From the balcony of the Kinswomen’s Gathering room Ziwat could, in one sweep of her eyes, take in the whole western half of the capital city, the wall surrounding and protecting it, and the arm of the river Nile that curved and cradled around it before dissolving into the green horizon. She came out just as the Ra-sun crested the peak of the sky; soon, it would be too hot to stand out here under his rays. Not quite yet. This was the view she enjoyed best. The city illuminated from above, the limestone on the Netjeret Houses gleaming, the sparkle of the river water almost obscuring the boats navigating to and from the Middle Sea. Everything in balance.
Below her, a formation of soldiers emerged from the gardens, jogging down toward the harbor. Her eyes traced their path down the central avenue to the main dock, and only then did she notice the Pharaoh’s barge sitting in the water. She hadn’t expected to see it so soon.
“I didn’t think they’d get here until sundown.” Khyan, one of her sister Kinswomen, stepped out to stand next to her. “They weren’t prepared for the arrival.” She nodded down at the soldiers.
“Tani must have been anxious to return to familiar surroundings,” Ziwat said. “You know her.”
“Do you think we’ll have a convocation today after all, then?”
“No. After this long a trip she’ll want some time to recover. I doubt we’ll meet until next week.”
Khyan left after a few heartbeats, but Ziwat watched a while longer, waiting for the procession to return. Half the soldiers marched up the avenue ahead of the luggage bearers who stepped double time to keep in front of the machine carrying the Pharaoh Apepi and the Great Mother Tani. Taller than two tall men, wider than two wide elephants, and crafted in the shape of the celestial Kheper, the giant scarab beetle glittered in the afternoon light, the copper carapace as burnished and sun-yellow as the day it was made. The outer wings reached up to the sky, obscuring her view of the passengers inside. She closed her eyes as it got closer, concentrating on the clicklclickclick of the metal legs on stone, the hiss of steam powering them, and the subtle hum of the central gear spinningspinning the rest of the mechanism forward. Even from this distance she could hear that the beetle needed maintenance. Not surprising after a long trip. Still, the pilot had let too much sand collect in the gears, she could tell.
The sun moved, erasing the last shadow on the balcony. Ziwat retreated inside just as servants started to pull the evening linens across the threshold to diffuse the light.
There were only three other kinswomen in the Gathering, each off working in a separate area. It made the place feel empty and private. The room took up the entire western aspect of the High House’s middle floor and had space enough for over two score women to come together at once and still leave pathways for servants to weave in and out. The twice high ceiling kept the heat from growing too oppressive, held up by four thick columns painted to look like the lotus marshes of the River. On each a different netjeret looked out over the room; Seshet, the bringer of knowledge, Iset, bearer of the throne and the future, Hathor, the guiding hand of the sun chariot, and Nebthet, protector and guardian. Each image surrounded by glyphs that clarified their function and power. Together they represented women’s roles in Khemet, and in particular the role of the Kinswomen: to gather knowledge and gain wisdom, to bring forth the future, to guide through effective administration, and to protect all who fell under their wingspan.
Ziwat touched the hand of Seshet as she passed by the column on her way to the long pool at the back of the room. With no expectation of convocation today, she planned to relax and have a massage before returning to her work in the guildhouse.
Less than half a shade later she felt a light tap on the top of her head and opened her eyes to see Tani smiling down at her.
“You looked so relaxed I almost didn’t disturb you.”
“We didn’t expect to see you today.” And certainly not dressed in near full regalia. Tani wore a long, braided wig that framed her narrow, sand-colored face and clinked against the wide collar of gold and lapis and carnelian topping her sheer dress. The Great Mother didn’t like weighing herself down with these accoutrements unless it was necessary, which meant she still had them on for a reason.
“There’s a discussion that can’t wait. I’ve sent messengers after the others. And the Pharaoh is joining us as well.”
Apepi did not often get an invitation to the convocation, meaning this was indeed important.
“What happened in Kush? Did the Kandake say no?” Ziwat kept her voice low.
“She didn’t say no. She didn’t say yes, either.”
