The queen was dead. Beside me, my younger brother, Ramses, technically a man at eighteen but in many ways still a boy, wept. Our father stood stoically as he buried a wife for the second time. Twenty years ago, he buried my mother as well. I did my best to emulate him, but the pain in my heart threatened to spill over at any moment. Queen Anat had been a good stepmother to me, and an excellent model queen. As my father’s first cousin, she had been in my life since I was born and was a fine choice of wife after my mother’s sudden death. Anat’s death was a surprise as well, and we all felt the pain acutely.
As the nearest female relative, I had been tasked with overseeing Anat’s mummification process, as Anat had done for my mother. I had watched as they removed Anat’s brain with a hook through her nose and discarded it. Then they took her lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines and put them in canopic jars. I placed the jars into a miniature coffin, which would be buried with Anat along with all of her other possessions. I had then helped wash her body with wine before she was filled with herbs and a drying compound and sewn back up. For the next forty days, she was allowed to mummify while my family observed a public mourning, slathering our faces in mud and wandering the city, beating our chests. But this was not merely for show. Even now, months after her death, the shock of losing her had not worn off. In many ways, I did not know how our family would survive without her.
As the horns sounded, signaling the time for the procession from the palace to Anat’s place of burial to begin, my brother stumbled as he tried to take his first step.
“Control yourself!” our father, Pharaoh Bakari, snapped.
“I have him,” I said as I wrapped my arm around Ramses’s shoulders to support him and protect him from Father’s disapproval—as I often did. “Go ahead.”
Father grimaced, but he held his head high as he stepped forward, following Anat’s coffin, which was being pulled on a sled by eight oxen. The horns of the oxen were rolled in papyrus, as they had already been inspected and approved by the priests as suitable for sacrifice. Anat was preceded by soldiers on horseback, priests burning incense, and musicians of all types. Behind us, dozens of palace slaves followed, carrying all of the items that were to be entombed with Anat for her to take to the afterlife with her. The street was lined with people who threw flower petals and scented herbs onto the road and audibly wept for us all.
It took all day for the procession to travel from the city to the burial site. On the day my father became pharaoh, he began building his pyramid. When my mother died, barely four layers of brick had been laid. The masons and slaves had to quickly build her a mastaba tomb nearby. Even now, the pyramid was only half-built, as my father was a man of barely forty. If he were greatly blessed, he should still have many years left to complete his pyramid. As it was, while it did not yet reach the sky, the lower chambers were complete enough to entomb Anat.
As we approached the pyramid, the bulls were led to a sacrificial platform. Braziers were lit on each corner of the platform and wine was poured over each of the animals as the priests waved incense and chanted prayers. Then, the throats of all eight beasts were slit at once. The blood flowed onto the sand. Later, the oxen would be butchered and the meat distributed among the poor in the city marketplaces.
As we stood before the door to the pyramid, a priest opened Anat’s coffin and waved incense over her body while reciting incantations. He then opened her mouth so that she could speak and defend herself during the judgment proceedings in the afterlife. As the priest finished, Father approached the coffin and placed a Book of the Dead in her hands so she would not become lost in the underworld. Beside me, my brother fell to his knees and cried. This time, Father did not chastise him. His own eyes watered as he reached out and placed his hand on Anat’s forehead and mumbled something to her that no one else could hear.
I wondered when Father had fallen in love with Anat. It seemed rather foolish to me that he should fall in love a second time. It was well known that Father had married my mother for love. She had not been a royal, but the daughter of one of his ministers. The marriage had brought no benefits to the throne save one—me. When my mother died, many people saw it as a chance for Father to correct his one mistake, which he did by marrying within the family, thus securing dynastic rule for another generation. While Father was always courteous to Anat, I hadn’t realized until I saw the gentle way he regarded her even in death that he had loved her. What a tragedy to lose two great loves in one lifetime. A mistake I was determined not to make. When I married, it would only be to benefit my people. I would not suffer pain when he died. What good is grief? It makes us weak. Is a distraction. How could Father govern the greatest and most powerful country in the world if his heart and thoughts were with the dead? I would never allow myself to be distracted by love.
Father stepped away from Anat’s coffin and I pulled my brother to his feet. The priest closed the coffin lid, and one hundred men took the place of the oxen to push and pull the sarcophagus into the pyramid. Behind them, the slaves took all of Anat’s possessions into the pyramid to be buried with her. Furniture, jewelry, statues, rugs, clothes, and baskets and baskets of food. After Anat and all of the burial goods were placed inside the burial chamber, the door to her chamber was closed and sealed, never to be opened again.
