Authors: Jenesi Ash,Elliot Mabeuse,Lilli Feisty,Charlotte Featherstone,Cathryn Fox,Portia Da Costa,Megan Hart,Saskia Walker
Kheneb came out of the temple with Illana at last, laughing and shaking his head. It had obviously gone well and, as an unusually pragmatic type of priest, it always surprised her brother when things went smoothly. He was of course a believer, but still, when the gods actually seemed to step in and take a hand in the affairs of men, he always looked baffled.
Now that the business was concluded, he was very solicitous, and touched Tia fondly as she walked him to the gate, caressing her back and gazing into her eyes, clearly looking for any hidden signs of fear or reservation.
“I will visit you the day after tomorrow, darling sister,” he said. “Lady Illana and I have discussed it thoroughly, and she assures me that you are under no obligation to do anything you don't want to do. So if at anytime there is ever anything you're not comfortable withâ¦”
“Brother, I am fine. This is where I want to be. I know things will be fine.”
Kheneb nodded, his eyes down. “Lady Illana seems eminently worthy and pure in sentiment, but stillâ¦”
“My dear brother. You worry entirely too much. I'm no longer a child.”
Kheneb's eyes flicked up at her, and he nodded his head in understanding. He embraced her without a word, but when he turned from her he hid his emotions in a sudden irritability with his guards. “On your feet, you worthless toads! You've been drinking beer, I can smell it! Farewell for now, little sister. Lady Illana, a thousand thanks. The blessings of all the gods upon you both!”
Illana had been standing back between the gatehouses, giving them their privacy, but now she stepped forward. “And the blessing of all the gods and the Great Lady upon you and yours, too, Lord Priest.”
They watched them go, then Illana turned to Tia. “Come. There is much to discuss. You have much to learn.”
“Yes,” Tia said. “There is so much I want to know.”
Illana looked at her, her dark eyes meeting Tia's. Something passed between them, something terribly intimate and honest, and then there was a burst of noise from the riverâmen's laughter, some raucous joke.
Tia looked over to see that the royal barge she'd watched earlier, all its lamps blazing, was making fast to the quay right below the temple, where the stone steps of the levee reached down to the black face of the water. She could see the oarsmen standing in the prow, bright and flushed with wine, and she could see a man's form as he stepped off the barge and trotted easily up the darkened stairs.
“Prince Nekhet,” Illana whispered to her. “He is our sponsor, and it is through his graciousness that we have our home here in this land.”
“Yes,” Tia said, straining to see through the trees. “I saw his barge earlier.”
Illana smiled. “I daresay you have. He has been rowing up and down all afternoon, eager to see our progress.”
She gave Tia a knowing look, but the girl's eyes were on the stairs.
Nekhet emerged from the steps on the other side of the wide avenue. He was bare-chested, his body gleaming with a sheen of perspiration. No doubt he had been rowing, too, testing his strength against the current of the Nile, and the muscles of his wide shoulders were taut from the vigor of his exercise. Around his neck he wore a wide collar of dark blue lapis trimmed in gold, and a slim skirt of fine linen covered his loins, sheer enough that Tia could see the workings of his strong thighs as the light from the Temple of Amun shone through the fabric. He carried horsehair mounted in an ebony handle as a fly whisk and symbol of his royal authority, and he flicked it absently against his leg as he walked. As he approached, his brown eyes showed his noble blood, his ease with command, but there was nothing harsh or cruel in them. He was looking right at Tia, and there was a quiet expectancy in his gaze.
Tia drew herself up and surprised herself by staring right back at him. She knew he was coming for her. She knew it just as she'd known that Astarte had special things to tell her. She knew, too, that the goddess's magic was already working on herâthat she'd never been more beautiful, and with a thrill so deep it almost made her shudder she realized that somehow this prince of Egypt was hers for the taking. It was a moment of such intense and intimate certainty that she felt her nipples harden on her breasts in preparation for the feel of his lips and, remembering Kheneb's words, she threw her shoulders back to show off her womanly form. She felt herself cast a spell upon him as a fisherman standing in the prow of his boat casts his net into the Nile.
