Ghostly Serenades by the Nile
The dead, the lost and the damned strolled through Ankhu's bedchamber every night. Like distant relatives seeking boons from their well-off city cousins, they came to the High Priest of Anubis with all sorts of requests and grievances: complaints for neglected tombs, aid for their widows and orphans, revenge on their murderers and tomb-robbers. But not tonight. Tonight, Ankhu had the village idiot screeching over his head.
“For shame! Shame, I say! Shame, High Priest!”
Ankhu forced his body to remain rigid. Faking sleep and ignoring the pestering akh hadn't worked so far, but perhaps he could out-wait its visit. He cracked one eyelid open. His pet cat Nedjem napped belly up at the foot of the bed. If he could nap through this racket, then the spirit posed no threat. Save for a skull-numbing headache, come morning, when he'd need his wits to track down the blasphemous idiots who'd attempted to break into his own mother's tomb. Other tombs had already been burglarized, and this had to stop. If only he could rest…
No such luck.
“Shame on you, High Priest, tolerating a thief in your house!”
Chill crept into the room--not the welcoming river breeze that soothed the desert heat, but the chill of a tomb carved deep underground, filled with the scent of stale air, embalming fluids and decay.
Now did Nedjem complain with a low growl without getting up. Ankhu groaned in agreement. He was no stranger to the stench of death, be it decay or embalming fluids. But not in his own bedchamber. He glared at the translucent, ever-shifting form floating overhead.
“I have no knowledge of thieves in my house,” he said, employing the tone of voice that sent servants to their knees and demons back to the Primordial Chaos. “Go away.”
“I will certainly not. No. I will not. Not until I am heard.”
Annoying and headstrong. Ankhu sat up and raised his left hand.
“By the power of Anubis, the Scale Holder, Him-who-is-upon-his-mountain, return to the Hall of Two Truths and be judged!” The incantation came out hurried and less ceremonial than he'd liked, but enough was enough. And good riddance.
No such luck.
“I am not heard yet. Why will you not listen? Have you gone suddenly deaf? Oh, woe is me, the High Priest is deaf!”
Ankhu frowned. Nedjem growled again, but remained in bed.
“I am not deaf. By Anubis' grace, what do you want?”
“Call not on your jackal-headed god,” said the ghost. “I come shrouded in the blessings of Isis and Hathor, my heart found free of sin upon the scales of Ma'at. Do your duty, High Priest, as you must! Right the wrong I have suffered!”
“I ‘must’ do absolutely nothing. You’re dead, and therefore have no earthly belongings, save for the offerings in your grave.” His voice hardened. “And none of my servants are tomb-robbers. This I would know.”
“Ah, so wrong you are! So pitifully wrong!” The akh floated to an upright position at the feet of Ankhu’s bed. His form thickened, turning from mist to a loose swirl of luminous dust with head and hands and body. “Some possessions are eternal. The labors of my Wit and my Heart, my songs and poems, High Priest!” His voice waxed to a hysterical screech. “One of your servants has been appropriating my life’s work, butchering my words to fit his needs, to woo some woman!”
Nedjem sprang up, hissed, and fled at the screech.
Ankhu rubbed at his eyes. Anubis help him, an artist’s ghost.
“And you left the Blessed Afterlife for that?”
The spirit flinched. “I’d battle Shezmu himself, Osiris’ Executioner, for that. My words have echoed inside sacred halls and caressed the ears of pharaohs and queens. I will not have a scarred servant appropriate them!”
Ankhu’s head snapped up, fully awake now. Scarred? Khemes, his personal servant for over two decades? Reading poetry? Over a woman?
This could be interesting. Or disturbing. Or both.
He glanced outside. It shouldn’t be too late--Khemes would still be in the kitchen. He tossed his covers aside and got up.
“And your name is?” Most spirits wouldn’t offer their names when asked--he had to force it out of them, in order to command and control them. But this one was an artist. One with an ego bigger than all the hippos of the Nile combined.
“Ah, of course. I should have known you could not recognize me in this wretched form.” A slight bow. “I am Menkare, son of Himu, beloved of Hathor and Queen Ty, who wept every time I sang.”
