From her balcony by the Nile, Hatshepsut looked out over the land of Egypt and wept. There was nothing else to do.
Her once-delicate hands, now marred by burns and plague scars, clenched tightly around the balcony railing. From the mud-brick houses and straw huts clustered at the foot of her half-completed tomb, she could hear slaves singing in a mixture of Hebrew and Egyptian as they gathered their meager belongings. They can sing, the pharaoh thought bitterly. Their children are alive.
She went back into her bedchamber, where the gauze curtains stirred listlessly as she passed. No other breeze came to ease the humidity, just as no rain had come to clean the bloody rivers and no sun shone to dispel the darkness. Without her maid-servants, the chamber seemed oppressively empty.
Hatshepsut removed her flax sandals and sank into a chair near the courtyard door; from there, she could see the Nile lotus-garden where she had pulled the tiny Hebrew baby up from the river all those years ago. It was thick and overgrown now, covered with weeds and thick with ash and silt. She had meant to have it cleaned for the celebration marking the start of her daughter’s sixteenth summer.
It’s just as well, she thought, looking out her window at the tomb where Neferure would soon be laid to rest, that there are no slaves left to do it.
“Moses,” she said aloud, and buried her face in her hands. He had been as precious to her as Neferure, once, when she was twelve and foolish and didn’t know what it was to be a mother. A new flood of hot tears ran down from her eyes. If she had not been so eager to draw Moses out of the water, would Neferure still be alive?
Hatshepsut jumped at the voice, struggling to hide her tears before she recognized the young man addressing her. It was Senemut, Neferure’s teacher, the khol and malachite around his eyes smudged down to his high cheekbones. He knows my sorrow, the pharaoh thought, and met his gaze without shame.
“The man is waiting for you in the antechamber,” Senemut said, bowing low. “The Hebrew.”
Hatshepsut straightened in her chair. “Send him to me.”
By the time Moses came in, she had managed to compose herself fit for a royal audience. “I have already sent word that your people are to be freed,” she said. “What more can you ask of me?”
He shook his head, a strange, almost gentle look in his brown eyes. “Nothing more. I only wanted… Mother…”
She flinched at the word, raising a hand as if to ward off a blow. The silence hung heavy in the room for a moment, as heavy as the moisture beading on the curtains. At last, she seemed to regain her breath. “What god do you serve, Moses, that he exacts such a terrible price for disobedience?”
“The Lord’s choices are more than any of us can predict,” he said. “Why were you so stubborn?”
“I don’t know!” The words came out more fiercely than she intended. “I don’t know. If I had only known…”
“‘A great cry will be heard in Egypt,’ you said.”
“Yes. I just didn’t know it would be my own.” She turned away from him, covering her face with one hand and choking back a sob.
“I will pray for you,” Moses said softly. “You, and all who have lost a child.”
“I don’t want your prayers,” she said. “I want you to go. Go! Now, before I change my mind and extract vengeance on your people. There is nothing more your god can do to punish me.”
She said nothing. After a few moments, she heart the soft sound of his footsteps fading away.
The singing in the streets was getting louder, but underneath it, Hatshepsut could hear another sound growing. Deep and shrill at once, like music from a pair of harpists, it made her bones feel like ice. The mothers and fathers of Egypt had woken.
“Take your people, Moses,” she said, her eyes burning. “And let my people go.”
Megan Arkenberg is a writer and poet from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her work has appeared in many webzines and anthologies, including The Lorelei Signal, Rose & Thorn, A Fly in Amber, and numerous haiku and tanka publications. Her story “Panthanatos” was included in Hadley Rille Books’ Ruins Metropolis anthology earlier this year. She also edits a small fantasy e-zine, Mirror Dance.