“By the gods,” Illana whispered in her ear. “The Great Lady has taken a shine to you, Tia! Already she fills your spirit, doesn't she?”
Tia didn't answer. She felt a flood of heat as Nekhet approached her, as if she had walked out of the shadows and into the noontime glory of the Egyptian sun. She knew that the spark of Ra was in his eyes.
“Lady Illana,” he said, bowing his head slightly, a very unusual gesture to see from a prince of Egypt. As the fourth son of the Great Pharaoh, Nekhet was far removed from the throne, but he still bore the blood of the gods in his veins and need never incline his head to any mere human.
Lady Illana bowed, as well, and the fact that she didn't get down on her knees and press her forehead into the dirt showed that there was a very special relationship between these two. Tia should have fallen to her knees, as well, but something prevented her, though at long last she did lower her head. It didn't go down easily. Something had taken control of her and Illana was rightâshe was filled with a proud and rebellious spirit.
“Who is this, then?” Nekhet asked, looking at Tia with eager curiosity.
“This is Tianefhet, sister of the Priest Kheneb of the temple of Hathor,” Lady Illana said. “She has come to serve as a novice priestess for the Great Lady.”
“Is that right?” he replied. “Now there are two, am I right? And they will both serve as you have told me? I'm interested in seeing your religion in practice.”
Illana bowed her head in agreement, but another question hung there between the three of them, unasked; they were all aware of it. He wanted to know if she was going to serve as a temple prostitute and open her thighs to any man who came along in the name of the foreign goddess. He had the courtesy and breeding not to give voice to his thoughts, but they all knew what he was thinking.
Tia felt an unexpected thrill of angry pride. She had been here but an hour or two, and yet already she knew that there
was more to this than mere copulation, more to it than lying with a man like a beast of the field. He might be a prince of Egypt, but this was a holy precinct.
“Why don't you say what you mean, my lord?” Tia heard herself ask.
The three of them were all too shocked to speak, Tia not least of all, but she stood her ground.
Nekhet stepped closer to her so that he could see her face in the torchlight. She could see the sinews in his shoulders and smell the scent of his sweatâsalty and with a hint of the darkness of the river. Her heart beat so in her chest that she thought she might faint, but she kept her eyes level, so she couldn't avoid seeing the whiteness of his teeth as his lips drew back in a wary grin.
“Is this what you mean by possession, Lady Illana?” he asked. “Where the Great Lady enters into her servants and makes them say foolish things? For a mere Egyptian girl would never speak to a prince of the Double House thus.”
Before Illana could answer, Tia felt her own mouth move and words issued forth before she could stop them. “Perhaps not, but a woman would speak to a man thus, would she not, oh, great Prince?”
There was a moment of stunned silence and then Nekhet laughed, and laughed again. He turned to Illana so that she was obligated to laugh, as well, and even Tia then joined in, shocked at her own outrageous boldness and relieved that the prince had dismissed it as a joke.
“Tomorrow is my birthday,” he said at last. He spoke to Lady Illana, though he was looking at Tia. “How long before this priestess is consecrated?”
“My lord, she is a novice. With training and prayer and preparation it would take weeks, and even thenâ¦”
“Tia, is it?” he asked. He looked over at where the temple was being built. With the builders' scaffolding and piles of stone, it looked ugly and incomplete, like a ruin in the moonlight.
“They are about to lay the lintels,” he said. “The builders will be wanting stone, and money for stone. I can bring the gold tomorrow night, the night of my birthday, but only if Lady Tia is ready.”
Four of his crewmen from the barge, all of them noblemen's sons, all stripped to the waist and drying off their perspiration with linen towels, now appeared on the levee and prepared to cross the avenue. They called to Nekhet and waved, impatient for him to rejoin them.
“As your lordship wishes,” Illana said, bowing deeply. “And if it is acceptable to the Great Lady.”
“I'm sure it will be,” Nekhet said, waving back at his friends. “She does desire a temple, doesn't she? I'm sure she would make an exception for the sake of her temple.”
“Place the lamp there and sit down, Hafertiri. Do be quiet. This is for Tia, but you might as well listen, as long as you can keep still.” Illana smoothed her skirt and made herself comfortable in the chair, as comfortable as she could, given the sudden sense of urgency.
