The sun beat down upon Set Maat, ending the relief of the night. Wind whistled through the valley, carrying the sand of the desert into the village, where it gathered in every nook and cranny. The cliff faces seemed to dance in the rising heat, taking on a semblance of life in the valley of the dead.
Isetnofret smiled as she wished her father farewell, but once he vanished into the morning bustle of artisans and laborers, she sighed.
Today, he would finish his painting in the tomb of an overseer. It was a project that was no challenge to his skill, but a necessity if he wished to have the means to complete the preparations for his own journey into the afterlife. By now, he should have been able to pick and choose only those jobs that indulged his passion for painting and increased his status, but such was not to be.
Though he didn’t blame her, Isetnofret certainly blamed herself. Her wealthy husband had passed from sickness after two years of marriage. Because she had not borne him a child before his passing, his family had cast her aside, forcing her to return to her father’s household. She also felt responsible for the early death of her mother, who had never truly recovered from childbirth. The cost of preparing her body had further set back her father’s plans.
Her mother rested in a small, temporary, but lovingly decorated tomb, awaiting the day when her final resting place would be complete. Once, Isetnofret had thought she would give her parents a grand burial that would ensure their place in the afterlife, and now she was a burden instead.
Though she was a nearly unrivaled beauty, the wind whispered with rumors that she was cursed and barren. No man sought her hand, though many still sought her body. She had rebuffed them all. Though she ached for pleasure, she would give herself to no man who would not relieve her father of the burden she had become.
Her heart heavy - as always - she made her way into the rising heat and the stream of laborers who ogled her with unabashed lust, on her way to her toil, baking bread.
It was near to the time of high sun when the women of the bakery glanced at each other, wondering at the nervous posture of their overseer. He had stepped outside to speak to someone, and returned looking as though he had discovered a scorpion in his sandal.
Whispers traveled, as whispers do, and Isetnofret learned the reason for the odd behavior of the overseer. The youngest son of Pharaoh had come to the valley. The news left her with a mixture of fear and awe, as it did all in Set Maat. Little was known of Dedumose beyond his name, and that his mother was a woman Pharaoh had bedded once on a hunting trip.
When the child was old enough to travel, his mother had journeyed up the Nile to present him to Pharaoh. Despite his mother’s prior, humble status, she had been granted a place amongst Pharaoh’s concubines, when he saw the child. Dedumose was an acknowledged heir of Pharaoh, and thus he had power.
None knew how he would wield that power over them.
When Isetnofret left the bakery, she took a moment to marvel at the young heir’s tents, set up far from the dwellings of the common people. They were elaborately decorated, and trimmed with glimmering gold. Servants scurried amongst the tents, attending to the wants and needs of the man who took shelter within their shade.
She turned away, as the opulence reminded her of her husband. Though the marriage had been a practical means to advance her status, and that of her parents, she had grown fond of her husband in the end. She thought that perhaps she had even loved him. Surely she had mourned for more than her possible fate when he was laid to rest in the tomb her father had painted.
She returned to their small home, in order to prepare for her father’s comfort upon his return from the dark tomb in the valley.
Father and daughter both started some hours later, as the sun dipped toward the horizon in preparation to pass through the underworld. A loud, brazen knock sounded on their humble door. Her father shooed her away, and went to answer it.
Isetnofret peeked out from behind the reed mat covering the doorway of her room, and had to hold back a gasp when she saw the soldiers at the door. One of them announced “Dedumose, son of Pharaoh...”
The rest of the lengthy introduction was lost on her as she stood frozen. The fear and awe she had felt earlier filled her to overflowing.
The soldiers stepped aside, and her father bent his knees to abase himself before one of royal blood.
“Rise,” Dedumose said as he stepped forward. “I seek your skill.”
Again, Isetnofret had to hold back a gasp. Pharaoh’s son was clad in nothing more than a thin kilt of fine linen, trimmed with gold. If any doubt that he was born of the gods had dwelled within her, one sight of his magnificent body would have carried it away as if a feather upon the wind. Yet another emotion joined those roiling within her - intense arousal. He was the most beautiful, perfect man she had ever seen.
