Meresamun hefted the tray of dirty crockery over her head and pushed her way back to the kitchens, struggling to escape the drunken groping of the tavern’s boisterous patrons. Someone snatched at the back of her gown, sending her stumbling down the steps into the kitchen, the tray’s contents dangerously wobbling. One of the cooks, naked apart from a loincloth, rushed over and took the tray, a look of sympathy on his face.
With a nod of gratitude, Meresamun sank onto a ledge and plucked her sweat-soaked gown from her damp breasts, the unrelenting heat and still air making her feel as though the gods had turned Pi-Ramesses into a bread oven. Her gaze drifted around the smoky low-ceilinged kitchen bustling with workers, the air thick with the smell of roasting meat. Teret, the tavern’s owner, hefted a fresh jug of wine and settled it against her hip; her heavy breasts and thick torso beaded with sweat. She sidled over, nimble despite her girth. At the door’s lintel, she surveyed the room, packed with carousing soldiers and even a handful officers.
“I don’t care how hot it is,” she said, sliding a sideways look at Meresamun, “make sure to smile—and if one of the pharaoh’s officers asks to take you home, you don’t be saying no again like last time. For the love of Isis, do you think offers like that happen every day?” She pulled apart the ties on Meresamun’s gown, deft. “If I had those big, perky tits, I’d have them right out, showing them off—”
“Teret!” Meresamun cried, pushing her away. She hastened to cover her breasts, noticing several of the soldiers were watching them, their eyes dark. A fat, hard pinch lanced her buttock. Meresamun yelped, furious.
“I’m only trying to help you,” Teret tutted, unapologetic. “If you ever want to get back to your family, you are going to have to start spreading those fine long legs of yours, unless you want to end up an old woman like me, pouring wine until the day you die.”
Meresamun rubbed her backside, certain it would bruise. “There must be another way. I can tell stories—”
Teret laughed, sour. “Ah, that you can, I heard you well enough when I found you, starving and shivering in the slums. Fine, fancy stories no one down here in the gutter cares to hear.”
“But they are the only stories I know.”
Her eyes softening, Teret brushed a loose tendril of Meresamun’s hair back into place. “I’m fond of you, though I don’t know why, with your funny airs and high morals. Ah, but there it is. If you don’t ever save enough money to leave, you will always have a home at The Falcon’s Wing, here with me.”
A deafening cheer filled the tavern. Teret turned, her eyes narrowing, listening to the men hailing one of their own, the name almost drowned out by the pounding of fists on tables. Teret’s eyes widened. She pulled Meresamun back into the shelter of the kitchen.
“Clean yourself up,” she said, no longer playful. “This is your night.”
Curious, Meresamun leaned over to see, but Teret yanked her back into the shadows, her strength surprising. “You listen to me. One of the most powerful men in the empire has just walked into my tavern. You will serve his table, and if you are very lucky, he will take you home. If he asks, I forbid you to say no.”
Nervous, Meresamun licked her lips, hopeful, yet fearful. “Is he . . . Lord Ahmen-om-onet?”
“Who?” Teret asked, distracted by the cheers. “Never heard of him. No, he is none other than Lord Sethi, Commander of the Army. I knew him when he was growing up in this slum, street fighting to survive. Now he has risen to power and wealth almost as great as Pharaoh himself.”
She turned, hustling Meresamun through the kitchens toward her quarters in the storerooms. “Put on a fresh gown, wash your face, and tidy your hair and cosmetics,” she ordered, brusque. A sharp slap landed on Meresamun’s backside, making her jump. “And you’d better be quick about it or I’ll have you scrubbing pots for the rest of your life!”
Lord Sethi, the Commander of the Army was drunk. As Meresamun poured more wine into Sethi’s cup, she caught Teret watching her, hawkish.
Patting the bench beside him, one of Sethi’s men, the one called Naram, gestured for her to sit, his actions clumsy and uncoordinated.
“Come an’ sit with us,” he slurred, his face flushed from wine.
Clutching the jug against her chest, Meresamun glanced at Teret, uncertain, who nodded, making frantic shooing gestures. Meresamun sank down, catching the one called Sethi, sitting across from her, look up from his cup, his movements heavy and languid. He gazed at her for a while, curious, unsettling her.
“You are no tavern maid,” he muttered in a deep, rough voice. “You are a princess from another land.”
Meresamun stared at him, astonished, wondering how he could possibly know. His gaze turned blank. Leaning on his elbows, he gazed at the table, chuckling.
Naram leaned over, his breath hot against her ear. “Lord Sethi’s far gone, don’t mind him. Wha’ are you called, oh flower of the Nile?”
“Mere—” she stopped, and forced a smile.
Naram raised an eyebrow. “Mere? Thassa strange name.”
