Chapter 3 from Disappearance of a Scribe

The third chapter from the second novel in the Eye of Isis series


They parted from their new friends when they reached the Way, crossing it to walk through the Emporeum. Here, Tetisheri was obliged to stop and say hello to every shopkeeper and business rival who called out her name, which was most of them. She and Apollodorus helped old Kurush put up his shutters, put their shoulders to Elon and Beulah’s cart to start them on their way home, and admired Izem and Tifawt’s new baby. Before anyone else could claim their attention they crossed Hermes Street and were navigating the warren of homes and warehouses that filled in the area between Hermes Street and the docks.

The tang of salt air grew stronger and the last gulls were heard squawking their way home to their roosts. In short order they came to the walled house that sat next to the massive warehouse with the sign, “Nebenteru’s Luxury Goods.” As they approached, the door to the house was flung back and Nike, the slender maid from Nubia who had lived life as a slave in Hunefer’s house until freed by Tetisheri, and now, within the space of months, ruled Nebenteru’s household with a rod of iron, stood outlined in the door. She was letting her hair grow out and it was wrapped in a length of red cloth, the same cloth her dress was made of. She looked like a living flame.

While she didn’t scold them for their tardiness they both felt chastised anyway, and followed her meekly into the back of the house to a room that opened onto a walled garden. It held a long table and a sideboard. “Will Keren be joining us?”

“She sent word to say she would be late at the infirmary this evening.”

Tetisheri poured water from the pitcher into a bowl set on a sideboard. She started to wash her hands, caught Nike’s condemnatory eye, and stepped back to wave Apollodorus forward, as was his right as guest of the house. His lips quirked but he washed his hands and accepted the towel proffered by Nike with a nod of thanks that was nearly a bow. When Tetisheri’s hands were deemed sufficiently clean they proceeded to the table, where there were only two places set. Tetisheri looked at Nike. “Aren’t you joining us?”

Nike tossed her head, and the wild curls peeping out of the red cloth bounced in emphasis. “Who will eat with Phoebe and Nebet if I do?” And off she went to the kitchen.

“I sense a conspiracy,” Apollodorus said, sounding amused.

“As do I.”

“One that smells delicious, however, and I’m hungry.”

“As am I.”

The table was laden with bowls of the aforesaid lamb in apricot sauce served on a bed of grain, cucumber in yogurt and herbs, and fennel sliced thinly with onion garnished with mint and dressed with honey. There were fresh-baked barley rolls on the side and apples and cheese for dessert, and a lovely wine from Chios, crisp and fragrant and not so potent that it would catch fire from being set too close to the candle flame.

Nike had seen fit to place the one lone lamp behind a vase full of red roses from Phoebe’s garden. The scent perfumed the air with enough sweet intensity to rival the lamb, which took some doing, and the light from the flame filtered gently through the blooms.

Definitely a conspiracy, Tetisheri thought, pushing away her cleaned plate and reaching for the water pitcher instead of the wine to refill her glass.

Apollodorus took a refill of the water without comment and leaned back in his chair. “Nebet can cook.”

“Indeed she can.”

“Phoebe all right with a second cook cluttering up her kitchen?”

“Phoebe likes to learn, and Nebet is only semi-retired.”

“Is she one of yours?”

“Phoebe?” She smiled a little. “She was my first.”

“Tell me.”

It was one of the things she loved most about him, that he wanted to know how she spent her days, and what he had missed in her life. More of a contrast to her former husband there could not be. “We were in Rome, with Auletes and the queen, begging Pompey for money.”

“Before my time.”

“Just barely, but yes, and how lucky you were. It was dueling banquets during our entire stay, one night at an Optimas’, the next at a supporter of the Populares.”

Apollodorus raised his eyebrows. “You dined with the Populares? Pompey must have been pleased.”

“Auletes was always alive to the possibility of regime change in Rome, and he was adept at keeping a foot in any camp that looked like it might make a try for power. At any rate, this particular banquet lasted all day, everything edible growing, walking, swimming, or flying was represented, everything came to the table either on ice or on fire, and everything I could manage to eat of it was absolutely delicious. Until dessert.” She fortified herself with a swallow of water. “Dessert was a parade of cakes baked and iced in the shapes of birds. Herons, swans, hawks, doves, cranes. And, as it happened, their maker had conceived the excellent notion of mixing live birds in with the fake, in cages formed of almond paste and icing embedded with pistachios. Works of art, really. Until two of the live doves managed to eat themselves out of their dovecote and began to fly around the room looking for a way out.”

Apollodorus looked as if he were trying hard not to laugh. “And who could blame them.”

“Indeed. They immediately began demonstrating their displeasure on all available surfaces. You know how everyone makes fun of Caesar’s combover? I doubt that anyone there that evening ever will again, because as it turns out a shiny scalp makes an excellent target.”

