Waking with a start, she nearly fell from her bed as her coughing echoed throughout the chamber. Her bright, amber eyes wide and full of shock. It was just a dream. She was still inside the palace walls, the sea of dead bodies nowhere near. Raking her fingers through her black curls she inhaled deeply, out of breath and shaking from the vividness of her dream. A flush spread over her deep brown cheeks. The water seemed to have filled her lungs too. After a pause, she moved from her bed, grabbing her black lambswool cloak and slipping it around her body. The heat was stifling during the day, but it was always colder at night in Nabara. As soon as the sun disappeared the cold crept into her body, making her ears tingle as the hairs on her neck rose. Seeping into her bones. Pulling the cloak’s hood high, she pushed open the stone door, careful not to wake Ama from where she slept on her bed. Ama had arrived well in advance of the Festival of Kings. Two years older and fearful of Imani’s High King father, the two were close. Her father was brother to Imani’s mother, the High Queen. But Ama’s parents were long dead. They had both taken ill on a trip back from Kibera and passed. Her cousin would beg her not to go. Imani had been in trouble more times than she cared to count.
Creeping slowly down the stairs, she walked toward the secret meeting of the council members of the Empire of Nudolla. Hidden tunnels ran underneath the palace, and she followed them as quickly as she could until she reached the lion-shaped deffufa, a temple reserved for ceremonies, prayer, and as a memorial for the dead members of her royal family. The voices grew louder as she descended into the underground chamber, the hood covering her maple face, almond-shaped eyes darting from crevice to corner as she descended the steps, fearful should any guards catch her. She’d been forbidden to attend. Her father was the High King of the Nudollan Empire, holding sway over an alliance of a number of independent Kings from his seat in the Kingdom of Nabara, each with their own territories in Nudolla: the Kibera Kingdom, the Kingdom of the Sao, the Scorpion Kingdom, the Essi Kingdom, and the Kingdom of the Sotho. As High King, her father alone commanded the Medjay and Adamantine warriors as well as ruling on foreign matters and threats to Nudolla such as slavery and trade. All of the kings were descendants of ancient civilizations, fierce warriors, brilliant philosophers, great builders, and mighty kings. Most called it an empire, others a collective. Whatever they chose to call it, it was an alliance built on loyalty, courage, and justice. Each of them were sworn to protect these secrets.
Even as a child she knew not to ask her father again once the word forbidden came from his mouth. When she was young they’d been returning from a visit to the Kingdom of the Kibera, their large caravan snaking over mountains and down valleys into the Kalahari Desert and away from the jungle as they returned to the Nudollan Empire’s seat in Nabara, Kingdom of Gold. Shouting and yelling caused her to gasp from her seat in the litter, pushing the shade aside as her sister tried to pull her back in. When they came to a stop, she shook Nema’s hand off her shoulder and jumped to the ground.
“He is dying,” her Uncle Shaharqa told her father. “There’s no saving him.”
She crept up quietly, watching her uncle’s hand as it rested against the lion’s neck. Somewhere, laughter sounded and she looked over her shoulder, frowning. Nabaran archers still had their arrows drawn, eyes looking into the distance, wary.
“The hyenas were too many. And he was alone. He might have been driven out by his pride. Or simply traveling by himself. There’s no way to tell,” her father replied.
Holding her breath, she finally got close enough to see the lion’s shredded hind legs and ripped throat. Blood poured from it onto the ground, the grass a deep scarlet around him. His chest rose and fell softly as he breathed, her father squatting down in his raiment to gently put one hand on his dark red mane. When his chest stilled, tears filled her eyes like the River Nub, and she gritted her teeth to keep from letting her father see her cry. Next to her the grass swayed suddenly and she looked down, gasping as she took two steps in her gown and fell to the ground to scoop up her prize.
She barely heard her father as she slipped her fingers under the soft fur of the lion cub and pulled him from the log he was under into her excited arms. He took one swipe at her face, and she leaned back quickly, tickling her fingers under his chin. The sound he made was nowhere near a growl though he’d opened his mouth wide enough for it to be. Squirming in her arms, he caught her finger in his mouth and she gasped, fear and excitement running through her at the same time as she struggled to hold his tiny body. But he only nipped it before releasing it, using his paws to try to climb up her chest toward her shoulders.
“Imanishakheto, release him.” Her father stood behind her with her uncle and Medjay, who were looking over their shoulders cautiously.
“It’s Apedemak, Father!” Her eyes lit up as she grinned down at the cub.
“The Lion-God will be fine on his own. He needs no help. We have enough lions at the palace for you to play with.” Her father looked to her uncles Asim and Shaharqa, raising his eyebrows briefly.
“Father, he doesn’t have anyone.” Looking up at him with hesitation, she lifted the lion cub back up as he slid down in her arms.
“Still. You must let him go.” Her father was unrelenting.
“But he will die!” She looked back and forth from her father to her uncles, her eyes pleading with them to understand. “You said so yourself,” she reminded him. “The hyenas may come back.” Even now she could still remember the determination in her heart to change his mind.
“That is life, Imanishakheto.” Her father looked down at her with sympathetic eyes that told her she wouldn’t win this argument. She never did. “He may die, as everything does. Even the acacia trees will die and new trees replace it. He may die, or he may survive. One day, he may even eat us. The longer you hold on, the harder it will be to let go. He must learn to survive on his own. That is life.”
Looking down at the cub in her arms, she kissed the top of its head, looking one last time into its golden eyes as its tiny ears flicked back and forth. When her father put a hand on her shoulder, she set him down, watching him play at her feet, circling her, his tail batting at her ankles as he tried to use his paws to climb up her gown and back into her arms.
“I forbid it.”
Biting her lip, she looked down at the ground, kneeling to let the cub nip at her fingers again.
“Come, Imanishakheto.” Her father had moved back toward the litter swiftly. “It will be dark soon.”
She turned around one more time before feeling a hand on her shoulder. Her uncle held out a large chunk of salted meat to her, nodding to the cub. Smiling, she’d taken it and held it out to the cub, which pounced on it immediately. He only took one bite before mewling again, rolling onto his back to let her rub his stomach. When her uncle put his hand on her shoulder once again, she rose and turned around. Oblivious to the dirt and grass on her gown, she looked back again, and again as she stepped through the high grass, watching the lion cub softly trying to hop through the grass after her, the meat held tightly in its mouth. He’ll survive, she told herself. That is also life.
Smiling at the memory, she let her fingers trail over the sandstone walls of the deffufa as she descended, the soft glow from her torch illuminating the figures drawn on them from long ago. The drawings were as familiar to her as her own face. A Nubian archer stood tall, one brown arm outstretched as his other pulled the string of his bow taut. Her eyes followed his gaze, a herd of antelope a foot away, standing, eating in the tall grass. Her hands moved up the wall to let her fingers feather over the cattle of kings, ankole-watusi, the pride of Nabara. Their unmistakably tall horns were magically uniform as they grouped together to adorn the wall. A lake full of fishermen sailed just below them, their reed boats sitting among the curved lines that made the waves. To their left a parade of dancers, some mid-air, swirling against the rock with their black hair caught in the wind above them. Alive. A history. Her history.
Moving her eyes farther down, a soft murmur greeted her ears. She shrank back. Her father had forbidden her attendance, and she’d known after the first time not to ask again. She moved closer to the balcony, carefully looking down as the voices grew louder.
