a while before Shosh took my place. No one knows what he did to deserve it, but I damn well don’t want to end up there again.” Nemet sighed. “Listen, scribe Kephet was there when the boss gave me the order. I can go run and find him…”
The men shuddered. “No, that’s not necessary,” said the one on the right. “Go in.”
“Appreciate it. You know how he is.” He made a face that suggested only he and the two of them knew how Kephet really was, and they shared the laugh of the common soldier as the men opened the door in tandem—
—and Nemet found himself in the most beautiful place he’d ever seen. The large square courtyard had painted walls on which women acted out various occupations. Softly splashing water ran from fountains into canals that cut through lush gardens. Benches with bright pillows held baskets of fruit and bread. The only occupant of this oasis was a young woman who looked no older than sixteen. The girl sat by a pool of still water and ran her hand through it in a bored rhythm. A flimsy dress covered her skin, cinched at the waist with a red sash, while jewels glittered around her neck and wrists. Her hair was tied in thick braids and topped by a golden circlet.
She turned at his entrance, eyes filled with suspicion and hope in equal measures. “Is it time?”
The door closed behind him. Nemet was still reeling from the victory with the guards and already another trial awaited. “My… lady,” he stammered. He had no idea how to address a princess. “You need to come with me.”
She rose. “Is he waiting me?”
“Oh, no. That is—I mean—may I?” He approached cautiously. His body felt oafish and out of place in the delicate room, like a child trampling on a sand palace. He raised his hands to calm her, but the princess looked alarmed, perhaps realizing she didn’t know him. He whispered urgently before she could scream. “There are people in the palace who wish you harm.”
She raised an eyebrow. “You don’t say.”
“They wish you harm soon.” Despite her noble countenance and haughty manner, the news affected her, though she tried to hide it. “We need to get you out of the palace.”
“Who are you?” she asked finally, eyes narrowing.
The second time he’d gotten that question that day.
“I pretended to be a guard to get here, but I’m not.” He thought it best not to tell he had been a prisoner. “I heard the regent and one of his scribes plotting against you.”
“How do I know you’re not one of his men too?”
“Why would I lie if I were one of his men?”
“Because Hotep told you to, because he’s trying to test me.” She examined him, as if trying to gauge his reliability somehow. “What did you hear exactly?”
He pointed at the doors. “If we take too long, they’ll be suspicious.” He wondered how long it normally took to get the princess and leave. Would the guards peek in if they stayed too long? “Please, my lady,” he pleaded, “I’m not with Hotep. I’m just trying to help. You need to leave the palace right away.”
Emotions warred in her young face for a moment, then settled into determination. “It’s not me they want to hurt,” she said quietly, decision apparently made. “Or maybe they do, but only so I won’t say anything. They want him. They must be ready to make their move. We will get him, and then we’ll leave.”
“Him?” Nemet asked, a stone settling in his stomach.
She nodded, a fierce look flashing in her dark eyes. “The pharo.”
Of course. Why not? Nefersit walked up confidently to the door and knocked twice for the guards to open it. As they left the courtyard side by side, Nemet tried to hold on to what was left of his sanity. The pharo. She wanted to break out the pharo.
“That’s why they want that bitch,” Nefersit said under her breath as they moved down the corridor. “They want her to kill him. But they can’t, and neither can she.”
“The scribe. The embalmer’s daughter,” Nefersit explained. Nemet managed not to trip on his own feet. Only just. “They don’t think I know any of this,” she added, with a hint of pride, “but I keep my eyes and ears open.”
They turned down a hallway and he stopped her with a hand on the arm, then quickly released her as he realized what he’d done. He ran a hand through his hair. There was a lot going on, but maybe he should try to remember not to manhandle royalty.
The girl was staring at him expectantly.
“How are we going to get him?” he asked. “He’ll be guarded, won’t he?”
“Yes. You’ll need to take them out.”
He just stared at the girl, whose head didn’t even reach his shoulders, and blinked.
“You’re a big guy. You can do it, right?”
“No. That’s a terrible idea. It’ll call too much attention.” And my arms are softer than bread dough at the moment. “Is there any other way to get inside his quarters?”
“None. Only Hotep goes in. And me, once a day. I thought that you were one of his men, coming to take me there. Hotep doesn’t like it, but the pharo insists. He loves me, you see. And he needs me, surrounded by these vipers.” The venom in her voice startled him. Then another part of her speech snagged his attention.
“Wait—when does the guard usually come for you?”
So there would be an actual guard sent by Hotep to get the princess in a few hours. Not to mention his luck wouldn’t last long; surely Hotep would know he’d escaped soon. They needed to be far away before that.
“We’ll say we’re there for him,” Nefersit suggested, eyes sparkling as if it were all a game. “That we’ve come earlier today, for whatever reason. So you won’t have to fight the guards.” She rolled her eyes at this concession to his unreasonable demands.
“And how do we get out?”
“Don’t worry about it.” And she just strutted away.
That simple, is it? He scrambled to catch up as she walked through the hallways, turning at all the right places and nodding to those few servants they encountered. Nemet felt he was about to lose the thin shred of control that was holding him together. Any one of those people could question her, and him, and then he’d be back in prison and they would make sure he wouldn’t escape again.
“Stop sweating so much,” she murmured. “Hotep’s almost never in this wing. Says it’s not good for the pharo to worry about state affairs. Which is his way of keeping Kauhor from his rightful place.”
She ignored him.
They reached another set of double doors, this one flanked by a much more impressive set of guards. Take them down. He was glad he hadn’t agreed to the girl’s plan. The truth of fighting, Nemet had learned as a boy, was that an untrained man almost never got the best of a soldier. And you never, ever won a fight against two. So it was a relief when Nefersit greeted them coolly and they nodded to her.
“Come,” she said to Nemet in a voice dripping with spite. “Try not to spy too obviously on us.”
He followed her into another large, luxurious room. As soon as the doors closed, Nefersit abandoned the cool exterior and ran inside on sandaled feet towards a young man sitting by the window. He turned his head. The pharo’s expression was miserable, but when he saw the girl his entire face brightened, like a flower opening to the sun. He rose—unsteadily—and hugged her as she leaped into his arms.
Nemet froze. He was in front of the ruler of the Upper and Lower Lands. The man who in a few weeks would have life and death control over all their lives. Yet he looked like a boy, despite being close to seventeen. His face was open and childlike, his hands soft and his manner delicate. What struck Nemet the most, however, was that the boy was sick. It was obvious even from a distance. Every one of his gestures spelled pain, and his skin was grayish, with discolored flaying patches on his arms and torso. He’d never seen anything like it. What was wrong with the boy?
Another question barreled into the first: if Nefersit’s words were true, this was whom Hotep apparently wanted Hatshe to kill?
Nefersit gripped the pharo’s hands and started speaking urgently. She pointed back at Nemet and the boy frowned, looking dazed.
“We can’t,” he mouthed.
She urged him quietly. Nemet stood a respectful distance away, quietly despairing. How were they going to leave? What would Hatshe have do?
He scoffed. Hatshe would glyph her way out of this. He scoured his memory for some spell that could help. The one he used to walk around the palace didn’t make him invisible—it just made people not pay attention to him, as if they expected him to be there or there was no reason why he shouldn’t be. But the guards would definitely notice if the pharo came out of that room; that’s what they were put there to prevent.
“I can help.”
Nemet jumped at the voice. The pharo was right there, looking up at him with wide clear eyes. He felt a sudden urge to put a hand on the boy’s shoulder and say everything would be fine, even if it was a lie. Nefersit held tightly onto his hand, her face full of resolve once more.
“I can make the guards sleep,” the pharo said.
Nemet frowned. Hatshe helped people sleep sometimes. “With a spell?”
“Like a spell,” came the reply, after a second’s hesitation.
“There’s one we can use to walk out,” Nemet said. “I can teach you both.” He paused, looking the boy over. Could he stand to perform two spells? Nemet cursed himself for not letting Hatshe teach him more, but the pharo simply nodded. “We’ll need to get rid of all this jewelry,” Nemet added, looking at the gold and gems that covered the both of them. “Are you sure you can do this? Um, Your Highness?”
“We can do it,” Nefersit answered for the both of them.
Nemet weighed the wisdom of asking the question that sprung to his mind, then shrugged. He had already committed more crimes than he had heads to lose over. “Then why haven’t you left before?”
The pharo blinked. His eyes were guileless, and Nemet suddenly imagined him at six, orphaned and surrounded by scribes and power-hungry regents, nowhere and no one to turn to, and realized the answer before it was said.
“Where would I go?”
Hatshe looked at the royal palace. She hadn’t stepped inside the huge walled complex in twelve years, though not for a lack of trying. Her initial attempts to burst in and demand answers had been grief-fueled and useless—she simply didn’t possess the knowledge and skill she had now. She stared at the outer walls and towers rising from the sprawling buildings and wondered if she did, even now. The place was glyphed inside and out, with spells that supposedly kept intruders at bay. But glyphs could be destroyed or annulled, and the very concept of “intruders” was incredibly complex to define. One time, when she was small, an entire room had to be defaced because the servants couldn’t come into a nobleman’s quarters.
