This novel was my 2010 NaNoWriMo project.
The Eloquent Scribe (Excerpt)
by T. Lee Harris
It was a hot day and unrelentingly clear sky gave little respite from Amun-Re’s glory. I was cadging a quiet moment in the coolness of the Scribal School’s porch, copying the dreaded “Tale of the Eloquent Peasant” for the millionth time, when a loud crash and swearing erupted from inside. I would have recognized that cursing anywhere; it was usually directed at me. A cautious peek around the doorway revealed my teacher, Khenemetamun-pa-sheri, writhing on the tiles bellowing that he had wrenched his back. Several students were collecting his writing kit while others tried to help him up. Considering how he was flailing around, that wasn’t a job to rush into. The Master’s beefy forearm took one of the smaller students up beside the head and knocked him sprawling against the wall near my feet. Khenemetamun-pa-sheri stopped flailing as soon as he spotted me.
“You! Sitehuti! Come here!”
I crept forward, bowing low. “Yes, my master, shall I run and fetch a physician?”
“No, Ahmose can do that.” He gestured at the small student still sprawled against the wall. The boy miraculously recovered and fairly flew past me out into the street. Master Khenemetamun-pa-sheri turned his attention back to me. “There is a different task for you, Sitehuti. I was on my way to the Temple of Bastet to take correspondence for the High Priest, Pedibastet. As a senior student, you must take my place. Give my apologies to Pedibastet for the inconvenience.”
I was stunned. Instead of abuse, my master had given me a job — an important job at that. I was also suspicious. Writing private correspondence for a High Priest who was also a son-in-law of the king was an honor. Although my graduation loomed, I was still only a student from a craftsman family. There had to be something wrong. Still, it beat revisiting the Eloquent Peasant. That piece had not only been seared into my memory, but had taken a prime spot in my nightmares. There was no time to waste. I bowed lower, threw my writing kit over my shoulder and followed close on the heels of the recently-fled Ahmose.
My timing was good. The priests had just finished the services to the goddess and the High Priest received me in the formal salon of his private quarters inside the temple complex. He sat in a folding wooden chair flanked by a Stolist-Priest on his right and a Lector-Priest on his left. It was working up to be a stifling day and I didn’t envy them the leopard skins they wore draped around their shoulders. The Lector had the additional burden of his badge of office, a folded linen sash worn diagonally across his chest. At least as priests, they were able to go without wigs. Mine was already itching up a storm and it was only just past midday.
High Priests are usually elderly and, while Pedibastet was no exception, the eyes regarding me from under shaggy white brows showed no dimming of age. He tapped his ornate staff fitfully on the stone floor as he mulled over the story of Khenemetamun-pa-sheri’s mishap. The fear that he would send me away as unacceptable was growing when he stood and said, “You hardly look old enough to have even learned your letters … but … you’ll do.”
He turned and headed deeper into the cool, shadowed private quarters followed closely by the two priests. A servant, hovering in the background, shot forward, folded the chair and glided after the trio. There was nothing else to do but fall in behind the procession and try to keep up. For a man who supposedly relied on a walking stick for support, Pedibastet moved at a pretty good clip. Soon we entered a small courtyard with a pool in the center. The servant, who looked to be almost as old as his master, unfolded the chair in the shade of an acacia tree, then retreated to a position by the door. Pedibastet seated himself and waved me to sit on the limestone paving next to him. Suddenly, there was a disturbance back the way we’d come. I turned to see the attendant trying to put as much space as possible between himself and something on the floor. As he strove to become one with the painted column, one of the temple cats emerged from within and stood blinking golden eyes in the sunlight. It was a very large male, whose coloration marked him as one of the cats most sacred to the goddess as well as linking him with the great god Amun, himself. Considering that this was the temple of Bastet, and cats had free run of the place, the reaction of the servant was curious. Behind me, Pedibastet sighed heavily. “It appears that Nefer-Djenou-Bastet has decided to honor us with his presence.”
The young Stolist who’d had his back to the doorway wheeled, saw the cat and gave an involuntary yelp. Clutching his robes protectively to his backside, he bounced a good distance away from the creature, then realizing the impropriety of his actions, blushed all the way up his shaven head. He didn’t move back, though. The Lector looked momentarily alarmed and quietly stepped back so that Pedibastet was between himself and the cat. I was beginning to see a pattern.
Tail swishing slowly, Nefer-Djenou-Bastet watched the human activity with what appeared to be a faint air of amusement. Then he fixed his golden gaze on me and after a moment of consideration, sauntered over. I greeted him with respect — well, he was a temple cat dedicated to the goddess. Nonetheless, I braced myself as he sniffed my bare toes. My flinch was undoubtedly visible when he grimaced and closed his eyes, savoring my scent. Whatever his criteria were, I must have met them because he then sat down beside my feet with a deeply satisfied purr.
The purr was drowned out by an odd coughing sound emanating from Pedibastet. He was laughing. “You are a lucky man, Sitehuti! Our opinionated Nefer-Djenou-Bastet has taken a liking to you.”
The jumpy Stolist snorted and the High Priest riveted him with those piercing eyes. “You spoke, Tepemkau?”
Tepemkau flushed again and ducked his head. “No, my lord.”
“Good. Leave me now. You and Paseti have duties that are going wanting and the scribe and I have private business to attend to.”
They skirted the purring animal at my side and fled, leaving me alone with the Sem-Priest. I sat cross-legged on the pavement taking dictation until the sun dipped low enough in the sky to make it difficult to continue. All that time, Nefer-Djenou-Bastet stayed beside me, stretched out on the stone, napping in the sunshine.
