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Mask of Kara


My name is Amunet, sometime of Thebes but originally, and yet again, of Avaris, the great Hykos principal city on the delta of the life-giving River Nile in the years of Khyan the Great's reign and the glorious afterward. My mistress and sister wife is truly gone now, and I feel that someone should tell the story of Kara and her mask and of the glory of the Hykos kingdom over that of the hapless Egyptians.

It was my good fortune to have been raised with and eventually to have served the great lady, Kara, favorite daughter of Khyan, the one who he reluctantly gave in marriage to Pharaoh in Thebes to forge some brief period of peace between our two kingdoms. An early word from me to the right ear, and Kara may never have had to make that journey up the river, for Pharaoh would not have had any maiden not completely pure. And although Kara was pure of spirit and beautiful of body, as her handmaiden, I could attest that she was not pure of body—that she was not a maiden in the ways Pharaoh would only accept despite her great beauty.

The most shocking day of my life was when I returned to Kara's chambers to retrieve a spindle, and . . . no, that was not the most shocking day. It was not the shock and surprise of that night across the Great Nile from Thebes in the city of the dead. But, I get ahead of myself. I heard the murmurings when I brushed aside the gauzy curtains to Kara's inner chamber, but by then I had already seen them. Kara . . . and her cousin, Bes, the captain of Khyan's guard and his nephew, a sword drawn where such a sword should not be seen and then sheathed and drawn again and sheathed yet again, drawn, sheathed, drawn, thrust home, as, back arched and heels dug into the cushions of her bed, Kara cried out a death to maidenhood at each thrust and tore her nails down the bulging muscles of Bes's bare back. The sword of Bes sliced into her time and time again, with ever more rapid strokes, as she moaned and thrashed about under him.

I drew away; I could not watch more, although if ever a pair were matched in beauty and well-formed bodies—and rhythm of life—it would be Kara and her handsome cousin, Bes. I knew not what to do. I had a duty to protect Kara, but I also had a duty to Khyan the Great and to my people. If Pharaoh were to perceive and to refuse the gift of the bride, there would be only one avenue for the Hykos and the Egyptians. And we were already war weary.

I did not have to choose, however. On the eve of what was to be Kara's departure for Thebes, she herself stepped forward and told the Great Khyan, in the presence only of his captain of the guard and of Kara's handmaiden, me, that she could not go to Pharaoh. That she already belonged to Bes.

Khyan looked sadly upon her—his favorite daughter—and told her that he had not heard her, that she would have to say it again for him to hear her. But that before she spoke she should know that he was honor bound to only one course if he had heard what he did not hear—his only answer could be death to both parties. He then sang a poem of his own making, there and then, his talent for verse being universally renown, a poem that spoke of love so great for a daughter and a nephew that he would move heaven and earth for their good fortune and happiness and would, himself, wither to a broken reed of the marshes to have to lose either one of them.

Bes was on his knees before the Great Khyan, trying to tell him that whatever had happened was his fault alone—that he had acted by force, whatever had happened. All the while the Great Khyan was humming and not listening to Bes. Kara was standing, quietly, her brilliant mind working, as I knew it could. As for me, I was trembling, almost ready to collapse, and moaning in fear. What I had seen in Kara's chamber was no forceful taking—it was thunder meeting clouds and releasing torrents of rain to enrich the earth. It was an act of beauty and fearsome awe. There was no reluctance or diffidence in either thunder or clouds—both rained in their own tumultuous release.

Great Khyan looked beyond the prostrate figure of Bes and posed a question in a low voice to Kara. "Do you have something to tell me, my child?"

Kara paused for only a moment. Never before had she looked so beautiful or regal.

"I only ask if the retinue for my train to Thebes is yet named. Will your favored nephew, Bes, captain my guard?"

"I think not," the Great Khyan spoke. "And although I have not heard you, I cannot forget everything I do not hear, my daughter. There must be penance, and great care must be taken."

"I understand, Father," Kara said. "What will you have of me?" She lowered her gaze, and yet she did not prostrate herself before her father as Bes had done.

"I fear that your beauty is too dazzling," the Great Khyan said. "I should have realized it would be. And I have been remiss. If anything could have occurred that would bring dishonor to my house in this regard, I would be partially to blame. And that is the greatest part of my problem of hearing of late. Do you understand, my child?"