That was almost as bad as a No. Tani and Apepi had gone to Kush sure their allies would agree to support them in a push to extend their control over the whole of Khemet. The High House of hetWaret controlled the lower part of the country from the White Fortress region to the Nile delta, and Kush held firm her borders upriver, with Upper Khemet in the middle. Pressure from both sides would ensure victory. Non-committal on one side wouldn’t change anything.
“What did she say?” Ziwat asked.
Tani’s eyes slid sideways and a flicker of annoyance passed over her face as she remembered. “That she isn’t convinced we have a stronger claim on the right to rule than our friends up the River. We’re just outsiders standing at the base of pyramids raised by someone else’s ancestors, and who have yet to build anything significant of our own.”
A burning anger rose up in her at those words. It showed on her face so plainly that Tani cupped her cheeks to calm and reassure. Their foremothers had preserved those pyramids, and now that was some reason to insult them? Ziwat’s guild alone had done more to uncover and build on the ideas of Khemet’s earliest people in the past four generations than the native rulers had done in the last forty.
“I know,” Tani said, not needing to hear her say it to know what Zi was thinking. “But that is only one of our problems.”
It took a few breaths to regain the balance of her mind and to realize this was not the first time they’d heard a similar charge from a ruler whose help they sought. “The king of Pwenut said something like that when Khyan went on her last trade mission.”
“Just so. I think I’m not the only Great Mother of Khemet seeking support from her neighbors.” Tani’s attention slid inward for a few heartbeats before she focused on Ziwat again. “We’ve been talking about possible actions since we left. Apepi is sure his idea is the one we should pursue. He’s coming today to convince the kinswomen we need to build a Netjer House for Setesh from the foundation up. And he is confident you will agree with him.”
The idea of it did make her blood race. As the Superior Engineer of the High House it would be Ziwat’s job to design every aspect and oversee construction, a thing she’d been trained to do yet had not yet done in all her years in the guild. A thing her mother, the Superior before her, had only done once, and for a far smaller project than this. Her excitement at the prospect battled with all the reasons why this kind of project didn’t happen often.
“Do you want me to try and change his mind?” Ziwat said, lowering her voice still further.
“No, I only want you to be realistic with him, and I’d no doubt you would be. I want to focus on how we can keep Pwenut and Kush from switching allegiances. If they refuse to aid both us and Khemeta Shemau, then nothing changes and we have time for Apepi’s grand plan.”
Solving that problem was outside of her talents. “I will help him understand what’s possible as concerns the Netjer House. The rest…”
“Falls to me.” Tani kissed her temple.
They didn’t have long to wait for the other kinswomen to flow back into the Gathering and for servants bearing food to follow. Once all of them had assembled, Tani formally invited the Pharaoh to join them before telling them everything she’d told Ziwat. Before they could spend too much time angry at the slight or worried at the implications, Apepi refocused their attention by describing his vision of the new Netjer House. He wanted to build it in the White Fortress district, close enough to the farmlands to be seen from boats on the river, grand enough that it wouldn’t look foolish and sad compared to the Pyramids of the Horizon.
Ziwat sat right across from him, plucking food from the vast spread in front of them and chewing slowly as an excuse not to speak. She wanted to observe the Great Mother’s reactions to each aspect of his plan. Though separated by twelve years, the two of them still looked so much alike, and so much like their mother. He was darker-skinned from spending more time in the sun, she was narrower in face and body, both had expressive eyes that gave away what they were feeling even if the rest of their faces remained neutral. And Zi could tell Tani was even less enthused about the whole of it than she indicated earlier. This was ambitious, and something the High House should be able to do. She wanted to find a way to do it, deep down. It must have shown.
“You are too quiet cousin,” Apepi said to her after half a shade of discussion. “I know you have an opinion.”
Ziwat laughed. “It will never be said that I’m afraid to offer it. In this case, I’m still forming my opinion. I can see everything you describe, I feel your passion, I’m excited at the prospect of a project this huge. I just don’t know that we have the resources to bring it to fruition. Not in the way you envision it.”
“How can we not have the resources? We control quarries enough for the stone, our harvests have never been more bountiful, and we have the gold to trade for the wood we need.” Apepi looked to each kinswoman in charge of these administrative spheres for confirmation.