“Our response must be swift and sure. They dare come into Nudolla to steal our people? The arrogance of thinking they can get away with—”
“Yes, but they have gotten away with it, haven’t they? And make no mistake they will do it again as often as they can. There is no telling how much they know of Nudolla as yet. Some have never heard the name before. Each of us are known by our own kingdoms, but few know of the strength, the alliance that is Nudolla.”
A sharp intake of breath followed, and she tried her best to make out the faces down below, but it seemed impossible, save her father. He sat above them on the High King’s seat, fire glinting off his khepresh crown as he watched and listened. His gold and blue collar covered his shoulders, heavy and strong. She’d tried to lift it as a child before falling with it to the ground as one of her handmaids found her and rushed to help her.
“Are we quite certain this is not the work ofpawnship?I see no reason to become excited if not. Pawnship has been a part of the nomadic families for years.”
“Save in pawnship one reaches an agreement,” one of the lower kings cut in, “an understanding with mutual benefits if not some profit. An agreement is made whereby goods or something of value is given to the borrower, and the borrower provides the lender with a member of his family as assurance of repayment. At other times a member of one’s family is seized to force payment of some prior debt. Upon repayment, their kin are returned. Here, there is none of this. No agreement, no warning, no exchange of value, not even a face or name to the thief. The slavers are using these customs to their advantage.”
Silence fell in the hall, and Imani stepped up onto the stones in front of her, so that her chest was level with the top of the wall she struggled to lean over. Her father had outlawed pawnship in Nudolla, but many of the nomadic and independent nations fought to keep the practice as part of their traditions. At times they would ask her father for support during drought, but because of his stance on pawnship, it came with conditions. Some had too much pride to take it. And they rarely asked. But from living in Nabara and watching her father’s hand shape the kingdom she had learned an important lesson. One could be desperate and another could be proud. But it was a difficult thing to be both. She wrapped her right arm around the cracked stone lotus shaped pillar to her right, slipping her hand inside the crevice for a better grip as she bent her left arm in front of her, pressing against the wall. Gasping as her grip slipped, she pressed her lips together and braced herself against the pillar, closing her eyes at the sound of the pillar’s crumbling rocks hitting the floor. Imani held her breath as it came to a stop, looking over the top of the wall again.
“…Asim, tell me what you know of the nomadic families’ involvement in this?” Her father motioned to his right, and Asim stood. She knew the captain of the guards by the mark on his shoulder in the shape of an X and the white breastplate covering his chest. He was her father’s captain, and held rank over Medjay, guardians of the High King in service to the royal family.
“Your Grace. The Nomadin owe no allegiance to any in the Kingdom of Nabara or the alliance of Nudolla for that matter. They trade with us, true, but most of them settle near necessary resources—water, cattle, and farmland when they can find it untouched and unclaimed. If they met with any foreigners, it is likely they would be killed on sight. The Nomadin have long been known to raid among competing families in the desert as well as any who have valuables on their person. Their women are sometimes slaves, stolen from other territories. Of those accused of trading with slavers, the Nomadin would be most susceptible. The most…willing. The Berbers of the Sahara have and continue to hunt those south of their lands. As nomads they cross the desert as one would a bridge, easily and without hesitation. And Cuicul is now a Roman garrison. The Romans drove the Berbers out and made many of their people slaves. Or martyrs. Noubadia gained the trust of Rome after helping them rid their land of invaders to the South. We believe the Mandé assisted them with weaponry and possibly men, though they deny it. As long as there is a supply, and willing traders, slaves will continue to be sold along the north and eastern coasts at ports in Adulis, Opone, Malao, possibly Rhapta, and more.”
“Are there so many? Are other areas compromised?” the Sotho King asked.
“And more, Your Grace,” Asim confirmed. “It is also possible that prisoners from Exile Island may know of this. Often, thieves and raiders exiled there spread information among the captives. The island may be home to dead trees made of stone, but there are plenty men yet living. And men talk.” Then he nodded once to her father and was silent.
Next, Kandake Bamanirenas rose, the symbol of an elephant on her headdress, ivory around her neck. She was the ruling Kandake, Queen of the Kiberan Kingdom.
“My forest lands are far-flung and hard to reach. Even the sun has a difficult time getting through our rain forests. Yet these stories have reached my ears as well. The leaves and forests of my lands are young and green, as are the hanging gardens we cultivate in my city. Like anything of the land, it flourishes when one tends to them, protects them from weeds, serpents and beetles. These slavers will overrun us just as the weeds and beetles of the earth consume every leaf and turn it brown with death. We cannot leave this to chance. The longer we wait, the larger they grow, the tighter their hold, the farther their reach.”
Imani slipped again and caught herself, biting her bottom lip as rocks slid from the pillar once more. When she looked over the edge this time, Asim’s eyes caught hers and she froze. He raised one eyebrow before turning his attention back to the council assembly, crossing his arms about his chest in the same motion.
Please don’t let him tell Father.
Imani bit her lip, worrying at the thought even as she pushed it from her mind. She narrowed her eyes as she tried to make out the current speaker’s facial features from her vantage point. A lock of her tightly coiled onyx hair fell in front of her eyes, and she released her grip on the pillar to push it back underneath the hood of her cloak.
“The Scorpion Kingdom has no reason to set foot on Torrent, but we’ve word that trade may be at risk. If the Essi can’t protect the high seas, it puts all of us in danger. What of it?” The Scorpion King’s tone was nothing if not condescending. The tension rose. She could feel it even from where she stood.
“The Essi have been weathering storms for hundreds of years…and that includes you,” the Essi King stated firmly.
A soft chuckle followed his statement, and he continued. “We are not yet overrun. But what you hear is true. Twice they have attempted to take our ships by sea, and twice they have been rewarded. They will try to take us again. The Empire of Nudolla must mount an offense.”
“Agreed.” The deffufa echoed with the voices of the lesser kings’ concurrence.
Her father stood again, walking to the center of the chamber as Imani’s heart beat faster. What would he say?
“Nudolla will send Medjay to the coast. North, south, east, and west are to scout and bring what news they can. Until then, we will move forward with the Festival of Kings. Now more than ever, we must band together. Tradition will keep us that way. I expect every leader to take precautions within their kingdom to protect their trade routes and their people. Should you have any difficulties, make your requests known.”
In turn, each of the lower kings bowed before the High King and waited as he took his leave, flanked by the Royal Guard. All watched as he exited before gathering into smaller groups to speak amongst themselves. Imani leaned back from the edge of her precipice and slid to the floor before fixing her hood for the third time. Slaves. Are we at war?
Her father had fought long and hard for peace through a bloody campaign before she was even born. He would not want to risk it if it could be avoided in some way. But how? She could not see how this would end, but now she knew how it had begun.
“Must we attend the Festival of Kings this year? Missing one won’t matter. Send Ketemin if you wish one of us to go,” Komoro said simply, stretching on his hammock.
“It will,” King Kwasi replied. “All of the families attend to show their strength, the skill of their warriors, and to speak of our alliances. Further, as we are a patrilineal kingdom, your sister is not my immediate heir,” his uncle finished, frowning.
“Even the fake alliances?”
“Hold your tongue,” his uncle commanded. “I still hold the throne of the Kingdom of the Sun and will until I die and not before!” His uncle’s voice echoed across the great hall. The servants took no notice, continuing with their duties as before.
