Lynda Robinson: Murder in the Place of Anubis

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Lynda Robinson Murder in the Place of Anubis
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    Murder in the Place of Anubis
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Lynda S. Robinson

Murder in the Place of Anubis


Year Five of the Reign of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun

There were seven bodies ready to be taken out of the natron, and the priest Raneb was anxious to see that His customer was the first to be bandaged. The widower of Lady Shapu had given Raneb a bronze vase to ensure that his wife's embalming was perfect. Raneb knew how careless the bandagers became after wrapping the dead with resin-soaked linen all day. Lady Shapu was going to be first.

Marshaling his flock of water carriers, fire stokers, bandagers, and unguent mixers, Raneb bustled along an avenue formed by mountains of natron, the salt used to dry a corpse. In the distance priests and laborers made their way to the shelters where new bodies awaited sweetening in a wash of natron and water.

As Raneb entered the drying shed, he consulted a sheet of papyrus containing a list of the dead, their dates of lustration and drying, and the name of the lector priest in charge of each. Before him lay a double row of alabaster embalming tables heaped with natron. The surface of each table was concave to allow the fluids that drained from a corpse to collect in funnels that emptied into stone bowls at either end of the table.

Raneb marched down the central aisle, tailed by his covey of assistants. He muttered to himself.

"Thuya, son of Penno, Lady Hathor." Raneb halted and consulted a tag attached to one of the tables. "Prince Seti." He shook his head and passed on to the next table. "Ah! Lady Shapu, priestess of… priestess of… Oh yes, priestess of the goddess Isis."

Folding his papyrus, Raneb turned to the men behind him. One of them yawned.

"Close your mouth," Raneb said. "Have reverence for the work of Anubis. You look as if we should put you in the natron along with Lady Shapu." "I beg pardon, Lector Priest Raneb." Raneb grunted, then pointed at the natron table. 'This is the one." He pulled a rolled papyrus from his belt. "No, you fool, don't start shoveling until I'm ready. Let me find the prayer. Here it is."

Raneb frowned at one of the bandagers, who was shuffling his feet. The man stood still and fixed his eyes on the ground.

"Lord Everlasting who hast died and risen again, Lord Osiris, ruler of the dead…"

Raneb nodded at the bandager named Pashed without ceasing his chant. The man stepped up to the natron table holding a wooden shovel. Sinking it in the crystals, he hit a solid object. Raneb raised his brows, but continued chanting. He could have sworn Lady Shapu had been placed much deeper.

Pashed nudged the obstruction gently, shrugged, and began scraping away the natron from a leg. A pale, thick calf appeared. Pashed halted, and Raneb forgot to chant his spell. After forty days in natron, a body was almost black, the arms and legs shrunk to kindling.

Letting the papyrus roll snap closed, Raneb made a sound like a jackal robbed of its prey. "Sufferings of Isis! Who has dumped a stranger on top of my Lady Shapu? You, and you, don't stand about gawking, get this intruder out. His essence will mix with the lady's."

Raneb began to circle the natron table. "I'm tired of all these mistakes and carelessness. The Controller of the Mysteries is going to hear of this."

Pashed and his fellows scrambled onto the edge of the table and began shoveling. Feet appeared. Discolored natron shifted to reveal a stained kilt. Pashed wrinkled his nose at the odor of feces that arose when the garment was uncovered. Beside Pashed, the fire stoker brushed crystals from the head of a man. Uttering a curse, the fire stoker leapt backward off the table. Raneb scowled at the acrobatics, but the fire stoker pointed a shaking finger at the head of the corpse. Raneb came nearer.

Dusted with a coat of natron, webbed with the fine wrinkles of middle age, the neck of the intruder was as pale as the rest of the body. And from the flesh of the throat protruded an obsidian embalming knife.

Meren heard a scream. A jolt of pain lanced through the flesh of his wrist, up his arm to his heart, and he shot upright, panting. The war-drum beat of his pulse hammered in his temples as he clutched his hands in the bedding and stared at the gauzy curtains beyond the bed. Slowly, he drew a bare leg up against his chest and hugged it.

The nightmare had come to him again, when he'd thought his heart free of the terror. Perhaps it was the ka of the dead king that wouldn't free him. He'd been back in that cell again, confused and alone, his stomach in knots from its emptiness, his back a mass of welts from the beatings. All because his father refused to cast out the old gods of Egypt for Pharaoh's god of the sun disk.

"No." Meren squeezed his eyes shut, but he was too late to stop the memory from invading his thoughts.

He was back in the cell again, and they'd come to kill him, but he didn't care anymore. He was eighteen, and he welcomed death, for they'd made his body a vessel of torment. He would join Osiris in the netherworld. Meren lay on his stomach on the packed earth floor. Naked, his back caked with dried blood, he watched dirty feet march toward him, stop, and shift to stand beside his arms. He bit his lip to stop from whimpering when the guards pulled him up. He wobbled on his feet, and they had to support him so that he remained standing. They dragged him out of the cell into another where shadows danced in the light cast by torches.

A cold hand touched his face, and Meren opened his eyes. Akhenaten stared at him with his rabid black eyes. Meren smiled at the king, amused that Pharaoh would think it fitting to watch him die. His position as heir of one of the oldest noble families in Egypt had gotten him thrown into a cell in the first place, and now it would bring him death in the presence of the living god.

"I should kill you as I did your father," the king said. The cold hand toyed with a lock of Meren's hair. "But Ay speaks on your behalf. He says you're young enough to be taught the truth. My majesty thinks not, but the One God, my Father, commands me to be merciful to our children. Isn't that so, Ay?"

"Yes, Divine One."

Meren blinked and swiveled his head. Ay had been beside him all along. Meren pulled his eyelids open wide in an effort to see his mentor. Ay's narrow face blurred and then sharpened, and Meren sucked in his breath. Ay caught his gaze and held it.

The king spoke again. "We will ask once, Lord

Meren. Do you accept the Aten, my Father, as the one true god?"

Meren stared into the eyes of his mentor and gave his head a slight shake. Ay was asking him to bring damna tion upon his ka. Father had died rather than risk his eternal soul; could he do less? But Ay wanted him to live. Meren could see it in his eyes. And may the gods forgive him, Meren wanted to live.

Meren opened his cracked lips and said in a voice that was hoarse from screaming, 'The Aten is the one true god, as thy majesty has pronounced."

Ay nodded to him, but the movement was so slight that Meren could have imagined it.

"Words come easily for you," the king said. "But my Father has shown me a way to claim your ka for the truth. Bring him."

The guards dragged him after the king farther into the cell. They stopped before a man crouched behind a glowing brazier. Meren's vision filled with the red and white glow of the fire. Before he could protest, he was thrown to the floor on his back. This time he couldn't stop the cry that burst from him as his scored flesh hit the ground. A heavy, sweating body landed on his chest. Meren arched, trying to throw the man off, but the guard was twice his weight.

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