This time, however, she wouldn’t skulk inside. She kept her head up and approached. Like a guest of honor. In a flash, a child’s fantasy came to mind—she pictured herself nearing these walls as a proper imperial scribe, dressed in soft fabric and glittering gems, the golden reed pinned to her breast. Had Sitiah been right, was that what she craved? A place in the Empire? Working for him? No. It was better to be herself, to be free, than to owe any obedience to that man. Fate had at least spared her that.
Hatshe tried telling herself that even now she was here because she chose to be, that Hotep didn’t have the upper hand. But the truth lay heavy and deep in her breast—Hotep had Nemet. He had everything.
They were waiting for her. She was led through the outer gates into the main courtyard, from which several entrances sprouted. Her escort of two guards took her towards the east wing. Hatshe knew the paths they walked; she had run through them as a child. Their house had been in the city, where her father kept his most precious scrolls and the bulk of his collection—which had been for the best, as she’d been able to rescue them after his death—but he had quarters at the palace where people sought him for counsel and where he worked on his projects. Quarters where Hotep would often stop by so they could discuss some fine point of glyphing or share news about students or nobles or discuss politics. Hatshe didn’t remember ever walking into the private wing of the castle, but the administrative buildings were as familiar as the lines in her hand.
Where were they keeping her husband? No one had ever told her where the cells were.
She thought she was being taken to the throne room and scoffed quietly. If Hotep thought to overwhelm her with his position, he’d need to try harder. But the guards took an unexpected turn and she found herself in painfully familiar corridors. Her grin withered, a knot clenching her throat. They were leading her to her father’s old quarters. She realized why as soon as they knocked and opened the door.
Hotep had taken the room for himself.
There was no longer her father’s mess, the scrolls opened on the floor and stuck to walls, amidst simple and sparse furniture. Hotep had made the place comfortable and opulent, erasing every sign Ankhmese had ever lived there.
He waited in a high-backed chair next to an unlit fire. The nights could be cold there, she remembered. When her father was working on something, she sometimes had to pull on his arm to remind him to light it. He would murmur a glyph distractedly, and the fire flared into existence. Hatshe learned how to do it herself before she was five.
He looked the same as she remembered. Thin and bald, cunning eyes analyzing everything behind sleepy lids. Over a red tunic he wore a gold necklace in the shape of a bird with its wings wide open. At the center, a heavy-looking green gem sent a clear message, even though he was not wearing the crown now. To proclaim him as High Scribe, a more discreet jewel was pinned to the tunic in the shape of a reed.
The smell of perfume clogged the air. She sniffed pointedly before taking a seat.
“Why did you kill my father?”
Hotep raised a thin dark eyebrow but didn’t falter. “He was a traitor who would let the realm fall into chaos.”
“What, no denial?”
“You seemed so sure.”
“I was. I am. Now try again. Why did you kill my father?”
“You may ask the question as many times as you wish, child, the answer will not change. It is the truth.”
Her breathing was shallow. She thought she could do this—remain calm. But her mouth was itching to let out half a dozen spells she’d crafted especially for him. The thought of Nemet somewhere in Hotep’s keeping was the only thing that stopped her.
“We are alone now, regent.” She tried to imbue the word with as much accusation as possible. “Why lie to me? We both know my father was as devoted to the imperial family as to his own.”
Hotep gathered his thin fingers under his chin. “Have you considered that it’s your childhood memories that are wrong? That perhaps the image you have of your father is simplistic and loving, and that the truth is much more complex than a child could ever grasp?”
He was trying to play her. She had expected it and wouldn’t let it upset her. Of course she’d considered such a thing, but had dismissed it. Hatshe knew she was clever. Even back then she hadn’t been a fool; her judgement could not be that impaired.
“I will grant you that there is much I don’t know,” she said. “Much that you hid. But do not insist that my father killed the queen he served for years. It was not his character. That I knew better than anyone, certainly better than you. And now, here, let us not pretend that it was all about a change of government.” Her voice became lower and harsher. It was an effort not to lean forward and spit the words in his face. “Do not pretend it has nothing to do with what he made. And with what you want me to do.”
Hotep stared at her impassibly, not a hint of guilt on his face.
“Governing is often about unpleasant choices,” he said. “The Empire is large. Beyond the city, there are lands under our control that stretch to the sea.”
“I recall my lessons.”
“Then you know that our pharos have not always kept them well under control. When Ankhmese left us”—Hatshe scoffed at his choice of words—“there were riots in the north. Even rebellions here, in the city proper, under the pharo’s watchful eye. And the imperial family was weak and unable to control their subjects.”
“So you controlled them, with scribes.” She’d kept a close eye on the affairs of politics since his rise to power. One would have to be blind not to realize what Hotep had been doing—sending out scribes to noble households, making them essential, using them to repress and scare the populace. He was building his strength, making the people afraid of scribes, and making the nobility aware of how necessary they were to keep the peace. And at the top of the pyramid, himself. “Is that your argument?” Hatshe continued. “That you can handle it better, so we should just let you do it? Of course, without a pharo, you might succeed. You made sure there were no more nobles strong enough to challenge you. What intrigues me is why you’ve waited so long. Why you need me. Why you need the Book.”
His expression barely changed, but Hatshe was watching him carefully. It was a controlled sort of blankness that he kept.
He leaned forward in his seat. “Hatsheptut, listen carefully. I don’t mind your accusations. Everything I’ve done has been on behalf of the Empire—and of its scribes. As one of us, rogue as you may be, you should appreciate that power belongs where power is strongest. And that means us. These nobles, these landowners… they are useful for farming and breeding. They owe obedience, nothing else. To make sure scribes rule this land, I will do what is necessary, even if your sensibilities might be offended. You think you can guilt or offend me into changing my mind? Think again. I have been working towards this goal for longer than you’ve been alive. You will kill the pharo for me, or I promise your husband’s screams will echo in your ears for the rest of your miserable life. That is the only truth you need to know.” He rose. “Now come with me and I will show you your father’s handiwork, and then perhaps you’ll realize how wrong you’ve been all this time.”
She swallowed. What did he mean? Whatever it was, it set her heart fluttering in her chest. When she got up, she was no longer shaking, just shocked still. The truth, almost at her reach. Could it be? After all this time, it seemed unreal. She followed Hotep out of the room and down corridors, her mind reeling. She needed to find out where Nemet was. She needed a plan. If she could stall for a while, she…
Screams ahead. They stopped. Hotep frowned, hesitated, then set a brisk pace towards the noise. They emerged in a large hallway where a handful of men stood next to an open door, looking down at two unconscious guards—sleeping or dead, she couldn’t tell. Their skin had a greenish tinge to it.
When the men saw Hotep, they froze. After a second’s hesitation, the one with a sigil on his leather armor stepped forward. “My lord…”
“What happened here?” Hotep’s voice was a lash of thunder in the dead of night.
“The pharo is missing,” said the man, swallowing. “So is princess Nefersit. And…” The man blanched. His voice broke. “And so is the prisoner.”
In the deep, fearful silence that ensued, Hatshe’s laugh rang out like a call at a square. Nemet. She’d never loved her husband as much as at that very second. How he had known the pharo was in danger and how he had come to pick up a princess on his way out were mysteries she’d unveil soon—what mattered was that Hotep had nothing on her now.
Hotep ignored her outburst. The guard looked like he was trying not to vomit.
“The entire palace is looking for them, my lord, we sent guards—”
“What about scribes?”
“Kephet and his team are on their trail.”
Enough of that. If Nemet still hadn’t left the palace, she had to give him a chance. And end this. She looked at the guards and, using their armor as a focus for her spell, squeezed consciousness out of them. Half a dozen bodies fell to the ground.
Hotep turned to her. He didn’t seem scared—but he would be, by the time she was done.
“I’ve been waiting a long time for this,” Hatshe said, a slow smile unfurling on her lips.
The spell came out of her in a practiced torrent. It was one of her own, an original, crafted with a single recipient in mind. Hotep just stood there. He didn’t try to counteract it and she realized why when she felt the magic trying to grab hold of him and failing. She changed the phrasing and tried again and again, pulling the magic deeper from within her, pushing it into him, attacking heart, lungs, legs, but the glyphs dissolved around Hotep, and he wasn’t even saying a word—
He had protections. But there was always a way around protections, and she changed tactics and began working on weakening them. Only then, finally, Hotep began to counter her. His voice rang off the hallways, deep and confident. He wasn’t trying to protect himself, however, but to break her.
She pulled more and more power, heedless of the energy it might cost her, and when her body was trembling with the effort, her mind swimming, she felt him break through her own protections. She’d had them since she was a child. They were written across her back, inked in her father’s elegant handwriting.
And Hotep somehow knew how to tear them apart. She felt her shields falling one by one until his spell grabbed her by the heart. All the air left her and Hatshe fell to her knees, clutching her chest.
Hotep approached with a calm step.
“I created those protection spells and gave them to your father. He used them on himself and on you. Not so smart, was it?”
