Mystery & Crime

The Crocodile Makes No Sound

By

This book will launch on Nov 2, 2020. Currently, only those with the link can see it. 🔒
Synopsis

Four years into Akhenaten’s new regime, the dissatisfaction of those who practiced the old religion of Amen-Ra is growing. Hani, a diplomat already under the king’s surveillance because of the disappearance of his firebrand Amen priest brother-in-law, gets drawn into an investigation for the Beloved Royal Wife, who is being blackmailed over an infidelity. Meanwhile, the new vassal king of A’amu, lodged at Hani’s house until the king grants him an audience, is showing himself to be none too loyal. Hani must walk the line between his oath to the king and his conscience.

















CHAPTER 1



Already the third month of the summer season is upon us, Hani thought as he gazed about his garden. The Black Land had begun to pray for a successful Inundation—for high waters and their rich forerunners, the red and green waves, to fecundate the fields.

Once, the people of Kemet had prayed to Amen-Ra and Hapy, god of the flood. Now Hani wasn’t sure to whom they were officially expected to offer their prayers and gifts. To the Aten, he supposed, the only god formally recognized by their king, Nefer-khepru-ra. Certainly not to Amen-Ra, the Hidden One, whose name and cult had become anathema. Hani’s beloved city of Waset, once the capital of the Upper Kingdom and home of the world’s greatest temple, had emptied as the bureaucrats had departed for the new City of the Horizon, and the tens of thousands of priests and lay employees of the god, left without occupation or income, had grown more and more restless. More and more dangerous.

“That I should have lived to see such a thing,” Hani said, shaking his head.

Much had changed in the four years Nefer-khepru-ra had ruled alone after the death of his father, Neb-ma’at-ra the Magnificent, and Hani, for one, would have said none of those changes were good. His family tomb had been desecrated. His wife, a chantress of the Hidden One, had been locked out of the Ipet-isut, great temple of Amen-Ra, along with all the other clergy. Hani had been forced by his conscience to drop out of active service in the diplomatic corps, no longer able to enforce a foreign policy he neither understood nor respected. But no one had seized his property, at least, so he still had his garden—his retreat, his hidden place of safety, his little slice of the Field of Reeds on earth. Drawing a deep breath, Hani let his eyes flow fondly over his garden—the trees he and his brother had planted thirty years before, the flowers, the long pool where his beloved ducks played, and the cool whitewashed house set in the middle, where he and Pipi had played as children and now Hani’s own children lived happy lives, as they would until they grew up and moved off to their adult homes.

Dawn had just begun to spread its sweet pale light over the walled garden. The birds awakened, twittering and calling. Qenyt, his pet heron, stalked silently around the perimeter of the pool in search of unwary frogs, lifting her burnished legs with angular grace. In the sycomores, the crickets were falling silent, and the cicadas had not yet begun their roar. Hani drew a deep breath until the farthest corners of his lungs filled with the pure, fragrant air of morning. This was his favorite hour. Despite the disturbing news that every new day inevitably brought, dawn restored his sense of balance, of ma’at, and his certitude that everything would be all right in the end.

Having mentally sung his little song of joyful greeting to the rising sun, like the baboons of Ra, Hani made his way back through the mat that hung over the door of the house to keep out the flies. No one else was up yet except for some of the servants; he could hear the splash of water in the kitchen and a small thunder of wood for the oven dropped on the earthen floor. No longer did Pa-kiki, his second son, have to get up at dawn to go to school at the House of Life—the Per-ankh was closed, along with the temple that housed it. Hani and his father, both scribes, were putting the finishing touches to the boy’s education. Soon Pa-kiki would go to Akhet-aten to live with his brother and work at some low-level job in the Hall of the Royal Correspondence, beginning his rise through the ranks.

Hani planted himself in front of the little shrine in his salon, where a small statue of the Hidden One, and homely images of Ta-weret, the Great One, and the dwarf god Bes—protectors of women and children—were honored with flowers and bowls of grain. These days, every shrine was supposed to feature some stele of the Sun Disk and the royal family, even in private devotions, but he didn’t feel that kindly toward his ruler and his ruler’s god. If he brought an Aten stele home, Hani could imagine what his wife, Nub-nefer, would say, she whose father and brother had each served as Third Prophet of Amen-Ra. Yet Hani was uneasy about giving some officious visitor an opening to carry dangerous tales about his lack of loyalty. He had enough against him already. Perhaps I ought to get at least a small one…

Hani drifted toward the kitchen, following his nose. He hoped the heavenly fragrance of baking meant the cook would soon take some fresh bread out of the oven. Hani was hungry—hungry for bread and hungry for life. It was dawn in the season before the Inundation, after all. Time for good things to begin once more. One could believe, on such a morning, in the cycle of creation—that after the grim, confusing years of the immediate past, good would roll around again.

Later that morning, Hani’s secretary and son-in-law, Maya, arrived, ready to begin dictation. The little man, too, was in a twinkling mood. He and Sat-hut-haru must have had a rousing evening. Hani chuckled. It still seemed impossible that his seventeen-year-old second daughter was a nebet per, a mistress of the house, and she’d traded her maiden’s braids for the long locks of a married woman.

“Good morning, Lord Hani. I have these fair copies of the letters for you. Shall I read them aloud for your approval?” Maya seated himself cross-legged on the floor and unhitched his pen case from his shoulder. Thanks to the understanding of his superior, the high commissioner Lord Ptah-mes, Hani had been permitted to work in a domestic capacity rather than resign outright from his post. He hadn’t been sent abroad for a year and had seen to his duties from home, showing up at the capital from time to time—just often enough not to be conspicuously absent from the roster of assignments.

“Go ahead, Maya. I’ll stop you if I hear anything I want to change.”

Maya unrolled the first of the documents and began to read it aloud, but Hani’s thoughts drifted in and out as he remembered the troubles of conscience that had bumped his career off the expected road. “Let me look at that, son,” he said, reaching out a hand. “I’m distracted and didn’t absorb it.” He took the papyrus from the secretary and began to read. He had to anchor his attention firmly to avoid slipping away again—to the garden, to the river, to the reeds where the wading birds he loved awaited him.