Sethi’s head lifted up, his eyes unseeing. “Meresamun? Ahmen’s missing woman?”
Naram shook his head, wagging it back and forth as he replied. “No my lord, she’s jus’ Mere. She’s not Ahmen’s woman. Or—lessee—are you Ahmen’s woman?”
Stricken, Meresamun said nothing. She couldn’t. Sekhmet had to send Ahmen to her, and so long as he did not come to her, the goddess’s message was clear. She was not forgiven.
One of the others, less intoxicated, laughed and held out his cup to her. Grateful for the diversion, she refilled it.
“She’s just a tavern maid,” he chided Naram. “Leave her alone.” He gestured at Meresamun. “Come, sit with me. I’ll protect you from our first captain’s nonsense.”
Naram waved her away, almost knocking over the cup beside him. Meresamun moved to the other side of the table to join her rescuer, catching Teret’s smile of satisfaction as she slipped in beside Sethi. Her rescuer leaned over, elegant and attractive, his interest plain.
“Mere, I am Khutu, third captain of Lord Sethi’s division, the second division of the pharaoh’s army known as Pre.” He nodded at the others around the table. “These are Commander Sethi’s other captains, each of us command one thousand men.”
She sensed he was waiting for her reaction. She nodded, showing what she hoped was a fair imitation of admiration. She poured more wine into Naram’s cup. “I have heard rumors the pharaoh intends to go to war,” she said. “Is it true?”
His eyes on hers, Khutu took a drink. “It is.” His hand moved to her thigh. “We leave next week to retake Kadesh from the Hittites.”
He began to stroke her leg, up and down, higher and higher, his fingers drifting toward her crotch. She edged closer to Sethi. “Kadesh?” she asked, pushing his hand back down. “Is that close to Babylon?”
Sethi laughed again, to himself. She looked at Khutu, who shrugged at Sethi’s behavior, answering, “Much closer than Pi-Ramesses, but still quite far.” He leaned closer. “Why? Do you have a lover in Babylon I should be jealous of?”
“No my lord,” she answered in a small voice, losing the fight to his probing fingers. “I was just curious.”
He smiled, pleased, his fingers sliding between her thighs until his middle finger touched her crotch, light. “I would pay much to take you to my bed this night. I am not a poor man. Ask whatever you wish, and you shall have it.”
“I . . .”
His other hand slid around her head. He pulled her to him, his lips touching hers, soft. “I have been told I am talented in the art of love.”
She pulled back. “My lord, I cannot.”
Undeterred, he stood, bringing her with him. “Come now; I will pay whatever you wish, there is no need to play games.”
“There are no games,” Meresamun protested, trying to free her arm from his grip. “I beg you, cease.”
He hesitated. “Are you another man’s wife?”
“No . . . but I love another.”
He laughed, though it was not unkind. “Mere, I love my wife, she is the mother of my sons. But what I ask for is not about love, but pleasure. There is no crime in taking pleasure when the body is crying out for it, so long as the heart remains faithful to the one they love.”
She pulled back, bumping against Sethi’s shoulder, it felt like hitting a wall. “I cannot. Please,” her eyes raked over the tavern, desperate to find her replacement, “take another for your pleasure. I am unwilling.”
She felt Khutu’s strength as he took hold of her arms, possessive. “I do not want another,” he persisted, his eyes darkening with desire. “I swear upon Re’s light I will not harm you. I shall spend the night pleasing you, whatever you wish will be my command.”
“Then my wish is to return to serving your lord and his captains their wine,” Meresamun pleaded, struggling to escape his hold.
He stared at her, disbelieving, his warmth cooling to irritation. “Enough of your nonsense,” he snapped, “you are a tavern maid, the next nearest thing to a whore. How dare you refuse me.”
He pushed his way out from between the tables, pulling her after him, dragging her to the kitchens. She cried out, begging him to stop. Above the din of laughing and shouting voices, one cut across them all, sharp, commanding.
“Captain Khutu. My cup is empty.”
The tavern fell quiet. Khutu halted, the blood draining from his face. His grip lessened, uncertain. Meresamun pulled free and hastened back to the table, the tavern’s patrons turning raucous once more. Her hands shaking, she refilled the commander’s cup.
“Sit down,” he jerked his head at the seat beside him, “you will remain with me until I leave.”
She sat, trembling. Across from her, Khutu took his seat, diffident. “Commander, had I known you wished Mere for yourself—”
Sethi drank, shrugging, non-committal. Murmuring an apology, Khutu averted his eyes from Meresamun, turning to seek out another companion. From under her lashes, Meresamun watched him call Retan over. Her eyes shining, she came to him, brazen, baring her breasts as he settled her onto his lap. He flirted with her, making her laugh at his bawdy jokes. Before long, they left.
