THE KINGDOM OF TA-SET
THE CITY OF QU-STUL
THE PALACE OF AHMOSE
Irsu walked the grounds of his father’s palace, stealthily and without a sound. The voices of the servants echoed deep in the labyrinth of enclosed corridors and hallways. He heard the voice of Amenemhet in the babble and sought deep within himself what the commotion was about. It was not long before the answer came to him. A matter of theft among the manservants had been discovered and the culprit yet unknown in the throng. It was a small matter. Five measures of barley removed from the kitchens in the time of the sowing.
Turning again, Irsu returned to the courtyard, to the raised dais where his father’s stool sat. He stood in deep contemplation, eyeing the elaborate weaving of the linen that decorated it. The artisans of the land had already begun work on the throne that would replace it. A chair made of carved wood with the legs of Maahes, the god of the horizon and its arms framed with the wings of Her, the god of the sky – both of whom were gods of his father’s house. It was one more elaborate than his throne in the temple of the goddess and more befitting of his place as son of the living sun.
Irsu stroked his chin, his band of carnelian and lapis lazuli twinkling in the morning light. He thought of the great battle that waited him and the traitor who had sent the intruder to the palace of his father. Ua-zit of Eshunna, the one who had served his father and yet conspired against him. The intruder, Merkha now serving as a servant in the temple of the goddess had added nothing to his admission of guilt, only working with the most single devotion on the temple’s gardens.
He watched him sometimes from his stool in the gardens. Other times he called him to form in the watery depths of his magic bowl. Irsu saw nothing in him that required caution. There was another more ambitious and he lived within the palace walls.
He heard the servants approach and their shocked cries before he turned to them. Amenemhet led them; falling to his knees and calling him lord.
The younger servants scraped lower, awe on their faces as they greeted him.
Amenemhet rose at his command and Irsu inquired about the affairs of the palace. The servants shifted from foot to foot as the chief servant of the palace told shared with Irsu the matter of the theft.
“I have inquired it of the men but none admits guilt.”
Irsu’s eyes moved from man to man, taking stock of their apprehension. They huddled tightly together, each man looking everywhere but at him. He saw the one that stole among them, gaunt and a few moons away from manhood. He beckoned him forward. The young man stumbled towards him, his lips trembling as he neared Irsu.
“You steal from your lord?”
The boy Mitri fell flat to his face, clasping his hands before his bowed head.
“Mercy, righteous one. I took it that she who bore my mother may eat.”
Irsu asked Amenemhet of the boy. It was told to him that he joined those of the kitchen in the time of the sowing when he set himself upon the gates of the palace seeking work and food. The heart of Irsu was moved as he looked at the boy.
“Give him more.”
Amenemhet looked at his king and master in confusion.
“More my lord?”
Mitri hearing those words raised his head from the ground but only enough to look at the tip of Irsu’s sandals.
“Yes Amenemhet. Give him five measures of barley. That is my judgment.”
Irsu dismissed the boy and he slinked gratefully back into the crowd that waited in attention for him. The one Irsu had come for wore on his face the most guileless smile as he stood, head bowed and hands clasped across his chest. The servants fell back as the wave of the river as Irsu strode to him.
The cleaner and keeper of the outer post greeted him, keeping his eyes on the ground.
“Your lord seeks a word with you. Walk with me.”
Apu walked with Irsu on the grounds of the palace where a burst of jasmine, mandrakes, poppy and lotus blossom covered the earth in brilliant hues. Birds sang, wrapping the grounds in a sweet melodious sound. Apu kept himself from seeing the beauty around him and instead paid great attention to the man that walked beside him.
He had heard about the magic and exploits of Ahmose, father of the king long before he took up post in the palace. It was whispered in the city that his son, borne to him by the goddess was a man of even greater magic. The people spoke of how the Per-Ao saw deep into the minds of men thoughts even before they were formed.
“The land sits in such glory in the light of the great one,” said Irsu, face turned towards the sun that shone brightly upon them.
Apu’s eyes followed Irsu’s gaze.
“Yes, your majesty. It does.”
When the keeper of the outer post brought looked away from the blue sky, he found the eyes of Irsu on him. Stilling his heart, he lowered his gaze and stopped just as Irsu had done.