All at once, Hani was conscious of a rush of bare footsteps and a swirl of skirt bearing down on him. He dragged his eyes away from the letter to see that Neferet, his youngest, had approached with her usual impetuosity and was standing in front of him, hands on hips.

“What can I do for you, my love?” he said, smiling at the sight of her dressed like a young lady, her child’s sidelock transmuted into the tiny braids of maidenhood. I can’t believe it. The last of our children, almost grown.

“I’ve decided something, Papa,” she said earnestly and seated herself on the floor beside him, pulling up her skirt to cross her legs with greater ease. At thirteen, she was still the stocky, broad-shouldered little hoyden he loved, despite the dress. “I’ve decided I want to be a physician—a sunet.”

“Is this something new? I don’t believe you’ve ever mentioned it.”

“I thought you wanted to be a horse,” said Maya with a straight face. Hani tried not to laugh.

Neferet shook her head impatiently, sending her braids flying. “Oh, that was when I was a little girl. I mean, I did want to be a chantress of Amen, but…” She shrugged, with an eloquent lift of the eyebrows.

Although the impossibility of serving the Hidden One these days was a serious matter, Hani smiled nonetheless, because Neferet took after his side of the family and couldn’t carry a tune. Neither was she especially lissome, should she be inclined to serve as a temple dancer. Her dance style had about it more enthusiasm than grace, her father thought tenderly—unlike her two sisters.

“Why, that’s a noble aspiration, my dear. You’ll have to study hard. Perhaps the priests of Sekhmet at Sau have a school that accepts girls.”

“I’m smart. I’m smarter than Pa-kiki. Do I have to know how to read and write?”

“I honestly don’t know. Most doctors seem to, but I’m not aware of any women in the scribal schools, so maybe women physicians don’t.”

“We could teach you, couldn’t we, my lord?” offered Maya with a glance at his father-in-law. “You wouldn’t need to know the formal Speech of the Gods, just script.”

She set her elbow on her knee and propped her chin on her fist, staring first at Maya then at her father. “I wonder if there are doctors who take care of animals.”

“I can’t imagine there aren’t,” Hani said, recalling his days as an army scribe. “The king’s fancy chariot horses certainly had a doctor.” He cocked an eyebrow at her. “But in the army, they’re all men.”

Neferet nodded pensively. “What about cats and pet herons?”

Hani was so overcome with affection for this suddenly serious girl that he reached out and tugged her braids with a smile. “I don’t know. You could start a whole new specialization. Be the first heron doctor.”

“I could.” She got to her feet, seemingly unaware, or untroubled, that her skirt was caught up in the crack of her buttocks. “Let me go talk to Qenyt and see what she thinks about it.”

Maya, at his side, was tee-heeing openly. Hani managed not to laugh until his youngest daughter had skipped away. Don’t ever change, he thought, his heart full.

The two men settled back to work. The sun had swung from one side of the room to its noon position—its long matutinal shafts growing shorter until they no longer pierced the clerestories—when Hani crawled to his feet and stretched. “I guess we’re finished for the day, Maya. You can make good copies of those letters I just dictated, and we’ll go from there in the morning. At the end of the week, I’ll take them up to the Hall of the Royal Correspondence.”

“Count on me, Lord Hani.” Maya knelt to gather his writing implements and rolls of papyrus. He looked up at Hani with a sudden anxious expression. “Sat-hut-haru and I are having dinner at Mother’s tonight.”

Concerned by his look of unease, Hani asked, “Is there a problem with that?”

The secretary stood and brushed himself off. He said in a hesitant voice, “I hope Sat-hut-haru won’t be disappointed. Mother just lives behind her shop. It’s nothing like your house.”

Hani had noticed that Maya had never invited his bride to his mother’s home, and now he was beginning to get a sense of why. “Sati knows she’s a goldsmith. Why would she be disappointed?” But Hani realized that Maya must harbor all sorts of anxieties about his artisan-class birth, having married, as Maya had done, into the scribal class, where no one was ever permitted to forget that their way of life was best. “Do you think we’ve raised her to care about such things? She loves and admires your mother.”

“But she’s never actually seen the house. She’ll picture me growing up there, and it will make her think of how different our pasts were.” His brow was pleated with insecurity.

Hani clapped a fatherly hand on the little man’s shoulder. “Give her credit for seeing through that sort of thing, Maya. You’re a scribe now, and that puts you in the ruling class. The more credit to you for having done it on your own.”

“Thanks to you, my lord.” Maya cast doglike eyes of gratitude upon his father-in-law. “Thanks to you for everything, or I’d never have been able to stay in school. I’d be keeping Mother’s books in the back of the shop.”

Hani had served as Maya’s patron, sponsoring the higher education of a promising student who wouldn’t otherwise have been able to advance to the ranks of the House of Life. Touched by the young man’s gratitude but a little embarrassed, too, Hani mumbled self-deprecating noises. “It’s you she’s married, my friend, not your mother’s house. Don’t worry about it. If I’m wrong, I owe you a… a pot of beer. No, some of that wine I sent back from Kebni last year.”

Maya threw back his head and gave a great hoot of laughter. “It’s a deal, Lord Hani.” He let himself out the door with a bit of the old swagger back in his steps.

Hani was shaking his head in affection and pity at the sensitivity of the young when his wife, Nub-nefer, glided in, barefoot and silent, from the back of the house. She was still trim and beautiful, with great fringed black eyes and a perfectly bowed mouth.

“Ah, my dearest. There you are.” He opened his arms to her, his heart expanding, and she pecked him on the cheek.

Her face was puckered with the effort to control her laughter. “Neferet has decided she wants to be a heron doctor. I thought you would be pleased.”

“It’s a step up from wanting to be a heron,” Hani said with a grin. “Our little girl is growing up.”

