Copyright 2016 by Robert Hill
Bastet appeared in Khepri’s dream as a slender, smoky mau adorned only with a gold ring dangling from her right ear, accenting the flecks of yellow in her bright green cat’s eyes. She stood upon Khepri’s sheet-covered stomach, glaring at him as he lay in bed.
“Pharoah, there is someone within your house who will try to harm the woman who bears your yet unborn child. You must guard against this,” Bastet said, her voice purring to him through the mists of his dream.
Khepri stared into Bastet’s feline eyes and asked, “But who would harm Naunakht?”
Bastet ran her tongue against the smoky-spotted, black fur of her right shoulder, hesitating for a moment. Then she looked at him. “Even the gods do not know through whom fate will strike. Only that it will if left unchecked.”
Bastet wished she could have been more precise as she continued to peer at him. But it was true; neither she nor any of the gods knew which path the future would take. Unlike the supposed god of the Hebrew slaves, Bastet and her fellow deities were not omniscient.
“Khepri Amenokpara, listen to me closely,” she whispered. “Should your child perish before he can succeed you, chaos will consume Egypt. It is his destiny. Your heir will bring about a renewed age of prosperity and end this current period of unrest and social decay which has set upon the land.”
“But if it is destiny, then why warn me to guard against murder? If it is destiny, then it is destined to be,” said Khepri. “Please explain, for I do not understand.”
The black fur outline of a scarab, which was etched within the fur upon her forehead, wrinkled as Bastet’s brow furrowed and her eyes narrowed. “Always in motion is the future, changing its course like the Nile itself. But Ra sees only two paths forking off from this present moment. Events will unfold on this day that will determine which path the future follows. And Pharoah, I strongly warn you. The person who will strike against Naunakht will be someone very close.”
Khepri leaned forward on his elbows, the white sheets of his bed slipping from his dark, hairless chest, even though he was still wrapped tight within his dream. “Then tell me who it is that will attempt this. Give me some clue to prevent it from happening.”
“As I said, we do not know,” Bastet replied, slipping from his stomach and slinking up the side of the bed to stand close to Khepri’s ear. “But I will tell you that it is Ra’s will that I, as the goddess of fertility, come to seek this person out and to guide the future down the correct path by preventing Naunakht’s death, and therefore the unborn child’s as well.”
“But how?” Khepri glanced at her sideways as her whiskers brushed his cheek. His voice was strained with desperation.
“Just guard her well on this day, Pharoah, and leave the murderer to me,” Bastet purred.
And then she melted into the haze of Khepri’s dream, hoping that her warning would aid in her mission to set the future along the correct path that Ra had foreseen.
It would not be so simple a task, either, even for a goddess, as random actions of mortals were nearly impossible to predict or control. Bastet wished she could; however, discovering a would-be murderer was not one of her natural talents. She was not equipped as was Anubis, who could use his scales to weigh the souls of men and see the righteousness of their lives. Nor did she have the sort of power, other than her feline claws, to stop an attack upon Naunakht even if she learned the murderer’s true identity. But she could not argue with Ra. Surely he knew Bastet was the only one suited to this task for reasons he would not disclose to her.
Several hours passed and the sun moved across the cloudless skies over Egypt, while Bastet kept a watchful eye upon Naunakht and the Pharoah and those who came to visit them in his throne room on this fateful day.
Presently, Bastet sat on her feline haunches and peered around the curve of a great pillar; one of many that lined the walls of Khepri’s throne room, keeping her hidden even from the Pharoah himself, who sat on his chair with Naunakht sitting at his sandaled feet upon the steps to his throne.
Bastet could smell the perfumed aromas wafting from the burning cone set atop Naunakht’s braided hair. It had the smell of jasmine mingled with lotus as the greased cone’s wick flickered atop her head. The scent pervaded the air, relaxing Bastet, somewhat, despite the grim task set before her.
She had decided to remain in her animal guise, for cats were not accosted by wary guards, as Bastet would have been had she changed back into her natural state as that of a lovely human female. Not even Akil, the Pharoah’s tall, muscular bodyguard, who stoically loomed over Khepri’s left shoulder, would deign to question her presence should his steely eyes catch sight of her. Many cats freely roamed the palace of the Pharoah and one more would not be noticed.
Khepri, at this moment, had summoned his two younger siblings and had just formally announced to them that Naunakht, a mere noblewoman, would bear his heir. Bastet hoped that her observations of this audience would help her determine who amongst those present would be the harbinger of death by gauging their reactions to this proclamation.