I'm sure she did.
“Never heard of you.” He stifled a grin and reached for his white linen robe. Inside him, his ten-year-old self stuck his tongue out to the visibly indignant ghost. So there.
“Ah. Perhaps if I recited some verses for you…” The ghost cleared his incorporeal throat. “O Muse, sing to me of the man--”
“Oh, please,” Ankhu cut him off, straightening his robe. “That’s not yours. I may not know you, but I do know that you’re not a blind poet. Or a Greek.”
Menkare crossed his ghostly arms. “Ah, so I see that the Lord Embalmer of Thebes does have some knowledge of poetry. That is …unexpected.” A moment of silence. “Then, perhaps, you might appreciate my presence here at night--every night actually, when I will perform just for you the songs that moved courtesans and emissaries to tears, that--”
“I’m already weeping,” Ankhu said. “Let’s go find this alleged thief.”
Disturbed sleep always gave him headaches, and his temples were already throbbing. He had tomb-robbers to track down, desecrated tombs to see restored and anguished spirits to appease. Before dawn, someone would pay for his lost rest and troubled night.
He found Khemes in the kitchen, sitting cross-legged by the far wall amidst urns of wine, under the dim light of a single oil lamp. Hunched over a papyrus, he was mumbling something Ankhu couldn’t make out. Once the servant realized Ankhu’s presence, he shoved the papyrus under a pile of folded sacks by the urns and pulled himself up. His face twisted when he shifted his weight onto his left leg. Even after all these years, the crocodile’s bite still hurt.
“Neb-per, my lord, I thought you were asleep… how may I be of service?”
“By explaining why there’s an akh in my room complaining that you stole his poems.”
The blood left Khemes’ face, the smaller scar on his left cheek now a dark red vine on suddenly pale skin. The other--deeper--scar on his left thigh was thrice as long and ugly.
“An akh, neb-per?”
“The akh of a poet, Khemes. A poet named Menkare?”
Khemes’ eyes bulged. “Menkare? What… what did he say?”
“I’m right here,” Menkare whined. “Here! Right here! Don’t you dare pretend otherwise!”
“He cannot see or hear you,” Ankhu told the ghost. Lucky man. “Only I can, by the grace of Anubis.” He spat out ‘grace'. Not his grace--his prank. Like cats were, without a doubt, Bast’s ongoing prank on mankind. Nedjem rubbed his back against Ankhu’s calves. “Cats can see you too.”
Across the kitchen, Khemes got paler with every hurried breath.
Ankhu waved at him. “Sit down, Khemes. I need to know the truth. You'll be of no use to me passed out.”
“Thank you, neb-per.” With a loud sigh, Khemes collapsed on a low wooden stool. “Is he… is he here?” His eyes darted around, at every corner and shadow, trying to detect the Unseen.
“Yes.” Ankhu strode across the kitchen’s dirt floor. With every step closer to Khemes, a vaguely familiar stench waxed stronger amidst the ever-present smells of leeks and garlic. His mouth twisted. “By Sobek’s scaly ass, what is that stench?”
Behind him, Nedjem growled, ears drawn back, and cowered by the door.
Khemes looked away. “Well, since you mentioned the crocodile god’s posterior…”
“Oh, Khemes!” Ankhu threw his arms in the air. “How many times do I have to explain that crocodiles' feces cannot heal these scars?”
“No, no, no!” Khemes shook his head fast enough to hurt. “It’s different this time! There’s this novice, a recent arrival whose father was a healer, and he swears that…”
“My poems! My beautiful, magnificent verses,” screeched the ghost, appearing behind Khemes’ shoulder, gesturing wildly in a maelstrom of dust. “Is this where they have fallen? Into the clutches of a moronic, dung-covered peasant, who…”
Nedjem’s spat and hissed, adding even more racket to the cacophony of voices. From under a wooden bench, close to the kitchen door, the cat air-clawed at the insolent--and absent--crocodile who had soiled the kitchen.