His uncle lectured him constantly. He would rule the Sao Kingdom someday true, but not until his uncle took leave of him or stepped down. Both were unlikely to happen in the near future. The people loved his uncle far too much, and he was in excellent shape for his age despite nearing three quarters of a century. The king continued to supervise sparring among the soldiers, his red cloak flying in the wind. At his back the sun shone brightly against the desert, and he looked as if he were aflame. The snakehead of his staff seemed even more menacing, its jaws open, lifelike as his uncle’s fist gripped it, the falcon head of Ra inscribed on an amulet on his chest.
Komoro gritted his teeth, holding back his retort. His ebony skin shone in the light of the sun. The Sao Kingdom worshipped the sun. And the women worshipped him. Women loved his skin. They told him he was blessed with the blood of the old ones to be so loved by Ra, the Sun God. A true son of Ra. His brilliant white teeth seemed a row of perfect ivory when he spoke. His eyes were almost black as he closed them to gather his words. Completely shaven, he preferred to keep his hair cut close, smooth, loving how women would stroke his head when they spoke to him, begging his favor. Tall yet slim, he avoided hard labor; his narrow frame often frequented the bathing pools and wine farmers of the city. He wore a white shendyt and red overlay, his headdressfalling low on his brow; gold chains, bracelets, and earrings decorated his person so much that one could hear him coming. The more lavish, the better.
His uncle was growing harder to reason with. Why must he wait for his inheritance? He was the firstborn. Komoro’s father had died when he was only ten, and before he’d done so, he’d taken care to appoint his uncle as successor before his son took the throne. Succession by appointment of another bloodline was rare, but legal. And limited. He’d resented his uncle’s rule ever since. Though he’d hidden it well.
“Yes, Uncle. You know best. I merely meant that it is such a great distance, at your age. I only meant to spare you,” he said contritely. “But it’s such an old tradition. Why not bring new ways? Faster? Better? The only great thing of the past was the Red Summer. Would that we could still use it to collect additional taxes. With the long drought, food will grow scarce.”
“You are not to mention such measures in my presence again. Collecting additional taxes in a drought is tantamount to ordering the deaths of our people. With the increasing drought, there will be less food from the farmers of the Sao Kingdom. The Red Summer brought more than wealth, Nephew. The people began to starve, growing anxious as they watched their children’s bellies enlarge while their ribs began to protrude. We could not feed them all. Some took measures into their own hands and began to eat…any one they could find. Old and young alike died in this manner. Class was of no import. Many were openly attacked in the streets without cause. Each person caught was put to death. Family turned against their own. You were too young to remember; though you heard the stories, you did not feel the pain. To be a witness to such a thing is to remember the whole and not the part. One must never shade their history in order to rewrite the past. No matter how ugly a commentary it may be.” His uncle sighed. “Nephew,” King Kwasi started, “you aren’t an only child, and I fear I’ve spoiled you. Would that your late father left you more brothers and sisters. It’s best that we continue this tradition. The High King began it to honor progress, trade, and peace among the kingdoms. Each year we solve problems and spark development; our ambassadors make new discoveries and foster relationships and trade.”
Rolling his eyes he shook his head as his uncle finished. More blathering.
“Come with me, nephew.”
“What?” Komoro turned his head sharply to look at his uncle.
“Come with me,” his uncle repeated firmly, not bothering to wait as he turned swiftly away from the balcony and moved towards the steps that would take him outside of the palace.
Confusion spread across his face, but he followed the old man, moving quickly to keep up with his uncle’s long strides. The litter was already waiting for them, six stunning chocolate mares, brushed until they shone, stood fast. The guards bowed as his uncle approached. One kneeled quickly, his thigh parallel to the ground as his uncle put one foot on the guard’s thigh and stepped up, barely allowing his weight to settle into his heel. Komoro followed, sitting opposite his Uncle as they pulled off quickly.
The wheels rolled swiftly over the sand as their driver kept a tight pace, his initial whip of the rains encouraging the mares to a rapid trot. Like smoke, the sand drifted behind them, stirred by the litter which angrily woke each tiny brother and sister from their gentle slumber, before settling again into a sea of desert, the rising wind helping to conceal their tracks. Moving swiftly, they passed large green lakes and lush greenery surrounding them. A private oasis for the weary traveler or a retreat for the citizens of the Sao Empire, many were known to frequent their shores.
“Where are we going?” He couldn’t conceal the boredom in his voice as he finally relaxed in the litter, his gaze falling on the ten warrior escorts following behind them on horseback.
“You’ll see,” his Uncle replied, lazily relaxing in his seat, a satisfied smile on his face.
Komoro nodded. Toying with me like one of his pets. It annoyed him to be at the end of one of his uncle’s games. And now, here he was in the middle of the desert, waiting to see where this journey would bring him. Sighing, he stretched out on the seat, tilting his head back as he yawned, allowing the sun to sink into his skin. At least he could sleep until they arrived wherever his uncle’s whims took them.
“Hmm?” Lifting his head slowly he let out a long yawn, not bothering to cover his mouth as he tried to focus on his Uncle. Blinking slowly, he tried to shake off the heaviness in his body as the sun and the heat encouraged him to return to sleep.
His eyes narrowed as his Uncle stepped from the litter, moving across the sand as though he was floating. Shaking his head again, he followed, eyes moving up towards the sandstone bulwark that loomed in front of them, its rocky countenance at once awe inspiring and menacing. It stood the height of four giraffes, stacked one on top of the other, some ending in stiff unyielding daggers, and others flat plateaus that taunted those from the ground to try and reach them. His sandals were ill-equipped to aid him on this climb. Grasping at the narrow walls on either side of him for support he followed behind his uncle, following the strong legs and shoulders, which easily twisted and turned up the rocky paths.
“Ahh!” Pulling his hand back quickly he jumped back, cursing Ra as he watched the green-bellied snake slide down the rocks and disappear into a crevice. His uncle hadn’t turned around once, his bald head still moving upwards without a pause.
When they were almost at the top his uncle finally turned around to face him.
“Wait here,” his uncle commanded, nodding at the escorts at Komoro’s back.
“Yes, Your Grace.” Two of the guards took up their positions, one facing the bottom of the rocky bulwark from which they came and the other facing Komoro. There’s really no need, he thought, continuing the climb. No one in their right mind would climb these cliffs. Besides, it would be dark soon. Rocks moved under his feet as pebbles pressed into the tender parts of his heels and arches. They might as well have been made of dough. Gritting his teeth as he attempted to find even ground, he finally crested the top, his uncle already there, waiting for him with his hands on his waist as he looked out beyond the horizon.
Komoro stood beside him, looking at his uncle slowly before moving his eyes downward over the edge of the cliff. At least a hundred camels milled below, a quarter of them immersed in the shallow blue-green waters running between the towering sandstone walls. Others drank at the edge, their long necks stretched out in front of them like wilting flowers as they lapped at the water, ears twitching ever so often to keep the flies from landing for too long. Archways that sank into deep valleys ran to their left and right as the narrow oasis rested comfortably in the middle. From here, he was sure he could even seen the edges of their kingdom. Each Sao resident likely winding down. Their thoughts turning to dinner. He never quite bothered to think about it, but with the falling sun and the shadows turning the sharp, jutting rock towers a light purple and pink among its orange brethren, one might even call it beautiful. One day, he would call it his.
“The caravans travel through these canyons seeking Sao trade. Go too far, without the proper protection and the unlucky ones may fall victim to caravan robbers. Thieves that will steal anything to sell. Including salt,” his uncle finished, looking at him gravely.