It could only be that the spirit of the goddess that had come over Tia. That was the only thing that would explain her shockingly forward behavior and rudeness in speaking as she had to Prince Nekhet. That the prince had only smiled and not had her head stricken from her body on the spotâwhich would have been entirely within his rightsâwas further proof that the Great Lady had plans for Tia and was therefore watching over her. That was the only reason Illana even attempted to instill in her now what should really take weeks or even months of instruction and preparation. This Egyptian girl had a connection to the goddess such as Illana had never seen before. It was uncanny. Almost frightening.
There was little time to go into the stories and mysteries of the goddess. The moon was already high in the sky and the
entire city was well into its sleep. They sat in one of the small chambers that were reserved for the temple prostitutes and Illana spoke as a mother speaks to her daughters. The statue of the goddess could be seen through the doorway, facing outward as if protecting them, lit by the lamps that glowed at her feet.
“It is my prerogative to choose who has the honor of lying with a priestess of the Great Lady,” Illana told them. “Though, of course, you may refuse anyone I send to you. This is not done for sport or even for pleasure, but so that the worshipper can gain knowledge and experience of the goddess. For that to happen, her spirit must enter into you, and there it must stay. You yourselves will stay pure, unsullied though touched by man, or womanâfor I must tell you that women may enjoy the favors of the goddess, as well, though that is not for you. Not yet.
“She is called the Great Lady because she is great above all mortal women, and yet she is a lady. She knows the secrets of being a woman and of all you might ever feel. To take her spirit inside you is to become one with all women who have ever lived, to feel yourself as the vessel of life and the bearer of kings. Remember that even our Great Pharaoh came through the gates of life, the gates that Astarte keeps.
“But you must tell me this, Tiaâare you a virgin? Or have you known a man's embrace?”
Tia just lowered her eyes, and Illana smiled indulgently at her.
“That's just as well,” Illana said. “We don't want any virgins here. The Great Lady doesn't want your innocenceâshe wants your experience. We don't want anyone falling in love like a foolish girl might. Remember, although the Lady uses your body, she maintains the purity of your spirit. There is nothing shameful in this. There must not be anything shameful in this.
“I cannot tell you what your experience will be like, Tia. My own relationship with the goddess is so very different
from yours that I doubt my experiences would shed much light on what you may expect. I have never seen such astonishing signs and portents of the goddess's favor. You are truly her chosen one. All we can do is trust to her wisdom.”
Down sank the moon toward the hour of the jackal, when the door between the worlds opened and the barque of Ra made its slow ascent into the land of the living once more. Through the crack between the worlds, the morning wind rustled the palms outside and the first fishermen and farmers began to stir. The lamp guttered and Lady Illana blew it out. Hafertiri had long since retired, and Tia lay asleep on the bed she would soon know as a priestess, as a prostitute and as an incarnation of the holy goddess.
Tia slept late the next day, not arising till the sun was high in the sky. Never had Khepri seemed like such a sluggard as he pushed the disc of the sun slowly across the vault of the heavens. Never had the noontime shadows seemed to move so slowly. Tia was allowed to idle the day away around the temple, and in the afternoon Illana made her lie down for a nap, but Tia was not used to sleeping in the daytime, and besides, her heart was high in her chest thinking about the coming evening. She kept on seeing Nekhet's face, his warm eyes and broad shoulders, his air of command.
In the late afternoon she bathed, then sat in the light of the garden while Illana and Hafertiri combed out her lustrous black hair. Tia could see through the open gate, across the Avenue of Osiris and through the palms to a stretch of the Nile that was still brilliantly lit by the mellowing sun. She watched the barges plying up and down, and wondered what Nekhet was doing now, and whether he was thinking of her, as well.
“At some point the goddess will come to you,” Illana told her. “If she doesn't, you must stop. Even if he is a prince of Egypt, you must. It is an abomination, a sin.”
“What does âsin' mean?” Hafertiri asked her.
“Never mind, never mind. There's no word for it in your language,” Illana said. “Let us just say that it is a wrong against the goddess and it would displease her greatly. Now come inside. We must present you to the goddess and invoke her protection. There's so little time.”