Distant shouts echoing throughout the halls woke Anitepsut before dawn. The black dog curled at her side yipped nervously once or twice as Ani blinked awake. Stroking her pet to calm him she sat up, staring wide-eyed into the darkness.
“Death! Blood! O gods, help, help me!” The cries broke off in wordless wailing.
Nimlot? she thought. The kitchen boy? What is he about?
She heard the thud of hurrying footsteps on stone and questioning calls closer at hand as Nimlot’s lamentations from below roused others in Imhotep’s luxurious house.
Moments later, wrapped in a fine robe of nearly sheer linen, Ani joined the press of disheveled sleepy-eyed household members crowding into the kitchen.
The first thing she noticed was Nimlot, flattened against the plastered wall, trembling and biting at the knuckles of his right hand. He was fourteen but husky for his age. Now, however, he was as pale as new linen and looked ready to vomit. His gaze was directed down at something Ani couldn’t see because her view was blocked by earlier arrivals. She stepped forward between two servitors to see what Nimlot was staring at, and gasped. There lay Kebi, the cook, face down on the stone floor, fully dressed. The back of her skull was crushed as if by a heavy blow. Kebi’s arms were thrown up above her head, reaching, her hands clawing at the stone.
Now Ani saw that there was more blood on the floor than she would have expected from the head injury. It was leaking from beneath the body. Her cousin Imhotep knelt next to the dead woman, carefully examining her, his long face grim.
Stabbed? Beaten and stabbed? Ani’s stomach turned over at the brutality of it. A strange whistling filled her ears. Dimly she realized she was breathing quickly and harshly. Her vision dimmed.
“Ani!” said Imhotep. Her senses focused. “Assist me, please.” Suddenly aware all the servants were eyeing her, Ani fell gratefully to her knees next to him at Kebi’s side. She could not have remained standing a moment longer. But her relief at no longer being on her feet evaporated as she realized she was in immediate proximity to the corpse. “Tell me,” her cousin said again in his deep, “teaching” tone. “How long has she been dead?”
Taking a deep, shuddering breath, Ani reached out a trembling hand and gently turned Kebi’s head. The cook’s face was distorted as if in fear—or anger. Ani suppressed a shiver. Had some malevolent night spirit gotten in and killed Kebi as she began her day’s chores? Had the evildoer then stolen her ba as it fled Kebi’s body?
No—not at all, Ani realized, running her fingers lightly across Kebi’s features. Spirits had no need for blunt objects. With that realization, Ani’s heart began working again and her thoughts flowed. “The face muscles have begun stiffening,” she murmured to Imhotep. “But not her arms or legs. I think she died sometime after midnight. Sooner, and her limbs would be rigid.”
Her cousin nodded. Despite the horror of the moment, he was clearly pleased that she retained enough poise to remember the medical studies he had been drilling into her these past few months. Still two years shy of his twenty-fifth birthday, Imhotep was perhaps even more renowned as a physician than as an architect. “I would agree,” he said. He nodded toward the kitchen’s grindstone sitting in one corner. “The pestle is missing,” he said. “The indentation in her skull is of a size and shape that indicates the intruder struck her with it.”
He looked up at the circle of fearful servants and raised his voice. “It now lacks half a torch until dawn. Whoever did this is long gone; fear not.”
“Assumin’ it was an outsider done it,” Ani heard one of the porters mutter to his neighbor. She looked up at the man in time to see him, and a few others, turn suspicious eyes on a young girl standing near the edge of the crowd.
Ani sat back on her heels, staring down at Kebi’s body but remembering the screaming dispute the cook and Benertep had engaged in only yesterday. A momentary frown creased Ani’s forehead. What had they been fighting about?
“Something to do with the seasoning for the soup, I believe,” Imhotep said, so quietly that only Ani heard.
“You’re following my thoughts again!”
He shrugged, a faint smile on his thin lips. “’Tis good practice,” he whispered.