He raised her from the ground with a strong grip on her neck. The magic and Hotep’s onslaught had left her boneless and limp like a cloth doll. Blackness prowled at the corners of her eyes. She felt wetness in them. She’d lost. She’d waited for this moment for so long, and had lost.
“We burned your glyphs right out of your husband,” Hotep said, eyes boring into hers. “He is no longer protected, and now a criminal and a fugitive. We will find him. And if you want to see him alive again, you will do as I say.”
Hatshe was already lost to darkness when he released her.
Where does one hide the rulers of the land?
Nemet mulled the question over as he crossed the city with the two youths. His priority was putting distance between themselves and the palace. And as much as he longed to see home again, he knew it was madness to return there. He needed an alternative.
The pharo wasn’t doing well. He’d swayed after knocking down the two guards—without even looking at them; the boy had just approached the door and the next moment they heard two bodies falling. Nemet had to run over to keep him from collapsing. Nefersit gripped the pharo’s hand and brought him back to consciousness with some urgent cajoling and they left. But the pharo was in no shape for casting spells, so Nemet had to hope that his own and Nefersit’s were enough to hide them.
They managed. But the problem remained: where to go?
Hotep expected Hatshe to go to the palace. Nemet hoped she’d learn he was no longer there and leave, though he feared she might try to fight Hotep. Not now that I need you the most, he thought. If Hatshe were there with them, she would know what to do. But he… He could only do what he always did at desperate times. Go back.
Other than his house, there was only one place he knew well. So he took them to the slums of Ansah, that maze of narrow crisscrossing streets, overhanging awnings trying to block the scorching sun and hanging clothes that cast a puzzle of shadows on the dirt roads. There, the pharo’s discolored skin didn’t call as much attention, blending in with a series of other illnesses. The boy was wide-eyed as he walked arm in arm with Nefersit, who seemed more concerned with his wellbeing than the fact she herself had only narrowly escaped assassination. Without the jewelry and wearing the common clothes Nemet had got them—trading a gem worth more than his house—they looked like normal kids.
“Where are we going?” she asked him.
Nemet stopped and closed his eyes. He’d been walking aimlessly, trying to think of another option, but by now their escape had probably been noticed and there would soon be people after them.
“We need to hide,” he told them quietly amidst the flurry of movement in the market. Around them, people shouted their wares. “And then we’ll think what to do.” By then Hatshe would have found them—or so he hoped. “I need to negotiate our stay first.”
Nefersit frowned. “You don’t know where you’re going.”
“I got you away from Hotep, didn’t I?” He didn’t mean to sound so defensive; none of it was their fault. He sighed and placated her. “I know where I’m going. Promise. I just need to see what the people there will want in exchange for hiding us.”
“You can use my jewels,” she offered.
He nodded, but doubted it would be that simple. “Thank you. Stay close and don’t say a word.”
He veered onto familiar paths, then asked a street vendor after the man he sought. The man didn’t even look at him as he replied quietly. Following the directions, they reached a three-storied house. Through the entrance he could spot a bar, and Nemet guessed the place also hosted other, less savory activities. A middle-aged man with tanned-leather skin sat outside on a wicker chair.
“I need to speak to Tekat.”
The man looked at him without moving. “He’s busy.”
“Tell him it’s his brother.”
The man raised an eyebrow. After a long moment, he got up like a statue slowly coming to life and went inside.
“You need permission to speak to your brother?” Nefersit asked behind him.
“No talking,” he snapped.
The man reappeared after a while and gestured them in. “In the back.”
“Stay here,” he said to the kids, but the man shook his head.
“All of you.”
Nemet ground his teeth, but nodded after a moment’s hesitation. There was no use in arguing. They were taken through the busy common room where people ate and drank and shouted, then crossed over to the back of the establishment, where a door led to a small room with a desk, a couple of chairs and not much else, except some scrolls tucked neatly into a niche in the wall—and his brother. Tekat sat behind the desk. If Nemet was a large man, his brother was a god’s likeness, larger than life. He could snap a person’s arm without breaking a sweat. Nemet knew. He’d seen it.
“Look who came back from the dead,” said Tekat with a booming laugh, levelling a finger at him. “Always knew you would, one day. Always knew you’d need something from me, sooner or later. Knew that scribe of yours wouldn’t keep you away forever.”
“Tekat,” he cut in before his brother could mention Hatshe by name. “We need to lay low for a while.”
Tekat glanced at the pharo and Nefersit, who were a few feet behind Nemet. “What are they? Runaway slaves?”
“Runaway,” he admitted.
“It’ll cost. Feathers are ruffled after the deal with the pyramid, security is tight. The girl gets a discount if she’s willing to lie down.”
“Willing to—” Nefersit’s voice rose behind him, and Nemet raised a hand to calm her.
“She’s not lying with anyone and no one’s coming near her. If anyone touches her, they’ll answer to me.”
Tekat shrugged. “Fine. But the boy will cost triple. Diseases make my men nervous.”
“I can pay.”
“If he drops dead, you take care of it. I’m not a priest.”
Nefersit bristled again and Nemet repeated the soothing gesture. “I accept,” he said to his brother. “Also, I need a scribe.”
Tekat whistled. “That’ll cost even more.” His voice revealed curiosity now. “What for?”
Nemet had no idea where his wife was or how he was going to keep the two youths safe; he was buried to his neck in political intrigue he barely understood; had possibly damned his soul to oblivion by helping with his wife’s sacrilegious plans; and the pharo of the Empire seemed a step away from death, which would mean the regent could take control of all their lives soon enough, even without committing any murders. But there was one thing Nemet could do to thwart Hotep.
He smiled. “To perform a wedding.”
“Your father did not kill the queen,” was the first thing Hatshe heard when she woke. She looked to the side. Hotep was sitting in a chair next to the pallet where she lay. She tried rising, felt dizzy and had to lie down again, so she settled for glaring at him from a horizontal position.
“So you admit it,” she gritted out. Her head felt tender like an open wound. The admission made her want to scream or cry, but she didn’t feel strong enough for either.
“No one killed her,” Hotep continued. “She got sick. A couple of servants had died from the same illness a few days earlier. We hadn’t thought much of it, but soon it was clear there was a plague going around.”
Hatshe vaguely remembered being carted off to their house in the city in those days. She always wondered why—wondered if her father suspected the betrayal—but now she realized he’d simply wanted to keep her away from the disease.
“We tried everything, all the healing glyphs we could think of and several we made up. Despite our efforts, she died in a week. By then, however, we had a bigger problem. The pharo had caught the illness. If three grown people hadn’t survived, the chances for a boy of five were slim. But your father…” Hotep shook his head, an admiring glint in his eyes. “Your father buried himself in his quarters and started working. I assumed he had an idea for a cure. When the pharo was so sick he could barely open his eyes, I went to see Ankhmese. But he told me we couldn’t save the boy.”
“But you did,” Hatshe said, confused.
“No. He told me he had found a way—not to stop death, to undo it.”
A chill ran down her spine. Hatshe grasped at the straw beneath her hands and swallowed hard.
“I did not think it was possible, but the vultures were already circling,” Hotep continued. “As soon as the pharo was declared dead, there would be war. The nobles would tear each other apart, and whoever remained would rise to the throne. Ankhmese understood we couldn’t have that. We weren’t strong enough, with foreign threats looming at our borders. He also knew it was wrong. He knew the scribes were meant to govern, that we just needed a chance to establish ourselves with unity of purpose. We shared a mind in this, your father and I. So we agreed to bring back the child, but not the mother. As he grew under our tutelage, we could build what we always dreamt. We could turn the scribes of Ansah into a force to be reckoned with.”
She shook her head. “He didn’t have in mind what you’re doing now,” she argued, believing it with every breath in her lungs. Unable to conceive anything else. “He didn’t mean for you to take power on your own.”
Hotep continued as if she hadn’t spoken, a parent telling a bedside story to a favorite child. “He wouldn’t show me his work, however. When the pharo died, I called for him and he just locked himself into the room with the child. When the doors opened, the boy was breathing and your father looked deranged. He wouldn’t leave the child’s side. I asked him what he’d done, but he refused to show me the spell. Said we had to watch him carefully. I insisted he start working on embalming the mother so we could bury her soon, in case her body still carried the disease. He accepted, then returned to the boy when the job was done. The child looked normal enough. Sad because of the mother, but gentle and obedient as always.”
Hotep paused and Hatshe forced herself to sit, as if by gaining a minimum of control over her body she could control the situation as well. She couldn’t stand his silence for long.
“What happened then?”
“He grew stranger—Ankhmese, not the boy. He spent every second with Kauhor and seemed worried. I didn’t question it, at first, because I thought your father was afraid he might get sick again. But one day he came to me and said we had to undo it.” Hotep’s tone grew harsh. “Undo the spell and let the child die! After all we’d done.”
“He said that the child’s body would not survive for long. ‘In that case,’ I argued, ‘we wait for him to die naturally. No matter how much time we’re given, we will be readier than we are now.’ But your father said he wouldn’t die again, that it was dangerous to let him roam free. He made no sense. I told him I’d think about it and we would do it after the queen’s burial. He accepted it.”
“Then you accused him of a crime he didn’t commit and executed him and your political enemies all at once.”
