The Chamber Beneath

Darius Klein

Inside the palanquin was delightfully cool and dark; the emperor, with his hand of tapering bony fingers, pushed aside the red linen from the window and peered outside at the gray-ochre city which, made of the mud of the land, seemed to excresce from the very desert itself; awash in the shimmerings of the intense early summer heat, it presented an undesirable alternative to his present surroundings, so that he huffed with satisfaction and returned to lolling on the divan as he basked in the wafts of air generated by the bilqas [the slave who wields the fan - ed.]. The slave, in turn, noticed that the emperor was admiring his oil-burnished ebony skin and artful arrangement of ostrich feathers in his tiara; he therefore did not exert himself in fanning, knowing that he had found favor, and that he would perforce exert himself in other ways at another, not-too-distant time.

A small girl, whose prominent, full-lipped mouth and graceful form betrayed her as the offspring of the emperor, also peered out the window, and cried "Isn't the city beautiful, father?" Her father unindulgently waved the question away. The girl looked perplexed, but then a shadow of cognizance crossed her young eyes.

The palanquin and its train bypassed the market area (to the emperor's intense relief) and entered the palace via the Women's Road, as was the custom. There was, he noted, little traffic awaiting admittance at the mouth of the Men's Road, by which officials and dignitaries entered the palace for audience. More and more it was so; to it, as to his daughter, he waved his saturnine hand, an action which the servants perceived with amusement.

Once again the daughter made solicitation: "Papa, will I see Mama tonight?"

The emperor gathered himself up, as he did with all weighty questions, and said with an irritated sigh, "Not tonight, Nefrakiron. She is more ill than she has been; only I will visit her."

"Will she live, Papa?"

"Of course," he chuckled, "do you not believe in me?" But the girl balked when she saw that he wasn't speaking rhetorically. "Do you not believe in your own Papa?" he repeated emphatically. But he did not compel her to answer, seeing that she would not defy him at that time.

After they had arrived, and Nefrakiron was escorted by the maidservants to her quarters, the emperor Ikhnaten received the three dignitaries in the main hall. His throne stood higher than all structures in the room, and was carved from a single piece of marble; this gleaming, austere masterpiece was surmounted by an image of the sun, of a piece with the rest, which extended upward directly behind the emperor's head. To ensure that it's brilliance was not diminished in any way, the divans on which courtiers were required to sit (now mostly empty these days) were draped over with red and black linens and brocades; the walls were smeared with ash; and the few braziers present were relegated to the far corners and kept burning at a subdued rate. All in all, the effect was one of crude imbalance; the artistry of the throne stood incongruous in the deliberately dreary surroundings.

The dignitaries were from Nubia, Forawa, and Sao. They gave the required greeting: "Hail O Ikhnaten, vice-regent on Earth of Ra, the One and Only True God, all-seeing, all-pervading." Their business was prosaic, as far as Ikhnaten was concerned, although they themselves were somewhat agitated. Apparently, a trade caravan in which their nations were represented had visited the imperial city recently after securing an agreement guaranteeing trade in the market; however, the caravan was not received officially (it had entered the gates of the city unaccosted by any vigil), and, having arrived in the market, found no servants of the palace's office of commerce awaiting to complete the transaction; what was worse, they pointed out, was that a number of the slaves, perceiving what had occurred, successfully revolted and escaped with some of the ostrich feathers and ivory in their possession. There had been no imperial gendarme to impede them. Having heard their complaint, Ikhnaten considered briefly and replied, "The office of the minister of commerce is indefinitely closed; we will have to review your complaint at a later time." The three ambassadors cried out immediately, saying that they wished to terminate all agreements with the emperors courts, but that they also demanded restitution, as his minister had been unable to complete the transaction, and had not, moreover, alerted the caravan prior to it's entrance in the city. Ikhnaten nodded almost imperceptibly, and the three ambassadors suddenly found spear-points hovering at their throats. "We are not violent here; but we will do what is necessary to defend ourselves," the emperor intoned in an emotionless voice. "Please remove yourselves from the city in a peaceable fashion, that you will not come to harm. By your wishes all contracts between you and ourselves are void." The ambassadors left grumbling and vowing a furtherance of the issue.

