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Authors: Alexander Marmer

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“The meaning of it will not be revealed to you yet,” said the priest quietly. “However, the time will come.”

“I understand. It will be my honor,” replied Amset as he bowed before the supreme priest.

The priest acknowledged him with a slight nod and continued, “The great wisdom of life consists of the fact that the world is inviolable and constant. The world is inviolable as long as it follows the order given to it by the god Ra and remains protected by the feather of Ma’at.” Ur Senu raised his wand of Bastet, the sacred daughter of Ra. “We guard these laws! We will not let anyone disturb them. This is why we need to protect the resting place of Khufu. Kemet is still alive because of this secret and it will remain so.”

The priest stood silently for a long period of time, prompting Amset and Jibade to remain silent as well.

Suddenly the priest broke the silence in a low tone of voice. “I will tell you the legend of the Pharaoh Menkaure. He was the grandson of the great Pharaoh Khufu. The pyramid of Menkaure is located to the left of the others.”

Amset nodded, as he was quite familiar with its location.

“The legend states that the Pharaoh Khufu was a cruel person, as was his son, Khafre, whose pyramid is in the middle of the triad. During the reign of these pharaohs, the land of Kem-ta underwent great calamities such as droughts, bad harvests and diseases. Nevertheless, by the order of these pharaohs, the temples were closed down and the people’s labor was used entirely on building the pyramids. Indeed, it was necessary to transport stones and clear the sands. But, when Menkaure, the son of Khafre and grandson of Khufu, became pharaoh, he opened all the temples again. He freed his tired people from their burdens, allowed them to go back to work the fields and into the temples for the offerings. Menkaure was also the most righteous judge and a far more respectable pharaoh than all those that preceded him. The people of Kem-ta were grateful to the gods for providing such a righteous pharaoh.

However, our most gracious pharaoh, Menkaure, was suddenly struck by three terrible misfortunes: the death of his daughter, the treason of his friends, and an ill-fated prophesy of the gods. This prophecy stated that he had six years to live and on the seventh he would move to the Duat country, or the afterlife. The Pharaoh Menkaure was thrown into a great grief and in desperation he sent his priests to the oracle of the goddess Ma’at. His priests appealed to Ma’at, the goddess of world order, “Oh great Ma’at! Both father and grandfather of the great Menkaure locked down the temples and suppressed their people, however they satisfactorily lived to an old age. Why must the most righteous Pharaoh Menkaure die in six years? Is this righteous?” And, Ma’at answered the priests, “Menkaure is a good and righteous pharaoh. But, for this very reason, I reduced his lifespan. He has not completed what had to be completed. Kem-ta had to undergo the calamity for one hundred fifty years. Khufu and Khafre understood this, but Menkaure did not.”

“Does that mean that I’m doomed as well?” Amset quietly asked.

Ur Senu smiled almost softly as he replied calmly, “The legend has a continuation. The priests brought the oracle’s answer back to the pharaoh.”

“What did the pharaoh do? Did he follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather? Were the temples shut down? Did he begin to suppress his people?” Amset interjected questions in rapid succession.

“No, he remained the same,” answered the priest. “Menkaure decided to deceive his fate. He gave the order to prepare one hundred thousand torches and to ignite them at night. In this way, the night would turn to day. The pharaoh ceased to sleep. At night, as in the daytime, he drank wine, played games, and delighted himself with the dances of slaves. By converting the remaining nights into the days, he attempted to expose the oracle in a lie. Menkaure wanted to convert his six remaining years into twelve. He thought he could cheat his fate, but he did not succeed.”

“What if Menkaure had stopped being nice to people?” asked Amset in astonishment. “What if he had become as ruthless and terrible as his grandfather and father? Then what?”

“Then, Ma’at would have possibly abolished his death sentence.”

“Why is it that righteousness must always be held with less respect then evil? Is cruelty legitimate?”

