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Sphinx's Queen
Sphinx's Queen
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Sphinx's Queen

Written by Esther FriesnerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Esther Friesner

· Bluefire
· Trade Paperback · September 27, 2011 · $9.99 · 978-0-375-85658-7 (0-375-85658-7)
Also available as an eBook.

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Sunlight touched the western shore of the sacred river. I sat hugging Nava as we watched the beautiful return of light to the world. The nightmare that had disturbed my sleep on that first night of our escape from Thebes was gone. In my heart, I praised Ra, who had triumphed once more over the monsters of the underworld to steer his sun-ship safely back across the open sky.

“Are you all right?” Nava asked, gazing at me with a worried look that was much too old for such a little girl. “You were making a lot of noise. You must have had a very scary dream.”

“It was scary,” I replied, brushing a few stands of hair out of her eyes. “But it wasn’t all bad.”

“I heard you yell the evil prince’s name.” Nava pursed her lips, her small body radiating anger. She knew what Thutmose had done to me—condemned me for blasphemy, imprisoned me, tried to have me killed—and that he was the reason we’d fled Thebes last night. “A dream he’s in has to be all bad!”

“Not if I fought him”—I smiled—“and won.”

She tilted her head. “Did you?”

“I certainly did. First he tried to fool me; then he tried to harm me, but I defeated him. And do you know why I could do that?” Nava shook her head. “Because I wasn’t just fighting to save myself. You were in my dream as well, Nava, and I fought for you.”

“Oh, I know I was there,” she said, lifting her chin. “I heard you call my name, too. Did I help you?”

“In a way.”

“Hmph. That means I didn’t do anything, really.”

“Maybe next time I’ll have a dream where we fight together,” I said. “And isn’t it better to know that I can depend on your help when I’m awake?”

Nava wasn’t satisfied. “I want to help you always. At least you dreamed that you won. I’m glad. That means we’ll be safe, no matter what. Dreams don’t lie, not the really important ones.”

“So now you’re a dream-reader as well as a musician, Nava?” I teased her gently, the way I sometimes teased my little sister Bit-Bit. How I missed her!

Nava shook her head. “I wish I were. Dream-readers—even those who are slaves—can become very rich and important. Before she died, my mama used to tell us about one of our people, a Habiru slave who was a great dream-reader, long ago. He read Pharaoh’s dreams so well that he was given his freedom, and gold, and a big house, and a princess!”

“Those must have been very important dreams,” I said lightly.

“Oh, they were!” I was treating Nava’s tale as no more than a child’s fancy, but she was completely sincere. She believed in every word she told me. “Mama told us that those dreams saved the Black Land from a famine that lasted seven years.”

A wistful look came into her eyes. It was the first time I’d heard Nava talk about her mother.

I patted her shoulder. “Your mother knew very good stories, Nava. I hope you’ll tell me more of them someday.”

“It’s not a story,” she said, giving me a determined look. “It’s the truth.”

“What’s the truth?” a sleepy voice called out weakly from the far side of our dead campfire. With groans and moans, Prince Amenophis pushed himself up to sit cross-legged on the harsh ground. “Horus spare me, but my arms and legs feel ready to break before they bend normally again,” he muttered. “Ugh, what a night. Amun grant we don’t have to spend too many more like it before we reach Dendera.”

“How far is it from here?” I asked.

Amenophis shrugged his bony shoulders. “A few days.”

“How many?” I pressed. I was concerned, for his sake. After only one night away from the comforts of Thebes, he was starting to look haggard. The fewer days we’d have to travel, the better for him.

It was an innocent question, but it seemed to make Amenophis surprisingly uncomfortable. “I—I’m not sure. I’ve always been brought there in one of the royal ships. It was very pleasant, sailing down the sacred river, so I never paid much attention to how long the journey took.”

“Royal ships with oars and sails,” I remarked. “They’d go much faster than our little papyrus boat, but it’ll get us there all the same.”

“Is Dendera the only city we’ll pass?” Nava asked.

“Y-yes. I mean, I’m not sure about that, either. The last time I traveled there, I was much younger. Even though I wasn’t a child anymore, Mother kept sending me into the cabin for most of the trip. I think she was afraid I’d fall into the river if I wandered around the deck. Thutmose made fun of me, called me a little lotus petal.”

“He’s the lotus petal,” Nava decreed. “Not brave like us. He’d never leave the palace to help his friends.” She hugged me.

“Maybe not,” I said. “But he will leave the palace to come after me. If we don’t know how many days’ sail we’ve got ahead of us, we’d better start as soon as possible, to put plenty of distance between us and him.”

“Do we have to go right now?” Nava asked plaintively. “I’m hungry.”

I tousled her thick hair fondly. “Of course we’ll have breakfast first. We’ll just have it as quickly as possible.” I stood up and shook dust from my dress. The cloth was already much the worse for a night spent sleeping on the ground. I hoped it would hold together until Dendera. Clapping my hands, I turned to Amenophis and said, “Which bag shall I open for us? Where’s the bread packed?”

My friend began to chew on his lower lip nervously. His eyes darted to the bags of provisions he’d carried ashore from the humble boat that had ferried us across the sacred river. I watched his fingers curl and uncurl as he silently tallied the sacks, and I saw worry creep into his eyes. “That . . . that one has bread in it, I think,” he said, pointing unsteadily at one of the smaller bags. “Just take two pieces—four if they’re small. None for me, please. I’m . . . I’m not hungry.”

I opened the bag he indicated and took out two substantial loaves, round and golden brown. They were fresh enough to still be soft, though the rest of the bread we’d brought would soon turn so hard it would need to be soaked in water or beer before we could chew it. I gave one loaf to Nava, who sank her small white teeth into it greedily; then I tore the other loaf in half.

“Hungry or not, you’ll share this with me,” I said.

“No, really, I don’t want it.” He turned his face away, but I’d seen the longing in his eyes when he’d looked at the loaf. I could almost hear his stomach rumbling with early morning hunger. If he wasn’t famished, I was a frog.

“Then I don’t want it, either.”

“But you have to eat! You’ll get sick if you don’t.”

I thrust the bread at him again. “And you won’t?” Still he refused to accept it. The two of us stared at one another like a pair of goats head-to-head in a narrow alley, both too stubborn to budge.

“What’s the matter?” Nava had devoured her bread and was now looking at us unhappily, her small fist pressed so tightly to her mouth that I could hardly understand he