In the waning years of Egypt's Eighteenth Dynasty, when female power can only come at an unsettling price, four royal women struggle against the shadowy influence of Akhenaten, the infamous heretic Pharaoh. Akhenaten wields control of a strange, emerging religion unlike anything Egypt has seen. His power can't be denied, but whoever can maintain her grip on the unpredictable Pharaoh will hold all of Egypt in her hands—and better still, will remain mistress of her own fate.
Tiy, once the undisputed might behind the throne, must choose to relinquish her hard-won influence, or manipulate the innocent in order to secure her hold on Akhenaten's leash. Kiya, an idealistic foreign princess, will win Akhenaten with love—if he's capable of feeling love at all. The celebrated beauty Nefertiti will use the Pharaoh for her own ends, turning the tables of a deadly political game to free herself from her ambitious father's grasp. And Sitamun, kept imprisoned as the Pharaoh's plaything, will defy the gods themselves to save her daughter from a similar fate.
House of Rejoicing is the first part in Libbie Hawker's new ancient Egyptian series, The Book of Coming Forth by Day. The story will continue in Part Two, Storm in the Sky.
Libbie Hawker tackles a period both popular and curiously neglected in historical fiction. The mystique, atmosphere and exoticism of ancient Egypt has fascinated many generations of scholars and dreamers alike. Libbie's books offer an enthralling tale of royalty, religion and female power, and they feature the ever-fascinating Nefertiti to boot. – Charlotte E. English
Richly detailed and meticulously researched—Libbie Hawker brings the ancient world vibrantly to life.– Kate Quinn, national bestselling author of Lady of the Eternal City
Libbie Hawker writes exquisitely layered historical novels with a deft, fresh voice. Her heroines are at once powerful and completely real, and she draws them with both compassion and a keen sense of observation of human nature.– V. M. Black, New York Times bestselling author
Year 36 of Amunhotep,
Ruler of Waset,
Lord of Truth in the Sun,
Strong Bull Arising
Her goods preceded her into the city—the flat, sun-baked, clamoring city. Although the princess of Mitanni remained aboard her ship, watching from a strange, detached distance as the wealth of her dowry flowed down the ramp and onto the shore, the air was not perfumed with the river's gentle clarity. It smelled of city life—it stank. Egypt reeked of sweat, of anger, of the desperation that comes when men live atop one another like beasts in a narrow pen. She had smelled it for days, as the ship made its way down the long silver stretch of the river, the bright, pure scent of open water gradually giving way to the reek of this far-off land. The city stank of beer and the cheap perfume of whores, of fish rotting in the unforgiving sun, of the waste of animals and men. She struggled to keep her hands still, hidden in her heavy, tasseled sleeves, so she would not pinch her nostrils shut and betray her true feelings for all to see.
She watched the procession of her dowry wind from the docks, up toward a broad, stone-paved lane, which was flanked by tall, narrow, mud-brick houses the color of sun-bleached hides. The houses seemed to lean inward, to press upon one another's shoulders just as the Egyptians did in the alleys below, struggling to gain a better view of the princess's goods.
From the foot of the ship's ramp all along the great processional way, the road was lined with ranks of the Pharaoh's soldiers, dressed in the striped blue-and-white kilts of their trade. Their belts were heavy with blades, and each man was armed with a long spear, and adorned by a single, small, round shield. The soldiers held their bucklers across their naked, well-browned chests. The shields were set with bronze studs, polished and slicked by the blows of swords. They glimmered in the sunlight, so that they looked like suns themselves—like twin river banks made of little suns, fallen to the earth. River banks, between which all the princess's possessions were drifting steadily away.
First went the fine textiles, so that they would not be soiled by the dust of the procession—her light silk gowns, and woolen robes with heavy, layered skirts of many-colored tassels. Next went her jewels, displayed in open cedar cases so that all the king's subjects might gape and admire. Ebony furniture for her house—furniture she would never be allowed to use, she felt certain—and mirrors of silver and copper; a golden spindle and distaff that were more beautiful than utilitarian; drinking vessels set with agates and platters inlaid with turquoise. A camel carried a fine litter balanced on its hump—the Egyptians pointed and cheered at this oddity—and a golden war chariot, drawn by two equally golden stallions, burnished and prancing, with floating manes as pale and airy as undyed, fine-woven linen.