Ikhnaten tidily brushed his linen garments in a gesture of satisfaction and announced: "It appears that official business has thankfully concluded early on. The daily audience likewise." Thus, the courtiers (only seven today) were dismissed, and it remained to his praesidium to escort him to his private chambers, located beneath the palace, where he now spent all of his hours. The praesidium now numbered only three, and these because of either their moral turpitude or their extreme bravery; for it was the custom at that time among the commoners to bury their dead, and the subterrene was regarded as the rightful territory of the dead alone; hence, to enter underground chambers was to risk contact with supernatural entities. The bilqas accompanied them with the greatest trepidation, this being his first visit; he knew the emperor well enough that no overt invitation (which would have caused embarrassment) was necessary.

They descended a staircase whose antiquity obviously stretched far beyond the date of the building of the recently constructed palace. Like all of the ancient stairwells, it had been made when primordial lineage of humankind was more apparent in his physical makeup, and his gigantic stature still echoed his descent from the Nephilim; hence, the steps required two strides to cross before descending to the next. The bilqas was using all of his might to suppress the instinct to panic; moreover, he did not even wish to consider the circumstances of the construction of such a passage, wherein someone had purposed to penetrate the realms of the dead. Ikhnaten had never been of such a mindset, and when he had first chosen the site of the construction of his new palace and his laborers excavated the entrance of the stairwell, he busied himself in discovering its origins. The priests of Amen, whose explanations, in the absence of general literacy, were generally regarded as authoritative, were initially reticent; but finally, under his pressure, relented enough to inform him that they knew it to date from one of the first dynasties, before the revelations of religion. Disgusted by this mundane explanation, Ikhnaten descended to the stairwell in exploration; after some hours, he returned, and shortly thereafter began to espouse the new religion of the single God Ra, with himself as the god's incarnation on earth.

At last they entered the chamber at the bottom, whereat the bilqas swooned away; laughingly one of the praesidium revived him by spitting on him. All of them remembered their first sensations of awe when they beheld the chamber. Unlike the manmade buildings of the upper world, which were always made of mud-brick, the interior of the chamber (none had ever seen its exterior, and they assumed it to be contained by earth) was made of a shimmering metal, similar to gold, but much harder; it was harshly illuminated by lights which, like a series of tiny suns, hung without source or support near the ceiling; while along the floor of the room were several rows of oblong compartments, roughly six feet in length and three in width, standing four feet tall; they were made of the same metal as the walls. As they walked amongst them, the bilqas saw that the upper facets, hinged in the middle so that one could lift one half at a time, were constructed of a clear hard substance which he had never seen before, and which permitted him to see that the structures were tanks of fluid - some of them otherwise empty, and a few containing indistinct, quivering forms that he dared not behold too long. Ikhnaten, noting his perusal of the objects, ran his delicate hand along the top of one and said, "This is called glass, friend. When Ra sends the lightning into the desert, it is thereby created."

Then, seemingly from nowhere (as there were no obscured areas within the chamber), they were approached by a kind of dwarf, or so the bilqas assumed; he thought also, because of its hairiness and darkness of complexion that it may have been one of the tribes-people said to inhabit the regions at the source of the Nile, who had been described to him as black and animal-like. The more he considered her (since the personage in question was topless, he was able to determine her gender by her ancient sagging dugs), the more horror and disgust he felt; not only did she wear only a tattered loincloth, but her entire form was covered with thick hair; moreover, he mouth parted like a dog's or baboon's. She addressed Ikhnaten in a voice never intended for human speech: "Hail Ikhnaten, incarnation of the one and only true God Ra; preserver of our holy sanctuaries; disseminator of morals among the people." Ikhnaten replied, "Greetings to you Zima; as you can see, we have a new friend here today." To which she in turn replied: "All are friends, all are brothers in the sight of Ra who is the source of all which is holy." And they both in unison muttered "Praise his name."

Without further ado, she led them to a specific tank, and the bilqas was permitted to look inside. Quite distinctly he could see the empress Nefertiti lolling in the fluid, her eyes closed, and her mouth creased in sorrow. Ikhnaten said the bilqas, "Come friend, and see; and you will know, if you are not already convinced, of the superlative glory of Ra." Zima lifted the half of the glass pane over Nefertiri's lower quarters, and gingerly examined the empress's groin; all were able to see the twofold set of genitalia, both male and female, which it contained. However, Zima shook her head. "The penis is not quite completed; another fortnight."

