The third dynasty of the Old Kingdom of Egypt saw an extraordinary development of building techniques, from the simple structures of mud brick at the end of the second dynasty to the towering pyramids of the fourth dynasty. Just how these massive structures were built has long been a matter of conjecture, but history is made up of the lives and actions of individuals; kings and architects, scribes and priests, soldiers and artisans, even common labourers, and so the story of the Pyramid Builders unfolded over the course of more than a century. This is that story…
Like a breath of fresh air after a generation of stagnation, Huni becomes king and sets about reorganising Egypt. He divides the land into administrative regions under governors and devises a way to bring the blessings of the gods to all men–he will build small pyramids up and down the length of the river, reserving a simple tomb for himself.
Even as Den and his sons build for the king, his twin daughters threaten to tear down the king’s future. One falls in love with the heir to the throne, while the other seeks the heir’s death. Which one succeeds will determine the fortunes of their extended family.
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The day was a fine one and the omens good. Heru, in the form of a hawk, soared above the city uttering cries as the formal procession made its way through the streets of Inebu-hedj, the capital city of Kemet. The king, newly crowned and consecrated, wearing the regalia due to his position, walked solemnly at the head of the procession, with no more than a handful of guards near him. He did not believe he was in any danger from the common people who lined the route of the procession, cheering and waving at the soldier who had become their king. Grandson of Hor-Khaba, who had preceded him on the throne, he had married Meresankh, daughter of the King Djoser who was revered throughout the kingdoms, and now enjoyed that same popularity.
The priests have named me Hor-Qahedjet, the Crown of Heru is Raised, and Hui-nu-nisut, the Utterance Belongs to the King, but I will always be simply Huni the Smiter, he thought, for I am first and foremost a soldier and it is through my family’s military efforts that I am where I am today.
Huni resisted the temptation to look around at the people following him, knowing that all the officials and important men of the palace and city were there. His wife Meresankh was there too, with his infant son Sneferu. She had argued that such a young baby should be left behind, that the city was no place for one so young, but the king had insisted.
“Sneferu is my heir, and it is only right that the people should see him.”
Meresankh had given in, as he knew she would, and any concern she had for the child’s welfare must surely now have dissipated. The weather was warm and sunny with only a hint of a cooling northerly breeze, and the welcome by the people was enthusiastic. He heard the cheering pick up behind him and smiled for a moment despite his efforts to maintain a serious demeanour. They were cheering his queen, as he knew they would. The people had loved Djoser, and they loved his daughter–and through her, they would love his firstborn son Sneferu. Huni planned to reign for many years to come, but it was good for a prince to know the love of his people from an early age. It would help him when he ascended the throne.
“I am less than thirty years of age,” he murmured, “and my grandfather lived into his seventies. If the gods smile upon me, I could reign for another fifty years.”
He smiled contentedly as he contemplated the wonderful things he would be able to do in fifty years. With a sheaf of sons and as many daughters, he could accomplish anything, leaving Kemet in safe hands for many generations to come.
The route of the procession wound its way through the streets of Inebu-hedj, and back to the palace. He stood on the steps of the royal abode for a time, enjoying the cheers of the assembled people, before waving one final time and going inside. Once out of view, he stripped off his finery, handed the double crown to a chamberlain, and called for food and drink.
“Join me, Tjaty Imhotep,” Huni said. “I would talk with you.”
The procession had been something of an ordeal for the ageing Tjaty who, in addition to the infirmities of his age, had yet to gain full control of his limbs after his affliction. His left leg was still weak, and prolonged usage exhausted him, even with a stick to help him. After the long and arduous procession, Imhotep’s left leg ached, and even his right side, trying to compensate, pained him. He wanted nothing more than to go and lie down, but the king’s commands could not be ignored. Groaning, he hobbled along to the room where Huni was being served refreshment after the long hours in the sun.
“Wine, Imhotep? Something to eat, perhaps? The cooks have added rare spices to a roast goose and it is really delicious.”
Imhotep accepted a cup of wine, and was touched that the king served him with his own hand. Huni frowned as he saw his Tjaty’s careful movements.
“I have been thoughtless,” the king said. “This day has filled me with delight, but I should have seen that not everyone can enjoy it as much. Your affliction still troubles you.”
“I am very happy for you, my lord,” Imhotep said. “Please forgive the weakness of my body.”
Huni gestured toward a chair. “Sit, enjoy the wine. I will try not to be long-winded.”