“No point in even taking her ambitions seriously at this age. They change every day.”

“Perhaps, although it wouldn’t be a bad thing to have a physician in the family. I mean, one who treats humans, not herons.”

Nub-nefer looked at her husband, wide-eyed. “Do you mean that? You think she should really study medicine?”

He shrugged cautiously, feeling he had stepped into a trap. “If that’s what she wants, why not?”

“But, Hani, who ever heard of a woman doctor?” She made an exasperated noise. “She might as well treat herons, for all the patients she’d get.”

“Yet there are such, my dear. I know I’ve heard of it. I think the priests of Sekhmet at Sau may accept girls for study.”

Nub-nefer gave him an accusatory look. “Have you been encouraging her in this scheme, Hani? Because she said exactly the same thing.”

“No, I swear, my love. Today is the first time I’ve even heard she was interested. And maybe it’s just a whim. But if she is interested, why shouldn’t she pursue it? She’s smart.”

Her lips pursing, Nub-nefer hummed dubiously. Hani maintained a prudent silence until his wife finally blurted, as if ashamed to have to say it, “Isn’t it a little working-class—a woman going to patients’ houses with a basket of herbs? A village healer, for the sake of the Hidden One?”

“Male doctors are scribes, my doe, and often priests. They have very elevated status. Wouldn’t it be the same for women doctors?” Hani didn’t want to sound argumentative, so he used his best mild, reasonable, diplomatic voice.

“Who’s going to teach a girl to read and write, Hani? Don’t set her expectations high just to have them dashed in her face, please.”

Hani wanted to laugh, but he saw that Nub-nefer was really concerned for her passionate little girl, so he said gently, “Her father, grandfather, both brothers, brother-in-law, and all her uncles know the Speech of the Gods, my dear. She won’t lack for teachers.”

Nub-nefer turned her eyes away, brows contracted. She murmured, “It doesn’t seem feminine to me.”

“To me, the mystery has always been why doctors are male, when men generally have so little feeling for the sick or weak. I think a feminine touch would be much superior.”

Nub-nefer seemed to debate with herself in silence. Then she said stiffly, “I see I can’t argue with you, dear. Your mind is made up.”

“Not at all. And it isn’t my mind at stake here. It’s Neferet’s. She’s only thirteen. She may very well change goals. In a year or two, she may prefer simply to get married and forget all about the scribal life. And that would be fine. But if she persists, I think we should support her.” He turned Nub-nefer’s chin back toward him. “Don’t you?” He smiled at her beguilingly, and she seemed to soften in spite of herself.

“She’ll probably be obsessed with some new scheme before the end of the year.” Nub-nefer sighed, no doubt hoping it would be so, and shrugged.

Hani bent to kiss the sweet slope between her shoulder and neck. He thought of Neferet, groping to find herself, of Maya, so concerned that his wife think well of him, and of his own eldest son, Aha, desperate to impress the king. “I pity the young.”

“Well, I pity the old,” said his father, Mery-ra, from the doorway. “It’s a hard walk here from Meryet-amen’s in the sun.”

“I’ve told you to take my litter whenever you need it, Father,” said Hani in mock severity. “But oh, no. You want to look manly in the sight of your lady friend. You’re too proud.”

Mery-ra chuckled, his belly bouncing. “Or too forgetful. I’m afraid I’d leave it there.”

“I doubt if she’ll break it up for firewood the first time that happens,” said Nub-nefer dryly. “I leave you gentlemen to your mischief. I need to go cauterize some wounded animals.” She headed for the rear of the house but then, at the door, turned back. “Would you go to a woman doctor to be treated, Hani?” She disappeared into the kitchen.

“Are you sick?” Mery-ra looked at his son in surprise.

“No, no. It was a rhetorical question. Neferet has been talking about wanting to be a sunet, and Nub-nefer wants me to admit that no one would ever go to a female doctor.”

“Women would, I should think. I’ll bet the king’s harem has a female doctor.”

Hani looked at him, impressed. “An excellent idea, my noble father. I may ask around.”

Mery-ra pursed his lips to hide a grin. “The next time you’re in the king’s harem, eh?”

Hani set off for the bedroom, but his father called after him, “What under the sun did she mean about cauterizing animals?”

With a laugh, Hani said over his shoulder, “She’s going to start lunch. It’s a little medical humor.”

The next morning, Maya appeared for work in a golden mood, a spring in his step and a snippet of song on his lips. The evening had gone splendidly, and he could see he’d worried for nothing about how Sat-hut-haru would confront his modest childhood home. She was better than some shallow, spoiled rich girl; he should have known. She’d admired his mother’s skills and looked around with fascination at the neat compaction of workshop and living quarters, oohing and aahing over everything as if it had been palatial. They had encountered a slightly awkward issue of size that he hadn’t even thought to worry about in advance—because Maya and both his parents were dwarfs, their few pieces of furniture were low, and Sati’s knees had to turn aside so she could sit at the table. But she managed the maneuver with such adorable grace that no one would have thought it was a compromise.

What a girl. Her bones are silver, and her flesh is gold, like a goddess, Maya thought, pride swelling within him. And of course, Mother’s servant was an excellent cook, so the meal had been as much a work of art as the magnificent jewels she turned out for the king and his ladies.

“Good morning, Maya. You look radiant. Things must have gone well last night after all,” Lord Hani said with a wide smile that bared the gap between his teeth. His little brown eyes twinkled.

“Oh, yes, my lord. Your daughter was the perfect guest, as I should have expected. Mother gave me these for you.” He presented the little meat pies she had wrapped in linen for Sati’s parents. “She said to stick them in the oven for a few moments to heat them, although I like them cold.”

Hani sniffed the package. Then he unrolled the wrapping and extracted a pie. “Perhaps I’d better make a judgment about that.” He bit off half the little triangular pastry and chewed, his eyes closed in ecstasy. “There’s cumin in them. And tamarind. Sublime! Be sure Sat-hut-haru learns to make these delights!”

