Chapter Nine – The House of Books
The Migdol Gate
When Bee came to wake me up later that morning I was already awake, lying in bed staring at the ceiling. Queen Teya was having an affair.
"It's treason against the Pharaoh," I told Bee. "If she was caught, at the very least she'd be banished, if not executed."
"Yet there she was in the harem corridors, not even trying to hide," said Bee.
"She saw me," I said, rubbing my hands down my face. "She looked right at me. I can't just pretend I didn't see it, but how on earth can I talk to her about this?"
Bee's mouth twisted.
"Do you think she'll . . . get rid of you? For finding out her secret?"
I hadn't thought of that. I started picking at my lips. "I would not want to be on Queen Teya's enemies list."
"The man must be important to her, if she's taking this risk."
"It's not like Queen Teya to be so foolish."
"And what about Pabakhamana?" Bee asked. "Did he say anything else last night?"
I flushed. "He said he knew I'd followed him."
"I know," I said, staring at the ceiling again. "He said he loved the fact that I dared. He didn't threaten me or ask me to stay quiet."
"Did he say who the intended victim was?"
"No. I still don't know if it's the Pharaoh, Heqamaatre or Pentaweret. For all I know it could be all three of them!" I gave a hollow bark of laughter.
"Maybe you should write to your father."
"No. Not yet. I don't want him to suspect Queen Teya without reason. Just because she's having an affair doesn't mean she wants the Pharaoh dead. If anything, it's Queen Tyti who has said more treasonous things – keeps telling us there's going to be a new beginning and such."
"Tell him about that then."
Later that day I sat in the garden with the ladies, exhausted but painfully awake. Every time I heard footsteps I'd quickly check how I was sitting or how my hair looked just in case it was Pab. My stomach would lurch upwards in case it was Queen Teya.
Finally, Queen Teya called me to her chamber on the third floor. I'd always loved her room – so much brighter and peaceful than the other Migdol Gate chambers - but with each step I took my body felt heavier. Queen Teya was staring out the window with her back to me, her whisper thin white gown rippling around her slim legs.
"You haven't been to see me," she said. "I'm surprised."
"Will you go to Rameses?"
I stuttered and shuffled my feet.
"No your Majesty." That in the very least was true; it had not crossed my mind to go to the Pharaoh himself. Why would he ever believe me?
"It's treason," Queen Teya said, still staring out of her window, "for another man to touch me in that way. Rameses would burn me on the braiser outside the court."
"No! No I would never tell anyone what I saw."
Hathor forgive me but I am a liar.
"I know Amunet, I know. You're a good girl."
"So you're not going to send me away, your Majesty?"
"No. Not unless you speak against me. This can be our secret and you'll remain my friend in here."
"Do . . . do you love him?"
"Love? I do, but perhaps not in the way you think. It's a love between friends rather than between husband and wife. Priest Iroi and I have grown up together, known each other all our lives. He taught my son the ways of Sekhmet. Rameses can be a cruel, cruel man at times; Priest Iroi stands beside me as a protector and I stand at his side as his supporter."
Priest Iroi! I remembered the way he had snatched her to him in the shadows.
"You're frowning," Queen Teya said. "You don't believe me?"
"No of course I do. It's just, you say it's a love between friends but there was heat between you both. I saw it."
"I said I love him like a friend. He feels rather differently about me, I think."
"But why would you want him to. . . ?"
Queen Teya finally turned towards me and crossed the room to sit on her spotfless bed. "Men are simple Amunet. They're easier to control if you have a power over them. You would know all about that wouldn't you?"
She patted the bed beside her and I saw down.
"Your majesty, not once have I behaved inappropriately . . ."
She flicked her manicured hand with impatience. "Stop calling me your Majesty. I've told you a thousand times. You are my friend, my confidant. I trust you above other women in this harem. And I know that the night you saw me with Iroi, you were sneaking out of the harem with the pantry chief."