“Uncle…” Komoro sighed. So this is why he brought me here.
“It’s important that−”
“I know, Uncle. I asked to oversee the salt mines for a reason. I wouldn’t jeopardize it now. Don’t you trust me?” Komoro finished incredulously.
When his uncle turned to look back down into the canyon, silent as a tomb, Komoro pursed his lips. Of course not. Who could run the Sao Empire as well as the great Kwasi of the Kingdom of the Sun, the Son of Ra? A title he hadn’t even earned.
“One day, you’ll understand everything,” his Uncle said softly, interrupting his thoughts. Looking down he found his Uncle’s hand resting on his shoulder. “I know you’ll be a great king one day. I hope to live to see it.”
You’ve lived far too long already. He regretted the thought immediately, gritting his teeth as he tried to quell the irritation rising in his chest. Here he was looking over what should be his kingdom. The kingdom his father meant him to have, meant him to claim, meant him to rule. Instead all he had were his uncle’s promises that he would rule when he was ready. Ready how?he wanted to yell. What must he say? What must he do to show his uncle that he was ready? What did it take to be king? Curling his hands into fists he lifted his gaze from below.
A gentle squeeze answered his thoughts and Komoro looked back down at the hand on his shoulder, smiling at his uncle to show he understood, before crossing his own arms over his chest as he looked back down the rock-face. What did it take? His gaze moved swiftly to the right as he surveyed his uncle from the corner of his eye. It would be so easy...
So easy. And who would dare question him on the matter? It was growing darker already, the sun just a heartbeat away from beginning its slow descent behind the sand in the distance as it set. And they were so high up, having climbed until his legs felt as though they would give like a newborn colt; even he had questioned why they were going so far up. Perhaps he could explain how his uncle was senile and accidentally fell on his own, not paying attention to where he tread on the plateau? Or maybe his uncle did it on purpose, just after telling Komoro of the beauty of the spot, his wishes for his burial, and his certainty that his nephew would be a great ruler. Even a gust a wind would do it. It would be an easy explanation to Sao officials who often came across winds stronger than an elephant pressing a young sapling aside. Winds that stole heavy blankets, pushed chariots speeding along the sand, and lifted heavy pottery from the ground. The way his uncle stood so close to the edge with not a care in the world...made it so tempting. Even the guards wouldn’t be able to prove it, one way or the other.
But his sister. Ketemin was so fond of their uncle. She’d shared his love for science and metallurgy, entering the good graces of every tutor he and his sister ever met. She was the ideal pupil. Every answer she received was followed by another question, desperate to know exactly howand why each thing was. Lessons about their trade became something she thrived on, creating new methods for the Kingdom of the Sun to gain ground with their neighbors and establish alliances. And their uncle sometimes taught them himself, though Ketemin never allowed their lessons to end while Komoro escaped before his uncle called him back to continue. His eyes always stayed on the water clock. Ketemin’s eyes stayed on their uncle. Ever since their father died she treated their uncle as though he wastheir father. But he wasn’t. And he never would be. She would never forgive him if she found out. But then, he could always make sure she didn’t.
“Komoro,” his uncle said gently, interrupting his thoughts. “I love you as a son. I always have.” His uncle was looking at him now with an earnestness he’d never worn before. “I know you’ve taken your father’s death harder than anyone and I know I am no replacement for him. But I hope to be there when you need me. Whenever you need me. Even when you become king. I’ll help you make decisions if you need my counsel. There may come a time when I am no longer…here. And I hope you will remember everything I taught you. You will have to make hard decisions at times. But they are necessary. And the outcome will always be worth it.”
Komoro nodded, finally placing his right hand on his uncle’s shoulder. “You're right. I will have to make hard decisions, uncle.” Squeezing his uncle’s shoulder gently, he allowed his eyes to travel over the old man’s face, memorizing the strong jaw and clear eyes that sat within smooth, rich, earthen skin. “I understand now.” He made sure his grip was firm and squeezed it one last time. Decisions are always hard.
Komoro jumped, turning with his uncle towards the guard as he pulled his hand back in alarm, heart racing in his chest.
“Your Grace, forgive me, I thought you heard me. A sandstorm is coming.”
At that, the escort turned and pointed behind them. In the distance, thick clouds of sand mushroomed towards the sky, stretching across the land as though it needed more room. A herd of oryx ran from it, their curved horns like branches of scimitars sprouting from their white coats, birds circling above them as though to land at the earliest convenience. More than one vulture would have food soon if the storm grew bolder.
“Come, Komoro. I have seen all I need to today.” His uncle smiled and followed the guard.
Komoro turned back towards the edge as the winds began to whip at his shendyt, the camels clearing away from the oasis as though they sensed what was coming from the growing winds. His uncle’s retreating back dipped lower and lower as he descended. Animals could always tell when danger was near. But could his uncle?
When they arrived back at the palace he walked up the steps with his uncle.
“Remember, Komoro, if kingdoms wish to move quickly, they must go alone. If we wish to go far, we must go together.”
Komoro stroked the stubble of his beard, thinking for a moment. He still treats me like a child who only wants for a playmate, he thought. Yes, would that my father was alive to see how you’ve grown old and useless, clinging to ancient customs while pretending to embrace progress.
“Uncle, forgive me,” he replied slowly, kneeling near the old man’s hand. “We will go. I should not be so hasty to flout tradition.”
His uncle smiled proudly, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Rise, Komoro. It is already forgotten. I don’t think you will be so disappointed when we arrive. Princess Imani is the picture of beauty, with the eyes of a lioness and bewitching. I dare say she will tempt you to change your mind.”
“I doubt she’s so beautiful as to tempt me. I’m sure there are better options.” Regardless, whatever would the harem think should I return with a bride, wedded and bedded without one last farewell,he thought smiling.
“Reckless. The man who does all his thinking below will soon lose what he should have cherished more above.” His uncle shook one finger at him as a warning. “Women are fickle.”
“And doubtless, so is the Princess—”
“No. She is a bright star in a time of uncertainty; beautiful, intelligent, a virgin bride for whomever would win her hand. Take care you don’t take up with the local harems, Komoro. Talk spoken in darkness always comes to light.”
So you spy on me too old man. “Yes, Uncle,” he replied. “Sleep well.”
Komoro took his leave, his robe sweeping across the limestone floors as he went to his bedchamber. He threw his headdress on the ground, pulling a black cloak over his head and placing a pouch full of gold in his pocket, rushing into the night as the sun dipped low, barely peeking out behind the hills in the distance.
The guard nodded to him when he placed gold in his outstretched hand. He could hear the drums and the sand rattles making a soft tune. Laughter drifted through the quarters. The noble who lived here was celebrating his youngest’s birthday. He wouldn’t miss his wife too soon. He didn’t need much time. Incense was burning, tickling his nose gently, and causing his mouth to water.
“Welcome, my Prince. She’s through here,” a veiled woman whispered in his ear.
When he turned, his eyes met those of a familiar acquaintance. The handmaid’s dark eyes smiled at him even as his eyes traveled to the tips of her dark nipples, her breasts clearly visible against the yellow silk dress she wore, a slit opened to reveal her right upper thigh. She smelled of lavender.
She offered him water, holding a silver gourd up, “Aman, Your Grace?”
“No.” He shook his head and moved past her.
“Saai awaits your pleasure,” she said gesturing down the candlelit hall. Nodding to her, he turned towards where she pointed.
