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whispers

So many pillows

(Karnak, Egypt, 1459 BC)

Waking late, Brenzel found her friends already up. Lying among the many cushions, she felt no eagerness to rise other than a slight hunger pang. Rolling from her back to her side, Brenzel grabbed a pillow and held it close. Different is normal now, she thought.

A child’s giggle caused her to roll over to the opposite side towards the door. “I told you!” one said, “Her hair is like gold!”

“Yes, spun from the sun!” the other agreed, as they both peered around the corner. Bren just stared, shocked by their presence. Children? for some reason, she’d just assumed there were no children in the royal harem; how could there be?

“Hello, little ones.” Shy, they ran away, laughing.

Brenzel dressed, then went outside into mid-morning. The palace, bustling with activity, seemed to flow like the Nile. After asking where the privy was, she walked around, exploring her new home.

No fuss

People noticed her, but didn’t make a fuss. Mostly women, but some men, walked here and there carrying food, others fabric, still others working together while moving heavier objects. Servants swept as naked children played (again, it seemed odd) and here and there women, of obvious authority and exceptional beauty, gave instructions.

One such lady, upon spying Bren looking around, came up, carrying a small jar held above her shoulder in one hand. Introducing herself, she said, “My name is Arinna, welcome to our home. You must be Brenzel.”

Bren, smiling, said, “Yes, thank you. Your home is so beautiful and large!” Indeed it was. The spacious courtyard, surrounded by brightly-colored columns, formed a long rectangle, which led, past two enormous statues through a to large opening to another courtyard where palm trees lined a large pond. On all sides smaller openings with cloth covers led to, what Bren assumed might be work spaces or storage, because people carried baskets and other things in and out regularly.

The lady before her, obviously not Egyptian, stood a little shorter than Brenzel, with dark brown hair and hazel eyes, her lips red and exquisitely defined. She wasn’t dressed like most other highborn ladies she’d seen, but in a type of material that Bren hadn’t noticed before in Egypt. The beautiful fabric, covering her head, sewn with jewels, lightly draped her shoulders, accentuating her form here and there with tucks and gathers as it wrapped around her body. Two large golden earrings graced her lobes; her gaze firm and serene. Something about her reminded Bren of the sea.

Arinna

One of the Saras came over, seeing Bren, saying “Good morning Mistress.” Arinna, looking at the tall black girl, smiled and introduced herself too, “You must be one of Brenzel’s handmaidens. I am Arinna.”

“Good morning. Mistress Arinna,” Sara smiled back. “I’m Sara 1.”

Arinna looked at the black girl and asked, “What?” Sara explained her designation, as Bren suddenly felt awkward.

Bren explained, “You see, there are two of them, identical twins – I don’t know how to tell them apart!”

“Oh,I see,” the slightly amused woman replied. “Why not just call you Sara and your sister Sari?” Arinna suggested. “Numbering seems – impersonal. Or maybe, you could wear earrings on opposite ears,” the lady of the house suggested.

“Mistress Arinna, my sister and I are Sara, it’s only for Mistress Brenzel’s convenience that we distinguish ourselves.” Thinking for a moment, the Nubian girl agreed, “I like your earring idea, though, it’s easier than telling Mistress Brenzel who I am every time I see her. We can do that for her, though we know who we are perfectly well. Someday I hope she will, too.

Bren thought to herself skeptically, I still can’t tell you apart after weeks of being with you, it’s like being drunk and seeing double.

Changing the topic, Bren asked, “where’s breakfast? I’m feeling famished!”

What lies beneath

The rest of the day went similarly. No one seemed particularly interested in the new arrival, other than politely introducing themselves at different times. Bren learned that there were two classes of harem girls at the “Great House,” as they called it. One group of three was the former wives of Hatshepsut’s father, Thutmose I, and the second group of seven, which included Bren, were slaves; Hatshepsut’s personal collection of foreign women, added as she fancied. The rest of the people – servants, guards, and scribes who came and went on a daily basis, serving the royal household.

Walking back at dusk to their quarters, after a lavish dinner with a group of the women, Bren said to the two Saras, “This is certainly a lot different than I imagined. Everyone seems so nice and down to earth, even the royal women.”

One of the Saras commented as the other nodded, “Mostly, people in the Royal Harem are nice, but do not let calm waters fool you, Mistress. Nothing a great house is ever as it seems. You must observe long and carefully to know what lies beneath.” Bren said nothing, simply noting the uncharacteristic sentiments of her girls.