Apollodorus lay back in his chair and a laugh boomed out. Laughter was a good look on him, brightening his eyes and deepening the creases at the corners of his mouth, and she paused for a moment to enjoy the view. “Yes, it was very funny. At first. Less funny when Scipio, wiping the dove excrement from the side of his face, roared out for the person in the kitchen responsible for the cakes to be brought before him at once.” She turned her goblet around between her fingers. “It was Phoebe. To this day I don’t know if she was responsible for the cakes or if whoever was in charge of the household staff decided she was an acceptable scapegoat. She wouldn’t tell me.” She nodded at the apples. “But I
have noticed that she seldom serves anything but fresh
fruit, nuts, and cheese for dessert, and anything more complicated will only be a simple custard or a fruit tart. Never anything elaborate.”

All trace of laughter gone, Apollodorus said, “What did he do?”

“He beat her, personally, right there in front of us, until she was bleeding from above her knees to her shoulders and her arms down to her elbows. And then he commanded she be strung up by her wrists at his front gate with a sign hung round her neck reading, ‘Disobedient slave.’”

When she stopped he said, “And?”

“I expect he meant her to hang there until she died. Let it be a lesson to you and all that, although I don’t know what that lesson would have been, precisely.”

“Don’t incorporate livestock into the sweet course?”

“Very likely.”

“What did you do?”

She took comfort in the certainty of his tone, that he knew she would have done something. “I waited until Twentieth Hour and went back and cut her down. She could barely walk but I managed to get her home and hidden in my room. The next day I smuggled her down to the Hapi in Ostia.”

“Ah, Neb was there, was he?”

She nodded. “His was one of the ships Auletes had commandeered for the voyage. He grumbled the entire time over how much trade he was losing.”

“I can almost hear him. Did you tell Cleopatra?”

“By the Eye of Ra, no. She and her father had enough trouble on their hands as it was.”

“But she knew.”

Tetisheri sighed. “She always knows everything. It’s alarming.”

“And so you brought Phoebe home with you.”

She nodded. “I told her the same thing I tell them all, that she could stay or go, but if she wanted to stay and cook for us that it would be as a freedwoman and she would be paid a fair wage.”

“Neb went along with this?”

“There was some initial upset, but then Phoebe started cooking on the voyage home. He’s been doubling her salary every year or so ever since, out of fear she’ll leave us.”

“Sabazios knows I’ve never had a bad meal at this table. I’m sorry I missed that party, though.” He stretched out a hand and took her own in it. Her heart skipped a beat in the way the foolish thing always did. “Life can be like this, too, Tetisheri. A good dinner, a quiet evening, the enjoyment of each other’s company.”

“We serve the queen,” she said in a low voice. “It is not exactly a calling conducive to a quiet life.”

“What were you doing at the Library?”

She was surprised by the change of subject. “There are records left by the ones who came before me.” Even here, safe at home, the habit of secrecy was ingrained. She’d spent entirely too many of her formative years with Cleopatra. “I thought it might help if I read through some of the more recent cases.” Her lips tightened. “Since I have no experience in investigating anything, it might be the only way I can gain some.”

“And that was how you learned of this Grafeas, and that Nenwef was his friend.”


“Why did we follow him?”

“I think he told that woman, Khadiga, that I had been asking Is about Grafeas.”

“And that means—”

“I don’t know. Yet.” She toyed with her glass and looked up with a rueful smile. “Khemit wrote ‘Unresolved’ at the bottom of her report. It bothers me.”

“You said this young man disappeared, what, two years ago?”


He shook his head. “How many investigations did Khemit do altogether?”

Again she was surprised by his question. “She numbered her last one the sixteenth máthima.”

“So sixteen investigations total, I assume not including the one concerning the theft of the new issue?”

“She did not survive to write an account of it, as you well know.”

An appreciative twinkle appeared in his eye, and she wondered crankily why it was that any show of annoyance in her amused him.

“Sixteen investigations in, what, four years?”


“Which comes to an average of four inquiries per year. Not an inordinate amount of work.”

“And what about you? You, too, are in her service. You’re gone half the time on her orders.”

He stood up, pulling her to her feet. He raised her hands to his lips and kissed them both in turn, and then drew her to him to kiss her mouth. Just like that, she was back in that shadowed corner, his touch turning her body into molten gold, all running into a puddle at her own feet.

He pulled back and her eyes opened slowly. A thrill of excitement ran up her spine at the expression in his. “I resent it,” she said, her voice trembling a little.

He traced the line of her throat with his mouth, biting here, licking there. “Resent what?”

“Resent how much more experience you have with this than I do.”

His head raised, all trace of amusement wiped clean from his face, but all he said was, “The better to please you, agape mou.”

“Sophist,” she said.

“We were taught so by the best.” He kissed her again, and took a step back, holding her off by her shoulders when she would have followed. “I should go.”

“You could stay,” she whispered.

“I would not shame Nebenteru’s house so.”

“Then where?”

He slid his hands around her neck, nudging her face up, and kissed her again, his lips warm, his teeth and tongue teasing hers. “It’s not where, Tetisheri, it’s when.”

He kissed her hand again, and then turned it to kiss her palm.

Her hand closed over the warmth he had left behind as she watched him fade into the night.

Chatter Eye of Isis

Dana View All →

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