I Shall Rewrite the Stars
Spinning back, Raja sucks in a deep breath and sighs, “I’ve missed the smell of home.”
“Is there a reason the smell is rancid?” Helios asks, when a breeze drifts over us, bringing a fowl scent from the direction of the city.
“That would be the moat,” Mrunal explains. “It serves to protect the city, as well as deal with sewage wastes. Once we’re beyond the city walls, the smell will fade.”
“And you will marvel at the wonderous scents that sweep the streets of our sacred capital,” Raja huffs, shooting Helios a glare.
“I didn’t mean to insult you,” he tries, flinching back when Raja’s glare narrows, and she faces forward with another huff.
“Onward, then,” Mrunal says. “It will take a bit for a return greeting to be scheduled with His Majesty; and longer still for a meeting to be arranged for you lot. We’d do best to reach the palace before noon, if we’re to hope for such an audience within the week.”
“The week?” Ptolemy scoffs. “What good is the promise of friendship between our kingdoms, if your pharaoh won’t prioritize us in our hour of need?”
“He’s called a maharaja, Ptolemy,” I correct. “Just as Mother and Father would be referred to, if they were here. Respect the norms of this empire.”
“We’re lucky to have the chance Raja’s giving us, at all,” Helios adds. “She’s risking her neck for us, and if her father agrees to help, he’ll be risking the safety of his entire empire. We’ve been over this.”
“It’s an obligation, isn’t it?” Ptolemy grumbles. “We’re ancient allies-”
“Only so long as our family holds the throne of Kemet. Alliances don’t come cheap. Our mutual military might, financial stability, and global prominence meant remaining peaceful was the best option for our realms. Now we’ve got nothing to offer but risks and hopes. This situation doesn’t favor us.”
I notice Raja’s gaze as she glances back from the corners of her eyes. She studies my brother, her expression neutral, though a glimmer of respect registers before she notices my stare.
“Educate the child at another time,” she commands. “It’s been a long time since I was last home. I would greet my father and son, sooner rather than later.”
“Sounds reasonable,” Helios says, while Ptolemy continues her pouting.
“Our kingdom is falling deeper still into Roma’s grasp, yet greetings are somehow a priority?”
“Mind your tongue,” Juba says, sparing her a short glance. “Your status as a royal child means nothing here. If you insult the maharaja, he will feel nothing for ordering a swift punishment. To allow you to live, would be a rare kindness.”
Ptolemy clenches her lips, anger raging in her eyes. Helios and I share a look. Ptolemy’s always struggled with lessons, choosing to flee her tutors for the bliss of perusing merchant stalls, more often than not. But to show this deep an immaturity- this utter lack of regard for her place as a foreigner, or comprehension of how dire our circumstances are as targeted refugees of a fallen kingdom!
It's disturbing. I wish her ignorance to be the fading remnants of her childhood, but even so, her arrogance concerns me. It takes very little to earn the wrath of one who holds power over you. I fear for Ptolemy if she doesn’t come to understand that, before it’s too late.
Though, I’ve little time to worry over such matters, as the closer we walk toward the moat, the worse the stench in the air becomes. By the time I see the massive, brown-sloshing expanse of water, my eyes are burning. I choke on the stench, choosing to hold my breath for as long as I’m able, before gasping in another stinging gulp and holding again.
Helios bites his lip, his face red and eyes watering; Ptolemy buries her nose in the collar of his tunic, gagging.
When I look to Juba, he holds his head high, the only indication of his discomfort being the slight twitch of his right eye. I’m sure he must have experienced similar scents in Roma. Reaching out, I pat his shoulder, willing my eyes to express the sympathy I dare not open my mouth and speak.
Juba looks at me, smiles, and looks ahead.
What feels like lifetimes later, we reach a long, wooden bridge. From its edge, I notice the many high, square towers set into not the stone wall I expect, but a wall of dark wood. Slits in the wood glimmer with arrow heads, strung and ready to fire.
Thankfully, as we cross to the large, open entrance to the city, no arrows fly.
