and when mankind taunted him for his gaining age, and begun to become unruly, ra turned to the nothing and said you who birthed me, i come to you before i destroy what i have made.
when khepri’s opponent falls to his knees, gargling blood, hetepi follows him. grovelling, his forehead close to the sandy floor, his back bent like nut’s curving over the earth.
she is sekhmet, born again, and his words make her whirl on him, her sword hitting the ground, the sand sticking to the crimson blood. the sound echoes so loud khepri is sure the heavens heard it.
you know nothing of sekhmet if you think i resemble her, she spits, snake venom, now get up. do not kneel before a mortal.
as two servants take the opponent away, the roman slinks from where he had tucked himself away during the fight. hetepi doesn’t pull himself from the floor, just stares, wide eyed, at khepri. the roman seems unfazed when he speaks;
so, egyptian, what makes you fight like you don’t have another day to live?
i need to find my daughter.
why did you save me, hetepi?
you were just laying there, ready to die. it was so easy to save you. if i hadn’t, i know the gods would not have let me rest easy.
but you don’t know a thing about me.
if it bothers you so, why don’t you tell me?
we hunted, my daughter and i, up near alexandria, where the sand hit the lush green that springs up along the nile. we had land, not much, just enough to grow wheat, and have a few cows. it wasn’t an easy life but it was ours, until the romans came. the greeks were bad enough, encroaching from the west, colonizing our cities. no, i don’t think these romans were under any sort of order when they took my daughter and i. they sold us, hetepi, to a warmonger greek who wanted black skinned gladiators to appease the cyrene crowds. that’s why i sought out the roman. i need to fight at cyrene. i need to find my daughter and then i’ll free both of us instead of fleeing like a cowardly dog. if i die, anubis will greet me and i will be weighed, but only if my daughter runs free. the field of reeds cannot hold me if she is not.
you love her very much.
and what’s her name?
hetepi leaves when khepera wakes from his sleep. he tells khepri that she is welcome every time she needs a place to rest in memphis, or if she ever finds herself wandering the desert in need. for that, she does offer him a smile. he takes the bone-backed mare with him, ponied behind his camel. khepri doesn’t think to linger on the feeling of hurt that leaves.
the roman comes up behind her and says is that your husband? and khepri says i have no husband without turning around. the roman scoffs, because khepri has a daughter, and she’s past eight and thirty. romans are strange creatures that think ill of these things, and this is not something khepri wants to speak to him about anyways.
when is my first fight is what she says instead.
tonight, the roman says, disinterested again, like he has better things to do. you’ll be fighting alongside the egyptian. against animals, mostly, unless the crowd asks for more.
if the egyptian is the egyptian, what will you call me?
the roman looks up, a spark of interest in his eyes.
we’ve already started calling you the lioness.
the egyptian is a man with arms like baobab trees, littered in pale silver scars. he has a sadness so thick in his eyes that khepri thinks not even the green sea can compare; she knows that if she looks too long she’ll drown.
what did you used to be she asks him, and she thanks the gods he never tries to make eye contact with her. he shifts his grip on his blade, tightens a strap on his shield.
i was a medjay, he says, and that’s all he needs to say. khepri knows that there’s nothing left to protect. to serve ptolemy is no longer an honour. they strap on their armour in silence after that, and the groomers flutter about them, smudging kholl under their eyes and adorning them with cheap jewels. they were not well enough known to bear gold and jewels; instead bronze is used in its wake.
when they finally step out into the ring, the coliseum is full of egyptians, and their voices raise to rattle the wood scaffold holding the walls up. the egyptian pulls on a fake mask of enthusiasm, hollars back, bangs the hilt of his blade on the metal of his shield. khepri lets him milk the crowd. she is not here to preform.
when the gates come up, and the lions burst forth from their cages, khepri whispers an apology to sekhmet with every one she slays. every death sends another wave of cheers
through the crowd. when they are done, they retreat back behind a lush red curtain before the people-killers go past them; the gladiators that fought each other instead of mere animals. khepri looks at the egyptian right as the false smile slides off his face. he drops his weapons, a dull clatter on the thin layer of sand, before he retreats back into the barracks. khepri goes to the wash basin and scrubs the blood from her trembling arms, the water coming away black and red but it can’t wash away the feeling of khepri’s heart getting heavier and the looming promise of ammit, waiting with his grinning maw open.
later that night, in the dark, khepri lays awake with the egyptian across the room in the straw. his breathing is steady and low, so when he asks if you could go back and change everything, would you? she startles before she says i don’t know, and she thinks he falls asleep before he hears her answer.
