I am the King of the kings. I am the son of the falcon-headed Horus. I am the beginning. I am the end. I am the one who will live forever. I am Nimaatre Smenkhare Meriamun, the living god of the land of Kemet.
The golden boat of Re has finished its way in the celestial Nile and submerged in the darkness of Nun. I found myself wandering around the tombs of deceased kings who have already met Osiris in the Afterlife. I try to remember what I’m doing here in the middle of the night but fail. The night is dark and quiet. Khonsu’s crown shines brightly and lights my path with its cold silver light.
Quiet voices interrupt my thoughts. They sound from one of the tombs. Coming closer, I can see the dim light of torches. The voices sound louder. There is no doubt I’ve met the tomb robbers. Disgusting thieves, sons of dishonoured Seth, doomed to be punished in the Afterlife! Their souls will be eaten by the gigantic serpent Apophis and will be condemned to eternal death. They, who dare to steal from the kings, deserve nothing but a miserable death without a burial.
There are three of them on a doorstep of the underground tomb, ready to smash their way in, to defile king’s eternal peace, taking gold and jewellery, and all other of the king’s belongings, throwing his mummy out of its golden coffin.
I’m going to call my guards to arrest the robbers. Instead, my mouth produces a weird, heart-stopping scream. This scream belongs neither to a man nor to an animal. What is wrong with me? I can’t recognise my voice.
One of the robbers turns around. His face is pale like linen. His eyes stare at me in horror. He drops his torch and runs, leaving his peers and screaming like a lunatic. His friend shouts to him, but noticing me, just freezes on the spot.
‘The king… the spirit of the king,’ he mumbles in shock.
‘How dare you touch the royal tomb?’ I shout, trying to grab his shoulder, but my hand goes through his body and catches the air. I see the thief falling, his eyes are wide opened. I lean over him, trying to have a closer look. He has stopped breathing. He is dead. I have no chance to stop the last one as he disappears into the darkness, following his peer.
I sit down on the ground in front of the tomb, examining my hands and wondering what happened to the robbers, where my guards are, and what, for all the gods’ sake, I’m doing amongst the tombs at night. Struggling to follow the flow of my thoughts, I start to read the writing on the tomb. It is a traditional plate with the name of a king on the door’s seal.
Oh Thoth, the Adviser of the kings, give me all your divine wisdom and knowledge! The king’s name on the plate is… Userkaf Smenhkare Meriamun, the name of my brother. And straight away, I see the face of Userkaf in front of me. He is my exact copy. Even our mother, the Great King’s Wife, queen Nefriru, couldn’t distinguish us. We are the same height, with the same short black hair, the same big black eyes, the same straight long nose, which we have inherited from our great father. We were born together, yet I was the first who came out of the queen’s blessed belly. I was the one and the only heir to the throne. My brother, Userkaf, was brought up to become Chief Priest of Amun-Re, but he always desired more. Always jealous, always despising me, always wanted to be the first.
I remember his face, but it’s blurry. I feel the cold water filling my ears and mouth. I can’t breathe. I try to break free, but my brother’s hand is squeezing my throat tighter and tighter. I try to push him, to call for help, but my efforts are weakening. I’m not a good swimmer. I never have been. The grimaced face of my brother, an agonizing blurry reflection of myself… then… here I am. I am dead.
I cry, ‘Oh immortal gods, I call on you! Let me take my revenge. Let me free the throne of Isis from the usurper. Let me be judged by Osiris in the Underworld. Let me travel together with Amun-Re in his golden boat in the skies and let the name of my brother be forgotten forever.’
The light of the oil lamps and torches is fading, and the whole palace is going to fall asleep. Only heavy steps of guards in the corridors and the murmur of fountains in the gardens break the silence of the chambers.
I don’t remember how I appeared here. I just wished to come back home to my palace in Niwt-Imn, to see my wife, young and beautiful Mutnefert, and our son, my only heir, Senenmut. I wish everything that has happened to me was a dream, a bad nightmare sent to me by the demons of the night. I wish to wake up. I wish…. to be alive.
