Tiy’s body turned as still as death. Cold. Empty. An unsettling numbness smothered her as she watched him clutch a hand to his side. Everything hushed into a dull hum, her mind retreating from what she had done. The moment he fell to the ground, the moment his breath hitched with finality, she knew her life was over.
Hot air rushed from her open mouth, burning its way through her vocal chords, yet she heard nothing. Was she screaming? Or was her Ka, her soul, abandoning her as well?
Her useless hand dropped the sword and the blade tumbled toward the wooden planks. Although, it didn’t fall as she thought it would. It tumbled so slowly that it seemed as if time itself was stunned into inaction. She had no choice but to watch the steel rotate over and over as it fell, the glinting metal mocking her mistakes with every flash. The sword hit the deck, but a reverberating clang never met her ears. She heard nothing, she felt nothing.
Tiy glanced up from the motionless blade and into a pair of eyes she had seen a thousand times—eyes that were often filled with laughter, never widened in terror as they were now. She wanted to sink into a void and escape the anguish attempting to crush her, but his dark eyes would not release her. She saw no judgment in them, despite how deserved it would be. No, she saw only fear. Fear that the great god, Anubis, would carry him to the Underworld.
A stab of guilt broke through Tiy’s numbness. Seventeen was too young to die. She cringed as a fresh wave of anguish joined her guilt. He’d never know what she had discovered. He’d never know why she had come. Suddenly, her own seventeen years seemed sufficient enough for her. She prayed Anubis would come for her as well.
Egyptian soldiers swarmed the deck and a pair of strong hands gripped her arms. A familiar face thrust itself in front of her, breaking her gaze. A small part of her acknowledged that she should know the soldier, that he was someone she had spoken with on several occasions, but she couldn’t seem to recall his name or how she even knew him. She couldn’t seem to care either. His eyes had no hold on her. Not like him.
She fell further into the dark void, letting the numbness settle deeper into her bones.
The soldier stepped closer and spoke to her, pointing toward the edge of her blurring vision. Still, she heard nothing. He turned toward the surrounding soldiers and shook his fist as he shouted. She struggled to focus her attention onto his mouth, somehow knowing that whatever he said would affect the rest of her life. But she might as well have been in the depths of the Nile for all the good her efforts did. Only a few short words broke through the surface.
“Take her below,” he shouted.
The grip on Tiy’s arms tightened, and her vision turned upside down as the soldiers carried her into darkness.
Chapter 1. Irresponsible Abandon (5 years earlier)
A cool breeze drifted off the water, tickling the skin underneath Tiy’s linen kalasiris. It was a welcome intrusion, a relief from the desert sun. She pulled her dress higher until it gathered at her knees. The linen was the thinnest she dared wear outside her home, yet the heat still pressed down on her.
Pushing her toes deeper into the black silt of the Nile, she bent to scoop water into her hands, careful to avoid the slimy, unpredictable fish. She had lived her whole life near the greatest river in the world and yet she had no appreciation for its watery creatures. With her wig abandoned on the banks, its black strands splayed across the sand, she splashed water over her head. It helped to cool her, but not by much. Egypt had never felt closer to the fiery lakes of the Underworld.
A surge of water splashed up to her thighs. Tiy yelped and jumped back to the dry bank, scanning the water’s edge for a crocodile with its teeth bared or a Mbuta fish with black beady eyes and an empty belly big enough to swallow her whole. But only flickers of light flashed on the water, nothing more.
Her breathing slowed, and the hand on her chest stopped trembling as she tried to focus her attention on the dryness of the land beneath her. She wished the lurking creatures of the Nile didn’t frighten her. She had just turned twelve, after all; she wasn’t a baby any more. Still, the unblinking eyes and darting movements of the Mbuta fish gave her shivers from head to toe.
As her gaze wandered further across the Nile her breath caught in her throat. She never expected to see such a sight in her entire lifetime, let alone right in her backyard. It hadn’t been a hungry crocodile or a giant fish that had sent a surge of water toward her. No, something much larger made the waves to ripple toward the riverbanks. Her eyes widened.
The Beauties of Amun, gilded in gold, soared around the bend. Only one family in all of Egypt could travel on that barge, and they were practically at her doorstep! She couldn’t believe she was about to catch a glimpse of royalty.
A fleet of several other barges sliced through the waters behind the Beauties of Amun, all destined for the Nubian war. Tiy’s jaw dropped in wonder. She had never seen anything so stunning, so grand.
Forty oarsmen lined the decks, sixteen along each side and eight at the stern. Their muscled arms heaved thick oars painted in blue and gold. Even at a distance, Tiy recognized Pharaoh’s cartouche hanging from their waists. Apart from their white loincloths, it was all they wore.
Designs of every color adorned the barge—red, blue, green and white swirling together in a masterful display. Even the Eye of Ra had been painted on the hull, a symbol of protection and royal power.
