The ritual had become intolerable: the priests droning outside the solar chapel, the sweltering braziers piled with flame, the incense coating the inside of her mouth as she gasped through the sacred movements—again, again—her limbs heavy, mind thick with exhaustion, thick with the sound of the ritual chants, thick with so much consecrated wine ceremonially swallowed. Again, again. At the end of each repetition she was empty, hollowed out by the long night, the endless choreography, the liturgy she’d intoned so many times that it too was empty; as meaningless as the constant murmuring of the Nile against its banks. Then there came another beginning, and she continued. Again. Again. Until all that remained was the ritual and her aching desire to see her father once more, growing to desperation with each repetition of the dance.
Any moment now the sun-disk would break the horizon and Amun would climax, the spirit would take her, and her father—her father the god, Amun, but also her father the great pharaoh Aakheperkara Thutmose—would appear before her, her dynasty incarnate, embodying an unbroken line between the gods and man like a column of light reaching from the earth to the heavens. The Spirit of Kingship would greet her, would whisper to her the secrets of pharaohs past, and she would be imbued with the all wisdom of her god-king-father.
At least, she thought that’s how it was supposed work.
She hadn’t thought to ask her father, when he was alive. One thing among a million things: what’s it actually like to be pharaoh? To be a god? She wouldn’t have bothered to ask the next Thutmose, the Younger Thutmose, her brother-husband, who’d never had anything useful to say anyway. He was dead too now, so too late for that. The current Thutmose, Little Thutmose, pharaoh-to-be, was useless; a child frequently a stone’s throw from death. He was ill again today, feverish and thrashing in his insipid mother’s lap. He had most certainly never been visited by the Spirit of Kingship. She couldn’t imagine the gods tolerating his whining.
Her father’s great dynasty, sacred to Amun and guided by the hand of the gods, stood shakily on those scrawny legs. Nobody wanted a child-king, though her Theban court wanted the violence and upheaval of a new dynasty even less.
So they would have to settle for her.
She was different. She was distinguished by the oracles. She spoke to the gods, who descended on her in disorienting, frightening fits that made her vision blank out and caused her to fall down. As God’s Wife of Amun she had been closer to the gods than any man on earth. Except for the pharaoh. Now she would be that, too.
Behind her, Nefrure, her daughter, the new God’s Wife of Amun, shook her sistrum like she might also have a fit. Just as she’d been taught. She remembered teaching that skill to Nefrure, so young then that she needed both hands to hold the instrument; showing her how to spasm her little body to make Amun reach his climax.
The barest bright sliver leaked into the solar chapel to slide across the stone wall. The Spirit was approaching; she could feel it. Her limbs quivered with exhaustion and her vision blurred. She collapsed before the figure of Amun in his shrine. Her sweaty forehead plastered against the cold stone floor, rocking as her lungs heaved. But she was not going to faint. Good. Around her the priest’s chanting and the banging of sistrums got louder and louder.
She rose from the floor before the shrine of her father, the great god Amun; raised her arms and turned to face the sun-disc as it rose over the Pylon of Djoserkara Amenhotep. She saw something flicker, backlit against the sun: some shadowy creature, birdlike, gathering itself on broad wings to hover above the chapel. Her pulse stuttered in her throat. Was this her father, the Great Thutmose, arriving in the barge of the sun?
Light slipped down the chapel columns toward her. The priests prostrated themselves, chanting with renewed vigor at the mystic sight of the sun-god descending to bestow the name upon the new pharaoh, or perhaps at the glimpse of the end of their long night of toil. Behind them, on the far side of the courtyard, the dark shape she’d spotted clattered down onto the roof of the hypostyle hall. It gave the impression of great claws, powerful wings. The hint of a human face in profile. She tried not to turn her head toward it. Her father, the Spirit of Kingship, come as a hawk? He’d arrived just in time to see her transform. She was hot with pride.
Then the sunlight was full in her eyes, and she was Pharaoh: she of the Sedge and the Bee, King of the Black Land and the Red, Flourishing of Years, Divine of Appearance, Maatkara Hatshepsut. Transformed by the sun and the Spirit of Kingship, which was sitting there in person on the roof across the courtyard. Nefrure banged the sistrum hard and harder and then dropped it and collapsed to her knees.
Now Hatshepsut was king. She didn’t feel any different.
The solar chapel was silent. The chief priest rose from the stones with his arms lifted in veneration and proclaimed all her names. Get on with it, get on with it. He began another hymn. Hatshepsut kept her eyes raised to the sky, trying not to squint. The bird shifted on the roof, a dark shape among the morning shadows. Maybe her father would speak now, to all of them. Maybe he would wait until the end of all the interminable rituals. Too long, too far away.
She needed some fucking answers.
It wasn’t really one specific question she had. More a general sense of unease, the presence of potential calamity far-off and waiting; a feeling of something lacking. That she was not enough. She needed the Spirit of Kingship to tell her what the fuck it was that would make her the king her father’s dynasty needed; what she was missing. Besides a penis.
The bird-creature spread its wings and flew to the pylon gate. It landed heavily, in full sunlight. Hatshepsut had been thrumming with godhood and ceremonial wine, but her body went suddenly, carefully still. Her stomach clenched. She was going to vomit. No, not now.
It wasn’t a hawk or eagle or vulture. It was a ba-bird. And not Great Thutmose’s ba-bird. Not even Younger Thutmose’s. It wore the face of some woman she didn’t even recognize. It was not the Spirit of Kingship at all; no messenger come to her aid. Just some errant ghost. She could have wailed, or screamed. Except she absolutely couldn’t.
The priests rose, chanting, to proceed out from the chapel. Hatshepsut followed automatically. She felt numb, slapped stupid. Nefrure recovered from her swoon and fell in behind, again banging her sistrum. As Hatshepsut neared the pylon gate she watched the bird without turning her face. From the dark mass of its body it grew a pair of arms, which extended toward her with flattened hands. In veneration? Or just a greeting?
Maybe the Spirit of Kingship would still come. Maybe he was waiting just around the corner, in the form of a falcon, in the form of her father.
She followed the procession of priests proclaiming her king-names beneath the pylon gate, cutting off her view of the ba-bird.
Hatshepsut, Pharaoh, walked forward into the first sunrise of her kingship, heartsick and alone.
You are God’s Wife of Amun. You are King’s Daughter, King’s Sister, you are Great Royal Wife. You are King Regent.
The fucking ba-bird was still following her. It had trailed her from Karnak all the way back to the palace’s great banqueting hall. Nobody else seemed to notice it. She got the impression that it was only visible to her.