I enter my chambers and… Oh Seth, I can’t bear to see my beloved wife in the arms of my brother, the murderer Userkaf. Using our similarity, he took my throne, my name, and now… he sleeps in my bed with my wife. She has been tricked the same way as all others. She believes that it was Userkaf who drowned in a river, not me. It was an accident, the will of Hapy, the river god who took Userkaf to his underwater palace. Of course, it was a lie she’s been told.
I’m afraid they can notice me. Coming closer to the bed, I realise they both are deep asleep.
My Mutnefert, my great queen, my only love. I always loved her. I have been in love with her since I was twelve, and she was only ten, but my brother desired her as well. When our mother, the Great King’s Wife died, our divine father took Mutnefert as his new Great Wife, but he was too ill and too old. As soon as he joined Osiris in the Underworld, Mutnefert and I married. Userkaf couldn’t control his passion, though. He tried to seduce her a few times, but she loved me. She has always been the most loyal of my wives. Oh, Atum, the creator of the world and all people, give me a body, and I will claim everything back from my brother. I will take my revenge.
I am only ten, but I can read and write fluently. I am short but strong and agile. My father always took me hunting lions and panthers. I have even caught one for my little managerie. My father told me that I was born to be a warrior. I was born to be a king, but I am preparing for the life of a scribe. The almighty gods have sealed my voice inside my throat, so I can’t speak. I never could tell the truth. I never could tell that my uncle Userkaf drowned my father and took his name and his crown. I am just a boy now. My life is under threat. I am scared to death. Why, oh almighty gods? Why have you chosen this body? The body of my only son, Senenmut?
I sit now at the reception chamber together with three king’s scribes and write everything that is said in the king’s presence.
‘…And you are informing me about this situation only now, Great Vizier?’ The king sits on his golden throne. His head is crowned with a high fancy headdress. Tiny golden bees, colourful butterflies, and lotus flowers made from the lapis-lazuli move with his head’s every movement. Long golden earrings shine in his ears. Heavy wide bracelets decorate his wrists and ankles. His lips shine with a golden balm. He smells of lotus and rose oils. He wears my long robe and richly decorated sandals. He doesn’t hesitate to take everything from me.
Ineni, the Great Vizier and the major of Niwt-Imn, kneels. He leans lower and lower until his forehead touches the floor. Ineni is fat, old, and a coward. His bald round head is shines with sweat. He is afraid to make his lord angry, but doesn’t hesitate to tell him the latest rumours.
‘I didn’t want to bother my king with the information that hasn’t been proven yet. I just wanted to wait to be sure that—’ he mumbles under his heavy breath.
‘To wait? To wait for what? For the prince of Kush and his allies to summon a new army? When their barbarian soldiers will stay at the city’s gates?’ the king sounds furious.
Ineni crawls on his fat belly, coming closer to the king, kissing his toes with gold-covered nails.
The ruler only grimaces. ‘Do the viceroy and his chieftains remember that their sons were brought here by my father during his last campaign and have been living here ever since? Does he remember that his oldest daughter is one of my wives?’
‘There is something else, my Lord, you should know,’ the vizier whispers, looking behind his back at me and other scribes.
‘What is it? Speak!’ Userkaf waves.
‘The rumours are spreading in the city, Your Majesty. People keep talking…’ Ineni stammers.
‘What? Speak! Your king orders you.’ He presses his sceptre to the vizier’s head and raises his chin, staring into his eyes.
‘My sources reported that some of the high priests are involved as well. I’ve been informed that the viceroy has offered a deal to the priest of Sobek, the governor of the south who believes that… that you, our divine Nimaatre Smenkhare Meriamun, have been killed by your twin brother.’
The king only laughs, but I see his face goes paler. ‘Tell the priest of Sobek his suspicions are absolutely baseless. I would like to talk to him with regards to all the nasty rumours he spreads. As for our viceroy, I think I need to remind him to whom he should be grateful for allowing him on the throne of Kush.’
He grins, and I feel a chill runs down my backbone.
I follow the king to his private chambers, trying to be as quiet as possible. Nephthys, the goddess of the night, has covered me with her dark veil. I am almost invisible, hiding behind wide lotus-shaped columns of halls and corridors.
Tiyu, my Kushite wife and another victim of Userkaf’s deceit, has already been brought here and been waiting for the king. He comes into the room and nods to the guards to leave them alone. I have no choice but to cringe behind the nearest column. If somebody notices me here, I will be beaten fiercely.