The shadows stretched across the courtyard when the elderly servant again emerged from the Sem-Priest’s private quarters to ask when his master would want his evening meal. Pedibastet glanced at the sun’s position with mild surprise. “Is it that late? There are many more letters to write. Sitehuti, you will return tomorrow morning, and we shall finish then.” He stood and I did too, involuntarily moaning at the stiffness in my joints from sitting in the same position all day. The Sem-Priest coughed his laugh again. “Such groans from such a young man. You have a few more decades before you are allowed such noises.”
My respectful bow couldn’t hide my grin from Pedibastet’s sharp eyes. He instructed the servant, Huya, to pay me for my time, then left to go to his dinner, having a good chuckle. That suited me fine because my stomach had been reminding me for quite some time that all I’d given it was a stale bread roll at breakfast. My stomach could quiet down; if the High Priest paid me tonight, there’d be more bread on the way home. On top of that, I had a legitimate job in the morning that would allow me to duck out of classes with Khenemetamun-pa-sheri. Life couldn’t get much better than that.
I was wrong.
Normally, a student scribe receives a fraction of the pay that a well-known scribe is given. Usually this is for good reason as a student is prone to many more errors than an experienced scribe. As much as I would like to claim otherwise, I am forced to admit I was no different. So, I waited in the courtyard expecting the High-Priest’s servant to return with at best a small bag of grain or a loaf from the temple’s bakeries. When he finally did return, my jaw dropped at what he was carrying. It wasn’t the biggest bag I’d seen to that point, but it was certainly the largest ever presented to me.
Honor demanded I protest. “There must be a misunderstanding. I’m only a student. Surely this is too much.”
Huya suppressed a grin. “Yes, scribe, but my master had already measured out the grain for the payment. He saw no reason to change his original plans. If it is not needed….”
“Oh, no! It is both needed and appreciated. Please express my thanks to his Holiness.”
The servant assisted me in tying the strings around my waist because for some reason my fingers were too clumsy. He bowed again and left me to find my own way out. I was elated. There was enough for not only bread, but beer and little honeyed fowl, with some left over. My heart was in the clouds, and my eyes were certainly not on where I was going. I ran right into two men in the street outside the temple gates.
“Here, scribe! Where do you think you’re headed in such a hurry?”
Just my luck. The men were city policemen. Two of the larger specimens, to boot. My heart came back to earth quickly. It might have even dropped a few cubits below street level before it stopped. “My apologies, officers, I wasn’t watching where I was going.”
The other policeman chuckled. “We kind of noticed that. You didn’t answer my partner’s question. Where are you off to in such a hurry?”
Okay, time to drop a name or two. “My work for the High Priest, Pedibastet, is finished for the day. I was going home.”
The first officer jabbed toward the pavement with his club. “Not with temple property, you don’t.”
I followed his point and to my horror, saw that the temple cat had followed me out of the complex. “Oh, almighty Amun! Officers, there’s been a mistake. This cat is Nefer-Djenou-Bastet, he must have followed me….”
“Followed you, huh?”
We were attracting a crowd. It was the tag end of the day and the amulet sellers were grateful for a little excitement before closing up shop. A row between a scribe and the police was just the ticket to end a boring day.
“Look, I’m not stealing the cat!”
The second officer eyed the cat with a faintly worried expression. “Um … what’d you say the cat’s name was?”
“Nefer-Djenou-Bastet….” I stomped and tried to shoo the cat back into the temple compound. He yawned.
The first policeman was having none of it. “Not stealing the cat, huh? Let’s take a look at that pouch and see what else you aren’t stealing.”
“Hey, Senbi, maybe we ought to forget….”
“Forget nothin’, Khu, stealing temple property is a capital offense.” Senbi jabbed me in the chest with his club. “We’re not finished here. What say we go ask the priests abo-ow-owow-ooooooOOOOOO!”
The policeman suddenly dropped his club and collapsed onto the pavement rolling and clutching his shin. Blood oozed from under his fingers. Nefer-Djenou-Bastet gazed up at me, then fell to washing his face.
Just as I was expecting the sky to fall on my head in the form of the other officer’s club, the temple gates disgorged a flood of priests. The Stolist, Tepemkau was at the head of the wave. He took in the scene and raced back inside, returning almost immediately with the High Priest himself.
The sight of the High Priest had a miraculous effect on the crowd. The merchants suddenly got very busy packing up their wares and the injured policeman stopped howling and scrambled up to join his partner in bowing respectfully before the august personage. His shin was a nasty sight.
Pedibastet suffered the babble of explanation only briefly before he brought his staff down on the pavement with a crack like to split the stone. The resulting silence was almost deafening. “Sitehuti, it appears our Nefer-Djenou-Bastet has decided to leave with you.”
“Yes, Your Eminence, but….”
“If the Sacred One has decided to stay with the scribe, who are we to say otherwise?” The Sem-Priest turned and the crowd of gawkers melted before him as he made his way back into the temple. At the gate, he stopped and gestured toward the policeman’s torn shin. “Get that looked after.”
I was suddenly alone with the cat. The priests had filed back inside the temple, the policemen were headed away in search of a physician as fast as Senbi could limp and the amulet merchants had almost all vanished. The cat trotted out into the street and stopped to look over his shoulder as if to say, “What’s keeping you?”
Glaring, I slogged off after him. “Y’know, Neffi, you’re lucky it’s a crime to kill a cat, or I wouldn’t give two figs for your chances after that stunt.”
Nefer-Djenou-Bastet looked up at me, crinkled his eyes and trotted ahead with his tail in the air.