“How may I serve you, my lord?” her father asked.
Dedumose answered, “My mother beheld your work in the tomb of her father when she was young. She said it was the most pleasing to the gods that was ever offered in their favor. I seek such favor when I stand before them, and would have your work within my own tomb.”
Her father responded, “I would be honored to serve you so, my lord.”
Isetnofret knew her father well, and could hear the excitement in his voice. It was entirely possible that the son of Pharaoh might expect the work to be done for free. Still, the value of painting the tomb of a member of the royal family was priceless. It would allow her father to attract wealthier patrons, which would in turn attract even more. Surely the gods would reward him in this world and the next for serving the blood of Pharaoh as well.
Dedumose lifted a hand and beckoned someone who waited behind him. A servant approached bearing a vessel. Isetnofret’s father gasped upon looking into the vessel, and she barely held back her own. The ground glass was normally reserved for the blue in only the most important paintings within the burial chamber. The color symbolized creation and rebirth. What was within the pot would be sufficient for every painting in a large tomb, even used liberally.
The young heir said, “It would please me for you to use this for the blue in your paintings.”
“With this, my work will have life of its own, my lord. To paint with this is a blessing,” Isetnofret’s father said, and gave a bow.
Dedumose smiled. “You will have servants to aid you, meat, bread, and beer made by those who serve me. I would see to your comfort that you may devote your energy to the work.”
“When may I begin?” he asked. His enthusiasm had grown to such a point that any could hear it in his voice.
The son of Pharaoh chuckled. “It will be some time before the tomb is ready for painting. I would have you oversee the plastering, to ensure you have a suitable surface upon which to paint.”
“That will serve you well, my lord. If I may, my lord, I would like to sketch your likeness, that you may approve of my rendering before the true work begins.”
Dedumose nodded. “This is the reason I sought you out. My mother said you captured her father’s likeness, yet cast him in the most perfect light. That is what I wish. I am prepared to sit for such a rendering at this time.”
“Oh. Oh, of course, my lord. Daughter, fetch me papyrus, ink, and pen.”
Isetnofret’s heart skipped a beat. Fear and anxiety swelled within her, but she mastered them to step out of her room and respond as appropriate. “If it pleases my lord, I will do so at once.”
The young heir’s eyes widened, and his lips curled into a smile. “It would please me greatly. Join us as your father works. How are you called, beautiful one?”
Warmth flooded her cheeks - and wetness gathered elsewhere - as she answered, “Isetnofret, my lord.”
“The beautiful Isis,” Dedumose said. “It suits you. Please, bring what your father requires and join us.”
“At once my lord.”
Isetnofret breathed a quiet sigh of relief when she stepped out of sight to gather her father’s tools. The look on the young heir’s face had made her weak in the knees. It had been some time since a man had looked upon her with such mingled admiration and desire, as opposed to pure lust.
When she stepped back into the main room, she saw that Dedumose’s preparation to sit for a likeness had included a chair brought from his tents. While a pair of his servants remained, the soldiers had stepped outside. The heir’s smile widened as she entered, and she found herself smiling back.
“Thank you, my daughter,” her father said when he took the implements of his art.
“Please, sit,” Dedumose asked her.
Isetnofret took her place at her father’s side, sitting upon the floor. Her father was already hard at work, glancing up at the son of Pharaoh, and then making careful marks on the papyrus with a charred stick before committing with ink.
“I am a man of action,” Dedumose said, addressing her father. “Is your daughter promised to wed?”
“She is not, my lord,” her father answered.
Isetnofret’s heart raced.
“Would you be pleased if I were to join the suitors seeking her promise?” the young heir asked.
Her father quickly answered, “Most pleased, my lord.”
Dedumose turned toward her, and Isetnofret’s next indrawn breath was a shuddering one. He asked, “Would it please you, beautiful one?”
“It would, my lord,” she answered, thankful that her voice sounded strong, and carried none of the nervousness she felt.
Their eyes met, and she was lost within them. Their souls silently whispered within that gaze - laid bare to each other. Time was but one exquisite moment, stretching out into eternity within his eyes.
