*first draft of The Feather on My Scale: Book 2 of The Gods of Fire series*
Mornings. I hate them. Hate everything about them. The sound of the word. The light I wish would leave the edges of my curtains alone. The ever present snoring of my partner in my ear. How he could sleep through the awful impending chariot in the sky was beyond me. The pink and purple roll at the horizon behind the dome panels was enough to snap me awake every day and it drove me crazy.
Nebra burrowed into my arms, her sandy hair stuck in my stubble. At the peak of summer, having Ptolemy behind me and Nebra in front of me, I was hot, and not in the handsome way. Sheets had been kicked to the end of the bed. How I was going to escape when these two could sleep like stones until I move was not an answer I possessed. I brushed at the hairs tickling my cheek and looked around for my escape.
A black haired woman relaxing in an upholstered armchair opposite the bed and chaise lounge at the end of it studied me with a thinly coated vanier of amused indifference. “Want help?” She mouthed. I nodded my head and reached for her. She smirked, tapping the spine of her book on the footboard of the bed.
A large hand circled around my chest, pulling me backwards. I wiggled in protest. Ptolemy only tightened down. Snoring returned in my ear. I glared at Seth as she failed to hide a smirk behind her book. Nebra at least sounded like she might be waking up. She rolled, her hip brushing against me suggestively. Ptolemy’s length was hard against my backside and asking for attention. His snoring had to be fake. Waking up to this position one would think would be an excellent thing in my book, right? If it wasn’t hot as Ra’s throne and I had to make for the restroom before getting tackled by the Acting High Lectern for the Lighting of the Fire and Drawing of the Bolt, I might agree. I hate having breakfast at dawn. I’d prefer to start eating around lunch time.
If only there was a safe way to latch Ptolemy onto Nebra, I’d be free. That meant getting my ex-soldier turned lover to let go. Which is almost impossible. He’s cuddly in the mornings. So is Nebra. Seth doesn’t do cuddles. She also has the where-withal to sleep on the outside of the bed or in her own quarters to save from becoming the person in the middle. I, on the other hand, am doomed. This is my room, and my bed, and as Pharaoh of Hawria, I get the position of honor. Which currently has me trapped between my military and financial advisors. The health and education councilor over there has left me to the crocodiles.
A gentle, but firm kiss lets them know that I was awake, I understood their desires, but my needs were more pressing. Which left Nebra curled up in a ball in Ptolemy’s arms and me making for the restroom. Seth, unphased with the chaos she was trying to start, burrowed into her chair, once more catching up on some policy or another.
Needs met, teeth and hair brushed, and a servant after me about showing to the temple for the rites, I returned back to my private chambers to find Ptolemy and Nebra more awake then I left them. She had taken command of the situation, putting my man under her for a bit of morning fun.
“Want in on this, Henu?” Ptolemy asked, Nebra tucking a flaxen hair behind his ear.
“You two enjoy. I am not ready to be awake. Cancel the chariot and let it rain. I want to go back to bed.” I flopped on the chaise lounge at the end of the bed and threw my arm across my eyes. Most days I would be keen on jumping in the middle of the invite. Or watching at the very least.
I had an early morning issue to handle and I was not mentally prepared for it. The servant who had insisted on helping me into fresh clothes that were just to be removed anyways for the ceremony and replaced with another more outrageous outfit, which was entirely unnecessary, as I said every morning, had slipped me my morning dossier and the first problem at the top of the list was a wab priest caught smuggling Mubkharatan out of Iunu.
My government officials insisted on placing me as a figurehead. Then I’d get these people I was expected to pass judgement on in a public way to maintain order. So they could say I wasn’t the figurehead we all knew I was. It irked me ten ways to Ra’s day that I had to fight my own government to keep the people I was overseeing safe. They rebelled from the outside. I rebelled from the inside. And we all were hogtied by the nobles.
I rose in frustration and tugged on my black robes over my skirts. The bell sleeves drooped well to the floor, dragging to remind myself I was chained to this outrageous destiny. Seth joined me in my efforts to be dressed, helping to drape a massive black Usekh across my collarbone.
