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Authors: P. C. Doherty

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BOOK: The Assassins of Isis
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‘You sent him on an errand, don't you remember, my lord?'
‘Yes, it was a message,' Amerotke agreed, ‘but not a journey! I hope he is all right.'
The Chief Justice strode towards the door, straining his ears; he could easily distinguish Shufoy's voice amongst the rest. Amerotke always worried about the dwarf who had become his companion and manservant. Shufoy was one of the ‘Rhinoceri'; his nose had been removed for a crime he hadn't committed and he'd been banished to live with the other Rhinoceri in their dusty, dirty village many miles from Thebes. He had appealed against his punishment. Amerotke had investigated the case and found a hideous miscarriage of justice had taken place. As recompense, he had taken Shufoy into his household, and the little man had repaid him with undying loyalty and friendship. Despite his appearance, Shufoy had a keen mind and nimble wits, and was a constant companion to Amerotke and his family. He was forever plotting schemes to make himself wealthy. He had trained as a physician, sold medicines, proclaimed himself to be an astrologer and even offered to tell fortunes. Of course, all the schemes had failed, but not without provoking a great deal of laughter from Amerotke and the rest. Shufoy was a pleasant antidote to the pomposity and burdensome protocol of the court.
Now Amerotke wanted to discuss certain matters with Shufoy, and at the same time he was fearful for the little man's safety. Shufoy always accompanied his master through the streets of Thebes, and Amerotke had seen various merchants study the dwarf carefully. They viewed him as a grotesque. It was not unknown for the likes of Shufoy to be captured, bagged, bundled aboard a barge and taken either up or down river to be sold to some travelling
troupe of itinerant players to serve as a mascot or fairground attraction.
‘Don't worry,' Prenhoe called out. ‘I'm sure Shufoy will be safe.'
Amerotke turned and stared back at the place of judgement. He went over and picked up the pectoral, the chain of office, the precious rings and bracelets, placed them in a coffer on the table and locked it securely. Still anxious about Shufoy, he sat down on a cushion, stretching his legs and arms, ignoring the curious looks of the scribes, who wanted to get away. They were hungry and eager to visit one of the temple cookshops.
‘I wish to see the judge!' The woman's high-pitched voice echoed from the portico. ‘I wish to see Chief Justice Amerotke. Let go of me! I am Lady Nethba.'
Amerotke groaned and put his face in his hands.
‘You should see her.' Prenhoe hurried over and crouched before the judge. ‘I didn't tell you this, master, but last night, I had a dream. You were walking by the river bank. Shufoy and I were riding on the back of a crocodile, which plunged into the water. I thought I was going to drown when I saw the ibis bird above me. I opened my eyes—'
‘Were you still asleep?' Amerotke asked crossly.
‘Yes, I was.'
‘So how could you open your eyes? Never mind.' Amerotke patted Prenhoe's knee. ‘Bring the lady in.'
The young scribe hurried away and returned with the lady Nethba. Amerotke had glimpsed her on other occasions but had never spoken to her. A tall, harsh-faced woman with the imperious features of an eagle, glittering eyes, sharp nose and a jutting mouth, her cheeks slightly furrowed, she had rather strange hands, her fingers so long and thin they reminded Amerotke of a spider's legs. She was dressed in a light blue cloak, the hood pulled across her head because she wore no wig, and her only concession to fashion was some face paint on her cheeks and black
kohl under her eyes; this had been done hastily and was beginning to run. She extended a hand as Amerotke went to meet her. The judge grasped this and brushed her fingers against his lips, a gesture of respect for this daughter of one of Egypt's greatest architects.
‘My lord Amerotke, I am so pleased you will see me.'
‘Not here.'
Amerotke smiled. Calling for Prenhoe to bring him a jug of sweet ale, cups and apple bread, the judge took the lady Nethba into the small whitewashed room which served as his writing office and private shrine, a comfortable chamber with a desk, stools, chair and a bench along the far wall. He tried to keep it as clear as possible, a place where he could sit and think. He courteously showed Lady Nethba to a stool and pulled across another so that he could sit opposite. They exchanged pleasantries while a temple usher served the ale and bread. Amerotke was pleased to eat and drink; his throat was dry, whilst he hadn't broken his fast, having been summoned from his house long before dawn by Pharaoh's messenger.