“Your words always fill me with joy, my lord,” Imhotep said politely.
“You do not need to us honeyed words with me, Imhotep. I am fully aware of your devotion to my family and to Kemet.”
“And yet, I seem to remember that when your grandfather Hor-Khaba was moved to confirm me as Tjaty, you spoke against me, counselling death.”
Huni frowned. “You would throw those words in my face? My task was to counsel the king, and I bore you no enmity. We had to be sure of you, and we found out what we needed to. You can see the result today, for you have served my grandfather well. I hope you will give me that same loyalty.”
“Always, my lord.”
“Good, then let us say no more about it. Have some more wine?”
The king got up and brought the wine flask over to Imhotep, refilling his cup before sitting down again. For a few minutes, he picked at the roast goose, the bread, and a dish of figs, before putting away the food.
“The people showed their love for me today,” Huni said.
Imhotep inclined his head in agreement, but said nothing.
“How long will that love last though?”
“You have given much to Kemet already, my lord. Your queen Meresankh is greatly loved, and you have a son and heir in Sneferu. I think the people will continue to love you.”
“Is love enough though?”
Huni got up and crossed to the window that gave a view of the city. He looked out on the rooftops, the streets, and listened to the muted roar of the population going about its daily business. Half turning toward Imhotep, he gestured out of the window.
“I provide a stable kingdom, food in their bellies, and a roof over their heads, as well as the freedom to carry on their varied activities. I have even provided jobs when my grandfather’s lack of building projects threatened the livelihoods of so many, but is it enough?”
Imhotep frowned. He got up slowly and hobbled across to join his king by the window, looking out on the city.
“You could ask any man out there if it was enough, my lord, and they would fall on their knees and give thanks. A full belly, a house and the means to provide for their family is all that most men require. You give them that.”
“Their bodies have what they need, Imhotep, but what of their minds?”
“Their minds, my lord? For a man to attend to the needs of his mind, he needs the leisure to do so. That is why the pursuits of the mind belong only to the nobility, the priests and scribes. The common man is working too hard to stay alive to bother with book learning.”
Huni shook his head. “Perhaps I have used the wrong word.” He frowned and continued to stare out at the city. “Aside from bodily needs, what induces a man to get out of his bed every day and face another day of toil?”
“Aside from the needs of his family, my lord? Because it is expected of him?”
“Expand on that thought, Imhotep.”
The Tjaty stood in thought, trying to discern his king’s meaning. “A…a man has many…responsibilities,” he said, feeling his way. “He has a responsibility not just to himself and his family…but also to his city, his governor, his king…to Kemet, and to the gods.”
“What form does this responsibility take?” Huni asked.
“Obedience, my lord. Other things spring from that, of course, like taxation, keeping the laws, behaving in a just manner…”
“Why, my lord?”
“Why does a man obey, when to act selfishly might bring him greater reward?”
Imhotep shrugged. “Fear of punishment if he transgresses, perhaps, but most men know within themselves whether a thing is right or wrong. They know that obedience to those set above them is the right thing, ordained by the gods. This obedience gives them a sense of…a sense of…”
“Yes, my lord. That is the word I sought. It is the sense of purpose that lies at the root of our society that governs us and tells us what to do. It strengthens Kemet.”
“I would give Kemet such a purpose,” Huni said.
“It could be said that Kemet already has a purpose, my lord,” Imhotep said carefully. “Obedience to their king and their gods.”
“Most men will never see their king, and nobody sees the gods. How can they obey that which is invisible to them?”
Imhotep looked uneasy. “We all recognise the authority of the king and the gods, my lord. We do not need to see them…”
“But how much easier it would be for men if they could,” Huni said. “Imagine if a man could look up from toiling in the fields, from fishing in the river or from tending his lord’s flocks, from his labours in town or city, and catch a glimpse of the very reason for which he laboured.”
“It would indeed be magnificent, my lord,” Imhotep conceded, “but how could this be achieved? You reside in Inebu-hedj and the gods are invisible…unless you mean the effigies of the gods that reside in the temples. Perhaps they could be taken out and shown to the people more often…”
“There is another way,” Huni said. He looked out on the city once more and Imhotep kept silent, waiting for his king to speak. “It is perhaps more difficult for you to recognise, Imhotep, seeing as you were intimately involved in its construction, but I remember the day I first caught sight of the great mer of King Netjerikhet. A city of the dead with that great towering, gleaming series of steps rising up from the ground and into the heavens where the gods lived.” Huni chuckled softly. “Not really, of course, but it looked as if it was that high. It certainly filled me with awe that men could build such a great edifice. Ordinary men sweated and toiled to lift the rocks up, men of skill planned the building, but one man’s vision gave rise to it. The king brought it about, and seeing it made me recognise the preeminent place he bore in Kemet, and the steps that led upward rose to the very gods themselves. That is what I am talking about, Imhotep.”
