THE LOTUS POOL

  Nofret sat at the edge of the lotus pool, gazing desolately into its depths. She sighed and tried to swallow the block of granite lodged in her throat.
  A fat fish caught her gaze. Its scales were a deep red gold, reminding her of the richness of her father’s throne.
  The fish’s big body gleamed as it darted in and out of the papyrus reeds, as though it were playing hide and seek. 
  Nofret wished she had been born a fish—all they did was play. They knew nothing of fear, envy or hatred.
  But then, neither did they know love. How it felt to be held in a lover’s arms; how wondrous to be pressed against a beloved’s body, even though it had to be accomplished in secret, hidden from court spies.
  Nofret lost sight of the fish and felt as though she had lost a friend. Blinking furiously, she wondered if the fish had turned its back on her.
  She sighed and looked toward the door. Two guards stood stiff-backed, staring straight ahead of them, not daring to look on Pharaoh’s youngest daughter.
  Kenamun had dared and now he was to die. Her heart squeezed painfully. She tried not to think the worst but only death could come of their love.
  Nofret hugged her arms tightly about her and shivered, despite the heat, and returned her attention to the pool. Watching the fish briefly eased her mind of the interrogation, but it couldn’t ease the pain in her heart.
  Would he be whipped first? Humiliated in front of the whole of Thebes?
  She chewed her lip, imagining Kenamun’s beautiful, muscular back like burnished bronze laid open by the lash until he begged to die.
  Perhaps he was already dead!
  Whatever happened, Nofret knew she had looked upon the handsome face of her lover for the last time.
  Her face stared back at her from the surface of the pool, reflecting her deep unhappiness. Her white dress of fine linen looked like a shroud; her eyes, heavily accented with kohl, appeared as great black tears; her long black hair, plaited and scented with sandalwood, looked unkempt.
  Above her head, the reflection of the sun god, the holy Amun, hurt her eyes.
  Perhaps if she appealed to the god he would spare her beloved’s life.
  Nofret dragged a deep breath. “Mighty Amun, giver of all life, thou who fillest every land with beauty, hear my prayer.”
  A hand on her shoulder made her start. “Nofret. Dear one.” The voice was gentle.
  Nofret looked up.
  It was time.
  She stood and looked at the sad face of her old nurse. “What is happening?”
  The nurse smiled. “I know not. I was told to bring you.”
  Nofret smoothed the pleats of her skirt, her arms jangling with gold bracelets, then adjusted her bodice. She stood patiently while the nurse arranged the shimmering trails of beaten gold that hung from the diadem in her hair.
  Though heartsick and deeply in love, Nofret knew her duty; it had been drilled into her since infancy. The daughter of Pharaoh would never allow the court, or the servants, to see her looking like anything other than what she was—a royal princess.
  “Are you ready, precious one?”
  What choice do I have? She lifted her chin and drew in a long, steadying breath. “I’m ready.”
  The nurse offered her hand and Nofret clung to it until they reached the door.
  Although her legs felt as weak as water, Nofret walked along the passage with all the dignity she could muster. Her bare feet made no sound on the polished marble floor as she headed toward her father’s apartments. How she wished she could take the nurse with her.
  But that was childish, she rebuked herself. She was a full sixteen inundations and no longer in need of a nurse.
  It was Kenamun she needed. Needed to feel his arms about her; needed his lips on hers; needed his limbs entwined with hers after making love.
  But he was lost to her.
  All she could do now was await her father’s punishment. She didn’t care what it was. If it was death, then so be it. Death was preferable to life without Kenamun.
  Briefly, her spirits brightened. If he was already dead, and if she was to die, then they would be together throughout eternity.
  She sent a silent prayer to the god of the underworld. “Anubis, if he is with you, keep him safe until I join him.”
  Then she was at the doors of her father’s apartments. They were gold-plated and decorated with protective gods embellished with lapis lazuli, turquoise, and rose quartz.
