The surface of the Great River was completely still. Leaning over the rail of the royal barge, Lysandra gasped at the beauty of the early morning on the river.
Across from her a group of grey herons silently took flight and soared in formation right over top of the barge to the opposite bank of the river. A faint splash made her look to the western shore. A large hippopotamus was playing in the water near the bank. Another one, a baby, came crashing through the papyrus and joined in. Several more appeared, probably a family, Lysandra thought. A small fishing boat nearby took evasive action and headed towards deeper water.
Without the aid of any wind, the barge’s oarsmen had been pulling at a steady pace but the captain ordered the men to increase speed, putting as much water as possible between them and the hippos.
From her spot on the raised platform at the stern of the vessel, Lysandra had an expansive view of the nearer bank of the river. Beyond the papyrus thickets were the irrigated fields and dark soils of the floodplain. The flood had been good this year and the green crops promised an abundant harvest. In the distance were the rocky cliffs that signified the boundary of the desert lands beyond. This was the heart of Egypt, a place that Lysandra had barely seen, and although only two day’s journey from Alexandria, the influence of Greek culture was on the wane. The old Egyptian gods were still worshipped here, and besides a few government officials and merchants, Greek was rarely spoken.
Someone came up the ladder from the cabins below.
‘Good morning, Princess,’ said Grand Vizier Nuth, an expression on his face like he’d stepped on camel dung.
Having Nuth as some kind of chaperone was part of the compromise she’d made with her father that had allowed her to travel down to the funeral. Nuth, in his dark robes and surly expression looked out of place in this quiet backwater of Egypt. It was a long way from the intrigues of the Palace and Lysandra wondered if the fresh air was too pure for his black lungs.
A column of smoke drifted up from the near bank. As they rounded a bend in the river the captain called out, “Princess, there’s our destination.”
Lysandra could make out a small cluster of white buildings not far from the river. She gripped the rail a little tighter. Seeing Kaylah’s home village like this brought a lump to her throat and she had to concentrate hard not to let tears betray her feelings. She wondered what Kaylah’s reaction would be to seeing her here and if she would be welcome at all.
As they neared the jetty there was a crowd of people milling around the shore. A black dog barked from the river bank setting off all the village dogs. From several of the houses plumes of smoke rose from chimneys. The smell of drying fish was strong even from this distance. Small children chattered and laughed and people pressed forward on to the jetty. The village elders had to shout to restore some order. Lysandra had let Kaylah’s brother know she would be coming but as they drew ever closer to the village, doubts began to build inside her. She scanned the villagers who had gathered but Kaylah wasn’t among them.
“That’s quite a welcoming committee,” Lysandra said to Nuth.
“It’s not everyday they get a visit from the Royal Barge, Princess. Usually it’s not a welcome sight. Often it’s the tax collector or customs inspectors. Perhaps we could kill two birds with the one stone while we’re here. I’m sure there’s a few delinquent accounts in a village like this,” he added, raising an eyebrow.
“We will do no such thing. We are her solely for the funeral of Kaylah’s mother.”
“Princess, surely you realise I speak in jest?”
“Well, please don’t. It doesn’t suit you.”
A group of officials were waiting on the jetty when Lysandra alighted. They bowed low and a man wearing the headdress of the village chief said, “Princess, we are honoured by your presence in our humble village.”
“Thank you,” she replied in Egyptian. “It is I who feel honoured to be here. I simply couldn’t miss this funeral for all the gold in Egypt.”
There were gasps from the villagers gathered near the jetty. Lysandra wondered if she had said the wrong thing.
“Is everything alright?” she asked.
“Why yes, Princess,” said the chief, still with his head bowed, “It’s just that the gods must have looked on us kindly for them to send such a Princess that would speak to us in the common tongue. We are not used to hearing it spoken by anyone from Alexandria.”
“My mother taught it to me at an early age. But please accept these gifts of food and wine, courtesy of the Palace,” Lysandra said, ordering the crew to begin unloading the amphorae and hampers that she had organised with the Palace kitchens. The villagers applauded and a group of men helped the crew unload the supplies.