“We cannot know what is correct and what is not. The gods decide this. Because cruelty and evil exist in the world, it means it is convenient to the gods for it to remain. The story about Pharaoh Menkaure indicates that it is not possible to deceive fate, but that it is necessary to entrust oneself to fate. Menkaure destroyed nights and thought that he would prolong his years. Nevertheless, his fate triumphed.”

“Is that what awaits me?” Amset asked, almost in a whisper.

“Calm down, my dear boy. The goddess Hathor has not determined your fate yet. You have not learned enough yet: only the method of the accomplishment of fate. Leave unexpected contingencies alone and it is quite possible you will live to reach an old age.” He motioned to Amset for the stele. Amset carefully placed it into the old priest’s hands. The priest reached deep down into the table’s secret compartment, reverently placing the stele back into its hiding place. “That is all I have for you currently.”

“Old age,” repeated Amset to himself as he slowly walked away, his guard behind him, leaving the old priest alone in the chamber.

Ur Senu once again ascended the stairs to stand above the gates and gaze out to the west towards the desert. The sun was setting rapidly below the desert. The violet light of evening became thicker as it spilled on the sands. The shadows became more drawn.

A disconcerting anxiety crept into the heart of the supreme priest. What would the god Ra deliver in the morning to the old priest? What would be awaiting him along with the crimson light of dawn, the singing of the birds and the sparkling transparency of the air? What if dawn brought with it the information of the boy’s death? Would his soul be able to reconcile the fact that this death was just fate and that the great goddess Hathor stood guard over the highest legitimacy? Ur Senu sighed with helplessness.

* * *

Thirteen days later, Jibade stood over the lifeless body of his sovereign while the women wept and wailed around him. Amset had contracted a mysterious illness at the temple of Hewet-ka-Ptah. Unfortunately, it had progressed far too quickly before anyone could intervene. He had been only sixteen years of age.

Although stunned by complete disbelief, Jibade knew deep in his heart what a heavy burden had suddenly been placed in his arms. He knew he would never compromise the secret of the stele. He owed that much to Amset. Fervently, he vowed that the integrity of the stele would die with him.

Chapter 3

Sahara Desert, Egypt

Wednesday, September 6

10:25 a.m.

 

W
earing a long white cotton cloak, Jibade sat on his snow white horse at the top of a sandy dune. The Sahara stretched out before him in never ending miles of sand dunes sculpted over time by the powerful desert winds. The heat from the sand rose up to meet the pale blue sky in the quiet afternoon. As the fifty-five-year-old Chief of the Medjay tribe reflected on the immensity of the desert that surrounded him, the wind slowly waved his curly hair, which was arranged in a distinct Afro style. Off in the distance, Jibade’s tribesmen patiently waited on their horses for the return of their leader.

Disquieted, Jibade pondered his predicament. The Medjay tribe had valiantly maintained guard over the ancient holy stele throughout the centuries. The stele itself had been carefully passed down his family line, as the tribal leaders, from one generation to the next. But now it was in the hands of a foreigner.
That German paid the ultimate price for his godless action. But the stele has not yet been found.
He frowned, furrowing his brow
. The tribe must not know. And the stele must be returned to its place
.
That is the gods’ law
. Nobody in his tribe, besides the ruling triad, knew about the disappearance of the stele. He planned to keep it that way by all means possible.

Despite his distress, Jibade looked younger than his age. He was a Medjay, the desert Nubian. His high forehead and black eyebrows set off his dark eyes, shining with intellect and slyness. High cheekbones and a square jaw line intensified the masculinity of his looks. As all Medjay, he favored earrings worn in a pierced lobe and crafted of silver wire formed into hoops with overlapping ends. Jibade had broad shoulders and long, muscular arms that ended with strong hands and long fingers. By relying on his fighting skills and leadership abilities, he had become the warrior he was today. But now his tribe’s oath had been compromised by the theft of the stele. It was time to check the trustworthiness and steadfastness of his tribe.

