Horus: Chapter 9
THE MARKET WAS open, and crowded with shoppers and people selling fish, figs, bread, beer, sandals, baskets, pots, cloth, and all manner of everything else anybody would need. Market attendants with trained baboons wandered around, looking out for shoplifters. The Kana generally left the barterers alone, only two or three pacing around the outskirts of the marketplace, paying barely any attention to the humans as they gossiped and haggled. It hardly seemed worth the trouble bothering with them.
One man stood at the edge of the marketplace, leaning against a house at the side of an alley, near a stall selling beer. He'd already had several drinks and was working on another; they had started taking effect earlier, so he nodded a little as he stood there.
He looked up groggily as an Apsiu in black lappets paced by, and flung up one hand in salute. "Life, strength, health, Sergeant!"
The Apsiu gave him an odd look before moving on. One of the stall's owners nudged him.
"Quiet, Merisu! You want them starting trouble with us?"
"What trouble?" Merisu hiccupped. "No harm in saluting one of our fighting men."
The stall owner looked at him as if he were crazy before turning away.
"Keep quiet," a woman straining the beer said, "else they'll overrun the place and drag every one of us off, just because you opened your mouth."
"They already own the city. More power to them." He held up his clay cup in the direction of the palace, just visible above the rooftops to the west. "Life, strength, health to King Set!"
The others winced. "Shut up!" someone hissed.
"Why should I?" Merisu snapped, lurching forward and nearly spilling his drink. "'S there any wrong in praising the king?"
"He's not king," the woman said, before the stall owner silenced her with a glare. She flushed and turned back to her straining.
"Yes he is!" Merisu just about shouted. A nearby attendant looked at him. His chained baboon hissed. "Whoever wears the crown is. Who cares how he got it--he got it. If it's power that makes a king, so be it. Power wins over more people than mercy and gentleness."
"Their bodies maybe, but not their hearts," the woman retorted.
The stall owner nudged her away. "Ignore him," he said to his companions.
"You can't ignore change!" Merisu called after them. "A change of leader, someone who can take control of circumstances instead of letting them take control of him. That's what happened to Osiris." He clenched his fist and looked at it. "Set takes control. Set makes order and maintains Maat for us. Osiris was too soft. This city would fall into ruin if it weren't for Set taking control."
"So why don't you go tell him that!" the stall owner shot back in a vicious whisper. By now everyone within earshot was staring at them, and the Apsiu at the edge of the market square were eyeing them with suspicion. "If you think this city's in such wonderful hands, tell who you think matters, and leave us out of it!"
Merisu looked back at the palace as the rest of the people moved away from him. Its roof and the tops of its gilded columns, capitals painted like lotus flowers, peeked over the jumble of city before him. The image blurred and he had to blink to see it clearly again. The sky was still overcast, but it seemed to him that the palace facade gleamed and glowed with color through the haze in his mind. It wavered and shifted as if in a vision.
The sun briefly came out, its light striking the electrum plating on one of the columns. The glare pierced Merisu's eyes. He turned away, holding up a hand to block the light, and saw--the temple.
It stood to the south, facing the river, also partially blocked from view. Merisu wondered.
People went to the temple to talk all the time, without much fear of Apsiu, as the head scribe there, Hekanakht, always ordered everybody to leave their weapons outside the pylon. The Apsiu preferred leaving the temple alone to giving up their weapons, if only temporarily. The temple was the one last place where few people dared speaking openly--and mostly negatively--about the state of the kingdom.
He thought about it some more.
Tell who you think matters!
How best to gain entrance to the palace? Information on dissenters was a good start. How best to obtain that? Dissenters met in the temple all the time.
The way to the palace was through the temple.
Tell who you think matters!
Merisu nodded to himself, suddenly sobered. "I think I will," he murmured. "I think I will."
He turned south and headed for the temple.
At first Hetepet had thought Pendua would be nothing but a nuisance when he came upon her writing in the temple courtyard, but all he did for a while was watch as her reed pen made delicate strokes over a piece of limestone she held in her hand. He looked mildly interested but didn't say anything until she'd finished and was gathering up her materials. He picked up the chip before she could stop him and looked at it.
"Pretty good," he said. "Part of a story of the Day of the First Time?"
"You can read?" Hetepet asked, with mock surprise.
