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Counted with the Stars
By Connilyn Cossette
Bethany House PublishersCopyright © 2016 Connilyn Cossette
All rights reserved.
1st Day of Akhet
Season of Inundation
The sound of my knock on the wooden chamber door echoed in the pit of my stomach. Shira opened the door, but the Hebrew girl refused to meet my eyes. Two streaks of fur, one black and one gray, fled the room — even the cats knew enough to escape.
"Is that Kiya?" My mistress's sharp voice raised the hair on the back of my neck. "It had better be."
Tightening my grip on the water jug I carried — my only shield — I drew a deep breath as I stepped past Shira and over the threshold.
Tekurah crossed her bedroom in four swift strides to tower over me. "Where have you been? You held up this entire household all morning."
What an exaggeration. I abandoned the temptation to try and explain the throng of people, animals, and merchant booths clogging the city today. Pushing my way through the crowds during festival preparations had proved almost impossible, especially carrying a jar full of water from the canal. Besides, Tekurah was never at a loss for reasons to reprimand me.
With practiced obedience I mumbled, "Forgive me, mistress."
My show of humility did nothing to placate her. She thrust the ebony handle of a fan toward my face while accusing me of deliberate delay. I flinched. She might actually strike me this time.
She threw her hands in the air. "Why do I have to put up with such a worthless slave?" She growled like one of her cats and then continued her tirade. I didn't bother to listen. I had heard all of this before and doubtless would again.
Jaw locked and mind numb, I waited for the end of her diatribe. Instead I focused on the intricacies of the painted mural on the wall. The lush scene depicted the glorious paradise of the afterlife, where gods and men traveled together in gilded boats on the sparkling blue waters of the eternal Nile. The vivid colors were striking, but they were nothing compared to my brother Jumo's masterful artwork.
Shira's posture snagged my attention. The Hebrew girl stood in front of the open window, wrapped in sunlight, head down and eyes closed — submissive as usual. Were her lips moving?
"And if you keep me waiting again" — Tekurah pointed the fan an inch from my nose — "I will hit you. Even the gods wouldn't fault me."
Bitter retorts bubbled up inside me, threatening to burst free. Silently, I prayed to Ra, Isis, and any other god who would listen, for the strength to keep my mouth shut. Sweat trickled in rivulets down my spine.
Tekurah drew a long breath through her nose, black eyes flashing. With another growl, she hurled the ebony fan toward the enormous bed in the center of the room, but it tangled in the sheer linen canopy and clattered to the floor. She stared at it, blinking, and then exhaled through gritted teeth. Hands on hips, she turned and stalked to her bathing chamber.
As Shira retrieved the fan, I breathed quiet thanks to the gods for such a brief scolding today. My sliding grip on the heavy earthen jug would not have held much longer.
Tekurah's bathing room was tiled floor to ceiling in whitewashed stone and decorated with lush palms and splendid scenes from the Nile — hippos, crocodiles, and ibises. My skin prickled at the chill in the room. I placed the jug on the floor next to the long stone bathing bench in the center of the room and flexed my relieved fingers. Shira added a few drops of rose oil from an alabaster bottle to the water as I uncovered the drain that emptied into the gardens. A little blue-headed agama lizard startled me when I moved the stone, and then scurried back out to the safety of the courtyard. If only I could follow.
Every Egyptian woman labored to appear youthful — Tekurah more than most. The many face creams, balms, and ointments she insisted upon complicated an already arduous process. We spent hours tending her body, fetching potions, purchasing magic cures, and delivering offerings to Hathor, the goddess of beauty.
After Shira and I undressed her, Tekurah perched on the bathing slab, lips pursed and pointed chin high. Shira scrubbed our mistress's head with natron soda paste. Then together we sponged her body with rose-scented water and massaged sweet balms into her skin, head to toe. At least I would enjoy soft hands for a few hours. This dry season sucked the moisture from my skin. I savored the heady aroma of the imported oils. The exotic spices, pungent balsam, and sweet myrrh reminded me of Salima.
A full cycle of seasons had passed since Salima had lugged cumbersome pitchers from the river for my own baths and applied perfumed oils to my body. Now I served a mistress of my own, fetching water and bowing to her every demand. Coveting her luxuries made my labors all the more torturous.
