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Authors: P. C. Doherty

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BOOK: The Assassins of Isis
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‘Tifye.'
‘Ah yes, Tifye. Now both of you should have been condemned to death with the rest, but you had words with Lord Valu. You promised, after the trial, to tell the truth about the conspiracy, in return for which your sentence would be commuted and, if the information was truly valuable, you might even be set free. We made no such offer to any of the other conspirators because we thought they would not tell us the truth or had nothing to offer. You two, however, worked in a house of pleasure. You knew more than the rest. You hinted at this, and the Divine One believed your offer was sincere. Lord Valu here and I planned to come down here and listen to what you'd tell us, then make a decision.'
‘Yet you killed your companion,' Valu drawled. ‘You committed murder.'
‘Because I'm frightened.' Sithia sat as if fascinated by the cockroach crawling across the table. She lifted her manacled hands to wave away a fly and wetted her lips. Amerotke rose and gave her a beaker of water. She thanked him with her eyes and drank greedily.
‘My lord Valu, you call yourself the Eyes and Ears of Pharaoh, and you,' Sithia pointed at Amerotke, ‘a judge in the Hall of Two Truths, but you haven't uncovered the conspiracy. You've plucked the flower but not the roots. You know nothing! Nothing about the terror! The Sebaus are everywhere; they could even be here in this dark corner. How do you know, my lord Amerotke,' she pointed at Valu,
‘that he is not one of them? How do I know that you yourself may not be a member of their coven?' She ignored Valu's sigh of exasperation. ‘I had to kill my companion. She wanted to confess to mislead you. She would have named innocent people, won her freedom and returned to our masters. She may already have done her damage communicating with one of the guards, gaolers or court ushers. I had no choice.' Sithia drew a deep breath. ‘I told you nothing before but now I will. I have met Sebaus, I have even seen one or two of their faces. I am speaking now because the rest are dead, their Kas cannot send messages to their master.'
Amerotke moved uneasily on his stool. He tried to hide his shiver of real fear. He had interrogated men and women, produced a list of names, laid evidence against them and judged them guilty, yet even as he had done so, he had sensed, like an archer who'd loosed his arrow, that he'd missed his mark.
‘Tell me, Sithia,' he urged. ‘Tell me the truth, what you know. You will be freed, taken to another place where you can live again.'
The woman sat staring at the floor as if listening to the faint sounds from the passageway beyond. She asked for another beaker of water. Amerotke gave her one. He thought she was talking to herself but then noticed how she spread her hands, palm upwards, and realised she was quietly praying.
‘The Sebaus,' she began, ‘are not just a gang of assassins and thieves. True, some are nothing more than peasants, but others are educated men, Egyptians, Kushites, Libyans, even foreigners from the great Green. They are summoned individually and very few know their comrades. They are the ones who actually rob the tombs. They approach the guards and officials in the Necropolis or the Valley of the Kings. They will offer bribes and, if that doesn't work, threaten blackmail and violence. One official was brought to my house of pleasure. I provided him with everything
he wanted, I gave him an ounou of silver to spend and he was in their power. A few men couldn't be bribed; they were swiftly despatched. The Sebaus raid the tombs and bring the treasure to houses like mine. We would be given strict instructions to hand it to this merchant or that. The people who came,' she waved her hand, ‘Canaanites, Hittites, sand-dwellers, Libyans, Egyptians, they would buy the treasure and take it away.' She lifted her head. ‘Some of them seemed very powerful, rich men, others just messengers. They always came in disguise.'
Amerotke nodded. He had discovered the same: treasures being mysteriously taken into the city then out on to barges, either north to the Delta or south into Kush.
‘The Sebaus,' he said, ‘may be violent and ruthless, but many of the tombs are hidden away, their entrances concealed; some even contain traps. Where do they get such knowledge?'
‘The Sebaus only carry out orders,' Sithia replied. ‘They are given the time and the place and told where to take the treasure. The same person who organises them will send a message to this merchant or that, how a statute, a cornelian necklace or a jewelled gorget can be bought, and the merchant will visit my house or some other.'