He smiled. "For years now. Practice?"
"What do you think it is?"
"You don't have to be so defensive about it."
Hetepet sighed and placed the chip with her writing tools. "I'm sorry, then. It's just that you seem to find it so astonishing that a woman would want to write, like it's never happened before."
"That's not it at all. I just wondered why you couldn't find anything better to do with your time."
Hetepet jumped up from the edge of the pool where she'd been sitting. "Better! Like what? Cooking? Cleaning? Brewing beer? Weaving? Raising children? I've tried all of those but the last, 'Lord Pendua,' and so far I've found none of them worthwhile."
During her outburst Pendua had stood up, and he now held out his hands. "That's not what I meant. See how when I speak everything comes out wrong?" He put a hand to his eyes and Hetepet looked at him. "I suppose what I mean is that writing never had any great value for me, so I find it hard to understand why it does for anyone else. I make vases and statues out of stone. For me that matters. Turning a drill and tapping a chisel and seeing something appear where only rock was before means something to me. Putting words on papyrus? I can't understand this--passion you have for it."
Hetepet flushed at his choice of words and sat down. "It's not passion, really, it's just--I don't know. A feeling of doing something. When the pen is moving across the page and forming all those letters almost on its own-- You say that you sculpt things out of stone, and it matters to create something out of nothing. For me writing is like that. Sculpting with words. Turning the blank page into something meaningful. Creating something out of nothing." She turned to look at the entrance to the first hypostyle hall, its outer columns carved and painted with scenes of the gods. "They say that God Thoth brought the universe into being by speaking aloud. Do you know what that means? He created something out of nothing with simply the sound of his voice, with language. Maybe in some much smaller way I just want to do the same thing."
Pendua smiled again. "Sculpting with words," he echoed. "I never thought of that. I believe I understand you now. But there's also a story that God Khnum created all living creatures by sculpting them on a potter's wheel, with his hands." He shrugged. "Either way, I suppose we're both doing pretty much the same thing."
Hetepet flushed again and turned to look in the pool. Pendua sat down beside her and together they stared into the water, floating with lilies, while the sun flashed briefly and then dimmed overhead. They had barely enough time to shield their eyes before it was gone, and then they continued staring at the water.
"What do you plan to do, once you learn to write?" Pendua asked after a while. "You can't become a scribe."
"I don't know exactly," Hetepet said. "I just never thought it through. There's not much opportunity for anything here." She paused. "Have you ever considered leaving the city, Pendua?"
"All the time." She noted the hard edge in his voice. "Not that any of us could leave, though."
"What do you mean?"
He waved his hand vaguely north, in the direction of the city gate. "The Apsiu. King Set."
"But I was told we could leave any time we want, if it was important." She sounded surprised.
Pendua laughed bitterly. "Then someone's misinformed you. We can't leave here, ever. We're prisoners. All by command of the king." He tossed a stone, skipping it across the water until it struck a lily and sank. "And now that the sun's not shining, and the crops are failing, it won't be too long. The balance of Maat has been disrupted. My dream told me so. I wish we'd never heard the name Set."
"We're going to die?" Hetepet asked, with a mixture of fear and curiosity.
Pendua shrugged again. "If he doesn't let the sun shine soon, we will." A strange look entered his eyes. "That is, unless the people--"
Hetepet tensed. Pendua sensed the change and glanced toward the pylon. A man had entered, looking around the courtyard as if he'd never been there. Neither of them recognized him. He noticed them staring at him and came their way, weaving slightly as he walked.
The man came within a short distance of them, wringing his hands. He wore sandals and a simple kilt, smudged with soot, and looked a little nervous, his eyes darting from side to side.
"Am...is anyone allowed to walk around the courtyard?"
"Of course," Hetepet said. She added, turning away, "Not that it's sacred here anymore."
"I'm Merisu," the man said, bobbing his head at Pendua.
"Pendua and Hetepet." Pendua waved in Hetepet's direction. "Did you want to join us?"
"Yes, please, if you don't mind." He sat down near the pool.
"What do you do?"
Merisu peered at him out of the corner of his eye, as if afraid of being attacked. "I'm a blacksmith. I make the weapons the Apsiu use."
Pendua frowned this time, as if finding something unpleasant under a rock. "Oh."