"You know I escaped . . ." it was barely a whisper.
Her feline eyes flicked upwards. "Yes. But I don't blame you Amunet. In fact I envy you. I'd love to feel the true wind in my hair sometimes too."
"Couldn't Prince Pentaweret take you with him when he goes to court?"
"In the olden days, the Queen of Egypt would sit at the Pharaoh's right hand in the Reception Hall, and help him make decisions. But this is Rameses Egypt, and our names are not even carved on temple walls."
I remembered looking at papyrus drawings of the royal family on my journey up the Nile, how the nameless ladies were all drawn from the same template.
"You could bribe the guards like I did," I said quietly. "If they let a Master Adorner escape, they'd surely let a Queen . . ."
"Too risky. You, whilst a special girl, would only face expulsion from court if you get caught. And let's face it, a Master Adorner leaving with her lover for one night is not a gossip worthy story. If I, a Queen of Egypt, am found in a chariot with another man, it's a palace scandal. A Queen of Egypt escaping to run around the desert at night! The closer you are to power, the closer you live in Death's shadow. No. My place is in here. And I will be here long after Rameses is dead."
"But I thought . . . if Heqamaatre is to be Pharaoh that you and Pentaweret would be sent to Gaurob."
"It was the most painful thing he could have done to me." Queen Teya burst out. To tell the world that my son, my beautiful son was not fit to be Pharaoh and that I was not fit to be the King's Mother. That the balding scholarly boy would be a better leader than my warrior son. This is why I need Priest Iroi – he is the Rameses' close friend and he has seen the damage he has done to me. I need his support."
"If Priest Iroi is plotting treason then he will take you down with him," I said quietly, meeting her eyes. Queen Teya stayed blankly back at me.
"I doubt that very much. Iroi is priest first and foremost – he's a religious man."
A religious man of the warrior goddess Sekhmet. A religious man who takes another man's wife. His best friend's wife.
"You'll learn you need to find friends everywhere. We are all victims of the Pharaoh's will. Tentopet is cast aside as a dullard because of her devotion to Khonsu. Tyti is the Great Royal Wife but he'll only take her advice on things he doesn't care about. Femi and Lotus are his play things. Iset is an imprisoned exotic bird. And one day he'll come for you Amunet. Who will protect you then?"
Pentaweret. Father. The Medjay.
All of them outside the harem walls. I stared at my feet.
"If that happens, I will protect you," said Queen Teya, her glossy arm wrapping around my shoulders. "You're the daughter I never had."
My stomach gave a powerful jolt.
"You must tell me if you are scared. Tell me your secrets so that I can protect you, as a lioness would her cub."
My lip trembled. "I am scared, all of the time."
"There's nothing to be scared of," Queen Teya pulled me closer so that my face was buried in her neck. "We are the ladies descended from Queen Aahotep, from Queen Hatshepsut. The gods protect me, and I will protect you."
I screwed my eyes shut and sobbed.
Pab walked me through the orchards at midnight & I thought I'd always remember the honeyed perfume of the smooth orbs of fruit, glinting between the leafy moonlit canopies. The warm earth crunched under my sandals. The palace flags flickered on Medinet Habu's pylons above us.
Pab snatched a plum from a branch as he passed, took a greedy bite out of it before chucking it away.
"I have such vivid dreams now," I said.
"Oh, what about?"
"The desert. The desert air, the desert goddess."
"Sekhmet – I feel her on our chariot rides and I've felt her before. She's so raw and fierce; I understand why they call her "She Whom Before Evil Trembles."
"Isn't She incredible? The hot winds are said to be Her breath; that's why I love to ride out to that oasis. The waterways may belong to Sobek and Khnum, and Thebes may belong to the Triad, but the hot sands belong to Sekhmet – She Who Mauls. I wanted to share that with you."
"I hope we go again soon."
He looked at me; his eyes almost black. "I'll take you wherever you want to go." He put his arm around my shoulders as we walked and I nestled in. I decided to take a risk and ask him something I'd been thinking about for a while.