"Will she be able to ejaculate?" Ikhnaten hopefully asked. "I see no testicles."

"Do not worry," Zima chuckled. "Is not Ra all providing?" And again, all of them, from the habit of fear, recited an affirmative formula.

Zima closed that half of the pane and lifted the other, so that Ikhnaten could address Nefertiti. "My beloved," he said, bending close to her, "how are you tonight?"

Nefertiti's eyelids fluttered and she responded in a pained whisper. "My brother, my sickness is such that I feel that I'm dying; my pain is unending."

"Do not say it, for you know it to be untrue; even now Ra effects a cure." And Nefertiti, in spite of the incongruity, also lapsed into panegyric.

Zima closed the panel and intoned: "Soon she will be complete, as Ra has ordained that his incarnation shall be provided with a suitable mate. O Ikhnaten, when this happens, no more shall you worry about the fortunes of the empire, for at that union the universe shall be perfected." She suddenly curled her thin lips over her formidable teeth and with a piercing hiss leapt past them and thrashed with such swiftness that it was several moments before the bilqas realized that she had killed a small animal. She remained on her hands and knees on the floor, with the animal's neck in her mouth; blood streamed in all directions. Then, satisfied that it was dead, she conveyed it to...the bilqas never saw, nor did any of them know: her exit, as always, was as her entrance.

"It was she," Ikhnaten said the bilqas, "who first demonstrated to me the existence of Ra and my status as his incarnation. You cannot see her coming and going; but I can see it in my mind, for she alternates between here and the celestial abode directly; of which, being its transmuted substance, I experience directly, even as I experience these present surroundings."

"And what is happening now in the celestial abode?" the bilqas asked.

"Only peace, as always," Ikhnaten softly replied, perhaps not perceiving the sarcasm.

The two of them went, as the praesidium loitered, to a door which the bilqas had not noticed before. Ikhnaten opened it and they entered a cubicle which was perfunctorily furnished with a divan and a few pillows. They seated themselves and Ikhnaten wrapped his arm around his servant's waist. "Tell me," he said, "the truth: do you truly believe in Ra and his incarnation?"

"Oh yes, yes!"

"That is very good, because it is simply the truth. I don't know how you could not believe after what you have seen today."

"Have no doubt that I believe."

Ikhnaten laughed happily, and began stroking his servant about the arms and ears. "Do you have a girlfriend here in the city?"

"Not here in the city, sire, but in my village I have several girlfriends."

"Are you the kind of man who pleases women?"

"These women have always found me pleasing."

Ikhnaten sighed. "When I was young I wished to be such a man; for I was sickly, and this circumstance in turn inclined me to scholarship and religious devotion."

"I'm sure many women found you handsome, but you didn't realize it!"

"What kindness! I'm so glad we have this opportunity to speak in private. But I'm afraid that I know that truth about myself; I am not pleasing to women. Fortunately, as I am in fact a god, the thought doesn't harass me; but still, I delight in meeting men who, like you, were more fortunate than myself in that regard." He leaned forward and kissed the bilqas delicately on the mouth - twice, three times, and the servant could feel him, with each kiss, inserting his tongue to a greater extent, but ever so slightly; the bilqas responded in kind.

"But the room is getting very hot," Ikhnaten said. He deftly doffed his linen robes and then tenderly removed those of his companion. Again, he sat down and began coddling him. "To be pleasing to women is one of the greatest gifts of Ra, because the union of man and women is the ultimate grace. Have you not heard this in my matitudinal liturgies of Khepsra [the equivalent of Saturday. - ed.]?"

"Of course, each week."

"And do you know what is more abhorrent to Ra, beyond any other sin? Beyond murder? Beyond calumny?"

"Y-yes, sire, it is unnatural acts." The bilqas was, as the reader might expect, very uneasy by now; if he and the emperor were to couple, as seemed likely, he wished it to happen soon and be rid of this perverse dialogue.

"Yes, it is unnatural acts; it is when a man forgets his natural state and behaves as a woman, inviting other men to enter him carnally."

The bilqas said nothing; his cool exterior belied the frenzy of terror and disgust within.

