Nadif, a standard-bearer in the Medjay, the desert police who controlled the approaches to the city of Thebes, loved to walk along the bank of the Nile as the sun began to set, changing the colours of both the city and the desert. He would stand by the bank, his left hand holding his staff of office, the other grasping the lead of his chained baboon; he'd half close his eyes and breathe in the delicious smells of the river, the fragrance of the wild flowers mingling with the stench of the rich mud and the odour of fish. He would listen to the various sounds: the calls of fishermen out on the river, the cries of swooping birds and the distant bull-like roars of the hippopotami. Tonight was no different. Whilst Baka, his trained baboon, peeled a piece of rotten fruit, Nadif stared across the Nile at the great City of the Dead, the Necropolis, where he was building his own tomb, preparing for that day when he would journey into the Eternal West.
'You can't see it from here.' Nadif always talked to Baka; in fact, the policeman found the baboon more intelligent than some of his men. 'But it's there, high in the cliffs, nothing special mind you, but I'm proud of it. There's a small temple outside, well, I call it a temple, and three chambers within. I wanted four, but the cost of these stonemasons ...' Nadif shook his head, he couldn't believe the way prices hadclimbed. He had remarked on the same when, the previous day, a holiday, he had taken his wife and children across to the City of the Dead to buy some funeral caskets.
The policeman squinted up at the sky. His tour of duty would end when the sun finally sank. He would return to the police barracks just within the city gates, share a jug of beer with his companions and make his way home. His wife had promised a special meal: slivers of goose cooked over an open grill and flavoured with sesame, followed by fruit in cream. Afterwards they would share a cup of Charou wine and, once again, admire the replica caskets they had bought the day before. Nadif believed that was the best way: you could order what you wanted, buy miniature replicas and bring them home to show your friends and neighbours. He was quite insistent that his casket must prove to his descendants, when they visited his tomb to check all was well, that he had been a high-ranking officer in the Medjay.
'Aye, and before that,' Nadif jerked back the chain, 'I was a spearman in the Swallows.'
He closed his eyes. For six years he had served as an infantryman, an auxiliary to one of the bravest generals in the Egyptian army, Chief Scribe Suten. Suten had commanded one of the new imperial chariot squadrons, new because the chariot they used was lighter, more mobile, yet tough enough to withstand the rigours of the Red Lands, those yawning deserts which stretched out on both sides of the great river.
'Come on, Baka.' Nadif turned and walked along the footpath. Now and again he would pause to study the papyrus groves, those lush islands of green along the banks of the Nile. If there was danger, that was where it would lurk; it was not unknown for a hippopotamus to come lumbering out or, worse still, one of those great river monsters, the crocodiles, who sometimes decided to go hunting inland. Nadif himself had come across the remains of a tinkerwho had made the mistake of sleeping on this very path, he had been seized by one of the demons of the river and pulled back into the deep mud which fringed the edge of the pool.
'All we found was a head,' he murmured. 'Or at least the top of it.'
However, Nadif's reason for the patrol was not crocodiles or hippopotami, but to protect the great mansions of the wealthy which stood in their own grounds behind high walls some distance from the Nile. The policeman was always full of wonderment at such places. 'Palaces in their own right,' was how he described them to his wife. They had great oaken gates, soaring plaster walls and, beyond them, delicious cool gardens with orchards, lawns and pools of purity fed by canals from the Nile. Nadif knew all the gatekeepers and porters. Now and again he would stop to share the local gossip as well as a pot of ale or a plate of sugared almonds or figs. Each of these mansions was owned by one of the great lords of Pharaoh Hatusu's court: Lord Amerotke, Supreme Judge in the Hall of Two Truths at the Temple of Ma'at in Thebes; General Suten, Nadif's old commander-in-chief; and Lord Senenmut, Grand Vizier or First Minister of the young queen, and, some whispered behind their giggles, Pharaoh's lover, a former stonemason, an architect, now busy building Egypt's greatness in another way.
Nadif strode on. He didn't envy these people, but he did enjoy peeping into their lives. He had been given this part of the riverbank to patrol because General Suten never forgot those who served with him. Nadif was responsible for the area between the North Gate of the city and the Great Mooring Place. He patrolled four times a day whilst his companions filled the gaps. There was very little trouble usually, now and again the odd suspicious character, but Nadif had worked out a clever system. He and his companions carried a conch horn, which they used to raise the alarm. The servants of these great mansions wouldthen gather at the gates to provide any help or support the Medjay needed.