Lysandra walked alongside the elders towards the chief’s house. They passed racks of drying fish that gave off a pungent odour, bleating goats that had to be shooed off the path so they didn’t trip over them and Lysandra soon found herself being followed by a posse of small children. At many of the houses people greeted her as ‘Princess Kemet.’ She replied in the common tongue and was met with broad smiles.
“Why do they call me that?” Lysandra said to one of the elders.
“It means the true Princess of Egypt. They are greatly pleased with you for speaking the common tongue.”
In front of the chief’s house was another crowd and it was with some difficulty they made their way in. It was cooler inside and Lysandra was led out to a portico at the back of the house where she could sit on a couch with a view to the river. Servants brought drinks and Lysandra happily sipped on a juice of persimmon and apricot spiced with cinnamon. As she gazed at the Great River she relived the times Kaylah and her had shared together. Kaylah had been there for nearly all the happiest moments.
And no matter how hard she willed it, her sister Cleo was only ever on the periphery – she was always too serious for games or play. Cleo had often asked her to braid her hair and sometimes they had smiled over her image in a bronze mirror, but the times they had laughed without abandon were few. Perhaps it was their mother’s death that had hardened her. Lysandra had only been eight years old at the time of the accident, Cleo ten. Perhaps being older, Cleo had felt the loss more deeply.
Over the years, Lysandra had found it harder to remember things about her mother. What she remembered was the scent of myrrh from her Ciprinum perfume, the dark wavy hair, but her face – she struggled to picture it no matter how hard she tried. Everything blurred into a sense of yearning and brought back how much Kaylah must be going through. As she waited out on the portico her stomach slowly tied itself in knots. What would she say to Kaylah when she saw her?
* * * * *
Khonsu had long since cast his silvery orb into the heavens and in the lamp-lit hall of the village chief’s house, only family and a few close friends still remained at the wake. The Priest from the local temple got to his feet and clapped his hands to get people’s attention.
“The deceased’s husband, Rami, has requested if Princess Lysandra could pay tribute his wife and their family by reading a passage from the Book of the Dead.”
Lysandra blushed as the guests turned towards her. She could barely refuse. She scanned the room and met Kaylah’s dark sorrowful eyes. Kaylah nodded and Lysandra got up and made her way to the small altar and smoothed out the papyrus scroll.
For a moment she closed her eyes and made a quick prayer to Anubis, the goddess of funerary rites, and to her mother as well. She didn’t want to falter over the Egyptian text.
She read out aloud:
“Hail O Ra at your rising,
You proceed at your pleasure in your night barque,
Your heart is happy with a fair wind in the day barque,
Filled with joy at crossing the sky with the blessed ones.”
Lysandra was relieved when she made it to the final line without stumbling. When she took her seat, Kaylah and her brother came forward. Kaylah sang a village funeral song, accompanied by her brother on the lyre. Lysandra had never heard such a mournful tune. When it was over she had to wipe the tears from her cheeks. She turned around and noticed that everybody else was doing the same thing.
Lysandra was eager to talk to Kaylah and she walked with the family back to their house in the darkness. Soon Lysandra and Kaylah drifted behind the rest and found themselves walking side by side in silence.
Eventually it was Kaylah who spoke first. “My family very much appreciate you coming for the funeral and providing the gifts.”
“It’s the least I could do. You sang beautifully, Kaylah,” Lysandra said.
Kaylah nodded. “It wasn’t easy, but it felt good. I hope I honoured my mother as well as I could.”
“I’m sure she would have been proud of you. I was wondering whether you had given any thought about when you were going to come back?”
Kaylah’s eyes were beetle-dark in the weak moonlight. “I’ll come back on one of the trading barques with my brother I suppose. The next one leaves in two days.”
“I was hoping you could come back with me on the Royal Barge tomorrow morning.”
Kaylah turned her face towards hers. “Do I have a choice, or are you summoning me?”
“Come with me, as a guest, not as my maid. There’s a spare cabin. It’s a bit small but you can have it all to yourself.”