‘Who gives the orders?' Valu demanded.
‘No one ever knew,' Sithia replied. ‘One of the Sebaus was much taken with me and, in his cups, told me his leader's name, or at least his title: the Khetra.'
‘Khetra.' Amerotke echoed the title given to the Watchman of the Third Division of the Underworld. He pushed back his stool and came round and crouched in front of the woman. He ignored the foul smell and gently touched the bruise on her cheek.
‘So, the Sebaus would raid a tomb and bring the treasure to a place like yours? A merchant would buy it, pay the price and take it away?'
Sithia nodded.
Amerotke went back to sit behind the table. ‘But that leaves two problems. The first is who gave the information about the tombs and what each contained. Secondly, some of these treasures have been taken beyond Egypt's borders. Now, Sithia, you know that is very dangerous. It is easy to transport the gold statue of a former Pharaoh to Memphis, or to Avaris, but across Sinai? Even if you hide it away in a jar on a pack pony or in a bundle of cloth you are running a terrible risk. You have to pass customs posts, border guards, not to mention desert patrols.'
Sithia smiled bleakly. ‘Now you know why I'm terrified, Lord Amerotke. Some of the merchants who visited me told me that they would take their goods from the soil of Egypt. I asked them how, and they just laughed and said they had passes.'
Amerotke ignored Valu's sharp intake of breath. Sithia had put her finger on the heart of the problem. Only high-ranking officials, men like himself, chief scribes in the various houses of the palace or high priests in the temples, possessed imperial seals which allowed travellers to pass unhindered across Egypt's borders. Such seals were not personalised but were simply copies of the imperial cartouche.
‘Have you reached the same conclusion as I have?' Sithia asked softly. ‘This Khetra must be a member of the Divine House. Perhaps even a member of the Royal Circle. So who is he, Lord Amerotke? Or she? I didn't commit murder,' she continued breathlessly. ‘I killed in self-defence. The Sebaus are totally ruthless. If someone like myself stole a pearl or a scarab from the treasure horde, sentence of death would always be passed. I've heard of men and women being scourged, bound and tossed into a crocodile pool. Others are taken out to the Red Lands and buried alive. A merchant who didn't pay the full price as promised lost two of his children and, when he did pay, was only given their corpses in return.' Sithia moved the hair from her
face. ‘One of the guards who pleasured me told me what happened to you, Amerotke, about the attack in this very temple at Ma'at.'
‘Do you think that was revenge?'
Sithia smiled, wincing at the cut on the corner of her mouth. ‘Oh yes, it's revenge. They will kill you, Lord Amerotke, for the same reason as they would kill me. You might not realise it but you know something you shouldn't, and for that you have to die.'
Valu made a dismissive sound with his fingers.
‘Do you think your title will save you, Lord Prosecutor?' Sithia, clearly enjoying herself, drank greedily from the cup. Amerotke noticed she kept touching her stomach and leaning slightly to the left.
‘Have you ever heard of the Shardana?' she asked.
‘It's the name for a mercenary,' Valu replied.
‘No,
the
Shardana,' she repeated. ‘He was an officer in the mercenary corps. He was court-martialled for stealing from the regimental chest and discharged from the army. He became a high-ranking member of the Sebaus. I was one of the few who knew his identity. The Shardana wasn't an Egyptian, but came from the lands north of the Hittites. He had fair hair, one eye—'
‘I remember him,' Amerotke interrupted. ‘He appeared before me in the Hall of Two Truths; he killed a man, but claimed it was self-defence.'
‘He was an assassin,' Sithia replied, ‘who would enforce the Khetra's wishes. A bully boy and a braggart. He often visited my house of pleasure and insisted on taking two girls together. He was coarse and rough but paid well. I never allowed him to be with me. One night he became involved in an argument with another customer. Knives were drawn and the Shardana cut the man's throat. He was drunk so he couldn't escape. There were plenty of witnesses. The Medjay arrived and arrested him.'