"Yes, father," Kara said. That and no more. Kara was no fool. In this response she saw a glimmer of hope, a tiny avenue opening to the light.

"In my treasure store there are several masks of beaten gold," the Great Khyan said. "You are to proceed there and take one of your choosing. As penance for having a beauty that would drive otherwise sensible men to distraction . . ." and at this he looked down at the cowering figure of Bes at his feet ". . . you must wear this mask at all times—except in the private presence of the one who is your lover at that moment—which in the times you are thinking of the well-being of the Hykos kingdom will be Pharaoh." There was a short pause, and the Great Khyan added, almost as an afterthought, "as long as Pharaoh lives—and believes he is the master of the mask."

"Yes, father, I understand," Kara responded. And for a brief instant I thought that there had been much more that had been conveyed between father and daughter than I could comprehend. Such was the difference between the rulers and the servants. And, even knowing that, I felt blessed that mine was only to serve.

"And Bes, father? What of Bes?" Kara spoke softly, and I sensed we had moved to another, more dangerous level of this exchange. Of all the sons Khyan had, Kara was the bravest of all, yet not a son. There was no doubt in my mind why Khyan treasured her so and was opening an avenue to her, and, at this instant, even struggling—willing to struggle—with her in a game of kingmanship.

"You dare to ask of Bes?" The Great Khyan thundered. But his anger was brief. He looked down at Bes, and I saw that his expression change, his love for his nephew, mounting on his love for his daughter, fighting with his anger.

There was a long moment of silence, as the tension whirled around within the confines of the chamber's stone walls. I could almost hear the battle going on between the gods on earth.

"Bes must leave my presence, must depart from Avaris forever."

Kara gasped and drew in a breath. Bes's shoulders crumpled and his forehead touched the ground at the Great Khyan's feet. Out beyond the borders of Avaris was a great nothingness. To be banished in such a desert was a death sentence of itself.

With a hard voice, the Great Khyan continued with his pronouncement. "Because of Bes's exalted position among the Hykos and within our family and the distinction he has served to this date, I can think of only one place to send Bes. I now will delay your departure, Kara, for five days. And I will send ahead my ambassador to the court of Pharaoh to ensure that all is in readiness there. As my ambassador, I will send my favored nephew, Bes."

Bes started to babble his gratefulness, but Khyan nudged him silent with a foot.

"Bes to Thebes?" Kara spoke in a voice expelled on her drawn, waving breath, almost in a moan. But with an edge to it that indicated she was only barely controlling her emotions, that she had fully appreciated the shifting ground on which she had been taking her stand.

"Yes, to Thebes. But mark my words, Kara, the well-being of the Hykos kingdom rests on your clever shoulders. I am placing that in the balance with believing that I have raised and trained you to be a queen—and not just an Egyptian queen, but a Hykos queen. Think hard on that, Kara. Think on the trust I have laid on you." And then, as he reached down and raised the trembling captain of his guard to his feet, he took a hard look at Bes and added, "On you both."

Then, with a fatherly smile at a chastened and awed daughter and nephew alike, the Great Khyan turned and swept out of the chamber. It was my lot to never see him again, for in five day's time I was on my way up the Nile toward Thebes on the barge of Kara, the newest queen of the Pharaoh of Egypt, reclining on her lounge and turning her head this and that way, the rays of the sun reflecting off her golden mask, for all on the river banks to see and marvel at. A queen fit for Pharaoh.

* * * *

I cannot say that my years at the court of Pharaoh were onerous ones. The Egyptians were almost as civilized at the Hykos, if arrogant and, as a people, of inferior intellectual capability and having an ugliness and coarseness of features that matched the arid terrain of their kingdom. And more than a bit crude. Pharaoh was obviously pleased with his new queen, Kara, as he had every reason to be—except perhaps in one respect that I will not mention and never have whispered to a single soul until this moment, only doing so now because Kara is no longer on this earth and I believe someone should reveal how clever she was.