‘Ah, my gorgeous wife.’ My brother smirks, circling like a kite around its prey. ‘I haven’t seen you since the day of our wedding. We need to see each other more often.’
She looks different from all other queens. She’s taller than women from Kemet, and her long hair is wavy. She has been brought here as a guarantor of peace between my country and Kush, and I took her as my third wife. I love my Mutnefert and I am not interested in other women. I am not like my lascivious brother who’s obsessed with sensual pleasures. He has lots of women, spending almost every night with a new one or sometimes even with a few.
‘Life, prosperity, and health to Your Majesty. I’m happy to serve you, my Lord,’ she whispers, all her slim body starts to shiver.
‘If so, you need to talk to your father, the viceroy. Tell him to go back to his nest and sit there quietly, if he wants to save his crown, his land, his…’ He touches her chin. ‘And your heads.’
She closes her eyes. Her body shivers even more. ‘My Lord, my divine husband, I am sure you’ve been mistaken. Whoever told you this about my father, told you lies.’ She falls on her knees in front of him and starts to cry. ‘My father is the most loyal servant you have.’
He doesn’t want to listen to her anymore. He grabs her long curly hair and smashes her head onto a low table.
It’s unbearable to hear her scream. If only I could help, could stab a sword between his shoulders, but I am only a boy and I am scared to death. I hold my breath, trying not to cry, not to show my presence.
He squeezes her neck. ‘Now, you can write to your father how women in Kemet’s villages felt when his soldiers raided my lands.’
I leave my hiding place and hurry to my chambers.
I can’t feel my body. Am I a spirit again? I find myself in the king’s dinner chamber now. I can see the whole room, but nobody can see me. I am a spirit, an incorporeal being, something that doesn’t belong to the world of men.
The king enjoys his dinner, surrounded by his cupbearers, musicians, half-naked dancers, fan bearers, and all kinds of servants and slaves. Ineni, the Great Vizier, is also presented. Userkaf reclines on a low sofa, a golden band in the shape of a cobra crowns his short black hair, smothered by coconut oil. He wears a long white kilt. One of the slave girls massages his naked shoulders and neck.
Ineni fills his goblet with wine instead of a cupbearer, whispering the latest gossip in the king’s ear. I know what is in his mind. I can read this shameful plotter’s thoughts.
My father gave the title of the governor of the Southern Land to Hapuseneb, the priest of Sobek, the man of the greatest wisdom, experience, and honour. His family has been loyal to our house for many generations. Ineni couldn’t bear such a turn. Addicted to limitless power as much as my brother, he’s tried to overthrow Hapuseneb many times but failed. He knows his time is coming now.
The musicians play a simple quiet tune, and the half-naked dancers gyrate and flex in their fancy dance.
The king strokes his favourite cat. The embodiment of the great goddess Bastet purrs happily. Golden bracelets decorate its four paws; a golden collar embraces its neck.
Ineni wants to say something to the king, but the appearance of the chief guard interrupts him.
‘Life, prosperity, and health to Your Majesty,’ the man starts, kneeling in front of the king.
‘Speak in the presence of the immortal god.’ Ineni waves to him, waddling and puffing on his low sofa like a hippopotamus on a river’s bank.
‘Forgive me my intrusion, my Lord, but Harmachis, the chief of Your Majesty’s chariotery, begs to see you now.’
‘Harmachis? Harmachis, the son of Hapuseneb, my wisest and the most loyal governor?’ Userkaf chuckles.
‘His Majesty is relaxing, don’t you see? How dare you interrupt the rest of God?’ Ineni gets up from his couch. ‘The audience time is tomorrow morning. You know the—’
Userkaf waves. ‘Bring Harmachis to me.’
Ineni only grimaces.
The guard bows and opens the door, letting the young man in.
‘Speak in His Majesty’s presence!’ Ineni proclaims from his place to a kneeled Harmachis.
‘Life, prosperity, and health to Your Majesty, may you live forever,’ Hapuseneb’s son starts under his breath.
Userkaf makes an impatient gesture, ordering him to be as brief as possible.