Maya beamed. “I will, my lord. With pleasure.”

Hani scoffed down the last of the pie and licked his fingers. “Before we start work, let me ask you something, my friend. Does your mother happen to know of any women physicians?”

Maya twisted his mouth in reflection. “I have no idea, but I can ask. No one is sick, I hope?” Then he remembered Neferet’s new ambition and answered his own question. “Ah, to study with.”

Hani nodded and prepared to seat himself then seemed to have second thoughts. “Would In-hapy mind if we disturbed her briefly this morning to ask, do you think?”

“Not at all, my lord.” Maya hung his writing case, which he had just removed, back on his shoulder, and the two men headed for the street.

“You know, I thank Khonsu the Traveler every day that I’m not somewhere in Kebni or A’amu right now and that I’m able to perform these little services for the children,” Hani said as they walked along with their mismatched strides. He was a broad, thickset man whose heavy, rolling gait made Maya think of a wrestler or a sailor. He was solid, in every sense. Maya loved him—adored him—far more than the father he barely remembered. “They’ll all be grown and out of the house soon, and how sad I would be not to have any memories of their childhood.”

“I guess we should make offerings for Lord Ptah-mes, eh, my lord? It’s thanks to him you were given a domestic assignment. And me too,” Maya added, heat rising up his cheeks.

Hani glanced down at him from the corners of his little brown eyes. They were crinkled with a knowing smile. “‘Take a wife while you’re young, that she make a son for you,’ eh, Maya? ‘She should bear for you while you’re youthful.’”

Maya gave the sort of salacious laugh men indulged in when they talked of making sons. He and Hani walked along in companionable silence through the modest neighborhoods of working-class Waset—narrow streets closely packed with small walled properties—almost windowless houses of one or two stories in whitewashed mud brick, more or less well maintained. On the rooftop terraces, women hung laundry, shelled beans, and pounded grain. Men led donkeys loaded with supplies that could barely pass between the walls, while children ran up and down the street on errands or in that rare happy escape from the necessity of work. People called to one another or sang as they labored. The neighborhood was never silent and never without smells of cooking, smelting, and brewing. This was the world Maya had grown up in, a far remove from the quiet garden of Hani’s family home and his numerous servants and his country house and his boats.

Maya wasn’t sure how he felt about his neighborhood and his home. He both loved it and felt a little shame at its humble dimensions—and the attached workshop, with its inescapable reminder that here people toiled over forges and with dirty substances that hardened their hands and bowed their backs. Still, he’d passed a more-or-less happy childhood behind these walls that he now saw before him.

The gate was locked. It was a goldsmith’s shop, after all, and too many valuable things lay within—things that belonged to the king—for just anyone to be able to pass inside. Maya hammered on the door then whistled and yelled, “Mother! It’s Maya.” The stalwart old Nubian who guarded the gate unbarred it and grinned as he saw his young master. Maya and Hani passed through into the court. “Is Mother here?”

“She is, little master. Inside.”

In the square of light from the door, In-hapy, Maya’s mother, was bent over the worktable along with a number of men and boys, all of them big people except her. Hair covered with a scarf knotted at the back of her neck, she was perched on the high stool where Maya had seen her every day of his life, her nimble fingers plying a file against something tiny. Sparkles of gold dropped to the table around her as she worked.

“Mother!” Maya called. “Do you have a minute? Lord Hani wants to talk to you.”

She looked up and laid down her file, delight widening her eyes, which had been squinting against the flying gold dust. “Son! My lord!” She slid from her stool and came to greet them, bowing before Hani as if they weren’t the in-laws of a married couple.

“In-hapy. Blessings on the mistress of the house,” Hani said heartily. “I hope I’m not inconveniencing you. I promise not to keep you long.”

“Not at all, my lord. Come into the back, where it’s quieter. Can I offer you beer?”

“No, thanks. I just wanted to ask you a question, then I’ll let you get back to your work.”

In-hapy waddled before them through the mat-hung door into the house proper and urged them to seat themselves on the packed-earth floor strewn with cheap rugs and cushions.

I need to buy her some stools, Maya thought, a little irritated. But she can afford them herself. The fact was, his mother was quite prosperous. I suppose she’s just never even thought of how low-class it is to receive guests on the floor.

“Let me preface this by saying I don’t know any women other than my wife whom I might approach with a question like this. And I know her answer already.” Hani gave his amiable gap-toothed grin that made him resemble a small naughty boy. “Do you happen to know of any female physicians?”

Maya’s mother put a pensive finger to her mouth. “Let me think. I hope none of your family is sick, Lord Hani.”

“No, no.” He laughed. “Neferet, our youngest, suddenly wants to be a doctor, and I promised her I’d try to find someone for her to apprentice herself to.”

“Well, yes, in fact, there’s an old woman in the neighborhood who knows a good bit about healing. I don’t know if you could really call her a doctor. She’s surely no scribe. But everyone goes to her for potions and unguents. She’s had plenty of experience.”

“That should be a good place to start.”

“Her name is Khuit. She’s a widow. Her husband used to be a brewer who worked for the temple.” She looked up at Hani with a significant spark in her eye. “Good thing he’s already dead, says I.”

“Good thing indeed.” Hani got to his feet and dusted off his kilt. “Where does she live, do you know?”

“Go to the corner in this direction,” she said, pointing vaguely toward the entry. “Then down that alley to the fourth or fifth house. I no longer even remember which one. Thanks be to Sekhmet, we’ve all been healthy. The last time we went there must have been when Ipy got a stone fleck in his eye, and he’s all grown up now.”

“How’s his eye?” Hani asked, a smile trembling on the corners of his mouth.

“Perfect. He’s my best journeyman. Sees like an eagle.” She turned to her son. “Maya, you may remember which house, but in any case, you can ask.”

“Thanks, my dear lady. May the Lord of the Horizon keep you in good health.” Hani dipped his head gratefully.