For Kara, I do not believe the few years that Pharaoh lived were much of a burden to her either. Pharaoh was old and shriveled, certainly, but Kara remained the picture of health and bore him two strong and healthy sons, much to the delight of the entire court, the other queens of Pharaoh having not produced any offspring in as many years as one could count on two hands. Pharaoh was so pleased with the boys—who numbered thirty-six and thirty-seven in the line of succession, that he acceded to Kara's request to honor Hykos custom that a Hykos princess's sons be raised in her home city of Avaris for their first ten years. For this reason, and this reason alone, I am sure, these strong men still live. And they owe this to the cleverness of their mother.

Because she had birthed sons to Pharaoh, Kara quickly rose in status at the court. She was a favorite from her first day on the soil of Thebes, everyone remarking on her queenly carriage and her exotic nature—symbolized not the least in the golden mask she always wore.

There were only three circumstances in which I saw Kara lower her golden mask in the years of Pharaoh. It was the last thing she took from her body—and then only in my presence—on the nights she entered Pharaoh's bed chamber. And it was handed to me on the occasions when she entered her chamber, alone, to discuss matters of state with her father's emissary to the Egyptians. That emissary being her cousin, Bes. But the least said of this, the best. Nor will I ever remark on who I fancied those two sons of Pharaoh Kara birthed favored.

The third circumstance in which Kara would put aside her golden mask—and the one upon which the strange and true tale of the brave Kara rested—was for the private visits to her chamber of Ptah, the Great Builder of Pharaoh.

This was where Kara was walking her thinnest line—and where I put my own life—and maidenhood—on the line for her. But it was something I was glad to do. It was something I had already known I would do and accepted. For I knew of the customs of the Egyptians before I had rowed up the Nile on Kara's barge with her. I knew Pharaoh was old and doddering; I knew that Pharaoh's favored queens and the royal family's close attendants would accompany Pharaoh on his last heavenly journey.

I knew that it was this, more than anything else, that troubled Kara in those years—what she sat for hours on end and thought about, her expression behind her golden mask unfathomable. It was for this reason, knowing that her days were numbered by those of an old man, that I neither gave nor thought of giving reproach, even within my bosom, to her continued liaison with Bes. And it is why I did nothing but comply with her instructions and wishes and endure my own trials when Pharaoh's Great Builder, Ptah, began to visit her chambers.

Kara expressed a great interest in the building techniques of Egypt, which I have to admit were their one advancement over Hykos achievements. Although she voiced interest in all of Ptah's endeavors, she took a special interest in tomb building, which appeared a bit ghoulish to me, as having gone through one eye-opening illness shortly before the journey of Queen Kara's barge up the Nile, Pharaoh had hastened the building of his tomb in the city of the dead, across the Nile from Thebes. He had called his Great Builder, Ptah, to enlarge the design but also to speed up its construction. He had seen the future in the aura of the sun during the darkest hour of his illness and knew his years of ruling were coming near an end. If the tomb was not ready when he was ready to travel to the sun, he would be forced to spend more time on the earth.

Although Ptah spent nearly his every waking moment redesigning and supervising the construction of the tomb, he acceded to Kara's request to learn more of Egyptian construction. He found time for Kara, because she lowered her golden mask for him—and because he was arrogant enough to believe he deserved that honor.

He was a giant of a man and had a giant's phallus and male appetites as well. He would split her asunder and leave her panting in exhaustion, unable to close her legs for hours afterward from the multiple takings, as, like a horse, he rode her into the ground during his visits to her chambers to teach her the secrets of tomb building—as well as the reality of how he had broken and buried three wives in his time. Whispering to her his treasonous, "Does Pharaoh do this . . . or this," as she cried out at the invasion and degradation. But Kara never seemed to tire of her meetings with him. He was a cruel lover, using her body in many different ways. And I shuddered at the difference in seeing her body move in slow, coordinated movement with Bes in their lovemaking and the brutal way Ptah assaulted her three openings with his gigantic member.

I had no idea why Kara's appetites ran to the breadth they did, but she had the cast of the numbered years of the Pharaoh upon her, and I could not question how she chose to spend her preciously brief life.

As I would raise her crumpled body after the Great Builder had departed and help her to her bath so that I could soak and massage away the tearing and bruising of the plague of Ptah upon her body, I would murmur my pity and the pain that her couplings with the giant brought to me in sympathy with her, and she would just assure me, in whispering tones, "All in good time, sweet little Amunet. All in good time."