Now the tables were laden for her naming feast. Roast oryx and gazelle, fish and goose and dates and melons and cakes and breads. All the dishes elaborately dressed, all going down the gullets of elaborately-dressed courtiers. Administrators and bureaucrats and the very wealthy or very important, draped in linen and hammered gold, lapis and turquoise and silver. They cackled and preened and simpered and babbled like ducks among reeds. Hatshepsut stared out over their heads, controlling her expression.
You are Pharaoh. Comport yourself like the near-god you are.
She did not look to where the ba-bird sat just inside the great court’s gate, sulking like a dog. Every time her gaze wandered toward it she felt her composure waver.
A small cat with a very large belly trotted between the banquet table and Hatshepsut’s dais. Pregnant, full of kittens. Hatshepsut glanced down long enough to toss a piece of fish into its path: an offering to the goddess Bast, Lady Devourer. The cat darted away from the missile, then paused as the smell caught up with it. It dashed back to snatch the food away to somewhere less conspicuous for eating.
All these people, their perfumes and wigs and jewelry. Most of them Hatshepsut had known since she was a child. She’d taken a king’s name because they wanted it; Useramen wanted it and the wealthy families of the court wanted it. Great and powerful men wanted to stay great and powerful. Little Thutmose couldn’t keep them there; he could hardly lift his fevered head off his pillow. If he died there would be no king, no heir. Only Hatshepsut, King’s Regent, now king, and a woman. It was important no one doubt that she possessed the Spirit of Kingship. Kings did not second-guess or worry. When she had the Spirit of Kingship upon her, she wouldn’t either. She thought of her father Thutmose’s sarcophagus. Regal, timeless. Look like that.
A woman king: who knew what the gods would think of that? They might turn their back. Useramen had decided it was worth the risk. Despite their recent arguments, Hatshepsut had still trusted his judgment enough to let him push her toward the throne.
Then some rich merchant in Memphis—a rope merchant, of all things—started calling himself Horus Incarnate. He’d given out enough pots of beer that he’d gotten some people, some whole guilds even, to call him that too, and then gangs of men wearing his falcon badge had raided the storehouses of some northern mines. That’s what had done it. Better to slip Hatshepsut into place as co-king now, in case Little Thutmose died and more people got ideas.
Useramen had a thousand soldiers ready and waiting to travel down the Nile, find the rope merchant would-be usurper, and cut him into food for jackals. But he’d stayed to make sure Hatshepsut took the throne without trouble. He was watching her now from the far side of the courtyard, eyes dark as bitumen, as though she might accidentally slip and tumble from the dais and back into the regency. As if his gaze were the only thing keeping her there.
She pretended she didn’t see him watching, pretended didn’t see the sullen ba-bird, pretended to enjoy the harpists and drums and acrobats and honeyed cakes and roast ox and the wine, as though she wasn’t still numb with wine from the night’s feverish ritual. As she rose to speak she imagined the moment cut bas-relief into stone: some upstart proclaiming before the court that she was the Horus falcon, she was the Great Bull of Heaven, she was the so on and so on.
The ba-bird disappeared as the interminable celebrations went on and day faded to evening, but when Hatshepsut retired for the night it landed in the arcade outside her bedchamber. What did it want? She glared at its silhouette on the loose linen curtains as her women scraped dusty oil from her skin and bathed her feet, rubbed fresh oil into her arms and legs, draped a shift around her and combed out and perfumed her hair. Glared as she lay against the headrest and waited for the thrumming in her skin to fade.
Why the fuck was it following her?
After time had passed and her household was settled silent around her, she whispered to the silhouette of the bird-ghost in the alcove. “Well? Why are you following me?” Silence. Without hope, but because she had to try, she invoked: “Aakheperkara Thutmose, I beg you speak.”
But it was not her father Aakheperkara Thutmose, and it offered her no reply. She wasn’t sure if it was even able to speak. If she knew its name she could invoke it, and then it would have to talk, but she didn’t know its name and wasn’t sure she cared to learn it. In the dark, Hatshepsut could feel the stare of its big, judging, kohl-blackened eyes.
Donkey fuck that ba-bird. Where was Great Thutmose, her venerable father? Where was this Spirit of Kingship that was supposed to tell her what to do to make herself truly king? Were the texts wrong? Had Useramen misled her?
She did not sleep, sensing the ba-bird in her arcade, listening to night insects and feeling the breeze brush her skin. Anger turned in her like a shaduf, dumping bucket after bucket into the thirsty soil of her mind. And then she did sleep, though little good it did.
The morning came without any wailing proclamation of Little Thutmose’s death, and so it was business as usual, for one more day at least. Pharaoh or not, Hatshepsut had been wearing the vulture crown for over a year and had managed the king’s business—two kings, first her brother-husband’s and now the child Little Thutmose’s—since she was sixteen. Half her life she’d been regent of the king. All that yesterday had changed was her name.
The ba-bird waddled after her procession, its stubby feet scraping the floors. Why, why was it still following her? It wasn’t the Spirit of Kingship, so what the fuck did it want with her?
Useramen was waiting outside the audience chamber. He followed her procession through the dim rows of enormous papyrus- and sedge-stem columns lit by smoky torches. His lips worked like he was chewing something, like a horse working its bit, though all that was in his mouth was his own impatience.
Senenmut trailed Useramen, demure next to him. Ugly, too, with duck-bill lips and too-long nose, like a statue that had been overworked. He was always there, ostentatiously humble, always deferential to the men around him who had been born to their places rather than clawed there through the mud. Hatshepsut knew him better. He hoarded their moments alone, when secrets were whispered, when she leaned on his practical and canny mind. His pride was secret, though not to her.
Hatshepsut knew her advisors conspired against each other, even while working together. She preferred it this way.
No-one in her coterie turned their heads to the dark space beyond the columns where the ba-bird settled to brood. Eventually it would either speak or go away. She wished it would hurry up and decide, so she could be rid of it.
She reached the dais where her new, taller, gilded throne sat, next to Little Thutmose’s empty one. She sat. Useramen bent to his aging knees. Square-jawed, flat-skulled, head like a block of granite beneath his elaborate wig. He’d served Hatshepsut’s father, and in many ways he still served Great Thutmose, or his memory. Senenmut dropped lightly to the ground beside him. They bowed low.
“Beneficent pharaoh,” Useramen said in his deep monotone, one hand bracing himself on the stones. “Oh lawgiver who judges deeds, she of the falcon who—”
“Don’t,” Hatshepsut said, raising a hand. “I had enough of that yesterday.”
