Authors: Jenesi Ash,Elliot Mabeuse,Lilli Feisty,Charlotte Featherstone,Cathryn Fox,Portia Da Costa,Megan Hart,Saskia Walker
Now, walking along with her noble elder brother, dressed in her new things and made up by Hathor's own priests, she felt very beautiful and desirable. Cosmetics and perfume were also sacred to Hathor, and there was no doubt in Tia's mind that she was one of the most beautiful women in the entire town. The thought of a tryst with a total strangerâsomeone strong and handsome and exoticâwas not unappealing.
She knew the rumors: as temple prostitute she would have her pick of the supplicants who came begging for her services, spying on them in private as they presented themselves. Only the ones she approved of would be brought to her, bathed and perfumed and blindfolded. They would be brought to her chambers where she would recline, dressed in fine robes, and there they would make love to her, treating her as a goddess, caressing her with lips and hands and body, using all their skills to please her. And if they did, if she found them entirely to her liking, only then would Tia assent to their embrace and let them come to her. Only then, and only if she were certain of the approval of the goddess within her would she open herself to them and take them, and in so doing know a pleasure few mortal women could even imagine.
Could any young woman seriously refuse serving the gods in such a way?
They turned off the side street and headed west toward the Avenue of Osiris that ran along the banks of the Nile, just in time to see the last edge of the sun sink below the vividly green palms on the far side of the river, flooding the facades of the buildings with fiery light. The moment of sundown always moved an Egyptian's heart, and the party paused while Kheneb pronounced a quick thanksgiving and a prayer for the safe journey of Ra through the subterranean land of Duad below their feet. As always, darkness fell as quickly as the sun, and before they had gone very far, two of the guards trotted off into a beer shop to borrow a flame for the lamps they carried.
“Tia,” Kheneb said tenderly. “You do not have to do anything you don't want to do. You know that, don't you?”
“Of course I do, my brother.”
He stared at her, apparently waiting for her to tell him that she was unwilling to go through with this, but Tia just looked with perfect equanimity across the tops of the palm trees to the broad swath of the Nile, where a royal barge painted in blue and gold could now be seen racing downriver, brightly lit with numerous lanterns. From the sound of their laughter Tia knew the rowers could not be slaves. So most likely it was one of Pharaoh's sons, perhaps Nekhet himself, who, as the prospective betrothed of the Mitanni princess, was overseeing the building of Astarte's temple. He was reputed to be a dashing and fearless young man, given to acts of valor and gallantry and known for the reckless way he handled a chariot, as well as for taking his barque racing along the Nile. Tia watched the barge for a while, but she could not make out who was at the helm. She waited, enjoying her brother's discomfiture at her silence.
Kheneb finally made a sound of exasperation and turned away. More than she, he was of two minds about this arrangement. He wanted the political victory that would come of allying the new goddess with Hathor, and yet he feared entrusting his little sister to the barely civilized influences of the foreign goddess. He loved her dearly.
The guards came back, bearing their lamps on poles, and the little party started out again.
“Now, you will let me do the talking,” Kheneb said, bending close to her in a final inspection. “And you will remember to sit or stand erect and not fidget. The priestess's name is Illana, and she speaks fine Egyptian like a normal human being, not all that coughing and throat clearing of the Mitanni. She was brought to Egypt as a child, and has served Great Pharaoh's ministers as an interpreter and counselor. She
knows many in the great Double House herself and is not without considerable influence. She is also a consecrated priestess of the foreign goddess, so don't fail to show her respect.”
They at last stepped out into the wide Avenue of Osiris, the finest in the city, running along the banks of the Nile and fronted on both sides by stone temples and the buildings of Pharaoh's government. There was a ceremony going on in the great Temple of Amun, the Hidden One, and the glow from many oil lamps spilled through the maze of pillars and out into the street where a loose crowd of undesirables milled about, not allowed in the temple, but eager for the god's blessing. The sight of the golden lamplight among the blue and purple shadows stirred Tia's heart. Kheneb ceased his brotherly chatter and drew himself up into his priestly posture once again, taking a moment to arrange the heavy jewelry around his neck. He glanced into the Temple of Amun with professional interest as they passed, gauging the size of the crowd and nodding to a priestly acquaintance on the steps, then fixed his eyes ahead. They were almost there.