‘I beg you, my Lord, for my father. He’s been ordered to come here, to the capital. He is kept under home arrest in his villa on the west bank. He’s—’
‘Your father is accused of treason and sabotage. Tomorrow, he will be questioned by my chief of security. This shameful case will be investigated. If you believe that he hasn’t done anything wrong, if you don’t question his loyalty to the throne, why are you so worried? I’m sure if his heart is pure, he will be able to prove this to my investigators.’ Userkaf makes a circle around the young man and gestures him to rise from his knees.
‘My Lord, I don’t question your fair judgement. I know that the gods advise you. Your voice is the voice of Maat, the goddess of truth and justice. She can’t be mistaken. She can’t accuse an innocent servant of Your Majesty in treason. But there are so many people, my Lord, who are jealous and sneaky. They are pulling a veil of lies in front of your divine eyes, trying to distract you from Maat’s wise advice—’
All of Harmachis’s wordy speeches are in vain. My brother doesn’t listen. He circles the young charioteer, staring at his longish golden hair, his pale skin, bewildered by his deep blue eyes.
‘You look different,’ he says finally, paying no attention to Harmachis’s pleas.
‘My mother, my father’s second wife, was from the Sea People’s country. I inherited her features, my Lord,’ Harmachis sounds confused.
‘I hope you inherited from her such features like loyalty, honour, and integrity, because none of them I can see in your father.’
‘My Lord, I—’
‘It’s enough speeches for today.’ Userkaf turns away from him. ‘I question your father’s loyalty, not yours… at least, not at the moment. Take a seat, have dinner with us, tell us how dedicated you are to your duties and your king.’ A mysterious smile crosses my brother’s lips.
Harmachis takes a seat on the floor, next to the king’s sofa. Userkaf makes a gesture to his slaves, and they fill a goblet with wine for the king’s guest.
The cat, unhappy about the disturbance, jumps on its place next to the king and starts to purr again, begging for food.
Userkaf smiles and gives it a piece of a roasted duck. It purrs even louder, enjoying the bit, licking the king’s fingers in gratitude.
‘You see, he knows who’s in charge.’ The king nods at the cat. ‘He’s loving and loyal to his master. Sometimes he’s like my people—forgets his place and starts to bite and scratch the hand that feeds him, strokes him, and gives him shelter. When he does this, I need to show him who’s a master here, and he becomes pleasant and obedient again.’
Harmachis chokes on his wine. His eyes look at the king with hope, ready for everything to save his father’s life, title, and honour of his family.
‘Why don’t you eat your meal? These duck and figs are delicious.’ Userkaf takes one of the baked figs and offers it to Harmachis. ‘Try it. Don’t upset your king even more.’
‘I’ll do everything to please you, my king,’ he murmurs, taking a fig from the king’s hands with his lips.
Userkaf’s narrow eyebrows arch. ‘Leave us alone,’ he orders.
One by one, the servants leave the chamber. Ineni doesn’t move from his low couch.
‘You’ve heard me, Great Vizier.’ The king doesn’t look at Ineni, he stares at the young charioteer, tempted by his eyes, his golden hair, his big lips.
I am a little scribe again. I sit on a low bench together with two other scribes and watch the king reinstating the priest of Sobek in his duties.
Hapuseneb kneels in front of Userkaf, his chief of security, and the vizier. His body shakes under the long white robe. All his jewellery was taken away from him on the first day of his home arrest and given to the king’s treasury. His shaved head is covered by ashes in a tribute of grief and obedience.
‘His Majesty the King, may he live forever, honours you with his forgiveness,’ Ineni proclaims, and the scribes start to scratch on their papyri, trying to catch every word.
I start to write down as well, but instead of words, I draw. I draw what I can’t say aloud. I draw my plan, the plan of my revenge.
‘The mercy of our king is truly limitless,’ Ineni continues. ‘He deigns not only to save your life and honour of your family from the greatest shame but also he leaves you to perform your duties as a priest of Sobek, the lord of all waters. However, taking into consideration all the charges against you, His Majesty orders you to be suspended from the post of the governor of the Southern Land.’
Userkaf nods in support of his words. ‘Remember, Hapuseneb, I’m watching you.’
