It was in the personae of a court scribe and his assistant that we left the safe house. I had my story prepared. We were researching an official history of the reign of Akhenaten to be presented to him by the Office of Culture on the occasion of his jubilee. It was to be a surprise, and must be kept secret. We carried with us documents of permission from the Akhetaten Medjay office which Khety had forged, having stamped them with some kind of blurred approval-seal in his office. I also had with me the original papers of authorization, but they would not help us now that we were in hiding.

‘Did you see Mahu?’ I asked Khety.

‘He was out. I timed my visit carefully. He’s been asking for me.’

‘I imagine he has. What does he think you are doing now, since we were arrested after Meryra’s murder?’

‘He’s been too busy to care. The murder has badly damaged his prestige, and he’s on the rampage to fit someone to the crime. I guess he’s furious that you’ve disappeared again. I’m sure that’s why he wants to see me.’

I gave myself a moment to relish the satisfaction Khety’s words brought me. With the Festival coming, and the escalating security tensions after Meryra’s murder, Mahu was almost certainly too preoccupied with his immediate problems to make good on his threat against my family.

It was a strange experience to walk once more through the streets of the city. The absolute single-minded purpose that characterized the attitude of the citizens during my first days here had changed now; among the new crowds there was a sense of uncertainty, touching on anxiety, as if everyone was apprehensive about the coming events and the arrival of so many strangers. But that was all to our advantage, as it enabled us to move far less conspicuously up and down the roads. Nevertheless, we covered our heads in the vague imitation of some kind of religious modesty. No-one paid us any attention.

We walked away from the slums and up the Royal Road heading north, where Thutmosis the sculptor had driven me in his chariot. We continued towards the central city among the evening crowds, past the Small Aten Temple, which was besieged with worshippers clamouring to enter through the first pylon. I caught a quick glimpse of the open sun court packed with people, their hands raised to the many statues of the King and Queen, and to the rays of the late sun. We followed to the right along the long northern wall of the temple, struggling against the current of the crowds, until we passed the House of Life and came to the complex of the Records Office. Now we were in more danger. We were more likely to be recognized here, not least because Mahu’s office in the Medjay barracks was only a few blocks away to the east.

Khety confidently made his way down a narrower avenue between high walls, past offices where all kinds of bureaucratic activity seemed to be taking place. We turned through a formal portal decorated with the insignia of the Aten sun disc, and found ourselves in a small courtyard. Here we encountered our first set of security guards. Khety wafted the permission briefly before their eyes, and I tried to look haughty. They glanced at us suspiciously, but nodded. We were about to move on through the courtyard when a commanding voice called us to halt. Khety looked at me. Another guard approached us.

‘This office is not open for public attendance.’ He scanned our permission. ‘Who authorized this?’

I was about to start speaking, to try to improvise a way past this danger, when a high, clear voice cried out, ‘I did.’ The thin young man who had spoken had the serious, pale face of those who avoid the sun. He stood at the threshold to one of the offices. ‘They have a meeting arranged with me. I’ve been assigned to offer them assistance. It is a great honour. Don’t you know this is one of the finest writers of our time?’ He nodded respectfully in my direction. I bowed almost imperceptibly to acknowledge the compliment, in a way I copied from a public reading I had once attended, on Tanefert’s insistence, given by a writer much admired for his supposed wit and brilliance. I had spent the endless time marvelling at his pomposity, his bad but costly dress, and his affected speech. The young man gestured respectfully for me to lead the way, and as we passed beyond the jurisdiction of the guards he whispered to me, with a quaver of fear in his voice, ‘Fortunately none of them can read.’ And with that we passed through the immediate danger and into the building.

Khety’s younger brother was as unlike him as was possible, as if he had only been able to define himself in opposition to his sibling’s character.

‘You might as well know I’d rather be reading about this kind of thing in a cheap story than actually smuggling you in through security. Have you no idea of the danger you place us all in? At a time like this?’ He addressed this last comment to his brother.

Khety raised his eyes at me. ‘Sorry, sir. He’s led a sheltered life.’

A group of Medjay officers passed us in the corridor, and we all fell silent. I felt sure I recognized one of them from the hunting party. His eyes met my glance curiously. I looked away, and kept walking. I dared not look back. Their footfalls paused for a moment-would he call after me? — but then continued until they died away behind us. We walked on.