Staring out at the unending desert, he contemplated several thoughts. Did he feel useless now that the stele had disappeared? Did its disappearance mean that his tribe would have nothing to do? Certainly, that was not the case. There were still many necessary tasks for the warriors of the tribe: to guard against the neighboring tribe’s constant thieving and pillaging from them for one. Yet tribal wars had been going on for centuries and would likely continue long after he had gone onto the afterlife in the Duat country. His mind wandered as he envisioned his future: repelling attacks from the neighboring tribes, marrying a worthy wife, having children, watching them grow up, and watching himself becoming old and dying.

He must find the stele by any means possible. Otherwise, he saw no meaning in his life. The stele was like a bridge that spanned the celestial sky connecting the mortal world to the immortal. It would bring him, as well as all of his potential future descendants, a step closer to their gods. Jibade waited for answers in the hot desert sun: none came.

Growling in frustration, Jibade wheeled his horse around and galloped back to his men. He signaled for them to follow and headed home. The Medjay tribesman needed no landmarks to guide them back to their village. An hour later they were riding down into their small valley, lined with numerous tents and children playing.

As the warriors arrived, they were greeted with a cheer. It did not matter whether they were returning from fighting the enemy or merely re-supplying their stocks, the celebratory greeting had become routine. It was, however, a ritual that seemed far out of place to Jibade under the current circumstances. As he brought his white mustang to a thundering stop beside his tent, Jibade swung his leg over the back of his stallion, dismounted and handed the reins to a waiting horse wrangler. “Take a good care of him.” The youth bowed before walking Jibade’s horse into the corral to attend to it.

Glancing over the village quickly to make sure nothing was amiss, Jibade entered his tent. He had only taken a few steps inside when he heard a familiar voice coming from the corner. “I finally took the time to come over and greet you myself.”

Jibade instantly turned and saw a familiar old warrior sitting calmly in a shadowy corner. He had grayish hair and was wrinkled with age, but his eyes still sparkled in the darkened tent.

“You delight in my anguish,” Jibade said coolly, as he leaned his ancient crusader sword against the table. “If I die, it will be from you giving me a heart attack.”

The old warrior chuckled in amusement, “Is that how you greet your own uncle?”

Jibade sighed, “Good afternoon, uncle.”

“Such a heavy sigh. Am I to understand that the responsibilities of the tribe are too great for you?”

Jibade sat down cross-legged on the carpet and slowly leaned back against a large pillow as he closed his eyes to gather his thoughts. After a few moments he opened his eyes and looked firmly at his uncle. “No, uncle.” Despite his attempt, he could not disguise the frustration in his voice.

“Then what?” asked the old man, staring keenly at him.

He doesn’t know?
His uncle was a very powerful man and always received information firsthand. Jibade put his hands behind his head and closed his eyes again.

“I feel emptiness inside of me, a loss…” Jibade frowned, unable to continue.

“The oath of the Medjay is an ancient responsibility borne by our people, one that has kept our tribe going. But you, as their leader, have failed it. Now, a heavy burden will descend upon us.”

Jibade’s eyes flew open. “How did you . . .?”

“I have my sources. You weren’t planning to keep this from me, were you? Don’t you trust your own blood?”

Jibade groaned. “The stele will be found. It’s only a matter of time. The wicked soul of the one who stole the stele has already been fed to Ammit, the devourer.”

“And the tribe?” asked the old warrior.

“Nobody besides the triad knows, and I trust them with my life,” Jibade replied proudly.

“Yes, let’s keep it that way. We don’t need to start a panic now,” the old man agreed, gazing out the tent’s narrow window. “Our people look to you to keep our nation strong. If they were to learn of this, they would be at a terrible loss of direction and faith.”

“Yes, dear uncle,” Jibade exclaimed vehemently. “The stele will be recovered.”

His uncle gave a curt nod, “Any progress on finding it?”

“Asim, my fearless warrior, and Police Inspector Suliman, whose services we’ve used in the past, are working on that as we speak. I should hear from both of them tonight.”

“Keep me informed.” The old man stood up and walked over to his nephew, bending down to kiss his forehead. “May peace be upon you,” he whispered before stepping outside the tent. Lost in his thoughts, Jibade watched him through the small window as he departed.