‘My lady.' Amerotke put his cup on the floor and leaned over to clasp one of her hands ‘It is good to see you. You wish to speak with me?'
‘It is my right,' Lady Nethba replied. ‘As a daughter of an Imperial Fan Bearer, I have the right to appeal to Pharaoh's principal judge. My father was given that title and privilege for his work in the Valley of the Kings. Oh, my lord, I am so pleased that you caught the villains responsible for those robberies.' She would have carried on, but Amerotke squeezed her hand.
‘My lady, time is short. How is your father the lord Sese?'
‘He is dead.'
‘I beg your pardon?'
Lady Nethba's lower lip trembled. ‘He travelled into the Far West a few days ago. He had complained of pains in his
belly. I had taken him to the Temple of Isis. My lord, he was in good health.'
‘Your father had passed his sixtieth year.'
‘He was still vigorous,' Lady Nethba retorted, ‘and all he had were gripes in the belly. They wouldn't let me see him. They took him into the House of Twilight to examine his stomach. He was there four days. I received a message that my father was dying. I was preparing to go there when another messenger arrived: Father was dead. By the time I reached the temple, all I had to collect was my father's corpse. Oh, and a letter he had signed and sealed leaving a generous bequest of gold and silver to the Temple of Isis.'
‘And?' Amerotke asked.
‘I don't believe it, my lord. I believe my father was murdered, killed by those priests and physicians. In his fevered state he was encouraged to sign away part of our wealth.'
‘But the Temple of Isis is famous for its skill and its riches. My lady, surely you misunderstand them? Your father—'
‘My father is now being embalmed. I have appealed to the Divine One.'
At any other time Amerotke would have closed his eyes and groaned, but he wished to remain tactful and diplomatic.
‘I have asked the Divine One for his death to be investigated. I have asked for you, my Lord Judge, to study the circumstances and tell me what happened. I know the Divine One will not refuse me.' Lady Nethba's face broke into a smile. She thrust her ale cup into Amerotke's hand. ‘I'm pleased justice will be done.'
‘Where is your father's corpse?'
‘At the Temple of Isis; it lies in the Wabet, the Place of Purification, awaiting the embalmers. I have asked my own physician to be present when this takes place.' Lady Nethba sniffed and blinked quickly. Despite her apparent arrogance and harshness, Amerotke could appreciate this
noblewoman's love for her father and her deep anguish at his unexpected death.
‘I promise you,' the judge held up his hand, ‘I will do what I can.'
When Lady Nethba had left, Amerotke sighed and loosened the sash round his robe. He felt damp with sweat and realised how agitated he had become. He tried not to think of what was happening to the prisoners. Only two would survive, young women who had been sentenced earlier to life imprisonment at one of the prison oases far out in the eastern desert. He and Lord Valu were to question these later.
Amerotke had brought those involved in the tomb robberies to judgement, but he remained uneasy. He believed there was more to the matter than he had discovered, such as those shadowy figures known as the Sebaus, who were responsible for the actual robberies and were therefore more deeply involved than those who had merely received and sold the plunder. He had warned the Divine One about his suspicions but Hatusu had only half listened; she was more concerned with what goods had been recovered. Amerotke had spared the two women, former courtesans, in order to explore his doubts further, but the rest would experience hideous execution. Yet what choice did he have? All those involved in the robberies had committed treason, blasphemy, sacrilege and, above all, murder. They had been responsible for the deaths of at least eight mortuary guards, whose corpses had been found in rocky culverts near the Royal Valleys.
A knock at the door startled him. Asural, still dressed like the war god Montu, leather helmet under his arm, marched into the chamber.
‘The criminals, my lord, have gone, handed over to the executioners. Lord Valu has granted your request: each prisoner will be given a cup of drugged wine before sentence is carried out.'