"You said I should tell you my secrets. . ." I began.
"Well, I think Queen Teya and Priest Iroi are having an affair. . ."
Pab stopped walking. "What?"
"It's just a suspicion I have," I said quickly. "That's all. I don't have any proof. But I just sense a spark between them . . "
I expected Pab to tell me to be careful what I say and that we could get into a lot of trouble if someone heard us.
"I think so too," he replied. "I've always thought so – I think he loves her. He taught Prince Pentaweret from when he was very young, teaches him still. He's probably taught Pentaweret more than his father ever has. Maybe Teya sees Iroi as a father substitute."
"Maybe . . ."
"But now you have told me one of your secrets, I can tell you one of mine. When you followed me to Medinet Habu, how much did you hear?"
I hesitated. "I heard everything."
"And you still haven't told anyone. If you had then I would've been dragged away long ago.I trust you Amunet. And now I want you to help me."
"I won't help you kill anyone Pab."
He came so close his breath felt warm on my neck. Why do we have to talk about such serious topics when we have so little time together?
"Don't you love me?" he asked.
"Of course I do!"
"Don't you want to be my wife?"
"I . . . what?"
"Naturally when the new Pharaoh is crowned I'll be promoted and I'll need a wife to carry on the family name, to turn to for advice and to spend my nights with. I meant what I said the first time we went to the oasis – we could be a power couple in the harem, for servants and royal ladies alike."
I felt excitement bubbling within me.
"I still can't help you kill someone. . ."
"I won't kill anyone. Others will do the deed. And if it's done, then surely the gods have allowed it to happen and support us?"
"I never thought of it that way . . ."
"The gods want this to happen. They want Egypt returned to its former glory. It will be done."
He kissed me on the forehead and I felt an orchard tree press against my back.
"Will you stay by my side? Won't you help us realise this Divine mission? You felt Sekhmet in that desert; She knows it's the right thing. What is Hathor telling you to do?"
I felt shockwaves strike through my body as he pressed me tighter.
"She is saying that I should do this."
"My wife to be," he stroked my hair. "I need you to do something for me, Amunet before we go. Would you do one thing for me?"
He smiled at me. "I need you to help me get a book from the royal House of Books."
I blinked at him. "A book?"
"You heard us talking about the heka book and a calendar – I've got a shard of pottery with the names of them. I'm going to sneak out of the harem to retrieve them. If I'm caught I'll be flogged – but with you by my side, we can pretend we're just lovers out for a nighttime stroll who got lost. If you can help me do this, I'll take you on another race; this time we'll go into the City. How does that sound?"
Thoughts swirled in my head. He was asking me to become a conspirator, to be at the heart of the plot. It was the news I'd been waiting for – a real chance to stop this from happening. And a trip to the City! Maybe I could see Father again . . .
"I know your answer already," Pab said, kissing me. "I've been given enough gold to pay off the harem guards. I know the way to the House of Books – we'll be quick. And then I'll bring you back here without anyoe realising you've been gone."
He took my hand in his and squeezed it. I smiled back at him.
I spent another evening lying very still on my bed fully dressed. As the moon came up, I heard a soft tapping on my door and Pab put his head around the door.
"Come on Amunet, it's time to go."
My heart was hammering against my ribcage but I felt more confident about leaving the harem now; we'd escaped so many times now that it was starting to lose its glamour. Pab led me down the servant staircase and we made our way back under the Migdol gate towards Medinet Habu. The colossal pylons were shrouded in darkness; large fire lamps burned orange against the indigo structures and cast shadows over the silent armed guards.
"Quickly," Pab ordered. "Walk with purpose and you won't look suspicious."