“King Zakai will never submit to Egyptian rule, Your Majesty,” one of the court ministers said to Father as he sat on his throne.
“He will submit,” Father roared. “He will come to Egypt. He will humble himself before me and pay tribute. Or he will die!”
“All-out war with the tribes of central Africa might not be the best course of action, Your Majesty,” another minister said, his head bowed. “The distance to march an army there would be insurmountable.”
As I stood to one side of the room, I sighed and crossed my arms. For as long as I could remember, Father longed to subdue the African tribes and bring them under Egyptian rule. But he had never succeeded. Since Anat’s death, he seemed even more determined to make this foolish dream a reality.
“This is Egypt!” my brother, sitting beside Father where Anat once had, said as forcefully as he could with his high-pitched voice. “We have the most powerful army in all of Africa. The tribes live in straw huts. How can it possibly be so difficult to overpower them?”
“Marching an army across hundreds of miles of desert simply isn’t possible,” a minister explained. “We could never carry enough water. Many of the men would die of heat stroke. Exhaustion. Exposure. And that’s if there isn’t a sandstorm, which they would be certain to encounter at some point.”
“Then there is the matter of numbers, and style of warfare,” another minister said. “They would not meet us in open combat. Once we reach the jungle, the tribes would simply attack from the trees.”
“Have they no honor?” Father asked, shaking his head.
I looked away so he could not see my disapproval. Waging war on the tribes was not honorable in the first place. I was not against war in principle. I knew that the majesty and power of Egypt was built by our armies. Our own slaves were the descendants of those we had conquered in battle. But I could not see a benefit to waging war with the tribes. Defeating them would expand our border, certainly, but we already had thousands of miles of desert land we could not use. Any more than a few miles from the Nile River and the land became uninhabitable. The African tribes lined the other side of the desert, along the northern edge of the great African jungle. As far as I was concerned, it was a border they were welcome to. Egypt governed the desert; the tribes governed the jungle. I saw no reason to change this.
“We must find a way to do it,” Father said, standing and pointing at his ministers. “Come up with a plan, and do not return to me with excuses.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” the ministers said as they bowed and then backed away. My brother squirmed in his seat and clapped his hands, no doubt thinking he and Father had succeeded in taking the next step toward dominating the African continent. But I could see frustration on the ministers’ faces, and I felt it as well. I would have to find some way to talk sense into Father when we were alone.
“Next order of business,” Father said, standing and motioning toward me. “Sanura, come here.”
I bowed and then approached the throne, climbing the three steps to take Father’s outstretched hand.
“These months since the death of Queen Anat have been a difficult time for our family, and for all of Egypt,” Father said. There were murmurs of agreement throughout the room. “Egypt must have a queen. And I must appoint my heir. If nothing else, the death of Queen Anat should remind us all that none of us can stay in this mortal realm forever—even queens and pharaohs.”
“May you live one thousand years!” someone yelled.
“May you live one thousand years!” the rest of the room echoed.
Father raised his hand to silence them. “Only the gods may grant such gifts,” he said. Everyone nodded and uttered their agreement. “I have delayed long enough. Today, I announce that my son, Ramses, shall officially take his place as my heir. Behold—the next pharaoh of Egypt!”
“Long live Prince Ramses!” the room said as all in attendance dropped to their knees and bowed in obeisance.
I felt my heart drop into my stomach, but I did my best not to show my disappointment. Of course, I knew that my brother would take precedence. It had been a long time since a daughter had been named an heir to a pharaoh. And then only because there were no sons or nephews to appoint in her stead. But my brother…Well, it was understood that he was different. As a sweet and gentle boy, he had never excelled at his studies or in physical training. He was not a leader, a warrior, or a scholar. His greatest desire in life was to please our father, but he failed in almost every respect.
I, on the other hand, was everything a parent could want in a son or daughter. I was smart, strong, and beautiful. Many people had speculated that even though I had a brother, I would be Father’s heir. In the end, however, it appeared that Father could not slight his only son in such a way. Even if appointing me as heir would have been the best choice for Egypt.
Ramses gasped and put his hand to his mouth. “Father!” he said, standing, tears in his eyes. “Do you mean it?”