“I…I am sorry, my lord. I am not sure what you mean.”
“I would bring the vision of the mer to every man in Kemet. Then every time a man looked up from his labours, he would see the great steps leading to the heavens that the king takes when he dies, and remember why he worked so hard, and to what purpose.”
Imhotep grimaced. “I still do not…do you mean to bring every man in Kemet to Sekera, to see the mer of King Netjerikhet?”
“That would be impossible. No, I would take the mer to them, build a mer in every city and town so that men everywhere could see them and take inspiration. I would bring renewed purpose to every man and woman in all of Kemet.”
“A laudable ambition, my lord, but…ah, the expense would be prohibitive. There are hundreds of towns in Kemet.”
“Are you saying it cannot be done? I am the king, am I not? Who are you to deny me?”
“It is true, my lord, you are the king, and no one can deny you, but I am your Tjaty and I know the state of your treasury. I also know how long it takes to create a mer. Order it done and it will be done, though in truth I cannot say how long it will take.” Imhotep shrugged and smiled weakly. “A hundred years, maybe?”
“That is ridiculously long. Find a way, Imhotep, for my vision to become reality–within my lifetime.”
Imhotep looked sharply at Huni and was appalled to see that the king was serious in his demand. He thought about arguing further, but put that aside for the time being. The king would not listen to reason without facts and figures to convince him and the only way he could marshal those was to draw up the necessary plans. He bowed to the king’s will.
“Good, then that is settled,” Huni said. “Now, we must decide on my tomb. I am a young man still, but it is never too early to think about the afterlife.”
Imhotep was glad their talks were moving onto surer ground. “Of course, my lord. Have you given thought to the nature of your tomb, or its whereabouts?”
“As you have discerned already, Imhotep, I favour a mer. King Netjerikhet’s mer is a good model to use, and my tomb can be one of the ones created to inspire the populace.”
“Yes, my lord. At Zawy perhaps? Close to the tomb of your illustrious grandfather?”
“No, I think not. I have no desire to overshadow my grandfather by building a mer close to his per-djet. Somewhere else, but not at Sekera either. I do not want it said that I am competing with the kings that have gone before.”
“I will give the matter my undivided attention, my lord.”
The talk between the king and his Tjaty turned to other, less consequential matters, and nothing that was said later was in Imhotep’s mind when at last the king left him. He thought long and hard about the tasks entrusted him, and knew that he would need help. There was only one man he trusted enough with the necessary calculations, so he went to his own offices and sent for Overseer Den.
Den entered the Tjaty’s office and fell to his knees, but Imhotep raised him up, smiling.
“Come, arise. You are my son as well as my servant. The king has charged me with a great task and I need your assistance.”
“You have it, of course, my lord. Instruct me, so I may carry out your wishes.”
Imhotep did so, telling Den everything that the king had said, not only about his tomb arrangements, but also about his desire to bring the vision of the king’s ascent into the heavens before all of Kemet.
“He will not be content with a single mer?” Den asked, aghast. “Does the king have any concept of the work involved?”
“Apparently not,” Imhotep said. “That is why I need your help. There will be a lot of calculations involved, many lists to be produced, and while I am capable of doing this, I have other duties. I can think of no one better suited for this task than you.”
Den grimaced. “Thank you for thinking of me, my lord.”
“Do not look so grim. It will only have to be done once, for a single mer. We can multiply it up ten- or twenty-fold for the final figure, and I imagine that will be enough to make the king change his mind.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“The other problem requires a bit more thought. The king wants a mer for his tomb, and I imagine he will want one to rival that of Djoser.”
“It should be possible,” Den said. “We already have a workers’ village set up at Zawy.”
“He does not want it there.”
“Sekera then? The village is easily repaired.”
Den frowned. “The plateau of Gizeh then, behind the Statue of Inpu?”
“Possibly, but look for other sites too. Work on the calculations and lists first, and then either go out yourself or send others in your stead to look for building sites.”
“When do you want all this, my lord?”
“A king should get started on his tomb as soon as possible, because he never knows when the gods will call him home. The rest can wait. In truth, I do not see his mer in every town idea ever coming to fruition.”