Ikhnaten resumed his intimacies; when he discovered that the bilqas, who had been rendered flaccid by fear, did not respond as he had hoped, his face reddened with such a rage as the poor servant had never seen. "So it often is with you dandies and ladies' men," he hissed, "that you consider yourself my superior - I who am God! I had a suspicion that your flattering words were only that; perhaps you should keep in mind, since you are so proud, that not all of the studs who have visited this chamber have shielded their minds from the truth as have you. My praesidium!"

And upon his outcry the praesidium entered and promptly held the bilqas to the floor. "Please sire!" he bawled. "You are mistaken! A few more moments and I would have been ready to perform."

"'Ready to perform?'" roared Ikhnaten. "So you want to play the woman; very well, have a foretaste of the gehinnom [equivalent of Hell in the cult of Ra - ed.] which awaits you at Ra's behest!" Wherewith the emperor, inflamed with hate and lust, sodomized the screaming servant, thrusting as brutally as possible until he had deposited his discharge. After he had withdrawn and cleaned himself with the bilqas' linen garments, he ordered the praesidium to take him away and allow the palace leech to attend to his wounds; for he was bleeding from the anus. Before this happened, he spoke a few words to the wretch: "My son, please consider what you have done, its consequences, and the mercy of Ra. Do not forget to come to the midweek ceremony, even though I have made it optional for the servants, where your sin can be absolved. For even though the sin which you have committed is that which is most abhorrent in the sight of Ra, all sins can be forgiven by God." And the praesidium, sniggering at this all-too-familiar diatribe, led the bilqas away.

Ikhnaten remained in the underground chamber in the company of Zima and Nefertiti; the praesidium did not venture to guess as to what occupied them until they came and escorted him to his bedchambers in the palace above.

* * *

Nefrakiron, Ikhnaten's daughter, breathed more easily when she, having ascended to the rooftop of the palace, she found no vigils waiting to impede her. They, like the others, had all gone away. It was no use, she thought, in pretending that they would not very shortly be abandoned altogether, at which point their murders were certain; moreover, she believed her mother to have died. She herself had been cured of an illness in the chamber beneath when still a toddler, and she retained memories of its horrors.

She climbed into one of the turrets which stood at intervals in the crenellations, and surveyed the city beneath her from one of the tiny lookout holes. Most of the houses, either deserted years ago or inhabited only by the most indigent, were eroded; but she could still see asses tied in the yards of a few, and brazier smoke rising from their hawaash [inner courtyards - ed.], and, moreover, they had recently visited the dismal public market, where these few hardy souls still attempted to ply a few shekels a day; hence, she knew the city was not a ghost town yet. The beautiful burnished-gold domes of the Ra temples still towered above the houses, and the clamor and incense fumes which poured continuously from the edifices indicated that their pontificates still enjoyed their power and luxury; but she knew also, and all-too-well, that should their guards abandon them, that the mob, feeble as it was, would descend upon them in an instant and all would be lost.

It was time, she decided, to visit the city without an escort; perhaps it had been weeks already since she could have exited the palace unnoticed, and only now had she finally realized it. And it was even easier than she had imagined: she merely walked out through the servants' exit, and along the entire route she saw no-one, and almost as certainly no-one saw her.

She took the opportunity to explore the alleyways that she had always seen from the palanquin but, as nobility (nay, divinity), never been permitted to enter. Quickly she became overwhelmed by the stench of ordure and animal sweat; small bands of frantically bleating goats would emerge from the crepuscular shadows and surround her - almost, she noted with the utmost horror, as if she were one of them, and not half-celestial - then caper off; several times she stumbled badly in the ruts which yawned in the middle of each passageway until she gained an instinct for avoiding them; occasionally she could hear human voices inside the tightly clustered houses, but she felt she could not dare approach anyone in these circumstances. Naturally, she soon was lost; she resolved to suppress her apprehension. She attempted to bypass two youths leaning in the doorway of their house without any exchange, but they, having spotted her, instantly caterwauled for her to come to them. She stood in alleyway, undecided how to respond.

"You look like the daughter of one of the priests," said one of them.

"No," she said, "I am a girl from a village; I did business in the market today."

"What kind of business?"

"I wanted to sell some vegetables."

"Even the villages have priests; are you the daughter of one in your village?"

"No, no!"

"'No, no!'" the other youth mocked. "Not only are you wearing the linen of a priest's daughter, but you're speaking the Kullu dialect [the dialect of the high castes - ed.]."