Hotep didn’t blink as he nodded, confirming her theory. “Ankhmese let his fears take hold of him. He lost sight of what mattered. Together, we could have dealt with what came, but he was determined to undo the spell. It did not please me to kill him, but it was necessary.”
Hatshe breathed in; the only thing keeping her from strangling the man was the fact she was too tired to move. So calmly he spoke of the necessity of murder. Of killing a colleague and friend… She forced herself to push her emotions down. There would be a time for that. Now, she had Hotep talking. And he hadn’t finished the story.
“He was right, wasn’t he? That it was dangerous to let him live.” Hatshe grinned humorlessly, recalling an entire pyramid coming down. She finally understood her role in all of this. “You can’t kill him. You’ve tried, haven’t you?”
Hotep gave one slow nod, lowering his voice. “He kills with a thought. Instinctively. Without glyphs. Poison doesn’t work either. He’s been sickly since the spell, and every use of power pains him, but he doesn’t die.”
She grinned fully now. “Imagine if the populace knew our young pharo had powers like that—you’d never be able to convince them he really isn’t the embodiment of Tuma. With powers like that, your scribes would look like children… So you need the Book to understand how my father brought him back and try to undo the spell.”
Her mind felt clearer now, and she was just starting to get the upper hand when he spoke.
“Where is the Book?”
She pointedly kept her mouth closed.
Hotep sighed. “Kephet has been to the city and just informed me there are rumors of a former tomb robber paying a visit to his criminal brother with two unknown youths. We’re leaving soon.” His chair scratched the floor with a loud whine as he rose. “There are two ways we can do this. You can work with me to neutralize the pharo and give me the Book so I can work on sending him back to where he belongs. Or you can try to defy me, in which case all my men have orders to kill your husband. That’s his best option. If you two run, we will capture him alive and I will behead him in front of the whole city—after, of course, dispensing the customary punishment given to robbers. I assure you, you will have the pleasure of hearing him begging to die.”
Hatshe swallowed. Hotep could do it—who would question him? No one had dared to raise a protest when he killed the Head Embalmer and an entire noble family, and that had been before he consolidated his power.
She stared at him for a long moment.
“We will kill the pharo,” she said finally, “you will give me my husband back, and then I’ll get you the Book.”
“Somehow I doubt you’ll do that.”
“Too bad,” Hatshe snapped, “because that’s my offer. I know how to send the pharo back and you don’t.” She looked at him squarely. “And why would you need the Book after we send him back anyway?”
Hotep smiled thinly. “To keep it out of dangerous hands.”
She held her gaze, arms crossed, and waited.
“You can send him back without the Book?” Hotep asked finally.
“Yes. But there’s only one place we can do it.”
It was the place she hated more than any other in the world. She told him. Hotep accepted.
For now, they were partners.
“Over here, it’s safer if they think you are runaway slaves,” Nemet murmured to the two of them. They sat in a stuffy bedroom that was, impossibly, Tekat’s best. Rats scratched the walls, which had dark, suspicious stains on them. As night descended, however, a breeze came through the window and cleared the air, softening the rough smells of the street. “They will be searching for you. And despite all we’ve paid here”—their jewels had disappeared in Tekat’s greedy hands—“the regent can offer more.”
The pharo made a distressed noise. He had barely said anything since they’d left the palace, only smiling thinly at the prospect of being married soon. Now he looked at Nemet and wringed his hands, looking sicker than ever.
“Are you sure?” the boy asked. Nemet frowned and he clarified. “About Hotep?”
He glanced at Nefersit. The girl sat next to the pharo on the room’s only bed and looked pleadingly at Nemet.
“I’m sure,” he said. Though he hadn’t heard Hotep say anything about hurting the pharo himself, Hatshe’s suspicions about the man—which he’d always thought exaggerated by her grief—seemed to be accurate. He was willing to kill Nefersit, so why wouldn’t he hurt the pharo? But looking at the boy, Nemet felt a wave of pity. His mother had died—had been killed—when he was a child, and he’d had no one but Hotep since then, protecting and guiding him. No one, at least, until Nefersit.
“How long have you been at the palace?” he asked the girl now, to lighten the somber mood.
“Four months. But my family spent almost two years negotiating with Hotep. We thought he had someone else in mind for the pharo. But when I got there I realized Hotep didn’t have anyone in mind. He didn’t mean for him to be wed or come to power.” She gripped the pharo’s hand, placed a gentle hand on his cheek. “It’s hard for you to see, but not for me. Let me be your eyes in this.”
Nemet looked away, uncomfortable, as some silent conversation passed between them. Hatshe’s absence was the sudden pull of an anchor, plunging him into terrible depths.
Finally, Nefersit turned to him. “We were supposed to be married at a grand feast, not hidden away in the slums by a third-class scribe.” To his surprise, she smiled. “But I suppose this is more exciting.”
Nemet sighed. “I’m glad one of us is pleased.”
Her smile withered and she gave him a steady look. Her voice was level, but her eyes sparkled with suspicion. “Your brother. He said something about a scribe. Who was he speaking of? Why didn’t you call this person to marry us, instead of a stranger?”
He hesitated. Nefersit knew of Hatshe and didn’t think much of her. Nor could she, if she got her information through Hotep.
“He means my wife,” he said. “She is a scribe, though not trained officially.”
“So a street scribe,” she said dismissively. These were people who knew stolen bits of glyphs, rude drawings, faulty spells. Knowledge passed in dark corners, leaked from official sources.
He shook his head. “No. She was trained by her father, who was himself a scribe. And then taught herself the rest.”
Nefersit’s eyes widened. She jumped up. “Your wife is Hotep’s assassin?”
“Sit down,” Nemet growled. She might be young and his future queen, but no one spoke of his wife like that. “You would rather believe Hotep than me?”
She hesitated, her body poised like a snake ready to strike. The pharo looked distressed. “Assassin?” he asked timidly.
“The one Hotep’s sending to kill you. I didn’t tell you,” she added sheepishly, “so as not to distress you. Her father organized the Embalmers’ Plot.”
The pharo breathed in sharply.
“That too is a lie,” Nemet said quickly. “And Hatshe has no wish to hurt either of you. That’s why I was at the palace. Hotep was keeping me hostage to try and manipulate her. When she finds us”—if she finds us—“we’ll figure out what to do.”
He stayed where he was, looking straight at them. He needed them to believe him. He couldn’t have them trying to slip away.
After a long moment’s deliberation, Nefersit sat back down. “If you’re lying, I will not forget or forgive.”
“Then it’s a good thing I am not lying. Now rest,” he counseled. “I’ll be downstairs, if you need anything. The scribe will be here soon.”
He left them without waiting to see if his orders were being obeyed. He was not their guardian, after all. Just… guarding them. For the moment.
He went to his brother. He didn’t want to, but there was nothing else to do and he figured it would be wise to get a sense of Tekat’s feelings and conjectures about all this. Brother he might be, but Nemet didn’t trust him blindly. Actually, he didn’t trust him with both eyes open and after a very large payment.
Tekat was in the room where he’d received them, hunched over some scrolls. He welcomed Nemet with an expansive gesture. “My brother, the protector of wayward children! Sit. Drink with me. Menka, bread and meat!” he shouted. “We’re celebrating!” A boy’s feet pattered away in the corridor.
Nemet sat at the other side of the desk. “I appreciate your help,” he said slowly. “It is not without risk.”
Tekat made a dismissive gesture. “Nothing we do is without risk. Living is not without risk. Not when you live here.”
The food and drink was brought and the servant closed the wooden door behind him. Nemet’s stomach rumbled at the sight of the offerings, and he dove into them with manners that would made Hatshe tsk.
“Who are they, really?” Tekat asked after a while.
“Where’s your wife?”
“Did you have something to do with the attack on the pyramid?”
That caught him by surprise. In his moment of hesitation, Tekat laughed.
“I knew you weren’t done with this life.”
“I wish I was,” Nemet said truthfully. “I wish I was at home, making my toys, living in peace with my wife. Not running.”
“Then you have a strange way to go about it,” Tekat said, reclining in his chair. “You abandon me and tell me you want nothing to do with trouble, then you go and marry a scribe. Scribes are always trouble. The smarter they are, the more trouble. Look where you ended up—here with me again.” He shook his head and tore off a piece of bread. “What I don’t understand is how you two stay together.”
“What do you mean?”
“You and that woman… you, who tremble at the sight of a glyph, who says a prayer before you take a shit. You were always afraid of scribes. Thought they meddled with powers better left alone. Or does she like a man who’s afraid of her?”
“I’m not afraid of her,” he said. “I’m afraid for her, sometimes. I’ve seen her do things…” He shook his head. Her power had always made him uneasy, and that had been before their latest adventure. Powers better left alone, indeed. “I respect her work but don’t want to hear about it. She accepts this.”
“Does she? Seems to me scribes are obsessed with their powers. Can’t talk about anything else.”