Shira brought in Tekurah's new gown, the delicate weave almost translucent. I ached for the sumptuous glide of fine cloth over my skin. My own abrasive, unflattering tunic provoked my vanity.
I struggled to pull the dress over Tekurah's head, but she jerked away. "Let Shira do it. She is worth three of you."
Slipping her dark braid over her shoulder, Shira reddened and reached up to adjust the mangled neckline before tying a beaded belt around Tekurah's narrow waist, adding some curve to her otherwise willowy body.
Tekurah spoke the truth. Shira's skills exceeded mine. It had surprised me, when I'd first entered servitude, that a Hebrew girl held such a trusted position as body-servant to the mistress. It did not take long to see why, though. She was nimble, efficient, and hardworking. Never speaking out of turn, she served Tekurah with utter, inexplicable politeness.
I worked to emulate her in all our tasks, but sixteen years of soft living had rendered me all but useless as a servant. My strength had grown over the last year, my once-pampered muscles now sinewy, but Tekurah still insisted Shira redo almost everything I attempted.
"Mistress, which jewelry today?" Shira's voice barely broke a whisper.
"The usekh gifted by Pharaoh." Tekurah glanced at me out of the corner of her eye.
Shira bowed, eyes downcast. "I will fetch it from the treasury while Kiya attends to your wig." This was one task I performed with minimal clumsiness.
Tekurah sank onto a low stool by a mahogany vanity, her narrow face reflected in the polished silver mirror. "Make it quick. Don't forget bangles and earrings."
Shira padded out of the room, head down.
"The new wig." Tekurah snapped her fingers at me. "Now."
The large closet overflowed with chests, baskets of gowns, countless pairs of sandals, and wooden stands laden with all styles and varieties of wigs. For all the seeming lack of affection between Tekurah and Shefu, he certainly allotted her a generous share of clothing, jewels, and accessories. The Queen herself might covet such a vast assortment.
A new rosewood wig chest was tucked behind a basket. I carried it to the vanity and opened the lid, choking back a sneeze. Spiced to mask the odor of wool and human hair, the box reeked of cinnamon with such potency my eyes watered.
An exquisite hairpiece lay inside, interlaced with gold and red faience beads and braided with the elaborate plaits made popular by the First Wife of Pharaoh. I centered the wig on Tekurah's bald head. Bodies, candles, and lamps would elevate the temperature of the hall during the banquet, and the weight and heat of such an intricate headdress was staggering. Tekurah would thank the gods for her shaved head tonight.
The one mercy in my downfall was release from wearing wigs. Allowing my hair to grow freely, I escaped the burden and irritation caused by the uncomfortable fashion. I had always abhorred shaving my head, but Salima usually convinced me to at least trim it short during the blaze of the hottest months. My straight black hair brushed past my shoulders now, and I rejoiced to simply pull it back with a leather tie each morning.
By the time I adjusted the wig to Tekurah's satisfaction, Shira had returned with the jewels. Fashioned from beads of pure gold, multicolored glass, and brilliant blue lapis lazuli, the usekh collar was indeed extraordinary. A large gold amulet embossed with etchings of ibises in full flight sat suspended in the center. The neckpiece extended just past the edges of her wide shoulders. Enhanced by Tekurah's height and long neck, the collar did not overpower her as it would most other women. It galled me to admit such a thing, but Pharaoh himself would take pride in the impressive display of his gift.
Shira applied kohl to our mistress's eyes — the art still eluded me. After a few failed attempts and dangerous near misses, Tekurah forbade me to even approach her cosmetics chest. The newest trend — green malachite on the upper lids and gray galena below — accented and widened her black eyes. I loathed the almond-ash-and-water concoction I was allotted to beautify and protect my own eyes. However, after a year, I could finally apply it without stabbing myself in the eye each morning.
Tekurah did not turn, but her gaze pierced me from the distorted reflection of the silver mirror. "You will not embarrass me tonight. Clumsiness will not be tolerated."
My skin flashed cold.
The Festival of the New Year, birth day of Ra, would be the first celebration I attended as a servant, instead of one being served. Standing behind Tekurah's chair and at her mercy, my humiliation would be on full display for all the guests — many of whom I was well acquainted with.
Tekurah's cruel mouth curved into a smile.
Excerpted from Counted with the Stars by Connilyn Cossette. Copyright © 2016 Connilyn Cossette. Excerpted by permission of Bethany House Publishers.
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