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A high-pitched giggle broke the stillness of the garden. From between the branches of the bush where she hid, Tuya saw her mistress pause in mid-step on the path. "Tuya, I command you to speak," Sagira called, peering around the slender trunk of an acacia tree. "You must make more noise, or how am I to find you?"
Tuya deliberately rustled the ivy on the wall behind her, but the noise was slight and Sagira did not turn toward the sound. Finally Tuya took a deep breath and spoke: "Life, prosperity and health to you, my lady!"
"Aha!" Sagira turned and sprinted toward Tuya's hiding place as the slave girl darted from the bush. "I found you!"
"But you haven't caught me!" Tuya cried, arching away from Sagira's grasping hands.
The two girls ran, laughing, through the garden, until Sagira tripped over a rock at the edge of the pond. Pinwheeling, she struggled to keep her balance, then surrendered to the pull of the earth and fell with a splash into the shallow water.
Tuya's heart leapt into her throat, but after a moment Sagira sat up and howled with a twelve-year-old's unrestrained glee. Tuya laughed, too, then stopped. The lady Kahent might be watching. Would she have Tuya whipped for this mishap? She glanced toward the house. "I am sorry, mistress, truly I am."
Sagira pulled dark ribbons of wet hair from her face and stood in the knee-deep water, then took a deep, happy breath. "It wasn't your fault, Tuya," she said, moving to the edge of the pool. Her thin linen sheath clung to her wet body and accented her budding figure. A trace of mud lay across her delicate face and her dark eyes sparkled with mischief. "Would you like me to pull you in? The water is wonderfully cool."
"No, my lady." Tuya looked toward the house again. "I should not like to muss my dress. Your mother would not approve."
"Then I command you to keep still." The floating lotus plants jostled each other as Sagira climbed out of the pool. "Our little game is not done."
Tuya stood as still as a post, her arms hanging rigid until her mistress dripped in front of her. "There!" Sagira clapped wet hands on the slave's bare shoulders. "I caught you! I win again!"
"Yes, my lady."
"I must win." Sagira grinned wickedly as she flung water from her hands into Tuya's face. "It is only fitting that Pharaoh's niece should win in everything she undertakes."
Tuya said nothing, but smiled as Sagira pirouetted in front of the long reflecting pool. She paused and studied her watery image. "Do you think me beautiful, Tuya?"
Tuya lowered her gaze as she pondered her answer. Should she speak as a friend and tease Sagira about the small gap between her front teeth? Or should she reply as a dutiful servant and assure her mistress that no girl in the two kingdoms could rival her beauty and charm?
Not an easy decision, for Tuya had lately been reminded of the solid line between friendship and servanthood. She had been only six years old when presented as a gift for Sagira's third birthday, and as children they had shared everything. But though she often felt like Sagira's older sister, when her mistress's red moon had begun to flow, Sagira's mother, the lady Kahent, had urged her daughter to put aside her baby name and assume a mantle of dignity. Her new name, Sagira, or 'little one,' referred to her petite frame.
Tuya had never been called anything but Tuya, for slaves were not permitted the luxury of adult names, and of late Sagira's mother had been quick to emphasize the gulf existing between masters and their slaves. Certain attitudes and actions were proper while others were not. Twice Tuya had been whipped for overstepping the bounds of propriety, but Sagira seemed not to have noticed the newfound care with which Tuya formulated her answers, attitudes and comments.
Diplomacy won out. "You are beautiful, mistress," Tuya whispered, lowering her head in an attitude of deference. "Lucky is the man who will be your husband."
"And you, Tuya? Do you never dream of marriage?" Sagira cocked her head and gave her slave an engaging smile. "Do you wonder what it is like to kiss a man? To sleep with him as my mother sleeps with my father?"
Tuya felt her cheeks burning. "I dare not think of those things," she said, stealing a quick glance toward the wide doors that opened into the courtyard. "I am your servant. I will go where you go, and serve you always."
"Tuya." Sagira's voice rang with reproach, for she had seen her servant's frightened glance. She took Tuya's hand and pulled her into the privacy of an arbor. "You can speak freely now," she said, a slow smile crossing her face. "You need not fear my mother."