“Enough!” Ankhu’s roar silenced both servant and ghost, but not the cat, who still cowered by the bench, occasionally growling. Ankhu pointed his finger at Menkare. “You, be silent.” He drew a second stool, dusted it with the hem of his robes and sat down, facing Khemes. “And you. You will go and wash off that filth once you have told me everything. I do not care what that crook of a novice told you; I’ll deal with him later. But, Khemes,” he continued in a softer voice, “nothing can heal those scars. Nothing should heal them. They are reminders of Sobek’s grace. How many men have proof that they’ve escaped a crocodile’s jaws?”
Khemes only nodded, keeping his head low. When he spoke again, his voice was weary. “Of course. What do you want to know?”
“Did you steal this man’s poems?”
“If I did, I didn’t know it’s theft. I’m not like you, neb-per. I’m not good with words, and this time, nothing else can help me.”
“Oh, woe is me…”
Menkare’s wail was cut short by Ankhu’s sideways glance. He turned back to Khemes. “For a woman?”
Never before had Ankhu seen a face turn from pale to blushed so fast.
“Anyone I know?”
“Perhaps. Her name is Benefrit, and she’s a priestess of Hathor. A new arrival in Thebes, who lives with her merchant brother by the river, a few ways south of Bast’s shrine.” With every word, his voice lost in volume and his shoulders slumped, until his words came out in hurried whispers and he seemed to be shrinking in size.
Ankhu snapped his fingers. “Khemes, control yourself. So you’ve tried to woo her with poetry. But Menkare here claims that you modified his words to do so.”
“Yes, what, you filthy thief? Speak! Confess your sin! Recite your transgre--“
“Oh, shut up,” Ankhu spat at the ghost. “Tell me, Khemes.”
“I don’t read well, and one of the library scribes recommended those poems to me.”
“At last, someone with taste,” chirped the ghost.
“But there were words I didn’t know, and those I did know felt ...old-fashioned.”
The ghost scoffed. “Oh, he's a poetry critic now?”
“So I changed a word here, a phrase there to fit her, because she’s not a girl anymore, as I’m not a boy. I swear, I didn’t know I shouldn’t do that.”
“Well, then.” Ankhu straightened his back. “Obviously, just a misunderstanding. Khemes will stop using your poems. You will go back to where you came from. I am going back to sleep.” At last.
“I’m sorry, neb-per, I can’t do that,” Khemes said in a mousy voice, shrinking even more upon his stool.
The ghost resumed his wailing.
“What?” Ankhu blinked. Every muscle of his body stiffened. He was not an old, wrinkled midwife dabbling in matchmaking. He was the High Priest of Anubis. Why wasn’t he in his bed? How had he gotten himself into this mess, trying to solve his servant’s romantic issues? He should just beat this nonsense out of him, as any other master would do. He glanced at Khemes askance. His tensed jaw relaxed when he saw what his weary mind had overlooked.
Anubis’ grace lingered in Ankhu’s peripheral vision, where the Unseen could not hide. Not the scarred, love-stricken old fool sat slumped there before him, but a man who had carried him out of dark, dangerous places despite his bad leg. Many a time—more than he'd ever admit—had the high priest been the fool, overestimating his powers. Many a time had the servant carried his master’s demon-mangled body without one faltering step. This was the man who soothed his burning face during the nights when the visions of death and destruction trapped him in feverish delirium, and who’d clean after his spoiled cat without one word of complaint. Fine, perhaps he did complain about Nedjem’s mischief, but Ankhu knew that he loved that cat as much as he did.
Ankhu released his anger and frustration with one long sigh. When he spoke again, he kept his voice calm and controlled.
“I’m not the only one courting her. There’s this merchant who has his eyes on her too.” Khemes’ head seemed to be sinking between his shoulders. “And he has money, and bought her gifts, and will go to her home tomorrow night, under the full moon, to court her with even more gifts of turquoise and lapis and ivory and gold. I have no gifts. Only those songs. And now I have none of them either, and I can't buy gifts, not after I've given the last of my coins to that scribe--”
“You gave money to the scribe?”
Khemes nodded. “I was lost in there, neb-per, and he promised me he’d get me the perfect poems to woo any woman’s heart.”
