I've been writing a novel off and on for years. Something like 16 years actually. Since I resurrected my blog, I've resurrected the novel as well. So I thought I'd put up the first chapter, just for shits and giggles as my ex-husband used to say.
"What about that one?" Smenkeret pointed to the center of the crowded courtyard where a dusky, almond-eyed slave was being led toward the auction block by Paneb, the only son of Imanut, the slave trader.
The Lady Anefereti, daughter of the royal scribe Khnumhotep and, by virtue of being a half-sister of the Pharaoh’s Great Wife, a blood member of the royal household, raised one delicately plucked brow. "Surely you jest."
"She appears to be in good shape," Smenkeret said to his mistress. "Strong. Healthy. Young," he continued evenly.
"Indeed." Anefereti slanted her tall steward a sideways glance, but he had turned to watch the scene in the courtyard.
She watched in bemusement as the slave trader’s son desperately tried to act as if this weren't the first time his father had entrusted him with the responsibility of bringing a slave onto the block. It was no easy feat for a lad who still worn the sidelock of youth for, despite the rope tied tightly around her neck, the slave managed to swing her hips seductively as she crossed the dusty yard. Her only item of clothing, an ornate girdle of blue and red faience beads riding low on her slim waist did nothing to hide her obvious assets and a low whistle of admiration circled the crowd of browsers, gawkers and possible buyers.
Anefereti had had dealings with Imanut before. He was the most respectable, honorable and honest slave trader in the entire city of Amarna by his own account, and the biggest cheat in the whole of the Red and Black Lands by everyone else's. He was also well known for selling attractive slaves; a fact he was not averse to proclaiming loudly and frequently to anyone who would listen. Of course he sold them for much more than they were actually worth, but what were a few bushels of wheat more (never less where Imanut was concerned) when beauty was at stake, he always said.
Just as the boy began to climb the three steps of the granite auction block, the slave whom rumor had it had been reluctantly returned when her last master’s wife gave him an ultimatum along the lines of if-she-doesn't-go-I-will-and-remember-just-whose-money-set-you-in-your-business, planted her feet in the fine red dust at the bottom of the steps and waited. The boy reached the second step and almost lost his balance when the rope pulled taut. Clearly, it was the opportunity the woman had been waiting for. She widened her stance, thrusting her hips suggestively forward and refused to budge. The boy looked down at her and his cheeks flushed. He rocked from side to side, finally turning toward his father.
Anefereti nudged Smenkeret and pointed toward Imanut. “I’ll bet he’s trying to cheat that man out of an extra roll of linen.” Just then, Imanut kicked one of the rolls behind his omnipresent jar of beer and began loudly claiming that the buyer had cheated him.
The seconds stretched; the crowd held its collective breath and the boy, after blowing out his breath in a loud sigh, sagged his shoulders and shouted to his father. Imanut, having been convinced by the buyer’s bodyguards that he had already received more than twice as much linen as the last slave had been worth, was leaning over to take a draught of beer.
Imanut spat out the mouthful of warm liquid and hoisted his ponderous frame from the well-padded bench he always placed in the shade between buildings, scattering crumbs of bread from his once-white robe as he did. Grabbing the prod he used for herding cattle and slaves, he scuttled across the courtyard with surprising speed for one so fat and jabbed the woman in her shapely rear, hard enough to make her yelp, but not hard enough to injure her. Imanut never marred his merchandize..
Smenkeret chuckled under his breath and Aneferiti shot him a disapproving glance. Why do men always find such things amusing, she wondered. How would he like it if someone jabbed him in a delicate area?
She watched as the slave woman resisted a last moment, muttered a curse under her breath, then gave in and mounted the steps so quickly the boy staggered and almost lost his balance. In a show of what appeared to be embarrassed bravado, he swaggered to the edge of the block, tied his end of the rope to the ring on the auction post with a flourish and jumped down, raising a thick cloud of red dust where he landed. Imanut watched, a self-satisfied grin crinkling his pudgy face. The slave glowered at the trader, cranked her head around to see the small, raised welt where she'd been poked and then massaged the spot with her long, thin fingers. For the second time, a whistle of admiration flowed through the crowd.
