Chapter 1 from Disappearance of a Scribe
The first chapter of the second novel in the Eye of Isis series.
The scroll was written in Greek. The hand was neat, the label tied to the scroll easily read.
The sixteenth máthima of the twenty-seventh Eye of Isis
By her own hand for the record
Twelfth Bay, Seventh Shelf
The Room of the Eye
Great Library, Alexandria
Máthima was a Greek word with several meanings. It could represent general knowledge, or knowledge of the sciences in particular. It could be a statement of beliefs, or it could be the guiding principles of a particular faith. It could mean something that is taught, a lesson.
She raised her head. The room in which she sat had high ceilings pierced by four skylights. On a clear day, the table top was illuminated with all the light one could wish for. The shutter that closed over the skylights was opened and closed by a series of ropes and pulleys ending in a thin cord secured to a cleat mounted next to the door.
Additional light was provided at need by a dozen oil lamps hanging from brackets carefully spaced around the room and as carefully shielded. Fire was the nightmare that had haunted every Librarian from Demetrius of Phalerum on. The current Librarian, Sosigenes, already a professional paranoiac by virtue of his position, had been further traumatized during the recent siege when Caesar had ordered the burning of the ships in the harbor and that fire had jumped to shore. It had not reached the Library itself but it had burned down a warehouse containing books belonging to the Library and that was enough for Sosigenes to ban any open flame in any room under his supervision from the Library to the Serapeum. It was forbidden for any library patron to light, extinguish or remove a lantern without an employee of the Library standing by, and if anyone was caught doing so they could be banned from the premises for a year. Sosigenes had only had to make good on that threat once to inspire full compliance. Scholars, astronomers, architects, engineers, doctors, philosophers, authors, playwrights, composers, professional people of every persuasion came from all over the known world to study and research at the Library. It was not a privilege anyone was willing to put in jeopardy, especially when full board and room came with it, courtesy of the royal family. Scholars were always
The sole exception—to this rule or any other—in the sprawling edifice and its satellites, so far as she knew, was the room in which she now sat. Her gaze dropped to the shelves that covered all four walls from floor to ceiling. They were carefully labeled, reign by reign and Eye by Eye. The oldest documents occupied the space to the right of the door and were yellow with age. Tetisheri had touched one when she entered the room for the first time an hour before, fully expecting it to crumble beneath her fingertip. It didn’t, and she didn’t understand why until she discovered the tiny cisterns in the four corners of the room. Together they formed barely a trickle of water but it was enough to support a trace of moisture in the air, which kept the documents from completely drying out and falling to bits. Someone had given a great deal of thought to the design of this room.
A square wooden table sat at the center of the room, at which she was now seated on a square wooden stool. On the table was a volume between wooden covers bound with waxed twine, very thick. The binding allowed the volume to be disassembled for the addition of more documents, trimmed pages made from papyrus or parchment and in a few cases vellum. The symbol of the Eye of Ra had been traced onto the facing cover and then burned in over the tracing, forming a charcoal outline whose pupil seemed to follow her wherever she moved around the room.
She reached inside her tunic to find the badge of office bestowed on her the previous month by Cleopatra Thea Philopator, Lady of the Two Lands, beginning to be called by some Cleopatra the Builder, already called by others Cleopatra the Whore. It, too, was a representation of the Eye of Ra but this one was a work of art, made of nacre and turquoise circles inlaid on a base of lapis lazuli. It was unique among the insignia of the royal court, and as distinctive and as identifiable as the gold cobra the queen wore on her brow.
Even though, Tetisheri thought, few people ever saw the Eye, or ever wanted to. She certainly hadn’t.
She held the pendant up to the light. The Eye of Isis in this form was no mere symbol of the goddess whose avatar sat on the throne. It was an actual, physical manifestation of the eye and ear and mouth of the ruler of Alexandria and Egypt. The power it represented was second only to the power of the throne itself. It compelled instant obedience to any order. Among other legends accruing around the office it represented, it was said that the first view struck a terror so intense as to make the viewer fall down in a faint.