He pulled back a thick black veil in anticipation. She was waiting for him in the depths of the bath, her hair pulled atop her head. Seeing him, she rose, water trickling down her full breasts to her navel, gathering at the opening of her thighs. She walked to the red-dyed furs in the room, sinking to her knees before turning back to him. Her husband has never known her like I’ve known her.
“My Prince, my Prince. It’s been too long,” she said softly, her hair tumbling down her shoulders as he raked his fingers through the dampness.
Running his hands along her spine, he knelt behind her, his cloak and robe falling away in one fluid motion. She gasped as he gripped her hair tightly closing his eyes at the same time.
He knew what would happen if he was discovered. Well. She was discovered. He couldn’t be touched. But he so enjoyed touching her. And she wasn’t the only one. Was it his fault if married women enjoyed the pleasure of his company? He stood, dressing quickly while she was still asleep. If he woke her, she would beg him to stay. Married woman were supposed to be the easiest to let go of, but she clung to him like sap to a tree.
Pushing a back door open, he left quickly, moving through the winding streets of the city. The door to his chambers had barely closed before he heard a heavy knock and turned quickly. Had someone seen him?
“Your Grace, if I may have a word?”
Komoro sighed. All he wanted was a bath. He walked to the door, intent on railing at the lateness of the hour. What does he want now?
“You realize that—”
“Your Grace, I think she knows.” The Chief Treasurer said gravely.
“What? What are you talking about?” he asked, closing the door behind him. The man is unhinged. He watched the treasurer pace up and down his chambers like a nervous baboon, his fists clenching and unclenching as he talked.
“Princess Ketemin. She asked to see me earlier today about the state of affairs and I could not say no!”
“What did you tell her?” Komoro grabbed the man to stop him from moving.
“I could not say no! I – I told her of course we could speak; I was however wanted on business and would not be back until late. She said tomorrow would do just as well.”
Komoro released him. “Well then, it’s not urgent. Find your manhood, Odwulfe.” The man was losing it, and quickly. He realized he needed to reassure the man and give him a plausible story.
“Tell her I ordered you to divert extra money to some of the farmers to compliment their drought. If she says there is in fact more money, then tell her we renegotiated agreements with some of the traders. She won’t ask you too many questions.”
“Yes, but which ones? Your sister is highly capable, and she’s smart. She’ll know which ones to ask about.”
“Smarter than me, is she?”
Odwulfe gasped as he realized his mistake and took a step back. “I did not mean that, Prince Komoro. I only meant, she never gives up; she may try to catch me in a lie.”
“Don’t worry. I will deal with my sister. If she asks more questions, tell her only that she is to speak with me.”
“Yes, Your Grace. And what of the morning’s caravan? We are sending one north in the morning with the salt gathered this week.”
“We need guards to see it north.”
“How does that concern me at this time?” Komoro was growing irritated. It had been a long night and he needed his rest. Sitting in the chair on the dais near his bed he yawned. The carvers built it so that he could take meetings in the comfort of his own room, but still let others know his position. It would not do for them to become too comfortable with him.
“You…we…removed a number of guards from the salt mines for other…purposes…so we don’t have that same number to see it north. Shall I divert some from the other guards around the palace?”
“No. Leave it. It’s always been safe before. Who would have a mind to steal salt deep in the desert? And in the heat of the desert I have no idea who would even attempt to make that journey. I can barely stand to be outside for more than three hours at a time. It will be fine with the number we have, which is...” He raised his eyebrows questioningly when he didn’t receive an answer from the treasurer.
“Four, Your Grace. For two hundred camels…” The treasurer’s voice trailed off hopefully as he held the scroll in front of him.
“Four it is then. I’m sure you will take care of it. Arm them with extra weapons if it comforts you. Make sure they send a report when they reach Timbuktu or Gao. Whichever one it is.” Waving Odwulfe away as he spoke, he rose, walking towards his bed.
“Yes, Your Grace. Sleep well, Your Grace.”
Stretching onto the bed as the door closed, he reminded himself he needed to go see the salt mine in the morning as well. Soon, he would be king. Soon, he would be as the Sao were, giants among men. Yawning he relaxed further to sleep. He needed his rest. It will be difficult work being King.
“You can follow me, or you can run and tell my father.I have no feelings on the matter,” she told him.
Shaharqa looked at her in exasperation, his face contorting with a mixture of fury and desperation as he tried to work out the best course of action, knowing she might disobey him regardless. He was built like a rhinoceros, his broad shoulders supporting massive arms and a tapered waist, a trunk that people knew better to go around than attempt to cut down. He crossed his arms over his chest, dark eyes narrowing at her.
Imani smiled as he glared at her. He’ll do no such thing, and I’ll be halfway towards the coast before he finishes the conversation with my father.
She’d followed them at a short clip from the time they’d left the palace. Now she stood toe to toe with Shaharqa as he towered over her, his shadow blocking the sun from her face. She pulled the comb from her hair before snatching the tight black curls back into three thick braids that hung down her back, using three bands to hold them tightly at the ends. Taking the gold-plated half circle crown from the top of her horse as he pushed his nose into the small of her back, she pressed it backwards into the top of her hair. Fitting snugly to the shape of her forehead it would protect her from temple to temple and from her crown to the bridge of her nose. Stroking the stallion gently she admired his gleaming kohl coat and ivory legs. Powerful and strong, his muscles flexed underneath her fingers as he nudged her side.
“Imanishakheto…He ordered you to stay at the palace. Once he sees you it will not go well for you.”
“Don’t worry, Uncle. I’ll tell him myself,” she assured him as she dropped the reins on her stallion. “You have my word. But the longer we wait…”
Shaharqa’s jaw flexed as she watched him, eyebrows raised. “Promise me you will stay out of sight.”
“Am I meant to keep it? You once said I had the fastest draw you’d ever seen. Yousaid it rivaled father’s.”
There is something they are not telling me, and I need to find out what. After a moment she turned quickly, one hand on her horse’s neck and the other on the reins as she lifted herself up without assistance, turning to nod at him, the black stallion at a gallop before she was even seated. Shaharqa watched in dismay as the distance increased between them, and Imani laughed as she sat, turning around to squeeze her knees into her horse harder, the horse gaining more speed as she hurried to reach Nabara’s forces.
They shall not leave our land with free men at their feet.
The roar of waves crashing against the shore sounded in her ears as they rode in closer to the coast. A broken mast tipped to the side met her eyes, sitting on the other side of the mountain in front of them that silenced their approach. They dotted the coast like ants around a hole in the ground, at least two hundred by her count.
“Shhh.” She put one hand to her horse’s neck, her restlessness causing him the same uneasy wait as he shifted from foot to foot. Stroking his neck, she surveyed the shoreline.
And well armed. They may not have been expecting us, but they expected someone.
Turning to her left, she finally spotted her father. Raising one hand, his fingers splayed before closing it into a fist. The moment he did he kicked his horse and the forces of Nabara rained down the mountain, charging towards the shoreline. The first yells came from her right, and she ducked from her hiding place as her heart raced, watching the battle. Her father slipped his right hand into the sleeve at his mount’s right flank and pulled out one long, slim spear, eyes narrowing as he launched it forward. A grunt of surprise followed as it slammed through a slaver’s body and pinned him to the ground, both arms splayed out as the blood streamed over the rocks. A sentinel. If only he’d been doing his job.