Useramen pushed himself to his feet, too dignified to smooth one loose black braid into place. Senenmut waited until he was upright and then rose as well.
“Well,” Useramen said. “What wisdom has your father brought you from the gods?”
She had to tell him something. She thought of her father’s sarcophagus again, those empty far-seeing eyes. She stopped herself from clearing her throat. “The gods speak only to the ears of the divine.”
I can’t tell you wasn’t going to cut it. Of course he would push back.
Useramen looked appalled. Stone-faced, Hatshepsut tried to look down on him as though he were any common man. Not her vizier. Not financier, governor, most powerful man in the land. Not the reason she was up here in the first place.
His already-flat lips pressed together into a tight little frown. “Of course, great lord. We, your servants, await your commands.” The way he said it made it clear that they, her servants, weren’t going to wait very long. When Hatshepsut didn’t respond, Useramen said, “Regarding rewarding the loyal families of your noble court with temple lands. The Spirit of Kingship—“
“I still don’t like that plan.”
Useramen startled. “Well,” he said, “what did your father say about it?”
Great Thutmose had been dead for fifteen years. They had all survived fine without him. But now, through her, Useramen had access to the Spirit of Kingship, or thought he did. She couldn’t blame him; she wanted her father’s advice as much as Useramen did.
Ten years ago Hatshepsut would have told both of them the truth. “I’ll tell you,” she said. “When I can. I’m still... parsing it out.”
Useramen and Senenmut exchanged a glance. “We have much to plan,” he said. “If you share the guidance—”
She raised a hand. “The will of Amun, my divine father, begetter of the Bull of Egypt, sire of Thutmose and all royal sons and daughters, is shrouded to those without divinity.”
It shut him up, but Useramen’s expression darkened. The obvious dismissal made him suspicious. Senenmut watched both of them like he was watching a wrestling match.
“As you say,” she said, “we have much to plan. When do you sail to Memphis?”
Reluctantly, Useramen replied. “This afternoon, great lord.”
“Which granary supplies your soldiers?”
He followed the topic change reluctantly. They discussed the retaliatory campaign against the upstart rope merchant and the security of the northern copper mines. “The northern mines will be safe once I have destroyed this usurper. But what of the mine at the fourth cataract? Kush spilled the foreman’s entrails and took all our workers slaves.” As nominally Vizier of the South—though in practice he was vizier of everything—Useramen took slights by the Kushites somewhat personally. Fury danced in his dark eyes. “We must pierce Kush with our arrows. They harass our fort at Napata and stir unrest in the streets of Meroe. As your father knew many times over, Kush must be reminded to whom the gods speak.”
Another idea she wasn’t keen on. The Great Thutmose had always been riding off to shoot arrows into Kushites, smiting left and right. It was a pastime he seemed to derive pleasure from. Hatshepsut didn’t see any joy in it. Plus, she had little trust for martial spirit, especially if Useramen was at the head of it.
“I must speak with Senenmut,” she said. “We will not discuss Kush today. Go well, Useramen. Smite our enemy.”
He bowed out of the room with a look on his face like he’d broken a tooth. Senenmut waited until Useramen was gone before he spoke. “My king. What’s wrong?”
Hatshepsut shook her head. As much as she wanted to tell, if just to unload some of her own anxiety, the danger in admitting that the Spirit had not come to her was simply too great. She needed time to think.
She asked, “How’s Little Thutmose?”
Senenmut averted his gaze, though Hatshepsut could see his pleasure. She knew he liked being asked about the royal family. It reminded both of them how indispensable he was, how close. Hatshepsut wished it was as easy to please her other courtiers.
Senenmut had grown up in a mudbrick hut below the Nile’s inundation line, where everything his family managed to scrape together was swept away yearly with the floods. He still spoke with a hint of his lazy-voweled boyhood accent. Pruned, but always there. “He is still feverish, but well enough to begin demanding honey in his milk. Just yesterday they could barely get him to swallow. The coughing isn’t as bad.”
“Hmm,” Hatshepsut said. Then added, “good.” She thought for a moment; caught her gaze wandering towards the bird-ghost, which was watching her from the shadows. “If he’s well enough, he will have to attend the temple rites tomorrow morning.”
Senenmut saw her hint. “We should safeguard his health,” he said. “He should stay inside the palace walls. If you would like, my king, I could have the oracle consulted regarding his health. The gods may advise that Thutmose remain in the care of his nurses and mother for many days.”
That would be convenient. “If the gods so will it,” she said, trusting he’d understand. “Have a sacrifice made. And send someone to the priests in the temple of Mut with beer from my brewers.”
There was one additional matter. One perhaps too dangerous to command, though Senenmut would obey. She had not decided if she would ask it until that moment, when she was already asking, the words already out of her mouth.
“You must make another errand for me. This afternoon, when the court withdraws to rest, you must bring an offering to the tomb of Aakheperkara Thutmose.” It was already a strange request, since offerings were usually made at the mortuary temple. The king’s grave itself was rarely visited; better not to remind people where all those expensive grave goods were hidden. She slid a rolled slip of papyrus into his hand. “I have written for you the letter to inscribe into the offering-bowl. Do it with your own hand and show no-one. You must go yourself. Go alone.”
A more suspicious set of instructions could hardly be given. Senenmut glanced at the coil of papyrus and then looked Hatshepsut in the eye. An indiscretion; he quickly looked away. An offering at her father’s grave, a letter in the offering-bowl: she had as good as told him that her father had not come to her. But she had not said it, and would not say it; he could suspect but not confirm. Hatshepsut’s insides coiled and knotted like a nest of cobras. You couldn’t unspeak words, even if you were king.
She trusted Senenmut. Mostly. These men, Senenmut the High Steward of the King, Useramen the Vizier of the South, they belonged to her. But people only ever belonged to her the way a cat might belong to her: obliquely, and with no guarantees.
She needed the guidance of her father; someone to tell her what it was that she lacked. Perhaps he had not sensed that he was needed. If she appealed to his spirit directly, he might come to her in her dreams and give her kingship his blessing there.
Outside the hall there was a flash of white robes: the Amun cultists come to escort her to the day’s temple rites. There was still much to do in order to become Pharaoh. The rituals would continue for months.
She waved Senenmut to his feet. He stood, his head bowed, and offered his hand to help Hatshepsut from her throne. In the shadows she saw the ba-bird shift, preparing to follow.
“It will be done, Beneficent One,” Senenmut said.
“And let me know what the oracle says.” She hurried to join the priests, hoping the slow-waddling ba-bird would give up trying to follow.