From her unobtrusive vantage point, just to the left of Khepri’s gold-inlaid chair, she could see that Menkaura, the Pharoah’s younger and smaller brother, and Umayma, his slender sister, were now brooding over this scandalous turn of royal events. They paced amongst their loose circle of attendants and personal guards. Both were clearly agitated, like ibises defending their nests from a prowling crocodile. Studying them, Bastet knew that these two were the most likely suspects to a murder not yet committed.
Khepri’s brother stopped pacing and turned to him. “Only a woman of the royal line can bear the next Pharoah. You know this cannot be allowed,” Menkaura said, his nostrils flaring like a bull’s.
Khepri’s knuckles turned white as his grip upon the royal flail in his right hand tightened. “Your arguments are merely academic at this point. Naunakht already carries our child within her womb. What is done is done. And if it is a male child, he will become Pharoah one day.”
Khepri’s tone appeared to have an effect, for Menkaura’s dark expression changed to one of supplication. “But Pharoah, surely it is not too late to alter these circumstances.”
Khepri froze, his eyes glaring at Menkaura. “That will not happen!” he said. “My heir will be allowed to enter into this world. There will be no intervention.”
“But Khepri, she is not one of us. She does not share our blood,” Menkaura said, pointing at Naunakht as she sat in silence upon the steps.
Naunakht, however, was not directly staring back at Menkaura, from what Bastet could tell. Rather, she was gazing through Khepri’s siblings and their entourage of attendants as if they were not even there.
Bastet noticed that Naunakht was indeed a beautiful woman. She practically glowed, even in the midst of turmoil. Her dark blue eyes were like glittering sapphires, and her long, plaited wig of ebony hair flowed across her shoulders, contrasting with the unsoiled linen of her pleated white gown.
Bastet easily understood how Khepri had found himself so captivated by her. In fact, she and the other gods were watching at that moment when the Pharoah first met her. Naunakht’s father had been invited to attend one of the Pharoah’s festivities aboard his royal river barge. When Khepri’s eyes fell upon her, she was the blooming lily surrounded by a cluster of reedy women. And in that instant no other woman would do except for the enchanting beauty now seated beneath him.
“But Pharoah,” Menkaura continued, “what possible reason could have driven you to decide to have an heir by a woman not of the royal line?”
Khepri stood, pointing his flail at his brother. “Reason? What more reason do I need than I am Pharoah?”
Menkaura suddenly stepped forward, causing Bastet’s pointy ears to flatten and her lithe, black smoke-colored body to tense.
Behind the Pharoah’s left shoulder, Akil smoothly slid his hand to the scimitar at his waist the instant Menkaura moved. Akil would have followed through, but Khepri turned his head toward him, warning with his almond-colored eyes that the bodyguard should keep his place.
Menkaura, however, appeared oblivious to Akil’s potential threat as he looked directly at Khepri. “Brother, I understand your feelings for Naunakht. But for five generations we have maintained the purity of this dynasty. The Pharoah cannot ignore tradition. By this action you will alter the bloodline.”
The neatly garbed, smooth-shavened, and manicured Menkaura was always concerned about appearances and tradition and family honor. As second born, he had nothing else to attend to except being the conservative counsel to his older brother on such matters – an older brother who rarely listened, too.
Ra himself had once mentioned to Bastet that the forces of chaos must have intervened when Khepri was born first. As Pharoah he had ruled benevolently and with wisdom, but the gods had always felt that had Menkaura been Pharoah, he would have ruled better, for he was firmly fixed upon principles and traditions that had maintained order throughout the centuries of Egypt’s glory.
The tradition Menkaura now spoke of called for the heir to the Pharoah to be conceived with a woman of the Royal Family, preferably the oldest sister. In this case, Umayma would have been the one to conceive. If not for Khepri falling into Naunakht’s loving embrace, Umayma would have been the Great Royal Wife and Queen of Egypt. Now all that had changed.
Bastet noticed the hard stare in the Pharoah’s eyes as he peered at Menkaura. “What Naunakht will add to the line of our family will not taint the blood of god-kings. It will only serve to enhance it.”
Menkaura stepped back, displaying the thin lips of vexation. “What the Pharoah risks is total chaos, not only for the throne, but for all of Egypt. The people will never accept this union.”
Surely Menkaura realized he was walking upon a dagger’s edge by making such a statement. Even Bastet could see this as she looked at the Pharoah and saw his eyes narrow and his jaw tighten.