‘Yes, he appeared before me in the second week of the
Season of the Sowing.' Amerotke mused. ‘He should have been sent to the wood but claimed self-defence and said he could produce witnesses. He hired an advocate, one of the most expensive in Thebes, a priest lawyer from the Temple of Thoth.'
Valu, too, now recalled the case and sat nodding to himself.
‘I sentenced him to life imprisonment out in the Western Red Lands, as far as possible from the Nile.'
‘There were bribes offered,' Valu added, ‘anonymously, for the man to be released, but his victim was the son of a powerful nobleman.'
‘Now this Shardana,' Sithia continued, ‘was sent to an oasis a hundred miles west of Thebes. Why not go to the House of War, Lord Amerotke, and ask what happened at the Oasis of Bitter Water?'
Amerotke tried to rack his memory. The woman's words recalled certain events, proclamations in the marketplace …
‘The Oasis of Bitter Water was attacked,' Valu declared. ‘Its small garrison was wiped out by Libyans who killed not only the soldiers but also what they guarded. Not one prisoner escaped. It happened about five months ago. The Divine One sent out a chariot squadron. The Libyans had broken their treaty, they'd promised never to attack such prison oases, and why should they, there is no profit in them.'
‘Shall I tell you why they attacked?' Sithia was now holding her stomach as if in discomfort. ‘I—'
‘Are you well?' Amerotke asked.
‘Stomach gripes,' she gasped. ‘Perhaps the water was too cold. But let me finish. The Oasis of Bitter Water was attacked because the Sebaus paid the Libyans to do so. I don't know how and I don't know when, but it shows the length of their arm as well as their power. They wanted the Shardana killed just in case he talked, so they hired the Libyans, one of those wandering tribes, to launch an attack.
They wanted to make sure the Shardana never changed his mind and tried to negotiate for a pardon.'
Amerotke whistled under his breath. Prison oases were poor, rather desolate places, their small detachment of soldiers usually mercenary sand-dwellers, ruthless fighters. The Libyans would usually leave such places alone as there was little to gain and a great deal to lose.
‘The Sebaus,' Sithia was clutching her stomach in pain, ‘they show no mercy …'
Amerotke, alarmed, got to his feet. Sithia was pale-faced, sweat coursing through the dirt on her face.
‘These are not cramps,' he declared. ‘Lord Valu, quickly, get a physician.'
But even before the prosecutor had reached the door, Sithia fell to the floor. She opened her mouth to scream but could only gag; she retched, coughing and spluttering. Amerotke tried to hold her but she broke free, legs kicking, lost in her world of pain. Valu was in the passageway shouting for the Keeper of the Chains. Amerotke crossed to the water jug, picked it up and sniffed at the rim; the water was brackish but he smelt something bittersweet. Sithia was now in convulsions, head banging the floor as her body jerked, legs and arms flailing. Guards came into the room but the woman was past any help. The sound from her throat was hideous, eyes popping, mouth gagging as she forced her breath. She gave one final convulsion and lay still. Amerotke felt for a blood pulse in the neck but could find none. He turned the body over, pushing back the hair. Sithia's face was now relaxed, though death betrayed little of the beauty she had enjoyed in life. Amerotke gazed up at the Keeper of the Chains, the gaolers thronging about him.
‘Who fetched the water? Asural!' he shouted. The Captain of the Temple Guard, summoned down by the clamour, pushed his way through. Amerotke got to his feet and gestured at the water jug. ‘Have that destroyed, it's poisoned.' He glanced across at Valu, but the royal prosecutor,
clutching his own stomach, fled the cell, shouting for the nearest latrine.
Amerotke returned to his chamber in the Hall of Two Truths. The hall itself was empty except for the occasional guard. He found Shufoy sleeping, gently shook him awake and told him what had happened.
‘Poisoned? But how?' the dwarf exclaimed.
‘I'm asking myself the same question.'
Lord Valu came through the door looking a little more relaxed and, without being asked, sat down in Amerotke's chair. He tried to act courageously but he was visibly shocked and soon left the chamber again, only returning when Asural came back to report.
BOOK: The Assassins of Isis
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