Khety’s brother introduced himself as Intef-‘it is a name I share with the Great Herald of the City, although unlike me he is also known as “Great in Love”, “Lord of the Entire Oasis Region” and “Count of Thinis”, which, as I’m sure you will know, is Abydos’-as he pushed open a door with a flourish. We followed him into a large chamber lined with high wooden shelves and furnished with many desks at which men studied scrolls and papyrus documents in the last of the light from the clerestory windows. Few looked up from their scrutinizing; some were now packing away their materials, notes and documents to leave. I saw that many corridors and passageways led off from this central reading room. Fortunately there were no guards here.

‘This is the main library,’ Intef said. ‘Here we keep all the documents and publications relating to the current works of the city. We have separate sections for Foreign Affairs and Correspondence, Domestic Internal Information, Criminal Acts and Judgements, Cultural Documentation including poetry and fables, Sacred Texts heretical and orthodox, Historical Records public and not, and so on. Sometimes it’s quite difficult to know under which heading some kinds of information fall.’

‘So what do you do then?’ I asked.

‘We send it to be classified. And if that fails it is passed on again to a room in the library which privately we call Miscellaneous, Mysterious and Missing. Sometimes we know we ought to have a certain document, certain kinds of evidence in writing, but for whatever reason it is not in the library. So we may also make a record of its absence, so to speak, and again we send this to the Missing Room. In some cases we may make notes towards the definition of what is missing in terms of secret information-what we know we don’t know, in a way.’ He smiled.

‘I think I follow you. Those must be quite extensive records. Do you include missing persons in this Missing Room?’

He looked at me suspiciously, then at his brother. ‘What exactly are you looking for?’

‘Not what, who. I do not think the information we are seeking lies in this room.’

Intef glanced at the men preparing to leave the main room. He nodded quickly and anxiously, and we followed him out. He hurried down one of the passageways, and we entered into a great labyrinth of papyrus. The corridors were lined, floor to ceiling, with shelves on which were piled a dusty infinity of documents and writings: unbound papyrus sheets, bound collections, some cased in leather, others in scrolls, wooden boxes containing millions of clay tablets in many scripts.

‘What language is this?’ I asked, picking up one covered in a series of complex slanted marks.

‘It is Babylonian, the language of international diplomacy,’ Intef said, taking it off me quickly with a click of his tongue and fastidiously replacing it.

‘No wonder everything’s so confused. How many people can read it?’ ‘Those that need to,’ he replied piously.

Then, with a quick glance up and down the corridor, he pulled us aside into a small, barely lit antechamber lined with shelves. Like a bad actor playing a conspirator he addressed me too loudly: ‘It is indeed a great honour to help you in your project. What can I do for you?’ As he did this he gestured with his thumb at the walls and winked over and over.

I played along. ‘We are researching the glorious acts of our Lord…’

He made a kind of more gesture.

‘And we ask you to honour us with access to the archives on the subject of his early life.’

At the same time, Khety handed him a tiny scroll of papyrus on which he had written the names of those we really wished to research. Intef secreted the scroll in his robe.

‘Please follow me,’ he said, almost comically bellowing now. ‘I am sure we have many treasures pertaining to our Lord’s Great Works.’

We walked faster now through the passageways. Intef whispered more urgently and silently this time: ‘I cannot afford to get into any kind of trouble. I’m only doing this because my brother insisted. I should have known…’

‘I asked Khety to ask you. Why don’t you read the list of names?’

He did so, and I watched as his complexion achieved an even weaker shade of pallor. He held the papyrus like a poisoned thing.

‘Do you have the slightest idea of the danger in which you are placing me, yourselves, our…lives?’ he hissed.

‘Yes,’ I said.

He was speechless. He made the old gesture of blessing over himself and led us on to another chamber, long, dark and narrow, deeper inside the building. He checked carefully for guards, then crept up a staircase into a vast, dusty and low chamber, like a tomb, barely lit, which, he explained in another low whisper, contained the classified stacks of the collection.

‘Guards patrol at all hours of the day and night,’ he warned.