“Perhaps the people will not, my brother,” Khepri said. “But then it is not a decision for them to make.”
Menkaura dared point his finger at the Pharoah. “It may not be a decision for them to make. But make it they will, I assure you of that, my brother.”
He whirled about, signaling to his attendants and guards to follow as he turned his back upon the Pharoah and marched out of the throne room without permission.
Khepri stared after him for a long, angered moment. Bastet also watched from the corner of her eye as Menkaura exited. She began to wonder if indeed she had found her killer. The younger brother certainly had the motive. His values and sense of family honor would not stand for this union. And his insolence by storming out of the throne room without being discharged by the Pharoah smacked of unbridled rage.
Once Menkaura was gone, the Pharoah glanced at Umayma, trying to maintain a calm tone despite the way he gripped his crook and flail at his sides. “Am I to assume you oppose this as well, sister?”
Umayma glared back at him with her charcoal eyes, and the struggle to hide her displeasure was clearly lost upon the battlefield of her slender face.
“It would be dishonest if I told Pharoah I was happy with this decision,” she said. “But you are Pharoah. If this is what you desire, I will abide by it.”
Staring at her, Bastet tried to discern whether Umayma’s words were sincere. A woman, as Bastet well knew, could easily hide the truth if it fit her needs. But even a goddess, powerful in many ways, could not read Umayma’s thoughts.
Bastet harbored serious doubts that Umayma would sit back idly and honor Khepri’s decision. And only the unknowing future would be able to attest to that, which made Bastet increasingly uncomfortable, for of either sibling she still could not fathom which would commit murder – or if there might yet be another person hidden in the fog of destiny. At this point, though, Bastet was leaning more toward Menkaura.
The Pharoah gently sat down upon his chair and rested his crook and flail on the lap of his ankle-length kilt. “Your support is duly noted, sister. You shall be compensated and cared for as a Queen of Egypt. Now go, for I must now have time to contemplate.”
With deferential bows, Umayma, along with her attendants and guards, exited the throne room.
Naunakht, however, remained seated at Khepri’s feet, still stone-faced in spite of what had just transpired. But when all who remained were Khepri’s servants and Akil still looming over his right shoulder, Naunakht turned to the Pharoah. From Bastet’s vantage she could see the tears welling in Naunakht’s eyes, threatening to ruin the black outline of kohl bordering her lids and the malachite paint surrounding them.
Khepri set his crook and flail aside and leaned forward onto the edge of his throne, placing a hand upon Naunakht’s shoulder. Bastet felt a pang in her stomach sympathetic with the pain these two surely shared at this moment.
“Menkaura will never agree to this,” Naunakht said, her chin trembling under the weight of her tears. “I fear he will rise like an asp and strike against you.”
Khepri fixed a slight smile upon his face, and spoke in a gentle tone. “He will not. I am Pharoah, and he knows his place. If I were weaker than he, perhaps. But that is not the case.”
Bastet continued to watch them as she reflected upon this statement. Surely Khepri did not totally believe this. It was clear that what had transpired had caused a rift between the two brothers; one that could lead to a political, if not murderous, confrontation.
“I wish you did not love me,” Naunakht whispered, rubbing her tears against the hand Khepri had placed upon her shoulder. “Send me away. Do not bring this upon yourself – upon Egypt. Our wedding and our child will be your undoing.”
Khepri stood, pulling Naunakht up with him, and grasped her firmly by both arms. Anger erupted across his face. “I will not send you away! Brother and sister may not like it. But then they do not have to, for their approval is not sought. You shall be the Great Royal Wife and the mother of our child.”
“But Khepri, they will never accept this.” Naunakht’s hands rose to her slightly swollen abdomen as if to protect the child growing within.
“They have no choice,” he muttered.
Bastet forced her gaze away for a moment. Although she was a goddess, she also felt the pain of these two mortal beings. A bitter taste washed over her rough tongue as she tried not to dwell on this, but rather on what she had to do to ensure the unborn child survived.
“Go refresh yourself,” Khepri said, his thumbs tenderly wiping away the tears clinging to Naunakht’s smudged cheeks. “I will come for you shortly.”
Naunakht nodded, pulling away from him, and then she descended the steps of the throne. Bastet watched her leave, noticing how Naunahkt held up her chin as she regained her composure.
Khepri turned to Akil. “Escort her to her chambers and let none enter at the cost of their lives.”
The silent bodyguard nodded and then tread quickly to follow Naunahkt. Once they had departed, Khepri sighed and returned to his chair.