Terror was not what it had inspired in Tetisheri. Far from it. Tetisheri, a partner with her uncle in a prosperous trading firm and fully occupied with concerns of her own, had not sought the office, had not expected it, had not wanted it, and had tried to refuse it. But her friend had asked her to assume its title and responsibilities, and her friend was the Queen of Upper and Lower Egypt and would not be denied.
The book on the table was an index in which all the máthimas of all the Eyes of Isis were catalogued by ruler, date, name of the Eye, and location on the shelves. The pages therein were bound with the most recent additions first. The Ledger of the Eye, a list of every case history of every inquiry made by every Eye of Isis from Kataskopos, Eye to Ptolemy I, to Khemit, last Eye of Auletes, Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra’s father, and first Eye of Cleopatra VII.
The most recent máthima and therefore the first one to which the Ledger opened concerned a missing person, a young man, Grafeas, son of Archeion. The relevant scroll lay open before her, one end continually trying to roll up again. She slipped the chain of the Eye over her head and used it to weigh down that end. The other end immediately began to curl. There was a pair of scroll rods on a shelf but she didn’t want the tedium of threading the ends of the scroll through the slots, during which effort something always tore, which she would certainly hear about, at volume, from Sosigenes. She used her small leather purse to weigh down the other end, and began again to read.
Archeion was the patriarch of a family of scribes who traced their ancestry back to Herodotus. Their legend was that the Father of History had spent enough time in Egypt to take an Egyptian wife and father an heir on her. Archeion’s family claimed to be a direct descendent of that offspring.
Well, and she’d heard less likely stories. It wouldn’t have been the first or even the thousandth time a foreign-born man had adventured into Egypt to become the progenitor of a family. It was a custom that endured through today, as witness the three-month-old baby boy presently at Cleopatra’s breast.
Which reminded her, Tetisheri’s birth gift, a teething ring carved with interlocking wooden animals, polished to a beautiful shine that did justice to the original myrtle, had still to be delivered. If Little Caesar was as precocious as his doting mother boasted, it was a gift that could not be given too soon.
The scroll she was looking at was her precursor’s last case but one. Khemit had had no opportunity to document her final investigation, which had ended in her murder and precipitated Tetisheri’s stepping into her shoes as Khemit’s avenger and successor.
It was why she was here in this room, to write the first máthima of the twenty-eighth Eye of Isis. She had written it, as witness her ink-stained fingertips and the neatly tied scroll of papyrus deposited in lonely state on the shelf below the precisely stacked shelf of Khemit’s máthimas. “In the Reign of Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator, by the hand of Tetisheri, twenty-eighth Eye of Isis,” the shelf’s label read. The scroll had its own label, “In the Matter of the Missing Bullion.” The missing bullion was a fortune in newly minted drachmas that Tetisheri had recovered after the murders of an Eye, a Roman monetale, and an Egyptian nobleman, an attempt on her own life, a mad dash across the Middle Sea which had included an encounter with pirates, and another fraught chapter written in the continuing unhappy relationship between Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator and her brother, Ptolemy XIV Philopator. Altogether more excitement than was absolutely necessary and Tetisheri was not anxious to repeat it. Which might be one of the reasons she was in the Library, reading through a lot of dusty old records.
She sighed. There was no love lost between Cleopatra and Ptolemy, the latter known familiarly as Philo. They were married, true, but only by command of Julius Caesar in an attempt to return Egyptian life to some semblance of normalcy following the Alexandrian War, not to mention staving off accusations back in Rome that Caesar was turning the richest country on the Middle Sea into his own personal fiefdom. Cleopatra and Ptolemy were co-rulers in name only and a good thing, too, as her brother allowed himself to be ruled by a duo of corrupt and venal counselors who had been scheming to kill Cleopatra from the moment the wedding ceremony was concluded. It seemed to Tetisheri that half of the queen’s attention was subsumed by putting out fires lit by the kinglet’s counselors.
Kinglet. Her lips curved upward in a reluctant smile. It was Apollodorus’ title for him and it fit so well that Tetisheri was in danger of inadvertently using it out loud in company, which would never do.