Not that she wasn’t dedicated to it—her secret cellar was proof of it and many a night she left his side to spend time with her scrolls. But it was nothing like when he first met her, when she burned with anger and thought only of becoming more powerful, for reasons he hadn’t completely understood yet. Later she used her skills to keep them safe and then to help those in need, and the spirits from her past didn’t harrow her so much, didn’t eat at her from the inside out. Hatshe might think it was a bad change, that she mellowed or settled down, but he didn’t. The woman he first met was on her way to a path of hatred and destruction, a path that would lead her astray from the fields of Asar. She might not believe in them, but Nemet did, and he knew that since they met she had found a measure of joy and peace.
He faced his brother, tracing the shape of her in his heart like the tender edges of a wound. “We both love the night,” he said quietly. “The warm breeze on our roof. We love listening to sistrum players. We love playing games. We love stories, even when I believe in them and she does not. We love dancing and loving, and our bodies are easy with one another. And what will be left after our bodies fail, that too will walk together in the fields beyond as they have walked in this one.” He held Tekat’s gaze. “I may not understand every part of her, but who but the gods understands anything completely?”
Hotep wore the same cloak he had the night he captured Nemet. Hatshe walked by his side, physically if not spiritually recovered from her humiliating defeat at his hands. Nothing kept her from trying to attack him again—nothing but the memory of the uselessness of her previous attempt, and the presence of Kephet and a dozen scribe-guards surrounding her.
She’d discovered, just before they left, that Hotep had been training promising young scribes to form a special fighting force. The regent had implied they were coming as much to find and “rescue” the pharo and the princess as to keep her from having any ideas.
It was infuriating. She’d spent her time locked up ruminating on Hotep’s protections, trying to recall her attempts at breaking them and what went wrong. But to even get another chance she’d need to get rid of his companions.
And for that she’d need help. She was counting on it, but her plans seemed shaky and uncertain, and so much depended on them…
Kephet and the guards carried glyph torches that cast flickering shadows in the night. The moon was high and most people had retired to their homes. Those who hadn’t quickly disappeared at the sight of them. No one was bearing any sigils, but the men wore leather armor and Hotep made an impressive figure by himself, giving off an air of confidence that few cared to test. He walked in front of Hatshe, and she glared at the back of his tunic, dreaming of tearing the fabric away, tying him down and slowly burning away his protections.
Like he’d done to Nemet.
Don’t think about that, she told herself. Anger was the surest way to make a mistake. Her father had told her that a million times, explaining that glyphing was painstaking work, trial and error and trial again. Emotion made you try for too much, too fast, and you might get lost forever, burn yourself out. Hotep would pay. But for that, she had to keep her feet firmly stuck in the sand.
They were moving into the city’s cramped streets, far from her home near the woodworkers’ residences. She figured Nemet might have gone here. The same way she had never told him her story completely, he had never told her much about his past—but Hatshe had deduced a lot anyway. He still had family, he’d said once, vaguely, but they hadn’t been pleased when Nemet left to be with her. “They should be happy you’ll be safe,” she’d told him then. The memory tasted bitter. Excellent job, Hatshe.
The streets became cramped and fetid. Dark shapes scurried away when they passed, both human and animal. They were in the slums, and torchlights shone inside crowded taverns. They stopped in front of one of these. Hotep made a gesture and the guards spread out to circle the building.
A bare-chested man sat on a wicker stool by the door. He looked up lazily at Hotep and the group, as if an entourage of guards and scribes often stopped on his doorstep.
Kephet stepped up to him. “This is the regent.” Silence. Kephet murmured a glyph that broke the stool’s legs and sent the man sprawling. “Bow to—”
Hotep stepped up. “Rise,” he ordered simply. “Go to the man called Tekat and let him know who is here.”
The doorman obeyed and, a few moments later, Tekat appeared. Hatshe gaped. That was Nemet’s brother all right. The broad shoulders, the large nose and bushy eyebrows—it was like looking at a rougher copy of her husband. But Tekat’s eyes held more suspicion and guile than Nemet’s. The man took in the group—Hotep, Kephet, Hatshe herself and one guard who had remained with them—and sighed, leaning on the doorframe.
“So. You’re here for them.”
“You will lead us to them,” Hotep said. “Quietly.” He didn’t offer a reward, nor present reasons. The regent didn’t need to. His own presence, and the guards at regular intervals around the building carrying their glyph torches, seemed enough of an argument.
“All this for one man and two kids?” Tekat asked.
Hotep stepped forward. It was a small step, and his voice was quiet and pleasant. “I wish to be far from this hovel as soon as possible. If the fastest way to do that is by tying your guts into knots and stepping over your body, so be it. But if you wish to still breathe by the end of the night, then lead the way. Or have you more questions about matters of state?”
The man, wisely, just turned around. They entered the tavern after him.
That was when the ceiling caved in.
A massive weight of mudbrick cracked loudly and poured down on them. Hotep reacted more quickly than Hatshe could’ve imagined. He shouted a couple of glyphs which made not only the falling debris stop midair but also froze the beer in the cups, the cups in the air, and nailed chairs and tables to where they were. The two dozen people who had been drinking and eating inside turned their eyes upward, then to him, then proceeded to shout, run or cower where they sat.
Hatshe took advantage of the moment to grab Tekat. “Where are they?”
“Up,” he whispered, looking too surprised for someone who knew what was happening. The entire building would cave in when Hotep let go of the spell. Would that kill the pharo? Unlikely. But the princess—and more importantly, Nemet—would be crushed to death.
“Get out!” Kephet shouted at the people still inside. “Now!”
They did. Hotep turned back, eyes flashing. Tekat, who was easily twice his size, shrunk under that gaze as if realizing the regent could really do what he’d claimed before. “I didn’t say anything! I swear!”
Hatshe put herself between them. “He wouldn’t have collapsed his own house! And they wouldn’t have broken a building with themselves in it. They must have…” She looked around. “Are there stairs outside?”
Tekat nodded. “There’s a back exit.”
A shout from outside confirmed it. “My lord, here! They’re—” The last word turned into an agonized scream. They were circling the building when the first man on fire appeared. Two more guards were on the floor, blackened and fizzling, and small fires had caught on wood lying in the street and the roofs of nearby houses. The man in flames fell to his knees in front of her and Hatshe gritted her teeth and murmured a spell to put him out, wasting energy she’d intended to use against Hotep.
The regent didn’t seem particularly grieved by his guards’ fate.
They went around to the back of the building and found almost all of them, lying dead or groaning. One raised a hand and pointed to a narrow street. When they’d gone some distance away, Hotep released the spell holding Tekat’s place together, and the noise of crumbling brick and expanding dust trailed after them.
More fires had broken out, bypassing the sturdy brick walls but catching on awnings and tents. Screams of terror broke out in the night, like a trail leading to the runaways. Hatshe put the fires out as best she could, but if the flames spread…
Hotep and Kephet ignored the possible disaster, racing after the signs of destruction. There were steps ahead of them, on a steady run; the three fugitives weren’t too far. Hotep murmured an echoing spell and when he spoke next, his voice rang out as if from the walls themselves.
“Kauhor! They have filled your ears with lies. Stop this and come home!”
A moment of stillness, then a wall of fire rose from the street to block their path. They retreated hastily.
“That worked perfectly,” Hatshe growled. She turned to Hotep as the regent glyphed the fire away. “If he keeps this up, he’s going to burn half the city.”
“Then you better stop him,” said Hotep.
“You know your part,” Hatshe snapped. “Convince him to come and I will.”
The pharo was crackling. Actually crackling.
Nemet held Nefersit back, afraid that the girl would hurt herself if she touched him. He was sure the boy himself was still up and running only because they couldn’t afford to stop—maybe because he couldn’t stop. He used his powers instinctually, the way you flinched from a punch. Unlike in the palace, when he’d focused on bringing the guards down, his actions now seemed beyond his control, spurred by panic and fear.
Nemet looked back, his chest tight. He hoped people were managing the put the fires out.
“Kid!” he shouted. “I mean, Your Highness! Try to calm down!”
His voice was drowned by Hotep’s. Nemet stumbled, his heart skipping a beat as the regent spoke right next to him. But it was just his voice, coming from the night as if from a thousand invisible mouths. Magic.
They reached an alley. Two ramshackle buildings unsteadily piled up to meet another one in the back. Linen hanging from three levels of racks filtered the moonlight and filled the space with shadows. The light cut through the pharo’s skin, alight like burning embers. The boy’s face was twisted in pain. Tears quietly left tracks on his face.
“You can take him,” Nefersit said to the pharo breathlessly. “Fight him and end this! You’re stronger than he is!”
The boy stared at her.
“But you’re not,” he said quietly.
Her expression hardened. “He won’t stop until we’re dead. I won’t stand for this. I don’t care if I get hurt!”
The pharo looked at her, eyes filled with love and admiration. Then he faced Nemet.
Nemet sighed. “I guess I don’t care either.”
“How did he do it?” Hotep asked. His voice, no longer spelled, was just a murmur as they tracked the fugitives. “How did he give them powers?”
Hatshe glanced at him from the corner of her eye. His tone was casual but she wasn’t imagining the longing in it. For twelve years he’d wondered about the spell. How many since he’d first tried hurting the pharo? How many since finding the queen’s tomb and realizing he couldn’t get his hands on the Book?