Den did not envisage any problems in creating plans and lists for the construction of the king’s mer as he had kept meticulous notes from his previous efforts. All that had changed were the numbers of men available, the ships necessary to carry the stone from the quarry at Troyu, and the price of materials. It was a task he could set even one of the junior scribes and be reasonably sure of a successful outcome. He did not intend to do that, however. His son Khepankh would oversee the project; it was time for his second son to step forward and take on a greater responsibility.
He went to his office and rummaged among the many scrolls, amassing a basket full of old lists and measurements. Then he called Khepankh to him and explained what the king required, setting him the task of going through all the written material and compiling a precise outline of what was required.
“The king is undecided where to build his tomb?” Khepankh asked.
“As yet,” Den confirmed. “All this…” he gestured at the basket of scrolls, “will help him make up his mind.”
“But the cost must depend, in part, on where we build, father. The farther we have to transport stone, the more it will cost. If we have to build another workers’ village, that will add to it.” Khepankh grimaced and shook his head. “There are so many factors.”
“Get used to it,” Den said grimly. “You are working with a king now, and kings change their minds on a whim. The rest of us poor mortals must scurry to keep up with them.” Den softened his expression. “Work on a figure as if we are building at Zawy. If the king chooses another site, I can easily alter the figures.”
“And how big is this mer to be?”
“The king has not said.” Den thought for a few moments. “Assume it is the size of the mer of Djoser. That will at least give us a starting point. Who knows, it that is too expensive, we can always cut back.”
Khepankh nodded. “I will be happy to work with you on this, father.”
“I am leaving you in charge,” Den said. “I will be voyaging up and down the river, looking for new sites.”
“I wish I was coming with you.”
“Tired of married life already?”
“By no means, father,” Khepankh said quickly. “I love Kanefer greatly and I look forward to the birth of our first child, but…well, pregnancy has not improved Kanefer’s temper. I would not mind a short break.”
“Well, I am sorry to disappoint you, but I need someone I can rely on back here. Your brother Khamose will come with me as my assistant.”
“Really? He is my brother, but his skills leave a lot to be desired.”
“All the more reason I should take him in hand.”
Khamose was not particularly pleased to find out he was to accompany his father on an expedition to find a building site for the king’s tomb. Along with Den’s other male children, he had been tutored in the skills pertaining to a scribe, but he struggled with calculations and writing, though he could manage reading well enough. His early life had been comfortable and he had no desire to leave home and make a living for himself. Food was a greater interest than learning, and he had put on weight as he matured. When others commented on his increasing bulk, he pointed out why it was a good thing.
“People know I am a scribe, and if they see a fat scribe they assume he is well-fed, and that can only be because he is good at his job.”
He tried to excuse himself from his father’s expedition, arguing that it would be better to take another scribe; someone who was better at their job.
“It is precisely for that reason that I want you to come,” Den said. “You need to get out into the real world and learn what it is like to earn a proper living. You will have opportunities to hone your skills.”
“I am happy enough here, father,” Khamose protested.
“You are coming, and that is an end to it.”
Den ordered a small ship to carry them on their search, and their first stop was at Zawy. They walked up to the existing works there, and beyond to the ridge that lay behind them. He pointed out salient points to Khamose, showing him how any building site must have a firm foundation.
“Build upon a base of sand and the walls will not stand up,” Den said. “You must have a firm foundation of limestone or other solid rock.”
Together, they paced out the boundaries of a mer, and then with a pointed stick, Den demonstrated the basic calculations that would be needed.
“Zawy is a possible site,” Den concluded, “but we need to examine other places.”
Khamose grumbled all the way back to the ship, complaining of thirst, the heat, the flies, and his sore feet. “I am really not suited to this, father. I should be sitting comfortably writing out scrolls.”
“Get used to it,” Den said irritably. “You are coming with me to every site that might be suitable, so look upon it as furthering your education.”
Den did not anticipate finding any suitable sites north of Zawy, but he ordered the ship downriver anyway. He pointed out the low-lying, flat country and told his son how unsuitable it was for building on.
“It floods every year. You could build on the higher ground on either side of the delta lands, but then you have difficulties of supply. I do not think our king will want to build his tomb up here.”
“Then why did we come here?” Khamose asked.
“Seeing where we cannot build is as important to your understanding as examining suitable sites,” Den replied. “I want you to understand the task ahead of us.”