Father let go of my hand and gripped my brother’s shoulders. “Yes, my son,” he said. “Over these last few months, I have seen you grow from a boy to a man. And I wish nothing more than to see you follow in my footsteps.”
“Thank you, Father!” Ramses said, bowing his head.
“But you will not carry the burden of ruling alone,” Father continued, turning back to me and taking my hands in his again. “My daughter, Sanura, your half-sister, shall rule by your side as your wife and your queen.”
My stomach tumbled inside of me.
“Long live Princess Sanura!” the room crowed.
I tried to smile, but my lips quavered. It had always been a possibility that my brother and I should marry. Royal families usually intermarried. But such a marriage was typically arranged to keep a family strong and my brother…wasn’t. It had been my dream for Father to appoint me as heir, and then I could marry someone who would bring great benefit to the family and to Egypt. Someone with an army, money, or vast tracks of fertile land.
Ramses pushed past Father and wrapped his arms around me. “Oh, Sanura!” he exclaimed. “Isn’t this the most wonderful day?”
I couldn’t help but smile, genuinely. If my brother was to be pharaoh, who better to be by his side guiding him than me?
“Yes,” I said. “It is wonderful.”
Father smiled and clapped his hands together. The rest of the room erupted into cheers and applause. Father then stepped toward me and placed a menit necklace around my neck. The heavily beaded necklace with a large bar of gold at the front symbolized Hathor, the goddess of heaven, and queens on earth.
“In the meantime,” Father said, once the crowd quieted down, “as I have decided not to remarry, Sanura will also step in as acting queen until my death and she takes her proper place beside her husband and pharaoh.”
“Long live Queen Sanura!” the crowd cheered. This time, I nearly cried for joy myself. No longer merely a princess. Not a wife. But a queen in my own right. For now, at least.
The victory was bittersweet, for who could ever rejoice in the loss of two mothers? Though, that is the natural way of things. Parents die, and children take their place. And some of us must make that transition sooner than others.
After the formal audience ended and the ministers had left and my brother had gone to study with his tutor, I was alone with Father.
“Thank you,” I said to him, fingering my exquisite necklace. “You do me a great honor.”
“I hope you mean that,” Father said as he walked toward one of the windows that overlooked the city below. The sun was setting, painting the sky in fiery orange and purple. Below us, we could hear the din of the people, the barking of dogs, the baying of camels. In the distance, the sharp peaks of the pyramids pointed up to the heavens. “You must know that I did this so you would not just be your brother’s wife, but his keeper.”
“I know,” I said. “And I will do my best by him. And by you. But that is many years away.”
Father frowned and placed his hand on mine on the windowsill. “I have outlived two wives. Both of my parents. My brother. Two sisters. And your mothers…I lost count of how many other children did not even take a breath in this life.”
I gasped. I had no idea that Mother and Anat had lost children. They never told me. Not that it was something we would have discussed openly. Childbirth—and I suppose child loss—was considered a private affair.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “But you are a young man. You could take another wife. Have more children.”
He shook his head. “I could not risk it.”
“Risk what?” I asked.
“Falling in love,” he said. “If I loved and lost again, I do not think my heart could bear it.”
“I didn’t say you had to fall in love,” I said. “You don’t have to love a woman just because you bed her. Or even because you marry her. It would make sense for you to have a woman for companionship. To strengthen bonds and alliances.”
“That is true,” Father said. “And I tried that. After your mother died, I swore I would never marry for love again. Anat was the logical choice. But she was also smart. And funny. And a good mother to you and your brother. I couldn’t help but love her.”
“So, marry a stupid woman,” I said. “One with warts and no sense of humor.”
Father laughed, a loud bleating laugh that echoed off the walls. It was the first time he had laughed since Anat had died. He wrapped his arms around me and held me tight.
“Oh, my daughter,” he sighed. “What have I done? How did I get a girl with such a practical mind? Will you be a better queen with no love in your heart? Will Egypt thrive under your care?”
“I love Ramses,” I said.
“As a sister should love her brother,” Father said. “But you have no passion for him.”
I blushed. I did not want to have this conversation with my father and pulled away from him.
“I will always do what is necessary,” I said. “My love for Egypt comes first. I will always do what is right by her.”
Father patted my cheek. “That I believe,” he said. “I only hope you do right by yourself as well.”
With that, he left the room, two servants opening the doors to the throne room as he approached. I turned back and leaned on the windowsill. The sun was nearly set, and stars were starting to shine in the deep blue sky. I placed my hands together and prayed to Sekhmet, the warrior goddess with the head of a lioness.
