Just a month later, on the night of her dear pharaoh’s birthday celebrations, Hath’s hands shook as she arranged the piles of ash within the box. Jee sat beside her, stony faced and quiet. Which is appropriate for today, she thought, as it was to be the day of Hath’s death. Funny, that as she prepared her death, she hid in a beer cellar, reciting sacred rites among rats and in the light of burning camel fat.
She stumbled over the chant several times, but managed to pick up the syllables before they completely fell. She tried not to think, but all the while memories of her father kept cropping up in her mind. He wouldn’t approve. This was a wasteful spell and it served Apep little, he would say, and mother would agree. But her heart was racing.
Soft now, whispered Apep. Gently. Soft…
Somewhere in the distance the music from her prince’s—now pharaoh’s—birthday party reached her. It sounded almost like a muffled waterfall of voices, edged by the chimes of bells and trill of flutes. Jee left her at one point to stand guard outside as she finished her spell. This was her last chance. She hadn’t been wise to procrastinate this spell till a few days before Kasmut’s presentation to the Pharaoh, but she had decided with herself to enjoy her own body for as long as possible before she must lose it. Deep down, however, she knew the real reason for putting off her spell: she had been afraid of dying, and was ashamed of it. But, even now, the question she avoided most floated to her mind: would it hurt?
Her tongue cramped again, and she had to breathe her way around a word.
She finished the song and closed the lid, careful to not unsettle any of the ash in its delicate patterns upon the bloodstained wood. Jee came in at her knock and looked at the box in her lap. His dark eyes reminded her of the prince’s for a moment, but no, the prince’s eyes were almond shaped, bright, and kind, not dark holes set into a heavy face.
Thinking of Xiusthamus brought the feeling back to her hands in a rush of warmth.
“Is she out yet?” Hath asked.
“Not yet. But I’ve counted four goblets so far.”
Hath felt a twinge of amusement amongst her unease. Of course Kasmut of all women would know how to hold her drink. Her mistress was immature, unaware, and gluttonous on her nobility to her last day.
Jee left once more to keep watch. On the other side of the cellar doors was a deep staircase that opened up to the corridor that surrounded the Great Hall of the Pharaohs, where most palace celebrations were held. As she sat in the semi-darkness, holding to the box as though it held her resolve, she thought how fitting it was that Egyptians kept their beer close by, being the drunken, greedy lot they were.
Her heart pounded in the quiet. Would it feel like suffocation when her heart stopped? Sweat dripped from the skin behind her knees, squished between her calves and thighs, but she didn’t shift to help it, afraid to unsettle the ash in her box. Besides, any discomfort to her body now wouldn’t matter soon.
When the door creaked open to announce Jee’s arrival, her teeth clenched and her veins filled with a fiery, animalistic instinct to run. She heard Kasmut’s muffled screams and nearly screamed herself. But then she thought of the prince—no, pharaoh, with his tender smiles and the kindness and thought of being his wife. The panic calmed to a cool peace.
Jee closed the door behind him, easily keeping the woman contained with his large, earth-worn hands.
Her mistress focused her eyes on Hath and the little camel fat candle. She tried to say something through the cloth around her mouth. Hath braced the box between two sacks of barley and Jee lowered Kasmut to the ground, the latter of which seemed to calm somewhat when she saw her slave. The two Kushites met each others’ eyes and Jee undid the cloth around Kasmut’s mouth.
“Hath? So this is where you’ve been, you bitch,” Kasmut scowled, though her eyes drooped a bit. “Get this man off of me. I have to pee.”
The knife, whispered Apep.
It glinted amber in the candlelight. Kasmut seemed to barely notice it as she was lolled her head about to look at the place, gaze unfocused.
“Hurry up, they’re bringing in some somersault people, whatever they’re called, but Anui said they could tie themselves up like flax. If I miss that because of you—”
Her sentence was choked off as Jee forced her head down, but kept her face toward Hath by her hair. She let out a gurgled grunt of surprise.
Hath hurried to angle her own neck over the box as she opened the lid and readied her knife on her own throat. The face of her pharaoh burned in her thoughts as she watched her mistress’s eyes widen. She didn’t hear her drunken curses as Jee brought her nose to nose with Hath.
This was her last chance to back out. After this her body, the one Xius had saved so many years ago, would be dead.
But he didn’t remember her, so what did it matter? Life without him wasn’t worth avoiding the gift of death.
Say it, hissed Apep.
“Come to my vessel,” breathed Hath. She could taste the rotten sweet smell of beer on Kasmut’s breath. “Let me into yours. Welcome your final release, and I will take up the burden of beginning. From one who has yet to dabble in making life, I offer my blood, to satisfy your soul for life.”
Hath didn’t even give herself a breath to think, but crashed her open mouth onto Kasmut’s, which had already been dangling open in confusion, and ran the knife hard across her own Kush throat.
It hurt. Her eyes burned with tears and a strangled cry, muffled by Kasmut’s mouth, rang in her ears. Kasmut had frozen beneath her lips, and through Hath’s open eyes she could see the faint line of the Egyptian’s irises contracting till only mud brown was left. But then she felt her lungs seize up. Her vision tunneled, and she found she couldn’t swallow anymore. Her body wouldn’t respond.
As the darkness closed in, she experienced at thrill of utter terror as her world flip flopped, her limbs disappeared, her senses vanished, and her mind drew blank.
My wishes will be granted.
Hath opened her eyes with a start, gasping furiously for air. Jee hung over her, face as stony as ever. Behind him she could see the flickering of the candlelight and smell the rusty tang of blood and the stench of urine. She felt dizzy, and oddly lighthearted, as though she had just jumped off a cliff and met with no harm whatsoever. She could taste the alcohol on her tongue and feel its familiar buzz in her blood.
“Jee?” she breathed.
He closed his eyes and bowed his head. “Thank Apep.”
Slowly, with a hand to her whoozy, light-as-air head, she sat up and let her eyes fall on the dark-limbed, bloody girl across the blood splattered box. The eyes of the body were wide and black in death. Her eyes.
“I kept you upright till the blood flow slowed,” said Jee. “I will escort you to her—your chambers to change before I deal with the body. I’m afraid you’re in no state to return to any party.”
Hath looked down at Kasmut’s cinnamon body wearing a urine drenched party dress. The ground beneath her teetered. A sensation of vertigo made her stomach turn.
Before she could tell him to back off so she could vomit in peace, she passed out.