From my latest WIP, due to come out February 2014, God willing and the creek don’t rise. ( © 2013 by Diana Wilder) Good Day’s work. Now to fiddle with it…
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The main character, Hori, has spent four years as an acolyte at a temple. As Crown Prince, he has been summoned back to court by his father, who is planning a campaign that will lead to the first international treaty in history. The scene opens with him leaving the army barracks (he is a general) and returning to his quarters to prepare for a state feast.
Hori could hear the roar of the feast in the distance. Drums, flutes… Laughter….
He spared a thought for the silences at Opet, the calm courtyards at the Temple of Ptah. Or the ringing, clear skies on the coast of Byblos… The stillness was still there, somewhere, if only within himself.
** ** **
“That is much better,” Neter said. Hori was wearing the lion-head pendant Gold of Honor his grandsire had awarded him after that difficult fight on the Libyan border. A cylindrical necklace awarded by General Djedi during Hori’s second campaign sat at the base of his throat. He shook his head at the broad collar. Too heavy, too ornate.
He slid a pair of plain gold armlets up either arm as Neter clasped two bracelets on his wrists.
Neter was frowning around the room. “Your diadem, My Prince— I don’t see it.”
“I will go bare-headed,” Hori said. He had tucked the jewel away in one of his chests just that morning. “It is late. There will be other feasts – and the wind can stir my hair tonight. There will be precious little wind in that throng otherwise!”
Neter smiled and shook his head. “There will be wind of another sort,” he said. “Your Royal Highness is wise.”
He is growing old, Hori thought, remembering how he had seen Neter serving his grandsire during the years Hori had been trained by King Seti. He had some wealth of his own. He could settle Neter in comfortable retirement when the man wanted it…
Neter unstoppered the small carnelian flask of kohl and inserted the rounded stick. “It will take a moment to refresh the kohl around your eyes. Do hold still this time, Highness: I don’t wish to have to explain to His Majesty why his eldest son has to wear a patch over his eye!”
Hori closed his eyes and raised his eyebrows. “It would tend to skew my archery,” he said through his teeth.
“Indeed it would.” Neter put the flask away. “You are ready, My Prince, although others will no doubt be wearing tunics of royal linen.”
“The more fool they. They think layers of cloth hides flabby stomachs. I have nothing to hide.” He grinned at Neter’s suppressed smile. “Thank you. Get some rest, yourself. I’ll put myself to bed when I return. And do you go to the master of the feast and tell him I have requested that you be given food and drink.” He took the small ring from his finger and gave it to Neter, then waited as the man swung the door open for him.
He seemed for a moment to be facing a long path that arrowed before him into the distance. He had not yet set foot upon it and at that moment he had the sense that once he took the step forward that would set him on that path, he would have no way to turn back, then or ever.
Behind him lay the aftermath of a tiring, satisfying day. Before him lay… He did not know, and it was for him to bring it into being. And yet—
He could turn back. Remain in his rooms, plead fatigue, plead—what? The press of duty? Where did his duty lie?
Did he truly have to ask?
He drew a deep breath and stepped into the dim hallway. The door closed softly behind him.
** ** **
His Majesty had set the feast in the palace’s western gardens, to catch the last glint of the sun upon Imhotep’s masterpiece. Hori moved softly along the dim walkway, his bare feet thudding upon the sand-cushioned ground. The afternoon breeze had risen and he could see the whirl and sweep of swallows chasing insects. One passed so close, he could feel the light breeze from its wings.
He could see the doorway in the distance. Dark wood doors firmly closed upon intruders, even as the Temple of Ptahwas giving a gala dole to those who were in need.
No doubt, Hori thought, remembering the years that he had been present at the dole in Opet.
The cool of the evening was yielding to increasing warmth. Hori could feel it building as he drew near the door, like the strengthening current of an unseen river. Warmth from the press of bodies, the air passing in and out of active lungs, the warmth rising from movement, from the blood pulsing through their veins.
What had seemed a murmur when he stepped into the hallway had grown to a rising hum. He could see a thread of light through the closed doors.