Nefrakiron began to half-run, half-walk, fearing that they would pursue her. They did not, but their lewd invitations did; "Kilaab!" she muttered to herself [loosely translates as "scumbags" - ed.].

Presently, after much wearingly aimless wandering, she stumbled unexpectedly on the central market area, which she recognized in the gloom by the Great Ra temple whose massive bulk she had somehow failed to see at any point from the vantage point of the depths of the labyrinthine residential districts. Most of its traders were still present, although they had wrapped their wares in tanned hides and placed them under their carts, atop which they would sleep once they had concluded their evening meal. Nefrakiron found herself unexpectedly tantalized by the smell of onions and bread being broiled directly in braziers, or even cruder fires; she disingenuously approached two old women thusly preparing their meal and asked for some.

"What's this?" one of them cried incredulously. "The priest's brat comes to ask us for food. Haven't you taken enough from us, dearie?"

But her companion silenced her by slapping her on the leg, and said, "Perhaps she is sincere; I have heard that the priests are no kinder to their unlucky offspring than they are to us. Perhaps she is a god in disguise."

"Perhaps, perhaps," said the first, rolling her eyes in dismay. "But, Partria, since you think so, let it be your onion half and your slab of bread that you share; and we shall see if the priest's daughter ever learned a sense of gratitude from the disseminators of morals."

Nefrakiron was bade to seat herself and Partria proffered up a portion of her meal. Nefrakiron thanked her and greedily devoured it. "Please, if you have any more -" she began.

The first woman screamed in vindication. "'If you have any more!'" Nefrakiron felt an irritation that the city folk were prone to mimic her derisively. "If you had any manners, girlie, you would have balked when first offered the food, saying that it is too much; then you would have eaten at a leisurely pace, as befits a girl; and finally, after you had politely eaten, you would have profusely thanked Partria and insisted that her generosity far exceeded what you deserved. Which, as we can see, it obviously did."

"Stop it, that's enough," Partria said. "She can't help her upbringing. Why are you out here, anyway? No, I know: many Kullu children do this if they get a chance - they want to see how the other half lives. In fact, you're not the first whose eaten of our onions."

Nefrakiron, for the first time since leaving the palace, felt a sense of security; she hoped to remain with Partria and not return, if possible.

"And don't mind Arwa - she is very poor, and naturally she is resentful; but I will not permit her to abuse you further, and tonight you will even be able to see that she also has her humanities, for I am going to invite you to our apartment."

Nefrakiron looked to Arwa in anticipation of protest, but she continued to eat placidly, apparently hearing nothing.

With the meal concluded, Partria and Arwa gathered their remaining saleables and the three were on their way. After an extended walk through the residential quarters which again left Nefrakiron utterly disoriented, they entered a building where lights could be seen flickering. They entered a small chamber where, in the dim light of barely burning brazier, slumbering forms could be discerned on the floor. Once Nefrakiron's eyes had become accustomed the gloom, she saw that a shrine to Amen, the Bird-headed One, was affixed to the wall; moreover, the remains of candles and flowers on the shelf beneath it indicated that its active worship was still perpetuated here, the realization of which was accompanied by a startled gasp.

Both Arwa and Partria smirked, and Nefrakiron said, "I had no idea - I thought..."

"Of course you believe the lies of your parents," Arwa exclaimed. "But our gods have not deserted us; still they sustain us, especially when the yoke of the oppressor is so heavy."

"Did you know that it was not so long ago that our families were pontificates in the House of Amen; even still it is we that tend his innermost mysteries. Of course, many were killed in Ikhnaten's lust for power; but many escaped as well, and the truth, although hidden, still is there for the sincere seeker; moreover, its next manifestation is imminent - for the bloody and futile rule of the Freak of Amarna [i.e., Ikhnaten - ed.] is almost at an end. His army has deserted him; I predict that within a week some of the southern tribes will prevail upon the city, and that they will take it almost without a fight; in fact, I myself saw the ambassadors from the South this morning leaving the palace in anger - it did not take any sixth sense to see that once again, the imbecile, unnatural emperor had broken treaties without a thought."