"It doesn't pay well." Merisu smiled ruefully and shrugged. "Not that I have much choice. Weapons are about the only thing the Apsiu need in any great quantity."
"And they need us humans to make them?"
Hetepet shot Pendua a warning glance. Merisu merely smiled again and looked at the pool.
"Yes, they do."
"It seems they could at least pay you well for your services, if they're so needed."
A moment passed before Merisu spoke. "Yes." He paused. "The Apsiu don't care much about paying well and on time. They get their goods from the king."
"So why couldn't he make them pay?" Pendua pressed.
"Why should he?" Merisu retorted, before adding, "They care about themselves first and foremost, the Apsiu and the king."
Pendua's eyes lit up. Hetepet still sat at a distance, looking suspicious. "You don't think the king cares anything about the people?"
"Pendua," Hetepet said.
"No," Merisu said, getting an ugly look. "That's why this whole city's falling to ruin, why the crops are failing and the people are restless. He's disrupted the order of Maat."
Pendua leaned forward and grasped Merisu's arm, causing him to start. "You say the people are restless. Is it true?"
"Of course," Merisu stammered. "They have been. Just today I spoke with several in the marketplace."
"Do you think they would fight if they had to?"
"Fight?" The blacksmith looked confused. "What do you mean?"
Pendua leaned even closer to whisper. "If they're restless, do you think they're ready to fight back--against the Apsiu?"
"The Apsiu are commanded by the king."
Merisu's eyes widened. "You mean...would the people go against the king?"
Hetepet stood and walked away into the temple.
Pendua nodded again. When Merisu didn't answer, he added, "We've all been held down too long. Even a piece of wood that's been held under the water rises to the surface. Would the people rise up also?"
"I--I think so," Merisu said.
Pendua met his eyes. "Would you join us?" he asked. "Would you help us get to the people and defeat the Apsiu, should we have to?"
"So we can--"
"Overthrow the king."
Merisu gaped at him in seeming disbelief. Then he grinned, a strange grin, his eyes glittering.
"Yes," he said, nodding at Pendua with that odd, almost triumphant-looking smile. "Yes, I think I will."
Merisu stalked through the crowded city toward the palace. Despite the haze from his drinking his mind worked feverishly. That Pendua at the temple had indicated an uprising was imminent. He'd thought as much seeing someone, one of the queen's personal guards, leave the palace not too long ago. He must have been leaving to get outsiders for help. Outsiders could storm the city walls and take over the palace.
He couldn't let that happen. It was his duty to inform the king of trouble. His very job depended on it; if the Apsiu were ousted, who would he make weapons for? Certainly not the outsiders.
His steps slowed as he approached the palace. He'd never been so close to it, and it was imposing, with its tall walls, pillared facade, and twin sphinx statues standing guard out front. Between the columns a set of wide steps ascended into the palace proper, behind the enclosing wall which, though made only of whitewashed and painted mudbrick, looked formidable enough. As if to add to the impression of menace, a pair of Apsiu lieutenants stood at the entrance, still as statues with spears upright and pointed slightly forward. The spears shot out, pointing at his breast, as he attempted to ascend the steps. He backed away slightly, wringing his hands.
"State your name and business at the palace," the Kana on the left snarled.
"M-my name is Merisu," he stammered. "I've come--I--"
The Kana on the right poked him. "Speak up, Moru!"
"I--I've come to bring important news to the king."
Prompted the left Kana, "News like--?"
Merisu hesitated. He wanted to talk to somebody in charge, not these two. He wrung his hands again. "Important news for the king."
The two Apsiu growled, looking irritated. They turned to the doorway.
"Follow!" one snapped.
Merisu did. One led, the other got behind him to keep him in sight. The three of them passed through a hypostyle hall and into an inner court, roofed above but with sides opening onto two outdoor courtyards. At a loud rap the huge wooden doors were opened by a pair of Kana waiting inside, who shut the doors behind them and resumed their places at each side. Merisu and the guards passed into the totally enclosed central hall.