The many stacks of shelves, each marked at its entrance with a different hieroglyph, disappeared into shadows. So many words and signs, information and stories were gathered here. A torch brushing casually against a shelf, a forgotten taper falling over on a pile of papyrus, a mistaken spark ascending, caught by a draught and delivered like a firefly onto the yellow corner of an ancient tome, and this hidden library of secrets would be ablaze in moments. It was tempting.

First we searched for Mahu’s file. The information was stored with bureaucratic precision. There were already thousands of documents on citizens whose names began with M. I flicked through some of them: Maanakhtef, the Officer of Agriculture under Akhenaten’s grandfather; Maaty, Treasury official; Madja, ‘Mistress of the House’. I glanced down her paper and read ‘informer of the artisan community…sex worker’. There were countless other individuals whose names and secrets passed in a blur. Then, there it was: a single slip of papyrus contained within a neat leather binding. How like his office and his manner in its minimalism. But the content was disappointing. The papyrus held only the most elementary information: date and place of birth (Memphis), family antecedents (ordinary), long lists of accolades, successful entrapments of fugitives, statistics of success rates, bringing armed robbers to trial, numbers executed…and then the words: PAPERS X CLASSIFIED. He must have written it himself. In a way I had expected nothing more. What sort of a police chief would leave his best-kept secrets written down in his own archive?

Meryra was next. I flipped through, casting a quick eye over Merer, gardener; Merery, Priest, senior, of Hathor at the Dendera Temple in the Sixth Nome, also Keeper of the Cattle; then Meryra. Parents: father Nebpehitre, First Priest of Min of Koptos; mother Hunay, Chief Nurse of the Lord of the Two Lands. Interesting to find the same few families continuously maintaining their proximity to, and influence on, the royal family. Koptos was a rich place, for its gold mines, its quarries and its prime location on the trade route to the eastern seas-a tremendous source of income for the father. Min, I knew, was a god associated with Amun and the Theban cults, as well as Protector of the Eastern Desert. His main role had been to assist in the ceremonies of coronation and festival; he was the god of potency who ensured the power of the King. So the family had moved its allegiance as required, and very successfully, negotiating coinciding positions within both the Amun hierarchy and the Great House. But it seemed Meryra had been given the opportunity-or was it perhaps a threat? — to pledge total allegiance to Akhenaten and the Aten cult.

I ran my eye down his biography, which contained nothing exceptional. Educated in the usual schools and admitted to various hereditary and additional offices; then he seemed to have allied himself unequivocally to Akhenaten soon after the death of Amenhotep. He had been one of the first to arrive in the new city. He had become chief adviser to Akhenaten on domestic policy. In this way he would have been able to protect and advance the family assets within the land, I supposed. Well, no more. He was dead now. But what was there here to help explain why he had been targeted? Obviously the assassination of the newly appointed High Priest of the Aten was an astonishingly powerful and well-aimed blow at the facade of Akhenaten’s power. And the timing was immaculate. Who were the benefactors? I assumed his possessions would largely devolve to the Treasury. Similarly, Ramose had motive: at a stroke he would have wiped out his chief opposition. But the way Meryra was murdered did not fit that idea: Ramose would have been subtler and quieter, and he would have made certain the death did not reflect back so obviously on himself. Also, Nefertiti had said he never acted out of revenge. No, what had happened had been designed to continue and extend the destabilizing of the regime in the most effective, most public way possible.

Intef was getting more and more anxious, listening to the circling footfalls of the guards. I ignored him and began to look for Horemheb. Harmose, musician, minstrel of Senenmut, minister, PS buried with lute; Hat, Officer, Cavalry-informer. I hurried on past Hednakht, Hekanefer, Henhenet, past scribes, royal consorts, chamberlains, singers, trumpeters, priests, tax collectors, incense-grinders and bureaucrats, a great parade of titles and conditions, low and high, of works and betrayals, until I found him.

The biographical details were in themselves interesting. Born of a distinguished Delta family. Also known by another name, Paatenemheb-an Aten name. It was interesting that he maintained the two, and therefore the two alliances to past and present, while also letting himself become known by his non-Aten name. Trained at Memphis military school. Distinction. Top of year. A canter through the middle levels of the military, company commander and so on, to reach chief deputy of the Northern Corps at the age of twenty-five. Campaigns in Nubia, Mittani, Assyria. Married Mutnodjmet, Nefertiti’s sister. This highly effective political liaison brought him right to the centre of power. His latest promotion had just taken place: Commander of the Army of the Two Lands. This was a very significant position. He would now be reporting directly to Ramose, and perhaps to Akhenaten himself. I turned to the next sheet, but it was blank, as if the archivist already knew there would be a long future to record.