“The beauty of your land, do you not yearn for it?”
“The land on which we stand is my land, my lord.”
“And your people?”
“I have no people but the people of the land my lord.”
“And your loyalty, to whom do you pledge it?”
“To you the son of the living sun my lord.”
The birds stopped their singing and the winds ceased rustling in the palm trees around them. Apu spoke a prayer in his heart as he met the steady gaze of the man he served. The Per-Ao stood transformed before him, his stature appearing to double and his eyes glowing darkly in an unearthly manner. The keeper of the outer post sensed the magic in the king.
“And how is it that you are brother to him who serves in the temple’s garden. Him who is called Merkha.”
The fear coiled in Apu’s stomach stirred so that the bread and barley gruel he had eaten at dawn surged towards his mouth.
“He is not…not the son of my mother my lord.”
“He is your brother still.”
Apu wiped his large lean hands on his kilt.
“He is sworn to the traitor Ua-zit just as you are,” Irsu said softly again, his voice though low sounding as though it came from a far away place.
Apu thought to protest his innocence yet he knew such effort would anger the Per-Ao. He had hoped to keep his loyalty hidden until his brothers had gained foothold on the soil of the land. Pictures of his death came to him and he recalled the land he had denied and the family he would never see.
“The time for your death is not yet come,” Irsu told the fearful watcher, his face empty of expression as he watched him. “It may come when the gods will it.”
Hope filled Apu and he mustered courage to look into the eyes of the king.
“Thank you my lord.”
The hand of the Per-Ao came to rest on Apu and he felt himself weighed down as if with the stones the builders hurled to the palace’s gate for the new causeway.
“Give thanks only when the promise is fulfilled. Surely the one you served taught you this.”
The words of the king rang through the mind of the watcher and he pondered on the manner in which the king referred to the one who led the brothers, as if his service to him had come to an end.
“Yes, you will serve me Apu son of Eshunna. You are no more messenger of the traitor Ua-zit,” Irsu told the watcher with a smile that was unaffected yet lacking in warmth.
Apu wasted no time in pledging his allegiance to the Per-Ao. The king watched him unmoved.
“Words are nothing to me, watcher of the post. You will show your loyalty.”
The Per-Ao told Apu of the conditions in which he served Ua-zit as though he had stood in the secret chambers at the edge of the land where the brothers waited and observed the words passed between the brothers. He told him of the deaths that had been promised him in the occasion of his disobedience.
“There is none greater in magic in all the lands of the earth than me. The life of your master is in my hands. The death of Ua-zit and those with him require neither the strength of an army nor the poison of your treachery. I do this that you may know the benevolence of your lord.”
“I am most grateful, lord.”
The Per-Ao said no more. He went his way, disappearing past the walls that guarded the palace as Apu stood in silence. Apu knew that the matter was not yet ended. Peace settled upon him when he remembered those of his father’s house. None would be harmed now. The powers of the Per-Ao were great. If the Per-Ao had purposed that they lived, the one he served before would do them no harm. He prepared himself for the summons that would come. He would join Merkha at the feet of the Per-Ao.
THE TEMPLE OF THE GODDESS
LATE NOON HOUR
Nefekhare sat with the goddess in the garden, rubbing into her hands the oil of balsam and frankincense. The soothing fragrance compelled the goddess into a sleep that was shallow, yet restful. Nefekhare watched her, her mind empty of thought. The magic within her had taken complete hold and given her powers over herself so that she no more felt herself at the mercy of the voices in her head. In spite of this, Nefekhare wished she could hear the thoughts of the one she called mother. How was it that she refused the meals and the wines the servants brought to her, turning her face to the wall and looking upon a distant place? Even the coming festival of harvest brought no light to her eyes.
The eyes of the goddess remained close.
“It is nearly night and you have taken no meal.”
“I have no need of food.”
Nefekhare returned to rubbing the hand of the goddess without another word. She set upon the other hand and then to the soles of her feet, working deep into the body of the goddess the healing oil prescribed by her own hand. In the midst of her ministrations, Nefekhare felt her heart flutter unexpectedly. Her hands stilled on the body of the goddess and her lips trembled with a smile. She was at once bashful as soon as she saw that the eyes of the goddess had opened and fallen upon her.