This was where the king held court, at least when it suited him. Lotus columns lined the room left and right. The floor was tiled, bearing colorful scenes of fish swimming in the river. The far walls bore painted images of the marsh; the ceiling was spangled with gold stars on a field of deep blue. Ahead was a raised dais upon which could have fit two thrones but now sat only one, gold gilded and richly decorated with hunting scenes. Its feet were in the form of a lion's paws, and in front, at the base, was a carved scene of the river god Hapi binding the stalks of papyrus and lotus, signifying the union of north and south. The throne was inset with lapis, turquoise, carnelian, and any number of other semiprecious stones.
But the king wasn't on it.
The hall was empty, apart from the two Apsiu who accompanied Merisu. He looked around, puzzled, until footsteps from the back left side of the room drew his attention. Another Apsiu emerged, from what seemed to be the wall, until Merisu realized there was a stairway there. This Apsiu, dressed in lighter armor than the others and with gray lappets rather than blue, approached them, looking Merisu over with a sort of detached curiosity.
"Who is this?" he asked, in a mild, slightly sibilant voice.
"One Merisu. Says he has news for the king."
The third Apsiu looked at Merisu with renewed interest and waved the other two away. They saluted, turned, and exited the hall. The air grew silent.
The Apsiu broke the silence, looking Merisu up and down and saying, "You have news, Lord Merisu?"
Merisu bowed his head. "I--I'm not nobility, My Lord."
The Apsiu just sniffed disdainfully. "What does this news concern?"
"Begging--begging your pardon, Lord, but I wished to tell my news to the king."
"His Majesty is busy at this time. I am Mahai, advisor to the king. Whatever you tell me shall go straight to him."
Merisu swallowed. He supposed this was the best he could do. "It...it concerns a man in the city, name of Pendua."
"Pendua?" Merisu cringed back at the sharpness of the Kana's voice. Mahai gave him a sugary smile, tilting his head apologetically.
"We are not strangers to the name Pendua. He is a known dissident in the city. Please, what news do you have of him?"
"I was at the temple," Merisu said, still wringing his hands but finding, with surprise, strength entering his voice. "Pendua was there in the courtyard with a woman, one Het--Heta--"
"Hetepet," Mahai said. "Go on."
"They were talking when I got there, but I didn't hear what they said. I joined them and this Pendua started talking about getting the people to rise up and overthrow the king. He wanted me to join him."
"This Hetepet. Did she go along?"
Merisu squirmed. "Actually, no. She left before he asked me to join him."
Mahai nodded thoughtfully. "But this Pendua specifically spoke of treason against the king."
Mahai turned away. "You've done well, Merisu, for a human. It's good that you bring this news to me. Believe me, the king will hear, and Pendua will be taken care of." He gave Merisu a sharp look over his shoulder. "Tell me, Merisu. When this Pendua asked you to join him, what did you say? Did you decline? Or did you accept?"
The blacksmith swallowed again. "I...uh...accepted...only because I wanted him to remain open to telling me any plans he might have."
"Intelligent move. Too bad he'll be in our custody before he can tell you anything. However, if you wish to keep serving us, you can keep your eye on this Lady Hetepet and her brother Hekanakht. If they should attempt any treason, it's your duty to inform us."
"Yes, Lord," Merisu said, his spirits lifting.
"Good. Now tell me also, what's your profession and relation to the palace?"
"I make weapons, Lord, Apsiu weapons."
Mahai nodded. "I have need of a good personal sword. Make it for me, on instructions I'll send to you later, and you'll be paid quite well for your services."
Merisu's face lit up. He fell to his knees. "Thank you, Lord! Life, strength, and health!"
Mahai waved his hand dismissively and called out, "Hrura! Nahos!"
A Kana that had been standing, hidden and statuelike, by the entrance trooped out and returned with the two guards.
"See Merisu from the palace," Mahai said. "Next time he comes around, you're to let him in directly to see me. Understood?"
"Yes, Lord." The guards turned and escorted Merisu out of the room.
Mahai headed back for the staircase. He ascended the steps to the upper level and made his way to Set's quarters.
He entered as he had before. Kusef was there this time; seeing the look on Mahai's face, Set waved his general back and Mahai forward. Kusef gave Mahai a venomous look as Mahai took his place and bowed.
"Yes, Mahai?" Set asked. He sounded bored, and looked over a papyrus scroll as Mahai spoke.
"News on the human Pendua, Great King. A witness reports he spoke of inciting an uprising against Your Majesty. He spoke in the temple courtyard with the Lady Hetepet, though she didn't incriminate herself."