“What is with these ceremonies, Seth? Why? Why do nobles insist on them. They aren’t even related to where our ancestors came from on Earth. We’re comprised of a bunch of Eastern Europeans and East Asian peoples. The common people’s language isn’t even a language. It’s pigin. It’s some weird blend of Korean, Japanese, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Latvia. Why the hell did this segment of Joiner Petroleum’s board decide it would behoove the people to participate in a culture that has nothing to do with where they came from?” I hissed, fingering the obsidian stones inlaid into silver housing.
“And this is the problem with a Pharaoh having an ancient history degree,” Seth quipped, flicking my fingers and retwisting my necklace for me.
“But, Seth,” I whined.
“We’ve talked this out before. It is what it is.” She pulled the collar of my robes tighter under the necklace and helped with the belt.
“I mean, come on. Malak is comprised of Native and Latin American populations and Joiner nobility celebrates Norse religions. Why Ancient Earth religions so far removed from the majority of the population? Or Easimal who were originally from the Middle East and India who now follow the old Roman and Greek gods? The hell are they thinking?” I whispered under my breath at her fidgeting.
“I’m your health and education advisor, Henu, not your philosophy muse. You’re mad about what’s in the dossier.” She nailed my problem on the head and pointed me to a low stool.
“You at least have the academic background to get me when I start in getting annoyed at this situation. I hate these presumptive ceremonies.” I squatted down to the stool, my knees cracking.
“The wab?” Her fingers tugged through my thick brown curls. I nodded mutely, pulling at the edges of my robe. “He rescued a mother and her child. The baby burned her house down and she would not give her up. The boy caused a distraction such that the two were able to escape into the labyrinth. He’s to fulfill the morning ceremony with the lectern this morning as his last penance to purify himself within your light before meeting his fate.” She filled me in on the contents of the dossier to reiterate what I had read as she twisted the mass of ringlets into some semblance of a bun at the back of my head. It’d all be taken down shortly, but I appreciated the ritual. The summary helped. I hated reading legalese.
“He has been designated as harmless then,” I surmised. It had been a long time since a wab had been sent to be purified. Rarely were people who had committed a crime considered safe enough to be allowed one last purification.
“He has no record of violence, a child of the temple.” She tapped my shoulder when done and leaned over my shoulder to draw her arms around me in a reassuring hug.
“Thanks, love.” I kiss her forehead before rising and heading for the door. She caught my fingers in question. I gave her a reassuring smile. “Send Ptolemy when he’s done. I think he’d do best here.” Seth nodded and got me out the door, placing a glowing coal in a silver dish in my hand.
Seven white robed priests met me in the hall, their heads draped in gauze that swept to their knees. Creepy spooks. I don’t think I’d ever get used to their dawn appearance. Having resided as Pharaoh king of Hawria for over fifteen years, I still was not ready for all the religious rites I was made to participate in. I bowed to them formally and they returned the ritual. I presented the coal Seth had handed me to the one priest holding the incense burner and lit the sticks within.
Fifteen years back, I had been chosen by the last Pharaoh to take his place when he was dying of cancer and had no relatives he trusted to take his place. I was no more than the Sirdar for his royal battalion to command outside of the military. Ptolemy, Fariq of the Hawria military, had been a close friend due to our comings and goings. In the Cliff War when rebellion from some of the nobles rose against my newly acquired status, a protester blew Ptolemy’s leg off. He was slated for discharge and would have ended up homeless. Instead, he now occupies my bed and runs my military for me. He, however, could not join me in the rituals of the temple the priests were dragging me off towards for the billionth time. My concession to the nobles of Joiner: leave the temple intact for the sake of the people. I was still a heretical heathen, but by allowing the rituals to continue, the nobles felt their position retained and left the people from conscripted militia services.