In-hapy bobbed up and down in a respectful bow. “And his blessing on you and yours, my lord.”

Maya leaned over and pecked his mother on the cheek. “Thanks for the dinner the other night. Sat-hut-haru loved it.”

The old woman’s wrinkled face lit up in delight. She waved at the men as they made their way out the gate under the benevolent gaze of the Nubian.

“I don’t suppose she’ll ever just call me Hani,” said Hani when they were out on the street once more.

“I think that would be very hard, my lord.” Maya laughed, realizing he had the same problem. He could never address his father-in-law as his social equal. “Habit dies slowly. ‘Stand according to your rank,’ as you put it so well in your aphorisms.”

“That’s all right. I can’t call Lord Ptah-mes just Ptah-mes either, although I think that would please him.”

They tromped down the dusty unpaved street to the first alley and turned to their left. Maya started counting houses. There was an empty lot, now planted with lettuce and cucumber, where a residence or maybe two had clearly been torn down, and that confused him. He stood, staring in annoyance at the broken row of houses.

Then a distant memory clicked in. He pointed. “It’s there—the one with no whitewash.”

They approached the faded door and knocked. No one answered. They waited a decent length of time, then Hani knocked again. “Anyone home?” he called. “We’re looking for Khuit.” He turned to Maya. “You’re sure this is the house?”

“Yes, it’s the house, love,” a rattly old voice said at their backs. The two men turned. Maya recognized immediately the wispy little bowlegged figure with a basket over her arm who confronted them. Khuit was exactly as he remembered her from his childhood—a shrunken little monkey of a woman who looked as if she had been left for forty days in the embalmers’ salts. She was dark and shriveled, with a toothless mouth and bright, twinkling eyes. “What can I do for you, love? Ah, it’s my little sweetheart, In-hapy’s boy too. Come in, come in.”

They followed her into the tiny low-ceilinged salon hung all over with pungent, musty-smelling drying herbs. Baskets of roots gave off a dank earthy odor. There was hardly room to walk through all the jars, baskets, pots, mortars, and cutting boards laid on the tables and on the earthen floor with no apparent order. A striped cat with round golden eyes watched the invaders from the midst of the clutter.

“My name is Hani son of Mery-ra. I understand you’re the healer in this neighborhood.”

“I am, I am. And have been for forty years. Need an enema?” She cackled, and Maya felt a hot flush creeping up his cheeks. He hoped Hani didn’t think this was the sort of person his mother consorted with.

But Hani laughed, seeming at ease in this world so different from his own. He looked extremely large in the tiny, cluttered room. “No, thank you. I’m here because my daughter wants to become a doctor. Mistress of the house In-hapy suggested you might be able to apprentice her to you so she could learn something about medicine.”

“Well, then, I have had an apprentice or two over the years. Girls don’t seem so inclined to be healers anymore. Everybody wants to marry a rich man. Don’t ask me why.”

“Neferet is a very independent young lady,” Hani assured her. “Needless to say, we’ll pay you. Can I offer you a goat, or would you prefer something like grain?”

“A goat, my lord. A little she-goat. My little she-goat died, and sometimes there’s nothing like milk to cure a sick person.”

Maya, who caught an avaricious gleam in the old woman’s eyes, figured there was probably nothing like a little milk for the doctor either.

“Very well, my good woman. I’ll have her brother bring Neferet tomorrow morning, if that suits you.”

They made their goodbyes and set out down the road again. Hani said, “I need to go to Akhet-aten tomorrow, but you don’t have to come. Just finish those letters and help Neferet with her writing lessons. I should be back in about two weeks. And keep working on that son.” He winked sideways at Maya, who felt a surge of resolution.

He might even have puffed out his chest a bit. “With pleasure, my lord.”

Nineteen days later, Hani disembarked from the ferry that had borne him back from Akhet-aten and made his way home through the deserted streets of Waset, victim of a curious sensation of foreboding that churned in his stomach like an ill-digested meal. He realized the moment he entered the house that something terrible had indeed taken place. From within came the loud, distraught weeping of several females and Mery-ra’s voice crying, “When did this happen?”

Hani’s heart began to thunder—the wild, flapping wings of a trapped bird. “Nub-nefer?” he called anxiously. “Is everyone all right?” And of course, first in his fears was that something had happened to Baket-iset, his invalid eldest daughter.

But then he heard her, too, saying, “Oh, poor Auntie!” And he feared lest it might be Nub-nefer’s brother, Amen-em-hut. Everyone expected from moment to moment that he would be arrested or beaten or worse.

Hani pushed his way into the salon to find the entire family gathered there with Anuia, his sister-in-law—as he had feared—sobbing hysterically in Nub-nefer’s arms. His wife looked up as he entered, tears running down her cheeks but her expression resolutely strong. Neferet swooped down on her father, hugging him close.

Hani squeezed her to him with one arm. “What is it, my dear?” he called across the room to his wife, unable to keep the fear out of his voice.

“Amen-em-hut,” she murmured brokenly. “He’s disappeared.”

Anuia let out another howl. “They’ve killed him! I know it!”

Hani’s stomach clenched with dread. Oh, great Hidden One, say it isn’t so. He’s only defending your honor. His brother-in-law, the priest of Amen-Ra, had refused to accept the closure of the Ipet-isut. He had obdurately complained about the heresy of the king to anyone who would listen—even murmured the dread word assassination. He was marked for the enmity of the government in every way.

With Neferet still on his arm, Hani approached his wife and hugged her and her sister-in-law, enfolding them both, as if he could really protect them from harm by this gesture. “Calm yourself, Anuia, my sister. Tell me what has happened.”

Nub-nefer guided the hysterical woman to a stool lest she crumble completely. Anuia’s homely face was deformed with weeping, her hands fluttering as she passed them aimlessly over her wig, her face, and her breasts as if searching for something—some perch, some rest. “Get Auntie a cup of water, my love,” Nub-nefer instructed Neferet, who darted away.

