"Someday," said the tribute-offering called Nofret, "I shall be the chief of the queen's servants. Then I can call myself whatever I please."
Nofret is the daughter of a Hittite nobleman, captured by enemies from Mitanni and sent as tribute to the Pharaoh in Egypt: the strange, otherworldly Akhenaten, who rules from his raw new city of Amarna. As servant to his daughter, she witnesses the rise and fall of Akhenaten and his one god, the lives and deaths of his queen and his heirs, and the brief reign of Tutankhamon.
Then, freed at last from Egypt, she embarks on a years-long journey into the desert oases of Sinai, and there finds love and family.
But Egypt is not done with her. Her husband's people are still enslaved, and a prophet has risen with a mission from his one god: to set them free. Though Nofret does not share his faith, duty and loyalty inspire her to follow him, and love for the people who have accepted her as one of their own.
I admit that when Pillar of Fire first came out, I had my doubts about the premise. How could Akhenaten and Moses possibly have been the same person? But when I read the novel, I was completely caught up in the story, primarily because of Nofret, the Hittite slave who begins as the servant of Pharaoh's third daughter. She's a wonderful protagonist, sharp and strong and incurably honest. It's new to ebook, and I'm delighted to have it in the bundle! – Melissa Scott
The juxtaposition of the Exodus story with the events in the Egyptian court makes for an engrossing saga, and Nofret's shrewd skepticism in the face of such great events lends the tale intimacy. This is a highly entertaining blend of romance, drama and historical detail.– Publisher’s Weekly
The queen was the most beautiful woman in the world. The king was one of the oddest of men, both to look at and to listen to. They sat side by side on their golden thrones under the golden canopy in the desert outside of their city, where the sun's light was pure molten gold. The whole world had come to them here, to fall at their feet and offer them tribute.
Some of the tribute had not yet been presented. A mighty queen of servants, a woman of massive bulk and dignity, was instructing it in duty, propriety, and the language it was now and forever after to speak. "Khemet," she said, "the Black Land, the fertile land, the land that comes as a gift with the river's inundation. Deshret, the Red Land, the barren land, the desert that embraces and completes the Black Land. These are the Two Lands to which you have been given."
"But I thought," said one of the lesser bits of tribute, "that the Two Lands were Upper Egypt—that's the south—and Lower Egypt, which is the north. Look, he's wearing a crown for each, one inside the other. He looks remarkably..." She trailed off. She was a monument to insouciance, but the royal servant, whose name was Seni, had a truly appalling glare. It silenced her, though it could never teach her to repent.
The rest of the girls and young women in the tribute party from Mitanni were suitably awed, if not simply prostrated by the heat. They had insisted on keeping to their Asiatic modesty, wrapping themselves in bright wool and embroidered linen, plaiting their hair with such gauds as they could manage. Their faces were crimson and streaming. Two had fainted already, and it was a long way yet to the king's feet, where they were to fling themselves and beseech him to accept them.
The one who dared to speak was different. She had seen how servants dressed in this country—quite simply they did not, except for a string about the hips and an array of amulets hung about the neck or plaited into the hair. The others had been shocked, had called her immodest and worse. She had been delighted to come to the place of tribute and to see that the king's daughters—all six of them, from budding woman to weanling child—went as bare as they were born.
She sat clasping her knees in the shade of their guardian, watching a great procession of coal-black Nubians presenting the king with gifts of gold and ivory, furs, feathers, a spotted cat that slipped its leash and sprang after one of the little princesses' pet gazelles. The cat was caught before it could fell its prey, the gazelle restored to its weeping mistress. It was grandly entertaining.
"Your name," Seni bellowed in her ear. "Your name, child!"
She started nigh out of her bare sun-brown skin. Her mouth opened.
"No!" cried Seni. "Not that mouthful of foreign cat-spit that passes for a name in your country. Your name here."
She glowered. And how did this woman know what her birthname sounded like? She had never told it, nor had Seni heard it. That was part of the vow she had sworn to herself when she was taken out of her own country and carried off to be a slave to her people's enemies. With teeth-gritted and excessively conspicuous obedience she said, "My name in captivity is Nofret."
"Your name in the Two Lands is Nofret," said Seni, smiling a broad white crocodile's smile. "Every other name that you have had, forget. It means nothing here."
