“In the beginning, there was no land; the whole world was nothing but water. From outside the heavens, the Great God Re-Atum spoke the secret word, forming the foundation of the world. Deep below the surface of the primordial waters, a small hill awakened and began to rise.
“After an eon, the hill grew into a mountain and breached the surface of the waters, a solitary pyramid. Re-Atum entered the heavens and rested upon it, thinking of all he wished to create. When he was ready, he spoke a secret word. The mountain’s foundation lifted from the four corners of the world, rising through the waters, becoming valleys, plains, deserts, and cliffs, the waters draining into the depths between them.
“But the land was barren, so Re-Atum covered it with grasses, flowers, and trees. Pleased with his work, he spoke another secret word and brought forth the birds, to fill the sky with color and song, and from within the waters of the river, the creatures who breathe the wet air sprang to life.
“He spoke the final secret word and brought forth the gazelles, and lions, and all the living things which breathe the dry air. He looked upon his creation and was filled with joy. From this sacred mountain top—the first pyramid—Re-Atum brought forth life from nothing.
“His heart was so overcome with joy, he wept. His tears fell to the earth, mixing with the dust. Out of the mixture, beautiful men and women rose to their feet. But these men and women had not been created with a secret word, so they were flawed. Re-Atum could not see them, and they could not see him or understand the wisdom of his creatures.
“Because the men and women were flawed, they became hungry and cold. They longed for the flesh and skins of the wise animals, so they slaughtered them.
“When Re-Atum discovered what had been done to his companions, he fell to his knees and tore his garments to shreds. Who would dare destroy what he had created? Filled with wrath, he spoke the secret word to bring to life a daughter to avenge him. From out of the ground, the lion-headed goddess Sekhmet rose, growling.
“She ran, roaring, after the men and women, hungry for their blood. Astonished to see a woman with the head of a lion, they fell to their knees, worshiping her. Sekhmet read their thoughts and understood what her father could not. She decided to spare them and teach them the way of the Creator, so they might atone.
“Though the men and women were blind to the wisdom of Sekhmet’s teachings, they were willing to obey. As they studied her teachings, and their hearts opened, it became their greatest hope to be able to commune with Re-Atum as they could with Sekhmet, sharing in the wisdom of the other creatures.
“For one thousand years, under Sekhmet’s guidance, they labored to build a vast temple to honor Re-Atum. When all was ready, they raised an obelisk in the temple’s center court, marking the place where they had first awakened, its golden cover reflecting the brilliance of Re-Atum’s light. They waited, hoping, and praying for Re-Atum to notice their monument to him, but because their hearts were still impure, he could not see them. Then, one terrible day, still heartbroken from the loss of his companions, Re-Atum stepped onto his barque and sailed into the heavens, leaving them behind, unseen and unheard.
“In a sacred court, far to the north of Waset, at Iunu, there stands an ancient weathered obelisk still capped with gold. No one knows how old the obelisk is, but the sages say it must be hundreds of thousands of years old. It is said this obelisk may be the very one raised by the first men and women to atone for their crimes. If this is so, then Iunu is the place where Re-Atum himself once cried with happiness, bringing us to life, flawed though we are.
“Since he left and ascended to the heavens, the ancient texts have taught our true purpose is to purify our hearts, so when the Creator sails in his sky barque, he will be able to see us. On that day he will descend from the heavens, and walk among us, granting us the wisdom of his first creations. Together we shall walk through scented gardens, side by side with the gods and goddesses, and speak of wondrous things. Egypt will be filled with peace, wisdom, and understanding, once more becoming the beloved home of Re-Atum.”
Meresamun’s voice faded away. Utter silence descended on the banquet hall. She bowed, her golden hairband glittering in the torchlight, and backed away from the royal platform.
“Priestess of Sekhmet,” Pharaoh Ramesses called from his throne, imperious. “You will wait.”
Meresamun stopped, uncertain.
Ramesses rose and descended the steps of the platform. He circled the priestess, appraising her. Taking hold of her chin—the golden armbands on his forearm and biceps gleaming in the torchlight—he tilted her face up so he could see her. She kept her eyes lowered. On each of her eyelids, someone had painted the eye of Horus, the effect pleased him well.
“Look at me.”
The smallest shake of her head. “Your Majesty. It is forbidden.”
“I command it.”
Hesitant, her eyes met his. He caught his breath. Blue, the color of lapis lazuli. How rare. The scent of her washed over him—lilies, his favorite. He looked over the hall at his guests, watching, excited, whispering, hoping he would do something outrageous. He would not let them down.