And by the grace of all the goodness in the world, when we pass onto the wide, crowded street beyond the gate, the stench does rapidly fade. In its place, I smell spices. Sharp, pungent, and sometimes sweet, the scents mingle and shift with each passerby.
I awe at the sight of veiled women with lush, dark hair hefting large, clay jugs upon their heads. Children run along at their sides, weaving around the legs of the adults, whooping and laughing as they go. On straw mats at the corners, men with their heads wrapped in white turbans, sit sucking in huffs of smoke from the long cords of silver hookahs.
On either side of the street, set before an expanse of flat-roofed, red-stone buildings, merchant tents crowd every possible space. From beneath their colorful curtains, wears of all kinds are displayed: fruits of purples, reds, and greens; clothing of shining satin and dyed linen; delicately carved brushes and polished, copper mirrors!
Everywhere I look, I see the bustle of a thriving city! It reminds me of the liveliness of Alexandria, a fact which tugs at my heart.
Leading us through a maze of streets, around the high buildings we’d seen in the distance, under bridges of arched stone, Raja finally stops when we come before the high, speared iron gates of the white building I recall. It must be her family’s palace.
Two guards, taller than any men I’ve ever seen, walk forward. Spears in hand, their heads are wrapped with black turbans, which match their tunics and shalwar. Around their necks are pendants of gold, inscribed with Indriran letters.
“Make way for Her Serene Highness, Rajkumari Raja Indrira!” Mrunal commands, his voice just short of a shout. “Kneel in reverence, or else forfeit your lives!”
Immediately the guards drop to one knee, their heads bent. Raja straightens, her former carefree attitude lost beneath a cool, mature demeanor. Without a word, she takes a step forward and pauses. With that step, the guards rise. One rushes to push open the gates; one runs inside, vanishing among the many doorless halls I see beyond the arched entrances of the palace.
“Come,” Raja commands, without looking back.
Taking the lead, Juba and I follow her. Across a wide yard of lush, green grass, we follow a stone path to the largest of the palaces’ entrances. Passing beneath its arch, we come into a labyrinth of high pillars and intersecting halls.
The marble floor is cool beneath my feet. Gems of emerald, ruby, and pearl sweep down the pillars, reflecting sunlight from the many glassless windows carved into the stone walls. It’s a magical scene the likes of which I never could have imagined till now!
When we come into a square courtyard, featuring a large pool under which black and white tiles display a scene of the sea, Raja pauses.
“Mrunal, take them to a guest chamber,” she says. “Summon maids to help them bathe and change into more appropriate clothes. I-”
“Your Serene Highness,” a guard calls out, dropping to one knee with his head bowed. “His Esteemed Majesty has summoned you and your guests to the throne room. I am to escort you.”
“All of us?” Raja asks. “Did word come of our return to Indrira, before my knowledge?”
“His Esteemed Majesty knows all, Your Serene Highness.”
I expect Raja to tsk of cluck her tongue, but her expression remains blank.
“Very well, then.”
“This doesn’t bode well,” Juba whispers to me. “There’s a strong chance the maharaja already knows about Kemet’s fall. He may be asking to see us, only to denounce your ancestral friendship.”
“Or to announce that we’re now bargaining chips in his bid to appease Roma,” I whisper back. “In that event, we must have a plan of escape.”
Juba glances around. “This palace is designed to confuse invaders. We’re too deep inside, to stand a chance of running away.”
“When night falls, our chances become grater.”
“Perhaps, unless the maharaja see’s fit to ensure we can’t escape.”
There are too many terrible possibilities for how he might do just that. Thus I banish the thought before fear can overwhelm me. Focused on Raja’s back, I grow more aware of our appearance, and why she’d ordered we be bathed and given fresh clothes.
As a whole, we are covered in dirt, dust, and sand. Ptolemy’s hair is a knotted mess, I am shoeless, and the boys look like common street urchins. And no matter how high Raja holds her head, the trailing stench of elephants upon her, does everything to destroy her regal image.