The sun was brutal. Not everyday-brutal, but the special kind reserved for certain days before the equinox when the birds fell silent and no breeze touched the heavy-headed barley. The kind of day that crept past like the ticking of scorpion feet. When even the cattle in their miserable byres ceased flicking the flies from their backs.
Of course it would be that kind of day. She was halfway through her final circuit around the white walls of Memphis. Sweat ran freely from her, not from any particular place but from all of her, as though she were the Nile headwater. Two and a half city circuits were behind her. She was almost done.
Her father had done this. Younger Thutmose, her late brother-husband, had done it at a stately walk, skipping the second and third laps. Little Thutmose had been a child at his naming, so Hatshepsut hadn’t made him do it. Nothing inspiring about a little boy hissy-fitting his way around the Memphis walls.
At twelve he was old enough to do it now, but a steady supply of good beer to the priests of Mut kept the oracle’s recommendations bent toward a life of retirement for the boy, at least until his health improved. Wait until Thutmose is in more perfect health, the oracles said, which Hatshepsut read as completely perfect health. Almost immediately after the fever that had nearly killed him, Thutmose grew a stye in one eye which left him part-blind, and then the fever relapsed again. Hatshepsut had sent his useless mother to Senenmut when she came fretting.
Hatshepsut approached the blinding streak of white stone road that led to the city gate, propelled by the calls of people gathered on the walls above. The crook and flail she carried, heavy with faience and silver inlay, kept slipping down in her sweaty grip. Her lungs burned. Her legs burned. Her skin was fire. Even the worst temple rites were better than this.
It was worth it. All great and memorable kings ran the Memphis circuit. Hatshepsut would be a great and memorable king.
It was Senenmut’s idea. He had many ideas to shore up his king; being utterly indebted to someone was strong motivation to make sure they succeeded. Useramen did not know about the Memphis circuit. He was busy pursuing the rope-merchant usurper and his band of supporters—really just his sons and the men who thought it likely they’d be executed alongside him—southward through the desert. Hatshepsut was running the circuit in his absence because she worried he might not like it. In the two weeks since Hatshepsut’s naming, ever since she’d refused to say what the Spirit of Kingship had shared, Useramen had been distant. Suspicious. Senenmut’s spies reported that Useramen had visited Little Thutmose several times. Not completely outside the realm of likely behavior, but if he was perhaps reconsidering what of the dynasty’s remaining blood to put his energy behind...
He might shift his loyalty to the boy. Hatshepsut was and would always be the better king. But if Little Thutmose survived, he would become a man. The king had always been a man.
That was the whole problem.
The ba-bird’s fat shadow glided over Hatshepsut’s path. She didn’t look up. The bird was a constant reminder that the Spirit of Kingship—that her father—had slighted her. Her appeal to his grave had gone ignored. The Great Thutmose was too busy to answer.
Pharaoh ran three times around the white walls of Memphis while the onlooking crowd brayed her name. She didn’t even like Memphis. Thebes was her home; Memphis was a place she went to remind the Memphans that they had a Pharaoh.
Hatshepsut followed the sun-seared road beneath the city gates and through hot streets. Almost done. The Great Temple of Ptah rose unlovely over mudbrick walls. She ran through the temple gate and heard the clapping of her own footfalls echo in the hypostyle courtyard. A moment of shade, then light again. Her muscles trembled. She saw the shadow of the ba-bird still following. Up the few steps and into the court of the sun, her breath scorching her throat. Through another gate, this one lower, and into the sanctuary—finally, thanks be to Montu. The priests had filled the chapel with wine and bread and incense and so all Hatshepsut had to do was fall to her knees—happily, though even the stone floor was too hot—and drink the wine and sing the hymn to Ptah.
The wine was too sweet, unmixed, and it stoked the furnace of her belly. Her voice as she sang the hymn felt like it came from elsewhere, not her own throat. She was dizzy and her skin twitched as sweat dried. Her vision clouded with an absence of thoughts. The gods were nearing. Soon they would speak.
In the courtyard behind her, voices of courtiers joined the priests as they sang the words that pleased Ptah. Hatshepsut rubbed her blurry eyes with both hot palms, swaying, then lowered her cheek to the stone floor proactively. The danger, when the gods came to her, was that she might fall, as she’d done many times before.
How could her kingship be anything but legitimate when the gods strode through her very body like this?
The chanting behind her faded, and she was gone into the other realm.
The next thing she was aware of was the strong scent of myrrh. Something clammy lay against her neck. She had a hazy memory of a dark hole, a corner of a storage pit maybe, stinking of soil and the sour smell of rent flesh; not offal, a familiar smell though, something Hatshepsut couldn’t place but that lanced through her with its unforgettableness. Warm, wet furry bodies mewling together in a heap. A turn of a head in the dark, and the shine of a cat’s eye reflecting. The vision there and then gone. Hatshepsut smacked her mouth open, working her tongue against her teeth, and rolled to one side. Priests were still singing nearby, so she hadn’t been gone long. Her head felt beer-thick and muzzy.
One of her women servants whispered to her, and she felt cool hands on her shoulders. The cloth on her neck was readjusted. She opened her eyes.
There was an inscription on the wall before her, right in her field of vision. A king offering beer to the gods. The image heaved as she breathed. Small, round, familiar face, feminine despite all the signs and signals of manhood. A portly king with a hint of breasts beneath the pharaoh’s robes.
Donkey fuck that ba-bird. She knew now who she was.
They’d have to sail past Hawara on the way back to Thebes anyway. If she couldn’t indulge a sudden desire to see a barely maintained palace in a backwater of her kingdom, then what was the point of being Pharaoh?
The eyes of the court were on her. Useramen wasn’t the only person speculating about the legitimacy of a female king. Surprised that the Spirit of the Kingship had spoken to her, curious what it had said—if they believed it would come to a woman in the first place. Everyone pretended not to remember that Great Thutmose hadn’t been born a king. He’d taken the throne by strength, not by precedent. Precedent said it could be done again, no matter how ferociously Useramen pursued the usurper’s band of idiots through the sand.
She told her steward, Idi, that she would stay in the Faiyum for several days. She did not tell him anything else. If her courtiers wanted to complain and hypothesize, it wasn’t Pharaoh’s place to care. And if any servants found this stopover too trying, then the steward could beat them with his stick until the king’s request no longer seemed quite so onerous.
No one had ever dared question her father. If he wanted something, people died to make it happen. Even the more recent and lesser Thutmoses had been indulged, if not obeyed. None of the men of her line seemed at all concerned what others thought of them, but Hatshepsut had to be the claws of the cat. No room for rolled eyes. Over the last years she had ordered many of her attendants’ questions answered with sticks. They were learning to stop asking.