Khamose stopped grumbling at their next stop, walking up from the dock at Sekera and staring open-mouthed at the dazzling spectacle of Djoser’s mer rearing up behind its towering enclosure walls.
“You built that, father?”
“I had a hand in its construction,” Den said modestly. “As chief scribe I was involved with many of the calculations, though Tjaty Imhotep had oversight.”
“And you want to build something like that for the new king?”
“That is for the king to decide. Our job is to find suitable building sites so that construction can take place if he decides to go ahead.” Den looked at his son, sweating in the heat. “Do you think you might be interested in being involved in building something like this?”
“Maybe,” Khamose said. “It looks like a lot of work though.”
“Anything worthwhile involves effort,” Den said.
They walked around the enclosure and farther out into the desert to Sekhemkhet’s tomb, and beyond that, searching for other exposed shelves of limestone. Den insisted on pacing out some of them and making notes on a tablet he carried. Back on the ship, Khamose asked hopefully if they were returning to Inebu-hedj.
“We have found good sites at Zawy and Sekera. That is all the king needs.”
“I would not presume to tell the king what is enough. Imhotep has intimated that neither site is favoured by the king.”
“Then why did we exhaust ourselves in this heat? Is it all for nothing?” Khamose complained.
“Of course not. We do not know if we will find a better place, so we must be sure we have something to recommend if we do not.”
“So we are not going back to the city?”
Den ordered the ship out into the river and the captain turned into the current and hoisted the sail. As they sailed slowly upriver, Khamose sat in the shade while Den moved from side to side, examining sites on both sides of the river. Traditionally, a tomb was built on the western bank, but if a suitable site could not be found there, Den did not intend to report empty-handed. Whenever he caught sight of a likely looking spot, the ship’s captain took them in to shore and Den and Khamose climbed up ridges and paced out shelves of stone.
They journeyed as far south as a day beyond the entrance to the Shedet Oasis, but it was Den’s opinion that going farther south would be pointless. He ordered the ship turned and as the current carried them northward again, re-examined the western shore just north of Shedet. The ship’s captain put in again and Den climbed onto the ridge paralleling the river. Khamose pleaded a headache and stayed behind, taking his leisure in the cool shade of the trees by the waterside.
Den was pleased with what he found on the ridge, and made exhaustive notes, believing that the king might very well be interested in that place. The place had no name that the local people knew, but there was a small town a little distance away that would serve as a label for the place. He made a sketch map of the area and labelled it Hut-Nen-Nesut.
He found a few other possibilities, but he knew in his heart that Hut-Nen-Nesut was ideal, so much to the relief of Khamose, Den ordered the ship to return home.
The rise of Scribe Den had been spectacular, and owed much of its impetus to Tjaty Imhotep. This high official had seen something in the young apprentice scribe and taken him into his household, giving him the opportunity to further his career. Den had made the most of it, not only by becoming Imhotep’s personal assistant and from there Overseer of Building, but also by marrying Imhotep’s daughter. When Den’s father died, Imhotep had even adopted den into his family, securing for him status and position within the government. Such advantages should have trickled down to his children, and though most of them praised their father for his generosity, one did not.
Khawy was Den’s eldest son, and believed he should have risen much higher in the world than he had. Any suggestion that the fault lay at his own door was immediately dismissed. He knew he was a better scribe than any of his siblings, Khepankh in particular, or even his cousin Kagemni who had somehow inveigled his way into the king’s trust. His own rise had been slow and now it looked as if he would rise no further. It rankled that he owed even that modest rise to the good offices of his wife.
A year before, Khawy became enamoured of a pretty young girl. Neferdjet, the daughter of Rekhmire, the Overseer of the city’s highest ranked House of Preparation, stole his heart. He soon got her pregnant with his son Baka and, seeing no harm in it, married her and moved into her father’s house. By doing so, he limited his opportunities, and when Rekhmire offered his daughter’s husband the post of official scribe at his establishment, Khawy had no choice but to accept. He knew, even as he did so, that he was trapped. No one else would offer him work now that he was a member of the House of Preparation, as members of that profession bore with them a dubious reputation to go with the miasma of spices and decomposition that pervaded their clothing.
Dislike of Khepankh and Kagemni had grown into hatred with the passing years as he saw them succeed and his own career falter. Now, as the scribe of the House of Preparation, he had reached the limits of his advancement. Not even the birth of his second son Djetenre could offer him hope for the future.
“What can I possibly offer my sons?” he whined.