He hesitated. The air would be hot and stale, full of the fumes of beer and souring wine…
He took a step, another, and in his mind he could see himself turning away, moving down the hallway toward increasing brightness and his own rooms.
A thread of incense touched him and he could hear the wheedling of a flute beyond the doors. He paused, biting his lip. He suddenly knew that if he went through that door, it would be to step into a changed life.
You must lead yourself, Hori. If you do not go forward, you must go back. An army must move or die. His grandsire, King Seti, had said that while they were perched on the battlements of that fortress in Kush. And, truly, the thoughts of others, the way they see you, do not depend on you. Move on.
He turned to face Neter, who was panting behind him, clutching a pair of gold-adorned sandals.
“My prince—! Barefoot! It will not do!”
He took them from the man. “Thank you, Neter,” he said.
The man smiled, bowed, and turned away.
Hori frowned at the rich, chased leather and then, casting a quick glance behind him, tossed them into the dimness and faced the doors and the two guards flanking them, so silent that Hori, battle-trained as he was, had not seen them. They dropped to their knees, hands to chest, bowed, then rose and swung the doors wide.
The roar of the feast surged toward him in a swell of sound. He let it eddy around him and stepped forward into sudden silence.
A guest straightened and squared his shoulders. Another set down his cup with a click. Cuts of meat fell back into serving dishes. Servants straightened and stared
The silence deepened.
Ye gods! Have I stepped on the hem of my own kilt and pulled it off? Am I stripped to my shenti that they should gape so?
He lifted his chin. He would be damned if he peered down at himself and tweaked his garments. And if I am, then so be it.
A murmur grew. He heard his name, repeated and repeated until it was a roar itself.
He moved into the throng.
** ** **
Nefertari, smiled at the servant, shook her head at the wine, and nodded at the ewer of water, accepting a full cup a moment later. Her eyes were dry; she closed them and held the pose for a long moment. That was better.
Her husband was watching her. “It is hot,” she said.
He frowned and nodded to two servants bearing feather fans.
Rai and Mayet were sitting together, both smiling, though from Mayet’s straight smile and the stiff set of Rai’s shoulders some sort of quarrel was brewing. Was it too soon after Mayet’s confinement? Iyneferti might know. But from the way Rai was ogling that dancer- She blinked as he threw another ring and watched as the girl put it down the front of her loincloth.
She suppressed a chuckle, caught her daughter’s eye, and had to look away. The girl made her giggle like a new wife. Most embarrassing!
She frowned at the ewer. A sip would be wonderful. “Yes, thank you, good Tuti,” she said, and sipped. She looked up to see her husband smiling at her. The dancer was on her knees, bending back…
A hand closed around hers. She met her husband’s smiling gaze, relinquished the cup, and watched him turn it to sip from her side and hand it back under cover of the music.
She lowered her eyes. After five children and twenty years wed, he could still make her heart flutter even as she thought Oh, Ast, please: no more babies!
The cup was in her hands. She turned it, sipped, and set it down.
Movement at the doorway – a flurry among the servants, the doors swinging wide –
A man strode into the hall, tall, broad-shouldered with sun-browned skin and back hair. Gold glinted from wrists and upper arms, warrior’s gold hung at his neck and lay flashing against the satisfying swell of his chest.
The room was silent. He stepped forward into a sudden roarof sound, the crash of applause, a rising, wordless murmur that built to a crescendo, as palpable as a wall of water.
The man faltered, his dark eyes beneath straight brows flashing for a moment before the shoulders squared. He moved through the throng in the sudden silence, his eyes on hers –
Hori! Her heart leapt with delight. Her son – and such a son!
She beamed as he approached, rose as he went to one knee, his hands at his breast, his head lowered.
Her husband had risen and was speaking measured, warm words of greeting that she could not hear through the glad singing of her heart.
“Welcome home, my son!” she said to him as he raised her hand to his lips.
This is scheduled to be published early 2014. We’ll see how I do.,, Deadlines can be exhilarating – or truly annoying,