We marched down the grass lined path to the high doorway between Rameses' two main pylons. I had seen them so often through my room window but I had never thought I'd be able to walk through them. They were so tall; with every step we took towards them they got taller and wider. Sometimes I forgot, when sitting with the Pharaoh, just how powerful he was - he commanded this place, this was his domain and I was one of the privileged few who could relax in private with him. Pab led me beneath the two pylons and through the second courtyard to the temple complex of Medinet Habu.
Up a darkened staircase he stopped outside a pitch black stone doorway. Above the entrance was a carving: "May death come swiftly to unauthorised persons who enter here."
"Is this it? The House of Books?" I asked.
"Doesn't look like there are any lamps in there," Pab said. He unhooked one on the corridor wall. "I'll take this and be your bodyguard. You can find the book."
I'd never been in a House of Books before; it was certainly not within the reach of the market townspeople at home. I was not prepared for what I would see when Pab's lamplight dimly illuminated the chamber. There were hundreds of wooden shelves loaded with rolls of papyri of all different shapes and sizes; enclaves had been cut into the thick stone walls to store neatly stacked of clay tablets. Each shelf had a small label carved into it; maintained with love.
"This is amazing," Pab whispered.
"Everything is catalogued," I said, impressed. "Look, this shelf is for dream interpretation." I screwed up my eyes to read the title as the shadows flickered over us. "The Book of Dreams, The Book of the Dead . . . the colours on each scroll are incredible; it must have taken the scribes years to create these. And look – a roll for ghost stories."
"Shh quiet; if we are found here by the guards … We are not supposed to be in here."
Pab began wandering between the shelves peering at the categories. On the walls and shelves above him the goddess Seshat stared down at us wearing her leopard skin and seven-point headdress. "She Who Scribes" was Min's goddess - I felt a warmth wash over me and the library didn't feel forbidden to me anymore, but a place of learning and contemplation. For the first time I could understand why Min had devoted his life to the written word, even if it meant working in the tombs all day.
"There are so many of them; how are we going to find the one we need? " Pab said. "These ones are festival hymns, festival calendars . . . court records. . . Oh wait, here's the calendar we need – The Auspicious Days"
"Pab over here - love poems, love spells . . . if there are spells here it's likely the heka books are here too."
We were moving towards the back of the library; these papyrus scrolls were not read often; the edges looked pristine but dusty. I felt a chill on my neck. Whipping around there was no one there, although we'd moved so far into the House of Books that I couldn't see the doorway we'd come through. I imagined the Cloak gliding in the dark silence towards us.
"Amunet over here."
I gratefully ran to his side as he stood in front of a dusty shelf, peering at the tiny hieratic symbols on a papyrus roll.
"What was the name of the book?" he asked.
I took out the pottery shard. "Wax Heka."
He pulled out a dust coloured roll from the shelf; the symbols were written in dank red and there were no illustrations to give clues to its contents.
"I don't like this," I whispered. "Let's go."
We crept towards the chamber doorway, the lamp surrounding us with a protective shield. Pab peered out into the black corridor and nodded to me that we were clear. We marched back to the harem without looking back. As we approached the Migdol Gate, I saw Pab's plain chariot waiting in the shadows.
"Are we going out tonight?" I asked him. "You said we'd be coming straight back?"
"Now that we have the book and calendar, we have no time to lose," he said, his eyes sparking. He grabbed my hand and pulled me into the chariot. I'd never seen Pab so energetic, his face looked almost crazy.
"Hold on!" and he whipped the horse's reigns, jolting us across the plains.
"Where are we going?" I shouted over the horses hooves/
"To a villa in the city," said Pab, spurring the horse on. I grasped the Wax Heka book and calendar tightly, not caring if I crumpled the priceless papyrus. The palace was long behind us now as we entered the city walls; Pentaweret slowed as we rattled through the silent streets. All the shops were closed; the main streets were lit by sporadic red fire lamps and behind them, the backstreets spidered away into the darkness. I didn't recognise this part of Thebes; it wasn't near the main market place or the constabulary.
"Don't say a word until we get inside," Pab murmured. "No one can know we're here."
