They came to a juddering halt within the royal enclosure. Ahmen took hold of Istara’s arm, his fingers pinching the flesh between her arm bands, and escorted her past the royal guard. He pulled her, limping, into the vestibule of the pharaoh’s tent, where a dozen others stood waiting in the cramped space. Several gazes drifted to her, some hostile, others curious.
“You must not speak until you are spoken to,” Ahmen said in a low voice, tightening his grip on her arm, “neither will you look at the pharaoh’s face unless he commands it.”
He stopped before a white linen panel, opaque with columns of gold-embroidered hieroglyphs. Istara stared at it, horrified. That piece of material was all there was left between her and the Pharaoh of Egypt. Her small store of courage evaporated. She clenched her fists, fighting her escalating quail. She would not be able to find the right words, would not know—
A guard called Ahmen’s title. Her captor tugged on her arm, pulling her after him. Istara slipped past the material, blinking in the sudden glare. A fortune of golden plates and cups gleamed on narrow wooden tables arranged along the tent’s walls, the furniture’s polished wood reflecting the light from the hanging lamps burning a clear, smokeless oil.
Benches, stools and three gold-inlaid chairs fanned out around several glowing braziers. Colorful cushions and soft animal pelts layered every seat. Thick rugs covered the cold, damp ground. Rich, fragrant incense curled upward. In the tent’s center, a table the size of her bed overflowed with scrolls, maps, and stacks of papyri. Despite Ahmen’s warning, her gaze moved to the man standing behind the table, surrounded by men of various ages; lean and powerful, they regarded her, cold, some of them dropping their hands to the hilts of their sickle-bladed khopesh swords strapped to their belts.
Engrossed in a map, Ramesses rested his palms against the table, his eyes, kohled black, moved over the map, examining it. On his shaved head, he wore a brilliant blue crown, adorned with a golden uraeus—the cobra’s hood open, its head pulled back, ready to strike. Over his shoulders, a wide pectoral collar of gold and lapis lazuli, and around his immaculate linen kilt—as white as the purest alabaster and edged in gold thread—a leather belt embossed with gold held his dagger and a khopesh.
Though he was not as large as those surrounding him, he had the build of an elite warrior, every muscle defined. He was nothing like any man she had ever seen, with his smooth, oiled skin and exotic regalia. Oblivious to her, he surveyed the map, preoccupied, intense, his movements elegant, refined, his face expressive, arrogant, regal. Without even speaking, his presence commanded her attention, dominating her, striking fear into her. Unlike the King of Hatti, the Pharaoh of Egypt emanated power, charisma and beauty, a god in the flesh. She sank to her knees and lowered her face, her heart quaking. Soon she would die just like her mother, struck down by the blade of a king. Silence fell.
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