Nadif paused; soon it would be time to go back. He stared up at the sky, where the evening star had appeared.
'We will walk on a little further.'
Baka grunted and scratched himself, then paused to look at something he had found on the edge of the path. This turned out to be nothing more than the white skin of a piece of fruit, which the baboon immediately ate. Nadif began to sing softly under his breath. Baka responded with grunts of pleasure. The animal liked to hear his master sing that old refrain, a marching song about how young maidens often sighed at the approach of the Swallows and hid their sloe eyes behind beautiful fingers to disguise their desire for these warriors of Egypt. Nadif knew the words by heart: he had sung them on the parade grounds of Thebes and along the dusty desert roads; he'd chanted them as they camped around fires in lonely oases or on the war barges as they coursed down towards the Third Cataract to bring the Kushites to battle.
As Nadif recalled the days of glory, he was so absorbed that, at first, he thought the yelling and screaming were part of his memories of the Kushites bursting into the camp and trying to burn their boats. However, Baka was dancing frantically at the end of his chain and Nadif shook himself from his reverie. The hideous screaming was coming from one of the mansions behind their high walls, their gateways masked by clumps of date and palm trees. Nadif hurried across. The screaming was now louder, broken by the sound of a wailing horn and the clash of a cymbal, the usual sign for the alarm being raised. Already the gateways were opening, and porters and servants came tumbling out, curious as to what was happening.
Nadif broke into a run, going as fast as his damaged leg would allow. Baka was jumping furiously on the end of his chain. The evening had changed. The sun was going downand darkness swirled like a cloak to cover the world. The power of Seth, the red-haired god, would make itself felt. A buzzard screeched overhead, as if it too was hurrying to what might be a slaughter, whilst the smell from the river was one of rottenness rather than sweetness. Nadif noticed that the gateway to General Suten's house was open, and servants holding torches were hurrying out, one blowing hard at a horn. They were looking for him. Nadif took his own conch horn, put it to his mouth and blew. The servants turned and came hurrying towards him.
'What is the matter? What is the matter?'
Nadif paused to catch his breath, aware of the sweat running down his face. Baka lunged on his chain and the servants, wary of the creature's sharp teeth, hung back.
'You must come!' An old man gestured with his hand. 'Officer Nadif, you must come now, it is the master!'
'You must come!' the old man gasped. Nadif could still hear that heart-wrenching screaming, as well as shouts and cries from the garden beyond.
'General Suten,' Nadif repeated. Heart in his mouth, he recalled the general's face, his sharp eyes, the sunken cheeks, that nose curved like the hook of a falcon. The old retainer, however, was already ushering the other servants back, shouting at Nadif over his shoulder to follow. The standard-bearer strode through the main gate. At any other time he would have paused to admire the beauty of the garden, the tall sycamore trees, the vine trellises, the lawns and flowerbeds, the coloured pavilions and small ornamental lakes. Now, however, grasping Baka's chain, he hurried along the basalt-paved pathway leading up to the front of the house with its spacious steps, elegant colonnades and porticoed walkways. He was aware of people hurrying around. Inside the house servants were already tearing their garments in signs of mourning. One young girl had clawed her cheeks and thrown dust on her hair.A dog raced up, ready to bite Baka, but the baboon lunged in attack, paws in the air, and the dog slunk back.
They crossed the small hall of audience with its central fire, past the raised eating area with its beautifully coloured couches and divans and through kitchens smelling sweetly of the recently cooked savoury meats. General Suten's household, his wife Lupherna, Chief Scribe Menna and his body servant Heby, along with other principal retainers, were clustered at the foot of the steps leading up to the roof terrace.
'What is the matter?' Nadif shouted, beating his stick on the floor.
Lupherna, the general's young wife, came towards him like a sleepwalker. She was dressed as if for a banquet, a beautiful thick oiled wig bound to her head by a silver fillet, her dark sloe eyes ringed with green kohl. The nails on her hands had been painted an emerald green whilst her lips were carmined, yet her eyes were rounded in fear and she played constantly with the necklace about her throat.
'Officer Nadif.' She put her hand out; the Medjay grasped her fingers, they were ice cold.