Meresamun filled Sethi’s cup. He turned it in his hands, round and round, watching the wine swirl. A little of it sloshed over the edge, down his hand, onto the table. She wiped the table, careful not to touch him.
He took the cloth from her and wiped his hands, his movements slow, exaggerated by the drink. He pushed the cloth back to her. “My mother was a serving woman,” he muttered, “and she was no whore. When I was seven, a patron raped her when she refused to service him.”
He drank deep, falling silent for a long while. Meresamun poured more wine. He looked up, staring at nothing. “She died from her injuries.”
“My lord, my heart aches for your loss,” Meresamun said, soft, and meant it.
He shook his head. “I cannot change the past, and perhaps, not the future, either . . .”
Meresamun waited for him to say more, but he remained silent. The night wore on, and he said little else, apart from his thanks for her services. He drank, on and on, emptying three jugs of wine, never once looking at her.
She waited for him to fall unconscious, but he carried on drinking, silent, morose. As he ruminated, she occupied herself with listening to his men speak of the ordeals they would face during the long march ahead, and of their hopes the quality of whores amongst the followers would be better this campaign.
At times, they talked to her, asking about her past. She was careful in her replies, diverting them with questions about the march, seeking answers to the ones burning within her breast. She learned much. The night waned. One by one, they left.
His thick, muscled arms crossed over his chest, Sethi dozed, still upright. Meresamun gazed out the open door, at the pale blue light which always arrived just before morning began. It had been a long night. She stifled a yawn.
From the kitchens, the smell of Sethi’s order, roasted chicken, wafted. Her stomach growled, hollow. Apart from a servant opening the shutters, and another cleaning the tables, the tavern was empty. Even Teret had long since taken to her pallet.
While she waited to serve the commander’s morning meal, Meresamun thought of Egypt’s army gathering, preparing for its thirty-day march to Kadesh, how each division would be joined by one thousand paid followers—tradesmen, cooks, leatherworkers and armorers. With so many civilians in the rearguard, she was certain no one would notice one more. A storyteller might make a welcome diversion after a long day of marching.
Nourishing her kindling hope, she unfolded her fingers and looked down at the small gold ingot Sethi had given her before he dozed off. She hid it in the folds of her gown. It was worth more than two months wages. She thought of the six months she had spent surviving on scraps within the roughest slums of Pi-Ramesses before Teret took her in, saving her life and giving Meresamun the chance to save for her passage to Babylon. An exorbitant, impossible price, she soon learned.
Over the next two months, as she labored in The Falcon’s Wing, she had hoped after all she had endured, Sekhmet might forgive her and allow Ahmen to find her. The days blended together, unchanging in their monotony. Though a surprisingly high number of officers and nobles drank at The Falcon’s Wing, Ahmen never once crossed its threshold.
A familiar feeling of despair pulled on her. She fought it, forcing herself to think instead of her parents, imagining their joy when they would see her again, of her return to her opulent childhood home, set within a vast estate on the banks of the Purattu River.
The roast chickens arrived, their skin crisped golden and bubbling with grease. Her mouth watering, she laid the food out and prepared the commander’s platter. He roused, tearing a leg from one of the chickens. She poured him a cup of beer. He nodded his thanks and waved her away.
Grateful to be relinquished from her duties, she slipped into the kitchens. Deserted and dark, its silence felt strange, unnerving. She collected her covered platter of roast meat, long cold—her wages for the night—and hurried to her pallet in the storerooms to eat.
Pushing aside the linen hanging into her private quarters, she looked down at her dinner, grilled goat shank. Despite it being congealed white in its fat, she felt a wave of gratitude. After months of deprivation and hunger, she had food and a place to sleep. She was safe here, and Teret, though crude at times, was kind to her. But Meresamun could not stay. If she did, she might never have another chance to return home.
Shredding the shank into strips, she devoured it, her resolve firming as her hunger abated. She would march to Kadesh with the army, and once there, with what the commander had given her, she might even have enough to pay for a place in a caravan.
She looked around the cramped storeroom as the first light from Re’s barque filtered in through the opening in the low ceiling. It moved across the wall toward the small stone statue of Sekhmet, nestled in an alcove. Meresamun set aside her empty platter and knelt, asking the goddess if she should stay in Pi-Ramesses to give Ahmen more time. She peeked up just as the light touched the goddess’s leonine face. Sekhmet glared back at her, implacable. Meresamun bowed her head, tears burning her eyes. Though she had nourished her hopes, she knew what she sought was impossible. Sekhmet would never forgive her; her crime was too great.
Meresamun closed her eyes and lay down. Sekhmet had given her answer. Go to Babylon. A tear slipped out. It was over. She would never see Ahmen again.
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