We proceeded through my hall overlooking the rocky cliff above the bay of Nile. Lattice work blocked off the kaleidoscopic refraction of the dome panels bombardment of solar radiation, diffusing sparkling ripples across the opposite wall. The oozing purples and greens brushed against red lacquer columns bolstered by climbing cerulean dragons and gold mythical birds. Waving blades of cattails and marsh grasses painted lovingly into plaster walls danced in the dim hint of dawn. Tugging fingerlings of agarwood and sandalwood smoke drifted around me as we emerged from my compound into the back courtyards and buildings behind the temple of Re. The punch of sea salt echoed against the biodome wall. The slap of waves at the shore, distant behind the bustle of the temple staff preparing for the Lighting of the Fire and Drawing of the Bolt.
The priests ducked into the backside of the Temple under a black painted lintel, silver charms and wards painted in a flowing mix of hieroglyphics and kanji. The hallway, cast in shadows and flickering light, intoxicated the senses. Incense burners twitched amongst the rafters, wafting heady smoke throughout the complex. I was ushered, as I was every morning, into the back door to a gold gilded chamber, reflectively bright and warm compared to the hallway I had left. Inside sat a gilded rattan chair and a massive gilded bowl with scented waters. Torches lit the back wall in the tight space. A larger burner of cast iron and gilding filled with incense and aromatic wood waited for the coal in my hands.
“The Lord approaches to bring forth the morning,” a scratchy tenor of an old man scuttled outside the front entrance of the chamber.
“May the morning come forth to bless the land with fruitfulness,” I responded, signalling to the lectern to open the front doors and get this blasted ceremony done with. Like every morning, the lectern – Adom, entered followed by four other priests, wab, who each carried aspects to my wardrobe. This wouldn’t be too bad, if not for the part that I was ceremonially bathed and dressed in front of the early morning temple congregation that gathered to pray. I emerged for the beginning of the celebration of the lighting of the first flame of the day. The congregation in the chamber would be provided with a lit coal to take home to start their fires with.
The vessel took, sparks shattering as the flames rolled up over the mouth of the pot for a moment before turning to a soft smolder. The flicker undulated against the gilding of my little box as I returned to my seat to wait for the Drawing of the Bolt. Servants waited along the step edges that ran the length of the massive hall outside of my box with baskets and plates of food. It was too early to contemplate it, but the people would be waiting to take the blessed bread back to feed their families.
One of the wab was new today. Not something I would normally notice, but this man was different from most that I had seen flow through this ceremony. He must be the wab sent for his last purification. A white shock of hair burst at the front of his hairline to disrupt midnight black curls. Eyelashes were half white nearest to his nose and glossy black at the far edges. A favorite jewel of mine, his eyes were two toned alexandrite beneath the downcast lashes.
I contemplated every old person bowing in my presence while I tried my damnedest to not fixate on the man’s strange beauty. A satin complexion, he could have served in any noble household on aesthetics alone. Instead, he wore the wab robes of someone who had been raised within the halls of the lower temples in the mountains of the south. The deep blue embroidery on white showed he was marked as pure, not having been betrothed out to another temple for solidifying ties. I had to wonder at that. He was well beyond the age to have already shared cups between another.
Maybe I should murder Adom, the lectern. Fingers and scented water splayed across my skin and if I had to swallow once more, I was going to start coughing from dry throat. Last purifications my pharaonic butt. Adom didn’t care, but there were enough people within the temple who didn’t want this man killed, or else he would not be standing here. This was the people outside of the nobility’s ring asking for me to keep him safe. Put him in front of me and have me draw a line of pity, a wall around him. I was already known to favor those that were purified in last rights. Most often, so as not to upset my main adversaries, I tended to banish those of last rights to the temples in the surrounding mountain sides where they would minister to the salt miners. Seth and Nebra had both come to me during Last Purifications.
Cold water. Cold shower. Give me the ice at the bottom of the Nile seas. Who had thought to leave the incense burners on all night? Sweat beaded at my hairline and he had yet to lift his eyelashes. He wasn’t exactly supposed to look me in the eye. No one else was, so it shouldn’t be new to my expectations, but I wanted to see what his soul looked like. Was there stone or a feather at his core? Would I see a coiled viper or a nested fawn? One of my few rare gifts that had landed me here in this golden box naked in front of a congregation of a few thousand every freaking morning since Ramses had died. If I could meet someone’s glance, I could see the lies behind their face. Uncomfortable as the fires of the underworld, it had saved me a number of times getting knifed in the gut, and had proved useful in trade negotiations.