“And quite right he was,” cooed the ghost. “He deserves even more, for his excellent taste. Give him more. Yes. Certainly. Go and give him more. And appoint him Chief Scribe of Poetry.”
“I most certainly won't.” He had other plans for that greedy scribe. Later. “Listen, Khemes. Whoever this other man is, any gift he bought, any poetry he acquired will aid him little. Because, tomorrow, you too will court her with songs that have moved queens to tears.” He glanced askance at the ghost. “The great poet Menkare himself will be there to perform for her, through you.”
Menkare scoffed. “I will not help this dung-covered thief. No. I will not.”
“Is there another poet who can move people to tears even after death? Who can make them fall in love?” He shook his head. “You disappoint me.”
“Aaahh...” Menkare's translucent form trembled for a few long moments, then settled. “Well, then… I believe we can reach an agreement, High Priest. As long as …that individual will stop mangling my poetry, I will provide him with lines to woo a queen.” A moment of silence. “But how will he hear me?”
Ankhu straightened his back. “I have a spell or two, and I will come along to be certain nothing goes amiss.” He had no doubt that something would, anyway. He held his finger up at Khemes. “As long as you visit the bathhouse first thing in the morning and get that stench off.”
Khemes’ face lit up. “Oh, thank you, thank you, neb-per!”
At the edge of his hearing, Ankhu thought he heard Anubis chuckle. His gut knotted up. This mess—this huge mess—could only end in embarrassment.
At his feet, Nedjem had gathered his courage to approach Khemes, and was now furiously digging up the dirt floor, trying to bury up the servant’s foul-smelling left leg.
Like a huge pile of crocodile dung.
Ankhu sighed. Nedjem's wordless commentary on events was, as always, disturbingly accurate.
Hidden in a cluster of reeds, Ankhu pulled the thin linen cloak tighter over his head. The gossip of the townsfolk, should anyone spot him there, worried him little. He could deal with the living. It was the dead, the undead and everything in between he'd rather avoid. He couldn't afford to lose their respect—their fear—at this time. Already tracking down those damned tomb-robbers—may the demon Ammut eat their hearts—had proven more challenging that he'd expected. Many lapis figurines had been appropriated from two dozen tombs or more. Nothing too expensive or too extravagant, like gold artifacts and gems, to attract attention, but valuable enough for a nice profit. Many spirits floated about demanding to be avenged for the insult, while the fool that he was played matchmaker for his servant.
Well. A fool's heart was rarely a heavy heart upon the Scales of Ma’at, when his time for judgment came. There were worse predicaments than that.
He glanced up, at the second floor of the mud brick house by the banks of the Nile, illuminated by an oil lamp burning on a ground floor window. Something ruffled the reeds across the yard and Ankhu’s senses snapped to attention. A blur of sand-colored fur, a twitching tail and a mouse’s dying squeak: Nedjem came out of the reeds with fresh kill in his fangs. The rascal had tagged along. Of course he had.
Crouched near him, Khemes coughed. “Neb-per, is the ghost here? I’d like to call her before Nebamun gets here.”
“Nebamun? That's the merchant who's also wooing her?”
Because Nebamun was too tight with the strings of his coin pouch. A major perfume and incense merchant of Thebes, Ankhu had encountered him in the court. Men like him rarely wasted coins on gifts for women. He glanced at the house again. Not many two-story houses in Thebes and this close to the river--Benefrit's brother should be well-off. Well. Perhaps men like Nebamun wasted money to woo this sort of women—those with rich brothers. He sighed. Did Khemes even stand a chance?
“Nothing of importance,” he lied. We'll see. “Menkare is right here.” He glanced overhead, at the glowing mist of Menkare’s ghost. “Let’s see how good you are.”
“Hmph. Still the skeptic, High Priest? Once you hear the verses that entranced Hathor herself you’ll see your error in judgment.”
Ankhu wanted to see his bedchamber more, so he gulped down a bilious reply. “Too many words, Menkare, and not those we need to hear. Proceed.”
“The ...peasant cannot hear me.” He spat out “peasant” as though it was covered in manure.