The goddess reached for the hand of Nefekhare, gripping tightly at it.
“Use your magic, not to destroy him but to provide him succor for the coming days.”
Panic rose within Nefekhare and she clasped her hand over the hand of the goddess.
“Stay with us mother.” Tears formed in her eyes. “Please.”
The goddess heard the words spoken in her heart.
For I am not ready for this task which you set upon me.
“You have the magic of the goddess Nefekhare,” the goddess said. Her eyes burned with intensity as she looked upon the one she called daughter. “Use it. Trust it.”
The joy at perceiving the return of her husband drifting away, Nefekhare pressed the hand of the goddess against her face. The cold had once again returned to her body.
“How long now?”
“The next moon.”
Tears fell down Nefekhare’s face. The next moon was nearly upon them. It was ten sun risings until then.
“Does he know?”
The goddess moved her head in answer.
“He knows everything Nefekhare. He is my son.”
They sat together and watched the great one sink into the red sky. The ibis sang among the lilies of the garden, their song a haunting mimicry of the sadness in the garden. Many times the son in Nefekhare’s womb kicked, pushing hard against her flesh. In those times she felt herself torn between the stirrings of joy and sorrow for the two souls who though entwined sought opposing ends – one for birth and the other for death.
Irsu passed the lamps burning low in the niches of the temple’s walls, disappearing into the parts not covered by the light and reappearing again at the steps that led to his ritual chamber across the holiest of chambers where the goddess spoke to his mother. He saw her before she made herself known, creeping out of the shadows and falling at his feet.
“Rise Yamtisy,” he said to her, noting how easily her nakedness showed beneath her dress. “What brings you here at this hour?”
The young maiden rose, her plaited short hair covered with a string of small amber beads. The strap of her dress fell from her shoulder, revealing to the eyes of Irsu the tops of her full breasts.
“I came to help my lord for his ritual.”
“The cleansing is completed. I have no need for help.”
Yamtisy’s mouth opened as if in surprise. Contrition appearing on her face, she stepped forward so that she stood within an arm’s length to the Per-Ao.
“Forgive me lord. It was not told to me that my lord was ready for his ritual.”
The mouth of Irsu turned in a smile and then he walked briskly up the stairs, leaving the maiden who had attempted to charm him watching after him. In the dark, at the furthest end of the hallway stood another. She too waited so that when the maiden Yamtisy had concluded her contemplation and hurried towards her bedchamber, accosted her.
“My queen!” Yamtisy said, her hands busying around the straps of her dress until she had regained most of her composure. “You need me?”
Nefekhare said nothing, only listening with unrestrained delight to the thoughts in the maiden’s heart. When the maiden could bear it no longer, she raised questioning eyes to her mistress.
“Does the mistress need the help of her servant?”
“Perhaps,” said Nefekhare said, breaking her silence.
“Then command your servant and it shall be done.”
Nefekhare nodded, her eyes riveted on the maiden. “You will cease to doubt the urging to desist from testing your charms on the king.” She stepped forward just as the maiden had done to her husband and was satisfied to see her cower in fear. “This is my command.”
“Yes, my queen.”
“And it will be done.”
“It must be done,” Yamtisy repeated, amazed that the queen had known her doubts. It was the king who was feared for knowing all and she had done her best to keep her heart from dabbling in many thoughts when she stood before him. Before the queen she had felt no need to do the same, yet the queen had seen into her heart. Yamtisy realized at once that the queen was now like her husband. As she hurried from the presence of Nefekhare, Yamtisy knew she would never serve the king in his rituals again. The queen would see to that.
Irsu entered his bedchamber quietly, careful not to disturb the sleep of Nefekhare. The day for the birthing of his son was almost upon them and though she made no sign of ailing, Irsu thought her state delicate and made sure not to disturb her rest. As he disrobed and took from his body, the band of precious stones and the broad Wesekh collar with its gold catches, he thought of his ritual.
All was set. Merkha and Apu would be sent to the traitor at the edge of the city, messengers to do his errand. The battle would be at the end of the time of harvest and he required neither the use of mortal nor spirit to rout Ua-zit. Those who would fight at his command waited in great numbers in his ritual chamber, clay men formed from his own hand.