“Dear Sekhmet,” I said, my eyes raised to the night sky. “Please guide Anat safely through the afterlife. May she stand side by side with Mother. And please guide me as well. Help me do what is best for Egypt and to never put myself first.”
I felt a warm breeze brush my shoulders and my skin erupted into gooseflesh. I always felt a presence when I prayed to Sekhmet. It was subtle, but I knew she was there.
“Sanura!” Ramses called out through the open door. “Come eat! I’m starving!”
“Coming!” I said, but I quickly added in a whisper, “And please protect Ramses as well.” Then I followed my brother to the dining hall.
The short sword fell toward my leg, but I stepped back and swung at my opponent's head, stopping just short of his neck. I thought I had won the match, but he suddenly ducked under my sword and slashed upward, nearly missing my chin.
“Did I call the match?” General Chike asked. More like barked as he stepped back and pointed at me with the tip of his sword.
“No,” I said through gritted teeth as I stepped to the side, out of reach from his sword.
“No what?” he asked.
“No, sir,” I said, flipping my khopesh around with a flick of my wrist and gripping it tightly.
“That’s right,” General Chike said with a smile, his white teeth gleaming. “In this ring, you are not a queen. You are just fresh meat waiting for a butcher.”
I heard laughs and jeers from the crowd around us, but I did my best to block them out. At night, the palace was as quiet and empty as any other private home. But during the day, it was a veritable marketplace of activity. Nobles and ministers coming and going on official business. Priests and priestesses giving and seeking blessings. Friends and extended family stopping by for whatever reason crossed their fancy. Servants and slaves rushing to and fro. Even peasants, coming to petition the pharaoh for mercy or to lodge a formal complaint.
Most of my training sessions with General Chike were held privately, in a small exercise room. But today, we needed a larger space, so we were working in the much more open gymnasium. I also suspected that Chike wanted to test how I performed with distractions.
And I was failing him.
I had to tune everything out. The crowds. My new title. The loss of Anat. The upcoming marriage to my brother.
Once again, I swung the sickle-shaped blade of my khopesh around my wrist, trying to find the balance. The weight of a khopesh, similar to that of an axe but much more elegant, made it excellent for swinging quickly.
Chike was the superior fighter—there was no denying that. He preferred the close combat of the short sword. He loved the control it gave him over his actions and had no qualms about looking deep into the eyes of the person he was killing.
“Begin!” Chike snapped and he lunged, the short sword aimed at my heart.
I leapt back. As a woman, I could never compete with the strength or brute force of a man, especially one trained for war. So, keeping my distance from my opponent was a preservation technique.
With my left hand, I gripped his wrist to deflect the strike, then I swung the khopesh with my right hand downward, aiming for his leg, but it was a feint attack. As he raised his leg to avoid the strike, I flicked the khopesh up, making an arc and quick slice to the back of the head. Had we been in a real battle, I could have taken off the back of his skull. As it was a training, I only hit him with the flat of the blade, but it was still enough to knock his head forward, exposing his neck to me. I swung down and—again, had then been a real battle—could have decapitated him, but I only laid my blade against his skin.
“Do you yield?” I asked.
“How can I yield if I am dead?” he asked, then he laughed as he pulled away and stood up straight. Chike clapped and bowed to me. “Excellent, your highness.”
I smiled and bowed to him as well, more than pleased with my progress. The roar of the crowd that had gathered around us, both on the ground and in the gallery levels above, was suddenly made aware to me. I waved to those who had gathered and they cheered louder.
This was why I trained. I never really expected to be in a battle. At most, I might have to defend myself from an assassin. If you were a member of the royal family, someone always wanted you dead. But, I thought it was important for my people to know that I could defend not only myself, but them as well, if necessary. As queen, I was the head of my country’s military. Okay. The pharaoh was the head of the military, but my brother had no aptitude for strategy. He was terrible at Senet, a popular board game that also required strategy. He could never plan more than two steps ahead. General Chike knew that with my brother as pharaoh, the real person he would both answer to and take orders from would be me. So, it was important that I have some combat training in order to better defend my country.
“You have improved by leaps and bounds, Your Highness,” Chike said as we toweled off and headed to the armory.
“It is only thanks to your excellent training,” I said.
“Teaching is easy when the student is as willing to improve as you,” he said.