the day the roman lets her use a bow is the day she has to take a human life.
she takes it without permission, and the roman is too preoccupied with preparations to gripe about the bow being a man’s weapon, her arms too weak to draw the string back. by now, khepri is deaf to the roar of the crowd, the egyptian’s incessant thumping on his shield, and the sounds of starving animals, yearning to get out of their cages. when she nocks an arrow, she meets the roman’s eyes, his curled scowl, his clenched hands.
when the first hyena shoots out, the egyptian barely has a chance to raise his hand before it lay crumpled against the sand. the arrow sticks out of its eye socket, blood sluggishly pushing through the sand. he looks up at khepri, who has already loaded again, four more arrows gripped in her stabilizing hand. it was easier to kill the animals cleanly this way; no more suffering on the end of a spear or sword. three more hyenas, three more arrows, three more times the egyptian barely moved in the direction of the threats. when they all lay dead and bleeding, and the crowd is deathly silent, khepri believes that that is the end.
but another gate starts to open, and the crowd roars, and the egyptian roars with them, head tipped back, his stance wide and powerful. out tramples two people, their eyes as wild as the animals khepri had slain. both have bare legs and gaunt faces, and their weapons shake in their grasp. they’re young, so young, and khepri’s last arrow freezes on its string, her eye line blurred by the wideness of her eyes, her fingers curled like claws around sinew and wood. but the egyptian rushes forward, bashing a spear out of the way, and slices through the meat of one of their legs. the young boy’s howl of anguish turns khepri’s blood to ice; the sound of the egyptian’s sword cutting his belly open makes her guts turn to liquid. the other boy is coming at her now, running as though he didn’t want to, as if he’s knee deep in the nile. she looses the arrow when she sees the egyptian turn, ready to cut more flesh, break more bone, even if his adversary has only dropped to the floor, not dead.
right through the eye again, as though he’s just an animal to hunt and not a human being with a heart spun by the gods. he drops dead, and khepri’s only salvation is that he did not suffer. the egyptian’s victim lays with his guts spilling out onto the sand, his breath rattling in the air, and the egyptian turns on khepri and for a wild moment, she thinks he’s going to attack her too. his eyes are feral and black as the desert at night, but they are full of a pleading hope, almost a relief. khepri doesn’t shake when she steps forward and plucks the arrow from one boy’s head and deposits it in another. for once, the egyptian does not make a grand exit, and once khepri is safely away from the crowds and the roman’s beaming face, she vomits into the wash basin.
that night she listens to the egyptian cry in the dark. there are a hundred questions she wants to ask him, but every one of them die in her throat when one of his sobs knock it back down into her lungs. instead, she lays on her back and tries to count the pieces of straw that make up the ceiling, and pretends her burning eyes are from the sand.
within the next three times khonsu faced and abandoned egypt, khepri became the gem of the krokodilopolis coliseum. she was the lioness, she who could fire three arrows in the blink of an eye, the stone-faced hunter from lower egypt. she and the egyptian could kill ten men, one after the other, feed iron to lions and hyenas. once, they flooded the arena with water, and they fought against six crocodiles, pulled fresh from the nile. neither of them had it in them to tell the roman how much sacrilege killing sobek’s idol in his city was. they were both too run down. the egyptian cries after every fight, and khepri just keeps getting angrier, but the rage is watered down by grief. she’s killed so much. what if she never makes it to cyrene? what if all the lives she took will weigh her down for nothing, and she will never see her daughter again?
as the groomers dress her (an iron breastplate, now, and gold and lapis. the former looks too roman, and the latter khepri had insisted on herself), the roman comes to her.
an audience has been requested of you, he says, studying a grain of sand under a chipped fingernail. khepri yanks her bracers on, waving off the groomers so they scuttle away like beetles to tend to the egyptian. she can feel her brow creasing in that grief-anger again, before she’s even stepped into the ring.
tell them i consort no one. it wouldn’t be the first time someone has requested her intimate companionship, and she can’t see it being the last. usually a roman of high rank, unused to being told no. it makes for an interesting next match, to see if she can hear him jeering obscenities at her while she fires arrows. the roman raises his shoulders.
i’ll send a message to cyrene, then, he says, before he begins to walk away. khepri blunders over her sandals chasing after him, digs her fingers into the thick linen of his tunic. the wait that drops from her lips is more an exhale than a word at all, said with the weight of a dying man. the roman’s smirk is infuriating, enough to remind khepri of how heavily armed she is, but she releases him and steps away and hopes the yearning on her face isn’t so bright.
cleopatra has heard of you, lioness. she wishes to watch you fight in cyrene. does this please you?