The voice of his wife behind him put an end to his thoughts and Irsu faced her. She was upright in bed, bathed in an iridescent glow that appeared from nowhere.
“Wife,” Irsu said, walking to the bed. “Have I woken you from your sleep?”
“No husband. I awoke upon your entry.”
He leaned towards her, watching the glow through several breaths until a sigh broke from him and he pulled away.
“The goddess is within you.”
Neferet leaned and kissed her husband.
“How long now?”
Irsu felt conflict as he watched his wife and queen. She had been dear to him without the magic of the goddess and he had loved her innocence, yet as he considered the matter it seemed to him that the powers of the goddess within her would make her his true equal.
“Perhaps,” Nefekhare answered with a knowing smile. “Yet it is your happiness that is most dear to me.”
Irsu chuckled. They were truly equals now. Nothing would be hidden from her as long as he thought it. He joined her fingers with his own and brought their joined hands to his lips. He would make her his true queen, sharing his plots with her and joining forces to bring a new dawn to the kingdom. They would achieve the golden age that was due to his father and mother had they not battled on the sands of the red land.
MAY 18 2015
Omoni woke from her deep dark sleep, tired and unable to lift the hands that seemed pinned to her sides. The room was in darkness but she made out the figure of the woman half hidden in her curtains. Her vision wobbled, fading to gray with bright spots leaping around the edges. She called out to the woman, begging her leave her alone.
She saw the woman smile in spite of the darkness and distance.
“Please,” she repeated weakly as the woman slowly drew closer, walking and sometimes floating towards her. Omoni felt nausea and began to turn her head from side to side. The woman came to stand at her bedside, unblinking and silent.
“You summoned me,” she said simply to her host. “And I answered. Why then do you reject me?”
Tears squeezed past Omoni’s closed lids, soaking up her pillow.
“I did not,” she said in a dry raspy voice that broke. “I don’t know what is happening.”
The woman fell forward, her face inches away from Omoni’s own. Her words hissed through her teeth and the sulfur in her breath bathed Omoni’s face.
“Your anger, your jealousy…they summoned me. I am your rage, your justice. I fight that you may have him, that I may have him.”
The woman’s lips parted in an evil grin and immediately she became a waft of yellow vapour that drifted into Omoni’s nostrils. The helplessness cleared from Omoni’s face and her eyes lit, her lips curving in malicious pleasure. Standing and stretching languidly beside her bed, she thought of the day ahead. There would be another encounter with the one she loved in the hour of noon. It was her chance to finish the work she had started.
Humming a song under her breath, Omoni walked to the bathroom. She stood under the water singing in a strange language that only the woman inside her knew. It came from an old time, a time when she served at the feet of the goddess. She sang slowly until it was a chant and the hatred in her heart grew into a burning ache.
Redis es set weniw nehbet tjay nebet mesenew nkbet en maa set.
Reshwit hepety set nebet. Siw mi tepy en mery tjay.
Pet-er tji peri set er haa,
Mi tefy waty adjet
She makes the necks of all men turn to see her
It is pure joy to hold her tight. He is like the first of loved men.
Look and behold, she comes and goes like that yonder,
One and only royal goddess
Omoni’s face contorted into a dark frown. How she had hated to sing the praise of the goddess and all of the worthless tributes the people showered on her. How she had watched into the night as the chief maiden of the goddess Neb-Het slept and wished that the death her brothers plotted in Ahmose’s court came quickly to the goddess.
Her mind returned to the present and her icy smile returned. She would turn the heart of the one she loved against the goddess, even though she was blind to her own powers in this time. She would have that which the gods denied her in her past life – Ahmose and eternity with him.
It is hot despite the morning wind. The sky is a blue with some hints of gray and white. I watch the colours shift as fluffy clouds roll through the sky. Somewhere behind the house, an engine splutters and dies and a sharp retort mixes with the voices of people talking loudly on their way to work. I stand, a curious bystander to a scene of human frenzy, my head full of dreams and ghostly visages from another world calling for my attention.
Wake up Anya. You who was Qalhata.
Wake up. Complete the circle.
I release the breath I am holding in.
“Who am I?”
It is a familiar question, a haunting yet to be exorcised. I mull over the question for as long as I can until another pressing question nags at me. Why had Luke sounded different on the phone?