"Don't pretend with me, Tuya. I know about the whippings. Even though you acted as though nothing had happened, I saw the mark of the lash on your shoulders and asked Tanutamon about them. He said my mother ordered both whippings."
"I am sure I deserved them." Tuya's stomach tightened as her ears strained for sounds of eavesdroppers beyond the trees. Would even this conversation be reported to Lady Kahent?
Sagira's eyes lit with understanding. "You did not deserve it. The first time was because you were wearing my jewels, but you did not tell my mother I asked you to model them for me. And the second time was because we were laughing together"
"I was too familiar. A slave should not be on such close terms."
"You are my friend, Tuya. We have laughed and cried together since I was a baby. Can we stop being friends now?"
Tuya smiled in a fleeting moment of hope. Sagira seemed earnest, and her mother could not see into the thickly green arbor. Perhaps she could safely open her heart.
"I do not know how to behave anymore," she confessed, lifting her gaze. "Your mother says now that you are grown, I must be your servant, not your friend. She said although you may confide in me, I must not speak what is on my heart, for no one cares what a slave thinks."
Sagira flushed to the roots of her hair. "She did not say such a thing!"
Tuya pressed her lips together and kept silent.
"My mother is the best mistress any slave could have," Sagira said, turning on Tuya with a flash of defensive spirit. She crossed her arms and sat on a low bench in the arbor. "Our slaves have greater freedom than any house I've seen. My father is as rich in graciousness as he is in gold."
Tuya slowly lowered herself to the bench. "You are right, my lady."
Sagira sniffed. "Well, then, you do not need to worry about anything. And I have a surprise for you. When I am married, I shall take you out of this house and give you your freedom. Then you can marry as well, and we shall live next to each other and talk every day as we do now."
Hope rose from Tuya's heart like a startled bird. "You would do that?"
"Truly." Sagira's eyes glowed. "And then you shall tell me all about your husband just as you told me about what to expect with the flowering of my red moon. And when you have a baby" Sagira looked down and twisted her hands "you shall tell me if it is truly as terrible as it seems."
"It cannot be too terrible," Tuya softened her voice, realizing that Sagira now spoke out of fear. "I am sure that bearing the child of a man you love must be a great joy. And the priests say that offerings to the goddess Taweret will keep evil away from a woman giving birth."
The two girls sat in silence, pondering the mysterious rites they were just beginning to understand. Overhead, a hawk scrolled the hot updrafts, precise and unconcerned, a part of the sky. Tuya envied his freedom.
"Do you ever think about love, Tuya?" Sagira said, running her hands through her wet hair.
"How and when it begins. My mother says love comes after marriage, but I have heard scandalous things from some of the other servants. They say one of the serving girls fell in love with one of the shepherds. For the love of this shepherd, she openly defied Tanutamon. He sold her that very morning for her rebellion."
"I am sure," Tuya said, a creeping uneasiness rising from the bottom of her heart, "that the captain of your father's slaves acted wisely. Rebellion cannot be tolerated."
Sagira tilted her head and gave Tuya a searching look. "You wouldn't do that, would you? Fall in love with some man and leave me?"
"I don't think love is meant for one like me," Tuya answered slowly. "I love you, mistress. I want to follow wherever you go. I have not left your side in nine years, so I am not likely to leave it now."
"Nor would I have you leave it," Sagira answered, now serious. She reached out and clasped Tuya's hands. "By all the gods, Tuya, my heart goes into shock when I think of marrying and leaving my father's house. Only because I know you will be with me can I think about going at all."
Tuya's heart warmed at the light of dependence in her young mistress's eyes. "There is no need to worry. Your mother and father are in no hurry to find a husband for you. You are no commoner, Sagira. Pharaoh himself must be consulted."
Sagira sighed, then her mocking smile returned. "Then we will marry at the same time, and you will be my friend always." She planted a brief kiss on Tuya's cheek, then dropped Tuya's hands and stood to stretch. "Oh, this wet dress grows cold! Come, find me a dry garment, and bind my hair. We will play the hiding game in my chamber until my mother tells us it is time to eat."
Tuya smiled and hurried to match her mistress's eager step.