The cries grew louder as those on the shore looked up, realizing their trap. Few were on horseback, but most grabbed swords at their waists or on the ground, dropping their work as they turned to face the army before them. A moment later the sound of swords hit her ears and the sharp sound of arrows flying past made her lower herself closer to her horse’s back, pressing him further into the deep alcove and safe from harm.
Her father ducked quickly from horseback, dodging an arrow before slipping his hand back into the sleeve. Hurling the spear forward once again, it punched through the slaver’s eye. Quickening his pace as the man fell backward, he reached down and gripped the end of the spear, yanking it upward and out, the eyeball popping off and disappearing in the brush. All around him his men fought, those no longer on horseback using their throwing spears generously; the quick soft thuds letting her know they’d met their mark. Even on foot they were a force to be reckoned with, but it was Nabara’s cavalry that their neighbors both feared and attempted to persuade into their own battles to no avail. It was his cavalry that those who survived remembered. Nubians were renowned horse masters. Assyrians had sought horses from Kushites since before Pharaoh Piye’s reign. For the Kushite, there was only one way to ride a horse: bareback or not at all. It made both horse and rider faster. The horses were freed from the repeated chaffing and friction caused by the leather or metal against their backs, allowing them to cool themselves faster as the wind moved under their bellies and over their backs. The difference was plain, even in the riders, improving balance, coordination, and skill. Little wonder every Nubian was expected to master the art of the bow on horseback, heralded for his ability to turn astride and rain arrows upon the enemy even from a distance while in motion.
Raising her head over the rock, she turned to her left in time to see Shaharqa’skhopesh pull backwards and punch forward into a slaver’s belly, spilling his insides as Shaharqa put one foot to the man’s chest and kicked him backward to release his weapon, riding forward for more. The terrain changed from rocks and grass to sand as her father moved down the mountain. She left her horse to follow him, stealing down the shoreline towards her father’s soldiers before a sudden movement to her left caught her attention. Her father fell to the ground, slapping his horse hard so that he ran from him to safety. Gasping, she watched him, fear clutching at her heart.
A moment later, a hand snatched her head back by her hair, slamming her to the ground as she grunted in surprise, his sword hand drawn back. As he brought it down she rolled to her right, punching her short khopeshinto his stomach, twisting it as his mouth fell open and stayed that way. Blood dribbled from his mouth, wide blue eyes frozen on hers. Thekhopesh was a popular weapon of soldiers and Medjay.Shaped like the long leg of a horse and hooked at the end like a calf, it could slice an opponent or bludgeon him in an instant. Pulling it from his stomach, she pushed him to the ground unceremoniously, standing and stepping over the dying man as he clutched at his waist in a fetal position before his body relaxed in death. Chest heaving, she looked down at him without remorse.
The sound of shifting rocks caught her attention, and her eyes narrowed as three slavers ran toward the mountain, one injured at the shoulder, his flailing arm likely broken as his figure swung from left to right as he struggled to the top.
Imani reached behind her shoulders, the pack running from her shoulder to the small of her back securely held there. Pulling one long, slim, silver-tipped arrow from it along with her bow, she leaned back and fired it high into the sky, not waiting to watch it arc high above her in the sky. Drawing back a second time, she aimed straight, the top of one’s head visible above a tall boulder as one scream told her the first met its mark. Again, she released her finger and watched the boulder behind the man spray with blood, the top of his scalp attached to the arrow.
And three.She paused, eyes dancing from boulder to boulder for some sign of him, her shoulders tense as she realized he may have gotten away, and she moved closer.
“Bitch!” she turned and slid her khopeshacross his throat as the man raised his to hack her down, wiping the blood on his shirt as she moved past.
Ignoring the sound of her name she pressed closer toward the mountain.
“Imanishakheto!” Her father’s voice followed her, and she resisted the urge to turn around.
She shook her head and continued forward, beads of sweat rolling down her back as she pursed her lips, the sound of grunts and groans making her look around, just to be careful. Softening her footsteps, she moved swiftly up as a lizard ran down and towards her, stopping her in her tracks. They prefer the shadows.
Her fingers clutched her last arrow.
“Imani, to me!”
Tightening her grip on her bow she advanced, the string taut as her right hand pressed close against her face. Cowering before her, he raised his hands in defeat as she moved her eyes over his body, leather and armor mixing with his sweat. She could smell him.
“He’s here!” she called back as she waited for her father and Shaharqa, string still taut, the arrow aimed at his heart. His eyes moved up and down her body and toward the coast.
“Leave him alive,” her father told her as he walked up. Imani turned her head towards him. “We need—”
A sharp crack and a thrumsounded at the same time and the two soldiers to his right looked at the man in shock.
A sword, hidden under his body, had been brought forward and was clanging back to the ground as her arrow pinned him back against the rocks. His defiance faded as he gripped at the arrow as if to pull it back out.
“How dare you disobey my orders.” The fury on his face did nothing to break her courage. “You could have been killed. I ordered you to stay at the palace.” The soldiers nearest them fell silent as they surrounded them as a shield, Medjay circling them protectively to ensure there were no other slavers nearby. The remainder began to sink their spears into the rest of the dying slavers to ensure they met their end.
“Father…” She tried to steady her thoughts as she looked at the anger writ across his face.
“You put Medjay at risk to protect you. How dare you follow our armies into battle without my knowledge?”
Imani looked back in disgust at the slaver as she bent down, pulling her arrow from his chest. Turning quickly, she whistled for her horse. “There. Now you can ask him what his plans are.” She pointed at the dead man. “Theyonly understand one thing.”
“We will speak of this later,” he warned her. Imani gritted her teeth as she nodded.
She gathered the arrows she could as the soldiers began to pile up the bodies, stripping them of their weapons as they did.
“What shall we do with them, Your Grace?” Her uncle looked toward the growing pile of bodies, the sand stained with blood around them as he waited for his brother’s orders. A pyramid of slavers with no more secrets to hide.
“The hyenas can have them if they’re lucky. There’s no need to deny the animals so much meat. Though the type may spoil their digestion,” her father responded, turning to consider the ship a moment.
“We need to search the ship.” He nodded to Shaharqa as they walked towards the ship, which listed to the side. They must have wrecked in some fashion. Imani watched them for a moment before walking quickly towards it herself.
“I’m coming with you.” Her father turned at the sound of her voice and her uncle’s eyes narrowed. He’ll likely have words with me later too.
“Medjay will watch her, brother. She’ll be fine.” Shaharqa signaled to his seconds as they flanked her and her father nodded grudgingly, his eyebrow warning her not to step out of line. They waded through the water to reach the ship, a party of thirty strong to ensure there were no surprises. Shaharqa rose first with twenty Medjay before pulling her up beside him and letting the ladder down for the others. Water barrels dotted the corners of the deck.
“They certainly had enough to drink,” her father noted, walking towards the back on sure feet as the ship bobbed slightly under them, the waves moving it just so.
“And to eat.” Shaharqa nodded to a drum he’d opened, full of salted fish.
“Continue searching the ship. Make sure none of them are hiding here,” her father commanded, his head turning this way and that as he looked about the deck. The soldiers nodded and moved to the back. She could hear them moving from door to door as she followed her father into the captain’s room, pulling out a map in front of her. The writing was Latin, but there was no denying the mark in the lower right corner. Gold. The Roman number for five sat next to it.