"But he did." Set waved as Mahai had. "Good work, Mahai, as always. Keep your ears open and your spies listening for more talk. Kusef, get a couple of your men together to arrest this Pendua before he convinces anyone else to try anything foolish."
"Yes, Majesty," both Kana replied, bowing and exiting his room.
Mahai started to go back to his own quarters when someone grabbed his arm. He turned to see Kusef snarling at him, his tusks protruding and his eyes narrowed.
"What did you do that for?" he demanded, in an ugly voice.
"What?" Mahai snapped.
Kusef bristled. "You know very well what! Any reports on dissidents should go through me first."
"What's the matter, Kusef?" Mahai sneered. "Am I threatening your honored position?"
The general snarled again. "You know the chain of command! First you inform me, then I tell the king!"
Mahai snorted and turned away. "You should worry less about your particular place in the chain of command, Kusef," he said, "and more about how you act toward others in it, before they become as dissatisfied as you are. And decide to act themselves."
Kusef gripped the handle of his sword and bared his teeth. "Do you threaten me?" he bellowed. "Because if you do, I'll see to it your wings are clipped, you Moru!"
Mahai just ignored him and disappeared down the hall.
Pendua started at the sound of pounding on his door. His chisel slipped and chipped off part of the stone he was working on, where an arm would have been. He frowned and stared at the damage, pink granite slivered before him, and looked up in the direction of his quarters when the knock came again.
He sighed and left his workshop, passing through the living room and into the small entrance hall. The knocking--or, rather, pounding--continued unabated.
"Hold on!" he shouted, unlatching and opening the door.
Immediately he was met by the business end of a wicked Apsiu spear. He backed slowly into the room as four huge Kana entered, surrounding him with their weapons all pointed at him. A fifth Apsiu, smaller and slighter than the others, stepped in after them, facing Pendua. He wore gray lappets lined with blue, so Pendua recognized him as one of the king's scribes. He unrolled a papyrus scroll, cleared his throat, and spoke.
"Pendua, craftsman, son of Tamose, craftsman, by order of His Majesty, the Lord of the Two Lands, is to be brought into custody by the men of Kusef, general of the king." He let the scroll snap shut, and waved the Kana to bring Pendua forward.
Pendua pulled his arm from the Apsiu's grasp. "What for?" he snapped.
The scribe eyed him as a farmer might eye a blight on his crops. "On charges of treason, planning to incite an uprising against the king, and publicly speaking ill of His Majesty." He waved the Apsiu forward again.
The Kana took Pendua's arms, and he knew better than to struggle. "So now speaking one's mind is illegal? I wonder when merely thinking will be outlawed."
"Give it time," the scribe said. "We'll work something out." He turned and left the house, the four Kana following with Pendua between them.
Pendua felt embarrassed being marched through the city like some common criminal, but he held his head up and met the eyes of the city people staring back at him. He nearly started with surprise to see Hetepet among the crowd, the stricken look on her face almost more than he could bear.
He stared directly in her eyes, willing her to understand.
It's up to you now.
She seemed to comprehend. As he passed she lifted her head also, and the fear disappeared from her eyes. He didn't allow himself a nod--it would have singled her out--but they both sent their own silent message to each other.
She disappeared from view and Pendua was marched to the palace and up the front steps.
He would have been awed by the surroundings but didn't allow himself that either, staring straight ahead as they passed through the hypostyle hall and inner court. The doors to the central hall were opened for them from inside, and as they walked through Pendua felt his resolve dissolving.
The hall was lined on both sides by Kana, each holding a spear and staring at him as if he were an insect. Several snarled as he passed. He could feel their loathing, crackling like lightning in the air.
Ahead stood the dais upon which was the royal throne. And the king sat upon it, his fingers tapping the chair arm in a slow steady rhythm that Pendua found somehow agonizing. He wasn't dressed as richly as Pendua had always imagined a king should be attired. He wore a black- and gold-fringed kilt and armor, as if ready for battle. The only signs of his royalty were a broad gold and obsidian pectoral and a diadem bearing the vulture and the cobra upon his brow. A tall wooden staff with a carved Apsiu head leaned against the side of the throne.