‘I’m grateful to His Majesty for his mercy. I know Maat, who always judges fairly, advises my king that there is no guilt on me. I know, oh the greatest of the kings, that the Eye of Re guides you through the darkness of lies to the light of truth. It shows you my loyalty is undoubted.’ Hapuseneb raises his eyes to the king.
Userkaf gestures him to rise from his knees. ‘I’m very pleased that you finally understood the seriousness of the accusations against you, Hapuseneb.’ He smiles his crooked smile. ‘Try not to disappoint me again.’ He takes a step closer to the priest. ‘Next time, even your son, who is very sweet with me, won’t be able to save you.’
He turns around and leaves the chamber. Ineni, the chief of security, scribes, fan bearers, and all other servants follows their lord.
I glance at Hapuseneb. He stands still, his head is bowed, his eyes are full of tears. I approach to him and take his hand. I give him my drawings. I stare into his eyes. My drawings… they are showing him how I’ve been killed by my brother. They are showing him the future. He knows now the favour of the king costs his son dearly. He knows what to do. He accepts his fate. He is ready for his revenge, and so am I.
It is a huge feast in the palace. My brother adores such types of entertainment when he’s partying till late at night, getting drunk with his generals and chief officers.
I am too young for the feast. I am supposed to sleep in my chamber as all little princes do, but I am here, hiding behind a column. I am here. I feel the future. I don’t know how, but I feelwhat is going to happen.
The music plays louder and louder, drunken guests try to dance, shouting, laughing, and falling on low couches. Userkaf is on his low sofa, embracing one of the slave girls. He looks tipsy and bored. His usual entertainment doesn’t amuse him anymore.
‘Where is Harmachis? Where is my favourite and most loyal friend?’ He turns to one of his guests. ‘Why doesn’t he celebrate with us?’
The officer sends one of the servants for Harmachis, but after some time, he returns alone.
My brother frowns. He doesn’t like to wait, even less he likes to ask for something twice. He sends the chief of security to bring him Harmachis immediately. A couple of hours pass before the chief of security returns. Userkaf is drunk and furious, but he doesn’t want to show it to his guests.
‘My Lord.’ The officer kneels in front him. ‘We’ve found him.’
‘Where is he? Where has he been? You make me wait… again.’
‘I didn’t mean to disappoint you, my Lord, but…’ The officer struggles. ‘Harmachis was arrested this morning together with Your Majesty’s wife, queen Tiyu, when they tried to cross the border with Kush.’
‘What?’ Userkaf jumps from his couch. ‘Why? How? It is… it is…’ he stammers, his eyes shine in anger.
‘It is treason, my Lord.’ The officer bows his head lower.
‘Why did you hide it from me?’
‘I didn’t want to upset my king until we would know the details of their plot. I know, oh my Lord, that Harmachis is very close to Your Majesty—’
‘Where are they now?’
‘Queen Tiyu is under arrest. She is locked in her private chambers. It was the order of the Great Vizier. Harmachis is in prison. He is waiting to be interrogated.’
‘Question them, torture if needed, and send my treacherous wife back to her father with the greatest dishonour. Make Harmachis suffer as he makes me suffer from his treason.’
The king’s army like a cloud of sand moves south-east to the land of Kush. The king is in a chariot of fine gold, adorned with his accoutrements like Horus, the lord of action, like the war god Montu, like Sobek, the lord of the waters. The royal serpent on his crown spills fire. Trumpets sound, troops start their march down the hill to meet the enemy’s army. Hundreds of thousands of Kushite soldiers are killed. Hundreds of officers and aristocrats are captured. Beja, the viceroy of Kush, and all his family follow the king’s chariot as the most precious trophy of the king’s victory.
I am a bodiless spirit again. I observe the battlefield, captured by the whirlwind of countless dead soldiers’ souls—free and wild, just like I am. .
The battlefield is covered with dead bodies, abandoned without a burial. The rivers of Kush turn red, filled with blood. Cities are in ruins, and the moaning of Kushite wives is spreading all over this endless desert. Sekhmet, the ferocious mother of war, has a rich harvest of souls in these lands.
Userkaf took his revenge. Surrounded by his officers and generals, he returns to Niwt-Imn to worship the gods, who granted him the victory.