“Your Grace.” Both she and her father turned at the call and moved onto the deck before the soldier caught her eye and motioned for them to go down as he stayed to guard the entrance to the chamber below. Pocketing the map, her father descended slowly. The smell caught in her nose as she followed him, and her stomach roiled as she put her forearm to her mouth to help cover the smell. She removed it after a moment, her attention turning to the deep grooves on the walls of the ship as she went further down. Claw marks. They lined the walls like a deadly inscription on either side of her.
Shaharqa stood with her father and the soldiers in a small circle, their gazes directed at the floor. She walked closer still.
“Ethiopians, Your Grace. A few Greeks and Judeans and one Syrian slave. The Jewish that refuse to combine their faith with elements of Greek and Roman culture are made slaves. They were likely transporting them back to Roman territory when they wrecked.”
“Imani.” Her father’s voice was tinged with doubt and warning.
He cannot shield me forever. She came forward, and they parted for her as she too looked at the floor before her. Too well she remembered the fall of the Judeans at the hands of Rome from her lessons. The Judeans had once sought the Kushite Pharaoh Taharqa’s aid against the Assyrian Emperor Sennacherib. And still the Judeans fought, though now, many Hellenized Judeans were now enemies of Kush. How far they have fallen. What she saw on the ground of the ship only stoked her anger further, hands curling into fists as she looked down at the sight. A small pile of bodies, chained and rotting from disease, lay before her. A child to their right curled dead on the ground, his small protruding bones a testament to the starvation slaves endured before reaching their destination if food ran scarce. The skin around his eyes seemed hollowed, as if someone had reached in with a knife and shaved them down, eyes sunken and staring in shock as though he’d seen a ghost the moment before his heart stopped beating. Imani saw no windows down here. It was likely the reason the vultures hadn’t been able to pluck them out.
Kneeling down next to the dead boy’s small, brown body, she covered his eyes with her hands, closing his eyelids and running her finger along his long, feather-soft eyelashes. His skin had turned a slight gray, almost as if ash covered it. The fingers on his right hand were stretched and curled like an acacia branch in the winter, clinging to hope that its leaves, like fallen soldiers, would return to protect it. Pulling her blade out, she hacked at the chain that bound the boy’s ankle to the ship. She slipped her arms underneath him carefully, lifting him in her arms and walking with him back towards the stairs and up towards the deck as the soldiers followed. Even with his sagging skin and bones, he felt as light as a paperweight. Wading through the water now, he seemed to grow heavier in her hands. Or is it my mind playing tricks on me? She pulled her legs through the waves as they lapped at her knees, both hands clutching him firmly to her breast, making sure his head and feet didn’t touch the water. When she rose on the shore, the soldiers stared at him. His small lifeless body needed no explanation.
When she reached dry sand, a soldier came over and laid his cloak down before her, standing as she began to wrap the child in it. Over and under, securing it around his shoulders and covering his feet. Like swaddling a baby. She memorized his face one more time before she pulled the cloth over his black curls, wrapping his head gently, lifting it and wrapping, lifting and wrapping. When she finished, she secured it as tightly as she could, knotting it at his small hands as she knelt next to him.
Lifting him in her arms, she stood again and looked to the pile of slavers before catching her father’s eyes. It was always hard to tell what he was thinking. But somehow she knew what he would say next.
“Sever their heads,” he commanded. “Then burn the bodies.”
“Your Grace,” Shaharqa acknowledged.
“And Brother,” her father continued, putting his right hand on Shaharqa’s left shoulder, “make sure we haven’t missed any of the slavers. Send sweepers along the coast and as a tail to return after dark. I want to be sure none make it into the city.”
“It is done.” Shaharqa turned swiftly, giving orders as he did, his men moving toward him to listen.
Turning to her quickly, her father pointed at her. “We will speak later.” Moving away from her, he signaled to his men, and they made ready for their return back to the palace. Biting her lip, she looked back down at the boy in her arms and walked carefully back to her horse. I will pay him the respect he deserves.
Later that night she left as discreetly as she could, only taking two Medjay with her toward one of the many Nabaran pyramids at the edge of the Kalahari and on either side of the River Nub. They had insisted. The Temple of Mysteries was even further than the Temple of Peace, which she sought. Entry to the Temple of Mysteries was severely limited and no one gained entry without answering riddles written in Meroitic script on the outer walls. It was fitting. Meroitic had been used for years among the people of Kush, having developed separately from the hieroglyphs used in Kemet and among her ancestors, the black pharaohs of the twenty-fifth dynasty. It was over two thousand years old. The uncial letters were used to hide discoveries, locations of gold mines, burial chambers, and government affairs. Given Kemet’s susceptibility to attack because of its rich resources and perfect location for trade, defending it had become second nature, and precautions had to be taken. Now though, the Romans ruled over Kemet, calling it Egypt instead.
There were many entrances to the temple, her father once told her, but only a few people could answer the questions posed. Her father promised to show her the temples and the sphinx along the Nile one day. Perhaps when the chaos of Rome and the threat to Meroë no longer existed she would see it again. They were built to last ten thousand years, he told her as child, regaling her with stories at night. Four large stone sphinxes twice her size lined the approach to the pyramid known as the Temple of Peace, a symbol of protection in Kushite culture. With the body of a lion and the head of her late grandfather she felt a calm come over her as she walked toward the entrance.
She hadn’t wanted to at first but she forced herself to go. She owed it to the boy. Taking the stairs slowly she descended to the underground chamber of the pyramid. The Temple of Peace. With its high vaulted ceilings, the artisans and engravers had outdone themselves. Meroitic inscriptions and beautiful hieroglyphs decorated the walls from ceiling to floor with ancient prayers meant to guard whomever sought refuge here from harm. Most were dedicated to Nephthys,goddess, and protector of the dead. Her father once told her the scribes were often commissioned to leave coded messages whose answers would only be revealed to those with a pure heart and a sharp mind. That, and walls that were ten meters deep with iron encasing the middle-most layers. Her mother rarely stepped inside, save to light candles and take her leave. As a daughter of Christian Makouria her mother worshipped only one God. Though her father adhered to the Old Religion of Kemet and Kush, she had never seen him pray to any of the gods and goddesses of Amun or Apedemak. And she’d never seen him cry. After her grandfather died, it became even more clear he did not believe in the multiple gods and goddesses thought to protect them. Foolish, he called them. She often wondered how her mother and father reconciled their beliefs and were able to live such a happy marriage. Regardless of her mother’s beliefs, Nabarans practicing both religions loved her more all the same. Her kindness, grace, strength, and support of the commoners matched none. And what must the High Priests think?
