(Chapter 1 is here)
Chapter 08 – Sacrifices
So, Mr. Fleur…” the high priestess began.
AP had no idea how to fill the awkward silence, as she looked at him across the ornate desk with an expression of trepidation, with perhaps a touch of defiance. He was five hours late, but they were the ones who had given him an address eleven hundred years out of date. He accepted the glass of amber liquid and tasted it. Temple beer – sweet and spicy, with a trace of…not hops…rue? And cookies with a filling of fig jam as well. If this was usual refreshment for temples, he would enjoy being a priest. He brushed a crumb from his beard, hoping that as a priest he wouldn’t be made to shave it off.
She cleared her throat and continued: “I see that you were conferring with the god Khonsu this morning, and I hope Miss Aziza fulfilled her role adequately, but I’m afraid that we just don’t have any experience in summoning Wepwawet. Perhaps if you helped?”
“Excuse me? I don’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about! I came here to interview for priest training!”
“You did send us a message this afternoon? Blazing green hieroglyphs, three feet high?”
“Wait…I sent my message with this device. It’s called a Time Concordance. Here’s the text of it.”
Taking the device, she read from the small screen, “We have been wandering for hours, lost.” She looked back at her visitor for a moment, her expression unreadable, then slid a paper across the desk.
“IN THE COMPANY OF KHONSU, FORSAKEN…” He began, trailing off as he skimmed down the page. “…ORACLES HAVE FALLEN SILENT…” He reached the end and read aloud, “…A SACRIFICE TO WEPWAWET IS REQUIRED OF SESHAT FOR THE BELOVED OF KHONSU.”
They stared at each other for a moment, then burst out laughing. “Zizi was afraid we were going to kill her…poor kid. I told her it would make a bad first impression.” He stopped laughing abruptly as the realization struck him. “She must have thought I was serious.”
The High Priestess chuckled as she examined the bizarre device. “How did you send that message? With this?”
“Yes, I’m afraid it’s not very smart, and I use it to translate tomb inscriptions. When it finally linked with your computer, Seshat Core, that must have colored the message just a bit. So “someone you can spare” became “sacrifice.”
She frowned, puzzled. “Computer? Seshat Core?”
He let his gaze drift to the ceiling while thinking of a way to explain. There were intricately rendered images of the goddess Seshat overseeing the building of a temple…perhaps this very one where he sat drinking beer and eating fig cookies. “You said you saw the message in blazing hieroglyphs. That means you have a receiving device somewhere in the temple. The computer must have looked for a way to display it.” He could see that she didn’t understand. “Let’s look at it this way; these are things that the device might be doing for you; sending messages between the administration, faculty, and students. Keeping track of what books the library has, and where they are. Figuring out budgets and keeping financial records. Listening to really stupid music, talking with people in Burma, or watching clips of singing dogs. Does any of this sound familiar?”
She gaped at him, speechless.
“How are you doing all those things now?”
She closed her mouth and opened it a few times before speaking. “The staff does those things, of course. How else would we do them?”
“You have a machine you call ‘The Staff?’ That’s it, then! Let’s go take a look at it.”
“What? Machine? The staff isn’t a machine. It’s…they’re…the people who serve in the temple.” She paused a moment before adding “What’s left of them, anyway.”
“‘What’s left of them’?” he echoed, a note of alarm creeping into his voice. “Are they being sacrificed too? Under those circumstances, I’m probably not interested…” He started to rise, leaving the warm embrace of the plush chair.
She gaped at him again. “No! Of course we’re not sacrificing anyone! The place is so stagnant that even mummies look lively by comparison! The number of candidates drops each year, and I’m not willing to let mediocre applicants in just to fill seats. I’ve tried to make changes, but you can’t change six thousand years of tradition overnight. Overnight? Even five hundred years would not be enough to get them to change the brand of tea. You should see the kind of fights that happen over the most trivial…”
It was AP’s turn to gape. The High Priestess had been bottling her frustrations up for some time, and now the cork had popped. As she continued her litany of grievances, he began to realize that almost everything had gone from new, past antique, all the way to ancient, sitting in the same place in this office. Sitting for hundreds? no, thousands of years! Behind her stood a gilded sculpture of some pharoah, thousands of years gone; countless clergy must have served under its heavy gaze.
“Sorry to unload all of this on you. You know, it did feel good to get it out. There are only two or three people here who feel the same way, but they’ve just given up. That blazing message is the most exciting thing that’s happened here since the Experimental Plumbing Disaster last century” She gave him a mischievous grin.
“Zizi doesn’t seem like she’s given up… I was quite impressed by her. From the message you got, she had no indication of where we were. Out of the entire city, she found us. Has she done that sort of thing before?”