The conversation with him that morning had been brief, almost forced, as if he had been distracted by something. My questions about the meeting with his partner and the mysterious person had gone unanswered, like all the other times I had asked.
I will talk to you later.
Just before he had hung up, I told him about my plans to stop at his apartment in the evening and had gotten something of a grunt for answer. The stab from his lack of enthusiasm is deep and a little unexpected. What had happened in the meeting with Joseph? Days had passed and my mother’s adamant order that I return home meant we spent more days apart than together.
I turn to see my sister Martha prance into the room, a wide smile on her face. I look down and see the reason for her smile.
I receive a crushing hug from her sister as she laughs giddily and performs a spin for me, her short red skater dress whipping around her thighs.
“Do you like it?”
‘It’ is my new shoes, recently purchased and proudly bearing the price tag under its sole. Worrying about work and the change in Luke had made it easy to overlook the plundering of my wardrobe.
“I just got it Martha. I haven’t even worn it.”
“Don’t worry,” Martha says, planting a wet sloppy kiss on my cheek. “You will buy more.”
Her exit is almost as dramatic as her entrance. At the door, she stops and tells me about the woman she had seen parked on our street three days in a row.
“Mummy thinks it is strange and I think she has come to ask of you before.”
I get ready for work, the weight of unsolved puzzles closing in on me until it is hard to breathe. In the bathroom, I feel several emotions and hear the still voice that commands me to wake up. I trace circles on the mirror. The words slip from my lips before I think of them.
The weight on my shoulders is immediately lifted. I hear the voice again.
My hand falls from the mirror and I stare at my reflection in surprise.
Duro is engrossed in his one sided conversation about the fight with his neighbours in his one room apartment in Egbeda. I pretend to pay attention but my concentration is fixed on the words swarming my head. I feel an impulse to repeat them.
“I am awake. I am powerful. I am awake. I am powerful.”
My voice is low but it is enough to make Duro look at me from the rear view mirror.
“Aunty Irima, you dey talk to me?”
I shake my head. “No.”
The rest of the drive to Gradias Oil is spent in silence. At the gate, I pay Duro and hurl my bag and laptop case out of his car. Moses and Lekan, the two security guards I have befriended when I worked for Luke wave me in with polite smiles and ask me about my day. I talk with them for a some minutes and then make my way into the building. Lillian is packing her bag when I enter the reception of Luke’s office.
“Irima,” she screeches, giving me smile that is strangely genuine. “It’s good to see you again.”
I tell her the feeling is mutual and dump my bag on the sofa across her desk. She walks over to meet me, her eyes suddenly too bright.
“Oga is not alone,” she says, turning to look back at Luke’s door. “Omoni is there with him.” There is a slight hesitation in her voice as if she is weighing her words carefully. “They are busy.”
Lillian says her goodbye, leaving the room in a flourish and I approach Luke’s door slowly, pulling in deep bracing breaths. My hand is settling on the door when it flies open. I stand face to face with Omoni who is wearing a gray twirl dress and hugging two files to her chest. The world seems to fall back and we stare at each other without a word. I hear the words from Duro’s taxi again. This time they are louder and more urgent.
I am powerful. I am awake.
As the words repeat in my head, I notice Omoni’s eyes widen with surprise. Propelled forward by an inner force, I take a step towards her.
There is a strange scent around her, a rotten sharp smell that sends my senses spinning unexpectedly. It fades quickly, vanishing into the air as if it had never been there.
Her teeth bared in a smile that does not reach her eyes, she makes to turn around me.
I turn to watch her go. Halfway down the corridor, she stops suddenly and slowly turns in my direction. Distance melts and every emotion I see flitting through her eyes makes something kick inside me. It intensifies until I burn with it. My hands clench of their own will, my nails biting deep into the flesh of my palms.
“Come in and close the door Irima.”
Luke’s voice breaks the spell and I tear my eyes reluctantly from Omoni, closing the door behind me with a sharp click. Behind his desk, is shrugging into his jacket, pen caught between his lips and eyes on the papers spread out before him.
“Hi,” he says without looking from the paper he signs briskly. “You are on time.”
I stop before him, still simmering from the burning inside me.
“Yes, I did.”
Lifting his eyes, Luke smiles and nods.