“You still think I need to improve?” I asked.
“Always,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “Never think you are above learning more than you know.”
“You sound like Habibah,” I said, referring to my academics tutor, who I would be going to visit next.
“There is none wiser than she,” Chike said.
As we entered the armory to replace our weapons, an uneasy silence fell over Chike. I could sense that he wanted to say more, but was unsure of how to proceed.
“You were conspicuously absent yesterday when my father was railing at the ministers about subduing the African tribes,” I prodded.
“Not too conspicuously I hope,” he said.
“Father did not mention it,” I said. “But I am sure he could have used your counsel.”
Chike shook his head as he picked up a dagger and twirled it through his fingers. “The pharaoh is determined to wage war on the tribes. My words will not dissuade him.”
“Where do you think this is coming from?” I asked. “Why is he so insistent on this path? What good will it do?”
“For some men, war is the only way they know how to impose control on the world, and perhaps their own lives,” Chike said.
“You think this is because of Anat’s death?” I asked.
“It gives him something to do now that she is gone,” he said.
“As if running an empire isn’t enough,” I scoffed.
“Not for your father it isn’t,” Chike said. “Not for now, at least.”
I placed my training khopesh on the rack. “So what can we do?” I asked.
“Delay,” Chike said. “Deflect. Misdirect. Eventually, he will work through his grief and may give up on this foolish quest.”
I nodded. “I’ll do my best.”
Chike bowed to me and left the room. I went to my quarters and grabbed my study bag of scrolls, pens, and ink. I opened the cabinet where I safely stored the menit necklace and placed it around my neck. I then headed to the city library to meet Habibah.
The city was alive and vibrant today. The weather was perfect. The sun was shining and it was a warm clear day. A breeze from the Nile kept the city from stagnating—at least at this time of year. In the deepest part of summer, the Nile would sink so low you could practically walk across it, and the stink of dead fish would permeate every nose. But now, it was high and fast, running clean and cool.
The streets were thronged with people and merchants set up stalls and blankets on the ground to hawk their wares wherever they found an empty spot. I slowed my pace as my eyes fell upon some intricate gold beads that would look beautiful woven into a new wig and I accidentally bumped into a girl carrying a basket of eggs, knocking her off her feet and causing many of the eggs to smash to the ground. I immediately bent down to help her.
“I am so sorry,” I said as I helped her to her feet and dusted her off.
“Forgive me!” the girl uttered, her eyes downcast but her face streaming with tears. I saw the brand on her shoulder that marked her as a slave.
“No, I was in the wrong,” I said as I handed her the basket and picked up the few surviving eggs.
“Never, my lady!” the girl said. “I should have watched where I was going.”
“That’s enough,” I said as I opened my bag. “Let me pay for the eggs so you can get some more.”
She shook her head. “It won’t matter. He’s waiting for me.”
“Who is waiting for you?” I asked.
“I’m late,” she said and then ran off.
“Wait!” I called as I followed her. I couldn’t let her return home to her master without paying for the loss of her eggs. Even a kindly mistress would be displeased with any slave who returned home with no eggs and no money.
“You idiot!” I heard a man yell, followed by a sharp slap. I pushed through the crowd and saw the girl on her backside clutching her cheek at the feet of a well-dressed merchant.
“I’m sorry,” the girl said as she trembled before him.
“You will be!” the man yelled as he raised his arm to strike her again. I ran up and grabbed the man’s wrist.
“Hold!” I said.
The man looked at me, his eyes wide and his face red. “Just who do you think you are?” he asked. “How dare you interfere with the punishment of my slave.”
“How old are you, girl?” I asked her.
“S-s-seventeen,” she stammered.
“Seventeen?” I asked, astonished. She looked younger. Too thin. She clearly was not fed well by her master. I squeezed the man’s wrist tighter. “You pride yourself on beating a girl, sir?”
The man wrenched his arm out of my grasp and pushed me. “On beating a slave,” he reiterated. “My slave. Now move on and mind your business.”
“Actually,” I said, crossing my arms, “as queen of Egypt, all slaves belong to me. You are allowed to keep slaves only with my permission.”
“Queen?” the man asked, narrowing his eyes at me. “Queen Anat is dead, or haven’t you heard?”
“Perhaps you have not heard that the pharaoh appointed a new queen?” I asked. “His daughter?”