Chapter 4

City of the Dead, Cairo, Egypt

Wednesday, September 6

9:50 p.m.

 

F
or the past two excruciating hours, Asim, a hulky thirty-year-old fearless warrior from the local Medjay tribe, had been searching for a makeshift tomb-turned-into-house in the City of the Dead, located in Cairo’s outskirts. Over six feet tall and donned in a long white cotton cloak covering a crusader-type sword slung behind his back, Asim did not blend into the crowd. In fact, the locals were staring cautiously at him and his curly dark hair, which was arranged in distinctly bushy Afro style.

Asim had long strayed that afternoon among the ancient, unkempt tombs and mausoleums. In his hand was a crude map that his chief Jibade had scrawled on a crumbled, torn piece of paper. It was very little help. Uneasy and turned around, he strode up and down the haphazard streets, puzzling over his map with its crude pencil-scratched directions and comparing it to the few signs he found.

As night fell and darkened the shadows between the living and the dead, his heart filled with dread. He had heard many ill rumors about this place. He had never been to the City of the Dead before, nor had he ever had any inclination to visit such a place. But, tonight was different; he was on a secret mission. His great chief’s orders compelled him into the heart of the City of the Dead; a place known to the people of Cairo simply as
el’arafa
, meaning “the cemetery”.

Brimming with tombs and mausoleums, the City of the Dead was a magnificent centuries old necropolis that was spread out in an immense hodgepodge fashion at the base of the Mokattam Mountains. Its foundation dates back to the Arab conquest of Egypt in 642 AD. When the Arab commander Amr ibn al As founded the first Egyptian Arab capital, the city of Al Fustat, he also established his family's graveyard at the foot of the al Mokattam Mountains. Now it is a four-mile long cemetery that stretches from the northern to the southern part of Cairo. Paradoxically, the City of the Dead thrives with its own robust life and intriguing activities. Amidst the marble headstones and crypts, people live and work amongst their dead loved ones and ancestors in the slummy makeshift town. It has everything from barbershops to cafés and even a bazaar that takes place on Fridays.

Two hours later, Asim stopped in front of a rotten, two-story, makeshift edifice constructed over two adjacent mausoleums. It looked like an old military barracks made of crumbling, plaster walls. He glanced at the chief’s directions and found that the street and the number coincided at last: Ebn Roshd Street, number 19. Relief appeared across the Medjay’s drooping face. Ascending the old, creaking stairs, Asim was baffled that the chief’s famous expert, a legendary chemist, lived in such bestial conditions.
Who would’ve imagined
? He thought, wondering what would possess a man to live in a hovel.

At the top of the dark flight of stairs, Asim found a brown door bearing the name of “Nassar” elegantly engraved on a faded, dull metal plate. Asim leaned forward, pressing his ear firmly against the door. He could not hear anything, only the eerie silence and the omnipresence of dead corpses. He knocked resolutely. Soon he heard a rustling from within. The door gradually opened until it was stopped by a thick metal chain. A stooped, gray-haired old man with a large nose and glasses peered from behind the door.

“To what degree would I oblige your visit?” His voice was very hoarse as he spoke, his small eyes blinking behind the thick lenses of his glasses.


As-salaamu aleyka
, Nassar,” Asim quickly answered. “I have come to you under the direction of my great Chief Jibade, who is familiar with your very alluring business.”

“Lately people have not come to me on matters other than the non-alluring,” the old man replied solemnly, carefully studying every single detail of his late-night visitor. Satisfied, he unlatched the door chain and beckoned him inside.

“I feel honored to be recommended by the great chief,” announced Nassar as he quickly closed the front door, twisted shut the three deadbolts and fixed the heavy chain behind his visitor. Asim was surprised to see three deadbolts on the door.
Something of great value must be hidden behind these deadbolts.
Glancing around surreptitiously, Asim could not imagine what of any value could possibly be hidden in this shack. The only thing he could imagine being housed here were long departed souls.