  Two male servants dressed in short, white kilts swung back the great doors.
  Nofret entered and the servants were dismissed.
  Her heart was in her mouth as her father, the great Tuthmosis III, devoid of his royal regalia and dressed only in his white kilt and king’s collar, glowered at her. Beside the Pharaoh stood Rekhmire, the grand vizier.
  “Stand before me, daughter.”
  Her heart hammering, Nofret did as she was bid.
  “What am I to do with you?”
  Plunge your dagger into my heart. “It is not for me to tell Pharaoh his duty.”
  He stroked his chin. “Hmm.”
  Tuthmosis clapped his hands and three men stepped from behind a curtain. Two soldiers, and between them, the man she loved.
  Nofret’s heart soared as she stared at him. “Kenamun! You’re alive!”
  Never again had she expected to see his broad, muscled chest and strong arms fashioned by military training. She wanted to feel those arms around her, and ran to him before the vizier could stop her. She threw her arms around his neck. What difference would it make? They were doomed.
  Kenamun couldn’t hold her; his arms were chained behind his back.
  Nofret pressed her cheek against his chest, even though the dank stench of dungeons clung to his skin. He had been held there a full two days while Pharaoh decided what he should do.
  “Love, leave me. Denounce me,” Kenamun begged in a whisper. “Your father will be lenient with you if you denounce me now.”
  She looked deep into his eyes, eyes as black and soft as the desert night, and thought her heart would break. “Never! I have no wish to live without you.”
  She reached up and pressed her lips to his, incurring Pharaoh’s anger.
  “Nofret!”
  Tears welled in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks. Her legs gave way and she slid down the length of Kenamun’s hard body, falling at his feet.
  “Get up!” Pharaoh ordered.
  She struggled to rise, her gaze lingering on Kenamun’s beloved face, then turned and stood before her father.
  “No daughter of mine shall grovel at the feet of a common soldier.”
  “I would kiss his feet if he asked it. We love each other.”
  “By the gods!” Tuthmosis burst out, and paced the room, running his hand over his shaven head before planting his hands squarely on his hips. “Bring him forward.”
  Kenamum was shoved toward Pharaoh, but his eyes were only for Nofret.
  “What have you to say?”
  Kenamun knew what he must do. He straightened his back and dared to look his Pharaoh in the eye. It didn’t matter what he did now, the result would be the same.
  Many times he had told Nofret he would lay down his life for her; now it was time to keep that promise. If the last thing he could do for her was set her free, then he would do it willingly. She was young; she would forget him eventually.
  “Lord, it is not quite as Nofret says.”
  Tuthmosis narrowed his eyes. “It isn’t?”
  “No, my lord.”
  “Explain.”
  Forgive me, my love.
  “Nofret loves me.” He swallowed—hard. “But I do not love her.” He hoped his voice sounded strong. He dared not look at Nofret, even though he heard the strangled sound that came from her.
  “Kenamun! What are you saying?”
  “Quiet, Nofret!” Tuthmosis yelled. “Go on.”
  “I—pursued her, lord. She could not hide the fact that she found me handsome to look upon.” He forced a laugh. “Many women do, sir, but never a lady so high-born. I took advantage of it.”
  Tuthmosis lifted his eyebrows.
  Kenamun swallowed again. There was no turning back. He was already dead. He drew himself to his full height. “I was flattered by her attention and thought it might advance my career faster to please a lady so noble.”
  “Kenamun! That isn’t true,” Nofret said. He ignored her.
  “You are ambitious?” Tuthmosis asked.
  “Very, my lord.”
  “That isn’t true,” Nofret yelled. “He’s lying to protect me.”
  Nofret stared at Kenamun, pleading with her eyes, but he looked at the ground and studied his bare toes.
  Tuthmosis nodded, then frowned as he looked from the magnificent young soldier to his daughter and back again. “You are saying that you used my daughter for your own gain?”
  Kenamun’s mouth went dry as he looked back at Pharaoh. “Yes, Divine One.”