To his left stood an Apsiu in gray lappets lined with gold. Near the throne, below the dais, was another in purple. And at the king's right stood--
Pendua gaped as a pair of ibis eyes met his. His dream seemed to flash again through his mind. "Kneel!" one of the Kana behind him snarled, knocking his legs out from underneath him so he fell, his knees banging the floor. He winced in pain.
"It's all right, Hra'pekh," Set said in a mildly amused voice. "He doesn't have to kneel if he doesn't want to. Though I suggest, for his own well-being, that he obey."
Pendua forced the scowl from his face as the king sat up and looked at him. "So this is the Pendua I've heard so much about," he said. "Not nearly as threatening as I'd have supposed, for someone who dares to speak treason. Kusef, you're telling me you couldn't go pick him up for me on your own?"
The Apsiu in purple flushed and lowered his head a little, glowering.
"I'll assume you already know why you're here," Set went on, studying his wristband, "so we won't waste any time outlining the charges. Let's just say I have a reliable witness against you."
Hetepet? Merisu? Hekanakht? Pendua thought, bewildered.
"I might also add you needn't feel alone; lately we've been dealing with quite a few dissenters, and as such we'll have to find a suitable place to keep you." He gestured for Kusef to come closer. "Kusef. Find a spot for Pendua in...oh...near the food cellars, perhaps."
"What?" Pendua nearly shouted as Kusef nodded and his men took hold of the craftsman's arms again. "The food cellars? What about my trial? Everyone has a right to a trial!"
"Our prisoners' cells are full," Set replied in a disinterested voice. Mahai snickered. "As for your trial, don't worry. You'll get it. You'll just have to wait a while, until all the others get their trials." He nodded at Kusef and smiled as Pendua was taken away. Pendua heard him call after them as they left the room.
"At least you'll have plenty of time to work on your defense. You'll need it."
Pendua was taken back through the central court, out through the south court and garden, and back to the southwest court with its stables and cells. He didn't hear the sounds of many people inside; the prisoners' building looked empty to him. He was led through the kitchens behind the palace, and single file they descended a set of steps leading to a short hall dug underground. Several doors lined its sides, and the only light came from an oil lamp one of the Kana carried.
The Apsiu in front of him selected a door on the left and unlatched it. Pendua felt himself being shoved inside, and as he turned around to shout the door slammed in his face, so that not only could he not protest, he also couldn't see his surroundings.
A darkness as black as obsidian descended upon the room, and Pendua found himself alone.
Alone, in his quarters, Thoth sat looking at his staff, a tall ebony stick topped by a figure eight in which were set two crystal orbs. The twin circles caught the faint starlight shining in from the balcony and magnified it. He held up the staff so the eight faced the cliffs far to the west, squinting and peering through the orbs, the distant rock showing before him upside-down. He focused.
The cliffs grew closer, until they filled his whole field of vision, twisting and re-forming, curved like the planets and then spreading out flat. The vision shimmered briefly and he found himself staring at a group of travelers in the cliffs, clustered around a fire. There were more shadowy shapes around them, Apsiu from the look of it, but this didn't upset him. He recognized Antakh's Moru for what they were and turned his attention instead to the group nearest the fire. He was relieved to see they looked all right, if a little battered; the wolf, Khenti Amenti, was waving his paws and stalking his shadow, apparently telling them a story. Thoth could hear nothing that was said, but the others--the gods and goddesses Isis had sent away from the palace--laughed or smiled when Khenti came to a funny part. He peered closer and finally saw what he was looking for: a different god, one who hadn't been sent out with the others, hawk eyed and listening with more attention than they did. Thoth relaxed. Horus was safe, for now. All he had to do was make it back to the city before any more Kana went after them.
He turned his eyes to look at Anubis, sitting not too far off to Horus's side. The jackal god smiled and laughed at Khenti's jokes as well, though once in a while he seemed to glance furtively at his brother, with a peculiar expression in his eyes that bordered on awe. But only bordered. Thoth frowned to notice something else there that he didn't like. A familiar look. A look that always seemed to bring nothing but heartache.
He shook it off and told himself not to dwell on it. If this was what was meant for the two of them, he could do nothing to stop it. The only ones with the power to change what might happen now sat warming themselves before that fire.
He pulled the staff away from the balcony and the vision disappeared. He hoped they would arrive soon. No matter how far the staff let him see, Horus was always too far away as long as he wasn't here.