Istara had never been in Baalat’s sanctuary before. She decided she didn’t like it. It had to be a mistake; her mother couldn’t mean to leave her here alone with the golden statue of the goddess, shrouded in a suffocating haze of opium incense.
“Please,” Istara said, tugging on her mother’s hand, “I don’t want to stay here. It’s dark, and the smell makes my head hurt.”
When her mother didn’t respond, Istara tugged again, harder, but the Queen of Kadesh’s gaze remained fixed on the image of the goddess. With a heavy sigh, her mother sank to her knees and whispered a prayer, for forgiveness.
Uneasy, Istara touched her mother’s hand, bare of the usual glittering array of rings. “Ama?”
Her mother looked down at Istara’s hand on hers. “I have abused my power as high priestess,” she said, quiet. “For weeks now, I have been taking the goddess’s food and giving it to you. I could not bear to see you starve.”
Istara eyed the image of Baalat, fear slicing into her, deep. “But the punishment is—”
“I know.” Her mother’s fingers touched Istara’s lips, silencing her. “I pray she understands, and will forgive me.”
Istara thought of all the scraps her mother had given her over the weeks, almonds, and dried figs, once she had even surprised Istara with a little piece of honey crystal. That was a good day.
Now Istara imagined her mother stealing from the offering bowls at the goddess’s feet. A terrible, awful crime. She looked at her mother’s gaunt, worn face, her fragile beauty diminished by extreme hunger, and saw her desperation. Overcome, Istara hugged her, her hands brushing against her mother’s shoulder blades, protruding, sharp.
“Oh Ama. I do not deserve you.”
In her mother’s quiet embrace, Istara closed her eyes and recalled the day when everything began. It was raining when the Egyptian army streamed out of Labwi Wood, driving their fancy horses and chariots over the pretty meadow outside the city walls. For two days, the soldiers worked to set up a vast city of tents; Istara was certain about that part because she had watched.
Her father sent couriers to Hatti’s far-off capital, Tarhuntassa, to King Muwatallis. The gates slammed closed, and Istara learned a new hateful word. Siege. Weeks passed. Her lessons dwindled, then ended, the palace’s quiet order turning to chaos.
Rooms were closed off, deemed unnecessary. Soon there was no fuel left to burn in the braziers, and Istara shivered in her bed as the stone walls sweated out the heavy rains of spring.
Her father changed, becoming angry, shouting, sometimes even breaking things. The food ran out. They braved hunger for two days, waiting for Muwatallis to come, her stomach cramping so much, she cried. The cats disappeared, even her favorite, the stable cat, Mada and her litter of kittens. The hunting dogs followed soon after. Then, one by one, the horses in the stables vanished, until even Istara’s pony Kuma was gone, and the stables lay silent, the quiet, deafening.
The night Kuma disappeared, there was meat on Istara’s platter for the first time in almost two weeks. Both her mother and father had come to her, to sit in silence while she ate, their eyes haunted. Despite her heartache, Istara could not disappoint them. She ate her beloved friend, trying not to think of the happy hours she had passed with her, each bite tainted with bitterness against the Egyptians. As soon as her parents left, she cried until she fell asleep, dreaming of Kuma being taken away, whinnying in fear, to be cut into pieces to feed the starving people. To feed her own mistress.
The next day, Istara slipped away to the rooftop garden of the palace, stripped bare of its vegetation and hurled rocks over the walls, calling the Egyptians every name she could think of. When she ran out, she created new ones.
Exhausted, she sagged, panting against the wall, glaring at their camp, filled with hate. From its edge, surrounded by soldiers, one young man emerged, dressed in gleaming armor. He stopped and looked up. Right at her.
Indignant, she rose and returned his gaze, focusing all her unhappiness on him. Her fingers shaking, she prized a large rock loose from the wall and heaved it over the side, screaming out the worst insult she knew. Dirty bottom eater.
The rock tumbled, useless, straight down into the olive grove beneath the city’s walls. Humiliated, she looked back at him, waiting for him to mock her. Instead, he lifted his hand, inviting her to join them. One of his men pulled his ration bag from his belt and held it up, a heartbeat later, the others joined in, holding theirs up, silent.