'My lady, what is the matter?'
She gestured at the stairs.
Nadif brushed by her. Heby and Menna seemed in shock. Heby tried to stop him, but Nadif pushed him aside. The steps were built into the side of the house just beyond the kitchen door. Nadif climbed them slowly, Baka whimpering at his side. He reached the top and stared across the roof terrace, an elegant place with its wooden balustrade running around the edge. He noticed the long couch under its drapes of linen, the beautifully polished acacia-wood tables and chairs. In every corner stood flowerpots. The air smelt sweetly of the exquisite perfume of the blue lotus. Oil lamps had been lit and placed in coloured glasses, and for a while Nadif could see nothing wrong. In the shadows and flickering light from the lamps he glimpsed a writing table,another table bearing a wine jug and goblets. Then, near the couch, he saw the body, tangled in linen sheets. From where he stood, Nadif could make out General Suten, his scrawny arms, the marching boots he always insisted on wearing rather than the sandals or slippers of a scribe.
'Be careful!' someone shouted.
'Be careful of what?' Nadif snapped back.
Nadif paused, one foot on the top step. Now he knew why Baka had whimpered. He grasped the baboon's chain more securely and, recalling his desert training, remained as still as a statue, eyes peering through the gloom. At first he could see nothing, but then one of the linen sheets on the floor moved. Nadif controlled his panic as the horned viper, long and grey, came slithering sideways towards one of the warming dishes placed on the ground. As he watched, he realised that the entire floor of the roof terrace seemed to be covered by these highly dangerous snakes. What he had first thought were shadows now began to move, many of the vipers curling out from beneath the bed.
Nadif had seen enough. He clattered down the stairs even as he recalled the story about General Suten and snakes, how the old soldier hated them. When he reached the foot of the steps, he tied Baka to a ring in the wall.
'Who's been up there?' he asked.
'I have.' Lupherna had overcome her shock and was crying quietly, the tears coursing down her face, smudging it with paint. 'I heard his screams.' She put her painted nails to her mouth. 'I was going to join him as I usually did. I heard those hideous screams! I came to the steps. Heby was on guard here. I climbed up ... well, we both did. My husband was on the edge of the bed, arms and legs flailing like a man trapped in a pool, unable to move. He had a snake here,' she pointed to her shoulder, 'and there was another on his leg. He was staring at me, Officer Nadif, and he was screaming.'
'Is this true?' Nadif turned to the plump-faced scribe.
'I was in the master's writing office,' Menna the scribe replied. 'I was working by the light of an oil lamp detailing how many jars we had taken from the oil press--'
'Yes, yes,' Nadif interrupted.
'Then I heard the screams. Is General Suten dead?'
'I don't know.'
Nadif now turned to Heby, a tall, handsome, middle-aged man. He could tell from Heby's face and the way he carried himself, that he was a former soldier.
'You are General Suten's body servant?'
'Aye, in peace and war. I have served him for twenty years.'
Nadif stared at the man's hard face, the cheeks slightly pitted, the nose broken and twisted. Heby's right ear was clipped at the top, whilst the wig he wore only half concealed the ugly scar which ran from the ear down to his neck.
'A Libyan.' Heby had followed Nadif's gaze; he touched the scar. 'Out in the western deserts he cut my ear, but I took his penis along with four others and burnt them as an offering to the god.'
'I'm sure you did.' Nadif stepped back. 'But shouldn't we do something about your master?'
'The snakes,' Heby replied. 'If we go on that roof we too will journey into the West. I don't think my master would want that.'
Nadif tried to hide his unease. He had met many people who had experienced the sudden death of a friend or relation, and their reactions were often surprising. Some became hysterical, others wept, a few became icy quiet; but these three were acting as if they were half asleep or drugged.
Nadif became aware of the clamour in the rest of the house. The hall of audience was filling with servants and the curious from other houses along the Nile. He immediatelyinstructed all those not belonging to General Suten's retinue to leave. He dispatched a runner into the city to inform his superiors what had happened, and tried to impose some order. He ordered a fire to be lit in the hall of audience and organised the servants, telling them to put on heavy boots and gauntlets, anything they could find to protect their feet, legs and arms. From a servant he borrowed some leather leg guards and an apron for his front, wrapping his hands and arms in rolls of coarse linen, then, armed with poles and garden implements, he and Heby led the servants on to the roof terrace. Some were terrified and refused to go, but Lupherna, who now asserted herself as head of the house, promised all those who helped a lavish reward, and Nadif soon had enough volunteers to help him clear the roof.