  “What you have admitted to me has taken great courage.”
  Kenamun didn’t feel courageous. His heart thudded against his ribs so hard he was surprised Pharaoh couldn’t see it. But Nofret’s life was at stake. He hoped the gods were guiding him to say the right things. “When a man is to die, he must tell the truth, lord.”
  “Why?”
  Kenamun frowned. “Pharaoh?”
  “Why aren’t you on your knees begging for your life?”
  “It would serve no purpose, lord. Pharaoh’s justice will prevail.”
  Tuthmosis took a step toward him, enraged. “By the gods, but you are arrogant!”
  Kenamun hoped that when he came face-to-face with Anubis in the underworld and his heart was weighed against the feather of justice, these lies would count in his favour.
  The king sighed. “What shall I do with him, Vizier?”
  “Don’t ask him,” Nofret begged.
  The king turned on her. “Very well, daughter. I shall ask the advice of another.” One black eyebrow lifted in an otherwise immobile face. “Since you are the one who was wronged, you shall choose his punishment.”
  Nofret thought her heart would stop. “Me?”
  “You have heard him admit he used you.”
  “He lied!”
  “To Pharaoh?” he thundered.
  “Yes—no—I—”
  Rekhmire shuffled forward. “Majesty. Permit me, but to make Nofret choose would be cruel. She is an innocent and she has suffered enough because of this man’s treachery. Pharaoh is a fair man, a just man, even under such trying circumstances as these.”
  Tuthmosis turned to his vizier. “All right, adviser. Advise me.”
  “If I might speak with you in private, Lord Pharaoh.”
  The two adjourned to the far side of the chamber, leaving Nofret and Kenamun to look at each other for the last time.
  Her eyes drank him in; the hard, drawn lines in his handsome face, now grim with sorrow and despair. His dark eyes with thick black lashes that could set her belly on fire with one smoldering look. She thought of the times they had been together, hidden away from the world. They had talked, laughed, and made love.
  He was a gentle lover; tender, considerate yet passionate. They had known their love was doomed from the start but they couldn’t help themselves. She was the youngest daughter of Pharaoh; he a mere lieutenant in her father’s army. Now he stood before her, stripped of his rank, his strong arms in chains. He looked so grand in his uniform but now he wore nothing but a dirty loincloth about his hips—and he was still the most beautiful man in the world.
  Tuthmosis and the vizier came back.
  “Stand before me,” Pharaoh ordered.
  Kenamun was marched forward. Tuthmosis looked him in the eye. “You will not meet Anubis this day.”
  “Pharaoh is merciful.”
  Nofret gasped.
  “You will be sent to the salt mines in Sinai where you will learn humility working alongside other slaves; men who sweat and toil in the honest service of Pharaoh.”
  “No!” It was Nofret.
  Her father rounded on her. “And you,” he said dispassionately, “will dedicate your life to the temple.”

*   *   *
    
  Nofret sat on the edge of the lotus pool, searching for her friend the fish, but if he was there, he was hiding from her.
  The thought of Kenamun wasting away in Sinai had tortured her soul for seven days. It was hard, hot work, toiling relentlessly under the merciless sun. She wondered which would break first, his back or his spirit.
  Life at the palace went on as though he had never existed and Nofret knew he had also been banished from peoples’ minds. No one was allowed to speak his name.
  Nofret’s appetite had gone, despite all the interesting tastes the cooks tried to tempt her palate.
  There was nothing more than a gaping hole where her heart should be. But why did a hole hurt so much?
  Plop!
  The sound caught her attention and she looked into the water. Her fish had come to say hello. She smiled. How she would love to go down to the bottom with him and never come up again. For one fleeting moment she considered the oblivion of drowning, but her love for Kenamun stopped her.
  While they both lived, there was hope, however remote. What if he escaped? What if he came to carry her away and she was dead?