So: the Faiyum. A desolate place, and neglected, though sun-darkened men still tended the waterworks there. An oasis, though not much grew green here at the end of summer. The palace court here still had dust heaped in its corners despite her household scrambling around with brooms. It was small, not much more than a camp, the walls showing the yellow of sun-bleached mudbrick beneath flaking paint. Well, too late to change her mind now.
If she went straight to the temple her purpose would be too clearly broadcast, so she inspected the waterworks and the papyrus marshes and had a tent set up so she could watch her royal huntsmen shoot ducks for her dinner. The few courtiers who had followed her to the Faiyum sat in the shade and gossiped. She didn’t see the ba-bird at all. Perhaps it was busy, happy to be home.
Early the next morning the priest of Nemaatra Amenemhat’s cult, a dusty-sandaled and startled-looking young man, toured her through Amenemhat’s labyrinth. She remembered the close walls and shadows of the place from when she was a girl, still God’s Wife of Amun, still the favorite daughter of a powerful king. Back then this place had entranced her as much as it frightened her. Fifteen years later, she saw how the paint was faded, the sand piled against the walls. The labyrinth was a treasure, a monument unique throughout the Black Land. Amenemhat’s kingdom was only a hundred years older than her own. And only this young man with his rodent eyes, to tend to the great cult of kings. How quickly the great were forgotten.
They would not forget her.
Deep in the labyrinth was a colonnaded courtyard illustrated with the king’s life. Here Hatshepsut dismissed the priest and servants. Once she was alone she passed into the dim porch where she remembered seeing the stele.
It was a few columns down from where she remembered it. Portrait of the king’s daughter: a small, round, familiar face. She traced a finger over the cartouche enclosing the girl’s name.
The cobras in her guts tightened. Some part of her had held out hope that the ba-bird might still somehow transform into the Spirit of Kingship or somehow portend her father’s appearance. It wasn’t just the legitimacy and answers he might bring. Beneath all the political reasons, she’d just so very much wanted to see her father’s face again.
Hatshepsut heard a thump in the courtyard behind her. Without turning she entered a small mortuary chapel that lay beyond the colonnade. She heard the ba-bird’s nails scraping stone as it followed.
She knelt before the altar. The offerings were few: a bowl of flat beer, some dusty bread, incense smoking in the palm of a burner. She slipped a precious band off her upper arm, another off her wrist, and laid them on the altar.
“Oh Great One,” Hatshepsut said. She kept her voice low; this was a conversation, not an invocation. “I acknowledge you, King’s Daughter of Amenemhat, Sobekneferu. I bring offerings in gold and silver to the altar of your father’s father to beg you speak, and plague me no longer.”
“Praise Hathor and Mut.” The croaking voice behind her sounded like a great block of granite sliding into place in the wall of a tomb. “That took you forever.”
How did one address a ghost? The information was in Hatshepsut’s mind somewhere. She continued to stare at the wisp of smoke rising from the altar incense and wet her lips. “I did not know how to invoke you. I did not remember your name.”
The ba-bird strutted to the altar and hopped onto it, lofting itself up with green-and-gilt wings. It peered at Hatshepsut with its human eyes. “That’s exactly why I came,” it said. “You, of all people. You didn’t know my name.”
Hatshepsut averted her gaze. “I couldn’t figure out who you were. Then I saw an image of your father, and thought I remembered your image in this place. And then,” she admitted, “yes, I couldn’t remember your name to invoke you.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said the ba-bird. It toddled into her view again. It was incongruous: a woman’s head on the body of a massive, shimmering bird. The grit was going from its voice now, lubricated by use and becoming pleasantly rich and feminine. “Here you are now. And my message has effectively delivered itself. I’ll say it anyway: they will forget.”
“Me?” Hatshepsut scoffed. “Let them try. People won’t notice my obelisks at Dier el-Bahri? My name is all over them.”
“My name was everywhere, too,” the ba-bird said. “Lord of the Red Land and the Black, She of the Sedge and the Bee, the Great Bull of the Heavens, Beloved of Ra—“
Hatshepsut sat back on her heels. “Pharaoh’s names.”
“Yes. That’s my point. Do you see them anywhere? You had to come all the way here, into the house of my father, to even find my face undisguised.”
“Oh, I’ve waited long enough,” said the ba-bird. “That Pharaoh’s image you gazed upon at the house of Ptah in Memphis is me, oh daughter of Amun. Those images are mine, not my father wearing my breasts. I was Pharaoh. I am Pharaoh. As much as you are now.” The ba-bird stretched its wings. “Sorry to drown your expectations. I know you think you’re the first.”
“A woman king.” Hatshepsut scowled. “Why do I not know of you?”
“You don’t know half of what you don’t know,” the ba-bird said.
Hatshepsut quelled a flare of anger. She hated this stupid bird. “Tell me what you want of me.”
“I want what every king wants,” the ba-bird said. “I want my name carven on great pillars, as it was before. I want my spirit fed. I want to wear the atef crown in stone and paint upon the walls of the house of the gods. I want to be remembered.”
A female king. Hatshepsut felt jerky, ragged-edged. She rose to her feet. “I need to think,” she said.
“It’s not just for me,” the ba-bird called, shuffling after. “My kingship gives credence to yours. The people love precedent.”
“I need to think,” Hatshepsut repeated. She left the ba-bird behind in the chapel at the center of the labyrinth.
Her mind was too busy, full of bees, to return to the crocodile’s mouth of the court in Thebes. Her official Pharaonic procession down the Nile was over, one more in the endless list of rituals she’d complete over the next year—everything as traditional as possible; precedent, precedent, precedent—and she was due back in the capitol. Instead she stopped again at the quiet, pleasant palace at the Lake of Two Knives in Hermopolis and sent for her daughter Nefrure. The temple to Amun at Heliopolis was small but large enough for Nefrure to awaken him with her daily rites. Hatshepsut might even assist; it would be good to move through the old patterns again. Something familiar after all her coronation’s novelty.
The palace was cool and low and open, without the vertiginous, imposing pylons and gates of Memphis or Thebes. There were little sunken gardens echoing with water-sound, and somehow the lake always managed to generate just enough breeze to cool it all. She shouldn’t be there, shouldn’t need or want the time out of sight—Pharaoh belonged to the land and its gods, you couldn’t just duck out when you felt like it—and yet there she was. It was three days before a servant appeared to announce that Nefrure’s barge had been spotted upriver.