It was a grisly, gruesome business. The horned vipers had emerged from their hiding places, attracted by the heat and food. Most of them were sluggish. A few were killed but the servants were superstitious and regarded the snakes as a visitation from a god, so Nadif compromised, and where possible the horned vipers were placed in a leather bag and taken away. Eventually they reached the general's corpse. Nadif ordered it to be taken below, and it was laid on a divan in the hall of audience. Lady Lupherna knelt beside it. She took off her wig, placing her jewellery beside it, then rent her beautiful robe and, taking dust from the fireplace, sprinkled it over her head and body, staining her face, chest and shoulders. She knelt keening, rocking backwards and forwards, as Nadif laid out the corpse and stripped it of its robe.
The general had been an old man, well past his sixtieth summer, and his body had been lean and hard. Nadif counted that he must have been bitten a dozen times, each bite mark a dark bluish red, the skin around it deeply discoloured. The general's face had also become swollen, the hollow cheeks puffing out, the lips full, with white froth dribbling out of one corner. Nadif found thehalf-open eyes eerie, as if the general was about to look up at him and snap out an order. He had glimpsed Suten from afar in the uniform of a staff officer, his armour glittering, the gold collars of valour and the silver bees of courage shimmering in the sunlight. Now he looked like a pathetic old man caught in a dreadful death.
A local physician was summoned from a nearby house. He turned the corpse over.
'At least fifteen times,' he intoned. 'I'm not an expert; my specialities are the mouth and anus.'
At any other time Nadif would have laughed at this pompous physician.
'You don't have to be an expert,' he snapped, 'to count how many times a man has been bitten.'
'I'm merely stating,' the physician retorted. 'It's rather strange that General Suten didn't try to escape. He appears to have allowed himself to sit there and be bitten.'
Nadif narrowed his eyes. 'What are you saying?'
'What do you think I am saying?' the physician replied. 'Here is a man who, according to you, lay down on his bed and was bitten by a snake. What would you do, officer, if you were bitten by a snake?'
'But this man didn't. He sat there and allowed himself to be bitten another fourteen times.'
'How soon would the poison work?'
'A few heartbeats,' the physician replied. 'Perhaps he was in shock. That's what a rat does when it is bitten. It stays still and allows itself to be bitten again. I've seen it happen.'
'General Suten wasn't a rat!'
Nadif gestured at the physician to join him, and led him to the steps to the roof terrace.
'I'm not going up there.'
'Don't be stupid,' Nadif retorted. 'You will be well paid. Anyway, the snakes are gone. From what I gather, they are rather careful about who they bite!'
The physician's head came up aggressively.
'I'm only joking,' Nadif whispered. 'Follow me.'
When they reached the roof terrace, Nadif was pleased he had acted so quickly. Heby was now clearing up his dead master's papers and was instructing a servant to take the remains of the food and wine down to the kitchen.
'Leave those there,' Nadif ordered. Heby went to object, then shrugged. The servant left the tray on the table. Nadif ordered some oil lamps to be brought. He and the physician scrupulously examined the remains of the fish, bread and fruit, as well as the rich Canaanite wine in both jug and goblet. The physician didn't know what he was looking for. Nadif took the goblet of wine and poured the dregs on to a napkin, then felt the stain with the tips of his fingers.
'There, there,' he whispered.
'There, there, what?' the physician snapped.
Nadif handed him the napkin. 'Feel that.'
The physician did as he was told. 'Grains,' he said. 'Yes, as if some powder has been mixed with the wine.'
Nadif snatched up the goblet. He detected similar grains around the rim.
'It could be the wine,' the physician remarked. 'If it is drawn from the bottom of a cask, there is some silt.'
'I don't think so,' Nadif murmured. 'Smell the cup, physician.'
The self-proclaimed guardian of the anus did so. 'Oh, I know what that is.' He sniffed again. 'Any doctor would. I've mixed it myself. I served in the army as well, you know. There are certain wounds you can't heal.'
'What is it?'