I never had the heart to tell her that the pain this arrangement brought to me went far beyond my concern for her body. For when Ptah was finished with Kara and left her chamber, he would grab me and, carrying me beyond her earshot, ravage me as well, grabbing me from behind, and tearing my robes away, thrusting that terrible phallus of his both fore and aft into my helpless body until I was near faint and he was satisfied. And then he would simply let me crumple to the floor. Such was my devotion to Kara, though, that I was always there for him to violate at the end of his visits to her—I could not bear not to be in attendance at her chamber door lest some minion of Pharaoh happened upon her chamber at the wrong time and Egypt became less one queen and one master builder—not that the latter subtraction would give me pause for pity.

* * * *

My heart was wrenched from my body the day Kara dismissed me, telling me in full, hard voice that she was an Egyptian now and need have only Egyptian attendants. She coldly told me that I was to go to the house of her father's emissary and await the arrival of his anticipated wife, coming up from Avaris in the land of the Hykos. Before her new attendants she told me that my service was sloven and inattentive, nothing compared to that of the Egyptian handmaidens, and that she never need see me again.

I cried and wailed and pleaded with Kara to forgive me, to tell me where I had been remiss, and to let me make atonement—to do this for me for all of the love we had shared since we were girls—if not for my service, then for the love that blossomed in the years we were in each other's arms and in her bed before Kara learned of men. But she just laughed and told me I was crude and provincial and not worthy of serving an Egyptian queen. The new handmaidens, of course, thought this was all great fun, and they mocked me and prodded me and spit at me as the guards bustled me out of the palace and into the arms of Bes for the journey across Thebes to the Hykos emissary's compound on a hill overlooking the capital of the Egyptians.

There, attempting to assuage me, Bes told me in hushed tones that Kara had done this for me, not to me. That her love for me had prompted her to send me away in time.

"In time?" I asked through my snuffling tears.

"Yes. Pharaoh's time is near," Bes said. "Kara is resolved on what she must do. But she wanted you well gone and out of her service before Pharaoh's time ended. You know what I am saying, don't you, little one?"

"Yes," I wailed. "I do understand. Now. And I always knew it would come to this. But now more than ever, I must be with her. Now more than ever she needs me. We have always been moving to this. I have always understood. And I have ever known. Surely Kara . . ."

". . . Loves you very much, little one," Bes said, overriding my wails. "This is what Kara wanted. We all serve Kara as she chooses. We both know that. Hush little one."

Bes took me in his arms then and held me and rocked me and stroked my tear-stained cheeks and my arms with his strong fingers. And then, being a man as with all men, when they were exposed to him, he stroked my breasts and the inner reaches of my thighs, and I spread my legs for him and felt him enter inside me, strongly and thickly and deeply. And I moved with him and felt one with Kara—knowing how Kara felt when Bes moved inside her—understanding that my loss of Kara was no deeper than his loss of her and that, in merging our bodies, we could share in our love for Kara.

And I felt no remorse in this, as it would be what Kara would expect. Every woman member of a Hykos household was subject to the attentions and desires of the master of the house—the Great Khyan himself had ridden me in Kara's observation more than once. Kara knew how life was in a Hykos household when she consigned me to Bes's care.

Thus it was between Bes and me for the days and weeks of Pharaoh's dying, and we made wild, searching, cruel world-denying coupling while the rams horns blew the death dirge from sunrise to sunset on the day of Pharaoh's leaving. And when Bes was deep inside me, releasing his seed with a fury of frustration and sadness, I knew that something was quickening inside me and that Bes's new wife coming up the Nile from Avaris in a month's time would be greeted at the threshold not by a serving girl but by a minor wife, who was with child. And if that child was to be a female, I knew that I would always see Kara in her, no matter how far away the Pharaoh's golden barge to the sun had taken my princess, my first love.

Bes held me in his arms as we watched the final procession to the barges that would cross the Nile and move into the valley of the city of the dead, neither of us part of the pageant playing out below us in the main streets of Thebes, as this was a ceremony only for the Egyptians to accomplish and savor and sing praises of.

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