“Ah, yes.” Ankhu reached into the small sachet of dried herbs he'd brought along and took out a pinch. He placed them upon his open palm and leaned closer to blow them over Khemes' face, when the smell hit him and he flinched.
“By Bast's whiskers, what have you doused yourself with now?”
Khemes cowered. “Perfume, neb-per, a mix of myrrh and mastic. The vendor said it's the scent favored by the gods themselves.”
The ghost floated closer, as if sniffing the air, and scoffed. “I've performed for the Judges themselves in the Hall of Ma'at. No deity I've met stinks like that.”
Ankhu bit his tongue to cage the incantations of real power, those who could slingshot the obnoxious akh back to the Hall of Two Truths to smell Anubis' posterior. Not yet.
“Perfume is fine, but how much did you use?”
“All of it?”
“All?” Ankhu shut his eyes. His temples throbbed. When would this ordeal end? He sighed, and glanced back at Khemes. “Definitely an improvement,” he lied again, and watched his servant's face lit up. That was an improvement. “Let us proceed, then.” He blew the pinch of herbs on Khemes, reciting the incantation.
Ankhu nudged him. “Shouldn’t you call her? So we’ll know she’s actually listening?”
“Right.” Khemes cleared his throat. “Oh, Benefrit, I’ve come to you with words of love,” he managed in a faltering voice.
Candlelight flickered just inside the second story window. Had she heard?
Ankhu turned to the ghost, his patience running low. “Well?”
Menkare let out a long sigh, then spoke in a clear but pompous voice. “My loved one is unique, without a peer, more beautiful than any other…”
In the full moon’s light, Khemes blinked. “Without a pear?”
“What’s a ‘peer’? A smaller pear? Should I have bought her some of these? I heard in the market that women like fruit, and if she doesn’t have any…”
Ankhu rubbed his eyes. “Khemes, focus. Just repeat after him.”
“If you think that’s best…” With a still faltering voice, Khemes managed to recite the lines.
Now something definitely moved behind the window.
“Amateurs,” mumbled the ghost, but continued his poem. “See, she is like the star that rises on the horizon, at the dawn of an auspicious year…”
Once more, Khemes blinked, the wrinkles on his forehead deeper.
“What’s that? Oo-spee-sii--”
Ankhu sighed. Perhaps he should recite the damned verses himself and get this over with. He turned to the ghost. “Don’t you have anything, well, simpler?”
“Like a nursery rhyme? Well, excuse me, High Priest, but as I’ve said time and time again,” his voice reached a high pitch, “my poems were not meant for illiterate servants!”
A woman appeared on the window above. “Who's there?”
Nedjem mewed from across the yard.
Ankhu pushed Khemes forward. “Get out there! I'll say the lines for you.”
Khemes moved out like a man walking to his death. Ankhu cleared his throat and repeated after the ghost.
“My lover has come
My heart rejoices,
My arms are opened
To embrace her.
The heart in my breast is happy
As a fish in its waters.
O night, you belong to me forever
Since my mistress has come to me.”
“Who's there?” Not a woman's voice this time, but a man's.
A short man with the arms and shoulders of a stone mason and the belly of a dedicated beer-drinker came out the front door. He held an oil lamp high. Benefrit's brother, most likely. Right behind him followed another man, his frame thin, his face bony, his lips drawn to a thin line. Ah, there he was, the perfume merchant Nebamun, his mirthless eyes so telling of a heart as tight with feelings as with money.
“Who are you?” The brother measured Khemes from bare, dirty feet to a head that needed better shaving. “How dare you interrupt me from important business?”
“Finally,” chirped Menkare overhead. “Finally, someone will beat the nonsense out of that insolent thief.”
“Shut up,” spat Ankhu. The fool who'd dare raise his hand at Khemes would regret it in this and the next life.
“Well? Are you mute? What do you want?”
Khemes stood slumped, his gaze fixed on the ground.
“I believe he's here for me.”