She looked back at Khemit’s last report. She had had a notion that she could not do better than read through past investigations documented by the previous Eyes, at least through Philon, he who had been first Eye to Auletes, also known as Ptolemy XII Neos Dionysos Philopator Philadelphos, also known as Cleopatra’s father. Auletes had died only four years before and many of the people involved in his Eye’s investigations would still be alive today. There could be some residual resentment which might inform her investigations going forward.
Khemit’s last full report wasn’t long. Grafeas, eighteen years old and his parents’ only child, had gone missing one afternoon on the way home from work. Work was in his father’s business, the Hall of Scribes on the Canopic Way between the Soma and the headquarters of the Shurta. Halfway between law enforcement and the courts, Tetisheri thought, a good location for scribes who rented themselves out by the hour. Scribes did a rousing business with plaintiffs and defendants in turn, working both sides of the aisle and then hiring themselves out to the courts to take the minutes of the cases. Each party would want a record of their own, written with their own interests in mind, especially if the verdict went the wrong way and they planned an appeal to the queen. A lucrative and enduring profession, scribe.
Grafeas had been working on half a dozen different cases before the courts. There was a breach of promise; a claim of personal injury against a shop owner by a chronic plaintiff whose name was known to everyone from Rhakotis to the Royal Palace; two property disputes, one involving ownership and the other damages; a case of construction fraud remarkable only because it involved the Royal Architect; and a complaint against the City of Alexandria by a neighborhood near the Gate of the Sun in the matter of inadequate policing. Khemit had contacted the plaintiffs, defendants, and prosecutors in each case. All claimed they had no fault to find with young Grafeas’ professional efforts on their behalf. She had also contacted the various judges, none of whom had found anything to complain of in young Grafeas’ conduct in their courtrooms.
So, on the surface nothing of interest in his professional life, and Khemit had moved on to his personal life. The young scribe had been betrothed to Raia, daughter of Muhandis, a builder of some repute in Alexandria. Khemit had interviewed both and reported the father sad at the loss of such a promising young man to the boy’s family, to his own family, and to his community. The daughter, her father said, was too devastated to speak to anyone and Khemit had left herself a note to return to the house to pursue the interview another time. If she had done so, she had not added an account of the visit to her report.
Grafeas had lived with his parents, their home in a neighborhood near the Soma, an easy walk to work. Khemit reported that the house was not larger than their needs but very comfortably appointed. Archeion had last seen his son leaving the Hall of Scribes at Eleventh Hour, an hour early because he said he had to run an errand for one of his clients. Archeion did not know what errand or which client. After that Grafeas was meeting friends for a class at the Five Soldiers Gymnasium. A food vendor on the Canopic Way between the Shurta and the Library reported that Grafeas, a customer well known to her, had bought a dolma minutes later, and that was the last that anyone had seen of the young man.
Khemit had found the two friends he had been going to meet after work at the Five Soldiers, Nenwef and Ahmose. The three of them met at the gymnasium twice a week without fail and they were at a loss to explain why he had not appeared this time. Asked if he had reported any problems at work or in his personal life, they nudged one another and sniggered (Tetisheri reading between the lines) and intimated that Grafeas was resigned to his upcoming nuptials. The marriage had been arranged by her parents and his, and he was prepared to do his duty by his family. She might be part-Egyptian but her father was very rich, and further he was in construction, which augured well for future business. There was always someone suing a builder.
The aridity of Khemit’s voice wafted up from the page like a wind off the desert.
In short, Tetisheri thought as she sat back, there seemed to be no discernible reason for Grafeas’ disappearance. He had a good reputation at work. He was beloved of his parents, and of his betrothed as well, evidently. Khemit reported his friends as being young men of good family and reputation.
Three days later, as the law provided for, Archeion and Eirene reported him missing to the Shurta. A month later, at the bottom of the scroll, Khemit had written “Unresolved,” followed by the date and her name and title.