“Zizi has been a thorn in the side of-” She broke off abruptly, suddenly remembering that she was talking to a virtual stranger. “Sorry, I should not discuss a student’s academic career with a fellow student. Assuming that you will become a fellow student?” She raised her heavy eyebrows inquiringly.
“It’s still my goal to be a priest of Seshat; so as long as human sacrifice isn’t on the syllabus, and we can work out the distance learning arrangements, sign me up. Do I have your permission to check around the school and the lower levels? I shouldn’t need to go near the sanctuary, but if I can locate the main computer room, well, it would be an unprecedented resource in this world.”
As she contemplated the idea of such an amazing resource and what it could do for the temple, the High Priestess’s expression was like a little girl who’d been given the key to the ice cream vault…and a big spoon. After a moment, she frowned. “I’m not sure where you would find this ‘computer’ you’re looking for. Of course, we can give you maps of the buildings, but the complex is quite large. It could take weeks to search everywhere, and I understand you were only planning to stay for a day. It’s already past sunset.”
“Is there anyplace safe we can stay nearby? We haven’t even talked about my training, but the question about the computer seems like it’s far more important. I think it might be worth a day or two of our time to investigate this.”
“We have lodging space here at the temple, but will Miss Boone mind staying that long? Won’t she want to leave for her own temple?”
“Oh I’m pretty sure Jo can find something to keep her occupied.”
“You ask her!”
“Me? You’ve been here longer, you do it!”
The two Junior Library Assistants stopped arguing and peered around a row of wooden bookshelves at the visitor. The rumors after the arrival of Miss Boone and her servant were varied and bizarre, and no one knew what to believe. Everyone said that Acolyte Aziza was to be killed as a sacrifice, but she had returned with the visitors, alive and well, chatting happily with them. She had told her roommate that she was judged “unsuitable for a blood sacrifice.” The servant was meeting with the High Priestess, perhaps to select a better offering for Khonsu. Miss Boone was so engrossed in the books, she didn’t seem to have noticed the young assistants following her. She already had several leather bound tomes, supporting them on one shapely hip as if holding a child.
“Have you ever been to the temple in Dendera?” the older boy asked his associate. “I heard she’s one of their priestesses. And her grandmother was High Priestess too. They say the festivals up there get pretty wild.” He couldn’t imagine this woman conducting herself in such a wanton manner, even with his vivid imagination. She was so demure and quiet. She seemed far more interested in looking at every title than in…in… in doing whatever those priestesses were supposed to do. Maybe if he helped her find the books she wanted he could find out.
Miss Boone moved out of sight and the assistants scrambled to follow. But at a safe distance.
“Do the priestesses kill people? Why would anyone go up there for a festival if they’re going to get murdered?” At thirteen, the younger assistant was still reading horrific tales of reanimated corpses and bloodthirsty cults, innocent of the interests that had lately fascinated his sixteen year old companion.
As the assistants rounded another row of bookshelves, they caught a glimpse of the woman’s frilly dress disappearing around the far corner and they broke into a run to catch up.
The older boy skidded to a halt at the end of the row then nearly fell over as his associate cannoned into his back. “Will you watch it?” he hissed, peeking around the dusty bookcase. It was too late; their quarry had already disappeared and it would take hours to find her again among the maze-like stacks.
“Excuse me?” The soft voice from behind them made the older boy jump. The younger one had dropped to his knees, whimpering. Miss Boone had circled around the shelf while they were trying to catch up. She regarded them warily from over an armload of heavy books. “I’d like to get past, please.” Her dark eyes seemed to glint and dance in the dim light, further terrifying the younger assistant.
“Sorry, Miss.” The older assistant regained his composure and bowed, hoping to appear gallant. The effect was spoiled by his associate’s frightened gibbering. “Get up, you fool!” He hauled the boy to his feet. “My name is Mehntu-Re. Er…at your service, Miss.” Was she getting angry? He couldn’t tell, so he bowed again. “I’m sorry about Sahd-Huru, he’s been reading execration texts again. Um. Is there anything you need? Can I find a book for you? Carry something?” Sahd-Huru had finally stopped whimpering and now stood goggle-eyed, in awe of his superior’s ability to talk casually to such a powerful being.
The woman shifted the heavy load from one side to the other as she thought. A copy of The Course of Anubis slipped out of her arms and fluttered to the floor. “Well I guess you can carry that for me. And this one.” She handed over Constructing a Better Ushabti “And this. This one too. Oh yes, there is one more that I’m looking for. Do you have a copy of Advanced Embalming for Modern Practitioners? What’s wrong with him?”
Sahd-Huru had slumped to the floor in a dead faint.