Whispers in the dark

That night as Bren slept, her spirit woke to female voices whispering in the dark. It was a language she hadn’t heard before, but she instantly knew the meaning.

“Do you have it?

“No.”

“Why not?!”

“It – is difficult.”

“Senenmut leaves for the great cataracts soon! No more delays, this must done now! Remember your family! Go! Let Nehebkau guide you!”

Brenzel’s eyes opened suddenly in the stillness of her new quarters. The coolness of the predawn palace, the quiet before the day’s activity, all belied her feeling of danger. Was it is dream? Bren wondered. The women’s voices still seemed clear as crystal, as if she’d been standing right next to them – listening. One seemed older, the other younger, Bren pondered. As the girls slept peacefully, either side, Bren stared up at the ceiling wondering, what do they mean by, “do you have it”?.

Outside the golden gate

(Vatican City, 1690)

Standing with Cardinal Jenkins before a golden gate which led to Her Majesty’s chambers, Tim felt his skin crawl, cold and clammy. Despite the hot camel hair shirt her wore, which itched appropriately underneath his robe, he felt the chill of fear. It was one thing to know about Her Majesty, but quite another to contemplate standing in her presence.

Tim felt pulled every which way. My life is opposites, he thought ruefully. On one hand I’ve found true love and I’m about to be a father. On the other hand, I’m about to be examined by true evil and possibly killed. I’ve been such a fool. I thought I was helping the faithful, while all along the old man was grooming me as his replacement! Thinking back over the past 40 years, he felt like a piece of red-hot metal on a blacksmith’s anvil. A terrible purpose drove his mentor’s hammer, and that terrible purpose had beaten him into a weapon, but a weapon for who? Was he still on the side of good, or had he gradually become the evil he sought to destroy?

Nearly a day before, in his study, the old man instructed, “It is okay to hate or fear her. She understands these human emotions very well and, oddly enough, trusts them. Remember, Her Majesty has no empathy or sympathy…at all. You are simply a means to her end. Do not look at her unless she demands it. Perform well and live; disappoint and die.”

Heads may roll

“How will I manage this? I was there when she entered the great hall, and it was all I could do not to look!” Tim protested, remembering the grisly sight of a head rolling past him as he knelt.

Cardinal Jenkins reassured, “She will not be in her true form when you meet her, it is only an image she uses to communicate with us. She will not feel the same at all. Having said that, Timothy, her form is quite, um… let me just say “revealing.” It will shock you, but don’t show it. You life depends on it.”

The Cardinal, sitting at his desk, picked up a red apple from the plate and began to eat it with a crunch.

“That’s all? Why not just tell me what she looks like? Forewarn me, Father, prepare me, please, I must know what to expect! For God’s sake, why be so obtuse about this?”

I’ve prepared you

Now, almost 24 hours later, in front of the golden gate in the basement of the Vatican, Jenkins grabbed Tim’s hands, saying, “I sorry lad, if there was any other way. . . .I’ve honed you into an instrument of destruction. I’ve prepared you as much as possible, young Timothy. You are hard as flint, sharper than a serpent’s tooth, a viper among vipers. I…I may have lost my way – it’s all becoming unclear as my eyes grow dim, but you’re not lost. You have someone to live for. . .” he said, his voice trailing off.

For a moment Tim stared into the old priest’s troubled eyes and saw the enormous burden on his shoulders. Instead of feeling anger, Tim’s heart felt a flood of compassion for the old man who was as close to a father as he’d known since his own father passed away. Resisting the urge to hug him, Tim took the old man’s hands in return and said, “I can’t pretend to understand you, Father, but I don’t judge you, either. There is something – something I’m sure about that doesn’t make any sense. I know you are not evil,” Tim said, as if a light from heaven had just illuminated the man’s soul.

Bless you my son

Visibly moved, Jenkins stood up a bit straighter and said, “Bless you my son.”

Now a faint smell, like rotten eggs, shocked Tim, drawing his attention back to the gold gate. The heavy scent of incense, burned continually in underground Chapel, couldn’t overcome it. The big priest stiffened as the gate swung open by itself and the smell of sulfur grew stronger. Every fiber of his body rejected his mind’s command to follow the ancient cardinal into, what for all intents and purposes was, the mouth of Hades. After a long moment, a sultry voice said, “Greetings Cardianl Jenkins. You may enter – and your apprentice.”

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