Momentarily, his vizier, Badru, entered the room and began discussing with Khepri the revenue reports for the past quarter and of troubles stirring in the south with the often rebellious Nubians.
Such mundanities were of no interest to Bastet for she was more focused on her mission. Her first thought was to go watch over Naunakht and await the arrival of the killer. But then the Pharoah had already seen to it that Naunakht would be protected.
Akil was a trusted and skilled warrior. Menkaura would be no match against him, nor would tiny Umayma, if Bastet’s suspicions were wrong about the brother. Naunakht would be safe for the time being. At least long enough for Bastet to track Menkaura and determine that he was indeed at this moment plotting Naunakht’s demise.
Quickly, she pattered across the throne room unnoticed. But as she left, she saw the look of distraction on Khepri’s face and realized that he was also disinterested in the mundane details set before him by his vizier.
Bastet could not worry about him now. She needed to determine where Menkaura had slipped off to with his entourage. The Pharoah would have to attend to himself while Bastet attended to the future.
Skirting the edges of the palace’s corridors, which were lined by huge columns of sand colored stone, Bastet searched everywhere hoping to locate Menkaura. But as Bastet pressed on, she could not determine where he had gone, and she cursed herself for having lingered in the throne room.
Eventually, she came to the very entrance of the palace and sat upon the top steps where she took in the fetid odor of the not-too-distant Nile and the aroma of waterfowl being cooked in a nearby home. If only her prime suspect were as easy to smell, Bastet remarked to herself, she could follow the scent directly to Naunakht.
She looked up at the setting sun as it cast pink and purple hues upon the sky. Time was running out, and Ra had said the murder would take place on this day if she did not stop it. But Menkaura was nowhere to be found.
She should go to Naunakht and wait, Bastet kept telling herself. Although Akil was there, and as a warrior would be better equipped to deal with an attacker than even she with her limited powers …
But then Bastet remembered what Ra had told her. And she also remembered what she had told the Pharoah in his dream. Someone very close to Khepri would attempt to commit the murder. Someone whom the Pharoah trusted perhaps even more so than his own brother or sister.
Bastet dashed back inside the palace, skittering across the floor as she rounded corners. She cursed herself as she ran, frustrated by the difficulties of sprinting on feline claws through a place laid out from wall to wall with polished, smooth surfaces. With each turn she found herself off-balance, her nails clicking against the slippery floor and unable to find purchase.
She hoped it was not too late; that nothing terrible had occurred during the short span of time she had been searching the palace.
But when she reached the entrance of Naunakht’s chambers, she grew more anxious, for there were no guards who stood watch. And there was not even the hint of Akil’s presence.
Furtively, Bastet slid beneath the billowing, blue curtains that covered the entrance. Upon stepping into the vast chamber she noticed Akil lying face-down upon the floor, dead from a twisted wound in his back. Then Bastet noticed across from where she stood movement upon the raised balcony that overlooked the Nile. The curtains at the entrance to the balcony wafted in the breeze coming off the river, revealing Naunakht’s body lying listlessly within Khepri’s arms and two guards hovering over them both. Beneath Naunakht was a small pool of blood blossoming like a desert flower upon the balcony’s stone floor.
Bastet saw Khepri’s frightful gaze as he looked upon Naunakht, whose own eyes were barely open and lethargic.
“Who did this, Nauni?” he asked.
Bastet approached the balcony, noticing the deep gash in Naunakht’s upper back.
“It was Umayma,” Naunakht whispered. “She tricked Akil into summoning me and when he turned his back she – “
Bastet’s heart pounded for two reasons now; her mad dash here in a failed attempt to avert tragedy, and the anger over what Umayma had done.
“Bring the physicians!” Khepri snapped at the guards who were still standing motionless in apparent shock. “And bring me Umayma at once!”
Both men rushed away, and Bastet could hear them shouting to others in the hall as they left.
Khepri pulled Naunakht close to him, holding his hands firmly against the wound in her back. Naunakht’s eyes had closed again, and she was limp in his arms, her breath barely noticeable.
“Don’t go, Nauni,” Khepri said. “The physicians are coming.”
Within moments the physicians did arrive, but by then Bastet knew it was too late, and it was not in her power to stop death – only to bring about new life.
She remained unnoticed amidst the chaos as the physicians anxiously attended to Naunakht. But it was a hopeless effort, for too much blood had been lost and the moment of death was near.