“You will give them your love and support,” Neferdjet said. “You will instruct them in the ways of a scribe and inculcate in them a moral code that will lead to them being a useful member of society.”
“What can they possibly become but another scribe of the House of Preparation? The stink of their occupation will precede them and men will shun them.”
“That is unworthy of you, husband. My father raised you to the post of Principal Scribe, assuring you of work for the rest of your life. If you pass that on to our sons, you will have done well.”
“Such a great position,” Khawy sneered. “I will never be able to get a better position like my brother and cousin, burdened by my present employment.”
“Could you do better?” Neferdjet retorted. “Father only gave you that position because I asked him to.”
“So it is you I must thank.”
Khawy turned and stalked out. He meant to leave the House of Preparation and seek solace at the nearest tavern, but he was accosted by Rekhmire on the way out.
“There you are,” the Overseer said. “There is work awaiting your attention.”
“Later,” Khawy said. “I have other things on my mind.” He tried to push past his father-by-law.
“Clearly you have, otherwise you would not be so dismissive. There were other candidates for your position, you know. I gave it to you because my daughter pleaded on your behalf. Was I wrong to listen to her?”
Khawy bit back his anger and resentment. Being tainted by his association with the House of Preparation, he could not afford to lose his job there. The Overseer would undoubtedly look after his daughter and grandson, but Khawy knew he would welcome an opportunity to be rid of him. That knowledge only added to his bitterness.
“I will go and do my work now,” he grated.
Khawy made his way through the narrow corridors of the House until he reached the room set aside for his use. It was as poorly furnished as any of the other workrooms, but it was at least well lit. A high window brought the afternoon sunlight streaming down to his workbench, where the tools of his trade were laid out for his use. The principal task ahead of him that day was the repetitive copying of simple prayers and invocations onto scraps of papyrus. These would be inserted between the layers of cloth wrapping the padded bones of the dead, and ensured that the spirit of the deceased person would be helped to negotiate the intricacies facing him in the land of the dead.
Sighing, Khawy took up a sharpened reed pen and unstoppered a bottle of ink. For a time, the only sound was the scratch of reed on paper as the letters and pictures of the script took form. When he finished one, he laid it aside to dry and started on the next. Every so often, he would stop and stretch, flexing his fingers to ease the tightness in his muscles. As the light in his chamber dimmed, he made a mistake and muttered a curse. He was about to throw it aside, when he stopped and looked at it again, wondering if it could be fixed.
“No,” he murmured. “It is only a small mistake but it completely alters the meaning of the spell.” He read it over again and chuckled. “I would laugh to see Khepankh facing the gods with that prayer on his lips.”
With a grin, he added the papyrus to the pile of accurately written ones. Nobody else in the House would take the trouble to check his work, as only a few could read with any proficiency. The mistake would be overlooked, and the only person who might complain would be the dead man…and he was past complaining.
Khawy went back to his work, and made no more mistakes despite the dimming light. When he finished, he bundled up the copies, with the incorrect one buried deep in the pile, and took them through to the room where the skeletal remains were bound with linen strips. He left them on a side table for the wrappers and considered going back to his rooms. It was nearly time for the evening meal, but if he went back his wife would only harp on about how ungrateful he was.
“I deserve a drink,” he murmured.
He slipped out of the House without being seen by anyone of consequence, and made his way through the darkening streets to the glow and comfort of his favourite tavern. Although it was still early, there were many patrons swilling down beer, and Khawy ordered a jug and a cup, hoping to find some convivial company. The odours of his occupation went before him, however, and men drew back as he approached, or waved him away. Glowering, he found a vacant table and sat drinking his foaming beer. The jug was still half full when a man he knew walked in. Khawy called out, beckoning, and the man walked over before hesitating.
“No offence, Khawy, but I hope to be eating soon, and you will kill my appetite.”
“Fornication, User, I am not asking you to lie with me. Get a cup and sit down. I am buying.”
“Well, if that is the case, who am I to refuse a friend?” User got a cup and sat down at Khawy’s table, pouring himself a cup of beer. “Your health,” he murmured, draining the cup and refilling it.
Khawy grimaced and called a girl over, ordering another jug. For a time, they sat in companionable silence, making determined inroads on the new jug. At last, User leaned back and belched loudly.
“Well, I am off to find me a meal.”
“The least you can fornicating well do is have a conversation after drinking all my beer,” Khawy complained.
“So what do you want to talk about?”
