LAST RITES • by Jonathan Edelstein

Abydos, Egypt
Second year of the Pharaoh Khasekhemwy
2704 BC

Merit-Ptah heard the shouting first, and then the struggle as two guards pushed a man through the door-flap of her house.

“I’m with a patient,” she began in anger, but then she saw. The worker struggling in the guards’ grip had been badly beaten and his injuries needed seeing to at once — and more than that, Merit-Ptah knew him.

“Iunre,” she said. He’d been a brickmaker on her family’s lands before her father had sent her to study medicine in Sais, before the Set and Horus cults’ feud had claimed her parents and brothers. Now, it seemed he had come north to work on the tombs being built at Abydos, and his journey had led him to danger of another kind.

“What is the meaning of this?” she asked.

“They think I’m a tomb robber,” cried Iunre, “but I swear I’m not.”

One of the guards, Seneb, shook his head. “We caught him skulking around the old kings’ tombs, and the pit he just came from had a broken seal.”

Merit-Ptah drew in her breath. The punishments for tomb robbery were both final and brutal, and in a day or two, any treatment she gave him wouldn’t matter. Her mind raced as she cleaned and bound his wounds; he was an old family retainer and she was the only one left to protect him, but how?

“Find him some clean clothes,” she said when she was finished. She noticed that Iunre’s sandal was also stained with a sticky substance, but when she touched it, it wasn’t blood. “Then one of you will take me to where you found him, and the other will make sure he isn’t harmed further.”

Soon, Seneb led Merit-Ptah beyond the work-camps and quarries to the tombs built when the Two Lands of Kemet were first united. She recognized the mastaba of Qa’a, last king of the old dynasty, and followed Seneb to the pits outside.

The royal chambers had been desecrated in the war after Qa’a’s death, and some of the outer pits had also had their seals broken with bronze and fire. Each one contained a skeleton, all in the same position and facing the same way. Merit-Ptah knew what this was — when the old kings died, their servants, not merely shabti figures, were buried to serve them in the afterlife.

“It was a cruel time,” she murmured, “and the gods made cruel demands then.” But did they have more pity now, when Kemet had been separated and united again and when the cults’ strife had claimed her family?

She shook away the thought and dropped to her knees to examine the pit near where Iunre had been found. The skeleton inside had once been a priest and wore the rags of fine robes; beside it, a stone cup had been upended and the floor was stained with a viscous residue that had once been wine. There was a smear where a sandal had touched the residue — yes, Iunre had been here.

Then she noticed something else. “Nothing is missing,” she said. “The things in the pit were moved, but none were taken. When you found Iunre, was he carrying any grave goods?”

“No,” said Seneb, and a surprised look came across his face. “But why would he be in the pit, if not to rob it?”

“We could ask him. But before that, we should look in his tent.”

Back at the workers’ camp, another surprise awaited them; inside Iunre’s tent were not the meager possessions of a brickmaker but a pile of items stolen from the worksite’s stores. A bolt of linen, four deben-weight of natron, a deben of fragrant resin, a trowel and a jar of hiba soil…

“All these things are for the dead!” Seneb said. “That’s why Iunre didn’t take anything — he was going to use these things to make a curse with the bones.”

“I was taught magic when I studied medicine,” Merit-Ptah answered, “and there are no curses made this way.” But she could see in Seneb’s face that this didn’t matter. He believed Iunre was making a curse, and soon the whole camp would, and Iunre would die.

“No!” she cried. “Let us go to him.”

Iunre was still in her tent, calm but clearly terrified, and he grew more so at the sight of Seneb’s expression. But Merit-Ptah held up a hand. “Hiba soil is used to make plaster,” she said, “and plaster is used to seal a tomb, not break one. And the name inscribed on the pit — that, too, was Iunre.”

His face crumbled and words flooded out. “Yes,” he said. “My ancestor was a priest in Qa’a’s household, and his pit was broken in the war. He was a priest of Horus, and I hoped that if I sealed his tomb again, it might make peace between the cults. I never meant it to look like a curse, but I didn’t know.”

After that, no one barred her way when she led Seneb and Iunre back to the pit. “I became a priest when I studied medicine,” she said, “and I will help you seal it.”

“What rites do we use?” Iunre asked. Natron was useless where a body had already decayed to bone, and there was no trace of linen wrapping.

Merit-Ptah wasn’t certain, but she knew that the body must be returned to its rest. “Give me the resin you took,” she said, and she lit it and let its fragrance fill the grave. “Hear my prayer and take it to the king you served. May you be restored to peace, and may he end strife in the Two Lands.”

She doubted this would be enough to bring peace to the whole kingdom, but at least Iunre would live and she had fulfilled her father’s duty. She gave Iunre the jar of plaster and left him to finish the sealing.

Jonathan Edelstein is 46, married with cat, and lives in Queens. His literary inspirations include Urusla Le Guin and Bernard Cornwell, and his work has appeared in Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Flash Bang Mysteries, and elsewhere. When he isn’t writing, he practices law and hopes one day to get it right.

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