Imanut pointed his prod toward the slave and began his spiel. "This one's been well trained in domestic service in one of the Empire's finest households and will make an excellent servant," he said. The slave, who had been well trained, but clearly not in the domestic arts and hardly in one of the finest households, scanned the crowd, catching the eye of a young scribe. Once he was staring unabashedly at her, she lowered her thick, black lashes and let the tip of her tongue ever-so-briefly flicker over her full lips. It was obvious to anyone watching that the pasty-faced scribe had decided he had to make her a part of his household no matter what the cost. "I believe she's had musical training as well," Imanut continued, having observed the exchange between the woman and the scribe. "Do I have an offer?"
"Are you going to bid on her?" Smenkeret turned to ask blandly, idly stroking his thick, closely cropped black beard.
The Lady Anefereti narrowed her kohl-rimmed lids and scowled. "I'm not looking for an addition to the harem. I'm looking for a maid." Straightening her shoulders, she brushed an invisible bit of lint from the deeply pleated sleeves of her white linen tunic before continuing. "If I didn't know better, I'd swear you were a stallion instead of a gelding," she whispered sharply.
"There are always memories," Smenkeret whispered back, with more than a hint of amusement in his voice.
"Not at my expense, there aren't," she replied, in her displeasure raising her voice just enough so that Imanut who was anxiously watching the crowd in an attempt to force the bidding as high as possible glanced in her direction. At his questioning expression, she shook her head and he turned back to the scribe who had wormed his way to the front of the auction block and in a loud voice, suddenly doubled the current bid.
A gasp rippled through the crowd. "Sold!" Imanut shouted, hastily closing the bidding before the scribe could change his mind.
The young man jumped forward, tripping over the folds of his robe in his eagerness to reach the platform. The slave batted long lashes and smiled.
“By tonight it will be difficult to tell who is master and who is slave in that household,” Smenkeret smirked. “By morning, there will be no doubt.”
Anefereti closed her eyes and waved a painted feather fan in front of her face Smenkeret always seemed to be able to embarrass her when she was least prepared.
As Imanut and the scribe worked out the details of payment, the milling crowd began to disperse. Now that the piece de resistance of the day had been sold, most of the on-lookers were drifting away, back to their shops, their homes, their duties.
Anefereti moved into the shadow of a building where the afternoon heat was a bit less oppressive. "What other woman are being offered today?" she asked as she snapped her fan shut.
"There's only one more. She wasn't available for viewing, but I'm told she's well-trained in household duties," Smenkeret said.
"Humph. I'll believe that when I see it," Anefereti snorted. "Imanut claimed the other one was a domestic servant, too. If she's ever baked a loaf of bread in her life, then I'm the King's Daughter. I wish Tetisheri could return to her duties," she said wistfully tapping her fan on her fingers. Tetisheri was her maid-servant, and her friend. In many ways she was more of a sister than her own sister.
Smenkeret folded his arms across his chest. Like most who lived in the Red and Black Lands, he was deeply tanned, but no matter how many hours he labored in the sun, he would never be as dark as those who were born on the banks of the Nile. Even Anefereti, who had spent most of her life within the cool shadows of the palace and its courtyards, was a darker, richer bronze than her tall slave. "I've been meaning to talk to you about that," he said.
For the second time that afternoon, the Lady Anefereti scowled. In the background, Imanut extolled the virtues of a rheumy-eyed, middle aged man, trying to encourage higher bidding from the restless crowd. "So talk," she said coolly.
"Tetisheri's husband asked me about purchasing her freedom and that of their son."
"And you told him to speak to me, of course."
"Not exactly? Then what exactly?" She felt a strange sinking in the pit of her stomach.