She opened her mouth—to say she knew not what—but Kephet’s low voice interrupted her. “They’re here. Ahead.”
They stopped a few feet from an alley. A pair of two-story houses that met a third one in the back, forming a narrow space. Hatshe peered into the gloom, patches of moonlight outlining refuse on the ground. There was silence, a tense stillness to the air. And further back, in the darkness, something shimmered. Another fire, she thought. Slow-burning embers.
But no. He opened his eyes.
She inhaled sharply.
Hotep raised his voice. “Kauhor, it is me. Come forward.” No response came from the alley. “I came as soon as we saw you were missing. Who led you to this madness? Was it her who urged you to use your powers? They are not for play. They are a gift to be protected. You know how they hurt you. Are you in pain?”
Hatshe bit her lip. You had to admire it, the man exuded concern. You’d think he was the boy’s own father, wringing his hands at the missing son. His voice was steady, stern but gentle.
“Calm down and we can go home.”
The embers shifted. Hatshe flinched when she realized that she was smelling burning flesh. Hotep thought her father had given the pharo these powers… but she knew what was really happening.
“You tried to kill me,” the boy said. His voice cracked, the accusation sounding more like a question.
“Who told you this? The girl? All she wants is to be queen and for me to disappear so you’ll have no one but her.” His voice rose, much less gentle now, full of righteous anger. “Are you there, Nefersit? Your family will know of your betrayal. That you led the pharo to risk himself. I don’t want to believe you would do such a thing for such ambitious motives. Was it that man? Did he lie to you?”
Hatshe glared at him but held her tongue. Let him spin his lies. It will be over soon.
The pharo hesitated. “She just wanted to keep me safe.”
“I have kept you safe all these years,” Hotep said firmly. “Do you know how many nobles wanted to depose you after your mother died? How many of them thirsted to put their own sons in your place? I slaved to make sure they didn’t succeed. Trained my scribes to build a safe throne for you. To strengthen you. And you would believe this girl over me?” Hotep sighed. “Just let me see you. Let me see what she made you do. You are hurting, are you not? You were always so frail after you used your powers, my lord.”
After a moment’s hesitation, the shifting mass of embers stepped forward. Slivers of moonlight crisscrossed his dark-red skin. Burn wounds tore at his skin like a piece of fabric being slowly consumed. Arms and chest were flaking off, his face an inhuman mask.
He didn’t just look frail—he looked about to fall apart, kept together by some impossible strength. Hatshe felt an unexpected knot at her throat. Her father had done that. She had done that. Voice of her ancestors, what had she left with Sitiah?
“Gods,” Hotep murmured, as if echoing her thoughts. “What have they done to you?”
The boy clenched his jaw. “I will not have them hurt,” he said.
“We can speak of mercy later,” Hotep said. “Now we must get you back.”
The boy looked like he desperately wanted to do just that—let Hotep take charge of things and tell him where to go—but he saw Hatshe there and hesitated.
“I don’t know what to believe,” he said. “Who to believe. You all say so much and I want to trust all of you.” He was trembling. He looked so young—Hatshe remembered seeing him as a child in the palace. His eyes still looked terribly innocent. “What is wrong with me, Hotep? Am I dying?”
“Something has been done to you,” Hotep said, taking a step forward. “Treachery.” He turned back to Hatshe.
Their deal. For a moment she thought she couldn’t do it, but she wouldn’t ruin it now. Not with Nemet’s life on the line. Not when she was so close.
“It is true,” she said, every word a blade in her heart. “My father was Ankhmese, embalmer and physician to the royal family.” The pharo’s eyes widened. The man who murdered my mother, he would have heard. “He made an attempt on your life. But… Hotep saved you. My father had already worked his curse, however, so you were left like this. With these… abilities that threatened your life.”
“But we can undo the curse. This woman,” Hotep pointed at her, “hid her father’s things. Through them, we have found a way. Come with me, Kauhor. It will be over soon.”
Nemet grabbed the future queen of the Upper and Lower Lands by the waist with one arm, and with the other blocked her mouth. The girl was being difficult.
“Stay still!” he hissed next to her ear. They were glued to the back wall of an alley. Shattered bricks and bunched-up fabric were strewn around them, as well as substances he didn’t care to identify. It was the kind of place seedy business was conducted in, but all the seedy people had taken one look at them and fled.
Nefersit bit his hand and he bit back a yell, loosening his grip for a second—enough for her to turn around to face him. “They’ll kill him,” she whispered. Her tone was angry but her panic showed through like fish in clear water.
“Hatshe hates Hotep more than anything,” he assured her. “She’s not working for him.”
“You’re here, aren’t you?” He frowned and she explained, “She won’t risk your life. Not if she loves you.” Her eyes turned inward, only to focus again when the pharo spoke.
“I’ll go if you promise not to punish Nefersit.” The boy was crying. Nemet didn’t know if he was hurt or afraid or both.
Hotep took another step forward, his hawkish features moonlit and arranged in a mask of concern.
“If that is your wish,” he ceded. “For the time being, she’ll go to her family—”
“Burn my heart, I won’t!”
Too slow. Nemet almost toppled as the girl elbowed him and pushed away. She stepped forward with her head high and stopped at a square of moonlight next to the pharo. She took his shimmering, fizzling hand, giving no sign that it pained her to do so.
“I go where he goes,” she declared, voice clear and crisp.
“Very well,” Hotep agreed once more. “It doesn’t matter. Now there’s only one thing left.” He raised his voice. “Nemet, come and join us.”
He moved less eagerly than the girl, a large shape in the dimness slowly coalescing into a familiar shape.
Her heart lurched.
He was whole. Head and shoulders and arms and legs. Or almost whole—the scorch marks from Hotep’s burning of his glyphs were an angry red stripe on his torso, and a fist in her stomach. Still—Hatshe hadn’t realized that breathing would be so much easier with him in front of her. She hadn’t known relief could buckle your knees as hard as any punch.
She held herself still and pushed away the emotion. It was not over. Kephet stepped in front of her and grabbed Nemet’s wrists, tying them behind him and staying close.
“He will be kept under watch, my lord,” Hotep explained to the pharo. “So she won’t try to escape our agreement.”
The last part was directed at her, a warning. The agreement was not quite what the pharo thought, however.
Nor was it what Hotep did.
She looked at him and nodded. “Let’s go.”
When traitors are executed, they don’t get a burial. There is no careful embalming, certainly no reading of the Book of the Dead to ensure their souls find the fields of Asar. Their hearts are burned by the god, the priests tell. Their souls are obliterated and forgotten, all trace of them gone.
But Hatshe had known her father was no traitor. And she didn’t believe in any of that shit anyway.
Ankhmese’s body had been dumped where unwanted bodies were left to rot—the necropolis of the commons. Outside the city, in the sterile red lands beyond the Valley of the Tombs, lay the graves of simple people. No guards were posted around them, as there was nothing to steal from these bodies. Relatives wrapped them in linen, dug deep and took care to delimit a space for their loved ones. Those who could afford built brick tombs or set stone markers with names engraved by scribes. But some were not that lucky. The poorer and the slaves were thrown in shallow mass graves from which bones and decaying skin peeked out.
That’s where Ankhmese had been thrown. Hatshe had gone as soon as she’d hidden his things—imagining her father’s dismay if he knew she hadn’t protected his scrolls first—and braved the smell of rotting bodies with tight-fisted stubbornness. She found him at night, his body mutilated. As a treasonous scribe, his hands had been cut off before execution. She went down in the pit and hauled him up. Then all through that long, infinite night, she wrapped him and glyphed and spelled from the Book. She knew it by heart—had never needed more than a couple of reads to recall a spell. When it was done, she picked a spot and dug with a shovel. Her hands were blistering and red by the time it was deep enough. She placed him down to rest and covered him and felt herself changed by the end of it.
He should have been buried in a proper tomb, she’d thought, built by the family he served, engraved by the most skilled scribes in the realm.
He should have been alive.
She hated the necropolis. The sight of it made her want to retch now as she stepped into it for the first time since that night. She led the way among the dead, Hotep by her side, the pharo and Nefersit behind them, and Nemet held by Kephet at some distance. The moon hung full above them, the desert air crisp and chill. She and Kephet held glyph torches, the flames casting a tremulous red glow on the makeshift tombs. Hundreds, thousands of them, giving the impression that anything—anyone—could be lying in wait just around the corner.
“Why are we here?” Hotep asked quietly.
“Did you ever try to do what he’d done?” she asked instead. “To recreate the spell? Did you suspect what he had achieved?”
His lips pressed into a thin line. Of course he’d tried. He might even know what her father had done, but have been unable to recreate it. Glyphing was an unpredictable thing, discoveries ephemeral, often instinctual.
“He did something dangerous,” Hotep stated carefully.
“He opened the doors,” Hatshe said as they walked through the rows of stone slabs. “That was the first step. To make a crack through which he could pull them back into our realm.”
She stopped at the center of the necropolis. A few feet ahead, the mass graves were giant open sores under the stars, the stuff of nightmares. She’d certainly dreamt of them enough.