“Priestess of Sekhmet,” he said, raising his voice so all could hear, “in your telling, you have given the creation story beauty and life, moving our heart as it has never been moved before. We cannot let such a telling go unrewarded. Therefore, you shall have anything you wish.” He heard the gasps, rippling outward. They would talk about this for the next week. He hoped she asked for something extravagant so he could show his wealth. She trembled in his grip, terrified. He leaned closer. “Whatever you ask, it will be yours. Do not be afraid.”
“Great Pharaoh, Blessed of Re,” she whispered, so low he had to strain to hear, “if it pleases you, I would have my freedom.”
“The temple sent a slave to tell our creation story?” he asked, incredulous.
Those closest to the royal platform heard him, their murmurs, fearful, spread through the hall.
“I . . .” she faltered, quaking.
He half-turned, taken aback, catching his wife, Nefertari glancing at her sister, Imtes, smug, savoring his sudden humiliation. He bristled. How dare she.
“We have promised what you wish,” he called out, catching his wife’s eye, his heart cold, “and so you shall have it. It is done. Meresamun, Priestess of Sekhmet, you are free. The papyrus naming you a full citizen of Egypt will be sent to the temple tomorrow.”
A collective sigh of relief rippled through the hall. Shouts of approval filled his ears; fists pounded against tables. Laughter. He ignored his guests, watching Nefertari as the color drained from her face. She looked away, disgusted. Good.
He turned back to the priestess who stood swaying, overcome, and took her arm. “You must stay for the banquet, as our guest.” He escorted her to his oldest, most trusted friend, seated close by. “Lord Ahmen-om-onet, Meresamun, Priestess of Sekhmet will join you at your table.”
Ahmen’s eyes lit up. In his haste to rearrange his table, he knocked over a cup of wine. Ramesses turned away, amused. Never in his life had he seen Ahmen lose his composure. His mood improving, Ramesses returned to his seat and raised his gold-embroidered napkin into the air, holding it high. A hush fell. He could feel everyone’s eyes on him, waiting, expectant. He let it go. It fluttered to his feet. Horns blared. His guests roared, cheering and clapping, welcoming the start of the feast.
From the shadows of the pillared hall, servants emerged carrying golden platters laden with sweet and savory breads, and from the perimeter, the soothing chords of harpists eased in between the conversations and laughter.
Ramesses leaned back, pleased, looking over his guests, wearing their finest, mingling, toasting, and greeting one another. Henufkhet, his steward, approached, offering a selection of delicate breads. Ramesses chose a piece and took the first bite of the feast, granting his subjects permission to join him. They cheered and raised their cups to him.
Idle, he sipped his wine, watching Meresamun as she looked around, filled with wonder, staring at the women’s finery, holding a drooping piece of bread to her lips. He felt a familiar stirring within, a longing. She was extraordinary, untouched, delicious. He knew he wanted her for himself, to take her to his bed, where he could watch her beautiful mouth moving as she told him more stories. He stopped himself. She belonged to Sekhmet. Not even he, a pharaoh could trespass there. The hall’s great doors opened; he turned his attention to it, grateful for the distraction,
The outline of a tall, powerful man appeared in the corridor, sending a ripple of excitement through the crowd as Egypt’s commander, Sethi, entered, resplendent in his finest kilt, wearing golden armbands embossed with the Eye of Horus. Ignoring their husbands, the women preened, trying to catch the eye of the enigmatic hero of Egypt.
Sethi was never late. Ramesses knew there would be a reason, and a good one. He lifted his hand, permitting Sethi to join. His commander bowed low, his fist against his chest, the rings on his fingers gleaming. He retreated to the back of the hall, taking an empty table. Before long he was surrounded by admirers, male and female, vying for his attention.
Ramesses watched, uneasy, as his commander made polite conversation, turning his cup round and round in his hands, his wine untouched. Ramesses recognized that behavior. Something was wrong. He sent Henufkhet to him.
He waited, as his steward worked his way through the vibrant, noisy crowd and delivered the message. Tomorrow, after the lion hunt. My private office.
Sethi looked up and nodded, his dark eyes sharp with warning. Ramesses dithered. Perhaps he should meet him now. No. If he left, the feast would end. His subjects had waited weeks for this celebration.
He settled back in his seat. There was always something demanding his attention. He had to stop and enjoy himself sometime. He would have this night and celebrate his successful campaign in Amurru. Tomorrow, as planned, he would go on the lion hunt. Then, he would face his responsibilities. Whatever Sethi knew, it could wait a day.
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