"I said I'd discuss the price with you."
Anefereti drew a sharp breath. "You said what?" The sinking feeling suddenly turned to anger.
Smenkeret looked sheepish. "It seemed appropriate at the time."
Anefereti squared her shoulders and drew herself to her full five feet. Enough was enough, she thought . "You may be in charge of my other slaves, but you aren't the head of the household. If you aren't careful, I'll put you on that block next time," she threatened.
Before Smenkeret could respond, a scuffle in the courtyard drew their attention. "You son of a river hog, he's mine," shouted a tall, gaunt wine merchant whose face was flushed as much from anger as from sampling his latest batch of private reserve.
"May you never see Osiris, you liar," added a rotund pottery dealer, shaking his fist at Imanut who was carefully keeping his beer jar between him and the angry merchants.
The crowd, which had thinned considerably after the slave woman had left the block, began to fill back in as merchants poked their heads from stalls and passersby suddenly found a new interest. Only last month, a member of the King's guard had presented Imanut with a bloody nose when a scribe had raised a bid after Imanut had proclaimed a slave sold but because the scribe’s offer was substantially higher than the closing bid, Imanut had tried to pretend he had been sneezing from the dust and that the man who thought he had made the final offer had misinterpreted his distress as a sign the bidding was closed.
While his father was dancing around both the beer jar and truth, Paneb strutted into the courtyard. With great self-importance, he yanked the rope and woman at the end of his lead stumbled, catching her balance only by grasping at the stairs. At that, the boy pulled the rope and her head jerked under the strain. She wobbled as she climbed the block and had to clutch the bronze ring at the top for support. Swaying in the relentless sun, she tried to maintain her balance by holding the ring with both hands, but at length she failed, collapsing at the boy's feet. The boy stared down at her, his mouth agape, the rope still clutched in his suddenly sweaty palm.
Anefereti narrowed her eyes against the glare of the sun. There was something about the woman on the block; something she couldn’t quite place that attracted her interest. She cocked her head toward Imanut who, by now, had calmed the merchants enough so that he wasn't in immediate danger of physical harm, then looked woman lying motionless on the block. She had to take a closer look. With the barest nod to Smenkeret who followed her lead, she crossed the courtyard, leaving a thin trail of red dust swirls on the sun-dried brick. The crowd stepped aside as she passed.
"You can't do that..." Imanut's son sputtered as she mounted the auction block and dropped to her knees beside the woman. Ignoring the boy who was hopping nervously from foot to foot, she picked up one of the woman's wrists and felt for a pulse. Satisfied the woman was not dead, but merely faint, Anefereti then lifted the matted, snarled hair from her face where a small reddish mark, perhaps a bruise, stained her cheek. "A foreigner," she murmured as the boy screwed up his face in anxiety. She fingered the neck of the woman's torn and soiled white linen robe, still bearing traces of its once crisp pleats. "Good quality." It bore a striking resemblance to her own robes, definitely not something a slave would be permitted to wear. Finally, she lifted the woman's hand once again, turning it over to examine the palm. "Not used to hard labor," she commented as she studied the long, delicate fingers which still bore pale indentations from rings. This woman had once worn more than the cheap jewelry of a common slave.
"She's not your typical slave," Smenkeret said what she had been thinking.
"No, I agree. But what makes you say that?" She was relying as much on intuition as hard evidence, but like most men she knew, Smenkeret didn’t have an intuitive bone in his body.
"These." Smenkeret lifted the tightly matted curls from the side of the woman's face to reveal small gold earrings in the shape of cowrie shells. "Since when do any of your slaves wear gold earrings like that?"
"Maybe she stole them from her last mistress."
"Then why didn't Imanut take them off before he put her on the block?" he asked.
"He didn't notice them?" she suggested.
"Imanut not notice? He'd steal from his mother's grave if he thought he could get away with it."