The one thing Tetisheri didn’t understand was how this mysterious disappearance had come to Khemit’s attention, and why Khemit had felt the need to investigate it. Grafeas’ family, while respectable and certainly storied if indeed it included Herodotus as part of their ancestral line, wasn’t a noble one. There was no mention in Khemit’s account of either Archeion or Eirene forming part of any Ptolemy’s court, such as it was, given how mobile and transitory that court had been in those days of internecine warfare. People went missing every day, voluntarily and involuntarily. Surely ordinary missing persons came within the purview of the Shurta and not the Eye of Isis?
A question best left for another day. She replaced the Eye around her neck and secured the purse to her girdle. The scroll was rolled up and returned to its proper place on the proper shelf. She stood for a moment, letting her eyes run over the shelves again. So many Eyes, so many inquiries, so many royal concerns, represented here by so many máthimas that went back more than three hundred years to the time of the first Ptolemy, the man who first dreamed of the Great Library. The man who handed down to each of his descendants that passion for collecting all the knowledge in the known world beneath one roof.
She looked up and saw the shadows beginning to grow long against the ceiling. She straightened the Ledger of the Eye so that it sat in the exact center of the square table, and slid the square stool beneath it just so. She walked to the door and released the cord that controlled the shutters from the cleat. The shutters closed, plunging the room
She listened at the door. All was quiet without. The door opened on silent, well-oiled hinges. She stepped into the hall and closed it behind her. The key turned soundlessly in
The hinges of the door were on the inside and the door itself was set flush with the wall and had been painted the same white. It was free from sign or adornment. Users of the Library who penetrated this far would pass it unseeing. Unless, of course, they looked up and saw the tiny Eye painted on the wall above the door almost where it met the ceiling. Someone else might mistake it for a smudge of dirt, or a cobweb.
But people seldom looked up.
A man said something, too distant for her to hear the words, and was answered by several others in chorus. She turned and walked swiftly through the many connecting halls leading to classrooms and carrels and rooms named for donors of the collections of books within, made voluntarily or otherwise, coming at last to the office tucked just inside the front door.
Sosigenes was at his desk. An untidy tumble of dark hair made him seem at first glance younger than his years, but a closer inspection revealed the lines across his forehead and bracketing his mouth. The stooped shoulders of the scholar complemented the thin, drooping nose that gave him an uncanny resemblance to an ibis, that long-billed, long-legged bird that stalked the streets of Alexandria and left its calling card on every clothesline and park bench in the city. “Did you light the lamps?” he said.
“I did not, Sosigenes. The skylights were more than sufficient. How is Yasmin?”
He looked around, as if Yasmin might magically accrete out of the walls. “Oh. Fine. She’s overseeing the copyists. Homer. Both books.”
“A new translation?”
He shook his head. “A replacement. The last edition was stolen.”
She was startled. “From here? From our shelves?”
His faint smile was an acknowledgement of the possessive pronoun. “It’s an ongoing problem for any library, Tetisheri, but here especially, just because of the sheer volume of our inventory and because we open our doors to everyone in the world. Books have walked out the door tucked under chlamyses and togas every day since Ptolemy I. But lately…”
He rubbed his eyes. “It’s almost as if the thefts are organized.”
He dropped his hands and leaned back in his chair. “They are targeted, for one thing.”
“Yes, the oldest volumes regardless of their authors. Illustrated editions especially. Particular favorites include Astyanassa’s Of Erotic Postures and Elephantis’ The Nine Forms.”
She stared at him.
He pointed a finger at her. “Don’t you dare, Tetisheri! Don’t you dare laugh!”
Her shoulders were shaking. “But, Sosigenes—”
“They are also stealing maps,” he said grimly, “and the older the better. Eratosthenes and Anaximander are most popular.”
All impulse to laughter died in her. “Does the queen know?”
“Some. Not about the most recent.”
“When was the most recent?”
“Last week. A very old copy of Hecataeus’ World Survey.”
“How was it discovered?”
“Yasmin went to lock up the map room, which we have taken to doing every evening of late. She noticed some disarrangement of the shelf dedicated to his works. She sent for me and we compared the maps on the shelf to the room’s index. We have other copies of it, but that was our oldest version, and irreplaceable.”
“If the room is locked at night, then someone who visited it during the day must have stolen it.”