Shamed, she backed away so she could no longer see them. On the long walk back to her apartment she experienced confusion, no longer certain who to blame for Kuma’s death. She decided she would think about it when she was older and wiser, when she had had more lessons. Until then, she had learned nothing was as simple as it seemed.
Istara looked around, afraid. Now, after three months of hunger and waiting, she was going to be locked in here, in Baalat’s dark, oppressive sanctuary. Istara felt her mother’s thin fingers wrap around her arms, her grip so faint, it felt like a whisper.
“I cannot remain with you much longer,” she said. “By your father’s command, you must stay here until I come for you. We have lost. King Muwatallis has not come. Today your father will open the gates and kneel before the Pharaoh of Egypt.”
“But I heard you say if he kneels to Egypt,” Istara said, pulling back, anxious, “the King of Hatti will punish us all.”
Her mother looked away, blinking hard. She took Istara’s hand and led her back to the sanctuary’s thick cedarwood doors. “You have suffered much these past months, and without one word of complaint,” she murmured, changing the subject. “I am proud of you. But today, you must face one last challenge and wait here, alone, until my return. You must trust your father’s judgment. He only thinks to protect you.”
Istara clung to her mother’s hand, her small store of courage fleeing. She had thought she was ready, but she wasn’t; in the meager light of the single flame there were too many shadows lurking, sinuous, at the edge of her vision.
“Promise you will come back to me,” she whispered.
“I promise.” Her mother brushed the hair from Istara’s forehead and smiled, though it didn’t reach her eyes. “You are safe here in the goddess’s sanctuary. Stay close to her, and she will protect you. Soon this will be over, and we will be happy again.”
She prized Istara’s fingers free and went outside. Istara made to follow her, but her mother shook her head, a warning flaring, sharp, in her eyes. She gestured to the guards to push the doors closed. They came to with a low boom. Istara jumped. She didn’t like that sound. A scraping noise followed as the guards settled the beam into place, locking her inside. She pressed her ear against the thick door. She couldn’t hear anything. She tried to be brave, but her heart pounded so hard it hurt.
Her back pressed against the door, she peered into the dim, smoky space, its pillared edges lost in deep shadow. She counted to three before darting through the darkness to the little pool of light at the base of the statue. Huddling against the cold stone platform, she wrapped her arms around her knees and waited, hoping with all her heart the lamp wouldn’t run out of oil before her mother returned.
Ramesses, Crown Prince of Egypt, eyed the barred doors to the sanctuary of Kadesh’s goddess, uneasy. It was a crime, what he was about to do. His father had commanded him to take the temple’s gold, the only price Kadesh would be forced to pay for standing against Pharaoh Seti. But instead of keeping their gold in a temple storeroom, like sensible people, the Kadeshites had secreted their wealth into the sanctuary of their deity. Ramesses cursed, certain his sacrilege would return to haunt him one day.
He breathed a prayer to Horus for protection and lifted the carved beam away. With a soft groan, the doors opened. A thick haze of opium incense surrounded him, making his eyes water. Cautious, he stepped over the threshold and breached the sacred residence of the goddess. Nothing happened. He felt foolish. Of course he would not be struck down. These provincial gods were not powerful. Not like Egypt’s gods.
No more than twenty paces distant, the goddess stood alone, with enough gold and gems piled around her to cover the costs of their entire campaign. He hesitated, even with the doors open, the pillared edges to either side remained cloaked in shadow. His hand moved to the hilt of his dagger. He could hear someone breathing, ragged. He called out to his second-in-command.
“Captain Sethi. Torches.”
They found a child, similar to the one he had seen throwing rocks from the palace roof a week ago. No more than seven or eight years old, she wore a shabby temple robe over her bare-footed, emaciated body. Under the effect of the opium, she stood, quiet, her eyes sliding, unseeing over his men. In Sethi’s gentle grip, she staggered, struggling to stay on her feet. His captain cleared his throat.