A woman's voice—Benefrit? It had to be her, from the way Khemes' face beamed. Only she wasn't in the upper story window. She came in from the street, carrying a wicker basket with flatbread and fish, if Nedjem's reaction was any indication. The cat followed her heel with tail trembling and erect, with loud, demanding mews, occasionally trying to tag at the hem of her calasiris, her simple sleeveless dress.
Menkare flitted by Ankhu's ear. “Both your cat and your servant have the exact same stare: this of a hungry fool. The cat is a cat; it doesn't know better. What's your servant's excuse? And what's yours, for employing this sorry hide?”
Oh, how will you pay for this. Ankhu glanced askance at Menkare. “Just. Shut. Up.”
Benefrit approached the three men and Ankh raised an eyebrow. Somewhere at the back of his mind, he'd expected to see a slender maiden with lily-white limbs; he'd seen too many men of certain age develop an infatuation with this type of girls. But Benefrit was a woman: middle-aged, short like her brother, plump but not obese, she had dark skin—perhaps Nubian blood amidst their ancestors? She wore her wrinkles as proudly as the kohl around her eyes, and walked with steady strides.
Khemes had chosen well.
While Khemes stood before them on uncertain legs, more so without his walking stick, she measured him from head to toe, her eyes lingering a moment too long on his scars. Her nose didn't twitch at his unique mix of scents, as Nebamun's had, who now covered his nose with a lotus-scented cloth. Her forehead didn't crease like her brother's, only the hint of a smile curled the corners of her mouth.
“I know you,” she said in a low, calm voice. Her fingers rose as if to touch the scar on his cheek, but restrained her hand in time. “I know you.”
Khemes just nodded.
Her brother rolled his eyes, and placed the oil lamp on the stone bench behind them. “Sister,” he said in a stern voice, “I do not know this fool and what business he thinks he has with you. But my dear friend here,” he stepped aside and waved at Nebamun, “has come to me with a proposal that I believe you should heed.”
Nebamun took small, cautious steps forward, his lips even tighter, his eyes narrow slits.
“Beloved,” he said, but there was no warmth in his voice.
The cat growled and hid behind Khemes. Benefrit's glanced at both cat and servant, before returning her gaze to her other suitor. She had noticed.
“Beloved,” said Nebamun and took a slight, rigid bow. “I have heard many a tale about the beauty of your face and your spirit. And too long have I remained lonely, bereft of a wife's warmth in my bed. My house is big but empty, my servants many but dim-witted and I have longed to share my days and nights with a good woman. In my house, you will never want for anything. If you so agree, my scribe will pen the contract to our union even tonight, and merge two great merchant families of Thebes. To prove the truth of my words, I have brought you these...” He fumbled with the cords of a small cloth sack.
Merciful Bast, the greedy fool sounded almost exactly as the pompous ghost that kept pestering him. Sure enough, Menkare flitted again by Ankhu's ear.
“What a remarkable man. Wealthy, well-spoken, and someone with the integrity to purchase his own gifts instead of stealing someone else's life work! I have no doubt he's a great patron of the arts too.”
Ankhu glanced sideways at the ghost, measuring the weight of the herb pouch in his hand and the distance to Nebamun. One good throw. Just one good throw away.
“Would you like to ask him yourself? A man of his status and upbringing would be delighted to have in his household the poet who brought tears to divine eyes. I can make him hear you, if you so wish.”
“Oh, would you--”
Screams and shrieks drowned the rest of his answer. Bones grinding, teeth chattering and a chest-crushing howl of innumerable spirits burst inside Ankhu's head. He collapsed face down in the dirt, reeds grazing his face. He pressed his palms against his ears to stop the cacophony of ghosts, his blood throbbing and his chest aching from fast, shallow breaths. Menkare blabbered overhead, but Ankhu heard one word only: Blasphemer.
Nebamun's gifts to Benefrit were lapis statuettes—statuettes stolen from tombs of spirits who now demanded revenge.
Breath by breath, Ankhu resumed control of himself, pushing the choir of angry spirits to the edge of his consciousness and sat up. A few feet away, Nebamun stood with his back turned to him, displaying the loot he'd brought as gifts to Benefrit and her brother. Poor Khemes seemed to have diminished in stature. At least he hadn't fled. And Menkare still blabbered.