'Poppy seed. I would wager my wife's honour on it. The general mixed poppy seed with his wine to make him sleep.'
'You mean he was poisoned?'
'No, I didn't say that. Poppy seed, used sparingly, will take away your cares and soothe you into a deep slumber. It will clear any pain you have of heart or body.'
Nadif turned round abruptly. Heby was looking at them strangely. Nadif waved him over.
'Where is it?' Nadif asked.
'Where is what?' Heby retorted.
'The poppy seed. Your master mixed poppy seed with his wine; he must have had a phial or pouch.'
'He never took poppy seed.'
Menna and Lupherna had also come up on to the roof terrace and joined the officer and the physician. 'General Suten never took poppy seed with his wine; there is no pouch up here,' the Chief Scribe declared.
'Are you sure?' Nadif asked.
'There is no poppy seed powder up here,' Menna repeated.
'Then if General Suten didn't mix the poppy seed with his wine, who did?' Nadif asked. He stared around. 'Let's search.'
Nadif went over to the bed. As he pushed aside the drapes, a leather pouch fell out. He exclaimed in pleasure. The pouch was small and tied at the neck, and it bore the insignia of the Temple of Isis. He undid the cord and handed it to the physician.
'Yes, it's crushed poppy seed,' the fellow replied. 'Lady Lupherna, you did not know your husband was taking this?'
She shook her head.
'He must have mixed it secretly,' Heby murmured. 'I knew he had visited the House of Life at the Temple of Isis, but ...'
'Did he mix it with his wine tonight, I wonder?' Nadif asked.
'I have a better question for you,' Menna hissed. 'Here we have General Suten, bravest of the brave, a man who hated snakes, who had this roof terrace searched this evening to make sure there were none, and who is suddenly found bitten at least fifteen times whilst his roof terrace is swarming with those vermin.'
All of Nadif's doubts and confusions disappeared. He realised why Menna, Heby and the Lady Lupherna had been acting so strangely when he'd first arrived.
'This was no accident,' he whispered. 'I remember the stories about General Suten's fear of snakes. He was murdered, wasn't he?'
The physician wiped his hands on his robe. 'Murdered!' he exclaimed. 'Is this the work of the red-haired god Seth? General Suten was a hero of Egypt. May Osiris have mercy on us all. If he was murdered, someone will burn for it.'
The Temple of Isis was a sprawling compound of storehouses, mansions, living quarters, gardens, orchards and pastures. It surrounded the temple proper, dedicated to the Mother Goddess who worked so hard to bring Osiris to life after he had been slain by his vindictive brother Seth. The Temple of Isis proclaimed itself an oasis of calm, a place of healing, with its Houses of Life and Learning, dedicated to the study of medicine and the care and strengthening of Pharoah's subjects. Near the House of Life, the academy where the young men studied to be physicians, stood the House of Twilight, a place where those in mortal fear of their lives, attacked by some malignant disease, could receive specialist help and attention. They called it the House of Twilight because those who lived there hovered on the border between life and death, ready to make the journey into the Eternal West to rejoice in the everlasting fields of the green-skinned Osiris. Near the House of Twilight were the mansions and living quarters of the chief physicians and their helpers, men and women of great learning who gathered all the knowledge available on disease and its cure. Nevertheless, the priests of the Temple of Isis believed a dark shadow lay across their temple.
No one was more concerned about this than High Priest Impuki, physician, priest and politician, who, during histen years of high office, had made the Temple of Isis even more famous. Now he sat in his small writing office next to the embalming rooms underneath the temple. It was a gloomy place even during daylight hours, as only a window high in the wall provided sunlight, but now, as darkness fell, the oil lamps and candles had to be lit. Impuki sat fanning himself and, as he often had during that evening, moaning bitterly about the heat. He prayed quietly that the hot season would soon pass, the Dog Star would appear and the Great Inundation would begin, when the rushing waters of the Nile would replenish themselves and refertilise the land. Until then the heat would be intense, the only relief being the cool of the evening and the fragrant breezes from the Nile.