Last, the procession was joined by dozens of slaves, and nearly as many free servants, who were nevertheless not so free that they might refuse to accompany their mistress to Egypt, never to see the hills and fragrant coastal forests of Mitanni again. Each was dressed in a silk robe, and the slaves carried themselves straight-backed and sure, for they, at least, knew their work and their purpose. Even the slaves looked infinitely more confident than the princess felt.
She watched, silent and trembling, as the last of her servants steadied themselves on the ship's ramp and prepared to descend into the midst of this new land—into the stink and the clamor, the press of bodies half-undressed, with their strange kilts of linen swinging loose around their knees, and their backs bared to the heat. This was Waset, the grandest city in all the world. It was her home now. By her father's decree, this was to be her place in the world, for all the days to come—until the end of her life.
A team of litter-bearers readied the double-chaired platform that would carry her to her husband. The last servant on the ramp, a girl the princess's own age, hesitated and turned back. The sun was bright on her braid, hair the color of newly founded bronze, like the princess's own—and for a fleeting moment, before the servant controlled her face with a professional will beyond her years, the princess noted hesitation and fear in the girl's green eyes and on her tight-pressed mouth.
The princess stepped toward her litter, for there was nothing else to be done, no direction to go but forward. But the servant girl cried, "Wait!" and rushed to her side. The princess of Mitanni watched as her servant pummeled and fluffed the chair's cushions.
"You should be comfortable on your wedding day, Lady Tadukhepa," the servant said. She bowed, and when she bobbed up again, she was smiling. One of her front teeth was gone—knocked out, Tadukhepa imagined, by an angry father or a jealous lover. Was that how the girl had found herself in this predicament—part of Tadukhepa's entourage, serving in a foreign land—a virtual exile?
The missing tooth marred the girl's beauty, but not her warmth. Tadukhepa smiled back at her. "What is your name, please?" she asked quietly as she settled onto the cushions.
The servant dropped her eyes. "My mother called me Inanna, after the goddess. It's a silly name for one such as I—I am not worthy of it." The words lisped slightly through the gap in her teeth.
"I like your name." Tadukhepa took her hand, a brief expression of thanks. Inanna's hand was warm, and Tadukhepa's fingers burned suddenly in the girl's grip. Despite the heat of Egypt and the weight of her Hurrian robes, fear had chilled the princess to her bones.
"Won't you please call me Nann, then," the servant said, squeezing Tadukhepa's hand.
"Stay beside my litter," Tadukhepa whispered to Nann. "I would have someone… someone close." Someone who does not make me feel afraid in this strange, new place. She did not dare speak her fears aloud.
The priest of Ishtar came forward, muttering his prayers as he cradled the golden statue of the goddess close to his chest. The eight-pointed star tied to his forehead sent a flash of blinding light into Tadukhepa's eyes. She blinked rapidly as the priest set the goddess on the chair to her right. Then, when her dazzled tears were gone, she risked a sidelong glance at the goddess. Standing tall upon her sharp-taloned eagle's feet, with wings falling down her back like a cloak, Ishtar looked unafraid. But then, statues always looked unafraid. Tadukhepa swallowed hard and nodded to her litter bearers.
They lifted the platform onto their shoulders. The litter, decorated with strings of bells and tassels of beads, made a cheerful music as it descended the ramp. But when it reached the flat stone of the processional way, one bearer stumbled. Only for a moment, and he caught himself at once—but it was enough to make Tadukhepa's heart leap, and to rock Ishtar perilously in her seat. Tadukhepa reached for the goddess in a panic, fumbling to right her—and then she flushed. Was it ill luck to touch the goddess in this way, or good luck? She could not decide, and not knowing made her sick with worry. She kissed both her hands, to take in the goddess's blessing—if indeed a blessing had been conferred—and to apologize if she had caused offense.
From the height of her bearers' shoulders, Tadukhepa looked down on the citizens of Waset. Men and women alike glanced up at her with minimal interest, their curiosity waning now that the last of her treasures had passed. Their glances were cynical. Some eyes even looked pitying in their stark rings of black kohl. Some turned away before her litter had reached them, finding the dull, daily work that waited in the bread-and-beer shops, or at the stinking dockside, far more interesting than the king's latest bride.
Tadukhepa was glad she had commanded Nann to stay close. The girl's presence was the one familiar thing to which she could hold in a world that saw her as nothing remarkable—just another woman for the king; one of a great many.
Tadukhepa had known what these Egyptian rulers were like from her earliest days. She'd heard tales of King Amunhotep at her nurse's knee. The Pharaoh had several palaces full of women, she knew—so many women that he could never visit them all, never sire even one child on each of them, and the poor creatures were fated to live and age and die untouched and unloved, locked away in the gilded cages of the royal harem.
