Ahmen moved closer. “Your Majesty,” he murmured, “the woman carries a message worth hearing.”
Ramesses caught Ahmen’s private look, filled with warning. So be it. He would hear the woman out.
“Lady of Kadesh,” he said, resting his hands on his hips, “despite your evidence, I do not believe you are who you claim to be. By coming to us, you have made your life forfeit. You are granted enough time to tell us your message, then you will die by our hand. You may rise.”
She lifted her head and came to her feet. Despite her disheveled state, the woman was a rare beauty; her features a captivating blend of fragility and strength. Defensive, he crossed his arms over his chest, refusing to let himself be swayed by her obvious charms. Her gaze drifted to the dagger on his hip, then continued up until her eyes met his—as an equal. He held her gaze, challenging her to look away. When she didn’t, he rode the feeling she ignited within him, a blend of outrage and pleasure, secretly admiring her fearlessness.
“Taker of my life,” she began, her command of Egyptian flawless, her accent regal, “know the woman before you is Istara, Daughter of Baalat, firstborn child of King Amunira and Queen Azfara of Kadesh, wife of Crown Prince Urhi-Teshub, son of King Muwatallis. I have been chosen by the goddess Baalat to deliver her prophecy to you. On this day, the goddess tells us men have reached a crossroads, and if they continue on their current path, a great calamity will befall all of us, friend and foe.
“This cold, dark weather is just the beginning; the gods will soon send plagues, fires, famine, and earthquakes. Cities and kingdoms will burn. Mothers will eat their children. Every empire, except one, will be brought to its knees. That empire is Egypt. She will provide succor to those fleeing the devastations of the north. But today, Egypt is in great peril, and if she does not heed our warning, she too will be destroyed—and without Egypt, the world will fall into anarchy.
“The two men you met this morning, pretending to be Hittite deserters, were not mere soldiers, but powerful lords, rulers of cities themselves. They threatened the succession of the usurper Hattusilis when they supported Urhi-Teshub’s right to Hatti’s throne; it was they who came to Pharaoh to misinform His Majesty. Their entire households made hostage to ensure their lie would not be recanted. Your calm arrival today proves those brave lords suffered unspeakable agony, lying to the end, to protect those they loved, granting Muwatallis the advantage he now presses.
“As we speak, twice the number of your men are fording the Orontes River with the intention of ambushing this camp while you are unprepared and isolated from the rest of your divisions. Muwatallis has ordered his men to kill every man, woman, and child. No one is to be spared, not even the royal family.”
She sank to her knees before him, her face turned upward, her eyes never leaving his.
“If His Majesty is able to survive this day, then I will have done what I have been asked, ensuring the survival of many others in the years to come. If my life is the price to be paid for this act, then I accept my death with honor. My lord King of Egypt, I am ready to meet your blade, but as you take away my final breath, please do not forget my last words, given at the cost of my life. Arm yourselves. I beg you.”
A stunned silence descended. No one moved. Astonished, Ramesses stared at the woman kneeling before him, her eyes sliding down to the floor, awaiting her execution, quiet as a lamb.
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