We were in a residential area now rolling past large villas and houses. Some had lights in the windows whilst others were completely dark. He pulled the horse to a stop outside one of the houses as quiet and as unremarkable as its neighbours. The windows were hidden by wooden shutters. Pab jumped down and offered me a gallant hand; together we walked the path to the front door.
I could smell it. It was just a faint odour in the night time breeze but it was unmistakable; I could smell it in my nightmares. I stopped walking and Pab gave me a gentle tug.
"Amunet come on," he whispered.
"I can't," I whispered back. "I know that smell – it's the Cloak. I can't go in there; not if it's in there too."
"I see it around the harem; it stinks. It's evil and I don't want to go in there. Please don't make me go in there. Please."
"Amunet would I take you somewhere dangerous?"
"Well . . . no. . ."
"Then trust me; you've nothing to worry about. Take my hand and come in."
Pab opened the door without knocking and I hid behind him, my blood pounding in my ears. The smell was so strong it made my eyes water. I retched and dug my fingernails into Pab's tattooed skin. Pab urged me forward with him and we moved deeper into the house towards a backroom. Its door was shut but I could see a dim light underneath and hear low voices behind it. Pab made a specific tapping sound on the door and it burst open.
Commander Peyes clutched an empty beer jug in his hands. The Cloak sat with his spindly fingers pressed gently together. Priest Iroi examined one of his Sekhmet bracelets.
"You're late Pabakhamana," said a voice. Out of the shadows stepped a man and I gasped.
Peynok was the upholder of harem tradition, the most unflinching monarchist - but we were away from that now; we were in a dark, secret house far far away from the palace. I realised that if Pab were to leave me right now, I'd have no way of getting back to the harem.
"We had to retrieve the papyrus from the House of Books," said Pab, shoving his way past Peynok. "I came as quickly as I could." I tiptoed after him.
"Who is this?" Peyes asked.
"This is Amunet, Royal Ornament to Queen Tyti. She's helping me."
Peynok frowned at him. "Are you sure about this?"
"I'm sure. Amunet wont say a word."
"And if she does, we'll slit the bitchs throat," said Peyes. "Hear me girl?"
"Sit," Peynok said to us, pouring some warm beer. "We have much to discuss."
I had to take the seat next to the Cloak. I'd rather have sat in a burning fire. His eyes flicked towards me and I saw a glimpse of a smirk, as if he could sense my fear and knew that he'd been frightening me since I came to Thebes. All of a sudden I hated him. If I ever gained power in this world I'd have him sent away.
Iroi unfurled the calendar and began to trace the symbols with his ringed fingers.
"Our Mistress has said we are to attack during the Opet Festival," he said. "Looking at the calendar it looks like Opet isn't a time for trying new ventures, but for hailing the gods. Best to do it just after Opet on this auspicious date; the 29th day of the second month of Akhet."
"Just as well – security is tight during Opet," said Peynok. "I overheard the Pharaoh asking for new amulets to wear on the day."
Iroi tossed the priceless calendar behind him. "We need to plan our next steps. They cannot continue to walk this earth. Just last night he was blaspheming the name of Sekhemet. Do you have the book as well?"
All eyes turned to me and I placed the Wax Heka book on the table. The Cloak unrolled it and they used their beer mugs to lay it flat. He traced his cold fingertips over the fading text as he read.
"Simple enough," the Cloak said. "We'll need a hair from the victim. I'm assuming our Mistress will be able to get that. I'd craft the beeswax into his image, incorporate his essence and say this incantation. Once complete, we can break the doll and it should break the protective aura around him.
There was a ghastly silence once the Cloak had finished - I clasped my hands together until my knuckles turned white. I wanted to grasp Pab's hand and run.
"So the aura is broken," said Peynok. "What then?"
"We agreed on using a snake the last time we spoke," said Commander Peyes. "Break the aura, put a snake in his bed for the most unfortunate and accidental bite. Our Mistress must immediately."