I moved on to Ay. I found him next to Auta, sculptor, homosexual…commissioned, carved representation of Princess Baketaten. Ay’s document was interesting, for it consisted of the facts of his birth-son of two of the most influential people in the court of Amenhotep III, and brother to Tiy-his own marriage to Ty, ‘wet nurse to the Queen Nefertiti’, interestingly, and then only these words, spaced on a fine sheet of papyrus:

Fan Bearer on the King’s Right Hand

Superintendent of the Royal Horses

God’s Father

Doer of Right

The first two were significant but not really exceptionally powerful positions. They were marks of status. But what did the third and fourth mean?

I was puzzling over these enigmatic titles and ignoring Intef’s increasing agitation when the sheaf of documents suddenly slipped from my grasp. I rushed to grab them, but they fell and scattered noisily across the floor. We froze. The footsteps ceased their perpetual round. Khety gestured in alarm from the end of the stack. It was then that I noticed it: a single feather that had been slipped into the binding of Ay’s documentation. It was worked very finely in gold. It was large and regal-perhaps an eagle’s or a hawk’s? I picked it up and twirled it in the light of the lamp.

Then the guards’ footsteps began to move quickly in our general direction. I placed the gold feather in my robe pocket. We hastily gathered up all the fallen papyri and moved deeper into the dark stacks, extinguishing the tiny light of our lamp; but in truth there was nowhere to hide: the stacks came to an end against a wall. We held ourselves very still. Two guards appeared at the entrance, holding up their lamps to peer into the dark where we crouched. The light just failed to reach us. Luckily, the architects of the library had left a good deal of empty space for the future accumulation of information. We slid as deep as possible into these long, horizontal empty spaces as if we were lengthy manuscripts.

Then I saw, with alarm, through the gaps between the shelves that one sheet of papyrus remained on the floor, just outside the pool of their light. My skin prickled. If they saw it, they would know someone was here. I heard their footsteps approaching, the light of their lamp growing brighter. The sheet was clearly visible now. I wondered for a moment whose life was written there, and then a foot stepped on the sheet. There was a moment of pure silence. I could not breathe. Just then a shout, in the distance. One guard gestured to the other, who raised his lamp suspiciously. The end of the wall was now fully illuminated. If he came two steps forward he would surely see us. But they turned and walked away. Their footsteps receded, and then there was silence.

Intef looked sick. He was shivering. ‘They’re changing the watch,’ he whispered. ‘We’ve got no more than a moment to get out of here.’

I picked up the sheet from the floor and re-filed it (in the wrong position, for my own satisfaction). We made our way cautiously to the edge of the stack. No sign of any guards. Then it occurred to me: I wanted to check my own file. I beckoned Khety to follow me.

‘Come on, we’ve got what we came for,’ he said urgently.

But I ignored him, and found the passageway beginning with my hieroglyph. Rameses, military officer, see under Horemheb; Rahotep, royal scribe; Raia, musician; Ramose, Vizier, Chief Minister, born Athribis, mother Ipuia…Where was my file? I checked back along the documents. It was missing. Why? I suddenly felt like a non-person. Who would remove my file, and why? Nefertiti said she had read it. Perhaps she still had it, or perhaps it was lying somewhere in Mahu’s office. There must be a simple explanation…

Khety dragged me away, holding his finger to his lips. We moved silently back down the staircase, then heard more footsteps marching towards us, up the corridor we had taken earlier. Intef panicked, hurried us into a small storage room and shut the door. Khety and I looked at each other intently, trying not to breathe. Intef’s eyes were shut tight. Once the new detachment of guards had passed, we slipped out and hurried through the building, back through the now empty and silent library, until we finally reached the courtyard. Bowing to Intef, who looked emotionally devastated by the adventure, Khety and I pulled our linens over our heads and walked past the guards, out into the noise and chaos of the street.

‘So what did we get from that?’ asked Khety.

I carefully showed him the gold feather. ‘I found it in Ay’s file. It was hidden there. I don’t know what it means.’

I twirled the beautiful, strange thing in the late light.