Hani squatted at Anuia’s side. “Calmly, now. What happened?”

“He… he was called up by the medjay two weeks ago. They interrogated him, warned him they had informers who knew what he was up to and that the king was watching him and that he’d better not try anything. And when he came home, he had a horrible bruise on his cheek and was limping, but he wouldn’t tell me what had happened. And the next morning, he was gone.” Her ragged words ripped completely into a yowl of fear and grief. “They’ve killed him! I know it!” She folded over her lap, face in hands, bawling pitifully.

Hani hauled himself to his feet, dread a lump of lead in his stomach. He and Nub-nefer locked eyes. His wife was near the edge of despair, he could see—she was exceedingly close to her only brother, who was just two years her senior—but the mother in her struggled to stay calm for the sake of those who depended on her. The suffering in her tear-reddened eyes struck Hani to the heart. How gladly I would take your pain upon myself, my love. Yet there’s nothing surprising in any of this. Amen-em-hut had made no effort to restrain his criticism of Nefer-khepru-ra’s suppression of the cult of the King of the Gods.

“Maybe he’s just hiding,” Hani suggested hopefully. “Have you checked your country place?”

Anuia managed to say, “That was the first thing I did, Hani. He’s not there. None of the servants have seen him. None of the other priests know where he is, either, and he hasn’t been seen anywhere around the Ipet-isut. The gates are locked anyway—he couldn’t have gotten in—and the estates of the god have been taken over. There are soldiers everywhere.” A wave of sobbing shook her. “He would have told me if he were going to hide someplace. He would have told me. He must be—”

“Let’s not jump to that conclusion, my sister,” Nub-nefer urged her, massaging her shoulder. She was trying to convince herself first of all, Hani knew. Neferet reappeared with a tall cup of water. She offered it to her aunt, who guzzled down a long draft, splashing it all over her bosom. Anuia passed it along to Nub-nefer, who drank with the same desperation and returned the cup to her daughter.

“Where was the last place you saw him?” Hani forced himself to ask calmly.

“In bed with me, the night before he disappeared.”

“Well, the soldiers certainly didn’t take him out of the bed while you slept. He must have gotten up safely in the morning. Wouldn’t one of the servants have seen him?”

Anuia shook her head, dabbing at her swollen nose with the back of a hand. “He’s been having trouble with his stomach. Sometimes he gets up in the night and walks around when he can’t sleep.”

A ripple of unease lifted the hair on Hani’s neck. “Outside, you mean? He leaves your property?”

“Sometimes. He walks around the streets. He says it helps him clarify his thoughts.”

Foolish man, Hani thought grimly. With the city as tense as it is now, anything could happen on the streets alone in the wee hours. He forced himself to smile. “Someone will have seen him, then. I’ll ask some of your neighbors’ gatekeepers. Maybe the neighborhood watchman.”

But Anuia said bitterly, “We hardly have any neighbors, Hani. They’ve all moved off to that place. That hellhole. Where that awful—”

“Enough, my sister.” Hani laid a gentle finger over her lips. “Don’t get yourself in trouble too. The children need you.”

He felt an urgent necessity to get away from such misery. Amen-em-hut might just as easily have been the victim of footpads or the desperate unemployed as of the royal police. Hani hoped the priest’s body wouldn’t float ashore from the River somewhere.

He kissed Nub-nefer and patted Anuia on the back. “I’ll go ask around.”

“I’ll go with you, son,” said Mery-ra from behind him. Hani had almost forgotten he was present.

“Thanks, Father. Let’s go to Amen-em-hut’s house and start with the servants.”

“I want to go, too, Papa,” said Neferet.

Hani’s first reaction was to say no, but there was really no reason why she couldn’t accompany them. It would be light a long while yet at this time of year. “Tell your mother where you’re going and that I said it was all right.”

The girl swooped upon Nub-nefer and whispered something to her. Hani’s wife looked up sharply and caught his eye. She gave him a weary nod as if she was too drained to argue.

Neferet charged back to her father. “I’ll take my medical basket.”

“Your what?” Hani asked.

“My medical basket. If we find Uncle and he’s wounded, I may have to treat him.”

Hani and his father exchanged a look that under other circumstances might have been amused. “A generous impulse, my dear,” Hani said neutrally, but he had no expectation of finding the missing priest, wounded or otherwise.

They set off through the back streets of Waset, which were noticeably abandoned since the move of the capital. Many of the large walled houses of bureaucrats were empty, the whitewash peeling and the fading gates surrounded by weeds. Most of the inhabitants who remained were probably priests or lay employees of the Ipet-isut and other temples—servants of Amen, Mut, or Khonsu. The fact that they were now unemployed showed in the unkempt facades. Untended mud brick had already started to crumble. Painted gateways needed touching up. The smaller houses, jumbled cubes of unwhitened brick, had already begun the sad, slow march toward ruin. An occasional ill-fed dog roamed the alleys, and the few people Hani saw as they passed seemed furtive and suspicious. No one offered a friendly greeting as they might once have done. Even the intrepid Neferet edged closer to her father as they walked. Hani thought about Amen-em-hut wandering these streets alone in the dark and feared the worst.

“This is what our proud millennial city has come to, eh?” Mery-ra said, speaking for them both. He blew a heavy breath out through his nose, and Hani echoed it.

“I’m afraid Amen-em-hut must have embittered himself the more by his nocturnal rambles,” Hani said.

They arrived at the gate of his brother-in-law’s villa, a splendid property that testified to the generations of Nub-nefer’s ancestors who’d served the Hidden One for liberal recompense. It was defiantly well maintained. Hani knocked on the gate, hoping a doorkeeper would still be on duty. He’d never had the heart to ask Amen-em-hut what kind of toll the closing of the temples had taken on his finances.

Soon an old man opened the peephole. “One moment, my lord.”