The main room, which looked like the old man used as both his bedroom and dining room, smelled of dampness and mold. Taking up the majority of the room were two massive tombs that doubled as makeshift tables, the tops covered with various books and manuscripts. Stretched between these tombstones was a clothesline with the old man’s laundry hanging on it. In the far corner of the room was a large, modern wooden cabinet with glass doors. Asim could see that it was crammed with various jars, bottles and flasks.

Chief Jibade had explained to Asim that Nassar was considered an eminent and brilliant poison expert. For that matter, there probably was not a single contact, gas or ingestible poison, natural or synthetic, that he could not reproduce or analyze in his laboratory. Several years ago he had suddenly retired to the City of the Dead and was now living over a tomb in a wooden, makeshift house fit for a peasant. The only people who visited the old man were individuals such as Asim: strangers with very alluring problems.

Nassar broke the silence, “How can I be of service to your great chief?”

“My name is Asim,” the visitor introduced himself. “I’m Medjay.”

“I noticed that,” the host replied quietly. “I knew that you were Medjay the moment I saw you at my doorway. I notice a lot of things, young man,” he added, chuckling softly.

“May I ask you a question?” asked Asim.

“Please, call me ‘Chemist,’” the old man replied quietly, nodding. “And please, have a seat.”

Asim sat. “I was just wondering why with your position, title and reputation do you choose to live here in the slums of the City of the Dead?”

The chemist nodded his head thoughtfully and sauntered over to a worn sofa where he sat. “My home was constructed more than a hundred years ago by my grandfather. My father was born and raised here. I spent the majority and the best part of my life here. Indeed, I could be living in a mansion in downtown Cairo, but here, in the City of the Dead, is where my life began and where I intend to conclude it. The two massive tombs you see in front of you are indeed the graves of my beloved grandfather and father,” he said, sighing deeply, a small smile finding its way to his lips at a distant memory.

His smile faltered as he continued, “My late father was poisoned for a measly five Egyptian pounds. Justice was never served as his killer was let go because of a lack of evidence. That is why I left to study poisons. I am the best, which has led many people to use my potions and knowledge.” Nassar paused and looked at Asim firmly, “As a toxicologist, I am the best. You were sent to me for something?”

Slightly concerned that he had insulted the chemist, Asim sat up straighter and spoke respectfully, “Our great chief knows that you are an expert on poisons, that there is no equal within your field. He also understands that you have amassed a unique collection of poisons, many of which are very difficult or in some cases impossible to identify.”

The chemist nodded his head gently.

“My chief says that from time to time you, so to say, ‘help people’ by supplying them with a means to get rid of certain problems. Am I not mistaken?”

The chemist paused. “You are not mistaken,” he answered somberly. “I can supply a poison, if the cause is just. Despite my age, I have not become a humanist. I do understand that taking a life is sometimes the only way to solve a vital predicament. However,” he added, steadfastly looking at Asim through his thick glasses. “I do not provide poisons to whomever so desires them, and I certainly do not help everyone with every situation. I believe in taking a life only for the good of society. I do not condone murder. However, if a society finds itself unsuccessful in punishing bastards such as murderers, rapists, tyrants and torturers, then I provide a means. That’s also partly why I live here in the City of the Dead. I wish to be acquainted with death in a way most people wouldn’t comprehend.”

Asim gave the chemist a surprised look.

The chemist continued, ignoring his startled expression. “But, the motive is very important to me. If it’s compelling enough, I would never refuse my expertise.”

“Chemist,” Asim spoke solemnly, “your help is vital to my people. There is no other way out for us. The great chief is willing to pay any amount of money for a reliable and swift poison that cannot be identified.”

“First, young man, I do not take money for my services. Secondly, each poison I supply to my clients is unique. None of these poisons can be identified by modern medicine yet. Even the best pathologist will diagnose it as a heart attack, an insulin shock or anything else you would like, but never a poisoning. Thirdly and most importantly, I repeat that it is necessary for me to know the motive of the poisoning.” The chemist got up from his comfortable position on the shabby couch and stood in front of Asim’s armchair, straighter than Asim would have imagined possible for such an old man. “Therefore, Asim, either tell me why such a poison is necessary to you and your chief or leave. I must warn you that I have no difficulty in distinguishing a ruse from the truth.”