The fleet neared the waters in front of her family’s villa and Tiy knew she should race to her house and announce the passage of their king. Even her father, who saw Pharaoh on occasion, would wish to witness him pass. But her feet remained rooted to the ground, her eyes still wide in shock. She blinked several times, convinced the sight in front of her was nothing more than a mirage. It couldn’t be real. But the fleet kept gliding closer, the occupants becoming clearer.
Several female servants with wigs cropped at the shoulder positioned themselves around Pharaoh, Lord the Two Lands, King of Egypt. Each attending servant held a fan of ostrich feathers that waved away the desert heat. Despite the slow, rhythmic climb and fall of each fan, Pharaoh Tuthmosis settled on his chair like a statue—strong and unmoving. Tiy knew she would have been fast asleep under the soothing sway of the feathers and the gentle rocking of the ship, but Pharaoh’s eyes were alert and ever watchful.
Glancing at the boy standing to his right, Pharaoh smiled before resuming his watch of the water. The boy’s left hand rested on Pharaoh’s shoulder, his fingers dark against Pharaoh’s clothing. A crisp white loin cloth cinched the boy’s waist in a similar fashion to the oarsmen, although several flourishes of gold and sapphire adorned his linen.
Tiy knew the boy, or at least had heard of him. He was Prince Amenhotep III, Pharaoh’s son and newly declared heir to the throne. Pharaoh’s eldest son had died the previous year, yanking Amenhotep out of his boyhood and into the demanding life of heir apparent.
He and Tiy were the same age, born in the same month even, but their similarities ended there. He was raised in a palace with manicured gardens and marble courtyards while she lived on a cattle ranch with functional gardens and cobblestone courtyards. Her family had enough wealth to be considered upper-class, but she had no doubt that her daily living conditions would be far below the prince’s standards.
She took a step forward, curious how a royal twelve year old would behave. If he were anything like the boys in her school at Akhmim, he wouldn’t be able to stand still for more than five seconds.
Thumping footsteps bombarded her quiet oasis. She turned around to find her parents and a dozen servants craning their necks to see the passing Pharaoh.
“Tiy!” her mother said through clenched teeth. “Your wig! Put it on. They will see you.”
Tiy’s cheeks flushed. Without her wig, her pale yellow hair fell past her shoulders and down her back, exposing her very un-Egyptian blood. She snatched her wig from the ground and flung it on top of her head. Beads clinked together as they swung from tiny braids that dangled to her waist. She swept the strands out of her face, but the stubborn locks fell back over her eyes.
Frustrated, she swatted at them again, desperate to glimpse the royal fleet. She hadn’t seen enough to satisfy her curiosity, and her irritating wig wasn’t helping! Thick black strands fell over her face again. She was tempted to rip the ridiculous thing off and risk exposure of her yellow hair.
Alarmed, Tiy gaped at her mother. “What?”
“It’s on backwards, dear,” her mother said with an air of impatience. “Turn it around. Quickly!”
With both hands, Tiy slapped the top of her head and twisted the wig around. Her shoulders relaxed. She could see again.
But servants crowded her from every side, elbowing her shoulders and pushing their way in front of her. Her parents were given a prime viewing location, of course, but she was apparently too inconsequential for the servants to give way. She tried squeezing between them, tapping their shoulders, nudging their heels with her sandals, but her efforts went unnoticed. She wanted to stamp her feet and cry out in frustration, demanding the respect she deserved as a lady of the house! But the passage of Pharaoh was the only opportunity many of them would ever have to see Egypt’s embodiment of the gods. Anything she tried would likely go unnoticed.
“I can’t believe Prince Amenhotep is entering Nubia at such a volatile time,” her mother whispered to her father, although the breeze coming off the Nile carried her voice all the way back to Tiy.
“He needs to learn the art of war if he is to rule,” her father said in a more audible voice. He was less concerned about others overhearing his opinions.
“Surely he can learn what he must within the safety of our borders. Aren’t there any army commanders who can teach him? Why risk taking Egypt’s heir out of the country?”
Her father sighed. “The prince has a considerable amount of training ahead of him. He will learn more if he can see with his own eyes.”
“Yes, but those vile Nubians would do anything to rule over us!” Tiy’s mother shook her head.
“They are not vile, dear. Only a few of them are hostile. For now, that is. Pharaoh will make certain Egypt is safe.”
Tiy sighed. Her parents couldn’t agree on many topics of discussion, the status of the Nubian people being chief among them. Her mother convinced herself that every Nubian man, woman, and child constituted a threat to her family. Her father, on the other hand, only concerned himself with the rebels. He claimed they weren’t strong enough to cause concern, but when her mother wasn’t near, she overheard him speaking to visiting officials about the possibility of Egypt falling into rebel hands if Pharaoh didn’t take certain precautions. Tiy wondered how true his concerns were. Could the greatest nation be conquered? She doubted it. Pharaoh was too strong to let Egypt fall.
Tiy tried once again to glimpse the Beauties of Amun as it slipped down the river. She craned her neck to follow it, scowling when the servants stood on their toes or shifted their weight in front of her. She’d never get a good look from behind a swarm of people.