“Oh, the interim queen,” he said with a chuckle, but then he stopped and looked at me. His eyes fell on the menit necklace and he broke out into a cold sweat. “Q-Q-Queen Sanura?”
“Indeed,” I said.
The man dropped to his knees. “Forgive me, Your Majesty,” he said. “I didn’t know—”
I ignored him and motioned for the slave girl to follow me. “Come, girl. You are mine now.”
“Wait!” the man said. “You can’t just st—”
“Just what?” I asked, daring him to call the queen of Egypt a thief.
“She was quite expensive,” the merchant said.
“Then perhaps you will treat your investments a bit more kindly in the future,” I said and turned my back to him, continuing my walk to the library, my new slave girl at my heels.
“Were you very hurt?” I asked her, slowing my pace as we put a good distance between us and the merchant.
The girl shook her head. “No,” she said. “Not this time.”
“This time?” I asked. “Did he regularly beat you?”
“Of course,” she said, as though it was an expected part of life. And I suppose it was. While it was illegal to kill a slave, there were no laws against physical punishments. Perhaps there should be. Now that I was queen, maybe I would look into ways I could improve life for the slaves of the city. I wasn’t against slavery. I knew it had its place. But the way some masters treated their slaves like chattel, even worse than dogs, was appalling.
“Well, that won’t happen to you in my household,” I said. She didn’t respond and walked so quietly I had to look back to make sure she was still following me. She was hesitating, looking back toward her old master.
“Keep up,” I said.
“A…are you sure?” she asked. “Are you really the queen?”
“I am,” I said. She gasped and fell to her knees, bowing before me. “Stop!” I hissed, gripping her shoulders and pulling her to her feet. She looked up at me for the first time and I was nearly frozen in surprise at her exquisite beauty. She had the brightest green eyes I had ever seen. “Where…where are you from?” I asked her.
She shrugged. I supposed she had been enslaved from childhood, if not birth.
“Where are your parents?” I asked. “Are they owned by that same man?”
“My father was a soldier,” she said. “Killed in battle. Mother and I were taken as slaves. She died last year.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said and she looked at me curiously. What else could I say when it was probably my father’s army who destroyed her life. I pressed my lips into a thin smile and resumed my walk to the library, the girl following close behind.
The library of Luxor was the largest and most impressive building in all of Egypt, save the palace and the pyramids. The front of the building was composed completely of marble. It was raised up a dozen steps with a dozen front columns five stories high. Inside, the walls of shelves reached up as tall as ten men, every inch crammed with scrolls and books and other writings from around the world. The library employed no fewer than a hundred librarians and scribes at any given time, and all men and women of learning could be found within its walls. I watched as the slave girl’s eyes lit up as she took in the grandeur of the library.
“Can you read?” I asked her.
“Yes, my lady,” she said. “Though, not Egyptian. My native language. Persian. My mother taught me.”
“My mother taught me to read too,” I said.
“Your Highness!” Habibah called out as she crossed the floor toward me, her arms outstretched. Habibah was a woman of late middle age, which showed only in the roundness of her form and the few lines around her eyes. I had no idea if her hair was black or white as she always wore a deep red shawl around her head. “Or should I say, Your Majesty?” She gave an exaggerated bow that made me blush.
“It will always be Sanura to you, teacher,” I said, gripping her hands tightly.
“And who is this?” she asked, turning to the slave girl.
“A new acquisition,” I said. “I took her from an abusive master.”
“How benevolent,” Habibah said. “And her name?”
I blushed and my stomach flipped in embarrassment. I hadn’t thought to ask the girl’s name. “Umm…Her name…”
“Keket,” the girl said with a curtsey, casting her eyes to the floor.
“Yes,” I said. “Keket. Isn’t she lovely?”
Habibah reached out with her finger and lifted Keket’s chin, looking into her eyes. “Quite,” she said. “Where are you from?”
“I don’t know, my lady,” Keket said.
“She speaks and reads Persian,” I said. “That could give you some clue.”
“She reads?” Habibah asked in surprise. “I daresay she might find some interesting things to read on the third floor. Would you like that, Keket?”
“Very much so, my lady,” Keket said.
“With eyes like that, I’m almost certain you are Pashtun,” Habibah said. “Does that sound familiar to you?”
“I…I don’t know, my lady,” Keket said, pulling away and dropping her eyes again.
“Hmm.” Habibah folded her hands in front of her. “Well, I suppose that is a mystery for another day. Why don’t you explore the library a bit while Queen Sanura and I talk.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Keket said as she backed away, bowing all the way. “Thank you, my lady.”