Khepri carried Naunakht from the balcony and brought her over to the couch set in the middle of her chambers. Upon setting her down, he knelt upon the floor by her side, and Bastet noticed the tears running across his face. In that moment she did not see a powerful king. Instead, she witnessed merely a man broken by the greatest tragedy.
And it was all her fault. If only she had attended to her task both mother and child might have been saved.
Cursing herself for failing to prevent Naunakht’s demise, Bastet realized, though, that the unborn child was the key to the future, more so than the mother whose breath had suddenly trailed off into nothing.
Khepri’s head had fallen against Naunakht’s inert bosom as Bastet nudged his side. Startled, he looked down, surprised to see the smoky mau from this morning’s dream. The physicians and attendants stepped back, also surprised by Bastet’s odd intrusion.
“The mother is gone,” she said to Khepri, “yet there is still time to save the child.”
“What? But there is no power on this earth that can save it now,” Khepri replied, looking at her as if she was not a goddess but some insane demon.
Before Bastet could explain, there was a disturbance from just beyond the chamber and two guards entered, escorting Umayma.
Khepri turned away from Bastet and glared at his sister. “You did this! And for that you shall pay.”
“Yes, she will,” Bastet interrupted as she stepped between them.
Then Bastet touched her earring with a bared claw and her shape wavered and shimmered, reforming and growing until she had transformed herself into a radiant, young woman, yet still with the head of a cat. A mane of jet-hued hair with smoky highlights streaking through it flowed in fine, straight tresses upon her now human shoulders, and a pleated white gown of shear cotton covered the rest of her hairless, bronzed body as she glided to within a foot of Umayma.
“The child will be born,” she said. “And he shall bring an even greater prosperity to Egypt than any before him. But before that will happen, Umayma, you shall bear the punishment of the gods.”
Umayma raised her chin as if to offer her throat to both Khepri and Bastet. “My life means nothing. Pharoah and the gods may have it. At least I will go before Anubis knowing that the bloodline will remain pure.”
Bastet stepped toward her, glaring with malice in her olive eyes. “The gods will have your life, but not to take.” Then she touched the ring dangling from her cat’s ear and suddenly Umayma bent forward, clutching her stomach in writhing agony. “You shall continue to live so that Naunakht’s child will be born.”
“What?!” Umayma cried as she continued to grapple with her swelling abdomen.
Bastet tugged her earring once more to seal a spell over the womb to protect the child from any physical harm that its new mother might attempt.
Bastet continued to glare at Umayma, those narrow feline pupils bisecting golden-green irises. “Since you so fervently wish to carry the heir of the Pharoah that you would kill for it, Umayma, then so shall I grant you your wish. You shall be the Great Royal Wife, and so shall you bear the next Pharoah of Egypt.”
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Also, by the author:
ONE SECOND BEFORE AWAKENING, a full length novel by Robert Hill.
ONE SECOND BEFORE AWAKENING is a fantasy/adventure novel which takes place within a compilation of the various surreal subjects and scenes depicted by the great 20th century master, Salvador Dali. It is a world populated by space elephants, drawer people, amorphous cannibals, and the mysterious flower-headed Fates – the very witnesses of past, present, and future. When Drew Anthony finds himself stepping into the midst of a painting come to life, a painting rendered by Salvador Dali, the first thing he wants to do is to find his way out, not end up journeying across a spectacular world peopled by the magical and the terrifying. His odyssey ends up changing the destiny of a beautiful woman, altering the philosophy of the people within this bizarre, painted dimension, and transforming himself from just an average man from an ordinary world into a transformational messiah trapped in a surreal place.
The Last Moment Loop –
Leonard & Molly –
The Part to No Genesis –
The Lie –
Saturday Night Meat Market –
Caught In The Moment –
Robert lives deep in the heart of Texas where he teaches martial arts and writes in his spare time. He is a former military paramedic, former criminal investigator and private detective. He has had various poems and short stories previously published in small press literary magazines, but most notably in Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, and most recently with Anotherealm.com. He is also self-published on Amazon.com and Shakespir.com, in both fiction and non-fiction categories.
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During the time of the Pharoahs of Egypt, the goddess Bastet is sent by Ra to prevent the murder of the expectant mother of the next Pharoah. Ra has foresee the death of the Great Royal Wife, but the future is clouded as to the identity of the killer. Bastet must discover who will commit the murder, prevent it, and thereby thwart a period of chaos certain to ensue should the future heir be kept from being born. Treachery and deceit lurk around every corner as the goddess of fertility sets about to prevent disaster and death not just of the unborn Pharoah and his mother, but of an entire civilization.