Without thinking, Tiy dashed along the Nile edge, her curiosity overpowering her common sense. She knew she should tell someone where she was going, but it would take precious time. She wouldn’t be gone long and doubted anyone would miss her. Her parents would talk about their brief sighting for hours, analyzing every moment and convincing themselves that Pharaoh had acknowledged them in one way or another. They were officials to the crown, after all!
Pushing through reeds and sprinting across green fields, Tiy followed the Beauties ofAmun as its massive stern left rolling waves in its wake. It was a good distance from her now, her only view being the muscular oarsmen positioned at the stern. She had no hope of catching up with the fleet, but she continued pushing forward. She wanted to glimpse the prince just one more time, curious to see if he had managed to stand as still as his father.
Tiy scrambled over a fence, one of the many on her family’s property, and dashed across the field. A herd of cattle watched her pass and, with the exception of their jaws grinding grass into mush, they remained motionless. A few bellowed, but most didn’t seem bothered by her flight, their food holding more interest than a simple girl.
She didn’t realize how far she had strayed until the terrain changed. Grass gave way to sand, and palms thinned to desert shrubs. The great desert invaded this area of the Nile with a never-quenching thirst. Nothing but thorns grew here, despite how far the floodwater reached up the banks. Sand dunes swelled in the short distance, the limestone cliffs rearing their faces behind them. With the shifting sands draining her energy, she struggled to keep up her pace, her legs burning with effort.
Shouts echoed from the Nile.
Tiy glanced up to see all the oarsmen on the Beauties of Amun waving their empty arms at the fleet vessels behind them. Shoaled into a mound of hidden sand, the royal barge laid as heavy and unmoving as a dead cow. Water lapped against the motionless hull and made splashing noises as it passed. They couldn’t have known the sandbar was there, the river bottom shifted as often as the sands of the desert.
With her eyes darting back and forth between the royal barge and the fast approaching fleet, Tiy didn’t notice the bush in front of her until she collided with its thorny branches. She pulled back a step and watched, waiting for the barge’s stern to twist to the side and free itself as she’d seen other vessels do. But the stern didn’t budge. The Nile swirled around the barge, frothing white with anger as it failed to move the obstruction from its path. Its watery strength proved too weak for the great Beauties of Amun and, just like Pharaoh and his son, the ship remained still.
Tiy rose onto the balls of her feet. She wanted to cry out a warning, a shout, anything to catch the attention of the oblivious vessels slicing their way toward the king and prince. She’d seen barges collide on the river before and almost always one or both ships were rent in two, their passengers swept into watery graves. If anything happened to Pharaoh and his heir, the Nubians would infest Egypt before the end of the season. Their way of life would be destroyed.
Tiy gripped the stems of the bush in front of her and jerked back as if singed by fire. Searing heat pulsated from the small wounds the thorns had inflicted, yet she didn’t dare take her eyes from the approaching fleet.
The oarsmen on the fleet vessels finally noticed the unmoving royal barge and heaved their shoulders against the weight of their heavy oars, desperate to steer their vessels away from Pharaoh. They worked in frenzied unison, their faces pulled in an odd mask of fear and concentration. Just when it appeared all would be lost, the oarsmen managed to maneuver their vessels at the last moment, sweeping past the shoaled barge with only inches to spare. It was a wonder they didn’t hit the sandbar as well.
Tiy breathed a sigh of relief. She examined her bleeding hands and, without thinking, wiped them against her white kalasiris. The stark contrast between her fine linen and the streaks of blood startled her. What was she thinking? She knew better than to soil her expensive clothing. Her mother was going to be furious with her.
Shouts filled the air once again. Tiy jerked her head up to see two more fleet vessels rounding the bend. Her eyes grew round as she sucked in an anxious breath. These vessels weren’t as large as the other ships but, they were wider and sat lower in the water. And they were traveling much too fast.
The oarsmen plunged their long oars into the Nile, but surprise and panic kept them from working in unison. Several oars collided with each another and snapped against the heavy current. Tiy cringed as the vessels’ thick bows continued to sail toward the exposed side of the royal barge.
Shouts turned to screams as several servants abandoned the Beauties of Amun, flinging themselves into the Nile and swimming to safety. The final two fleet vessels had no chance of turning in time, yet Pharaoh remained still.
Prince Amenhotep’s eyes scanned the chaotic scene, darting between the retreating servants and the oncoming vessels. The feather bearers remained near Pharaoh, their soothing motions frozen in time. A woman grabbed the prince’s arm, but he shook his head and looked to his father, his chin set in a way that meant he was determined to follow his father’s calm example.
Tiy ran toward the bank, wanting to scream at the prince. Did he think that by doing nothing all would be saved? What was he trying to prove? Tiy fell to her knees, a silent prayer to Hapi, the Nile god, stuck in her throat. A gruesome moaning filled the air as cedar slammed into cedar, hull against hull.