The king disembarks from his royal barge at a quay on a riverbank and looks up at two obelisks of red granite with golden pyramids atop. This is the threshold of the house of deities. This is a gateway to another world that is accessible only for the king and the priests. Crowned with the double crown and carrying the ceremonial flail and the sceptre, with an artificial beard made from fine golden threads, he sits on a golden throne on a long pole, supported by bearers.
The procession passes the main gates and enters the first square court. It crawls through the endless gateways, roofless courts with sacred lakes, and halls with columns, where the light shades gradually, preparing the king and his retinue for the meeting. The king with his eyes half-closed looks focused.
His body has been cleaned by the waters of a sacred lake. The priests purified him by burning holy oils and giving him special salts to chew and so to make his mouth clean and ready for the uttering of his prayers. His body is fully prepared for the conversation with the gods, but his mind is as dark as the waters of the Nile. His heart knows no mercy.
I’ve assisted priests in purification as it was the will of the king. Userkaf wants to get rid of me as he’s already done once. Is he afraid of his ten-year old nephew? Is he afraid of me spying on him and, one day, taking over his throne? He wants me to become a priest of Sobek now. He wants to lock me up in the temple, far away from the court.
It is the time to worship the river god, Sobek-Re, who gives mightiness to the king, who makes the king’s heart fearless, who makes the king’s body unreachable for arrows and spears, who protects him in a battle.
The king enters the shrine, and I follow him as that is what he wishes. There are only the king, Hapuseneb, and I in the chamber.
I carry a richly decorated casket—the offering to the god. My hands are numb. The horrible content of the casket makes me feel dizzy.
The first words of a hymn start from somewhere above the ceiling, and the service begins. There is a huge pond in the middle of the chamber. In its sacred waters, the embodiments of Sobek enjoy their meal. The king offers the first bloody piece of meat, and one of the divine creatures opens its massive jaws with razor-sharp fangs. Its brothers and sisters, feeling the smell of blood hiss and gnash their teeth, ready for the feast.
The spicy fume of the lamps fills the chamber, the hymn sounds louder. Userkaf is on his knees in front of Sobek’s statue. Only the pond separates him from the deity. He takes the casket from my hands and, slightly turning it to Hapuseneb, pronounces a short prayer, ‘Oh Great Father of all the waters, oh mighty Sobek-Re! Please, accept this offering from your obedient son.’ The king opens the casket.
Poor Hapuseneb screams in horror. The head of his son, Harmachis, stares at him from the casket.
Userkaf grins. ‘I’m sure that my Lord, mighty Sobek, enjoys the taste of the traitor. The pieces I’ve offered him belonged to the body of your handsome but disloyal son.’
Hapuseneb’s eyes are full of tears. He saw this scene in my drawings long ago. The reality hurts even worse.
I open my mouth, and for the first time in my short life the sound as loud as thunder comes out, ‘Murderer! Murderer and usurper!’
Userkaf tries to rise from his knees, but I push him forward and…
The powerful and bloodthirsty embodiments of Sobek are ready for a new portion of the offering. The king screams and shouts, but the heavy wooden doors are too thick. Nobody from the outside can hear his screams.
The pond turns blood red. Userkaf stretches his hand, covered in blood, trying to get out of the pond, but Hapuseneb has no mercy. He steps on the king’s fingers and pushes him back. A few minutes later, Sobek is satisfied with his offering.
Hapuseneb looks into my eyes with sadness and hope. I give him the casket. He kisses Harmachis’s forehead and turns to me. He dashes to open the heavy doors. He falls on his knees and proclaims, ‘Long life and prosperity to the king, may you live forever!’ I am the King of the kings. I am the son of the falcon-headed Horus. I am the beginning. I am the end. I am Nimaatre Smenkhare Meriamun, the living god of the land of Kemet. I am the son of immortal gods and I will live forever.
Valeriya says about her life:
“I am a multi-genre author from the United Kingdom. I studied History and earned my Master’s Degree in Art Expertise at St. Petersburg University of Culture and Arts. Born in Belarus, I’ve lived for many years in Ukraine and Russia before settling down in the north of England. Apart from creative writing, I have a passion for travels, arts, history, and foreign languages. My short stories and essays have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, including The Copperfield Review, Meet Cute Mag, Bewildering Stories, The Pine Cone Review, and Strange Fiction SF & F ‘Zine.“