Ziwat predicted the project would take a couple of weeks, maybe a month. It took over three to complete.
For the first few days Ziwat held onto the fantasy that she would do most of the copying herself. She set the apprentices and a few of the younger engineers to sorting through all the guild’s materials and arranging them by type of information, location, and quality while they waited for Raia to return from the Library of the Horizon. And then for three days she rose at first light and spent as much time as her body could stand transferring the data onto the wall. The markings had to be precise and clear, so she stopped herself when her lines started to look sloppy. At midweek it felt like she’d written out the entire eastern face of the Pyramid of the Heart; in reality, she’d only covered three cubits of the wall from squatting height to mid-way up. And this only represented a tenth of the material from the archive.
“Still committed to doing this all yourself?” Hui asked after surveying the progress.
“Glad to hear that. Because Raia is back from the Library.”
Ziwat was about to express relief when she saw Hui’s impish expression. “How much more is there?”
“I’m not sure. They were still bringing crates up from the river when I came to get you.”
Sitamun sent exactly what she’s asked for–which turned out to be five times the amount of papyrus they had in the guild archives–along with a clutch of scholars nervously hovering over the boxes.
“You did say everything,” Raia said when Ziwat’s eyes widened in shock on seeing it all.
“I did.” She blew out a long breath and took a moment to re-calculate. “We’re going to need the whole wall.”
After that, the project became everyone’s business. Since the Library scholars were so concerned about how the materials would be handled, she gave them the task of sorting and collating. When her sister Ziqat, Superior of the High House scribes, returned from a long trip to Canaan, Ziwat cajoled her into agreeing that she could commandeer the scribes when they weren’t busy. She put them in teams with engineering apprentices to copy the material onto the Western wall. Any engineer who even hinted at complaining was reminded that fine motor skills were necessary for drafting. And Seshet help you if your copies of the glyphs and images and schematics weren’t exact and neat; inattentive apprentices spent the morning covering the previous day’s work in white and starting over again once it dried.
While that work happened, Hui had the guildsisters and a few of the High House’s pilots take apart a first generation beetle to compare it to the Ancient’s drawings and schematics. Every day the Bay buzzed with voices and energy, women going back and forth between the columns to check information, spot new connections, and discuss their insights. Ziwat wondered if this was what it felt like when the guild was new, when the foremothers first decided to try and recreate the Ancient technology even though to many it seemed out of reach.
Though she monitored progress on both sides of the bay, the Western wall drew most of her attention. She made a point of reading over each day’s fresh copy. Each time she found a depiction of the beetles in flight, she marked it with red paint to stand out from the black. There ended up being over two dozen of them. She did this foremost to make a point to Hui, then also to help her make connections. Why a depiction with this group of information and not this other one? Why here showing the inner wings, here only showing the outer?
As much satisfaction as that gave her, it didn’t offset the kernel of anxiety that grew larger every day. None of the depictions were accompanied by instructions on how to get the machines in the air. And as the weeks went on and the pile of material to be copied got smaller, Ziwat feared that a clear, straightforward answer wasn’t about to emerge.
About a month into the project, Tani came down to the Beetle Bay to see the wall everyone was talking about for herself. When Ziwat spotted her, she guided the Great Mother to a particular section that had been finished a week before.
“This is from the Pyramid of the Heart. See that glyph? The beetle in flight? The day my mother took me to study at the Library, she took me to this spot on the downriver face and showed it to me. To inspire me.”
Tani moved closer to peer at the ink. “You didn’t want to go. I remember. She came to me many times to talk through how she could convince you not to be so miserable about going from home.”
“Was this your suggestion?”
“No, I wouldn’t have thought to kindle your passion in quite this way.” Tani went back to her, talking Ziwat’s hand in both of hers, holding on for a long while. “Your mother was wise. She came up with the best way, in the end. She was skilled at that. I miss her. Maybe even as much as you do.”
Ziwat didn’t know what to say or how to express what she felt as grief moved into the back of her throat. Six years gone and it still hurt not to have her mother in this life.