All of Nabara was aware that the High Priests held not only to ma’at but also in their personal lives worshipped Amun, Anubis, and more, preferring the Old Religion. Charged with carrying out justice and order, her father, as High King, broke the tie when they were deadlocked. Even with nine, some often needed to recuse themselves. The High Priests held great power in Nabara. As protector of both the mortuary and offering temples, they received gifts from all over the territory that they would dedicate on behalf of the giver to the gods. The nine longest standing members of the High Priests sat on a council known as theKenbet, a court of justice that adjudicated minor offenses in Nabara. As all of the High Priests were taken from among the most pious nobility, province chiefs, and scribes, they alone represented Nabara in its entirety, ruling as they should under ma’at to ensure justice and order. However, their jurisdiction was limited. The nine High Priests of the Kenbetoversaw minor offenses such as theft, property disputes, and marriage contracts. Major crimes were referred to the Great Kenbet, the sole adjudicator being the Vizier or her father, as High King. Tomb robbers, accused murderers, and major land transactions were all heard at the Great Kenbet, though anyone might petition for a hearing in front of the Vizier or High King. It was well known that the Great Kenbet’s discretion leaned toward hearing foreign matters and punishment for involvement with the slave trade. Anyone could serve as a witness or be called forward to give further information for the court. It was a grievous error to refuse the summons or lie after taking the oath of truthfulness under ma’at. Witnesses had been tortured for less. The legal system was a delicate balance between the superiority of the old gods, and the logic of using the court to resolve disputes. Regardless of the outcome, the scribes recorded each inquiry, complaint, ruling, and sentence on their papyri for future reference. High Priests could create laws, and expected the High King to enforce them. Though the High King sat above it all, the High Priests alone held sway over the length of his rein, and could dethrone him or order to him to suicide if they deemed him unable to ensure justice and order. But this had never happened, he’d constantly reassured her as a child. Like any great deterrent, he whispered to her,the threat alone is sufficient.
Candles lit each visitor’s way inside the temple, giving off a hypnotizing fragrance that calmed the mind. Many sought refuge and prayer here, but the lower chambers were only open to a few. The entrance level of the temple held a large, wide room that stood empty save for a cream palm and papyrus reed basket filled with sandals, sitting lonely and unclaimed just inside the door. A single door loomed at the back wall with a Meroitic inscription that read; when you are ready, you may enter.
The door sprang open as she neared, revealing a man older than her late grandfather smiling at her. Without a word he nodded and stepped aside. A narrow well-lit ramp with small torches along the bottom of the wall urged her to follow it down. The second level held hundreds of candles on the back wall and one large one in front of them all, which was never put out. It flamed bright, whipping back and forth as though blown by some unknown wind. She lit four of them herself before she sought what she was looking for now - the priest who would prepare the dead boy’s body for burial.
Priests walked by her in long white robes, each of them bowing lightly to her and she nodding in reply. Though she was robed in a long-sleeved white gown the heat did not reach her here. Moving down the narrow passageways, she found the door the priest instructed her to come to. This one if you please, Princess, and no other, he had asked of her. She couldn’t help wondering what lay behind each closed door she passed and whether those on the other side were looking at her. Like the walls in the first chamber, this door held inscriptions and prayers. Lifting her hand to knock, the stone door slid open before she could. Priest Hameht smiled at her and stood back for her to enter. Letting the stone door close behind her, he welcomed her inside.
“If you are going to stay, Princess, why stare at the wall?” Smiling at her kindly, he ushered her towards the table at the back of the small room. Like the others, this room too held scented candles, no doubt meant to mask the smell of death.
“Remember,” he told her softly, “he is already at peace. This is merely a tribute to him out of respect for the life he lived. So that he can let go of this world and to ensure his journey is an easy one.” Touching her shoulder gently, he moved away, robes sweeping the ground softly.
Squeezing her eyes shut and opening them again, rapidly she turned around. Breathing was difficult when she looked at him. His bones protruded from his waist and knees, making his head look like a boulder atop a branch from the starvation he’d endured. The priest began by picking up a long, thin iron instrument, hooked at the end and smoking from the kiln he removed it from. Sliding it carefully up the boy’s nose, he moved it back and forth carefully, blocking her view momentarily before doing the same with his right nostril, pulling it out and pushing it back in. Several minutes passed before he turned the boy’s head to the right and slid a bowl underneath his nose. Brains drained into the bowl like mashed rotten grapes, and her heart squeezed as she watched. She’d been warned, but her stomach still tightened in protest. The priest set each bowl aside as it emptied, and she could only imagine what crimes the boy had endured before he came here. When her mouth began to tremble, she covered it with her hand, refusing to let any tears fall. The priest must have heard her slight inhale, for he turned around, dropping the cloth he had picked up.
“You must not cry, child. The boy’s spirit will stay to grieve with you,” he told her gently. When she nodded he turned back around towards the table picking up a new cloth this time. “I know you asked me to wait, but I already removed his internal organs save for the heart. It is a much slower process. Though it is not standard to prepare others besides the royal family and nobles in this manner here, it is necessary to preserve the body for burial.”
“Thank you for showing him this kindness.”
Rinsing the body slowly, the priest poured water from a gourd over him, starting from his neck and working down towards his feet. Picking up an ivory linen cloth, he dipped it into a coconut-sized bowl and began to wash the pads of the boy’s feet, ankles, and toes until the dirt and debris on them disappeared, turning the cloth a dark brown. Heavy, black splotches on his legs became more visible as the dirt was gently smoothed away. His stomach curved sharply, the ribs so tight against his skin they reminded her of elephant bones in the Kalahari Desert. Dipping into a separate tiny bowl filled with what smelled like rosewater, he cleansed his face and forehead, wrapping two fingers in the cloth to wipe under his eyes and across his mouth. Next he picked up a comb and began to rake through his brown curls starting at his temple.
“Please,” she said, placing her left hand on top of his right one to stop him, “let me.”
Nodding, the priest moved back a step to allow her room.
Sand and grime fell to the table and through the round holes of the tray beneath his head as she worked. Putting one hand to the left side of the boy’s head, she turned it gently, combing the right starting at the ends of his curls and working to the root. Dipping her hand in the olive oil next to her she smoothed it onto his hair and continued detangling, noting how smooth his hair became under her fingers. She wondered if his mother had ever done the same. When she finished, she ran the pad of her thumb across his long, kohl-colored eyelashes, softer than feathers. Moving back, she nodded to the priest, and he stepped forward to massage oils into the boy’s body. By the time he finished he smelled of palm wine and myrrh. The Noble Bimbola had been kind to deliver the wine a day earlier at her request. Sprinkling a mixture of natron over him from head to toe, he used a feather duster to evenly distribute it across his body.
“The boy was severely dehydrated, Princess. He will not require a lengthy waiting period before we clothe him.” His face was kind as he looked at her. Accepting his comment, they began to wrap the body slowly, winding it over and over again, lifting his legs together once it reached his knees. Softly, he began to recite prayers from the Book of the Dead, a gentle rhythm that matched his movements. Keeping the cloth smooth, he stretched it tightly over the cloth that covered him from hip to thigh. After each wrap he smoothed liquid resin over the linen to help hold them together. She stepped forward again when it reached his chest, putting one hand there. The priest turned to her, eyes questioning. Reaching towards her waist she turned to remove a tiny, gold, lion-shaped ushabtifrom a hidden pocket inside her gown. Smoothing her fingers over the lion’s head of the funerary figurine, she turned to the priest.
“I did not…” she trailed off slightly, “I did not know his name to inscribe—”
The priest stopped her, placing both hands over her own and stopping her voice from shaking, though her eyes shone.
Looking down at the ushabti,she started again. “I did not know his name. So instead I wrote…‘my brother’.” Swallowing she looked back into kind eyes.
“The gods will understand. It will protect him well.” The priest removed his hands from hers, touching her cheek softly.
Imani placed the lion ushabtion the boy’s chest, the funerary figurine tiny on top of his body. When they were almost finished wrapping, she stroked his hair gently one last time and kissed his forehead. The priest walked her up the stairs, past the prayer hall, and up to the top back chamber to see her out.
“May the gods protect you, Princess.”
“And you,” she told him. When she walked away she held her head high, at peace now, knowing this was as much for the boy as it was for her. And she also knew one more thing.I’ll find out who killed you one way or another.