Hatshepsut waited in the shade of a tent as the rowers scrambled to dock the boat. The wharf crawled with cats, like ants beneath a log. One brushed against the corner of her sedan chair, tickling the wood with its tail: Bast’s indifferent benediction.
Senenmut stood at the rail of the incoming barge. Hatshepsut wasn’t surprised. Senenmut and Nefrure were often together. Years ago she’d named him Nefrure’s tutor, a symbolic role, another way to tie him to her. But Senenmut took it seriously. He’d brought Nefrure gifts and told her stories. When small, Nefrure would sometimes forego her mother’s lap for her tutor’s. Hatshepsut had hidden her jealousy. This had, after all, been her idea, and the more Senenmut doted on Nefrure, the more he belonged to Hatshepsut.
Nefrure was as old now as Hatshepsut had been when her brother-husband died. Other girls that age spent their days giggling about men and brushing each other’s hair, or drinking and playing senet for rings and promises, but Nefrure carried herself with a solemnity and grace that made Hatshepsut’s heart ache. So little room for frivolity in the life of a God’s Wife, in a future queen.
Or future king.
Hatshepsut felt the ba-bird’s uncanny eyes on her. When she looked among the palms and roofs of the wharf it wasn’t there. Just more cats, slinking along rooftops.
Senenmut stepped off the boat to hand Nefrure down—a servant’s job, but there Senenmut was, and nobody was going to argue with him. Nefrure came straight to Hatshepsut’s shady tent. Hatshepsut rose.
“Beneficent One,” Nefrure said, hands extended in veneration. Then she carefully, gravely slipped into her mother’s arms.
“My girl,” Hatshepsut whispered into her daughter’s perfumed wig. Then she pushed her to arm’s length. “That eye blight looks much better,” she said. “The physician I gave you is doing well.” Nefrure looked askance, embarrassed. Hatshepsut was momentarily transported to a similar moment, herself and her own mother, some similar embarrassment. All mothers, all daughters, all so alike. She sighed, not unhappy. “Dinner awaits. And there is a man at the palace who has taught some monkeys to twirl and clap like dancing girls. You’ll love it.”
That made Nefrure laugh. “I’m not a child, mother. You can’t ply me with baby monkeys anymore.”
“We’ll see,” Hatshepsut said. “They’re very cute.” She smiled and shooed Nefrure towards one of the waiting litters. “I’ll be right behind you. I must speak to this strange beggar who’s followed you here.”
Senenmut took his cue to approach with head bowed and hands extended. Hatshepsut gestured to the servants to bring around their sedans.
“How is he?” she asked quietly. One of the bearers helped her into the seat of a chair; Senenmut mounted his own.
“It’s hard to say,” Senemut said in the same low tone. He shot a look at the servants gathered around them. The bearers would be beaten if they repeated anything and were kept happy enough with beer and good food; the conversation was as safe as any. “Last week he seemed almost normal, but now...” Senenmut leaned back in his chair and rubbed dust from one eye. “Now, he’s complaining that his head aches all the time, and the cough returns at night. Fever comes and goes. I have been told that he often makes his mother cry with his temper.”
“It doesn’t take much to make her cry.” Hatshepsut leaned to balance as the bearers lifted her chair.
“Well,” Senenmut said, “at least her lamentations keep her busy.”
Hatshepsut snorted. “Poor creature.”
Senenmut opened his mouth, closed it, tried again. “Great One, I hope that you will return to Thebes soon. With the king—the younger king—unwell, and Useramen away, it might be wisest for you to be present. To be seen.”
She’d always appreciated his directness. Useramun relied too heavily on formality; often you couldn’t tell what he was getting at until you’d been in the conversation for far too long. Senenmut was so much easier. Maybe it was his common birth; less training in the formality of the court. It irritated some, but not her.
“Is he that ill?”
“No.” Senenmut swayed with the movement of his chair-bearers. “No, by Sekhmet and Heka. He’s not mortally ill, I don’t think.”
“What, then? Who should I be worried about?”
Senenmut would not name names, not in front of the servants. “It is nothing, my king. Just your humble servant’s wish to be nearer his lord.”
“Well. You’re near enough now.” A shadow swept overhead, and Hatshepsut snapped around, but it was only an osprey. When she turned back Senenmut was watching her curiously. His flat forehead and beaky nose made him look owlish. Those same flat, all-seeing eyes. “A few more days,” she said, and left it at that.
She tried to enjoy the dinner, the open courtyard in the shade of potted date palms, the evening breeze fragrant and cooling. Nefrure did like the dancing monkeys and giggled like the girl she was when one of them climbed her arm to tangle its tiny hands in her wig and ornaments. It was heartening to see Nefrure laugh, to see her at peace. She always had a hunted look about her in the presence of her priests and acolytes, as though she were terrified of mis-stepping; hard not to be, when you were charged with the daily rites that kept all cosmic order. Hatshepsut knew the feeling well, from her own decade as God’s Wife. Miss one ritual, say the wrong thing, shake the sistrum without truly meaning it, and the world might simply... crumble away.
Here, with her mother and only the small chapel of Amun to tend to, Nefrure seemed younger. Hatshepsut wished she hadn’t already promised Senenmut they’d sail home in a few days.
She was half lost in thought as her servants undressed her for the night when she heard a familiar soft impact in the closed courtyard off her bedroom. She dismissed her body servants. The breeze lifted the gauze curtains. She pushed them aside, soft touch of linen against her bare arms, and walked to the pool in the middle of the court. She sat and dipped her feet in the moon-cooled water. “I tried to find you,” she said. “Where did you go?”
The ba-bird hobbled out of a shadow. It wasn’t alone; there was another one behind it. “King cannot command king,” the bird said in its soft, masterful voice. “And none command the gods. I was tired after your many weeks of stubbornness. I returned home to rest.”
Hatshepsut tried not to stare at the second bird, whose face she couldn’t make out. Female, unfamiliar. “Well, king,” she said, “I have questions, if you would hear them.”
The bird waddled to the far side of the little pool and settled over its feet like a brooding duck. “Finally. Let’s have it. Go on.”
“Sobekneferu,” Hatshepsut said thoughtfully. “Why did I not know your name? Were you King’s Mother or a regent or—”
Feathers on the ba-bird’s back and throat lifted. “I was Pharaoh. I told you.”
“Then why are you missing from my king lists?”
The ba-bird snorted. “Why do you think? Not many males of the king’s dynasty get named ‘the beauty of Sobek,’ do they? Wear dresses?” It spread its wings, then folded them again.
“But if the Spirit of Kingship truly came to you, then... ”
The bird stared at her. The second bird, still in the shadows, shifted forward a bit.