Dedumose and Isetnofret both started slightly when her father said, “It is finished, my lord.”
He continued as he held up the papyrus to present it to the son of Pharaoh. “This is but an unrefined sketch, my lord. May it please you.”
Dedumose took the sketch, shook his head and smiled. “If this is what you believe is unrefined, your final work will surely inspire awe. I am most pleased.”
“Thank you, my lord.”
“I will take no more of your time this night,” the young heir said. “I will stay for some time to approve of other work in my tomb. I will have it be known that you are welcome to deliver further work to my tents. For now, I must attend to the duty I have forestalled, and deliver the word of Pharaoh to the overseer of his tomb.”
“I have this day completed my most recent work,” Isetnofret’s father said. “My time shall belong to you, my lord.”
“Then, the gods have surely guided me to come at this time.” Dedumose turned to Isetnofret and said, “It would please me to have you join me for my evening repast, beautiful one.”
“It would please me as well, my lord,” Isetnofret responded.
“Then I am doubly pleased,” he said as he rose from his chair. He nodded to the older female servant at his side.
“I will convey you to my lord’s tents,” the woman said.
“And I will count the moments until I am free of my duty,” Dedumose said, and then caressed Isetnofret’s cheek.
She shivered from his touch.
The young heir nodded, and then took his leave. Once he was outside, the older woman said, “Come. I am Khepri.”
“Go with my blessing, daughter,” her father said. He picked up a second sheet of papyrus.
Isetnofret could see the light of passion in her father’s eyes, and cautioned, “Do not stay at your work too late, father.”
“Yes. Yes,” he said, already beginning a new sketch.
Khepri chuckled. “I can send a servant to ensure he seeks his bed, if you wish.”
The woman’s demeanor was infectious, and Isetnofret’s voice carried notes of laughter when she said, “Perhaps that might be wise.”
Her father blew out a dismissive sound, but otherwise continued his sketch.
Khepri gestured toward the door. When Isetnofret nodded, the older woman led the way.
“I will prepare you to dine with my lord,” Khepri said as they walked across the sand and stone, in the rosy light of the setting sun. “I have served him since his arrival at the palace. I believe he is smitten.”
“Do you think so?” Isetnofret excitedly asked. “I mean...”
The older woman chuckled. “Speak freely. Yes. I believe you find him pleasing as well.”
“This is good. I am tasked by his mother with seeing to the matters of his heart, and heirs.”
Isetnofret swallowed hard, knowing that after a two-year marriage that had not resulted in a child, she might very well not be able to offer heirs.
Khepri continued, “To such ends, I am prepared with clothing and jewelry to present yourself to my lord in a manner befitting one of his blood. I will assist you in bathing, shaving, and adorning your face. Worry not.”
That was easier said than done. At any moment, the knowledge of her widowing and rumors that she was barren could reach Dedumose, and all would be lost.
It was a wondrous scene that greeted Isetnofret when Khepri led her into a tent set somewhat apart from the others. Several carefully worked pieces of stone formed a square of solid floor, around which servants were at work. The men and women ever so slowly poured the water of the Nile through linen, filtering out the silt. Jugs that stood near the stone floor contained the clearest water Isetnofret had ever beheld.
In the opposite corner of the tent was another stone floor, connected by stepping stones. There, a low table supported numerous wooden boxes - all marvelously decorated with carving, gems, and gold.
Khepri inspected the jugs, nodded in approval, and then ordered all the male servants to leave, and continue their work in another tent. Two other women remained.
“Bring the stones,” Khepri told one of the women. She then turned to Isetnofret and said, “I will see that your wig and clothes are cared for.”
Isetnofret removed her wig and undressed, eager to bathe. One after another, hot stones from a fire outside were dropped into three jugs of water, warming it. Khepri carefully folded her clothing, and sent the other female servant to attend to their washing. Once nude, Khepri took Isetnofret’s hand and led her to the stone floor.
The two women lifted one of the jugs, and carefully poured it over Isetnofret’s body. The shower was far more luxurious than what she was used to, and Isetnofret sighed in satisfaction as she rubbed her hands over her body, washing away the dust, grit, and sweat of the hot desert day that had accumulated since her bath upon returning from the bakery.