Anefereti stared at the small, golden shells. Egyptian woman sometimes wore cowrie shells—the real thing, not gold models—to indicate a recent birth. She lifted the front of the slave’s dress to see if her breasts were milk-engorged. They weren’t. Perhaps she had been wearing them in the hopes of having a child. Infertility was a curse and all women, from the Great Wife to the poorest servant prayed to be spared its ignomity. Smenkeret raised an eyebrow as she dropped the garment back in place. "We can ask her about the earrings when she wakes up."
"If she wakes up. And if she tells the truth."
Just then the woman's eyelids fluttered and she looked up with a confused stare, her eyes glazed and unfocused. Imanut's son tugged on the rope and started to say something, but a glance from Smenkeret caused him to clamp his lips in a tight line and drop the rope with a sullen glare.
"Water." The woman's voice cracked and she licked a swollen tongue over parched lips.
"Imanut might not be honest, but he usually makes sure his merchandise is in better condition than this before presenting it for sale," Smenkeret said, resting on one knee beside Anefereti.
"True." Anefereti stared at the woman who appeared to have fainted again. "If Imanut hopes to make any profit on her, he'd better get a move on. A few more hours in this sun and he'll have a corpse to bury instead of a slave to sell."
She tilted her chin and exchanged glances with Smenkeret. He lowered his head, silently asking if she wanted him to do something. Anefereti nodded, almost imperceptibly.
Smenkeret rose to his full height. Even standing as straight as possible, the slave trader's son, who was tall for his age, barely reached the middle of his chest. "Fetch some water," he ordered.
"Be quick about it," Anefereti added, holding up her hand to Smenkeret who pulled her to her feet. She ignored the murmurs rippling through the crowd beneath her.
The boy, clearly torn between his desire to obey her and her heavily muscled slave towering over him and his need to stay with the slave woman began sniffling pitifully. He was spared making a decision by the appearance of his father.
"Idiot," Imanut muttered under his breath as he hurried across the courtyard."No handling the merchandise," he puffed as he mopped his dripping brow with a wrinkled, gray cloth he produced from somewhere within the folds of his grimy robe. "Oh, Lady Anefereti." He stopped short and gave what would have been a crisp bow if he hadn't been too fat to bend in the middle. As it was, all he could produce was a massive wobble in the region of his upper belly. "A thousand pardons, my lady. I did not realize it was you." With a fierce glare at his son who backed as close as he could to the edge of the block without actually falling off, Imanut heaved himself up the stairs, droplets of sweat dripping off his sloping forehead. "Look all you wish, my lady. You grace my humble establishment with your beauty. Had I know you were here, I would not have kept you waiting. Can I get you something refreshing? Date wine? Pomegranate juice? Boy, get the Lady Anefereti..."
Anefereti waved her fan in mid-air. "You honor me," she said, "but all I require is some water." Imanut glowered at his son, who immediately jumped off the block and hurried to fulfill the noblewoman's request.
Anefereti bent back over the slave who was now trying to sit up and despite Imanut's startled look, said to her, "The water is coming."
The slave's reply was unintelligible. As she began to sink back into a faint, Anefereti nodded again at Smenkeret who with a grace surprising in a man his height and bulk, bent over and clasped his arms beneath the slave's limp body just as Imanut's son returned with a small crudely made-jar half full of tepid water.
As the boy jogged behind, three of his steps to every one of Smenkeret's, the big slave carried the unconscious woman through the obviously surprised crowd. He entered the relative coolness of Imanut's shaded bench and laid her on the folds of cloth which served both as a pad for Imanut's ample rear and as a convenient hiding place for such small items as might have the misfortune to pass into his grasp. Anefereti took the jar from the boy and tipped it to the woman's lips who swallowed, coughed a bit, then gulped another mouthful.
Anefereti waited until the slave had drained the jar, then wheeled to face Imanut who had followed hard behind. She had made up her mind. "I'll take her. Name your price."