“...are you going to cast the spell any time soon? I swear, if I weren't already dead, I'd die of frustration. If the High Priest of Thebes full of air and empty promises? Oh, woe is me, I have none worthy to recite my poems, none equal to my intellect, only bird-brained peasant, who...”
“Shut. Up. I'll cast the spell now.”
And he'd use the whole pouch. Not only Nebamun would hear this akh, he'd hear all the others too, howling vengeance for his transgression. And, sooner or later, Nebamun would come to him to deliver him from this curse. Then he'd pull the truth out of him—slowly, painfully, permanently. Nebamun hadn't broken into the tombs himself; he was too proper for this. But he knew who did it. He had to. And, if he had any part in this, he'd pay accordingly.
Ankhu calculated the distance one last time, then threw the pouch. As he recited the incantation with every last drop of frustration in his heart, it flew upon the wings of countless angry spirits and crashed against Nebamun's back. Menkare followed.
And good riddance.
Unfortunately, the night flight of both the pouch and the swarm of bas, of those bird-like spirits, hadn't gone unnoticed by Nedjem. He leaped to intercept anything he could catch in mid-flight. He clawed through the air, the spirits beyond his reach, and he too crashed against Nebamun's back, just after the pouch. He clawed some more and managed to snag a claw at Nebamun's robe.
Nebamun shrieked and spun around. Something tore. Nedjem shook his forearm with a strip of cloth still caught on it.
“My robes! My beautiful, expensive robes!” He glanced daggers at the cat. “You dirty fleabag!”
The cat hissed and Nebamun moved as if to kick him. Khemes shoved him aside just in time.
“Leave the cat alone! It was just an accident. He didn't mean to do it.”
Ankhu kept his head low and snickered. Of course he didn't. He'd never. Bast be his witness, Nedjem had not one scheming hair on his body. He had many. All of them, in fact.
Nebamun held up the hem of his robes and shook it. “This is expensive, dyed linen, you dim-witted peasant! This costs more than you'd make in all your life, and this good-for-nothing fleabag ruined it!”
“I may not know the value of fabrics,” said Khemes, “but I know the value of this cat. He pointed as Nedjem, who sat very busy licking his privates. “This cat is smart and brave and has saved his master's life many times.”
“How dare you talk to your betters in this manner? Listen here, you insolent peasant!” He shook a finger at Khemes.
“Leave him alone,” said Benefrit, and placed herself between the two. Her brother tried to pull her away. She gave him a shove, and he raised his arms and took a few steps backwards. “How thick are you? You come to woo me, a priestess of Hathor, and insult a cat in my presence? And attempt to kick him too?” He shoved the lapis figurine she'd been holding into his hands. “Here. Take it. I want nothing to do with you.”
“But...” He opened his mouth as if to protest, but closed it back without a sound. He tilted his head as if someone spoke behind his back, then shook it, and fanned his face as if chasing away flies. “Who… who are you?” His eyes widened, and he glanced around. “Go away!” Without one word, with his bag of loot clutched on his chest, he left in a hurry, glancing over his shoulder at every other step.
Like a cursed man, chased by angry spirits. Exactly like that.
Benefrit and her brother exchanged confused glances. Khemes kept his gaze on his feet. Then Benefrit shook her shoulders, shoved her basket of bread and fish into her brother's hands, and took Khemes's arm.
“I have seen you around Bast's temple, haven't I? Didn't you bring that poor cat with the broken leg for healing? And these scars… I'm sure there is a very interesting story there. Come, you must tell me all about it.”
With soft words and soft steps, she led Khemes into her home, followed by her brother. Amidst the reeds, Ankhu let his shoulders relax, at last. Nedjem trotted right to him, and left a torn piece of dyed linen at his feet. Expensive, imported, dyed linen. He employed his pet-me-now-lest-I-die purr. And so Ankhu petted him.
“My boy. Always the hero. Once more, you've saved us.”
At the edge of his hearing, Ankhu thought he heard Anubis chuckle. Again. And when that sacrilegious fool Nebamun would come to him for salvation, then he would have the last laugh.