She lay cradled in a low dune, some way into the Red Land behind the northern edges of the city, among the desert altars to the east. A fine second skin of grey sand had been brushed over her and into the folds of her magnificent clothes-long gold tunic, fine gold necklace, gold slippers, linen undershirt-by the light attention of the wind. She was turned on her side, her legs drawn up, her arms holding each other like a sleeping girl; and facing the west, the setting sun, I noticed, as in a traditional burial. It was all wrong. Her stillness. The empty muffled sound of the desert, like a shuttered room with nothing living in it. The heat of near midday, which shimmered over us all. The offending sweet stink of recently killed flesh. And above all, the furious tormented excitement of flies. I knew this sound too well.
Her face was turned considerately to the sands. Holding a cloth to my mouth and nose, with Mahu, his slavering and overheated dog, and Khety standing at a distance, I gently touched her shoulder. She unrolled awkwardly towards me, the reluctant movement telling me at once that death was likely to have taken place in the small hours of the night. Then I confess I jumped back. Where her face should have been was a seething mask of flies that, conjured instantly by my disturbance, shimmered up into the air around my own head, and then reformed again, a barbarian hive thick with the buzz of intense devotion, upon the bloody remains of lips, teeth, nose and eyes. I heard Tjenry puking. Mahu remained still, casting a large and very sharp shadow over me as I crouched again by the corpse of the Queen whose glorious and famous face had been so brutally destroyed. I understood at once the extent and significance of the mutilation: this spectacular barbarity meant that the gods could not recognize her and she would never be able to speak her name when her shadow arrived in the Otherworld. She had been murdered in this life
‘I think you are out of a job.’
I looked up. Mahu’s face was hidden in deep shadow. There was no tone of victory in his voice, but he was right. The Queen was dead. I was too late. Her own death surely signalled mine. My thoughts reeled. Was this the end of everything already? I had hardly begun.
The peasant who had found her stood at a distance, trying not to look, trying not to exist. Mahu signalled for him to approach. Trembling, he did so. Without expression, as if he were an animal, without even the basest preliminaries of execution, Mahu’s curved sword whispered in an invisible arc through the thin air and the man’s thin neck. His severed head fell to the sand like a ball dropped out of its orbit, and his body sank instantly to its knees and collapsed. Blood pumped from his neck. The unholy priesthood of flies renewed their disgusting celebrations. The dog moved forward to sniff at the head. Mahu uttered a sharp command and it returned obediently, still panting, to its master’s feet.
Mahu looked at Khety, Tjenry and me, daring us to speak. My mind was racing like a crazed dog, driven on by fear. Suddenly a new thought flashed into my head.
‘This may not be the Queen,’ I said.
Mahu stared at me. ‘Explain that.’ He sounded nasty.
‘The body seems to be that of the Queen, but the face is destroyed. Our faces are our identities. Without one, how do we know for certain who is who?’
‘She is wearing royal clothes. That is her hair, that is her figure.’
There was tension in Mahu’s voice. Did he prefer her dead? Or did he just not want to be proved wrong by me?
‘Certainly those are her clothes. Yes, it seems to be her. Nevertheless, I need to examine the body and conduct a full investigation in order to confirm the identification.’
Mahu considered me, his gold eyes transfixed on mine. ‘You are struggling, Rahotep, like a fly in honey. Well, you had better get to work, quickly. If you are right, which seems impossible, then there is more to this than meets the eye. If you are wrong, which seems certain, and Akhenaten, his family and the whole world mourn the loss of the Queen, you know exactly what to expect.’
We took her body, covered with a cloth, on a cart to a private chamber of purification, in conditions of absolute secrecy. It was the coldest room that could be found. Its limestone walls were built into the earth and gave off a ghostly chill. The candle flames shivered silently in the sconces, giving light without heat. I found linen bandages stored in a cupboard; jars of dry natron, cedar oil and palm wine stood on shelves; iron hooks for removing brains, incision knives and small hatchets hung beneath. Along another wall were ranged canopic jars for organs, their lids decorated with images of the Sons of Horus. Along a third wall, propped up in a line like an identity parade, was a variety of rich men’s coffins decorated in gold and lapis, and above them shelves of mummy masks. And when I opened boxes I found, unusually, rank upon rank of glass eyes staring up at me, awaiting the sockets of the newly dead to allow them a vision of the gods.
There was a sudden commotion at the door: the Overseer of the Mysteries was demanding admittance to his office. When he saw Mahu he shut up instantly, and after a word from Tjenry he backed out, apologizing as he went. Mahu then turned to us. ‘There are guards outside. I want you to report to me within one hour.’ And he went, taking some of the room’s darkness and chill with him.