What gull must it take such an eyesore of a group as we, to march in before Maharaja Ashoka, and beg assistance as royalty only slightly his lessers? If I were to see such a sight from his position, I might break down weeping with laughter.
“Keep your mouth shut, Ptolemy,” Helios warns, eyes ahead as we come into a long, shadowed hall. “Not a word, no matter what.”
“When you enter, take to your knees,” Raja calls back to us. “Bow your heads and do not dare lift your eyes until given permission. Do not speak without permission. All who come before Maharaja Ashoka Indrira, are at his beck and whim. Do not forget that.”
“Halt!” our escort shouts, stopped before two massive, golden doors. Turning on his heel, the man knocks twice, steps to the side, and falls on his knees with head bowed.
The doors slide open soundlessly. Raja changes yet again, her strides sweeping; elegant. She moves as if floating, her grace a near-match for Mothers!
Juba nudges me, urging me to move. I do, stunned by the room we come into. Golden Indriran words span rows and rows upon the walls, broken only by narrow, glassless windows and rich tapestries. Golden pikes topped with golden candles line the room, their wax carved to look like flowers.
Gems form patterns in the domed ceiling, leading up to a massive chandelier of what looks to be solid gold. From it, dangles pearls and diamonds, which cascade toward the floor just above a single, highbacked throne. Cloaked in tiger pelt and red silk, a man with a long, white beard and dark brown skin sits upon the throne, his head wrapped in a red turban adorned with white feathers.
“Bow in reverence of His Esteemed Majesty, Maharaja Ashoka Indrira!” Mrunal commands.
I fall to my knees, unsure if I do so out of respect or from sheer breathlessness at the grandeur around me. Head bowed, I can barely see Juba and Helios at my sides. I hope Ptolemy is bowing correctly, but am too afraid of drawing attention to dare a glance back.
Ahead of us, I see Raja on her knees as well. It’s a long, tense while before a gruff, tired voice calls, “Rise, Rajkumari.”
“I greet Your Esteemed Majesty. Having returned from afar, I, Rajkumari Raja Indrira, am home.”
The maharaja huffs. “And were you successful in your ambitions?”
“Perhaps. I will know once one of the guests I have brought back, has tended to the yuvaraja.”
“Immediate recognition of the symptoms described, as well as a potential antidote upon his person, Your Esteemed Majesty.”
“You wager your life alongside his, for sharing such private information about my heir,” the maharaja warns. “You wager the lives of all who kneel before me! So now I ask; do you dare accept the consequences for such a gamble?”
“I dare,” Raja replies. “Begging your pardon, I will accept any punishment regardless of our success or failure, Your Esteemed Majesty.”
Maharaja Ashoka hums, then bellows, “Bring in the yuvaraja!”
I hear the doors open behind us. My heart sinks, as no sooner, do I notice Helios lift his head. He looks over his shoulder, pauses, and whips his eyes back toward Raja.
“Hey!” he shouts, scrambling to his feet.
“Helios!” I cry, a wave of cold dread washing over me. Reaching a hand out, my breath catches in my throat as Juba throws himself over me.
Shoving Raja off her feet, Helios sends her sprawling forward, seconds before an arrow pierces the floor where she’d stood. It barely misses his leg as he turns, hurdling across the floor, over our heads, and toward the door.
The whistle of another loosed arrow pierces the rising shouts of a swarm of guards. It flies over our heads, landing with a deafening thwack and deep gasp.
Juba sucks in a breath, his hands desperate to hold me down; to keep me from looking back. But nothing could do so. Not now. Not when that terrible gasp came from my precious twin.
“Helios?” I call, craning my neck to see his arms out wide, shielding a cowering woman who holds a bundle of golden cloth to her chest. “Helios?”
He lowers his arms. Swaying slowly, Helios’ legs give out, and he crumples to his side upon the floor. From his back protrudes the long stem of an arrow, wedged just below his shoulder blade.
The longer I look, the harder it is to breathe. “Helios?” I whisper. “Helios, answer me, please. Helios; Helios- Helios!”