However, at this late hour, Impuki was not so concerned about the heat as about the failure of the man opposite, Mafdet, Captain of the Temple Guard, to discover the whereabouts of four young besets, temple girls, who had disappeared. Impuki glowered at the fellow. When this crisis was over, he promised himself, he would tell Mafdet to exercise more and eat less. He noted the soldier's bulging belly, the fat glistening thighs, and the jowls appearing on either side of this veteran's face. Impuki did not like Mafdet. Impuki was a physician, a great healer. He prided himself on the fact that he could recognise a killer when he met one. In fact he secretly categorised people with the names of animals, birds and reptiles. The temple girls were beautiful moorhens; the priests were geese. The physicians? Well, some of them reminded Impuki of mastiffs or monkeys. But Mafdet? Impuki thought of him as a scorpion.
Mafdet was a dangerous man, a former soldier who had fought with the redoubtable General Suten out in the Red Lands, and had been given this post as Captain of the Temple Guard because of his friends in high places. He now sprawled insolently in a low-backed chair, his linen robe slightly stained. He had taken off his ornamental leatherbreastplate and war kilt, whilst his sword belt had been unhooked and slung on the floor beside him, and he sat, legs apart, tapping one sandalled foot against the tiled floor, as if impatient and resentful at being summoned here. Instead of staring at the High Priest, or adopting a more reverential pose, Mafdet enjoyed ignoring him. He stared up at the heavy-beamed roof or glanced across at the writing desk piled high with papyri and writing implements as well as the cups and phials Impuki used in the study of medicine.
'I'm sorry to call you here, Captain.'
'With all due respect, my lord, I don't think you are.' Mafdet turned his head and stared directly at the priest.
'I beg your pardon?' Impuki leaned his elbows on the table, joining his hands to conceal the anger in his face.
'You don't like me, my lord,' Mafdet said. His accent was harsh, lacking the soft culture of Thebes. He liked to emphasise that he came from the north, from the town of Henes, in the Delta, where life was not as comfortable and easy as it was in Thebes. 'My lord,' he repeated, wiping the sweat from his face with one hand and drying it on his robe, 'you don't like me, and now you hold me responsible.'
'And why don't I like you?' Impuki asked, intrigued at the captain's insistence on having this conversation.
'You don't like me, my lord, because I am a soldier, I come from the north, my manners are rough and I like my food and drink. I have as much experience of life as you do. I have served Pharaoh and her father most loyally. I have held positions of authority. I was an officer in the retinue of Lord Rahimere, once Grand Vizier of Egypt.' Mafdet could have bitten his tongue. Rahimere had died in disgrace, and it was best not to mention him. 'I was recommended to this post by the Commander-in-Chief General Omendap,' he added hastily. 'I am a good captain of the guard; nothing disturbs the peace in the Temple of Isis.'
'I don't like you,' Impuki lost his temper, allowing histongue to run away with him, 'because ...' He paused, fighting for breath. 'I think you like killing, Mafdet.'
The soldier snorted, shook his head and glared at the High Priest from under his eyebrows.
'And that's another thing I don't like about you,' Impuki added. 'The way you stare at me. As for keeping the peace in the temple ...'
Mafdet picked up his war belt and eased the sword in and out of its scabbard, a threatening gesture not lost on Impuki.
'I don't like you, Mafdet,' the High Priest decided to return to his confrontation, 'because I think you like killing. You are a bully, you swagger around, you drink and eat like a pig!'
'Do I do my job?' the soldier asked. 'Where have I failed? Is there any disturbance, do trespassers scale the walls? Are temple treasures stolen? Are the pilgrims and worshippers not carefully marshalled and controlled?'
'The hesets.' Impuki spat the words out. 'Four of our temple girls have disappeared, dancers and singers, consecrated by their parents to dance in the Holy of Holies and give praise to the Mother Goddess, virgins who have taken a vow never to leave the safety of these precincts. In the space of a few months four of these girls have disappeared without trace.'
'If a young woman has an itch--'
Impuki banged the desk with his fist. 'These are sacred girls, dedicated to the Goddess, not temple prostitutes! No one has seen them leave, they have not returned to their parents' houses. According to the High Priestess,' Impuki snorted in derision, 'they were happy enough.'
'So how is that my fault?' Mafdet sneered. 'How can I be held responsible for their disappearance? If you decide to scale the walls, my lord, and run away, what can I do to stop you?'
'Well, the walls could be patrolled.'
'They already are, by your priests and my guards.'