“Yes, and the only way to have stopped him or her would have been to keep the room locked to everyone all the time. Impossible. We’re a library, Tetisheri. We are the Library.” He scrubbed his hands through his hair. When he dropped them again his curls stood out like the snakes on the bust of Medusa in the lobby. “The sum of all human knowledge resides within these four walls. I am not meant to close the doors to the world when it comes seeking that knowledge.”
“No,” Tetisheri said, almost absently. She was thinking. “Find a student you and Yasmin trust. Have them sit in that room from the moment you unlock the door to the moment you lock it again. Have them take the names of everyone who visits.” A ghost of a smile. “And of the visitors to the room that houses the collection of erotic literature, too. All the rooms subject to predation. It won’t help find your missing manuscripts, but at least potential future thieves will be put on notice that someone is
He brightened. “It might discourage them, you think?”
She thought rather that the thieves would find some other, more ingenious way to do their work, but she said, “It can’t hurt. I’ll stop by in a few days to look at your lists.”
He looked lighter of spirit just by virtue of having shared his burden. “Willingly.”
“Sosigenes, some of the máthimas of the Eye are very old. Have you given any thought to having them copied before they crumble into dust?”
“The only two people who are allowed inside that room are in my office now, and given current events I don’t think we need to offer potential thieves more opportunities. Are you volunteering your services?”
“Very funny. Rotate the task between the younger scholars, letting each one copy only, say, five. You could bring the scrolls to them in a room where the door was locked from the outside, and when they were finished, take the scrolls away again. All they need to know is that they are copying old documents as an exercise to improve their penmanship. Start with the oldest documents first and work forward. The task needn’t be accomplished in a day.”
He tapped his lips with a finger as ink-stained as her own. “I will think on it, Tetisheri.”
With that she had to be content.
“Do you have the key?” he said.
She held it up. “If you’re not here, how will I get into the room?”
“I am always here.”
But he wasn’t, and they both knew it. She looked around his office. It was a small space for the Librarian of the Great Library of Alexandria, and it was crowded with shelves stuffed with all manner of scrolls and volumes and documents and artifacts. Was that a lump of gold? Between the figure of a voluptuous woman carved from an elephant’s tusk and a tiny wooden model of a sundial? “I could send a workman to inset a small cabinet into the wall behind one of your shelves. It will open and close at a touch. No key necessary.”
Sosigenes frowned. “He must never speak of it.”
“He is a man trusted by the queen herself.”
He thought it over, frowning, and then gave grudging assent. “Very well.”
“Thank you, Sosigenes.” She cocked her head. “Is it true you helped Caesar with his new calendar?”
He gave an abstracted nod, already reaching for a stylus. “I did. Why?”
“What month is this now, again?”
“September. Or no. October.”
“And the day?”
He tutted impatiently. “The eleventh. Haven’t you seen the annual calendar the Library put out? I made sure many copies were made and distributed across the city and all the way up the river to Syene. Here.” He searched his desk and produced a sheet of papyrus. It was lined horizontally and vertically, forming six grids on both sides. “See? First month, January, what was once called Pharmouthi, and so on.”
She’d seen it before. There was one posted in the kitchen at home, another over-sized one on the wall of the warehouse, and a third and fourth in both hers and Uncle Neb’s offices. “Thank you, Sosigenes,” she said gravely. “Is it true you and Caesar added two months to this year?”
“We had to,” he said testily. “The calendar was out of alignment by a full quarter of a season. Of what use is a calendar if you can’t look at it and know when the Nile floods?”
“And there are seven days in the new week, instead of ten? And different months have differing amounts of days?”
His eyes narrowed and after a moment his face broadened into a smile. “Have done teasing your old teacher, Tetisheri, and get thee gone about the queen’s business!” The smile faded and he said anxiously, “You’re sure you didn’t light any of the lamps?”
She laughed and departed, laying a bet with herself as she went that within five minutes he would be scurrying off to the room she had just vacated to see for himself.
There are now three Eye of Isis novels, most recently Theft of an Idol, which published on November 3, 2022.
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Dana View All →
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.
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