“There’s something I want to ask you about,” Tani said. “Come with me to my garden. The fewer ears the better.”
They went to the roof of the High House where Tani cultivated a garden of plants that benefited from direct sunlight and needed little water. Between the rows of raised beds were canopied avenues that made the Ra-sun bearable for a little while and allowed her to walk among the flora alone when she wanted to and in privacy with another person. All the way up Ziwat had worried over what this talk would be about. The Great Mother did not make her wait once they arrived.
“Hui has shared some concerns with me. Xe thinks that this project lacks proper focus. That you’re ignoring tasks or information that will help the Sisters build new, better machines in favor of that which supports your goal of unlocking the mystery of flight. Has xe shared those same thoughts with you?”
“Not directly, no,” Ziwat said. “In side-along ways xe expresses her annoyance or displeasure. But it’s been a long time since xe was direct with me. About anything.”
Tani stopped and looked her in the eyes. “Why is that?”
“I don’t know.” And it was true. She and Hui had been close for almost all xir life, ever since xe was a child sneaking into the Bay to watch the beetles come and go when xe should have been in the per-khemret Library. “I didn’t think about it too deeply until that day you came back from Kush. How often now xe challenges me in a disrespectful manner. How xe tries to provoke my anger. I don’t know why xe’s changed.”
She expected sage nodding in agreement, perhaps a face full of concern. Instead, Tani smiled. “Hui hasn’t changed. Xe wants what xe has always wanted. Your approval. Your attention.”
“When have I withheld my approval?” Ziwat had raised Hui to the rank of Supreme despite some misgivings from a few kinswomen that xe was too young for the role. She argued often that xe had earned it, her dedication beyond that of the other Sisters who might have filled the role.
“When necessary, you never have. How often do you remind xir, though?” Tani waved away the need to answer. “I know you think Hui has grown out of xir insecurity. Xe hasn’t. From what xe has said to me and to other kinswomen who came to me, xe fears most that you’ll pass her over when you choose your successor.”
That was what this was all about? “Why is xe worried over something that won’t happen for many, many years?”
“I don’t know. I do know you. I know that you keep your feelings held close and you assume the people who know you best know what’s in your heart. Hui, for whatever reason, needs more than that. And for the sake of harmony in the guildhouse and the per-khemret, I am asking that you make an effort to give xir what xe needs.”
“I’m willing to do that. How do I go about it without seeming to reward xir disrespectful attitude, though?”
“I will speak to Hui about that first. Xe will apologize.”
Ziwat nodded, satisfied. She didn’t understand why this all had to be so complex. Why Hui had to make it complex. Compared to all this, figuring out how to make the beetles fly felt like a small challenge.
On the twelfth of Renwet, after a day of checking and rechecking, the Library scholars pronounced the project complete.
The engineers, apprentices, pilots, and scribes whooped and rejoiced and the sound reverberated up and down the Bay. I was done, and it was an achievement that would benefit generations of engineers to come.
That night the Sisters of Seshet hosted a celebration to mark the end of the grueling process. Once everyone had aired every complaint they’d held in for months they began to take pride in the accomplishment. Even Hui let xir praise flow as freely as the High House’s beer; not once bringing up the fact that they still hadn’t uncovered the secret to flight.
Because of that, Ziwat found it hard for her to give herself over to the revelry. She slipped out of the common room before the sun got too low and went back down to the Beetle Bay to think. She walked the length of the room, her fingers brushing along the markings she knew almost well enough to envision perfectly with her eyes closed. In the red-tinted rays of the waning Amun-sun she hummed a prayer for insight beyond knowledge, for inspiration. On her third circuit, she spied an empty space an arm’s length above her head. It took a moment to remember why it was empty–the rubbing from the guild’s archives was incomplete. The Library scholars thought they would find the rest of it in their cache, and so they left space. They hadn’t been able to fill it.
Ziwat pulled over a bench to stand on, examining the copy up close. An understanding made her stomach drop. This bit of information came from the pyramid complex at Zewisaat. No wonder there were gaps. And there would probably be no chance to fill them.