Work had already begun on the promised Temple to Astarte on a patch of ground overlooking the river, but it was proceeding slowly, funds being as tight as Kheneb had said. The pillars were erect and the stairs half-finished, but the wooden scaffolding of the stone masons was still in place and there was as yet no roof, making it hard to visualize the finished structure. While the temple was being built, the foreign goddess was being worshipped in a large yet simple mud-brick temple close by. An older woman and a girl of Tia's age or less stood with two servants outside the gate waiting for them.
“That is she,” Kheneb whispered out of the side of his mouth. “The girl must be from the Temple of Isis.”
“I bid you good evening, your sacred lordship,” the woman said as they approached, and she bowed gracefully. The two servants dropped to their knees in the Mitanni fashion.
“The blessings of all the gods upon you and your people,” Kheneb said, switching to the hieratic tongue used by the priests. “And upon your noble temple. How fine it is looking!”
“And so this is Tianefhet,” the woman said, smiling. “What a lovely creature. A grace upon the earth.” She turned to the other girl, who was dressed in a simple robe trimmed with green, the color of Isis. “This is Hafertiri, our new novice. She comes to us from the Temple of Isis the Protectress.”
Tia made her bows, and looked up at the priestess Illana. She was a handsome woman of middle age, but younger than Tia had expected, and with an air of self-possession and composure that Tia had not thought a Mitanni capable of, they being such an excitable and uncivilized people. She had long hair that fell to her shoulders in the eastern fashion, in tight, crimpy waves, like ripples on shallow water, and her eyes were especially beautifulâdark and deep with long lashes, calm and knowing. She wore the clothes of an Egyptian, and in the darkness her white linen robe seemed to glow as if lit from within.
Hafertiri was smaller and, now that they could see her, obviously younger than Tia, not as womanly, and indeed seeming to violate the principle that a priestess of Astarte be a fully developed woman, for she was still given to inappropriate giggling. Her hair was plaited into braids and hung with precious stones in the Isis manner, and the diadem of the Wife of Osiris circled her brows. She had an elfin face and seemed to have some trouble holding still. Her eyes invited Tia to share her private joke, but Tia was not going to be bated. She was more mature than that.
“Please, my lord,” Illana said to Kheneb, “let us go within. I must ask your pardon for this simple dwelling, but it is only temporary while the new temple is being built.” Kheneb gave her some conciliatory words, and they proceeded into the temple, followed by Hafertiri and Tia, leaving the servants to wait outside.
Inside, Illana dismissed Hafertiri, sending her up to her room in the gatehouse now that the introductions had been made.
The temple had apparently once been a noble house, for the trees and vines that grew around the pond in the courtyard were well-tended and mature, and the garden itself redolent with the smells of hibiscus and water lotus in bloom, as well as the fragrance of ripe grape and orange blossom. Tia glanced into the still waters of the pond and saw the fish there stirring slowly among the stands of papyrus and water lily, and then her eyes were drawn to the back of the temple, where the actual sanctuary of the goddess stood. The building had been modified, the roofline lifted to well over twice the height of a man, and through the widened doorway she could see a portion of the large image of Astarte, the foreign goddess, standing behind a deep blue veil of the sheerest fabric and illuminated by the orange-yellow glow of oil lamps.
“On behalf of the priests and the clergy of the great goddess Hathor,” Kheneb said, beginning his formal introduction and prepared speech. But Illana's eyes were on Tia, watching her intently, and she gently silenced him, holding up her hand. Kheneb followed her gaze and they both watched Tia, who was walking toward the image of the goddess as if drawn to it, her eyes wide, her hands unmoving at her sides.
The goddess was half again as large as a person, and commanded the space within the sanctuary. Her bodice was open, and her perfectly spherical breasts bulged forth, obviously gorged with milk. She held her hands at shoulder level, and in each was the figure of a writhing snake.