“Should we bring her with us?”
“No,” Ramesses answered, terse. “They closed her in here, drugging her with the opium for a reason. My father asked me to bring him the goddess’s gold, nothing more. For all we know, the child is intended for sacrifice.”
Sethi’s eyes darkened at the suggestion. His grip tightened on her shoulders, protective. “My lord, we cannot leave her to die,” he said as he glanced down at her, his expression softening. “She is just a little girl.”
“She stays,” Ramesses said, gesturing toward the pillared shadows, impatient. “Put her back where you found her.”
Sethi hesitated. Irritated, Ramesses grabbed the waif’s arm. “It is my command.” He pulled the girl to him. “Release her.”
Taller, older, and stronger by far, his captain resisted for as long as he dared. “My lord,” Sethi murmured, “I beg you. Be merciful.”
Ramesses considered the girl, reviving in the freshening air. She was a pretty thing, beautiful even, for a child. Her black hair, tumbling in thick waves down to her shoulders framed her heart-shaped face. A worthy sacrifice to a god. She gazed up at them, calm. Her dark eyes, framed by thick lashes, moved from him to Sethi; back and forth, examining them, her mouth shaping itself into a little, round ‘o’. She pointed at Sethi’s khopesh, saying something incomprehensible, her small voice sweet and inquisitive.
He caught Sethi watching him, waiting.
“To Ammit with your bleeding heart,” Ramesses scoffed. “Why must you save every stray you find? Are you a warrior or a priest?”
“Can a man not strive to have the qualities of both?” Sethi asked.
“Bring her, then,” Ramesses sighed, relenting. “If your grasp of Akkadian is sufficient, you may deliver her to their high priestess, forbidding her against the crime of human sacrifice. Be grateful I am in a generous mood today.”
He left the sanctuary and inspected the heaped baskets, ready to be taken to his father. The pharaoh would be pleased. Ramesses began to say something to Sethi, before realizing he was alone. He turned. Still within the sanctuary, Sethi knelt before the girl. He offered her a fig from his ration pouch. She took it and devoured it in one bite, like a heathen. Her eyes drifted back to his pouch, looking for more.
Smiling, Sethi found another fig, then offered his biscuit, watching, delighted, as she gobbled up his evening meal, piece by piece; the Crown Prince of Egypt’s second-in-command, willing to go hungry so a child of no consequence would not.
Putting his back to them, Ramesses suppressed a familiar ripple of envy toward the man who had come out of nowhere, rising to prominence from the gutters of Pi-Ramesses. Of no blood, and without family, Sethi had made a name for himself as a street fighter, whom none could defeat. The pharaoh had tested Sethi against his commanders. Not one of them had been able to take him down. Not even with weapons against Sethi’s bare hands.
Sethi accepted the pharaoh’s offer of a career in the military. One success followed another, his daring strategies during his first campaign earning him promotions and wealth.
At first, Ramesses had resented Sethi, but as time passed, he found himself growing to like him. Charismatic, honorable and clear-headed, Sethi was by far the best soldier Ramesses had ever fought alongside. And, wherever Sethi went, there was never a shortage of willing women. Together with Ahmen, Ramesses’s oldest friend, they frequented the whorehouses, breaking hearts in every city. It was a good life.
Still, it was at times like this Ramesses couldn’t escape the feeling of his own lack. Maybe it was because Sethi was three years older than him. He did have more experience. He was better in combat; there was no doubt. But Ramesses wasn’t sure that was it. He caught Sethi brushing the hair away from the little girl’s eyes, affectionate. Ramesses suppressed his annoyance. They had work to do. He called Sethi to him, impatient.
His captain approached, the girl at his heels, trusting as a lamb. Ramesses endured a fresh stab of envy. With almost no effort, Sethi drew people to him, like moths to a flame. Ramesses wanted that kind of power. He was Crown Prince of Egypt. Sethi was no one. He glared at Sethi as his captain set the little girl on a ledge at the base of a pillar, before joining the others to help load the goddess’s gold onto waiting carts.