"Someday," said the tribute-offering called Nofret, "I shall be the chief of the queen's servants. Then I can call myself whatever I please."
"You will call yourself whatever their royal majesties please," said Seni with awful mildness. "Now, Kawit, tell us—what is it that a servant does before the face of the queen?"
Nofret left bland milk-faced Kawit to Seni's tender mercies and went back to watching the processions. The Nubians had gone away, leaving the king's people to contend with the leopard. Now the king received an embassy from Nofret's own country. There was no mistaking those tall full-fleshed men with their splendid arched noses and their hair falling long and thick from clean-shaved foreheads and clean-shaved faces. They were paler than people in Egypt, taller in the main, and much broader and thicker-set.
She blinked hard. Her head wanted to bow to her knees, her face to hide itself, but she stayed where she was, with her chin defiantly lifted. Only the shape of the faces and the fashion of clothes and hair were familiar. None of them was a man she knew.
And well enough for her that they were strangers. She was long gone from Great Hatti, and all her honor was dead. That had died the day she went hunting by herself because her brothers refused to be encumbered with a girl, and met a raiding-party from Mitanni.
They had been looking for whatever prey was most convenient. A fierce-tongued girlchild with an unstrung bow, tracking a deer from covert to covert, was worth a few scratches and some screeching, though the man she had stabbed with his own dagger had not been greatly happy. The others might have held out for a ransom, since the quality of her clothes and her ornaments made it clear enough that she was a lord's child—daughter of a commander of a thousand, if anyone had asked, which no one did. But the man she had stabbed was feeling vindictive. The wound was not deadly but it was deep and it was bloody, and it pained him considerably. He argued that she should be sold for the best price she could fetch. The others gave in after a while, bound and gagged her and carried her away to Mitanni.
She fetched a decent price in the slave market, bought by a lord whose senior wife needed a maid to fetch and carry for her. Nofret was not the prettiest of children, but she was tall for her age and strong, what with an indulgent father and a tribe of brothers and more freedom to run wild in the woods than might have been regarded as proper for a Hittite lady.
She had decided, well before she was set up naked and furious on the block, that she would make the best of what the gods had done to her. Mostly it was anger at herself and at the gods, because she had been hunting too far from home and she had known it, as she had known that there were raiders on the border with Mitanni. It was shame, too, and stubbornness. She did not want her father or her brothers to know how foolish she had been. If they thought her dead, so be it. Better dead than a slave. Better even a slave than prey to her brothers' mockery and her father's wrath.
Once, the night after she was taken, she had tried to kill herself. She had gone for a dagger again, but this time her captors were ready for her. They laughed as they tied her more securely and set a guard on her. Their laughter did a strange thing: it drove her anger deep inside her and turned it cold.
She would live, she swore then. She would live and prosper and be altogether a new thing. Her name in Great Hatti was forgotten. She would not speak it then or ever. Let them call her what they pleased—which, mostly, was You There or Hittite Bitch or something uncomplimentary in gutter Mitanni. None of them mattered. None of them touched or changed her.
Her new mistress was easy enough to wait on, once she learned how to do it. It was crashingly dull, being a maid to a lady in Mitanni. The only distraction was the son of the house, the darling of his mother's eye, a plump and pretty youth possessed of the conviction that he was irresistible to anything female. Nofret found him wonderfully easy to resist.
She had been an innocent, and no mistake. She thought that a clear and often repeated No ought to be enough. But a slave, his young lordship made clear to her, was not allowed to say no.
He let her live, in the end, chiefly because he was afraid of his mother's tears and reproaches. His mother was very soft-hearted; she hated to see anything die, even a slave. The greater wonder was that he let her live unmaimed after what she had done and said to him. He had enough wits left—and enough low cunning—to realize that he could rid himself of her the more quickly if he let her keep her ears and her nose and her breasts.
She smiled to herself, thinking of him; how he had flung her at his father's steward and bidden the man send her with the rest of the king's tribute-train to Egypt. His voice had broken like a boy's.
Astonishing how excellent an education it was to grow up a girl in a houseful of boys. One learned just what to say—and just where, and when, to sink one's teeth.