There is a moment of short strained silence before he picks his phone and calls his driver. We leave his office minutes later like two strangers, stuck to our phones and barely exchanging words. Lillian’s hesitation suddenly makes sense. There is something between Luke and Omoni.
Irima’s head is twisted towards the window but the frown on her face is hard to miss. I want to ask questions but I am drained from the long meetings with the senior managers and the official from the ministry of environmental that had visited that morning. I pass time reading messages from Jude about a party at his apartment in the evening.
I slip my phone into my pocket and look at Irima.
“I want to talk about your meeting with Joseph.”
“I want to know who the third person at the meeting was.”
I sigh. “It was Omoni.”
“I see why you have been hiding this from me.”
I face Irima’s anger with anger of my own.
“What are you talking about?”
“Your secret meetings with her. I have asked a dozen times and you refused to talk about it.”
“God Irima, I was busy, not hiding anything. Things have been hectic lately.”
I feel my driver paying attention to us and pull back from the argument.
“Let’s talk about this later.”
“Why not now?” Irima asks, her jaw set with determination. “Why wait until tomorrow to tell me there is something between you two.”
The car comes to a stop outside the apartment before I can answer her. Leaning closer so I can see her pupils dilating in rage, Irima whispers in my ear.
“And oh, by the way, your girlfriend smells like rotten eggs.”
I shake my head. “Now you are being ridiculous.”
The car reverberates with sound as she slams the door on her way out. I sit for some seconds, feeling a mixture of frustration and anger. Finally, I hand over the apartment keys to the driver and tell him they are for Irima. Retrieving the car keys from him, I take his place at the driver’s seat and put the car in reverse. Just before I drive off, I look over my shoulder to see Irima standing on the steps of the apartment, her bags by her side and my driver for company. Turning back to the road, I think of Jude and how much I miss my old life.
I am sitting in the living room with a dark and silent television an hour later when he comes back. He makes his way up the stairs without a backward glance as I watch him. Still smarting from the realization that he had been spending a lot of his time with Omoni, I spend the next few minutes faking interest in the news that floods my email. When I can’t take the suspense any more, I march upstairs to face him. I find him in the shower, naked and still.
I ignore the brusqueness in his tone and take a step closer to shower stall. I try not to think of how of how beautiful his body looked under the fast water.
“Do you want to talk?”
His eyes turn to me, weary and cautious.
“I am not sure. You called my secretary my girlfriend. I am not sure what you are going to say next.”
“We have been spending a lot of time apart.”
“That’s not my fault,” he says, throwing his face sideways so that all I can see is his back. “You are the one who wanted to go home.”
I pull his old T-shirt over my head and join him in the shower. He begins to back away when he turns to see me, one hand reaching for the towel hanging over the top of the stall. I stop him with a hand on his arm.
“Stay with me.”
“I am done.”
I spend minutes running my hands all over his body, sculpting it with the soapy suds I make from the dash of bath gel I squirt over him. The tension in his muscles relaxes but he continues to watch me with that that wary look of his. I rinse him off and ask him to return the favour. He does, silent in his task until his eyes darken with passion.
In the room, he is ravenous, keeping me pinned in place as his head disappears between my thighs. I feel his lips on the skin of my thighs as he drifts downwards kissing my clit. His lips part, brushing back and forth, and I moan at the smooth strokes of his tongue.
He lifts his head from my thighs, questions in his eyes.
“I don’t plan to,” he says, dropping a kiss where his mouth had been and kissing his way to my breasts. I come down from my high and catch him looking at me speculatively.
“You don’t like Omoni, do you?”
He covers one breast with his hand, caressing it until I begin to squirm again.
“Joseph seems to think she is an asset to the company.”
I stop squirming at his words. Alarm bells go off in my head again. Something did not seem right. Weeks before Luke had shared Joseph’s confession about his relationship with Omoni and his suspicion about her involvement in his poisoning. What had changed?
“I am coming back.”
Luke’s expression turns to puzzlement.
“Coming back to where?”
“To your office,” I tell him, all thoughts of our lovemaking forgotten. “Tell Mrs. Shehu you need me back.”
I expect him to argue but he holds himself above me, watching me without a word. When he exhales, I hear the answer before he says it.
I smile at him, suddenly confident that all my questions are about to be answered.