Next, Khepri provided a natron soap that had an exhilarating floral and mint scent. Isetnofret scrubbed her body, and then two more jugs of warm, crystal clear water rinsed the residue away. She felt cleaner than she ever had in her life.
Khepri helped blot her body dry with thick, remarkably soft towels of linen, and then she went to the table to retrieve something from one of the exquisite boxes. Isetnofret regarded the implement with curiosity. Projecting from a carved wooden handle was a stone blade of shiny black.
The older woman noticed Isetnofret’s stare and smiled. “Obsidian. You will see.” She then directed the other servant to bring a chair, which was placed upon the floor of stone.
Once she was seated, Khepri spread a thin layer of scented oil on Isetnofret’s head. Isetnofret braced herself for the scraping of the blade, but she was surprised to feel it gliding over her skin with almost no bite at all. Khepri worked quickly and carefully, until she finished by wiping away the excess oil.
“Feel,” the older woman suggested.
Isetnofret ran her hand over the top of her head and gasped. It was perfectly smooth, without the slightest hint of stubble.
Khepri chuckled and said, “See?”
“It is wonderful,” Isetnofret remarked, still caressing her scalp.
“Let us attend to the rest,” the older woman instructed.
Though it took a while, Khepri shaved away the stubble on Isetnofret’s body in a fraction of the time it would have normally taken using a copper blade. Running her fingers over her freshly shaven, oh-so-smooth mound caused Isetnofret to shiver. Khepri and the other woman then filed her finger and toenails into smooth, attractive hemispheres.
The two servants next anointed Isetnofret’s body with more scented oils, making her skin shine and shimmer. Khepri led Isetnofret across the stepping stones, to the table, and then withdrew a wig from one of the boxes.
It was like nothing she had ever seen before. The hairs were long, straight, and would fall over her shoulder blades. Bangs hung from the front as well. Khepri helped settle the wig in place, and then retrieved a polished silver mirror. The look was exotic and stunning.
“Yes. Perfect. Beautiful,” Khepri remarked. “Now, to your makeup.”
The older woman applied the kohl to her eyes, and then a dusting of some red powder to her cheeks. Upon looking in the mirror, Isetnofret was amazed by the sharpness of the lines around her eyes. The woman had a hand as steady and talented as her father’s.
“Should I redden your lips?” Khepri asked.
The wearing of such red lip balm was a signal that a woman was willing and skillful in the art of fellatio, mimicking how the goddess Isis had returned life to her slain husband Osiris. Isetnofret nodded, and said, “Yes.”
The woman who had been sent to attend to Isetnofret’s clothing returned as Khepri finished painting Isetnofret’s lips, and said, “My lord is bathed and retiring to his tent.”
Khepri said, “Make ready for my lord’s repast, and let him know his guest will be with him soon.” She then said, “Let us dress you.”
The older woman opened one of the boxes and withdrew a loincloth that was dyed to resemble gold, and adorned with ornaments of the real thing. When Isetnofret slipped it on, the front piece barely covered her sex, while the back left the outer swell of her buttocks bare. It was apparent that Khepri had specific intentions for how the evening would proceed.
“And one final touch,” Khepri said, while opening another of the boxes.
Isetnofret covered her mouth and gasped at the sight of the golden necklace within. Braided chains of gold supported a wide collar necklace decorated with scarabs, discs representative of the sun, and ankhs. A large golden scorpion was the focal point of the necklace. Khepri settled the heavy chain over her neck, revealing that some of the ornaments were hollow, and designed as tiny, tinkling bells. The necklace hung draped over the inner swell of her breasts, but otherwise left them bare.
The other woman held up a long robe of linen. Khepri said, “To hide you from those unworthy to see.”
Her heart pattering, and a chill of anticipation running all through her, Isetnofret allowed the two women to slip the robe over her, and tie it closed. Khepri handed her a mint to freshen her breath, and then led the way. The walk between the smaller tent and the large ones at the center of the encampment felt as if it took an eternity. Reed mats had been spread upon the sand, guiding her toward where Dedumose awaited.