Hani heard the unbarring of the door from within, and soon it swung wide. Beside the doorkeeper stood Amen-em-hut’s twenty-one-year-old firstborn, Pen-amen. His eyes, red-rimmed with sorrow, widened at the sight of his aunt’s family. “Uncle Hani! Uncle Mery-ra! Neferet! Mother and Father aren’t here.”

“We know, son, and that’s why we’ve come. Your mother’s at our house and has told us about your father’s disappearance.” Hani clapped the youth on the shoulder, suddenly forced to swallow hard, unable to find adequate words of comfort. He said in a lower voice, “I told Anuia we’d come and interrogate the servants, ask around the neighborhood. Maybe we can find some clues to where he might be.”

The young priest’s drawn face lit up with hope. He was devastatingly handsome, taller than his father and just as good-looking, with beautifully modeled lips and great dark eyes set like jewels in a perfectly sculpted copper face. “We’re all so distraught—we don’t know what to do. Mother just woke up two weeks ago, and he was gone. We kept thinking he’d be back, but…” His lip rippled. “I’ve come back home to help Mother and the youngsters.”

“Good. She needs support.”

Hani’s nephew walked the men and girl back toward the house through the garden, a splendid place full of shrines and pools. It was a little formal for Hani’s simple taste but a delight nonetheless. Everything was neat and clipped to perfection, the paths raked, flowers deadheaded, the shrines whitewashed and decked with bouquets. The Hidden One and his family must still feel welcome here, at least, thought Hani affectionately, observing a bowl of grain set out on the step of one of the little buildings. Neferet pointed with a snicker at a pair of sparrows that had claimed it for their own and were gleefully throwing the husks around as they rooted for the best kernels. It made Hani feel especially kindly toward Amen-em-hut that he took his gardening so seriously.

As if he’d heard Hani’s thoughts, Pen-amen said, in a voice tight with tears, “Father loves his garden. It’s all he’s had to keep himself busy since they shut down the temple liturgy.”

“He’ll be back to enjoy it again, I’m sure,” Hani assured him.

“Will he, Uncle?” Pen-amen’s eyes were bright with desperation. “It’s been two weeks…”

“Have you asked the servants if they saw or heard anything that night?”

“I did. No one observed any unusual sight or sound. Father didn’t show up for breakfast—that was the first time they realized anything was amiss.”

Hani shook his head gravely. That didn’t sound good. “Tell me, my boy. Which of the neighboring houses are occupied? I want to talk to the gatekeepers, see if they heard anything the night he disappeared. When exactly was it, for that matter?”

“It was the eve of what should have been the Festival of Hut-haru. I remember that because we all talked about how few feast days the people have anymore that aren’t celebrated solely in the new capital. Father had come back from the office of the medjay all bruised and limping, and Mother had made him drink some water lily tea for the pain and suggested they go to bed early. She was nearly hysterical when she saw him, but he wouldn’t tell us what had happened, except to say the police were watching him and wanted to convince him to keep his mouth shut.”

“I have my medical basket with me,” Neferet informed her cousin earnestly. “If he needs more water lily, I can give him some.”

“Why, thanks, Neferet,” Pen-amen said, looking distracted.

“We have to find him first, little duckling,” Mery-ra reminded the girl, laying a grandfatherly hand on her shoulder.

“The nearest inhabited house is the one with the sycomore fig sticking up over the wall. Go north toward the center of town and you’ll see it. The owner’s name is Nemty-em-saf.”

“Thank you, Pen-amen. Let’s head out, troops.”

“Do you want me to go with you?” Pen-amen offered.

“Aren’t you here with the children?”

The young priest nodded reluctantly. “Maybe Neferet would like to play with Meryet-mut; then I could come along.”

Hani steered Neferet toward the door. “My dear, why don’t you keep your cousins company so Pen-amen can help us find his father?”

“But, Papa,” she protested, shooting him an afflicted look. “What if he’s hurt and needs medical attention?” Her dragging feet and piteous glance said, Please don’t make me play with Meryet-mut. I’m thirteen.

But Hani was adamant. “There’s my good grown-up girl.”

Reluctantly, she stomped into the house, and the three men returned to the gate and into the street.

As they made their way up the dusty lane, empty and silent except for the rhythmic buzz of cicadas, Pen-amen said, pointing, “It’s that place right up there. They’re the only ones who still live in the neighborhood full-time. All the bureaucrats have moved. Sometimes people come back on holidays, but no one would have had a gatekeeper on duty the night Father disappeared except Nemty-em-saf.”

“It’s a city of ghosts,” Mery-ra said sadly, staring around.

“Men-nefer is even worse,” Hani informed him with a grim lift of the eyebrows.

They stopped at the overgrown gate of Nemty-em-saf, and Hani pounded on the faded door. After what seemed a very long time, they heard footsteps approaching, and a stringy middle-aged woman in a scarf swung back the panel. “What is it?” she demanded brusquely. “Oh, Pen-amen! It’s you. Come in. Forgive my appearance, dear.” She tried to straighten herself up and twitched off her apron.

Hani could hardly believe that the wife of anyone who owned such a large house would have no servants to answer the gate. But without the offerings made to the Hidden One day and night, his priests were left virtually without income. Hani nodded respectfully to the woman, who, despite her apron and working-class scarf, seemed to be the mistress of the house herself. “My lady, I’m Amen-em-hut’s brother-in-law. I don’t know if you’re aware that he’s disappeared?”

She gasped in horror, clapping her hands over her mouth. “They’ve got him, then!” she cried. “Oh, I told my husband he wouldn’t last long, being so open about his protests. But may the Great Ones bless him for it. That’s what we all say, Pen-amen. We all admired him.”

Having noticed her past tense, Pen-amen said in a pained voice, “We hope he’s still alive.”

“I want to ask you, or whoever may have been guarding the gate the eve of the Hut-haru festival, whether you heard anything. He may have gone walking in the early hours of the morning.” Hani watched the woman’s face as she gnawed her lip in an effort at recollection.

“It’s been weeks,” she said apologetically. “There’s been a lot of noises at night these last few years. Gangs of ne’er-do-wells breaking into properties and such. I wouldn’t have known it was him even if I heard something. But I’ll ask my husband.”