Khawy shrugged. He started his usual grumbling about his brother and cousin, and how well they were doing, while he languished at the House of Preparation.
“There must be opportunities for you there, though,” User said. “I mean, the people who bring their dead to your House are wealthy, aren’t they? They want to be buried with their jewels and things, so you must be skimming a bit off when nobody is looking.”
Khawy grunted. “Overseer Rekhmire keeps a careful accounting, so he would know if anything went missing.”
“I thought you were the Principal Scribe. Are you telling me you could not alter the accounts in your favour? You know the sort of thing…enter five jewels instead of six and sell the extra one.”
“I have never really considered it,” Khawy said, but he looked thoughtful. “It is true that I am trusted.”
“I have a friend in one of the lesser Houses who makes a good living out of a bit of theft and other things, and he is not even a scribe.”
“Really? What other things?”
User looked around to see if they were being overheard, and leant closer. “When a young woman dies, he charges a fee for a man to spend an hour with the body.”
“For what reason?”
User grinned. “Use your imagination. If a man has difficulty attracting a pretty woman who is alive, she is not going to refuse him when she is dead. Some men will pay for such a thing.”
Khawy grimaced. “That is disgusting.”
“For you maybe, and for me, but if a man is willing to pay for the use of a freshly dead young woman, what is the harm? She does not know, nor her family.”
“If they found out…”
“My friend is careful. Now, if you were to do it… Think, my friend; the clients of your House are members of the court. You could charge gold for the use of a daughter of a noble.”
Khawy shook his head. “I will not even consider it. A bit of theft, maybe, but not that.”
User shrugged. They drank some more, and talked about general things before Khawy, who was quite inebriated now, told his friend about the mistake he had made and covered up.
“The significance escapes me,” User said. “What does a tiny mistake matter?”
“Perhaps not much, but if you are dead and standing before the gods with the wrong prayers and spells, it might not go well with you. On the other hand, the dead man will likely have more than one copy in his wrappings, so it might not matter. He will use the right one.”
User grunted. “Interesting. What would happen if you changed a protective spell to a curse?”
“Why would you do that?”
“Just thinking. If you wanted to cause someone harm in the afterlife, for instance.”
“I suppose it could be done. You would have to be careful about it. Anything too obvious and another scribe might pick it up. Then you would be in trouble.”
“I am sure a skilled scribe like you could do it,” User said.
“True, but why would I want to?”
“You could sell curses like that.”
Khawy looked thoughtful. “I could not do it for bodies in my House,” he said. “If it was discovered, it would be obvious who had done it.”
“Write one out for me, my friend, and let me see if I can sell it elsewhere. Perhaps there is a market for such things.”
Khawy agreed to meet his friend the next day and supply him with a written curse couched in careful terms. User would then try to sell it, and if he could, there was a possibility of making a profit from this enterprise. He staggered back to his rooms in the House of Preparation. Rekhmire saw him come in but refrained from chastising him. His view was that as long as a man was capable of working the next day, it did not matter if he overindulged in the evenings. Neferdjet took the opposite view and soundly berated him for wasting their little wealth on drink. Khawy was in no state to counter her arguments, so went off to sleep elsewhere in the House. As he lay preparing for sleep, his thoughts turned once more to his drunken conversation with his friend.
“I have been looking at this the wrong way,” he muttered. “My formal job here may be a dead-end, a position that leads nowhere and is without reward, but there are other things to consider. I can use my position to gain wealth by informal means.”
The next day, Khawy suffered for his overindulgence, and he got no sympathy from either his wife or Rekhmire. He concentrated on his job and did not concern himself with the numerous mistakes he made. None of them were serious, and he found he no longer cared. When he had completed a number of prayers and spells, he selected a new piece of papyrus and thought about how he could alter a common protective spell into one that would cause harm, without being too obvious. After a little thought, he realised that a simple negation would do the trick, with the added advantage that he only had to change a single symbol. A cursory examination would not reveal the change, but even if it was noticed, it could be argued that it was an honest mistake. He carefully wrote one out and put it into his purse.
That evening, he got into an argument with his wife when he said he was going out. Neferdjet shouted at him and wept, accusing him of no longer loving her, but he went anyway, eager to see User. They drank together in the tavern and Khawy passed the scrap of papyrus to his friend. User stared at it, turning it in his hand.
“You know I cannot read. What does it say?”
Khawy told him.
“What should it say?”
Khawy explained the simple negation and pointed out the altered symbol, tracing the correct one on the tabletop with spilt beer.
