In Feast or Famine
OneThe foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
On, Lower EgyptTwenty-Three Months Later
If raising a monkey was intended to train me as the Great Ommi of Egypt, I was failing miserably. “Jendayi, naughty girl. Give me that mirror!” I lunged at my furry-faced guenon as she scurried up the slanted branch in her corner of my audience chamber. She was the size of a water pitcher, and her brown speckled fur was softer than lamb’s wool. She was the joy of my life but as unruly as a spoiled child.
“I’ll get the mirror this time.” Zahra, my adventurous handmaid, raced after her. Jendayi scampered up more dead branches, with a squeal like laughter, then settled into her favorite hiding place. Potabi had constructed a web of hemp ropes like vines hanging from my gilded ceiling. My mischievous monkey had picked off nearly all the gold sheeting, exposing the limestone blocks of my tower’s ceiling.
“Be careful, Zahra.” Hotep chewed her nails. “Don’t corner her. She’ll bite you.”
Instantly defensive, I glared at my overly cautious maid. “Jendayi doesn’t bite.”
Hotep glared back at me and pointed to the scar on her forearm.
I rolled my eyes. “That was one time—when we were thirteen. Jendayi was a baby. Will you ever forgive her?”
“I’ve forgiven her, but I don’t repeat mistakes, and I try to help others learn from them.”
“Here, little Jendayi.” Zahra’s sing-song tone stole our attention. Balancing precariously on one of the dead branches, she slowly reached for the mirror. “Come, little girl. Give me—”
Jendayi squealed, jumped on Zahra’s shoulder, and skittered down the branch—running straight into my arms. The little scamp pressed her lips against my face, then looked over her shoulder and puffed her cheeks at Zahra.
My maid hung from the branch like an overgrown ape, growled, and began her descent. “I daresay your new husband won’t endure Jendayi’s little pranks. Did your abi inform King Webenre that your ‘child’ was part of the dowry traveling with us to Abydos?”
A flutter stirred in my belly every time I thought of my upcoming wedding to a man I’d never even seen. “I’m sure Potabi told him whatever was needed to seal our union as divine Abi and Ommi of Egypt.”
When Zahra’s feet landed on solid ground, she straightened her sheer white robe and glared at me. “Have you considered how Jendayi will react to a child from your womb?”
“What a strange question.” Yet inwardly I winced, adding this to my forbidden thoughts. “Jendayi will love my children as she loves me—as I love her.”
Hotep left her perch by the east window, where she’d been watching On’s activity below, and held out one hand to Jendayi. The monkey gave her the mirror and then curled her arms around my neck. “You see?” Hotep said. “Jendayi loves no one as she loves you, and she grows jealous when anyone steals your attention. She could harm an infant if—”
“Quiet!” I heard the scuffing of sandals on the stairs. “Potabi’s coming.” It could only be him since no one else climbed our steps. He usually conquered the 375 steps on the first day of each week to teach us a new chant. Any other day, he used the tray attached to ropes and pulleys to send up messages or meals. I lowered my voice. “And don’t ask Potabi anything about marriage and children. I’m nervous enough.”
My maids exchanged an uneasy glance. They were anxious about moving to the Abydos palace, too. Zahra, Hotep, and I had never been in the same room with a man other than Potabi since we were four years old. How could I let a man—even a king—touch me? Mother Isis, give me courage. For fifteen years Potabi had kept us in secluded safety on the upper level of Ra’s temple tower, separated from the world below. We were the chantresses of On, serving the great sun god, Ra. We sang from the east window at dawn, midday, and dusk, filling the city with chants of warning, blessing, and grief to glorify our god. Our education came from Potabi, who taught us history, geography, sums, and the hieroglyphs. Above all, he’d emphasized we must be chaste in body, mind, and ka, but he left my wedding night a complete mystery.
Trying to calm myself, I stroked Jendayi’s soft fur and said to my maids, “Isis will give us wisdom for the wedding and the marriage after.”
“I’m happy to hear you say that, Daughter,” Potabi said from the top step, leaning heavily on the railing.
Jendayi gripped my neck a little tighter, always nervous when he came to visit.
“Are you ill, Potabi?” I hurried over and wrapped my arm around his ample waist, guiding him toward our gathering area.
“Leave us.” He waved my maids away.
Dread raised the hairs on my arms. “Is the news so dreadful that my sisters can’t hear—”
“I will speak with my daughter alone.” He glared at me, crankier than normal in summer’s heat.
I bowed in obeisance and then transferred Jendayi to Hotep. She placed my little one in the rope vining corner. Zahra mouthed the words We’ll be listening and retreated soundlessly across the purple tiles to their adjoining chamber.
Potabi arranged himself on a cushion. I sat across from him and offered the cloth I kept tucked in my belt for him. He wiped the steady stream of sweat seeping from beneath his priestly skullcap. His face and neck were crimson.
“Tell me what’s troubled you, Abi.”
He looked at me, startled. I called him “Abi” only when we were alone or at times like these, when I sensed he was upset.
His kohl-darkened brows drew together, forming a canal for the sweat to race down his nose. “The gods have taken King Webenre from you, Asenath.” He removed his skullcap, smearing sweat and kohl over his head and face.
“Have I done something to offend the gods?”
“Of course not.” He waved off the question. “A stronger king took his throne, my girl. An Egyptian more worthy of the throne—and of you.”
Years of practiced calm helped me maintain a placid façade. “I’m disappointed that my divine birth as Isis Incarnate may be delayed, but I always defer to the gods’ wisdom—and to yours, Potabi.” I bowed my head, relief overshadowing every other emotion. How could I feel grief for King Webenre, a man I’d never met? “Who is the worthy Egyptian that the gods have chosen for me instead?” I met his eyes, careful to reflect calm. Potabi had taught me that each emotion triggered a reaction in a person’s eyes, brows, lips, hands, and shoulders. To control and sculpt those reactions meant to reflect the elegance and grace of my mother goddess.
“King Apophis.” He watched me as he spoke the name. Measuring me. Daring me to react.
“How could . . . I can’t . . .” I exhaled to gain composure. “Apophis is co-regent with the half-breed son of the dead Hyksos, Khyan.” My voice wobbled, and I fought for control. “Why would the gods couple Isis Incarnate with the co-regent who served as general of the Hyksos king? How could you even suggest such a thing when my single purpose for life and breath is to reunite the Two Lands under a pure-blooded Egyptian king and purge our nation of the Hyksos pestilence?” My voice rose despite my efforts to remain calm.
Jendayi squawked. She bared her teeth at Potabi and bounced on the branch—a warning to the perceived threat.
“You will calm yourself, or I’ll leave.” Potabi wiped more sweat from his face while maintaining his infuriating reserve.
I snapped my fingers and called Jendayi from her perch. She skittered over the vines, down the dead branches, and over the purple tiles to leap onto my shoulder, then peeked at Potabi from behind my long dark hair.
In those few moments of silence, Isis gave me wisdom. “I’m trained as Isis’s high priestess. Take me to King Webenre and let me use the powers of Egypt’s Great Ommi and healer to raise him from the dead.”
“But don’t you see? Webenre’s death could be a test from the gods. If the high priestess of Isis raises him from the dead, no one could deny we are the true king and queen of Egypt, destined to unite the Two Lands and rule from Abydos.”
He humiliated me with a condescending smile. “Don’t be a fool. You’re not Isis yet, and your failure would ruin any other marriage prospect.”
“Where is your faith?” Indignation stoked my anger. “How do we know what power flows through us if we never trust the gods to work beyond our control?”
“You’re mine to control!”