The girls' happy voices danced ahead of them into the house. Reclining on a pillow-laden couch in the villa's reception room, Kahent heard the sound. "Our daughter is growing up," she whispered, her dark, liquid voice intended for her husband's ears alone.
Intent on studying the scrolls on his lap, Donkor grunted.
"It is time, I believe," Kahent persisted, "to approach
Pharaoh about finding Sagira a husband. Surely the king knows his sister has a daughter of noble blood."
Donkor finally looked up. "Pharaoh knows what?"
Kahent sighed, careful not to let her frustration show. "Our king knows we have a daughter. Now he must be told that she has reached marriageable age. Her red moon has flowed twice now."
"She is too young." Donkor waved his hand carelessly and returned his attention to his scrolls, but Kahent would not be deterred.
She had borne his indifference for years. If he had been more attentive, or she more beautiful, they might have had more than one child. But Donkor cared more for his treasures than for the people who lived in his house. After resigning herself to her husband's cold heart, Kahent had invested her love and life in her daughter.
She stood and leaned against one of the columns in the room, steeling herself for a confrontation. "Sagira is young," she said, not daring to contradict him, "so we have time to find the best man for her." She lifted her chin so the beads in the heavy wig she wore clicked together as they fell against her smooth shoulders. "This endeavor will not require your effort, my husband, only your permission. Grant me your blessing to speak to my brother about our daughter. Your honor demands that I do this."
Donkor's brow furrowed as he looked up from his scroll, and Kahent knew he had only half heard her words. "Pharaoh will see to the girl's marriage when I publish the news of her maturity."
"We must proceed slowly," Kahent said, with a cautionary lift of a manicured finger. "We should find a suitable man before we reveal our intentions, then we may drop the suggestion on Pharaoh's ear. Our daughter's husband must be close to Pharaoh, for the line of kings flows through my veins and Sagira's. If something should happen to Pharaoh or to his sons" She finished with an expressive shrug.
Donkor gave her a smile of reluctant admiration. "I have seen eyes like yours in the faces of my enemies." He lifted his scroll again. "I would not like to have your determination set against me."
"Why should you?" she asked, glad that he had looked at her with the light of amusement in his eyes. "There is one other thing. I must be rid of the servant girl, Tuya."
The scroll dropped again. "But Sagira would be lost without her. It is impossible to imagine one without the other."
"Have you looked at Tuya lately, my husband?" Kahent found it impossible to keep an edge from her voice. "The slave has become quite attractive. If Tuya follows our daughter into her marital home, the slave will capture the groom's attention."
Donkor scoffed. "Our daughter is lovely. I cannot believe that you, her mother, would belittle her"
"I do not dispute Sagira's loveliness." Kahent sank onto a gilded settee and reached for one of the figs piled atop a golden platter on a nearby stand. "But I want to give our daughter every possible advantage. Sagira is attractive, but a woman must believe herself beautiful to become so. I fear Sagira will compare herself to Tuya, whom the gods have unfairly blessed."
"So how to you intend to separate the girls?" Donkor's voice had flattened, and Kahent knew she had already lost his attention to the papyrus scroll in his lap.
"I will make an offering to the goddess Bastet," she murmured, bringing the fig to her lips. "She will show me the way."
The glare of the desert sun blinded Potiphar for a moment. He raised his hand to shade his eyes, and nodded in silent satisfaction as warriors laid bodies before him: twenty-six rebels dead, their blood staining the sand, thirty-three others now in the bonds of defeat. He would present the slaves to his royal master, Pharaoh Amenhotep II, and further prove that he had earned the name Potiphar, captain of the guard, the appointed one of Pharaoh.
He signaled for his men to leave the dead as a warning to any others who might invade Pharaoh's peaceful delta. Let their mongrel bodies be consumed by worms and rats; their immortal souls did not deserve to travel through the afterlife.
The cry from a warrior on a cliff above them wrested his eyes from the dead.
"Horus, the falcon god, salutes you!"
The warrior lifted his hand to the sky where a hawk circled lazily above the blood-soaked sands. Potiphar smiled in reply. "So be it." He turned from the grisly scene and murmured under his breath as he strode toward his waiting chariot. "But it is not Horus's approval I seek."