I turned to the body of the woman on the wooden embalmer’s table. The flies had moved on to other, richer feasts, and the ruins of her face-black and crimson and ochre, the eyes gone, the brow and nose shattered, the lips and mouth smashed-remained clear. In a few spots the brain itself was exposed. I examined the features of the injuries. Her jaw and forehead still bore the rough imprints and indentations of something like a large stone, but there seemed to be no other mortal injuries. So that was how she died. She would have seen her own death coming. A brutal and not especially quick ending.
I quickly poured a sufficient quantity of natron powder mixed with acid over the face, in order to eat away the ruined flesh and congealed blood and expose the bone structure and any remaining skin. While the natron did its work, I turned to Tjenry, who was staring at the corpse with a young person’s fascination.
‘What would we do without this powder? It is found on the shores of ancient lakes, and the wadis at Natrun and Elbak are the finest sources. It cleanses our skins and brightens our teeth and breath, yet it also makes glass possible. Is it not interesting how something may look like nothing but may have many powers?’
Tjenry was still looking uncertain about all these obviously new experiences. He did not seem interested in a discussion of the virtues of natron.
‘What a mess. Do you really think it’s not her?’
‘That remains to be seen. Indeed it seems to be, but there are many possibilities.’
‘But how will you know?’
‘By looking at what is there.’
We began at her feet. Her sandals were leather and gold. The soles of her feet were not cracked, and the skin was soft and clean. A woman of leisure. The bones of the ankles were neatly turned. Her toenails were painted red, but scuffed and scratched. There were dry smears of something on the sides of her feet.
Tjenry moved his face closer to the foot.
‘What do you see?’
‘The nails are carefully manicured.’
‘But they are scuffed. The varnish here is marked. And I see here, on the outside of the little toes, scratches, and traces of blood and dust.’
‘Better. And from this we deduce what?’
‘Yes, a struggle. This woman was dragged along against her will. But this we could anticipate. See among the toes? What do we find?’
I scraped between the big toe and its neighbour, and into my hand fell not only traces of sand but also a tiny deposit of darker dust: dried river mud. I moved to her hands. They too bore the marks of conflict: bruises to the knuckles, damaged nails and grazed skin. I examined under the nails. More mud. Perhaps the killers had ferried her across or along the river, in which case the river mud might be accounted for as they forced her, still alive, from the boat. But there was something else. With tweezers I drew from between the fingers clenched in death a long auburn hair. Strange. This woman’s hair was black. Whose hair was this? Was it a woman’s or a man’s? The length told me nothing. I held it up to the lamplight. It appeared to be undyed and from a living head, not a wig. I sniffed it, and believed I caught the faintest trace of a subtle perfume, rather than any beeswax setting lotion.
I moved up to the torso and was about to begin to examine the clothing when the door slammed open and to my alarm Akhenaten himself entered. Khety, Tjenry and I dropped to the floor, faces down, by the table. I heard him move across the room and approach the body. This was a disaster. I still had none of the clues, those tiny shards of hope I needed in order to prove my instinct true. I desperately needed to examine the body and confirm my findings before informing Akhenaten. Now it must look as if I was working behind his back, to cover up the murder and the body of the Queen, and my own incompetence and failure. I swore at myself, wishing I had never come, never left Thebes. But here I was, trapped by my own ambition and curiosity.
I quickly glanced up. He was standing beside the body, his hands slowly moving across it, his eyes wide in rapt concentration, breathing with deep, uneven gasps as if in pain, as if trying to sense the spirit still hovering, as if he would try to raise her from the dead. He seemed mesmerized by the catastrophe of her face, as if he had never thought beauty were skin deep, as if he could not believe his Queen was mortal. It seemed to me in that moment that he loved her.
I thought: how ironic we should meet our fates in an embalmers’ workshop. All we needed to do was step quietly into a coffin, close the lid, and wait for death.
Finally he seemed able to speak. ‘Who did this?’
I had to say it. ‘Lord, I do not know.’
He nodded sympathetically, as if I were a child in school who had failed to answer a simple question. He continued with a quietness that was more menacing than any shout. ‘Did you hope to keep this secret from me until you had worked out a story to defend your failure to answer this simple question?’
‘Do not disagree with me.’
‘It is the question I am trying to answer, Lord. It is not a simple question. And forgive me for saying so at this time, but there is another question.’
His glare was intense with contempt. ‘What other question could there be now? She is dead!’
‘The question is whether this is indeed the Queen.’
There followed a nasty silence. Akhenaten’s voice, when he spoke, was a marvel of restrained sarcasm. ‘These are her clothes. Her hair. Her jewellery. Her scent is still on the body.’