Lysandra sensed Kaylah’s interest.
“Yes. I’ve brought Jena with me as my handmaid. I’ll get her to wait on you for the journey.”
“Jena? She’s as clumsy as an ox. But it might be fun.”
“The offer is there. If you would like to come, we will be leaving from the jetty at the fourth hour tomorrow.”
“I don’t know, Princess, there’s much to be done here. You have Jena of course and …. It’s hard to know if you really want me or are..,” Kaylah dropped her eyes to the ground.
Lysandra put her hand on Kaylah’s cheek, and tilted her face towards hers. “Oh, Kaylah, there is nothing I could want more.”
* * * * *
After farewelling the family, Lysandra walked back towards the royal barge and met up with Jena who had been fretting about where she had got to. She gripped Jena’s trembling hand firmly.
“It’s alright, Jena, this is a very safe village. Much safer than the Palace.”
On the bank near the jetty the barge’s oarsmen had made a campsite for the night. A large bonfire was blazing in the middle. Lysandra had ensured the men had extra rations of beer and some of them sounded merry from the celebrations. One of the oarsman saw them coming and called out, “Good evening to you, Princess.”
Lysandra waved to them. She was curious. The oarsman were her people as much as anyone else. She walked over to the fire and took a seat on a large stone, Jena following closely behind whispering that they should get back to the barge.
The oarsman said, “We were genuinely surprised when we heard you speak the common tongue, Princess. Kaylah told us you could speak it, but we didn’t realise how well. All the men are calling you Princess Kemet now.”
Lysandra thanked the man and stared into the fire. A branch split in two sending up a shower of sparks. “I don’t speak it very often. We are banned from speaking it in the Palace.”
Another oarsman on the other side of the fire spoke up: “Your mother spoke it well, if my friend’s uncle tells it true.”
“Yes, she did. She taught it to me when I was little, but I have been out of practice for a while as you can probably tell.” She paused for a moment and looked at the man through the flames and said, “You mentioned your friend’s uncle – did he know my mother?”
“Why yes, Princess. My friend’s uncle worked in the Palace, as a cook. Perhaps you remember him? His name was Tefas. Sometimes your mother would talk in the common tongue to some of the Egyptian kitchen staff.”
Lysandra felt a pang of longing. She had to catch her breath before she asked, “How long did he work in the Palace for?”
“Near on ten years I think.”
“I’m not sure if I remember a Tefas. When did he finish up?”
The man shifted his gaze from Lysandra back to the fire. “He worked right up until the day of your mother’s … accident.”
A chill crept about her shoulders. Perhaps it was the breeze blowing off the Great River.
“Really? Why did he finish that day?”
“Well, Princess, he retired, sudden-like. My friend told me his uncle never spoke of it again.”
Lysandra stared up at the sky, at Khonsu, the moon-god of these parts. Out of the darkness Nuth’s voice called out from the jetty, “Princess, come back to the barge at once. It is well past the time your father has allowed you to stay up.”
“Yes, I’ll be right there,” she called back to the invisible form of Nuth. To the oarsman she said softly, “Is your friend’s uncle still in Alexandria?”
“Yes, I believe so, Princess.”
“I need to see him. Do you think you can find him for me when we get back?”
“Princess!” shouted Nuth.
“Coming,” she replied.
“I’ll try,” the oarsman said. “Anything for Princess Kemet.”
* * * * *
“Princess, the sun’s been up for a while. The Grand Vizier wants you to wake up now so breakfast can be served before we head back to Alexandria,” Jena said, rapping at Lysandra’s cabin door.
“Yes, yes, Jena, I’ll be out shortly,” Lysandra groaned. She opened the shutter letting in the morning light. There was a slight breeze from the south that promised a swift passage home. The herons were busy on the river with their own breakfast. She could smell fried fish.
On deck, under a reed canopy a table was set for breakfast. There were dried figs, olives, date cakes, bread and the fried fish. Nuth, the Captain, the village chief and the priest were standing waiting for her. Lysandra could barely think of a more onerous set of dining companions.
She took her seat and the others did also.