“Did the Spirit not come to you?” Either, she did not add.
“It did,” the ba-bird said, “in its way. It is not as you expect it to be.”
“But the Spirit comes to whoever the gods—”
“Attend, oh woman king,” said the ba-bird, “how was the world created? Frogs and snakes? Or did Atum beat the world forth from his member? Or, wait, was it Amun’s member? Or both of theirs at once, perhaps? Dueling cobras? Or did Ptah think us all into existence in his heart? Which of those is true, oh Maatkara Hatshepsut, King’s Daughter, God’s Wife?”
“Well... It’s—they’re all true. It depends on—”
“Right,” said the ba-bird. “It’s all true, but not exactly true. The Spirit of Kingship comes to the preordained Pharaoh upon his naming; he is known from birth by the gods; he is the earthly manifestation of their power, except when the Spirit accidentally comes to, say, a boy who dies young and then, oops, it turns out it should have been someone else all along. Or when the kingship changes dynasties entirely. Surprise, then the Sprit of Kingship shows up, why, all the way over there in Memphis, when we thought it lived in Thebes! Sound familiar?”
Hatshepsut tensed. “I am Pharaoh by divine—”
“I’m not arguing with your divine right,” the ba-bird said. “It is yours. It just doesn’t come with the exact endorsement you thought it would. I made the same mistake. I thought it would be a tangible thing. It wasn’t.”
She was unable to look at the ba-bird’s haughty face, fearful she would disclose the betrayal she wore like kohl and malachite. Instead she searched out the second bird, watching it shift, the occasional shaft of moonlight glinting off its feathered back, a soft bulk in the darkness. She’d so hoped to see her father. She’d hoped the Spirit would come to her with his smile and his guidance and his absolute authority. And if that wasn’t how it really worked, then why wouldn’t his ba-bird come instead? Why were these women’s spirits here, and her father nowhere to be found?
Thutmose had been buried with beer, wine, food. Tiny breweries and bakeries and courtyards and barns. Servants, horses, and a harem in paint on the walls. All of that, come alive with him now in the afterlife. Maybe his thoughts were on other things.
“Who’s your friend?” Hatshepsut asked, lifting her chin towards the second bird-spirit.
The Sobekneferu ba-bird turned its head and regarded the dark shape. “I can’t bring her to speak,” the bird said. “I don’t know her name to invoke her. Seems silly, but I guess the same rules apply.”
“So why is it here?”
The first ba-bird stood, moved a little to one side, then settled again. “Don’t know,” it said. “She just showed up. My guess is she wants what I want.” The bird’s eyes met Hatshepsut’s, dead and hard and black, and Hatshepsut’s shoulders and throat went suddenly cold. “I want my immortality.”
“You have that,” Hatshepsut said. “The afterlife—”
“Don’t,” the ba-bird snapped, “argue with me about the afterlife. I know better than you what it’s like to be dead.”
The chill spread down Hatshepsut’s back. She imagined her father in his tomb, all the paintings and sculptures alive with him, the gods in his presence. She thought of his face on his sarcophagus, distant and timeless as a corpse. She lowered her gaze to the shifting water around her feet, moonlight and lamplight glossing its surface to hammered metal. Pit of cobras in her gut.
“I will not say to you what happens to your body after death. All I come to speak of is my name, Sobekkara Sobekneferu, and your name, Maatkara Hatshepsut. We are tied, oh woman king, and—” The ba-bird looked at the second bird, which stepped out of the shadows now and locked eyes with the first. “And I suspect this one is, too.”
They sat in silence for a moment. Wind brushed through the potted palms. Somewhere distant a dog barked, and another bark answered it, and then the night fell still again.
Her father would not come to her. Busy with the feasts and orgies and campaigns of his afterlife, he had forgotten his beloved daughter. He’d always been easily diverted. And he was Aakheperkare Thutmose, after all. She was just a female child.
“Please just leave me alone,” Hatshepsut covered her face with her hands, then dropped them to her sides. “What do I have to do to get you to leave me alone?”
“I want my name back. I want the places where it was carved out to be carved in again. ‘Sobekkara Sobekneferu, She of the Sedge and the Bee, King of Upper and Lower Egypt.’ Bring my name back to me. And this one,” it gestured to the other bird. “Bring her name back too.” The second ba-bird hopped forward once: agreeing, it seemed.
“We don’t even know what that other one is called.”
“You’re the king,” the ba-bird said. “You’ve got plenty of help.”
She did not make any decisions while they stayed in the Hermopolis lake palace. Instead, she pretended she was a mother and that was all. She watched the herons fish among the lakeshore reeds and watched Nefrure twirl a string for some kittens to chase while musicians plucked harps. It felt, for a moment, like a good-enough life; the two of them attended by their women, eating fruit and drinking cool wine in the shade, Senenmut there if he was needed but never interrupting and certainly never demanding. It was a temptation, this quiet life. She wondered how long she could make it last.
They stayed only two more days. Her power was in Thebes.
There were men she must speak to. And, for once, plans of her own to pursue.
There was little privacy on the royal barge, the boat crowded with anxious servants waiting for the king to decide she wanted to build a monument, or wanted her hair combed, or for someone to catch her a fish. Hatshepsut dithered during as much of the trip she could, watching the country pass beyond the banks of the Nile while court entertainers attempted one after the next to break her from her reverie.
When they were still a day’s journey from Thebes, the last of her patience drained, running dry like irrigation ditches in the month before the inundation, and she kicked her retinue off the barge.
They traveled with an escort of little punts and skiffs. It wasn’t like she was making them swim, though one of her body-servants squealed as though she were being thrown overboard to the hippos as she was handed down into a little fishing boat. Senenmut stayed behind. An honor that usually brought him pride, today, made him wary. They were alone save for two oarsmen, a pair of identical twins both born deaf and therefore endlessly useful to a king.
“Beneficent One,” Senenmut said, and waited. Small, clever eyes; beak of a nose.
“I need copies of every king list we know of. More, if we can find them. Send scribes and runners throughout the country as soon as we arrive in Thebes.”
This wasn’t a particularly unseemly request, certainly not worth kicking the court off the barge. Senenmut bowed his head obediently.
“And I want to see the high priest of Ptah in Memphis. Send someone back for him now. He will come to me in Thebes.”
Another bow, but Senenmut’s brow wrinkled. “It will be done. May I ask—”
“Not yet.” Hatshepsut looked out over the far bank of the Nile where a boy was turning a shaduf, filling his buckets. “Just an idea.” Low, dusty land rumpled with green. The Nile reaching both directions for forever, flat and blue. The sky, overhead, also endless, the same color as the river. “How quickly we forget.”