Those who truly believed in the ancient ways remade to fit the nobles desires called me the coming of Osirus. Others could do what I did. I was just high enough in the pecking order that people took notice. There was a school I had implemented within the palace temple for those who were considered children of Osirus when enough parents had come forward with children who showed a similar talent. They were not my personal prodgeny. A war wound had seen to that never happening. The children were those brought in from the villages. We were open and honest to a fault and expected it of others. Subterfuge was frustrating and wasted on us. If not for my strangeness and desire to see a school, many of those like me were left to become solitary people, drifters away from society. We made others uncomfortable. They made us uncomfortable.
Desperate, I needed to know what the Alexandrite eyes held. Closer now, his nose and cheeks were flecked with dark freckles and bright white speckles. His cheekbones splotched red as his gaze swept my skin. He settled rings on each of my right hand fingers along with a series of bangles. He hesitated at each glancing touch, pearled teeth tugging at his bottom lip. Each soft caresses left me feeling like my soul was drifting, slipping, dropping from my skin.
Dressed, I stood to graciously bow to those sprawling the floor below me to finish the ceremony. Servants along the steps approached with the food to be blessed. Wine and bread. This was one of the few moments where I publicly served, rather than be served. I poured out the painted decanter into six small glasses. The first I handed to Adom and in turn circled to each of the four wab who had seen to my morning ritual. They each sank to the ground upon receiving their cups and drank. The bread I broke into six pieces and fed each the lectern and the wab their pieces. I left my own on the tray as was usual. I myself would not be eating the food here in the hall, but instead, as the people saw, consume the essence of it. By blessing the first food to be consumed by the lectern and the wab, I blessed them to see to the purity of the food they then distributed amongst the people while I stood watching.
The wab wading through Last Purifications was diligent in his work, seeing to the elders and working carefully with the dependents to drink and eat their first meals of the day. Soft, his patience with those who needed time was modest, not an exhibition seeking approval as were the other wab that Adom oversaw. Light, his voice carried clearly in the crowd even as he whispered. The others hurried, with dismissal or frustration with those who had come. Grimaces of disapproval and derision marked them as they tugged and fought the current of the people who sat, waiting. I thought the ceremony slow, but as I surveyed the hall, it occurred to me that more and more of the servants were rearranging their orders to pass along their baskets and plates of glasses to this man who, in his effort to take care of each person he saw, was getting through his roster faster than the other wab. The supplicants of the temple took notice. Adom’s wab were being refused administration, the people instead motioning to the man who’s humility and care seeped into their souls.
None met my eyes, and in that moment I watched as faces shifted from confusion and dismissal to frustration and hatred. Adom and his entourage were fighting a losing war against one man who cared for the people with every fiber of his being. The people knew who came to them without malice, without predetermined motives. They knew when they were not stepping stones to be used to advance the narratives of another. And they were making it known.
A large gong trilled as the last of those in the rows were fed. It announced the supplicants would be able to collect their blessed bread upon leaving. More often than not, those who came to the early morning blessing of the sun, they were not here to quench their theological thirst, but instead to fill their stomachs. The elderly, the dependent, those that no longer had someone to see to their care often used this time as their way to survive another day. Ramses had seen to this when the nobility almost crushed the soul of the people in the Cardinal Wars. This kept the temple intact, kept the populace at peace, and kept the nobility pacified.
Bread though was not enough to fill the man. Spirituality was not enough to cow him. Hope was what the people needed. For years now I had fought out the subtle game between the temples and the nobles to keep the rest from drowning. I needed hope.
Garan and Sev were both vying for position. They retained the largest possession of fine metal and mineral resources in the north and south mountain ranges that boarded the dome edges. They held factions that followed them closely and they were none too subtle at the prospect of overturning the pharaoh to gain control of more unpaid labor. The wab in question had come from Sev’s domain.