Nefersit’s voice rang behind them, frightened and angry. “Why are we here?” Hatshe stopped to glance back, and saw the girl held the pharo upright. Her fingers dug into his skinny arms as if afraid he’d slip past them. “What are you doing to him? You’re going to murder him, aren’t you? I knew you’d—”
Hotep had the gall to fall to his knees in front of the pharo.
“My lord,” he vowed, hand over his heart, chin touching his chest, “all I ever did was serve you, since the moment you were born. Like I served your father as a youth, and your mother until the day she died.”
Hatshe wanted to scoff. Instead, she let the words ring and hover between them—hoping with a fragile, desperate hope that someone else would cut the silence. For a second there was only the breeze amidst the tombs, then she heard shuffling feet and a terrible, terrible voice.
“You served only yourself.” The words filled up the air, rage embedded in each syllable. Hotep twisted his head, eyes as wide as Hatshe had ever seen them. She stepped to the side so he could see the newcomer fully.
And so she could see her son for the first time in twelve years.
Hotep took the figure in and rose unsteadily to his feet. Shock and terror flashed on his face, replaced by understanding and hatred when he glanced at Hatshe. Fooled you, she thought.
Hatshe looked behind the queen, but no one else emerged. She hoped Sitiah was well away by now—far from whatever was about to happen here. Nenuah was speaking longer sentences, her eyes focused and intense, so Sitiah must have been able to heal her mind to some degree.
The queen stepped forward, still wearing one of Hatshe’s dresses. Her steps were steadier now and her eyes fixed on the pharo. Her beautiful face was unmarred by death or use of power—she hadn’t been reawakened so long for her body to begin to decay.
“My son.” Her voice rang with an emotion that Hotep’s best attempt couldn’t mimic. “Forgive me.”
Hotep recovered some control. “Nenuah,” he called, “you should not be here. My lord, this woman,” he pointed at Hatshe, “has dealt with forbidden magics. She has desecrated your mother’s tomb and revived her body—”
The queen stepped forward, ignoring Hotep like a vermin and going directly to the boy.
“My son,” she whispered again, the words Hatshe had heard over and over for days, now imbued with so much love they were almost a spell of their own. She reached out and put a delicate hand on his cheek. “It’s true that I should not be here. Neither should you. But we will be together now, I promise.” She smiled. “It’s so beautiful there. So peaceful. You’ll love it.”
The boy gaped, the white of his eyes the only clear part of his ruined face. “Is it really you? What do you mean there?”
“You don’t belong here, my child. Now you and I will go to the fields and be together as we should always have been all this time.”
The pharo absorbed this thoughtfully—while Nefersit, still hanging onto his arm, pulled him a step back.
“You’re talking about killing him!” she cried out. “You,” she accused Hotep. “I knew you were planning something!”
“He’s already dead,” Hotep snapped. “He died twelve years ago. Nenuah,” he tried again, “you’re right that you don’t belong here, either of you. You must return.”
That damned snake, thought Hatshe. Trying to slither his way around everything. But would it work? She’d pinned her hopes on that single moment of recognition at the pyramid, on the fact the queen must know Hotep was a lying bastard…
Nenuah turned from her son reluctantly and looked him over.
“You always knew.” Her voice was weighed by the strange power both she and the pharo possessed, a simmering intangible magic that covered them like a mantle. “Ankhmese told me before I died that someone had poisoned us. But Kauhor was an accident; it was me you wanted to kill, wasn’t it? With me out of the way it would be so much easier to control him. But Ankhmese told me he was working on a way to fix it. That he wasn’t going to let him die.” She placed a hand on the boy’s ruined cheek. “I wanted you to live so badly—I didn’t know it would be like this.”
“I remember,” the pharo said slowly, a memory stirring. His voice was full of wonder as a smile split his cracked lips. “I saw you after you died. When I woke, I thought it was a dream.”
“It wasn’t. You came to me. They took you from my arms.”
“My father brought you back,” Hatshe explained. “He pulled you from the netherworld. There is magic there unlike ours. The power of scribes is just a reflection of theirs, distilled. Watered down. Your soul has been there, surrounded by that magic, embedded in it. When it returned to your body, it was bursting with that magic. And it was poison—every use of it consumed your body, but you could not die, you cannot die, because your soul is already eternal.”
“Ankhmese.” The name came out spit venom. Hatshe twisted and saw Hotep had straightened his shoulders, hands behind his back. No more excuses or mock regret, all that showed in his face now was hatred. “Tell me, Nenuah, if he was so good to you, how come he didn’t bring you back along with your son? And you think she’s gonna help?” Hotep’s eyes alighted on Hatshe. “All she wants is revenge and her husband back.”
“I want justice,” Hatshe said. “For the truth to be known.”
Hotep gave a humorless laugh. “You want the truth? The truth is that your father wanted power for himself. He could have brought her back, but he didn’t, and that’s because he wanted to do exactly what I have done. He wanted scribes to rule this land as much as I do. We were the same. He was just too weak and slow to strike me before I struck him.”
“You’re lying,” Hatshe said, a reflex more than anything. Oh, if she only could… scratch his eyes out, cut his tongue, his hands, tie him and burn him and ruin him, everything he’d done to the people she loved, to the people who’d opposed him. There was no mercy in her heart. She felt herself a dark hole, as hopeless and deep as the necropolis pits. And worst of all was the nagging doubt that he’d instilled in her heart like an insidious disease.
“He was as ambitious as any man,” Hotep sneered. “He agreed it was time for us to take our place.”
Hatshe realized that she was shaking. It had been useless to attack him before, but she realized she didn’t care. Emotion was dangerous to a scribe, but it could also be a source of power. She opened her mouth, letting a spell rise to the tip of her tongue—when the queen spoke.
“Ankhmese is dead.” Nenuah let go of her son and went to stand before Hotep. “He has paid for his presumption. And you have not. Yet.”
Her skin started to glow. The spell died in Hatshe’s throat.
The air rippled and crackled around the last queen of Ansah as she gathered the power, her body glowing like a beacon in the night.
Hotep looked focused, but not fearful. He stood his ground. For a moment, a distant part of Hatshe even admired him. But when the queen turned incandescent, her hands engulfed by blue-white flames, all she had time for was a moment of grim satisfaction—and caution. Nemet and Kephet were still at a distance, so she ran to pull Nefersit and the pharo away from the blast.
Nenuah released her power, shouting as the use of magic burned her from the inside out, drawing searing lines on her beautiful face like a till rasping the earth.
Grave markers were torn asunder, stones flew high over the necropolis, and the queen fell to her knees with a cry, her hands smoldering. The energy enveloped Hotep like a deadly embrace. When the bright glow of the blast faded, the regent was kneeling too, hands dug into the earth.
Hatshe stared as he raised his head.
He rose slowly, somewhat unsteadily. His tunic had been blown to shreds. His body shone under the moonlight, revealing glyphs inked into skin. Spell lines that had been hidden began appearing over his arms and feet and face. More protections than she’d seen before; invisible ones.
“I have worked hard not to be caught like Ankhmese,” Hotep said. He sounded winded, but that was no comfort. He should be ashes. “Even without his spells.”
“You didn’t want the Book to kill them,” Hatshe realized suddenly. Was there no end to her stupidity? Killing the pharo was only part of it. Hotep had seen the boy survive assassination attempts and wield powers scribes could only dream of.
He didn’t want just to be the pharo. He wanted that same power.
And if the queen couldn’t defeat him, what hope did Hatshe have? The pit inside her widened into a void of hopelessness—they couldn’t beat him, she would never avenge her father, Nemet would be killed and they would…
Her eyes landed on the queen, on the white-hot marks marring her skin. And in one sudden and revealing moment, desperation gave way to calm. Pieces fell into place, like a game of anet after the player reached his goal. She knew what to do.
It was time for the queen and her son to return to the netherworld.
It was poison. Hotep was seething. He’d never felt so enraged in his life. Not when Ankhmese betrayed him and wanted to send the boy back. Not when he discovered that the child couldn’t be killed. Not when he opened Nenuah’s tomb and realized he couldn’t get the Book without Ankhmese’s daughter.
He would do to her what he did to her father, then drag her to her hideaway and make her get the Book. He would kill them all—Hatsheptut and her husband, Nefersit and her entire family. He would say the girl betrayed the pharo and arranged his death. Enough people had seen them running in the city, the palace guards had seen them escape. Then he would lock Nenuah and her kid in a tomb where they could live forever in death.
And he would discover a way. There had to be a way to tap into that power without hurting himself. Hotep was sure that, if he only had the Book, he could find out how.
He was about to step forward and begin all of this when the earth trembled beneath him.
Hatsheptut was speaking.
The key of glyphing was the words, but the power came from the spellcaster. It was always there, just waiting for the right command to be unleashed. Yet every scribe knew there were things you couldn’t do. Things that could kill you. Things that a human’s magic had no hope of achieving.
Her father had known. Trying to open a door to the netherworld from this side would be as useless as Hotep attempting to open that bier with her name written on the lid. So her father had established a connection between the two worlds—him, the spellcaster, on one side, and on the other, the source of the power.