Senenmut had nothing to say to that.
The little flotilla carrying her attendants had flanked out across the water. Some of the younger women were splashing each other from rival boats. Their voices carried, though not their words. Hatshepsut took a deep breath. “My Aswan obelisks. You’re modifying them?”
“Yes, my king. Workmen are adding your throne name to the images there.”
Hatshepsut nodded. “Excise any reference to Little Thutmose from them. Remove the Younger Thutmose as well. If they cannot be excised, modify them to speak instead of my father, Great Thutmose. Highlight my noble and divine descent from a great king.” Senenmut’s eyes were averted but fixed; he was listening for orders between the orders. But she wasn’t going to be coy about this. “You will cut the two lesser Thutmoses from the records. Subtly at first. Aswan is a safe place to begin. Then perhaps in the North. Thebes later, when we are ready.”
The humble head bowed again. She felt a bud of gratefulness flower in her chest for this man and his obedience. She hoped he would not disappoint her.
They reached Thebes the next day, and Hatshepsut’s heart rang with home. This was her city, where she belonged.
Useramen had arrived the day before. He’d fallen from his horse during his pursuit of the rope merchant, but the injury did nothing to dispel his gravitas. Hatshepsut couldn’t imagine him being thrown from a horse without the horse immediately returning to apologize. Despite one arm bound up in bandages, he had immediately set about levying more men to bring south against Kush.
The would-be usurper was dead; they’d brought her his head. Useramen greeted her with it in her audience chamber, dropping the dark-brown, muddy lump out of a grubby sack and onto the floor before her throne. The head lay on its cheek; open eyeballs stared at the floor through a cake of dust. From the corner of her eye she saw Senenmut purse his lips and turn away in distaste.
Sinking to his knees next to the lump of meat that had once been a man’s head, Useramen began. “Beneficent pharaoh, oh lawgiver who judges deeds...”
Usually she interrupted him before he could finish the royal address. Today she let him say it all, and stay on his knees for it too. And even longer, as instead of waving him to his feet afterward, she counted one breath, two breaths. Glanced into the shadows to find the shape of the ba-birds there, morose and hidden. Knowing now who they were, she couldn’t help feeling a bit judged by them.
She gestured Useramen up from his bow. “I hope you are not badly injured?”
“No, by Heka,” Useramen said. He moved his bandaged arm a little. “Not too badly.”
“Though I gather it hasn’t tempered your appetite for battle.”
Useramen inclined his flat head. She wondered if he was surprised that she would intentionally bring up a topic she so often avoided speaking. “My king. Your father the Great Thutmose crushed Kush beneath his sandals and took the land from them. Kush scorns your magnificence with these raids. We must destroy them, and grind their bones to sand. If your father were alive he would—”
“The spirit of Aakheperkara Thutmose is not yours to command,” Hatshepsut interrupted. She kept her eyes on Useramen’s, though she saw nothing in them. No surprise, but not offense either. She was not the first king he had served, after all. “The Spirit of Kingship has come unto me,” she said. “And it spoke to me, and I took counsel with it. For I am Pharaoh, daughter of Thutmose and beloved of Amun, king of the Red Land and the Black.”
Both men stared up at her on her dais. “What...” Useramen said. “What did your father say?”
“Did I say it was my father?” she snapped. “The Spirit of Kingship is not as you imagine, nor as you counseled it to be. I am divine; I keep its counsel.” At the far end of the hall, the guards had ceased playing senet in the doorway to listen. She did not mind. It wasn’t often she spoke like this; no less to Useramen. “You wish to fight Kush for the offense they have shown me. But I say, I am a mother to Egypt, and like a mother I will see to my child’s well-being before I destroy the jackals beyond my walls. We will fight Kush, but only when I desire to. And when I desire it, we shall smite them, and grind their bones to sand.”
Useramen opened his mouth, and his tongue clicked away from his teeth. Then he closed it again and bowed deeply.
She sent him home to recover from his travels. She sent Senenmut after him in a flock of scribes with more errands for each of them. And then she attended the rest of the business of the king.
The ba-birds landed in her arcade that night after she’d sent her attendants away, as well as the musicians and acrobats. She would have sent the palace cats away as well, if she could have commanded them. She went outside to where the ba-birds sat on the edge of her shallow pool.
“You spoke well today,” the Sobekneferu ba-bird said. “But none of those scribes went to Memphis to write my names back into the temples there. Are you deaf to me, oh king?”
“Not deaf,” Hatshepsut said. “But as you said yourself, king does not command king.”
The bird’s woman-face scowled. “I did not return here from the land of the dead to—”
“Peace,” Hatshepsut said, raising her hands in deference. “You’re angry at me. I understand. But I propose a compromise. Will you hear it?”
The named ba-bird looked at its unnamed twin. The mute spirit took a step forward: it was willing to listen. The Sobekneferu ba-bird turned its baleful gaze back on Hatshepsut.
“I will restore your name,” she said to the Sobekneferu ba-bird. To the other one she said, “and I will find and restore yours. But.” She drew one foot through the moonlit pool. “You must remain here with me. To give me counsel when I wish it. You will...” She smiled a small smile. “You’ll be the Spirit of the Kingship, I suppose.”
The ba-birds regarded each other, some silent exchange that Hatshepsut was not privy to. Finally the Sobekneferu ba-bird said, “You will restore us, and with us will come the precedent of female kingship. That will shore up your own rule. It’s as good for you as it is for us.”
“Precedent may only be enough for now,” Hatshepsut said. “I have plans that you don’t know of, yet.”
The bird-spirits exchanged dubious looks. “How long must we remain? How long until our names are again known?”
Pharaoh looked up at the moon. In the palms at the edge of the garden, a cat led her kittens rustling through the leaves. “As long as it takes,” she said. “It’s not like you’ll run out of time.”
“Fine,” the Sobekneferu ba-bird said. “A compromise. We will counsel you, or I will at least, until you find this one’s name. And we will guide you until—”
“Until my daughter becomes king,” Hatshepsut said.
Another dubious look between the ghosts.
Hatshepsut felt a welling-up of hope, like the Nile rising against its banks, ready to spill over into thirsty fields. That she could do this; she could be the great Thutmosid king. That these women—or their ghosts—might help her. It would be her own high cheekbones and soft eyes looking out over the Nile, timeless, regal and composed. And after death, her daughter to carry the dynasty.
After a moment, the Sobekneferu ba-bird said, slowly, “Well. It’s happened before.”