“Material goods we have. We lack enough people who can do the work,” Ziwat said.
This surprised him. “We have no masons, no miners?”
She glanced to Superior Librarian Bekehawet, prompting her to explain.
“We have enough masons for our current needs, but less than half the skilled workers necessary for an undertaking this complex. To build on the scale you want would mean training more people, which would take years.”
“Suppose we brought masons from elsewhere? Canaan, or Kush?” Apepi asked.
“That’s possible, though they’d still need training,” Bekehawet said. “Khemetan masons use techniques that can only be learned here, which is why they’re superior to all others.”
“Why do we have so few of our own?”
“The training is rigorous. Many of the apprentices don’t pass through to become full brothers.”
“‘Many.’ You left out a word.” That barb came from Hui, the Supreme Supervisor of the copper beetle fleet, official pilot of the Great Mother and Pharaoh, and second only to Ziwat in the engineer’s guild. Xe sat to Apepi’s left and had also been uncharacteristically quiet. Xe leaned back after xer short interjection, appearing unwilling to expand further on it.
“Elaborate, sister,” Tani said after a time.
“The apprentices who don’t make the cut are almost all native Khemetans, not our people. Yet the Brothers of Piteh still accept an equal number of both to train year after year.”
Why Hui insisted on being so trying Ziwat did not know. “That may be. Regardless, that is our current situation. We need masons to transport, shape, and place the stones, and with so few the kind of Netjer House you envision would take the rest of your lifetime to construct, leaving everything else unfinished.”
Apepi folded up like an empty wineskin. She hated to see such a look of defeat on his face. A heartbeat later he sat up straight again.
“What about your idea?” he said to Hui.
“Mine?” Hui threw xer hand as if flinging the responsibility away. “No, not my idea. Ziwat’s.”
“My idea? What idea?”
“The beetles!” Apepi said, now full of fire again. “You have always said the Ones Who Came Before used them to build the Pyramids of the Horizon. That they would fly the granite blocks through the air, making ten trips between the quarries and the Library a day.”
“That is conjecture,” Hui said. “With little basis in fact.”
For several heartbeats, her entire being went still. The room went quiet as well; even the servants in the room looked shocked at such a statement. Everyone knew Ziwat had spent much of her time as an apprentice and engineer on solving the mystery of how the Ancients got the house-sized constructions of copper and schist into the air. She knew for certain that the machines were designed to fly. No one questioned that. No one had.
She took two steadying breaths before answering. “That’s not an opinion I’ve heard you express before, Hui. I’m surprised to hear you say that when not long ago you believed the opposite. Or, so you told me.”
“After so many years of study and still no answer I decided that the underlying assumption was at fault.” Hui held up xir hands before she could respond, as if to plead for calm, a gesture that made Ziwat even angrier. “I simply didn’t want to give our Pharaoh a false hope that you were about to come up with the answer.”
“I feel compelled to point out that Ziwat isn’t even the person who brought this up,” Khyan said. “It’s unfair to act as if she’s insisting on an unviable idea.” The other kinswomen agreed, and a little of the tension slipped out of the room.
Only then did Zi notice she’d balled her fists so tight her nails dug at her palm and her jaw hurt from clenching. When did Hui become this manipulative? And why?
All the while Hui and Zi had been going back and forth, Apepi had been quiet, fingers pressed to his lips. His thinking pose. “If. If you could find the answer. Get the beetles flying. It would be more impressive than any new building. And give us a military advantage as well. We wouldn’t need aid from Kush or Pwenut or Canaan.”
Tani and several of the other kinswomen spoke up to guide him back to more realistic solutions. But his words planted a seed in Ziwat’s thoughts and between one heartbeat and the next inspiration struck with a force and clarity she associated with ideas so perfect and whole they must have come direct from Seshet herself. In those moments she didn’t question, didn’t analyze; she went directly to implementation.
“Even without flight the copper beetles could be put to good use in a construction project. The oldest of them are quite old, though. They all work, but the Sisters of Seshet haven’t had to build one in more than twenty years. Instead of using the machines we already have, let’s create new ones. Improved ones. If we go back to the original schematics as well as reviewing the modifications our foremothers made we can improve the design now that we know more.”