Bored, Ramesses looked at the little girl and offered her a smile. She ignored him, edging to one side to look around him, her eyes following Sethi as he worked. Ramesses reached into his pouch and held out a fig, gesturing for her to come and take it. Wary, she slid off her perch and reached out, cautious. He pulled his hand back. She looked up at him, confused. He smiled at her. A faint smile ghosted her lips as she smiled back at him, uncertain.
He caught Sethi watching him, expressionless. Triumphant, he tossed the fig onto the ground. The girl scrambled after it with a little cry. He walked away, satisfied. No one was going to get the better of him, especially not a nobody like Sethi.
Alone in the rooftop garden of the palace, Istara watched the last of the Egyptian army march into Labwi Wood. They left the meadow a hardened, dusty wasteland blackened by the scars of hundreds of fire pits. She had loved that meadow. Every summer it hummed with fat bees and butterflies kissing the riot of wildflowers. She used to go down and watch them. Now, it was ruined.
She thought of all the friends she had lost, her father’s old dog, who was too old to hunt, but often came to sleep beside her bed, and Mada, with her beautiful litter of kittens. Who could kill kittens, and eat them? A tear slipped free as Istara thought of Kuma. She had loved her pony so much. And now all of them were dead, and for what?
For a dull stone stela to be put up in the palace square, forever claiming Kadesh as a vassal of Pharaoh Seti, Blessed of Re. It was just a rock. Why did they all have to go hungry and eat their friends, for a rock? None of it made sense. Whenever she brought it up, those around her changed the subject; even her Aunt Rhoha, who wasn’t afraid of anything, or anyone.
One good thing happened, though. The Egyptians had left provisions, bags of grain, and corn—probably stolen, Istara had heard someone mutter—and they had been respectful, even if she couldn’t understand anything they were saying. So, now, just like before they came, the smell of roasting meat and baking bread filled the palace kitchens, and from the farms, food poured into the city.
A week passed. A caravan of horse traders arrived. Istara’s mother came to her, smiling, saying someone was waiting for her in the stables. Istara ran as fast as she could to the stable yard. There, in Kuma’s empty stall, a new white pony whickered, her muzzle soft as down. Istara named her Saharu, and promised her no one would ever eat her so long as she lived. But this time, just in case, Istara decided not to love her pony quite as much.
Two more weeks passed, and summer reached its height. Apart from the desolation of the meadow, the memory of the Egyptian siege began to fade. Istara realized she was happy again, just as her mother promised they would be.
Four days later, as Istara dozed in the shade of an almond tree during the hottest part of a broiling afternoon, the sound of horns echoed across the walls of the city, just like the ones she had heard in the spring. She sat up, alarmed. Horns were bad. Already, gardeners, servants, and guards crowded along the terrace wall, shading their eyes against the glare of the sun, murmuring, fearful.
Her heart pounding, she pushed her way through, trying to see. The wind gusted, hot and dry, making the purple flags on the walls snap and buckle, sharp against the quiet air. The horns blasted again. She caught a glimpse of movement, far to the north, beyond the cedar wood.
Rising on her toes, she squinted into the distance, her hair billowing around her, catching in the wind. Impatient, she gathered it together and twisted it into a rope. There, a gleam. Her attention snapped back to the north. She searched the heat haze. Was that the faint pounding of drumbeats?
Her eyes burning, she waited, begrudging even the need to blink. The horizon shimmered, a liquid wall of silver, shifting, moving, deceiving. Something dark coalesced within the viscous surface. From its depths, four black horses, peacock plumes atop their bridles, stepped through as though arriving from the immortal realm. Behind them, standing proud in his chariot, the reins wrapped around his powerful arms, a man emerged with the bearing of a god, his golden armor gleaming white in the burning light. On his back he wore a sword, its massive hilt rising above his shoulder. The chariots of two more men appeared, one man almost the same age, the other much younger. And behind them, from out of the impossible wall of nothing, a host of thousands followed, lines upon lines of chariots, streaming onto the northern plain.
Muwatallis, the King of Hatti, had finally arrived.
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