âProfessional killers,' Amerotke declared. âThey come and go like the desert wind. They will take off their black garb and mingle with other plaintiffs and pilgrims. Now, leave me for a while.'
Asural and the guards left. Amerotke heard the captain issue orders so that the chamber and the passageways to it were guarded. He ate the food, drank some of the wine and lay down on the couch. He didn't want to think why the assassins had come; that would have to wait.
He seemed to have slept for only a few heartbeats when he heard the door open and, struggling up, stared at Shufoy. The dwarf stood like the Prophet of Doom garbed in his striped desert wanderer robe; his little scarred face, framed by a shock of iron-grey hair, was creased in concern.
âMaster, what has happened? I heard â¦' For such a small man, Shufoy had a deep, carrying voice. âI've told you before.' Shufoy pointed his staff at Amerotke. âThe lady Nofret will not be pleased. You have guards, you should use them!'
âThe lady Nofret will not be told.' Amerotke drained the last of the wine from his cup. âMore importantly, where have you been?'
The judge was eager to divert his manservant.
Shufoy opened the leather pannier across his shoulder and took
what looked like a lump of charcoal, an oval
piece of black rock. He handed this to Amerotke, who exclaimed at its heavy weight.
âYou see,' Shufoy gabbled, âit's a sacred stone which fell to earth. It came from beyond the Far Horizon, a gift from the gods. If I smelt it down and break it up, I can sell small pieces as scarabs to protect pilgrims against all dangers.'
Amerotke stared at the piece of hard black stone. The more he examined it, the more he became convinced it was not so much a rock as a piece of unknown metal. He recalled travellers' stories of how the Hittites in the north had invented a new form of metal which could smite through copper and bronze. Was this it? He'd also heard stories of fiery rocks falling into the desert burning hot to the touch. Many regarded these rocks as sacred, more precious than gold.
âI bought it from a scorpion man,' Shufoy explained. âI had to haggle for hours, and pour a large jug of wine down him, before he agreed to a sale. Now, master.' Shufoy's voice rose to a wail, clearly annoyed at Amerotke's attempt to distract him.
âAh, very well.' Amerotke got to his feet, tied his sash round himself, checked on the guards outside and closed the door again. He sat on a footstool while Shufoy perched on the chair. Amerotke stared at the great ugly scar where Shufoy's nose and upper lip had once been.
âI'm sorry.' The judge smiled. âShufoy, you are correct. If you had been here, those assassins would never have attacked.'
âWhy?' the dwarf asked. âWhy did they come?'
âThey were sent,' Amerotke explained.
âBut I thought you had caught the tomb robbers?'
âNo, Shufoy, I caught some of them, but perhaps not the leaders.' Amerotke held up his hands. âAcross the Nile lies the City of the Dead, the sepulchres of very wealthy noblemen, court officials, generals and priests. Beyond the Necropolis lie the Valleys of the Kings and Queens, the
Houses of Eternity, the Mansions of a Million Years, where the great ones sleep and dream their eternal dreams. Now, Shufoy, these tombs are the glory of Egypt, but they are also treasure houses. They contain caskets, coffers, precious jewels, chairs and beds, pots of exquisite perfume, chests full of every form of treasure, bars of gold and nuggets of silverâ'
âI know that,' Shufoy intervened.
âNow the Divine One,' Amerotke continued evenly, âhas tightened her grip on the neck of Egypt. She is the ruler, the Mistress of the Great House, but to achieve that, she has had to fight enemies both here and abroad.'
âShe was distracted.'
âShe was distracted,' Amerotke agreed, âand so was Lord Senenmut, as well as others of the Royal Circle. Egypt is like a garden. You tend one patch and the weeds start to grow in another. A great conspiracy was formed; it included merchants, officials, soldiers and some of the custodians of the Necropolis. Now tomb robbing is like the desert, it's always with us, but this was more serious. Many of the imperial tombs are hidden, their entrances concealed and closely guarded; even if you broke into one of them, you'd need a map to find your way through.'