“Wisser’s cock,” she muttered.
“Ziwat!” Pharaoh Apepi’s voice boomed down the bay to her. Even from a distance she could feel his excitement like a physical force. He strode ahead of Tani, who followed arm in arm with Hui, eyes flicking from one thing to the next, trying to take everything in. “All alone and working still? Hui said the wall was done!”
“It is! I had hoped to show you both in better light.”
He raised his eyes to the empty space. “One final piece to place?”
“One missing piece I may never be able to place. This section of knowledge comes from the walls of an old library in Zewisaat. The records from it are incomplete. The gap here might just be a continuation of the dawn-hymn above it.” Or, it might be the key to everything, she thought.
“Does this library still stand? Can you not send someone to collect what’s missing?”
“Zewisaat?” Hui said as xe and Tani caught up. “No one has been near those buildings in generations. No scholar, at least. The group of dessert dwellers that settled there won’t allow anyone in.”
“Won’t allow?” Apepi said.
“Every time scholars from the Library approach and make the request, the Medjy elders rebuke them and their warriors escort them halfway back to the Great Lioness, weapons in hand.” Ziwat remembered many conversations with her mentor Sitamun about how much this frustrated archivists and scholars studying the Ancient Ones. The two pyramids at Zewisaat were perhaps the first structures of their kind, and certainly among the oldest. Sita just wanted to preserve that knowledge; the Medjy didn’t care.
“This place is on the plateau? In the White Fortress district?”
Apepi’s words opened up a new avenue of possibilities in Ziwat’s mind. The Library didn’t have the power or the will to force the issue. The High House did. That had never occurred to her–she’d never cared before.
“Yes, that area is part of Khemeta Mehu and subject to the High House’s rule,” Hui said. “If the Medjy are in the habit of using force to keep Khemetans from the complex, a show of force will be necessary to make them comply.”
The Pharaoh nodded. “A unit of soldiers. Two, depending on their numbers–”
Tani stepped in and exchanged Hui’s arm for Apepi’s, her steady demeanor tempering the building enthusiasm. “You’re leaping to a more extreme course of action than may be necessary. It would be wise to start with an emissary–accompanied by a few soldiers–to inform these Medjy what we intend. Scholars they know they can intimidate. The High House is another matter.”
Ziwat knew Tani was right. On most issues and decisions their opinions were in sync. Any other time Ziwat would immediately speak out against a rash and reckless course of action.
But impatience was a tangible thing growing inside her, ready to claw its way out the more she invested in the idea that the missing information held the key to beetle flight. All these months she’d kept it at bay, sure as sunrise that the solution would emerge from having all the wisdom on the wall. Now she wanted it done, she wanted it now.
“What are your thoughts, my quiet cousin?” Apepi asked.
Ziwat took a deep breath and pushed the impatience down with all the willpower she had left. “Tani is right. As much as I want to get this done quickly, let’s hold off on a show of force until we know it’s necessary.”
The two kinswomen exchanged a glance, their solidarity reaffirmed.
“And so it will be.” Apepi swept his gaze over the wall again, any trace of disappointment gone. He was maturing, Ziwat noted.
“This begins a new era for our people. The copper machines once again restored to the sky. Followed by new soaring monuments. Glory unmatched by any other ruler. Including our neighbors upriver! I will revel in the look on her face.”
Perhaps not maturing as much as she hoped.
“And you are the one who will have made it happen.” Apepi kissed the center of her forehead and, despite the aggrandizing, she smiled, pleased and less anxious than she’d been in months.
She was able to hold onto that feeling as he and Tani moved off down the bay to see the rest of the wall. That is until Hui dipped xir head to meet her eyes.
Table of contents for Novel In Progress
- Section 1 | Chapter 1 – #PyramidsAndPunk [Patrons Only]
- Section 1 | Chapter 2 – #PyramidsAndPunk [Patrons Only]
- Section 1 | Chapter 3 – #PyramidsAndPunk [Patrons Only]
- Section 1 | Chapter 4 – #PyramidsAndPunk [Patrons Only]