Her smile alarmed the delicate flower of Mitanni who crouched next to her, and made the child snivel. Nofret sighed. Women in Great Hatti were nothing like these feeble creatures. They kept their heads up; they walked with pride, even when they were slaves.
The Hittites had gone past without ever noticing the lone Hittite in the knot of slaves from Mitanni. One of the many officials who kept the processions moving was striding toward them. His wig was askew, baring his shaven skull; it looked as if he had thrust it aside absentmindedly.
He looked only mildly ridiculous. Men in Egypt, Nofret had been noticing, were not ill to look at, for foreigners. One could even become accustomed to men as slender as boys, and brown smooth bodies.
The king's minister was much too busy to think any such thoughts of her, even if he had noticed her. "Come, in your ranks," he said brusquely. "Seni, when you've presented this lot, Lady Kiya bids you attend her."
Seni, who despite her Egyptian name was as much of Mitanni as any of these children except Nofret, inclined her head. The steward had turned away already, intent on the party behind them. Seni took them briskly in hand, lined them up according to age and size and prettiness—which left Nofret well in the back, since she was tall and leggy like a wild filly-foal—and marched them forth like an army into battle.
Nofret had heard about battles. There was a great deal of waiting about in the hot sun, and very little actual fighting. Seni's ordering of the ranks had removed Nofret from her shadow, which was a nuisance. Nofret envied the princelings with their canopies or their parasols, and the king in his great golden pavilion. Such amenities were not given to slaves. They had to brave the naked sun, and stand in it until they were given leave to advance.
"The sun is his god," said one of the girls near Nofret. She was a dreamer; she should have been a priestess, but her family thought itself better served to send her to the Egyptian king. He was a dreamer himself, people said, when they did not say outright that he was mad.
"He worships the sun," the dreamer murmured. "He sets no other gods before it. Oh, they are angry, the myriad gods of Egypt!"
"Hush," said the girl on the other side of her from Nofret. "She will hear you."
They all, even Nofret, glanced warily at Seni. The woman was preoccupied with keeping her troops in order. The youngest and smallest were inclined to straggle if they were bold, and to whimper if they were not.
Nofret did not intend to do either. There was too much to see. The whole world was here, come to pay homage to the king of Egypt, Amenophis who had changed his name to Akhenaten for the glory of his god. He had been king a dozen years already, but in the Two Lands of Egypt they often had two kings, an old one and a young one, two courts and two palaces, even—in this age of the world—two cities from which to rule. Now the old king was dead and Akhenaten ruled alone, he and his queen whose beauty was sung even in Great Hatti.
This was the festival of his ascent to sole kingship. It was both coronation and feast of renewal, both declaration of the new reign and affirmation that he was king and had been king since the days of his youth. All these crowding armies of people, lords of the Two Lands and princes and ambassadors from the wide world, were here in the honor of his name. From Libya to Nubia to Asia, west to south to east to north, everyone knew who was king over kings, who was both ruler and god.
Nofret had never seen so many people together, or so much gold in a single place. Everywhere she looked, it dazzled her. And there in front of her, where the king was, was nothing but gold. She wondered briefly if he swam in it when he was in his palace, just because he could.
Maybe he would not be so frivolous. The closer she came to him, the more clearly she saw his face. It was a strange face, so ugly it was almost beautiful, with its long chin and its long nose and its long, heavy-lidded dreamer's eyes under the weight of the two tall crowns. He held crook and flail crossed over his narrow chest, as if he had been used to hold them so since he was a child, and could not imagine doing anything else. The strip of false beard strapped to his chin looked both ridiculous and peculiarly royal: an absurdity that only a king would dare.
Nofret did not succumb to awe even before the gods. None of them had ever had any particular use for her that she had noticed. Gods were for kings, or for snivelers like the infant who dropped in a dead faint as soon as she saw the king's face.
Even so, and with all her defenses armed and ready, Nofret knew a moment's cold stillness that had nothing to do with the shade of the king's pavilion. This was not a man as other men were—even men who were kings.
No one near him was like him, either. People surrounded him: his queen, his daughters, his ladies of the palace, a great crowd of lords and ladies, princes, princesses, servants and stewards and hangers-on, overflowing the dais and the pavilion and streaming out into the sun. They were all focused on him. He was their center. And he was, somehow, utterly alone.