  No, she decided, she must be as brave as he—and hope. He had lied to save her; she could not dishonor him by throwing his gift away. They could still be lovers in their minds. Across the miles and across time, nothing could take that from them, not even the temple priestesses.
  In a few more days she would begin her training.
  A face appeared in the water beside her reflection, making her start. “Daughter.”
  Nofret stood and bowed. “Father.”
  “What are you looking at?” Tuthmosis asked.
  “The fish. The fat one there. Look. He has become my friend.”
  Tuthmosis laughed. “Nonsense. How can a fish be your friend?”
  She didn’t dare tell him that the fish was the only living thing to whom she dared mention Kenamun, and that it helped to ease a little of her pain.
  “He’s probably looking for food—unlike my youngest daughter I hear.”
  “I have no appetite.”
  “That troubles me. You are wasting away. You have eaten nothing for days.” Tuthmosis held out his hand to her. “Walk with me.”
  Startled, Nofret gasped.
  “Is something wrong?” he asked.
  “You are Pharaoh. You are divine, a living god. How dare I touch you?”
  Her father smiled. “You are my youngest daughter and we are not in court now. Come.”
  She took the proffered hand. Not expecting to find strength and comfort there but she did. “I did not mean to be the source of trouble for you, Father.”
  “Father.” He paused as though pondering the word. “That’s what I’m called, isn’t it? The father of my people. I am called a fair and just ruler, and yet...”
  Nofret waited, aware she was holding her breath.
  “Was I fair to you? The fruit if my own loins? And Kenamun?”
  Again, she gasped. His name was forbidden. “I don’t understand.”
  “The things he said have plagued my mind. He admitted to a heinous crime, but you said he lied. He dared lie to Pharaoh. Why would a man do that unless he hoped to save his own skin? But he did not. He lied to save yours. I have great respect for such courage. It is as you said.” The king stopped walking and gave his daughter a gentle smile. “And I saw the way he looked at you—even as he lied.”
  Nofret swallowed and they began walking again.
  She was about to speak but Tuthmosis went on. “You are the youngest of five daughters. Unless your sisters all die in some unforeseen accident, you will never be throne princess. I have asked advice of the gods and they say this will not happen. Therefore, whomever you choose, can be no threat to me.”
  Whomever she chose? What about the temple?
  They came to a halt and Nofret realized they were in the Royal Garden, the part of the estate where no one other than the royal family, or the gardeners, was allowed on pain of death.
  Tuthmosis let go of her hand and smiled at her.
  If her lover could be brave, she thought, then so could she. “Father, what of Kenamun?”
  “He may answer that for himself.”
  “Nofret.”
  She spun round in surprise at the sound of the soft voice. “Kenamun!”
  About to run to him, Nofret remembered what she had done and turned to face her father. “Pharaoh! Forgive me. I did not mean to turn my back without permission.”
  He laughed. “You are forgiven, this once.” He took her hand and gave it to Kenamun. “Take her, Captain, before she further insults my divine person.”
  Tuthmosis laughed and turned away. “You may remain here. You will not be disturbed.”
  Nofret thought her heart would burst as Kenamun held her. To feel the strength of his arms again; his mouth devouring hers again. But she pulled away from him. “Captain?”
  He grinned. “Your father promoted me this morning. He said that any rank lower would not befit the husband of Pharaoh’s daughter.”
  Nofret could hardly speak through the tears of happiness in her throat. “Husband?”
  Kenamun looked into her eyes. “If that is what you want, love.”
  “I want that more than anything in the world.”
  “More than the throne?”
  She kissed him. “You are the king of my heart.”
  “More than the riches of the East?”
  “Your kiss, your touch, are the treasures of my life.”
  “Our home will be more humble than this.”
  “Our love will make it a palace.”
  He held her close against his hard body and kissed her with all the passion of one who thought he had lost his love forever.
  Finally he came up for air. “Nofret. Will you be my wife?”
  “Yes, Kenamun. In this world - and the next.”


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