Nefrakiron shivered with rage when she heard this, but wisely kept silent. By now some of the other tenants (or more probably, squatters) had been disturbed and were sitting up and listening. One of them, a young man, said, "So you've brought another one? Always the young Kullu girls are attracted to you." He threw off his blanket and scooted over to where the three of them sat. "Peace be upon you Khamen"; to which Khamen responded in turn, then continued, addressing Nefrakiron directly. "You're a very lucky girl to have come here - you won't come to any harm - or, I should say, your virtue, if you've managed to keep it so far, won't be lost; for this is the home of the sihaaqaat and the ma'bunun [lit. manly women and womanly men - ed.], and it is not the custom of our people to despoil virgins. Rather, it is only ourselves who are despoiled, daily, by those who hate us without reason. But, as lady Partria said, we are able to endure, even abide, because we have received a special divine dispensation."

Nefrakiron began to lose the sense of security she had so tenuously gained. She had heard of such people; she knew them to be evil. Evidently her only hope was to escape, but she sensed that, if she did not do so under a guise, she would be forcibly withheld.

"What of you?" Khamen inquired. "Are you sihaaq? Do you desire the love of women?"

"No, I don't know about such things," Nefrakiron said, intensely afraid that her lie was perceived, "I am still too young."

"Still too young? But already I see breasts beneath your tunic. Do you think it is by chance that you chose to approach Partria and Arwa among all the folk of the city?"

"I thought Partria's manner was kind - please, I should leave," she blurted, and regretted it immediately.

"Stay with us!" they all demanded, and her fear gave way to panic and she bolted from the apartment. To her intense relief, she ran immediately into one of the official patrols whom the temples of Ra employed to keep the night watch; a fortuitous coincidence, since there were undoubtedly very few of them left. "Help me!" she shrieked in undisguised hysteria. When questioned, she pointed to the apartment and described her near abduction at the hands of the sihaaqaat and ma'bunun; after a few grunts, the guards entered the building, and with surprising efficiency, arrested the entire group of tenants. The whole entourage then proceeded to one of the lesser temples, where in the prayer hall a pontificate listened to the account of Nefrakiron and the guards before passing a judgment. He was terse: "They are an abomination before Ra; they worship idols and they commit unnatural acts. In the past I have pardoned such people, but now I believe my mercy was misguided; let them now be killed to at least spare ourselves, and may Ra have mercy on them later." Thus, Partria, Arwa, Khanem, and their cohorts were led away to their doom.

"As for the girl," the pontificate continued, "doubtless she has been terrified by what she has seen; perhaps to the point that the remainder of her life would be colored by it. I have for her a mercy greater than charity; a release from this life, which has treated her so; for how can she know happiness, who has been forced to intimacy with perversion? Examine her genitals."

The guards dutifully obeyed, despite the fact that Nefrakiron screamed protests that she was the emperor's daughter. "They are intact," they said.

"That will be a consolation for her in the afterlife," the pontificate said, "when she faces the judgment of Ra. So let it be for the unwary who comes to know of these sihaaqaat and ma'bunun; for it is upon us to extirpate them, lest they in the end become in like manner corrupted. However, since it is not her fault, we shall not execute her outright, but rather she can die with dignity in the pit. Take her and leave her there with a small supply of bread and water; after several days she will have expired, and never have to face her parents shamefaced." The pontificate withdrew, and the guard took Nefrakiron, still howling in protest, away to the pit which lay beneath the temple, and which, as it turned out, was a grotto. Clearly the fate meted out to Nefrakiron was a standard one, as there was a basket, already supplied with the requisite meager provisions, attached to a pulley, waiting to lower her. Her struggling was of no avail against the great burly guard, and, after being lowered, the guard yanked the rope with such force that the basket tipped and she was thrown onto the dank rocks while her provisions scattered about her, lost forever in the darkness. She pondered in misery for several minutes, then concluded that it was just as well that they were lost; the sooner her death, and resultant period to her sorrows.

But she was unable to sit in the end, for either insects or spiders continually crawled over her, so that she could not abide it, and she began to feel her way through the grotto in order to avoid, as a moving thing, being in their path. After some time - she did not know how long - she heard breathing; was there someone here, a survivor against all odds of the justice of the pontificate? "Hello, hello," she wailed desperately. There was no answer, only a querulous grunting, by which she knew she had been heard. "Hello, answer me sir!" she called again. Then he was upon her - she felt his enormous hands clutching hers, and she swooned.