User grunted. “I would not like to be the recipient of that curse,” he said. “However, I can think of some men I would like cursed like that.” He folded the papyrus and put it away. “I will have a word with a couple of men tomorrow.”
It was several days before User sent word to meet at the tavern. Neferdjet was glad her husband stayed home in the meantime, but he was not good company, appearing distracted and uninterested in intimacy. When word came from User, he hurried to the tavern, anticipating good news. After an introductory drink, User slipped a small amount of copper across the table, and Khawy looked at it in dismay.
“Is that all?” His visions of wealth disappeared as fast as the beer from the jug.
“It is a start,” User assured him. “I have to test the market first, but I think there will be a demand for these.”
Khawy toyed with the copper scraps. “It hardly seems worth it. This will scarcely buy a jug of beer.”
“If you do not want it, I will be happy to take your share.”
Khawy scowled and put the copper into his purse.
“Look, you use someone else’s ink and papyrus, and it takes you only a few minutes to write it out, so what have you got to lose,” User asked. “Write me out more and I will drum up some interest for them. Once word gets around that we have them, people will get interested and we can raise the price.”
Khawy allowed himself to be persuaded.
“Have you thought about that other matter?” User asked.
User poured himself another cup of beer and drank deeply before answering. “The daughter of one of the palace chamberlains slipped and fell, striking her head. She is expected to die in the next day or so.”
“What is that to me?” Khawy asked.
“She is sixteen and uncommonly beautiful, I am told. When she dies, she will be brought to your House of Preparation.”
“And…” Khawy suddenly recollected what User had said previously. “No. Not that.”
“I know a man who would pay with gold,” User said. “There is only a narrow door of opportunity between her being brought in and the removal of her flesh and organs. All he asks is an hour and is willing to pay for it.”
“No, it is a disgusting thought.”
“No one is asking you to do it, though I have heard tales of Preparers who avail themselves of such opportunities. All you would need to do is admit the man and point him to the table on which she lies.” User looked at the emotions flitting across his friend’s features. “Gold, my friend,” he whispered. “A lot of gold for both of us, and no danger.”
“This is a joke at my expense,” Khawy declared, “and a poor one at that. Why would any man pay gold for a dead body when he can avail himself of a whore for mere copper?”
“He does not want a whore; he wants a girl from a good family that is denied him while she lives.”
“Well, it is disgusting anyway.”
“I am inclined to agree with you,” User said, “but he will pay good gold for the opportunity. Will you turn down wealth over a few scruples?”
Khawy refused to listen, saying the curses were the only things he was prepared to do. He left the tavern early and returned home, but his mind would not let him rest. The few copper pieces he got for each curse was useful, but at night he dreamt of gold.
“I am not that sort of man,” he muttered upon wakening. “I am not that hungry for gold.”
The trouble was, the more he thought about it the gold on offer the more he wanted it. He told himself that it was a despicable act; one that the gods looked upon with disfavour.
“But the weight of that act is upon the perpetrator,” he murmured. “If he wants to risk his afterlife; that is up to him. All I would be doing is opening a door to let him in.”
Two days later, Anit the sixteen-year-old daughter of a chamberlain, was brought in and laid out on a granite table in a small room near the Room of Preparation. Her body was washed and made ready, and Khawy, drawn to the room when everyone else had left, stood and stared at the cloth-covered body of the girl. After a few minutes, he twitched the cloth aside and gazed on her naked form. The flesh evoked no lust in him, for which Khawy was truly thankful, but he supposed a man could look upon her and think her just sleeping.
“Who am I to judge others?” he muttered. “And for gold?”
Drawing the cloth back over the body of Anit, he sent word to User that she had been delivered to the House.
“I will open the door,” he told User. “No more than that.”
“It is enough,” his friend replied. “Stand ready at moonrise.”
Uneasy about his compliance, Khawy fortified himself with strong wine that night before opening the door to the street just before moonrise. He stood in the shadows and as the door creaked open and the silhouette of a man appeared, he pointed to the room before withdrawing. Back in his own quarters, he drank more wine and waited. After more than an hour he went to the room and found the body still on its granite table, covered by the cloth. There were no signs of disturbance, so Khawy closed the outside door and went to bed. He told himself that no harm had been done, and the wine befuddling his mind accepted his excuses. On the next day, the gold he received from User helped even more to assuage his troubled spirit. Khawy told himself he was not going to repeat the act, but although he did not yet know it, he had taken the first step down the road that led to degradation and shame.