Instead of using human strength to perform the spell, Ankhmese had linked himself to the god and drained his magic. That was what Hatshe had felt go through her as she cast the spell on Nenuah—a power that was vast and awe-inspiring and terrifying.
She hadn’t believed it at first, when she finally decoded the Book. She hadn’t been able to understand the glyphs for so long simply because she never studied the religious texts. Her father had been the one to tell her the gods were human creations to explain magic. That there were no such beings. When had he begun believing in them? How had he figured it out?
She cleared her head. It didn’t matter now. As the words filled her mind and formed in her mouth, the necropolis began to tremble. Any dead person could be a doorway into the netherworld. She widened the range of the spell so it touched the entire necropolis.
She wasn’t going to make a small crack. She was kicking the doors open.
Hatshe began speaking and the earth shook. Nemet stumbled backwards, biting back a scream when bones poked out of the earth between his feet. Kephet released him, startled, then began a spell of his own.
Nemet didn’t think, just tackled the man to the ground. A good punch disoriented the scribe, who struggled against Nemet’s heftier body. Want to hurt my wife, do you? The scribe fought him desperately, to no use. Nemet was stronger and he was angry. His fists bled with every punch, loosening the scribe’s teeth until he could no longer speak. One more punch and Kephet fell unconscious.
Nemet knelt there, panting. Then he looked down and saw the blood.
“What are you doing?” Hotep asked. He stumbled when the grave he was standing on cracked open, a linen-wrapped arm peeking out.
Hatshe grinned. “You wanted their powers, didn’t you? I’ll show you how to get them. Nek sem met-th an pu en!”
The door stretched and widened, a gaping maw ready to consume everything, a swirling vortex of power with her at the center, Asar on the other side. The spell ripped through her like a thousand lances. She might die, she realized distantly. But it didn’t matter—she knew what to do, she felt the glyphs take shape in her throat, in her blood, in her bones, and it made sense to her, all of it, the world and its language. Her whole life had been child’s play until this moment.
She felt the magic touch all the remains around them, hundreds, thousands of people—then hauled their souls forth. They rushed back in, crossing the threshold from their world into this one, searching for their old bodies. But Hatshe stopped them before they got inside them. Regent, scribe, traitor, murderer. Hotep. She named him in every way. And, obeying her command, thousands of souls rushed into Hotep, carrying the taint and the power of the netherworld.
Hotep fell back, a scream turning to silence as he was quickly consumed. Skin became burning embers became ashes in the wind. It was over in moments. Where he once stood, there was nothing.
Except thousands of souls searching for another host.
Hatshe dug her nails into the earth. There was no time to gloat; she could barely hang onto consciousness. Her own screams reached her from an abyss. It was too much. Asar’s power was burning through her. I’m going to die, she thought, but the thought was muffled when she felt a loving touch on her, a brush with one of the souls. She knew him, and for a second wanted nothing more than to hold him close, ask all her questions, tell him so many things, demand answers.
But she couldn’t leave that door open or those souls roam free. She looked at the queen and the pharo. Even before they nodded she was speaking.
“Tum-rah nas neas…” Take them back. Take them all back where they belong. The queen knelt and held her son tight, eyes closed. Unlike Hotep, they abandoned their bodies swiftly, painlessly, eagerly. Someone was crying nearby.
The maelstrom threatened to pull her in. Hatshe focused on the glyphs, gripping the spell that had a life of its own, that wanted to escape her control. She just needed to close the door.
But she recognized another soul rushing in.
Her heart faltered. She looked back and saw him amidst the corpses and bones, he and Kephet lying side by side, the scribe with a red-stained knife in one hand. A gaping wound on Nemet’s side leaked and Hatshe scrambled to his side, the corners of her vision darkening. The ground lurched beneath her, the spell testing its bonds in her moment of distraction.
She put her hand over the wound and pressed, willing his soul to stay.
“Not him,” she cried out. “You can’t have him!”
She could help, she could save him—with regular glyphs, a power of her own, but the vortex still roared as the souls poured back inside. If he fell in, he would be forever tainted. He could never come back. She couldn’t let go, but she couldn’t both heal him and keep his soul inside.
“Stay with me. Stay with me.” She didn’t know if she spoke words or glyphs, but felt the ground trembling below, the precariousness of her hold on this magic, a deep-seated terror of what she had unleashed finally coming to the fore and paralyzing her.
When another pair of hands pressed on top of hers. Sitiah.
“Shh,” the priestess said, and began speaking familiar glyphs—a healing spell, expert and delicate and beautiful.
Hatshe closed her eyes and held onto her husband’s soul, focused on not letting the doors widen any more. The dead were pouring back inside, each brushing her as it did, making her eyes water and her mouth dry. She trembled violently, fearing she might be torn apart too. But not yet. As soon as he was back in his body, she could end the spell.
Sitiah finished speaking and leaned back. Nemet’s chest heaved. He breathed in and relief flooded Hatshe’s overwrought body like a hammer blow.
“Come back,” she ordered his soul.
But it didn’t. He was alive, but he didn’t open his eyes.
He didn’t open his eyes. Nemet felt he’d closed them, and that now he could see. That made no sense, but somehow he felt the truth of it. He remembered the pain, the blood, the scribe. Was Kephet dead? He was somewhere else, no doubt. No longer in the necropolis, but not in any field of light. He stood, his vision blurry. It was day, but the scorching desert sun was muted. There was a river, a familiar one, but it was wrong too—the current was backwards. And there were no people, no city where Ansah should have been. Just the flowing waters in a cloudy morning, a swift breeze chilling his skin and rippling sparse vegetation, grayish reeds that seemed to have forgotten how to grow.
What if all he’d done hadn’t been enough to appease the god? To earn a place in the afterlife? His heart sank. If he still had a heart. Perhaps the god had already judged it. Had it been burned? Was that the river of oblivion?
He felt a pull in his chest, as if he were a puppet tied to a cord. One end of it was held by a familiar hand, bright and strong and desperate. Hatshe. The other was held without effort, but its pull was immeasurably stronger. He looked ahead and his vision began to clear. A figure stood a few feet away, a human shape that shifted like a mirage under an opaque sun. Its face sometimes looked like a man’s, sometimes like a woman’s, sometimes like an animal’s.
Nemet knew, in the same instinctual way he knew he was neither dead nor alive, that it was Asar.
“She holds on to you.” The god’s voice thrummed inside Nemet’s chest. “She fights me.”
My wife does not pick small fights, he thought. If not the regent of the realm, the god of the netherworld. He thought the god might have heard him, even though he didn’t speak out loud. A surge of something that might have been humor or anger or both went through him and left him shaking.
“Will she be all right?” he asked. He realized the ridiculousness of the question as soon as it left him. Asar had no connections with life on earth, he would not care what happened to one person. But nothing else came to mind, nothing else mattered.
He looked back to where he felt Hatshe’s desperate grip on him, a blinding whiteness. If Asar let him go, he would snap back like a broken sistrum cord.
“She has commanded me,” Asar said. “Like her father before her. Breaking rules that were made at a time before time. Should that not be punished? Should I not keep something of hers?”
“Let him go!” The voice floated around Nemet as if carried by the breeze, pulsing with power and will, but still only a fish battling against a much stronger current. “He is mine, not yours! Not yet!”
He’d always known Hatshe would go too far one day, try something she couldn’t return from. He just never imagined it would be this. What power did he or she have to convince a god? None. But, to his surprise, he was not despairing. After so many years wondering if the god heard his prayers, he had a chance to make sure he did.
He fell to his knees on the riverside.
“Lord of Death, Lord of Life,” he recited. The words came readily, practiced and worn. “Thou who art forever youthful, who died and returned. Lord of Mercy, who grants silence and peace. I am your servant, now and always…”
The prayer went on, every word soothing him. He thought of Nefersit, now wed. She’d be a good queen. He hoped his brother was well and hadn’t suffered for his actions. And, most of all, he thought of Hatshe. She would miss him, and that filled him with grief. But she would survive. She still held sweetness in her, even though life had tried beating it out of her, and he knew—perhaps he was the only one who knew—that she was kind and loving and good. He prayed she would have peace when he was gone, wisdom and fortitude and joy in this life, and especially, with all his heart, that she would find her way to him in the next.
As for him? He wasn’t afraid to go.
“You have to let go.” Sitiah’s voice came from a dream—a nightmare made of shadows and horror. Hatshe could see nothing except Nemet’s alive but lifeless body. It was all she could do to hold herself in one piece while she still had him, feeling the shape of him slipping through her fingers.
She was playing tug-of-war with a god. It would not go her way. She knew she couldn’t win, but she couldn’t bring herself to let go.
It’s your own damn fault, she thought. My love, forgive me. Her own strength failing as the magic consumed her feeble human body, she rested her head on his chest. She would fight until the end. Until his end and her end, and then it would be all right.
The breeze picked up. The river waters swirled, flowing downstream instead of up, and the grass under his hands was green, bright and alive.
Nemet opened his eyes.
Isa Prospero lives in São Paulo, where she works with books and likes to imagine her own. Besides publications in Portuguese, she has a short story in the science fiction anthology All borders are temporary.