She awoke to the sounds of gurgling water, a softly strummed cythera, and equally soft and melodious girlish laughter. As her vision cleared, she saw that she was still in a grotto of some sort, but one with a wide berth which was dully illuminated by patches of glowing fungus on its walls. She was being tended to by a young woman whose hair was, amazingly, yellow as corn, and whose skin was the color of the belly of a crocodile, with strange ruddy blemishes. Instinctively, Nefrakiron, whose world was overwhelmingly populated by the swarthy folk of southern climes, reached out to touch these stipples; the young woman uttered a contrived little laugh and indulged her charge, saying, "They're only freckles, young lady."

"Where am I?" Nefrakiron said, disconcertedly noticing that a crowd of the girls who congregated aimlessly here and there about the grotto were studying her intently. Only a few had the Nilotic features of her folk in the world above; the rest shocked her by their unfamiliar features. Some had the appalling lack of color as her caregiver; others jet hair and sallow skin; while others still were as black as night with heads plumed by shocks of wool. All of them were roughly the same age as Nefrakiron, and likewise possessed of incipient nubility.

"You are in the oasis of Amen," extolled the caregiver.

"Am I...dead?"

"Not dead at all, no; in fact, you have been saved from death by the hand of the god himself, as were we all." Nefrakiron related the story of her run in with the sihaaqaat and the ma'bunun. "Tsk, tsk!" the caregiver said in response. "Such awful people - and very dangerous from the sound of it."

"They have been killed; but not before delivering me to such a fate as this."

"As this!? Child, this is paradise itself; consider what you see, and would you truly wish to return to the life you knew above?"

Nefrakiron frankly felt that she would., due to the alienness of her surroundings; not only that, she could not remember a time when the visage of the sun, the eye of God, had not gladdened her. Nevertheless, she prudently dissembled: "No indeed madam. But what of us, when we are grown? Do we, like you, tend to the new arrivals?"

The caregiver sighed. "Your question is based on assumptions that you need not make. But, since you thirst for knowledge - be patient, all will be answered in good time. In the meantime, thirst for wine, for we have the finest with us now."

And she placed the bottle's lip at Nefrakiron's, who swallowed thirstily of spirits for the first time. When she finally finished, she gave a great involuntary shudder as her body responded to the liquor. All of the girls squealed delightedly. "I do believe," the caregiver called aloud, "that any more and our new friend would have fallen into drunken unconsciousness! Is this the first you've known of wine?"

"Yes, my father is very opposed to spirits."

"You needn't worry about his strictures anymore in the Oasis of Amen. You are as free as you like, with us forever." Still, Nefrakiron refused more wine when offered; the caregiver said, "Perhaps she will enjoy soma. Buruka!" And the girl Buruka, a small brown-skinned beauty with a single jet black braid, came forward with a sandalwood box, which, when opened, released a not-unpleasant sweet aroma, whose source were the clumps of cured flowers contained therein. The same girl also produced a long wooden tube; she placed a piece of the cured flowers in one of its ends and with a flame burning on a small stick of wood, began to burn it and inhale the smoke from the other end. When she had finished, she exhaled the smoke in a cloud larger than Nefrakiron could have thought possible, coughed slightly, then offered the device to Nefrakiron. "Don't fear," laughed the caregiver. "You will cough more than Buruka or ourselves, but when the coughing ceases, you will know only pleasure." Nefrakiron followed Buruka's example of operation, and found herself coughing with the utmost pain and burning, while her eyes clouded with tears. But gradually, as the caregiver had promised, the hacking subsided, and she found herself awash in a sea of newfound delight in the trivial. The patches of illumining fungus on the walls - were they not like the collateral spirits of Ra, shining beneficently?; was not the prating and giggling of the girls as charming a discourse as she had ever known?

The caregiver then tore a piece of the fungus from the walls and, laughing, ate it; her example was followed. Nefrakiron did not find it especially palatable, but she was exceptionally hungry after all that she had undergone, and she devoured it without reserve. As she continued to cavort and laugh with her new companions, forgetful of all, she began to notice that she had the odd sensation that she had known them and been with them for an unfathomably long time; as they laughed she saw their faces distort into comically grotesque masks; she considered what had passed a few moments ago as if it had been eons. The sad and fearful life with her indifferent father and moribund mother in the palace seemed to have lost all substance, and she felt that it would trouble her no more.