The priest closed his eyes and put his hands over the table to begin a prayer.
“Hold on, this will not do,” said Lysandra.
The priest’s eyes opened.
“What is it, Princess?” said Nuth, a touch of annoyance in his tone.
“Here we are, honouring Kaylah’s mother…, yet none of the family are out our table. Nuth, please Please issue an invitation for Kaylah and her father at once.”
Nuth looked at her, startled. “But they are humble villagers. Kaylah is your maid. They should be not dining at a royal table.”
“These are our people. I am their Princess. I am your Princess. Please carry out my wishes or my father will hear from me.”
A messenger was despatched and shortly returned only with Rami, Kaylah’s father, who was shown on board the royal barge. Lysandra welcomed him but was disappointed Kaylah wasn’t with him.
Rami was not a loquacious guest. He tore at the bread and scoffed down the fish. Yet when he was finished he was profuse in his thanks. Lysandra gave him a dozen date cakes to take back to his house.
As he was about to depart down the gangplank Lysandra asked him if he thought Kaylah would be coming. He just looked back in the direction of the village and shrugged his shoulders.
Lysandra leant over the rail with her eyes focused on the throngs of villagers at the jetty.
The captain barked an order and the crew sprang into action. The gangplank was pulled up and ropes untied from the jetty. The oarsman took up their standing positions and the royal barge edged it’s way slowly into the Great River. She sighed and returned to her cabin.
Lysandra took out a scroll she had brought from the Palace and smoothed it over the small table.
It was a legal document about royal marriages. It was grim reading. Brothers were expected to marry sisters except for extraordinary circumstances. She had never been more relieved she didn’t have a brother. Princesses were required to marry any man the Pharaoh nominated. The text swam before her eyes. She looked out the shutter at the Great River instead.
Just then she heard some commotion from the deck – raised voices calling out and footsteps.
“Princess, come quickly,”
“What is it, Jena?”
“Come on deck, Princess, please.”
Lysandra followed Jena out onto the deck. The captain and Nuth were leaning against the rail, watching a fishing skiff sailing towards them.
She heard a familiar voice: “Wait, I’m coming, I’ll be there in a moment.”
She couldn’t believe her ears. It was Kaylah. She was standing in the prow of her family’s fishing boat, her father trimming the sail and one of her uncles pulling on the oars.
Nuth was scowling. “Honestly, these villagers are a rabble. We have no time to stop for them. This whole trip has been a waste of Treasury funds if you ask me. Captain, order your men to increase their speed.”
Nuth turned, “Ah Princess,I was just advising the captain to put some distance between us and the villagers.”
“No, it’s Kaylah, we must stop.”
“But you already have a maid, you don’t need another. Captain …”
“I have invited her as my guest.”
The captain half-turned towards his crew, hesitating to give the order.
Lysandra glared at Nuth and rounded on the Captain. “Captain, as Princess of Egypt, I command you to get your men to stop and pick up the passenger from that boat.”
“Yes, Princess. Men, stand to. Boarding party to the rail.”
Kaylah screeched, “Hurry up uncle, they are slowing down. Put your back into it.”
Lysandra couldn’t help but grin and call out across the water, “Yes uncle, please deliver your precious cargo.”
The fishing boat pulled alongside and a rope ladder was laid over the side. Kaylah’s belongings were sent up then Kaylah herself stood on the gunwale of the boat and gripped the muscular arm of one of the oarsman positioned on the ladder. As she stepped her foot slipped and she screamed and landed in the water. Still with a firm grip, the oarsman lifted her out and passed her up the ladder until she was pulled aboard where she stood dripping on the deck, water puddling at her feet.
“That’s a grand entrance if ever I’ve seen one,” said Lysandra, tears of joy and laughter streaming down her face.
She reached out and embraced Kaylah warmly. Lysandra didn’t care that she was getting wet. It was a steaming hot day and she’d dry out soon.
Lysandra told Jena to help Kaylah settle into her cabin and after she had gone below said to the captain, “Thank you sir. Please make all haste to Alexandria.”