The captain of the guard paused, alarmed by Amerotke's pale, drawn face. Usually the judge was strong and vibrant; now he crouched on his stool like a man full of sorrow.
‘My Lord …'
‘I am well, Asural. You know what it's like: nobody deserves death, not really.'
‘They did.' Asural pointed to the tray on the floor. ‘I'll send a temple usher in for that. You need food, tender lamb grilled over charcoal, with a goblet of cool charou. You should eat and rest. The court will not reconvene during the midday heat; perhaps you should go for a walk, then sleep?'
Amerotke, embarrassed by such care, thanked him hurriedly. Asural left, and the judge crossed to a tall reed basket in the corner. He undid the seals, lifted the lid and took out the copper container which held the court's scroll for the next case.
‘Poor General Suten,' he murmured. ‘Bitten to death by snakes.' He removed the copper top and shook out the scroll, then unrolled it and read the few paltry facts he had gleaned. The door opened behind him.
‘Shufoy, where have you been?'
There was no reply, and Amerotke turned swiftly. Shufoy was never so silent! His heart leapt as the two assassins, garbed in black from head to toe, separated, crouched and edged towards him, daggers out. The Chief Justice backed against the wall, grasping the copper container. The assassins, one of whom had kicked the door shut behind him, followed warily. Amerotke, shocked, was only aware of their soft breath, the shuffling of padded feet and the eyes of these killers gleaming between the black folds across their face.
‘What is it?' Amerotke rasped, desperate for time. ‘Who sent you?'
‘The dead,' a voice behind the mask grated. ‘They die, you die. For you, judge, this is the day of fiery judgement.'
‘They were blasphemers, robbers.'
‘No, judge, they were our friends, our allies.'
Amerotke started forward, swinging the copper cylinder. One assassin lunged, dagger snaking out. Amerotke turned and, using the container like a club, fended off the blow. The assassin darted back, and his companion sprang forward. Amerotke could feel the sweat bursting out, wetting his face; his throat had gone strangely dry, and he found it hard to breathe. The assassins were waiting: one mistake and they would be in, those wicked curved daggers ripping his flesh.
‘My lord!' The door to the chamber swung open, and a temple usher entered holding a tray. He took one look at the scene, dropped the tray and ran screaming down the Hall of Two Truths. The assassins, desperate, closed once more, but Amerotke, anger now replacing fear, moved quickly from side to side, recalling all the tricks he had been taught during his military training. The assassins, unnerved, drew back and edged towards the door, where there were the sounds of voices and hurried footsteps. Convinced their attack had failed, they lunged once more, driving Amerotke back, before fleeing through the doorway. Amerotke slumped to the floor even as Asural and the temple guards burst in. The judge convinced the captain he was well, urging him to pursue the attackers even though he realised it was futile. The Temple of Ma'at was a warren of passageways with many doors to its outer courtyards and gardens.
Amerotke sat gasping for breath, aware of the noise outside his chamber. Asural was calling for more guards, scribes and acolytes to help him in his search.
‘They've escaped.' The captain came back into the chamber. ‘But they left this.' He dropped into Amerotke's hand a scarab; the small stone, polished until it shone, bore the hieroglyph of a man kneeling holding a bow.
‘The Sebaus,' Amerotke whispered. ‘I've come across them before in my investigations. They take their name from demons. They are professional assassins; they may have been involved in the plundering of the tombs.'
‘Are you hurt?' Asural asked.
‘Only my pride.' Amerotke grinned up at him. ‘And before you speak, Captain, it was my mistake. If I've heard you once, I've heard you a hundred times. I should have guards outside my chamber. Well,' Amerotke got to his feet, ‘I'm half convinced you're right.'
He sat on a stool whilst Asural organised ushers to tidy the room, clear the mess from the fallen tray and bring more food and wine. A temple officer came hurrying in to announce that the temple grounds had been searched but there was no trace of the assassins.
BOOK: The Assassins of Isis
5.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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