The box of my bathing suite was opened further, the front double doors and the two sides folded away to my right and left to leave me in the empty throne room. My golden furnishings were withdrawn and replaced with new white while I stood, waiting.
Ptolemy entered the throne room, dressed for the day in fine linens and a necklace a touch less ostentatious then mine. Nebra had seen to an intricate braid for his flaxen mane. He bowed in deference to my station. I waived him to his usual seat on the steps at my feet.
“My Lord!” Adom, the chief lectern, high acting priest of the capital temple took up a position once the rituals had settled and I had sank into my chair. I motioned for him to continue. The piebald man with the blaze and stripe was escorted between two other wab to a spot behind Adom and forced to kneel. “I come to you today with a sinner looking for a last purification. He was caught aiding the children of fire in escape. This dangerous act of defiance against the people of Nile puts all of us at risk in the future. We come to you today to ask forgiveness of his foolishness and that he may be blessed upon his death. He meant not to hurt any involved, seeking to protect all living creatures as is our way, but in his folly, he has placed us at risk.”
I regarded the lectern and the lying viper that twisted beneath his features. It was the slide of his eyes, the set of his mouth that gave away his hatred of the Ustor. He thought them abomination and sought council within the nobility upon restrictions to implement within the legislation. He conducted his services in such a way as those around him would not immediately realize his prejudice, but I had endured his tyranny often enough to consider him a thorn in my side when it came to implementing regulations that would lead to a bettering of the people’s lives, all peoples.
The Alexandrite man could have been a leaf in autumn upon the floor, he shivered so. The wab at his sides both flicked disgusted glances at him. “His foolishness might be attributed to his lack of possessing an entire soul, My Lord. I would ask you, no, beg you, to grant him this Last Purification as a blessing to provide him with peace upon his last breath. He will not ascend to the next plane as he is and it would be too cruel otherwise to leave what little there is of his soul to shatter before it could ever reach your scale,” Adom bowed low.
“Bring him to me,” I issued to Ptolemy with an indifferent flick of my fingers. I would need to find the strengths of this man to pass a judgement upon him, to know where to hide him. Adom said a half-soul. I would need to explore this concept further with Seth. She would know what he meant by that statement.
Ptolemy rose from his lounged position and descended to the tiles below where he stalked the three wab. The standing man and the woman scuttled back, bowing to his station. He pulled the man on the floor up by his wrist, the wab squeaking at the suddenness before muffling his protest. “Your name, wab?” Ptolemy demanded, his voice harsh and accusing.
“Wash – Wash, my name is Wash, sir,” the wab stuttered as he tried to bow and walk at the same time while Ptolemy dragged him to me, having him kneel on the lowest step of my dias.
“You may go, Adom. I shall send a retainer with my decision,” I dismissed the chief lectern. I was not in the mood to make a decision of such importance in front of the priest. He would question and punch holes in anything I tried to say now. If it was handed over in writing, he would not argue. A strange habit of his, if it was written down, he treated it as law without question.
“Sir?” he asked, flicking a nervous glance between the wab and myself.
“You would think one untrained priest would be enough to fall your pharaoh? You do not trust your faith enough, I would point out, if you were to be seen by your mass,” I chastised.
“Yes, yes, sir,” he cowered at the reprimand before bowing himself out of the chamber, followed closely by the other two.
“Now, for you,” I turned my attention to the man Ptolemy was holding onto for me.
“My Lord?” Wash asked, his voice a soft tenor.
I rose from my throne and descended the steps quietly, my slippers slick on the polish. Standing on the same step he knelt on I looked down at his bowed head. I raised an eyebrow at Ptolemy who returned the glanc and let go of the man. I knelt down to the wab’s level while Ptolemy’s hand settled on his sword hilt.
I slipped a hand beneath his coils of black and white curls to find his cheek and drift to his jawline. He flinched at the contact. “Meet my eyes, wab.” They wanted me to pass judgement. I needed to find his soul first. What looked back at me was neither fawn nor viper. I found instead the ember at the end of an incense stick before the ash crumbled. A spark waiting to light. I smiled at that buried flame. “I might just find a good use for you yet, wab.”