Then, as if their laughter and frivolous hysteria were able to incarnate directly, the vision of the divine Amen began to walk among them. Standing fully twelve feet high, its grotesque bird visage was familiar to Nefrakiron from the morality lessons against idolatry which had been so pervasive in her childhood; its giant hands she recognized as those which had transported her to this place. The god or demon surveyed the revelry of the young women, shook its misshapen head, then emitted a horrible shriek; whether it was dismay, hunger, or merely lust, Nefrakiron couldn't say; all she knew was that this was abomination, even more foul than the den of the sihaaqaat and ma'bunun, and that in her condition of addled senses, she was left helpless by it.

The young women of the oasis began to sob and throw themselves at him, but Amen simply swept aside the supplicants, often with such force that they were dashed, injured and bleeding, against the walls of the grotto. Then he stood before Nefrakiron and roared: "What is this that I have brought into my sanctuary? I see now that you are seedling of the accursed one, the heretic, who has driven me and my kind into the depths!" And with his skullcrest feathers standing upright he lunged toward the tiny girl, prepared to destroy her; her mouth suddenly opened very wide and her tongue darted out a full ten feet in length, affixing itself to his brow. He was halted in his attack, but continued his hideous shrieking until, just as it reached a full crescendo, his inhuman head exploded in sickening spatter of blood, bone, and brains. Nefrakiron withdrew her equally inhuman tongue; this, then, was the boon of Ra which she had received when she was "cured" in the chamber below the palace.

She was still reeling from the effects of the drugs she had taken, but she knew enough to leave while the other girls were still gathering themselves up after the catastrophe. She followed the little waterway out of the oasis and into the unlighted depths of the grotto. She told herself, "I am of the God Ra and I have destroyed the false god; I am not like these base humans, and I should never have left the palace." She continued, as she groped helplessly along, to console herself with the knowledge of her superior aspects until she slipped, and struck her head; unconscious, she fell face-first into the water and drowned.

* * *

Ikhnaten stood before his throne, reciting the various orisons and benedictions of the Milaad ceremony [day equivalent to Wednesday - ed.]. Only two members of his praesidium were present; there were no courtiers left - Ikhnaten did not know it, but their spies had made it known to them that their lives depended upon a sudden change of residence to another city.

"Where is the bilqas?" Ikhnaten asked. "He was to request forgiveness today."

One of the praesidium brought forth from a wrapping of brocade the now-severed head of the unlucky bilqas. "He was caught trying to escape."

It was then that they heard screaming and smelt smoke. They ascended to the ramparts where they saw that the imperial city was burning; wishing to see no more they fled within.

With no one left to defend the city against them, the small barbarian army of the Forawa (with Sao and Nubian contingents) had been able to enter and conquer with complete ease. Those squadrons guarding the temples who were powerful enough to resist were bribed into acquiescence by the Forawans, who had been well-funded by governments eager to see the end of the rule of Ikhnaten. The usual gratuitous slaughter ensued, and the arrogance and supremacy of the pontificates of Ra came abruptly to an end.

The Forawan soldiers who invaded the palace searched the entire premises without finding a single person, and were on the verge of giving up their search and putting the place to the flame when someone found the entrance to the chamber beneath. When they arrived in that place of suffering, they were taken aback by its palpable atmosphere of malignancy, and only slowly did they begin to search. Many examined the contents of the oblong vats with looks of dismay.

At last they found Ikhnaten hiding beneath the divan in the small chamber where he tryst with his lovers. He was summarily killed. Several of the more brutal members of the squad had lifted Nefertiti from her vat; the poor woman only moaned in semiconscious while the soldiers cut away her twofold genitals with malicious glee then gang raped her. After this had continued for some time, the squadron leader called a halt to the proceedings and cut her throat.

Night fell and the soldiers' camps were raucous with drunkenness and the enjoyment that the conquerors had with the vanquished. In fact, many of the captives looked forward to their new lives, in spite of this inauspicious beginning; perhaps luck would favor them more on the auctioneer's block of slave markets in barbarian countries than it ever had in the imperial city.

Morning came and the encampments departed with their booty; and finally the sands of the desert could begin to cover this house of woe without further hindrance.