As a child, these lurid tales of Egyptian proclivities had amused her, filling her with a pleasant kind of disbelief, a bubbling, mischievous shock. When she had reached her seventeenth year and her father had called her to his throne room to announce that she would go to Egypt as a bride—as a pawn to maintain the fragile peace between Egypt and Mitanni—all the pleasure of the stories had shattered, and she had fallen to her knees, weeping shamefully before the eyes of the Hurrian court, pleading for mercy. But her father had refused to hear her cries, and for weeks afterward as she prepared for the journey, no matter where she looked, her vision was obscured by the floating, faint suggestion of the bars of a fine, golden cage.
By the time the procession reached the temple complex on the northern edge of the city, Tadukhepa had allowed a haze to fall across her senses, a misty half-awareness through which reality filtered slowly—the throbbing heat, the sweat trickling down the back of her neck, Ishtar's cool composure, and the crowds turning away—as if she saw it all through the weave of a thick veil.
A small gasp of shock from Nann, who walked close beside the litter, brought Tadukhepa out of her miserable reverie. She looked up, eyes focusing for the first time since leaving the lower city. The gateway to the temple district rose above her, two soaring, solid pylons of golden-hued limestone. They were stern and imposing, in true Egyptian style—blocky, and slanted faintly inward like the sides of the great pyramids far to the north, which Tadukhepa had observed several days ago from the deck of her ship as she had sailed past. The pylons stretched into the hot, blue-white sky. They were the height of six or seven men at least, and every surface, every enormous block was carved and inscribed with the images of kings from generations gone. They surrounded her, frozen in postures of striding might, lifting clubs against enemies, holding doomed transgressors tight by the hair, driving their chariots into the sun. And all about the kings' bodies, the strange, illustrative characters of the Egyptian sacred script wreathed them like Ishtar's protective power.
Tadukhepa could not read the sacred script—its precise, carefully incised rows of birds and snakes, human figures and flowers were a mystery to her. She had only just gained the smallest understanding of low Egyptian writing, the characters used for everyday communication. But she did not need to read the words to know that this towering gateway admitted her into a place of great and fearsome power. She could sense its import, could feel it bearing down upon her as if, like a thinking creature of malignant will, it sought to sweep her from her litter and cast her small, unworthy body into the dust.
She glanced down at Nann, tempted to reach for the girl's hand again. But she would only look graceless and cowardly, leaning from her litter to cling to a servant's paw. And so she folded her hands firmly in her lap and sat up straight on her cushions, gazing straight ahead as the litter bore her into the city of temples.
Once beyond the imposing gate, temples seemed to crowd all around her: small red-granite shrines, lintels carved with winged scarabs; larger houses dedicated to this god or that, with porticoes framed by bright-painted pillars. Strange stone beasts crouched on limestone plinths along the processional way, their human faces watching her with icy judgment above lithe, leonine bodies. In the distance, a low, broad stair led to the massive pillars and yawning black entrance of a huge stone temple, larger by far than the rest. Tadukhepa could see her dowry procession making its way up that stair, into that blackness—and she knew that she must follow. She swallowed the lump in her throat and clasped her hands together to still their trembling.
The litter proceeded up the broad staircase. Nann puffed slightly as she climbed, and wiped the sweat from her brow with a thin, pale wrist. The blackness at the temple's mouth at least provided relief from the heat, cool and sudden as a springtime rain in the mountains. It nearly made Tadukhepa gasp aloud. She breathed deeply as the litter sank to the ground, allowing the shade's caress to soothe her, and smelled the thick, sweet odor of incense, and the raspy char of burnt meat.
Nann shuffled close as Tadukhepa stood. The servant girl offered her hand and guided Tadukhepa from the litter's platform.
"It's so dark here," Tadukhepa said. Nann whispered back, "What is this place?"
Two of Tadukhepa's other servants emerged from among the umber pillars. They lifted the goddess with reverence from her seat, then disappeared again into the shadows.
As the litter was carried away, the darkness slowly receded. It was evident now that some flickering, shifting light source—torches, perhaps—burned deep in the temple's heart. A long, wavering tunnel of faint orange light seemed to reach for Tadukhepa, extending toward her out of a blackness that was as deep and bottomless as the Underworld. She gasped and clung to Nann's arm, heedless now of showing weakness or fear. She was afraid—afraid and alone, save for her servant, who was trembling as much as Tadukhepa.