âAnd they did this?' Shufoy asked.
âYes, they did. Now, as you know, I investigated their crimes. I found one merchant more greedy than the rest; a man who stupidly tried to sell some of the plundered treasures in Memphis. I arrested him and his brother and took them to the House of Death, where the imperial torturers questioned them closely. They broke and provided more names. Entire families were involved.'
âWhat was the result?'
Amerotke waved a hand. âYou saw what happened this morning, or rather you heard: the tomb robbers were arrested and sentenced.'
But not all of them
âNo.' Amerotke rubbed his face. âI have said to the Divine One and to Lord Senenmut that two problems remain: the leaders and these assassins. In my searches I found that the leaders had hired the Sebaus not only to protect them but to steal the treasure and dissipate it through various cities of Egypt.'
âSo the game is not finished.' Shufoy leaned forward, almost tipping off the chair.
âNo, it's not finished.'
Amerotke was about to continue when there was a loud knocking on the door and Lord Senenmut entered. Behind him thronged members of the Imperial Bodyguard, âBraves of the King', warriors who had excelled in battle, killing an enemy in hand-to-hand fighting and taking his head as a trophy. They all wore the distinctive blue and gold headdress, and each wore a collar with a silver bee in the centre, the highest award for bravery that could be won by an Egyptian soldier.
âMy lord,' Amerotke bowed, âhave you come to arrest me?' He noticed how each of the soldiers carried a shield, as well as an oval war club and curved daggers thrust in the sashes around their waist.
âI heard about the attack.' Senenmut told the guard to stay outside the chamber. âI thought this business was finished.' He held up a leather bag. âNow we have proof it is not.' He cupped Amerotke's cheek in one hand. âYou are unmarked? The Divine One was concerned.'
âI am well,' Amerotke replied. He pointed to the leather bag. âBut you are not just here about my welfare.'
âThe treasure from the looted tombs?' Senenmut asked.
âIt is kept below in the strongroom.'
Senenmut asked to see it. Amerotke took him out of the chamber and along the passageway. He noticed how the court was beginning to fill again. Scribes and priests, having satisfied their hunger in the temple cookshops and rested in the shade of the gardens, were now returning to the hall
for the second session of the court, which would last until dusk. All these hurriedly stood aside as Pharaoh's First Minister and principal judge, ringed by the Braves of the King, hurried along the gleaming passageways and down the steps to the great cavernous storeroom below. The doors were guarded by sentries wearing the regalia of the goddess Ma'at. Amerotke took the keys from the officer of the guard, broke the seals, unlocked the doors and led Senenmut in.
The storeroom was long and low-ceilinged. They waited for a while as the torches fixed into the wall were lit to reveal heaps of treasure, caskets and coffers which had been seized from the temple robbers. For a while Senenmut, whistling under his breath, moved amongst these, examining the beautiful mirrors and mirror cases decorated with coloured glass and semi-precious stones; ointment cases, gloves, sandals, diadems, ivory bracelets, pectorals of blue faience, collars of gold, statues and scarabs, earrings and bracelets, ritual couches, headrests carved in gold, exquisitely fashioned funeral boats, silver-plated shrines, canopic jars and dozens of shabtis, carved statues plated with precious metals which represented the servants of the dead person. Amerotke explained how each item had been carefully listed and noted, even the chairs of state and the beautiful miniature chariots. Senenmut ran his hand through a box of jewels, letting them cascade back in a glittering hail of colour.
âIt was easy enough,' Amerotke explained. âOnce we knew what had been stolen it was only a matter of matching the list. We managed to seize about three quarters of what was taken. Some of it is damaged, but once things are sorted and purified, they can be returned to their rightful owners.'
Senenmut took Amerotke by the arm and led him over to a small polished table under a cresset torch. He undid the sack he was carrying and gently eased out a solid gold pendant depicting a squatting king with a string of pure pearls tied round his neck. The pendant weighed heavy; the pearls were particularly exquisite.