“That will take some time,” Tani said.
“Yes. No matter what path we take, we need more time.”
“And so the High House should concentrate on keeping our allies from giving aid to our enemy, even if they don’t provide us with any.” Tani locked eyes with her, her expression a silent thanks for steering them back to what she wanted from the start.
Ziwat was happy to help her in that way. That wasn’t her main goal, however. Hui’s needling had reminded her that, yes, when she was an apprentice she had decided she would be the engineer who would finally get the beetles in the air. Now it had been more than five years since she’d proved herself worthy to take her mother’s place and ascend to the position of Superior Engineer. She had many accomplishments to show she hadn’t wasted all that time, but this would make her worthy of having her name carved into stone.
The next morning, Ziwat went straight from her suite to the Beetle Bay, walking from one end to the other as the Kheper-dawn’s rays of light poured in from the large, eastern-facing windows. The bay ran the entire length of the High House and was large enough to fit all forty-two of the copper machines at once if needed. A single row of columns held up a ceiling only half as long as the room, the other half covered with thick tarps unless the beetle pilots needed to get one moving with the afternoon sun. Ziwat’s mother once said that the guildsisters who first recreated the beetles from the diagrams the Ancient Ones left behind so believed that they would be capable of flight that they designed the room to allow for it.
When she reached the far wall, Ziwat turned around and walked back, reaching out to brush her fingers across the columns’ surface. The engineers used them to record important information about the beetles for reference and to keep track of new innovations and modifications on the older designs. She knew many of these columns by heart and also knew that all of them put together represented only a fraction of the material that existed. For this project, she would need all of it.
At the other end of the bay three of the six beetles assigned to the High House hissed, the steam pressure inside peaking after collecting heat from the sun. The mechanical beasts never stopped being impressive. Not to her. The design was brilliant–the way the burnished copper outer wings directed the sun’s heat to turn water into steam, and the steam provided power to move the legs, and the ba-spirit inside directed the subtle movement of the legs and wings to maneuver the beetles with more grace than should have been possible for something so large. All three of the sun-heated machines passed between columns and made a near ninety degree turn, never in any danger of knocking or scraping the granite, before heading out the bay doors and off to work. Ziwat raised a hand to the pilots guiding them as they passed.
“Raia!” she called down the bay to her niece, who was standing on top of the one of three beetles not yet ready.
“Are you almost done with these?”
“We’ll have the new pipes in before the Ra-sun peaks,” Raia said as she slid down the head panel. On the ground she still stood a head taller than Ziwat, having inherited her mother’s height. “They aren’t needed until tomorrow morning, anyway.”
“Excellent. When you’re done here, gather three or four apprentices and have them clean and paint the western wall here white. I’m going to need space to draw.”
“You want them to do the whole wall?”
Ziwat looked back down the bay, calculating. “We might need the whole thing. For now, just have them do half, starting upriver.”
When Hui said xe questioned the underlying assumptions around the idea the beetles could fly Ziwat knew xe was being disingenuous. Still, it made her realize that no one had ever gathered all the information on the machines in one place. The Library of the Horizon had an extensive collection of rubbings and hand-drawn copies of the sections on pyramids and monuments that mentioned the beetles, as did the engineer’s guild. By bringing it all together, arranged by original location, or by type of depiction, she and the engineers could take it in all at once. See and digest it in a way no one else had ever done before.
She decided she would send Raia to the Library with a letter to her mentor, Sitamun, asking for everything related to the beetles in exchange for a promise she would get them back in the same condition. Sita would agree, she was sure, and would be just as excited about the project as she was. She’d understand that it could lead to fresh, new understandings of how the machines work, how to build better ones, how to keep the older ones running longer. And she’d also understand better than anyone how it might also lead to uncovering the key to flight.
Not might. Will. Ziwat was as sure of that as she was sure they were always meant to fly.
She would get the beetles flying. She would show every queen and king up the River that her people could do more than stand in the shadow of pyramids, they could build them.
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]