The clack of her heels echoed through the great stone room beneath the Dome of St. Peters in the heart of Rome. Fashion-conscious Romans stared at the Egyptian, clothed in traditional pleated linen garb, gold jewelry, and heavy, stylized makeup. I'm not supposed to be here! Rashida thought, looking around the imposing edifice with great curiousity and some little panic. All will be well, child, said the other voice in her head, the one that had been with her ever since that night on the train.
Rashida closed her cabin door and leaned against it with relief. After all the turmoil in the city and the crowds on the vehicle, solitude was most welcome. Her sloe-eyed gaze drifted to the window, where the slightest band of pale rose lingered along the horizon, seen in a glimpse through a broad mountain pass, and she wondered if Cassie were watching this sunset as well. She trusted she had left her friends in good hands, at least, and their huge group would be an event in tiny Siwa. No, if she wanted to get to the heart of the Massri mystery, she needed to visit Siwa alone. Siwa, where she had been born, so long ago. Siwa, where she was recruited by the Massris and the Massri rebels. Siwa, where she had left her parents and siblings behind, and where the mechanical Rashida thought the key to the rebellion and its betrayal lay.
She took her time disrobing and performing evening ablutions. This body, human though it looked, was something more. Her long training had taught her to respect it as an actual temple, and the habit remained, shaped long ago in this world but a short few months ago in her mind and memories. Stripping off her clothing, she moved gracefully through a series of cat-like stretches that ensured her body remained limber while helping her mind calm and center. After a brief shower, she began her daily grooming routine. Without her servants, the process took a good two hours as she shaped and repolished nails, painstakingly removed any stray hairs that marred the golden-bronze expanse of her skin, buffed off any roughened spots on feet or hands, and glazed her body with a coating of expensive oil. Her scrutiny in the mirror contained nothing of pride, but more the careful examination of a craftsman checking her work.
Next, she washed her hair, dried the gleaming tresses, anointed those while damp with a different exotic oil, and plaited them carefully into a close yet elaborate hairdo suitable for sleeping. She ignored the ache in shoulders and arms as she plaited, bound, and pinned hair into place. Finally, she smoothed the makeup from her face, carefully removing every trace before washing with clear soap and dabbing on yet another expensive cream. A last look brought a smile to the image in the mirror as she paused to run her hands down her body in wonder. I knew I would inhabit a goddess, but never expected this! Chuckling slightly at her own light-mindedness, she shrugged a gauzy shift on over her head, draping a matching robe about her shoulders and securing it all with a broad satin sash.
She sat gingerly on the edge of the bed, testing the mattress and disliking the idea that she had to sleep where others had slept before, the unyielding mattress increasing her discomfort. Stars stood bright in the blackness outside the window. Perhaps I should wait, she thought as she rose and opened a travel case, lifting out a tray to expose the vials nestled in soft satin below. Her long, brown fingers caressed the glass as she calculated the time to arrival at her destination. I should start now, though, in case the timing is not exact with these new extracts. Satisfied with that excuse, she began the preparation, mixing, sniffing, and drawing the resulting product into a syringe. Recalling the discomfort of the mattress, she piled pillows, clothes, bedcovers - anything soft - onto the bed before reclining and using the syringe.
The drugs took hold, drawing her under harshly and abruptly. She tried to relax into the experience, holding the face of a dark, laughing-eyed man in her mind, but something was not right. This mixture was not the accustomed dose. Almost, she felt his presence. Almost, she was able to nestle close to her beloved, bodies separated by miles, but minds touching, closer than any two ordinary people could be. Almost...
But a golden glow grew brighter, washing out the man's face, blinding her mind's eye. Ah, child, you reach out, but not to me. Were you not taught better? I indulged your preferences once. But matters more serious than your dalliance are pressing. You have avoided me long enough. Now you will show me what you know. Now you will do my bidding. And her will was swept away easily, as a flood sweeps a feather, carried on the current of an alien mind and will. Her mental cry, Taraz!, fell into the vast emptiness of the universe, and she was swallowed up.
This is a mistake, Rashida declared mentally, trying to make the alien goddess understand, They cannot help you here. But Ma'at did not deign to answer. Rashida felt the heat as her skin began to glow, feeling like molten metal sheathing her body, eyes burning as they, too, took on an otherworldly light. The tremendous pressure of the goddess' presence burst forth, filling the dome with golden light, casting a tall, black shadow of a winged woman stretching back towards the doors. Rashida could see people turning to stare but was helpless to control anything about her body as the goddess exerted her will.
"I am Ma'at, seeker of truth, bringer of justice. This world is in peril. I would speak to the God of this place, ruler of this world. Hidden One, come forth! For we must ally to protect your world, else it be destroyed, and the universe with it. Come forth! I, Ma'at, demand an audience!"