“You have to get out!”
I looked up at the woman who had burst into my room. Her dark eyes jumped from left to right, as she took in my silence.
“Why? Is there an army at the gates?” I laughed. Aneksi was dramatic, and half Babylonian to boot. You could tell looking at her. The beads wound up her arms and her eyes were always overdone, a mesh of kohl and dark green sweeps of malachite. Today, however, those very same beads were tangles.
“It’s worse.” She cried. “Ast, you know what it is! You heard about what happened this morning! People are dying out there.”
I put my brush down, and stared at her coldly.
“I heard no such thing. You’re being ridiculous, as always. And if something is happening, the Queen will protect us.”
She grabbed my arm, her nails digging in.
“For the love of Aten, Ast, come with me! The Queen is dead! And so is her daughter.”
What? What? The Queen is dead, the Queen is dead. Those words sung through me oddly, clanging in the pit of my stomach. That had been all I had wanted. But what did the priestesses say? Be careful what you wish for.
I started to shake.
“I can’t come with you, Aneksi. I-I have somewhere to be.”
She stared at me, crying, puzzled.
“Ast, you’re making a mistake. I know what you’re going for. Are you going to die for that?”
“I can’t leave.” I said, my chin up.
“You will not even have entered his mind! Don’t go to him.”
Don’t go to him. Aneksi had been the only one to ever say those words. Everyone else had pushed me forward, so far forward, until there was no going back. And now I would not go back even if I could.
The letter had come that morning. It had come fluttering from the sky, like a gift from Ra, tossed from the roof by a young boy who jumped over pipes and tiles so I would not see his face. I had laughed. His way of being romantic, or discreet?
Come and meet me tomorrow. Same place, same time.
There had been nothing else. But that was always his way. Beautiful, he had said. Like a sculpture, a little Queen. I had loved my body then and it was my own temple, and only he could come in. Was that when I fell in love? Or had it happened when our eyes met, black on black? I hardly know.
I would find him.
The city of Amarna was burning. The plague danced through the streets, a sweet smelling thing, which latched onto our dark skins and turned them darker still, a gift from the jackal. A group of men and women came careening down the street, towards the Northern Palace.
“Down with Aten!”
I hid in a dark corner as they staggered past and then ran down the street, where I saw a circle.
A woman was lying, writhing, in the centre of the circle. People surrounded her, throwing stones at her, chipping her skin. Her eyes were wide and crying, her foreign dress marking her out. People turned to look at me as she stared.
Estan was a family friend and my mother adored her. She loved to touch her dresses and her skin, which were now ruined.
“Do you know this girl?” A man asked me, his eyes narrowed.
I looked at her.
“Yes.” I said.
She was smiling now, trying to push herself up as the people stopped and waited, looking at me. Was it over?
“She’s Hittite scum. Do you hear me Estan?! Hittite scum!” Her face broke and I laughed. I had always hated that bitch. And he had liked her too much, had touched her… The crowd screamed, calling for her death. I turned and ran away. I was late.
Wanting him, waiting for him, had been my life. He was above me, he was below me, and I was his favourite. I was. But woman like Estan…there had been many like her. Trying to steal him, and I had fought, I had hurt some, convinced others, until only the Queen was left. But I couldn’t have planned this.
I was in the Palace. Waiting, waiting, smiling. It was time. Was he late?
“Where is the King?” I asked a boy running past. He gave me an odd look.
“In his rooms.”
I flew there. I could feel my feet barely skimming the floor, as if even the earth couldn’t stop me.
I breathed his name as I went into his rooms, which were deserted. Had they all abandoned him?
I could almost see him, the dark eyes, and the smile. You’re mine, he said, so many times. And I had hurt for him. The little girl from Thebes, barely fourteen, the dancer that had been entertaining him, everyone. I had hurt myself for him.
The dark eyes were in the corner, next to the window. The swathes of fabric dulled the light and spilled over the chest of Nefer, a lady. He held her and cried into her, his hands in her rough hair.
“I don’t know what to do, Nefer, I don’t know.” He kissed her.
Of course he wouldn’t love a maid. My brushes and kohl fell to the ground, breaking, as the malachite covered them in a fine sheen. I had killed myself for you.
The knife didn’t touch my throat. It sliced through his as she screamed, and I took my time with her, her shouts a crescendo as I smeared the makeup on her face, ripping out her hair.