âAnother piece found?' Amerotke asked.
âThis,' Senenmut tapped it with his fingers, âwas not found in any local marketplace but in northern Canaan, a town in the Amki region.'
Amerotke stared in disbelief.
âOne of our envoys discovered it. This means the temple robbers were able to take their ill-gotten gains beyond our borders.'
âBut there are guards, customs posts,' Amerotke exclaimed. âTreasure like this would be hard to conceal. It would be highly dangerous to transport such goods.'
âWell it was,' Senenmut replied drily, his voice echoing through the chamber. âHere is a golden pendant which weighs as heavy as any sword. It once belonged to the Divine One's grandfather and was buried in his tomb, yet it was taken out, carried through Egypt and offered for sale in a Canaanite town.'
Amerotke stared in disbelief at this beautiful object, precious for so many reasons.
âCan you imagine,' Senenmut continued, âwhat this means to the Divine One, the treasures of her ancestors, the glory of Egypt, being sold abroad?' He paused. âIt also means that these robbers were arrogant. This treasure was part of a hoard. If the carrier had been caught by a customs official or border guard, or the chariot squadrons which patrol the Horus road, it would have meant certain death. You were correct, Amerotke: only part of this gang has been destroyed.'
âWe interrogated them, but there were no further names?' Amerotke shrugged. âYou don't need to answer that. Of course the leaders wouldn't let their identities be revealed. They know all there is to know about the Valley of the Kings, the secret entrances to the royal tombs and the way each sepulchre is laid out. They also have the means to have such treasure safely removed from Egypt. But who? The only survivors are those two women whose sentences were
commuted to life imprisonment in a prison oasis.' Amerotke stared round at the treasures; his eye was caught by a particularly exquisite silver statue of a crouching leopard. Its skin was of gold, the spots precious stones, with two large rubies as eyes. âBut why,' he asked, âstir up a hornets' nest by sending assassins against me? A warning? Punishment?'
âOr,' Senenmut added, âbecause they are frightened you might know something which could lead you to the leaders of this sacrilegious sect. You must ask yourself: what do you know? Go carefully through your records. Is there anything you have missed?'
He walked away and then came back. âOh, by the way, I bring not only the good wishes and praises of the Divine One. You have been approached by the Lady Nethba?' Amerotke nodded. âThe Divine One wishes you to visit the Temple of Isis.' Senenmut dug underneath his robe and brought out a scroll, which he handed to the judge. âYou are to enquire about the Lady Nethba's father, and there is further business: four hesets of that temple have disappeared.'
âAnd?' Amerotke snapped sharply. âThere is something else?'
âYes, the captain of the guard at the Temple of Isis has been brutally murdered. They found his corpse, hands and feet bound; his testicles and heart had been removed, and he'd been left to bleed to death.'
âMafdet!' Amerotke exclaimed. âThat was the name of the captain of the Isis temple guard, yes?' He paused. âHis name was mentioned in my investigations into the robbery of the tombs, just a passing reference. Mafdet once served in the Necropolis as a guard. He was also a member of Vizier Rahimere's retinue before that great lord's disgrace. I wonder if there is any connection between his death and the robberies?'
âDid he fall under suspicion?'
âNo, no.' Amerotke shook his head. âIt was just that I drew up a list of all those who had served in the garrison at the
Necropolis, and I remember Mafdet because of his link with Rahimere. He was also recommended by General Suten, who, as you know, died so hideously.' Amerotke ran a finger around his lips. âTalking of temples,' he continued slowly, âis it possible that the people responsible for these robberies, who organised and planned them, are high-ranking priests? Many of them have attended royal funerals. They know the Valley of the Kings better than I, and because they escort the coffin caskets to their resting place, they learn about the inside of the tombs in considerable detail. Wouldn't the archives of a temple like Isis hold maps and plans?'