“Thank you, my lady. Ask any of your friends who live in the area, too, if you would.” Hani shepherded the other two ahead of him back into the street. They stared at one another, fighting down discouragement. “Where to now, Pen-amen?”

The young man looked around him in desolation. “All the rest are empty. If we just knew which direction he was walking…”

“I don’t think this is going to tell us much, Hani,” Mery-ra said. “We’d have to cover the whole city unless we knew where he was going. Assuming he really did leave the house by night. Why don’t we try to find the neighborhood watchman?”

Pen-amen led the way to the watchman’s modest house. It occurred to Hani that the fellow’s job must have gotten a great deal easier since the exodus of most of his neighborhood. Other than patrolling the area to keep the peace, his duties consisted of announcing the news, but he was probably under no necessity to traverse uninhabited streets.

“Perhaps he can notify the neighbors of Amen-em-hut’s disappearance so if anyone has noticed anything, they can contact him,” Mery-ra suggested.

A little suspicion in his gut made Hani leery of such a move. He shook his head uncertainly. “I almost hate to draw public attention to his absence, Father. Who knows who might hear a watchman’s announcement? Do we want strangers to know we’re looking for him? Maybe it’s better to let them think we think he’s dead.”

At that word, Pen-amen, at Hani’s side, emitted a broken sound. But he caught Hani’s eye and said with a resigned nod, “I see what you mean, Uncle. If the medjay are looking for him, too, the less they know, the better.”

Mery-ra shrugged. “You’re the investigator, son.”

The watchman’s house was a humble whitewashed cube with a second smaller cube on top for an upper floor, leaving the flat roof of the larger part as a terrace. When they knocked on the street door, a man looked down from the roof, hammer in his hand, and called, “What can I do for you?”

“We’re relatives of someone in your neighborhood who’s gone missing. We wondered if you might have seen him.”

The watchman told them to wait, and in a few minutes, they heard his footsteps approaching the door. Soon thereafter, it opened in their faces, and a semi-toothless little man, who didn’t seem to be terribly old for all that, bade them enter.

The house was small but self-respecting, boasting a miniature vestibule with a packed-earth floor and a tiny salon beyond. A single column, crudely painted in bright colors, centered it. On the floor beside the column, a woman and a pair of small children who looked like twins stared up, blinded, at the light that streamed in through the open door. Otherwise, the room was dim and stuffy, lit only by a few high, small windows.

“Sure your fellow didn’t just move to Akhet-aten?” the watchman asked. “More’n half the neighborhood’s gone downriver in the last few years.”

“No, no,” said Pen-amen. “My father went to bed at Mother’s side two weeks ago, and when she awoke, he was gone. He apparently used to walk around the neighborhood in the dark.”

“Ah! Lord Amen-em-hut. I shoulda recognized you as his son. Mighty handsome family.” The man made an obsequious little bobbing motion. “Always the perfect gentleman, your father, even in the middle of the night.”

“You’ve seen him, then?” cried Hani, cautious hope awakening in him.

“Many times. Don’t know which was the one you’re talking about, though. He told me once he had trouble sleeping and he liked to walk around a bit. I warned him it weren’t safe these days, but he figured he was a priest. If the gods didn’t protect him, they wouldn’t protect nobody.”

The man had an open, honest face. It was good to know such a one was walking the streets of the city at night with a big stick. Although he’s not very big, Hani thought with a silent chuckle. I guess he sounds his clapper for the medjay if some large malefactor happens along.

“This would’ve been the eve of the Feast of Hut-haru,” Hani specified.

“I couldn’t say, my lord. It’s been a while. The last time I seen him, he was limping, though, ’n had a bruised face. Musta been more or less around the same time.”

Hani exchanged a triumphant look with Pen-amen. “That was probably the very night. Did he say anything that might have suggested he wasn’t just out strolling as usual?”

The man sucked his sunken cheeks. “Can’t think of anything. I passed him not far from his house and greeted him as usual—’cause I’ve got to know him lately—and he asked somethin’ about the wind bein’ up. There was a nearly full moon, I remember, and I could see a big bruise on his face. I asked him was he all right, and he said sure. Just had a little accident.”

Pen-amen’s expression had grown twisted with emotion, but he held his peace.

“Why do you think he asked about the wind?” Hani pursued, an idea forming in his mind.

“The wind on the River, he said. Don’t know why.”

“Thanks, my man. You’ve been very helpful.” Hani pulled off his faience ring and pressed it into the watchman’s hand. The fellow made a pro forma protest but, in the end, received it gratefully. The three kinsmen took their leave.

Once again in the street, Hani said, looking from his father to his nephew, “I think he’s somewhere upriver. Did your father sail, Pen-amen?”

“Not a lot, Uncle. But he grew up in Waset, and like all of us, he knew his way around a boat.”

“Sounds to me like he wanted to sail upriver and needed to know if there was enough wind. He probably wouldn’t have been in shape to row after the medjay’s little reception.”

“But Mother searched our country place, and all the estates of the god are occupied by the king’s soldiers now.”

Mery-ra made a dubious moue. “Did he even have a boat?” he asked, and Pen-amen shrugged. “I don’t picture Amen-em-hut prowling the marshes the way you do, Hani. Or do you think he stole one from the bank somewhere?”

“I’m sure I can’t answer that, Father,” Hani said. Still, he felt he had a clue. His brother-in-law probably hadn’t been taken by the police from his bed and killed.

After a moment of reflection, Hani said to his father, “We need to pick up Neferet and get home. I don’t want the women to be worried about us too.”

About the author

N.L. Holmes is the pen name of a professional archaeologist. She has excavated in Greece and in Israel, and taught ancient history at the university level for many years. She has always had a passion for books, and in childhood she and her cousin (also a writer today) used to write stories for fun. view profile

Published on June 02, 2020

100000 words

Genre: Mystery & Crime

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