"Do we have enough men?" Priest Iroi asked.
"My battalion is not enough," said Commander Peyes. "But with Captain Biwamese's archers and the disgruntled populace of Thebes I think we could do it."
"And the harem men," said Pab. "Don't forget that we could stall any guards demanding to see his Majesty, if they suspect something."
Iroi looked at me. "Does he have guards in his harem bedchamber?"
"No. Only he and the harem women are allowed in there."
"Good. Maybe we should create wax dolls of the guards as well to weaken them, just in case. Is that possible?"
"Perfectly possible," said the Cloak. "We'd just need some of their essence."
"Getting back to the point about the rebellion," said Commander Peyes, slapping his hand on the table. "There is no easy way for our Mistress to signal that the deed inside the Gate is done. We'd have to have someone running from the Gate to Thebes moments after the kill – no one is suicidal enough to take that job. We will have to rise up and hope to the gods that your side of the plan has gone ahead."
"If the Migdol Gate plan has failed then you'll have risen for nothing," said Iroi. "And they will burn you all if you march on Medinet Habu."
"If that happens, blame the uprising on striking workmen," said Pab. "There have been enough riots lately for that to be plausible. At least long enough for you to escape to the Delta."
"So say it all goes to plan – he dies in accidental circumstances and the palace has been stormed. Then what?" asked Peyes.
"Iroi will pronounce the prince as the new Pharaoh," said Peynok. "with the army and the harem standing behind him. He'll make a speech at the Window of Appearances to win over the Theban people in light of this awful accident."
"What about Vizier To and his cronies?" asked Peyes. "They won't just accept it."
"We'll have to keep them close," said Iroi. "They'll need to be tempted with gold and offices. I'll assign people to watch them and if there is the slightest move against us then they'll face a fiery death for treason."
"Where will you be?" Pab asked Peynok.
"I'll be in the harem. I need to protect my Mistress should things go wrong."
"Sounds like we have a plan," Peyes drained his second mug of beer. "I'll speak to Biwamese about his archer contingent. There may be other battalions I can win to our cause."
"In the meantime I'll reach out to my brothers of Sekhmet," said Iroi. "Pab – you need to keep up this charm offensive of yours. The more people you can charm around to our cause, the more supported we'll be."
"Yes my lord."
"You must continue to ferry notes in and out of the harem. It's the only way to get the Theban people to rush to our side."
"I can do that." Pab turned to me. "Amunet – I need you to be my eyes and ears in the Migdol Gate. I need you to tell me about any whisper of discontent from t he ladies. If anyone finds out about us then we need to get them over to our side."
"I'm. . . I'm not sure I can do this. . ."
"This is a matter of life and death," snapped Peyes. "Not just the death of one man but the kingdom of Egypt itself."
"This is for the greater good; it's a sacred thing we plan here," said Iroi, in a sweeter voice. "Pab told me that you understand the common people?"
"Well I . . ."
"Do they not want a Pharaoh who is not led by corrupt advisors? A Pharaoh that cares if their children starve in their beds at night – if they are lucky to have a bed? A Pharaoh that rewards soldiers mutilated in his wars instead of taxing them so he can live in a golden palace? Do they not deserve that?"
"This is treason . . ."
"Amunet," Pab began softly. "It is not treason to love your country to the extent that you'd do anything for her; to go to extreme lengths to remove incompetence and greed and corruption at the highest levels. It's not treason. Quite the opposite."
I swallowed and looked at my hands. "I understand."
We returned to the harem without talking, my head swirling. They seemed so sure they were doing the right thing. They seemed so sure that the gods were on their side. Could they be right? Could this plot really achieve the greater good?
But I'd already betrayed them. I'd already sent their names to Father and the Medjay. I chewed my lip and tried to think clearly.
I found Bee standing awkwardly in my room.
"What is it Bee, I'm really tired."
"Mistress . . your father has died."