Impuki picked up the fan and wafted it in front of his narrow face. He could feel the anger seethe within him. The muscles at the back of his neck were tense, whilst his mouth was as dry as if he had been facing a desert wind. He closed his eyes and tried to control his breathing, and when he looked again, Mafdet was sitting, legs crossed, arms hanging down by his sides, staring up at the ceiling, humming quietly.
'I'll have you dismissed,' Impuki declared. 'I'll make an appeal to the court. I have the Divine One's ear. You'll be discharged to join the other lazy veterans in the beer shops of the Necropolis or the slums of Thebes.'
'If you do that, my lord,' Mafdet straightened the chair, 'I, too, will ask for an audience before the Divine One, or my patron General Suten, or perhaps Lord Senenmut, Pharaoh's Chief Minister. I will tell him about the secret doings of this temple.'
'The secret doings?'
'Well, my lord.' Mafdet sighed and patted his stomach, smacking his lips as if eager for a drink. He looked longingly at a jug standing near the doorway. 'It is remarkable how many men and women come to this temple and die in the House of Twilight.'
Impuki stopped wafting his fan. 'What are you implying? Our patients are old and very ill; they come here to die and we make their last days as comfortable as possible.'
'They still die,' Mafdet answered cheekily, 'and before they do, they write out their wills and leave most generous legacies to the temple.'
'We don't need their money and you know that,' Impuki answered. 'They wish to repay us for our care and skill. You will find this common practice in other temples; the income we receive from such legacies is a drop in the pool.'
'And there are other matters,' Mafdet continued.
'What matters?' Impuki could now feel the sweat soaking his body. The buzzing of the flies over a dish of sweetened dates seemed to grow, an irritating sound which set Impuki's teeth on edge; for the first time since this confrontation had begun, he felt a prick of fear in his gut. How much did Mafdet know? What was he hinting at?
'If you have anything to say, now is the time.' Impuki drew a deep breath. 'If not, I think it is about time to dispatch you to your duties. I want you to search the temple gardens, the groves, the undergrowth, the orchards, all those lonely places.'
'And what am I looking for, my lord? Do you think the temple girls are hiding there, giggling behind their fingers, eager to play hide and seek?'
'We have many visitors to this temple,' Impuki retorted. 'The sick in body and mind come here. They visit our schools of life, they make offerings in our chapels and seek the advice of our priests and physicians.' He took a deep breath. 'It is possible that we have admitted a sinner, a man who likes to prey on young women--'
'Nonsense,' Mafdet interrupted. 'One thing I know about our temple girls is that they have powerful voices. If any man touched them, their screams would be heard all over Thebes.'
'How do you know that, Captain? Have you tried to touch one yourself?'
'I have heard rumours.'
'The young women of this temple are dedicated to the Mother Goddess; they are not the playthings of a drunken soldier.'
'To echo your words, my lord, if you have any allegation to make, do so. I am friendly with these girls. I tease them. If I wished to hire one to satisfy my own pleasure, then I would do so honourably.'
'I'm giving you an order, Captain. Instead of sitting in your guard house tonight, search the temple grounds.It is months since the first heset disappeared; she may even have been a victim of a quarrel amongst the girls themselves. I fear you must search for a corpse.'
'At night?' Mafdet objected.
'You can carry a torch,' Impuki retorted. 'And it is something best done under the cloak of darkness so that we don't raise suspicion. Let us forget our quarrels. The parents of these girls are now petitioning the court. The Divine One herself has taken a great interest in their fate. As I said, I want you to search the orchards and groves, those lonely parts of the temple grounds. Look to see whether the ground has been disturbed, make a careful note of where you go. Tomorrow morning report on which areas you have covered.' Impuki waved his hand. 'Now you may go.'
Mafdet belched noisily. He slowly picked up his leather breastplate, kilt and war belt, gathering them into a bundle, scraped the chair back as noisily as possible and stamped out of the chamber. He climbed the steps into the temple grounds and stared up at the night sky. The heat had now gone, the breeze was cool and ripe with the smells of the temple gardens. In the distance he could hear the faint sound of the chapel choirs rehearsing for the morning sacrifice, and from the bull pens came the lowing of the cattle being prepared for the sacrifice once the sun returned. Servants hurried by, busy on their various tasks. The Temple of Isis rarely slept. There was bread to be baked, meat to be cooked, wine jars to be brought up from the cellar, temple forecourts to be cleaned and sprinkled, animals to be tended to, the countless tasks of a busy temple. Above all, there was the care of the sick, both those in the House of Twilight and those who would be allowed to sleep in the forecourts, the poor and crippled, who had spent money and time reaching the temple in the hope of a cure for their illness.
