Walking into my father’s mud-brick palace, I saw my brother standing in the middle of a plaza. Not stopping to think why he was surrounded by guards, I ran toward him.
“Rudiju!” I said. Rudiju was my favorite person in the palace because he always used to play games with me when we were little. He and I would spend hours playing hide-and-seek, or we would play Senet together. Sometimes he would let me win, but Rudiju was always much better at it than I was. He has a good mind for strategy games.
Rudiju’s squinty eyes swung toward me. A worry line creased his forehead. This was surprising; my brother is usually carefree. I walked toward his open arms. We have always been very close, and show our affection openly. Because of this, no one will accuse me of being jealous about my brother being the Pharaoh’s first heir or suspect me of an assassination plot. When I was three feet from my brother, a guard stopped me by taking my arm. Bowing, the guard said, “You are not to speak to him.”
“The prince Rudiju is to be held on trial. No one is to speak to him,” the guard explained. Then, embarrassed at addressing a princess, he resumed his position at the door.
I was baffled. What could Rudiju, my beloved brother and future Pharaoh of the Land of Egypt, have done? I could not think of anything that might connect him with a crime. Rudiju would sooner sell himself into slavery than break the law.
Still pondering what might have happened, I turned a corridor and entered into the women’s lounge on my right. It was empty and silent, and I was thankful. I was a young girl, and not allowed in the lounge if older women were present, though I had been in it before because I was a princess.
As I sank into a chair, a deep feminine voice behind me asked, “Do you always sit in the presence of gods?” Jumping to my feet, I saw a glimmer of light, a woman with a bird’s head.
“Isis,” I breathed, bowing. “I am sorry, I did not see you.”
“It is wise to be watchful, young princess.”
I looked at my feet with embarrassment. A crocodile walked past them. With a little scream, I jumped backwards, landing on the chair with my legs beneath me. “You did not see me, either,” the croc said.
“Sobek?” I asked. The large croc nodded, his reptilian eyes strangely wise.
“I am honored,” I said, finally remembering my manners. “It is a great privilege to be visited by gods.”
“You may get used to being visited by us,” Isis said. “You are important to the future of Egypt.”
I bowed my head. “I beg your pardon, great lady,” I said, “but I do not see how. My brother Rudiju is my father’s heir, and he is ready to become a great king.”
“I believe Rudiju is ready,” agreed Isis. “But being ready does not mean he will get his chance.” All this time, my attention had been focused on Isis, but now Sobek spoke.
“We must take our leave now. Remember us, because we shall be prominent in your life. We are, after all, gods.” With a wink and a grin from Sobek, and a nod from Isis, they disappeared. I sank into the chair for the second time, my thoughts back on Rudiju. What could my brother have done? Then, my meeting with the two gods sank in. I was left thinking, what did Isis mean, “being ready does not mean he will get his chance”?
* * *
Rudiju’s was held two days later. It took place in a giant plaza on which a stage had been erected. The vizier, my father’s right-hand man, ran the trial. Because it was an important trial, Father was there to make the final judgment about the accused. I was present, as were all the nobles and some of the peasants of the capital of our dearly loved Egypt.
Before the trial, I learned that my brother was in trouble because he was caught with a wounded cat. This was a great sin in Egypt, because cats are sacred to the goddess Bastet, whom we worship. Since my brother was trying to enter the palace with a wounded cat and had not made any move to heal it or at least make it more comfortable, Rudiju was breaking the most sacred law in the city. His excuse was that he had wanted to bring the cat to me as a gift and had not known that it was hurt. I believed him, but my father thought that if his son wasn’t punished for breaking the law, Rudiju would not be a trusted Pharaoh. Since he thought that Rudiju was useless once he couldn’t be a Pharaoh, my father sentenced the normal punishment for abusing a cat.
Rudiju’s execution date was to be exactly a week from the trial. He chose to commit suicide rather then go through the embarrassment of an execution. I think this was partly Father’s judgment, too. Rudiju, my beloved brother, was dead within three days.
For weeks after Rudiju’s death, I wandered the palace aimlessly, remembering Rudiju. How he would talk to me when our parents were busy, how he would play games with me. Now he was dead, because of me. I had killed my brother. If he had not tried to get a cat for me, he would be alive to laugh at my jokes, or to sit in his favorite chair and think, or to learn to write … My thoughts went in circles, and I was often in tears.
One day I had another visit from Sobek. I had been crying softly for about an hour on my bed when I saw a crocodile’s snout, followed by his eyes, then his back, emerge from under my bedcover.
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself, little princess,” Sobek said. “The land of the Nile needs you. It will be in disarray after your father dies, and you will need to make your decision.”
“What decision?” I asked.
“Little princess,” said the Nile god, “have you not thought ahead? Now that your father’s heir is gone, you will either have to rule, marry to have your husband rule, or leave the throne open for any vagabond to steal. I had not thought that you were so silly! Stop weeping, get off that bed, and look around you! In your grief, you are the only person in Lower Egypt who hasn’t noticed that the Pharaoh is dying!” Sobek’s eyes turned green with anger, then softened to their usual yellow. “I am sorry,” he said. “I am not used to talking to so small a child and have never seen one so saddened. Lighten your heart, little princess, and make your decision. The Nile needs you!” He crawled back under my bed and disappeared.
That day, I went to my father and asked him if I could take a boat ride down the Nile to get used to the thought of me being brotherless. My father looked relieved, but my mother sitting behind him raised her thin eyebrows.
“It is a silly way to get used to grief, Isri,” she said.
“Nonsense, Sabah,” my father replied. “You may go with my blessing, daughter. Mine and, gods willing, Ra’s.” As I bowed and left the room, I thought: Sobek was right, the king did look weak and sick.
* * *
Two days later I began my boat trip to view the Nile, and my future subjects. On the water there was very little to amuse myself with. The only thing I could do was ponder the courses my life could take. I did not want to desert the throne, but I was not fond of marrying either. If I married, who would I marry anyway? I could wed a cousin, but that would mean giving the throne to him, and I wanted to rule. Also, I was sure that I could do a better job ruling than any of my relatives could. I worried about this for many days, but never came to an arrangement I liked.
During my fifth day on the boat, a messenger came from my mother. His message was brief, saying only that the Pharaoh had died and would I please come home to find my future husband. Then, I think, was the time I decided what I wanted to do with my life. When I was thinking about my options, I never remembered Sobek saying what my three options were. I had thought about two of them: marriage and surrendering the throne. I had not thought about the third: becoming a woman Pharaoh. It is rare, but it has been done, and will be done again. I will rule. A strong girl with no one at her side will take the throne.
Relieved that I had come to a decision, I walked straight-backed and tall across the deck to tell the captain to turn toward the palace. I would be a Pharaoh, I will not marry, but choose an heir from the people, and Egypt will prosper under my rule. I am sure that I can do it. Sobek believes in me, and so does Isis. My people will learn to believe in me, because I believe in myself.