It was time to grasp the slender reed of chance.
‘But appearances, Lord, may be deceptive.’
He turned to look at me, his face suddenly hungry with hope. ‘That is the first interesting thing you have said. Speak.’
‘We are all infinitely varied in terms of bodily shapes and colours and manners, but we are sometimes wrong when we think we know someone. How often does one glimpse a figure across a busy street and cry out to the school friend we have not seen for many years, only to find it is not he but someone in whom his features have been rearranged? Or the sudden flash of the eyes of a girl we once loved in the passing face of a stranger?’
‘What are you saying?’
‘I am saying this is a woman who looks like the Queen, who has her height and her hair, the tones of her skin, her clothing. But without the face, the mirror where we read our knowledge of each other, only one who knew her deeply-intimately-can confirm this.’
I looked down, careful not to risk damaging this delicate moment.
‘With permission, there is a way, Lord, to confirm the identification of this body as the Queen’s. But it requires personal knowledge. Private knowledge.’
He considered what I was implying. ‘If you are wrong, I will do to you what was done to her. I will strip you naked, I will cut out your tongue so you cannot call for death, I will peel off your skin, strip by strip, I will hammer your face to a pulp, and then I will have you staked out in the desert where I will watch your slow agony as the flies and the sun put you to your death.’
What could I say? I looked him in the eye, then bowed my head in acquiescence.
‘Turn away. Face the wall.’
We did so. He was opening her clothing, laying her bare. I heard the faintest shower of grains of sand cascading to the floor. Then silence. Then the sound of a jar shattering against a wall. Khety jumped. The scent of palm wine spread out quickly across the room. The next moment would decide the path of my destiny.
‘This is a great deception.’
Hope leaped up in my heart.
‘Your task is not yet done. It is hardly begun. And there is little time. Call upon what you need. Find her.’ There was a look of exultation on his face, not just relief. ‘This body is rubbish. Dispose of it.’ And with that he swept from the room.
Khety, Tjenry and I looked at each other and stood up. Tjenry put his hand to his damp brow. ‘This is too much excitement.’ He laughed a little, embarrassed by his fear.
‘How did you know that?’ said Khety, gazing at the body.
I shrugged. I did not say how little I had had to go on in gambling our lives. The body before us was beautiful, perfect even. What detail had redeemed us and proved my strange hunch right? Then I saw a little white scar like a star in daylight on the belly, where a mole, perhaps, had been removed. That was all it had taken to save us for another day. But then the questions crowded into my head. Why had someone murdered a woman who looked exactly like the Queen? Why set such a sophisticated false lead? And where was Nefertiti herself?
Out of habit, I checked through the folds of the robes. Inside, near the heart, my fingers closed on a small object. I drew it out and found in my hand an ancient amulet, worked in gold and decorated in lapis. It was a scarab. The dung beetle, symbol of regeneration, whose offspring appeared as if from nowhere in the mud. The scarab that every day pushes the sun back into the light from its night in the Otherworld. Unusually the underside was inscribed not with the name of the owner, but with three signs: Ra, the sun, a circle with a dot at its centre, then ‘t’, and then the hieroglyph of a sitting woman beside it. If I read it correctly it said: Raet. The female Ra.
I slipped the amulet into my pocket. It felt like a clue, or a sign-indeed the only one I had, apart from this faceless girl whose appalling death had in the end saved my own life. If only I could understand what was in front of me. I turned to look again at the body on the table.
‘Right, here are the key questions. Who is she? Why does she look so like the Queen? Why is she wearing the Queen’s clothing? And why has she been mutilated in such a desperate way?’
Khety and Tjenry nodded, sagely.
‘Who makes all the images of the Queen? All those strange statues?’
‘Thutmosis,’ said Khety. ‘His workshops are in the south suburb.’
‘Good. I want to interview him.’
‘Also, there is a reception this evening to honour the first of the arriving dignitaries for the Festival.’
‘Then we should attend. I hate parties, but it might be important.’
I ordered Tjenry to remain with the body and organize security. ‘Khety will relieve you later tonight.’ He gave me a jaunty salute.
Khety and I made our way out to the embarrassing, cranky chariot. Over the jarring argument of metal and stone I said, ‘Tell me more about this artist.’
‘He is famous. Not like the other image-makers. Everyone knows him. And he’s
‘And how do you find his work?’
Khety paused. ‘I think it’s very…modern.’
‘It sounds like you think that’s a bad thing.’
‘Oh no, it’s very impressive. It’s just…he shows everything. People as they are, not how they ought to be.’
‘Isn’t that better? Truer?’
‘I suppose so.’
He didn’t sound convinced.