“What do you think?” I asked Habibah once Keket was out of earshot.
“Keep an eye on her,” Habibah said. “Pashtun are a very secretive people. They keep to themselves and don’t share their traditions with outsiders.”
“How do you think she came to be here?” I asked. “Has Father ever waged war with the Pashtun?”
“That is farther east than our armies have ever traveled,” Habibah said. “No, she was probably traded from hand to hand across the desert until she ended up here. A hard upbringing to be sure.”
“Can I trust her?” I asked. “I was hoping to have her assigned to my personal household.”
“As much as you can trust anyone you’ve just met,” Habibah said, meaning not at all. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t take her under your wing. Who knows. She might prove to be a faithful companion.”
I nodded and then moved on to more pressing matters. We walked through the library, toward a row of tables. “I wanted to ask you about deflection. Misdirection.”
“Oh?” Habibah asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Yes,” I said. “You see, the pharaoh—”
A scream rent the air, followed by a ferocious roar.
“By the gods?” Habibah gasped as we both looked right and left, trying to discern where the echoing sounds were coming from. I then saw Keket running toward me, terror on her face.
“Lion!” she screamed. At first, I thought she must be mad. A lion in the library? But then, just behind her, I saw him. A full-grown male lion with a large mane, running toward her, teeth bared and claws extended.
I didn’t even think. I jumped up on the table next to me and leapt behind Keket as she passed, foolishly putting myself between her and the lion. I reached for my belt, but of course, I did not have a weapon on me. Who expects to run into a lion in the library? But I could still fight in other ways.
I dropped to one side and swung my right leg in the air, connecting my foot with the lion’s nose. The lion stumbled and let out what sounded like a whine. It stepped back and shook its head from the shock. When it recovered, it looked at me with something like…recognition. Like reason. As though I was looking into the eyes of a man and not a beast.
I jumped to my feet and held my hands in front of me. “Easy, boy,” I said gently. “You don’t want to hurt anyone today.”
The lion’s eyes then returned to those of a wild beast. He snarled and let out a fearsome growl, one loud enough to shake the walls and send the people into a panic again. But the lion did not attack me. He turned away and lunged at someone else before I could stop him. The man dodged the attack, and the lion kept running. It ran to the front door, but the door was shut. It raised a paw to the handle, as though he was trying to open it. I realized that the lion wasn’t trying to hurt anyone. It was trying to escape.
“What are you doing?” Habibah called out to me as I took off for the door. “The people!”
I knew what she meant. The city was teeming with people. If the lion were let loose…But the lion was already loose here in the library and it hadn’t hurt anyone. It just wanted to escape. The library was on the edge of the city. If the lion went out the front door and headed toward the river, he could get away without being taken down by the city guards.
The only problem was that the lion was between me and the door. I slowed as I approached him, my hands open in surrender. “Hey, hush now,” I said, looking into his eyes. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
The lion snarled and began to circle around me, away from the door.
“That’s right,” I said as I circled as well. Finally, the door was behind me. I flipped the handle and pushed the door open. The lion barely thought twice before bounding past me and down the stairs of the library. Dozens of screams erupted as the people on the street saw the lion emerge. Thankfully, though, the lion turned away from them and headed toward the river and out of the city, as if he knew exactly where to go.
I shook my head in dumbfounded relief. What just happened? How could there have been a lion in the library? But before I could make sense of any of it, an old woman approached me.
“You just faced down a lion!” she exclaimed.
“What?” I asked, still confused over the whole thing. “No…I…Well…Maybe?”
An old priest came up next to her. “Truly, you are the goddess Sekhmet come to life!” he said, holding up his hands and looking to heaven.
“No,” I said. “I was just protecting my friend.”
“Long live Queen Sanura!” someone shouted.
“Praise be to Sekhmet!” someone else said.
A crowd started to form around me of people trying to touch me. Others dropped to their knees and bowed to me.
I looked back into the library and Habibah came to my side.
“Truly, the pharaoh has done the right thing in appointing Sanura as our new queen,” she said, which led to more cheering.
“I thought you were coming to help me,” I said to her through gritted teeth.
“As long as you have the love of the people,” Habibah replied, “you’ll never have to worry a day in your life.” She then raised her voice to the people. “Long live Queen Sanura!”
“Long live the queen who faced a lion!” they replied.