Asim was not ready for this, as he had imagined his conversation with Nassar would be swift: pay the price; receive the merchandise and leave. But now this old man demanded to know the most sacred loss the Medjay had suffered at the hands of the foreigner: the loss of the most sacred stele in the whole of the Medjay’s long history.
Perhaps, I should invent fake stories about bandits or quarrels with other tribes. But I have not prepared such a story and doubt it would ring
true.

After a long pause, Asim surprised himself by speaking the truth. He told the chemist everything he knew about Günther Schulze, the German engineer who had stolen their sacred stele.

As the entire story unfolded, the chemist listened quietly with his hands behind his back and his eyes averted.

“…This foreigner has dishonored us in the face of our mighty gods and must answer on the merits of the larceny of our sacred stele. We wish to get rid of him so the secret of the stele dies with him and to restore the honor of the Medjay. I beg you, chemist, please help us! Name any price: only give me this poison. I want him to suffer for his crimes before his death as I would have suffered and never revealed the secret of the stele!” Asim’s eyes were glowing with unmasked pride.

The chemist was silent for a while. He examined his visitor: the well-kempt, young-looking, muscled fellow with a distinctive bushy Afro hairstyle wearing a long, white cotton cloak. He could tell from the bulge in the back of Asim’s cloak that he was armed. Finally, after a long pause, the chemist spoke. “Well, you have convinced me, warrior. I shall give you what you ask. In exchange, I will not take a single piaster (Egypt’s smallest coin denomination) from you.”

Asim gleefully moved forward.
So simple! The Chief will be so ple
ased.

“But first,” Nassar paused, smiling faintly, “I wish to offer you a
shai
.” Considered to be Egypt’s national drink and a sign of great hospitality, shai, or tea, holds a special place in the heart of every self-respected Egyptian. The Medjay had internally frowned, but managed to keep the expression off his features. He had already wasted a lot of time finding the nutty old man’s house, explaining the situation to him, and now he would have to drink his tea. Afraid to frighten off his success, however, Asim nodded in agreement.

Soon the chemist was holding up two small cups as he squeezed through the narrow hall from his kitchen back into the living room. He presented his visitor one of the cups and settled into a lounging position on the sofa across the room.

Asim was not partial to the
Saiidi
shai, which is more common to this area. Saiidi shai is prepared by boiling black tea with water for five minutes over a strong flame and had an extremely heavy taste. Asim took the cup and drank it to avoid offending his host. As he drank the dark tea, it tasted peculiar to him. When his cup was empty, Asim looked impatiently at the old man.

“So, chemist, when will you give me the poison?”

Nassar remained silent for a long time, testing Asim’s patience. He spoke slowly and carefully, “You have already received it, Asim. I added a strong, reliable and very rare poison to your cup of Saiidi shai. By the look on your face, I presume that its bitter taste was definitely not to your liking.” The chemist chuckled, “I see that you are more accustomed to drinking the
Koshary
shai, but Koshary is too sweet for me.”

Asim stared at the chemist in horror.

“Throughout the years I have assisted society rid itself of villains,” said the chemist as he slowly rose from the couch. “I have helped defenseless women suffering at the hands of their monster-husbands, innocent young girls brutally raped by pedophiles and businessmen who have been cornered by extortionists. The reasons they all came to me were crystal clear. But your case is special as this is the first time I have come in contact with it. Vengeance is a very nasty motive for murder; therefore, I have decided that
you
are the true danger to society. So, the poison for which you requested to kill a defenseless foreigner is already in your stomach.”

“Is this a sick joke?” snapped Asim. His mouth had started to dry and he could feel a metal taste on the tip of his tongue, which he could only assume was the poison taking its effect.

“This is not a joke,” the chemist answered coldly. “Soon you will feel an indisposition, then a pain in your stomach, and then you will die from a heart attack. Your near future is not a pleasant one, but it is the one you have earned and is no less than what you deserve.”

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