Story by Wendy Nikel
Pharaoh’s son has a new keeper of secrets.
I lived in the palace of the pharaoh’s son. I kept his secrets upon my skin.
The first one was branded to my forearm when we were but boys, when I was first gifted to the young prince as his confidante. His aabt. The keeper of his secrets.
In the candlelit chambers of the temple, with tears cutting rivers through the dust on my cheeks, the hekau told him my secret name, binding me to his will. As they cast the spell, I blocked out the words, fixating instead at a spot near my feet, a darkened blotch in the stone that looked vaguely sheep-like.
Would I ever see my flocks, my people, my family again?
“Look at me.” He spoke the name and my body betrayed me. My neck lifted, my eyelids rose.
His eyes shone, flickered like a cobra’s in the darkness, this boy-to-be-king who now owned me. He leaned in and his voice cut through me as the fire-hot tip of his scepter touched my skin. I gritted my teeth, refused to cry out as the secret in his whisper seared me.
The hekau nodded in approval at my willpower. His voice murmured like the Nile, like the grumble of a croc, like a spell. “This boy will be a good secret-keeper, my prince. He’s stronger than the last one.”
The prince slid his scepter into his waistband of his pure-white kilt. His sandaled feet slapped the temple floor in a manner which would have been irreverent had he been anyone but the future king. I didn’t dare examine my arm until he’d melted into the night’s darkness, and when I did I was surprised that something so small had caused such dizzying pain.
“The greater the secret, the greater the scar.” The hekau‘s back was to me, his head bent over his papyrus scrolls, yet he must have known that I’d look. “He gave you a small secret to carry first, one known by others besides himself.”
The mark had turned from to red to kohl-black to a hieroglyph of shimmering silver.
“Was that a kindness?” I asked, unable to keep the bitterness contained. It tasted like prickly lettuce on my lips.
The hekau‘s shoulders quivered in a silent laugh. “Not at all. The prince is wise. He learns from his mistakes.”
Oil lamp in hand, he brushed past me, stealing the light from the chamber and leaving me alone in the darkness with nothing but the shimmer of the scar upon my arm and the stain upon the stone at my feet. The prince’s whispered words echoed in my ear.
“You’re standing upon the place where the first one died.”
Amaris would visit me sometimes, on days after a long birthing, when her mother would collapse exhausted in their hut and sleep away the hours spent whispering the woman through her labor. Amaris knew that her absence wouldn’t be noticed, that her mother would assume she was sleeping as well, recuperating from her tasks of fetching water and tying the cord.
Rather than being fatigued, on those days Amaris bubbled over like the Nile upon its banks. She’d sit with her lean feet submerged in the river and, despite my protests, she’d recount for me the details of the birth until I’d threaten to leave. Her smile would call me out on my bluff; the last thing I ever wanted was to leave her and return to the palace, to the prince and his demands and the secrets he burned into my flesh.
Even focusing too long on any one of them made the corresponding place on my skin tingle, flare, and burn. I rubbed a particularly large design that spider-webbed across the back of my hand.
“My father is a fool to strike me. One day, I will be more powerful than him, and then he will wish he hadn’t mistreated me.”
“–you’ll come with us when we leave, won’t you?” Amaris whispered. Her hair brushed against my shoulder and the sweet scent of hyssop on her skin was so distracting, I could hardly comprehend her words.
“Leave? What do you mean? But where–?”
Something in the river caught my eye. I leapt from our hiding place among the rushes, shielding my eyes. Had it been another season, I’d have thought it was the loess that annually stained the river red. A rancid stench reached my nostrils, and I touched Amaris’ shoulder to turn her away from the sight.
She brushed me aside and stepped, transfixed, into the rapid-running water, now streaked with the distinct rusty red of blood. A tilapia washed up beside her foot, its mouth opening and closing, gasping for air.
“It’s beginning.” She turned to me, her eyes sparkling, her voice filled with awe and fire.
I backed away, fearful. I fled to the palace, sand flying from my heels, before she could tell me more, before she could reveal a secret I had no power to keep.
The prince found the frogs amusing. He sat on the floor of his chambers as if he were a child again and tore their legs off, one by one. The poor, deformed creatures flopped angrily about on the floor, their blood spurting from the severed stumps.
“Come here, aabt. I have a secret for you.” He drew his scepter like a sword. Sometime in the past year, I’d grown a head taller than him and my arms had thickened to double their size. More and more often now, his commands were accompanied by a smile, equal parts amusement and challenge.
I carefully positioned each bare foot to avoid the scattered frog corpses. Though I stood within his reach, the prince beckoned me closer, and when I complied, he jabbed the scepter into my foot. Bone crunched beneath it, but I’d long ago learned to keep my face as smooth and unchanging as the golden faces of the temple gods.
The prince raised his head and hissed his venomous secret.
“If I were pharaoh, I’d kill those insurrectionists on the spot and anyone else who follows that god of theirs.”
Gnats swarmed the desert, as numerous and all-consuming as the dust. They crept into the palace through the tiniest slits in the draperies, through the smallest cracks in the stones. They buzzed in my ears, in my nostrils, but–as with the pierce of the prince’s scepter–I knew better than to show my discomfort.
The prince confided in me (with a jab of his scepter and a smirk upon his face) that even the palace magicians couldn’t duplicate the trick, that they claimed it was the finger of God. He laughed at this claim; he didn’t believe in gods, for they’d never done anything for him.
Amaris waited for me beside the riverbank, but by the time I could slip out to meet her, she’d gone home, leaving only footprints and a basket of lotus flowers on the sandy banks.
I peered out of the palace windows through a swarm of flies so thick that they shrouded the land like fog. Men and women draped themselves in veils to keep the flies from crawling into their mouths and nesting in their hair, as they made their way to the temple to beg the gods to lift the plague. Smoke from their offerings wafted through the air from sunup to sundown, but no reprieve came.
Yet on the other side of the river, Amaris stood, unflinching, not a single insect upon her skin nor flying around her ears. She saw me watching and raised a hand, but before I could respond, the prince ordered me from the window.
“Come away from the window,” he said again, irritation buzzing in his voice like the wings of millions of flies. He invoked my secret name, and–unable to resist–I turned away.
The prince ordered a delicate white screen hung over his bed and lazed about throughout the day, ordering food and drink and women to stave off his ennui, but never allowing me far from his side.
“Tell me, aabt,” he commanded as he slid his knife through the skin of a mimusops fruit. “What do you know about this god? The one they claim is responsible for all this?”
He didn’t use my secret name, so I was able to lie. “Nothing. Nothing at all, my prince.”
The day that the prince’s favorite horses died, he sought me out. He found me in a lonely storeroom beneath the temple where the ancient records of my people were kept. It was, perhaps, a stroke of luck that he was so enraged at the death of his beasts that he didn’t even notice the papyrus unrolled around me, the accounts of how we’d come to be here, how we’d been crushed beneath their feet.
Had he seen what I was doing, the jab to the gut might have been an appropriate punishment for my treason, but as always, the prince was oblivious to me. I was a merely a bowl into which his thoughts could be poured out, magically guarded against betrayal. He had more affection for his dead horses.
Still, he pressed the scepter’s tip deep into my side. Pain flooded my body like the river overflowing its banks, but I held it deep within me.
“Tell the hekau to prepare a poison. If my father won’t put an end to this foolishness, I shall give my people a leader who will.”
Read the rest of “Kingdom of Dust and Boils” in issue #4 of Red Sun.