But it was her face that drew Tia. The nose of the goddess was long and Semitic and she had the same tightly waved hair as her priestess, but her eyes were soft and knowing, and much more human than the eyes of the gods and goddesses that Tia knew, the
of Egypt. She stood on an altar of plain mud brick and looked down benevolently at Tia. The goddess's lips
were full and sensual, but with a smile upon them; a smile both simple and subtle, a smile of indulgence or perhaps forgiveness, and yet one promising pleasure, tooâthe expression of a woman who knew the ways of the world and the human heart. It was a very human smileâsurprisingly human to Tia, whose own native gods never smiledâand it immediately made her feel akin to this foreign goddess, as if they shared some secret between them.
Tia stared into that face, the face of a goddess, and yet a woman not unlike herself. The idea that a god or goddess could smile captivated her, and she searched the image's face for an explanation. Astarte had perhaps known pain and loss and love, too, like Isis, but obviously she was no stranger to joy, to the happiness and completeness of spirit associated with Hathor. Most of all, she saw on Astarte's face a look of reassurance. The goddess had triumphed over all and held out to Tia the promise that she might triumph, as well. It was an intoxicating look, and Tia was intensely curious and deeply moved.
“She looks so familiar,” she said aloud.
“Tia, you forget yourselfâ¦” Kheneb said. He started forward, embarrassed, but Illana laid her hand on his arm and held him back. She raised her finger to her lips for silence, never taking her eyes from Tia.
“There is incense at your feet,” Illana said softly, and Tia looked down at the faience jar standing at the foot of the idol, containing a mixture of resin, cedarwood and rose petals.
Without a thought she bent and took a pinch of incense in her fingers. She did not know the proper prayers, but something went up from her heart, and she knew that her offering would be accepted. She dropped the mixture onto the brass dish of glowing coals that sat at Astarte's feet, but nothing happened.
Kheneb cleared his throat nervously. Tia didn't know the prayers, was ignorant of the rituals and hadn't even purified
herself; it was almost blasphemous for her to make an offering like this, even one of incense. And now what had happened? Perhaps the coals had gone out, or Tia had missed them altogether. In any case, this wasn't a good sign. The goddess had rejected her offering, and rightly so, Kheneb thought.
With a loud rush of sound the incense suddenly ignited, and a sharp tongue of orange-and-blue fire chased the shadows from the room. In the sudden brilliance, the smile on the goddess's face could be seen to broaden into a look of fond acceptance as the light of the flame flickered on her face.
Kheneb had never himself seen such a clear and unmistakable portent, and his eyes widened in surprise as the smoke began to billow forth from the brazier in thick, intoxicating clouds. Illana gasped, as well, putting her fingers to her mouth in shock, but Tia just stood there gazing at the statue as the rich clouds of sweet and aromatic smoke surrounded her.
“My Lady, I apologize for my sister's lack of manners. It is inexcusable, but the girl is nervous, so great is her zealâ¦.”
Illana turned to Kheneb, her eyes glowing.
“If it is acceptable to Tia,” Illana said, “the Great Lady and I would be happy to have her serve as a novice in this, her new home in Egypt. Never have I seen such an auspicious omen. I no longer have any doubts. There is nothing more we need discuss.”
But in truth there was more to discuss, all of it tedious, about Tia's service, and Kheneb and Illana retired to a room beside the goddess's image to confer over wine and dates while Tia, uninterested in these particulars, wandered about the garden, studying the image of Astarte from varying angles. She had no doubt that this would be her new home, and the details of her service mattered little to her. There was something between the goddess and herself, something very personal that she had never felt with her native gods. She loved them, of course, but she loved them as a child loved a parent. Astarte was
like the older sister she'd never had. Astarte was someone she could open her heart to, someone she could converse with, not just beseech.
And converse she did. The garden was lovely, but the figure of Astarte drew her back into the flickering oil lamps of the sanctuary, and she stood in front of the image for a long while, watching the play of light on her features. A goddess of love and war. How could that be?
Tia noticed something now about the goddess's face. Perhaps it was the light, but within that enigmatic smile there was strength and wisdom and a patience of spirit that affected her greatly. The gods of Egypt were beyond time. They rode upon it like a boat on the Nile, barely touching it. But Astarte seemed to be of this world, swimming in the same water as Tia swam in. There were things she had to teach that Tia was suddenly very eager to learn.