then go out there and please me, and i will take you cyrene myself.
khepri turns on her heel, marches out into the dull arena sand, and kills enough for ten.
the travel to cyrene from krokodilopolis is long, and hot. the gods are angry with khepri, this is something she knows, for on the way up they run out of water three times, and lose two horses to the heat. khepri had refused to travel in the cart with the egyptian; it looked much like a cage, and when she called it so the roman didn’t correct her. instead, she takes up the rear on a horse with a much more forgiving back than the one hetepi had loaned her. they let her have a bow, for protection, and she did have to use it on some bandits as they passed through the valley nome. they left their bodies to rot in the sun, and be picked clean by birds, and to be forgotten so that their souls will know nothing of the long rest in the field of reeds. khepri is surprised that the roman trusts her enough to stare at his back with a weapon in hand, but though he is infuriating, she knows he is smart. she knows that he knows that she will not sabotage what is in front of her.
when the sand finally breaks, cyrene is a white smear across the ashy land. when the horses clatter into the streets, it's like khepri is transported to a far away place. cyrene doesn’t feel like egypt. the buildings glimmer in limestone, carved pillars tickle the sky’s belly. marble reflects the sun so readily that it’s hard to look at the delicately carved statues that dance in plazas and in front of temples for gods khepri’s never heard of. the native trees have been cleared, and khepri tries not to stare at the ruins of old that used to be there, now piled with greek buildings. she tries not to stare, but the people stare at her. their skin is as white as the limestone, red and mottled by the sun, and here, khepri and the egyptian stand out, even if they are still in their own home.
the arena in cyrene is not like the one in krokodilopolis. there is no scaffolding holding up unfinished walls. the outside is beautifully polished limestone, and it is draped with folds upon folds of rich red cloth that flaps in in the gentle winds. it is bustling with people, laughing, talking with one another, impervious to the bloodshed that happens a mere few steps away. in his cage, khepri never sees the egyptian look up. his elbows against his bend knees, he leaves his eyes to the rocky ground, and the back of his shaven head for ra to judge. they pass a temple on the way up that used to be for tawaret, but her face had been replaced with another khepri had never seen before. the anger flares from where it had been mostly dormant, laying in sorrow since her first kill. she wonders if their gods know about this desecration, if they condemn it, or if they praise the ruination of another people. her horse clatters on, herdbound, after the caravan, and the temple disappears behind a rocky craig, and khepri dwells on it no longer.
the inside of the cyrene arena glows in torchlight, the curved white walls making the limestone glitter like a precious gem. when the cages open, the hinges don’t creak. the floor has been swept of sand. the weapons in their racks have been cleaned, sharpened and polished, their metal clean of red stains. banners of crimson and gold hang from the stands, emblazoned with symbols that mean nothing to khepri. it was a marvel of greek architecture, and nothing more. the beds for the gladiators are risen up off the ground, with pillows stuffed with goose feathers. she makes it to the dorms first, followed by the egyptian, who places a hand on his pillow with a face full of wonder, but says nothing about it.
get some rest! the roman’s voice grates from outside. you will be fighting for your princess tonight! and i’ve heard your competitor is quite something!
pharaoh, khepri thinks, right before she lays her head down. she doesn’t sleep, because her bed is too soft.
the crowd is louder in krokodilopolis. maybe the greeks and romans don’t cheer for egyptians, or maybe less came because of them. either way, khepri is not used to being able to hear herself breathe when she enters the arena, and it makes her blood pump faster and her hands jitter with nerves. even the egyptian’s antics are sluggish, less gaudy. he still yells back at the crowd but there’s less to it, like he can only throw back what’s given to him. khepri looks for cleopatra, and though she can see many of ptolemy's guards, there is too much cloth covering doorways for her to see much of anyone. some of the spectators gesture as if drawing a bow in an effeminate manner. khepri glowers, before nocking an arrow and pointing it at them with fire in her eyes. when they scramble back, eyes wide, the grin that splits her face feels like a hyena’s. when her arms drop, they laugh and laugh like it’s part of the spectacle and not like they were staring anubis in the eye.
it was just starting to feel like normal. the egyptian was strutting around, showing off for the crowd, getting them riled up, their volume getting louder. they hooted and hollered and screamed for the lioness, the lioness! while khepri played disinterested, testing the tension of her bow’s string.
and then, the gate opens, and khepri’s heart leaps into her throat and falls out of her stomach at the same time. she slaps a hand on the egyptian’s chest to stop him from lunging forward, and his black eyes turn to her in confusion. the crowd peters into silence, nothing but murmurs.