A group of young temple girls came by dressed in their billowing white robes and heavy black wigs. They chatted amongst themselves, shaking sistras or clatteringtambourines. One or two glanced flirtatiously at Mafdet before wafting by in a cloud of perfume. The Captain of the Guard watched them go, then slowly made his way through a grove of trees to his own small, square-built house which adjoined the temple barracks. He unlatched the door and went in, revelling in the smell of cooking oil which mingled with a small pot of cassia he had placed in the centre of the table. Mafdet liked things clean; he always insisted that the tables, benches and furniture, every pot and jug, be scrupulously scrubbed by his orderlies. Jars of perfume were to be left out to sweeten the air; as Mafdet always remarked, he'd had his fill of smelly latrines and pits. Now he was Captain of the Temple Guard he would have the same luxuries as those plump priests.
Mafdet went to the rear of the house, into the stone-floored bathroom and latrine. Using a thick cloth, he picked up a small pot of fire placed there and brought it back into the centre of the room. He placed it on the table, took off the lid and blew carefully. The flame, a wick floating in a small pool of oil, flared vigorously. Mafdet used this to light other lamps before returning to the bathroom, where he washed his hands and face in a bowl of herb-strewn water and wiped himself clean with a napkin. During the day he had a servant to tend him, but at night he liked to be by himself. He had business to do, plans to make, money to count. He thought of High Priest Impuki and smiled, baring his teeth like a dog. 'My lord Impuki this, my lord Impuki that!' he hissed. 'Well, my lord Impuki,' he filled a beer jug and sipped appreciatively, enjoying the harsh tang of the brew, 'perhaps I know more than you think.' He recalled the High Priest's angry face and his instruction to search the grounds. Mafdet sat down on a stool and laughed softly to himself. He would do nothing of the sort. If the temple gardens were to be searched it would be during the day. He had no intention of jumping to the High Priest's every whim and wish.
Mafdet finished his beer. He felt tired and sleepy. He recalled what Impuki had said about the temple girls, and smiled quietly to himself. As he thought of a certain heset's golden body squirming beneath him, his eyes grew heavy and he promised himself a short sleep before resuming his drinking. He put the beer cup down and went and lay on the long couch which served as his bed. For a while he drifted in and out of sleep. Memories came and went: of the chaos caused by Rahimere's fall, followed by service out in the Red Lands; of sleeping with one eye open, ever ready for those Libyan marauders to come slipping out of the darkness. Ah well, that was all over; now a life of comfort beckoned. Mafdet fell asleep.
He was slapped awake brutally, startled by a cup of cold water thrown into his face. He lurched forward, only to discover that his hands were bound above his head whilst his legs were held fast by cords which bit into his ankles. He tried to speak, but the linen cloth stuffed into his mouth made him gag and fight for breath. Mafdet turned his head. Was this some sort of nightmare? Yet he was in his own house; the oil lamp still glowed. He glimpsed a movement, and a shadow detached itself from the darkness and came towards him. Mafdet gazed in terror as the head came into view, the face hidden behind a jackal mask. The intruder was cloaked in black, and the sinister features of that mask, the glittering eyes, cruel snout and sprouting ears, reminded Mafdet of the city executioner. He shook his head, trying to understand who this terrifying figure could be, and why it was here.
'Mafdet.' The voice was low and throaty. The Captain of the Guard couldn't decide if it was female or male. 'Mafdet, you have sinned against the Goddess.'
Mafdet shook his head and strained with all his might against the cords around his wrists and ankles, but they were tightly bound and the cords held. He struggled, trying to lift his body, but it was impossible.
'Do you remember, Mafdet?' The voice came like an echo in a dream. 'Do you know what happens to those who commit sacrilege against the Goddess?' Mafdet could only stare at this monstrosity from the Underworld. 'You have to be punished, Mafdet.'
The Captain of the Temple Guard felt his tunic being raised. He tried to scream as his loincloth was wrenched away, and his body convulsed in agony as the knife, pressed against his genitals, thrust deep.
Copyright © 2004 by P. C. Doherty