(Fear of cats)
The night air is still a bit warm, but I have promised my friend Alexios to meet him at Cassandra’s wine shop which is on a side street in the city of Bubastis. My name is Demetrios and I have lived in Egypt for five years. I would prefer to be back in Athens, but due to a slight misunderstanding with a local archeon, I decided that my life would last longer if I did some “traveling”. I can not take a chance that the man has forgotten about me and what he witnessed between me and his wife. I decided on Egypt because my friend, Alexios, told me that since the Ptolomies took over, there are many opportunities for Greeks to get rich. I agreed to come with him after quickly considering the alternative. If the archeon found me, it would have been a matter of exile, if I was lucky, or death, if I was not. The only thing that bothers me about this country is the ridiculous manner in which they treat animals, cats to be specific. As a child, I obtained an overpowering fear of cats. I would fall into an endless fit of sneezing any time a cat came near me, and, once, so my mother told me, when I was three years old, a cat scratched me on the arm when I tried to pick him up. I don’t know if it was due to the scratches or from something else, but ever since then, I stay as far away from the furry demons as I can.
“Demetrios! Over here!” I hear as I step into the slightly fish-smelling and decrepit wine shop. The second floor of the wine shop is divided between Cassandra and the few decent looking whores that she offers as a bonus to her wealthier clients. I get along fairly well with Cassandra considering that, when I first met her, I thought that she was one of the whores. She quickly disabused me of that notion, but since she discovered that we were from the same area in Sparta, she has forgiven me for my indiscretion. Anyway…I slip into the corner table that Alexios has claimed and wait to hear what his latest “get rich quick” scheme is to be.
“Demetrios, listen. I have managed to, how shall I say it, make friends with one of the minor priests of Bast and he has told me some very interesting things.”
“And what might these “interesting things” be concerning?”
“You know that when a pharoah, or for that matter, any rich person dies, they are mummified and wrapped in linen. Now, as the bodies are wrapped, the priest inserts amulets among the wrappings.”
“Yes, Alexios, I know all of this. I’m sure everyone in Egypt knows this. What does this have to do with us making money?”
“If you would let me finish. Now this priest, Ptah-en-per, has told me that some of the wealthier clients also have their favorite pets mummified and buried with them in the same manner.”
“Are you insane! You want to resort to tomb-robbing?” Alexios quickly shushed me and put his hand on my shoulder and gently pushed me back onto my chair.
“NO! This is a less risky plan and it will not involve us losing our heads, literally. Just listen.” And he proceeded to tell me of this “no risk” plan of his. I listened very carefully to his every word and weighed all possible consequences. Finally, when I was certain that his plan had a better than 75% change of success, I agreed to it. There were still a couple of things that Alexios had to get organized, but we both agreed to meet at his house in seven days in order to carry out the plan.
The next night that Alexios and I met, we were joined by one of Cassandra’s whores, a Thracian girl named Melita. What this plan revolved around was the idea that Alexios and I would meet with Ptah-en-per at the temple and share a couple jugs of date wine. Melita would be standing by, but out of sight, until her role in this scheme was to be enacted. It seems that Ptah-en-per resented his lowly station but did not have enough ambition to do anything about it, but Alexios knew that it would be too risky to enlist the priest’s aid. Alexios had talked the priest into showing him around the temple and, after learning where the mummified remains of the wealthy patrons were kept, he came up with this plan.
When Alexios had decided that the priest was well enough into his cups, he signaled Melita to begin her scene. The Thracian was a very beautiful dark-eyed girl who I would guess was in her early twenties, but due to the wonderful qualities of the Egyptian cosmetics, could almost seem to be sixteen years old. It was difficult to guess Ptah-en-per’s age because it is the custom among the Egyptian priesthood to shave their heads, but then, the priest’s age was fairly irrelevant as far as the plan was concerned. Melita came out of the shadows from the street and, with the light from the moon shining through her shimmering silk dress, she quickly entered the temple and fell to Ptah-en-per’s feet asking for his assistance. She told him that her mistress had visited the temple earlier in the day and had made an offering to the god for the wellness of her favorite pet, a leopard which her husband had sent her as a present from the far East. It seems that the animal was taking a turn for the worst and her mistress had sent her to fetch the High Priest. Ptah-en-per, through the fumes of the date wine, was confused by what the woman was asking for; was Ptah-en-per expected to wake the High Priest for the girl or did the girl think that he, Ptah-en-per, was the High Priest? He took hold of the girl’s hands and raised her to her feet and said,
“But it is so late to rouse my Lord, the High Priest. Can this not wait until the morning?”
Melita, who through her work at Cassandra’s had learned some of the art of acting, said,
“Oh, please, kind sir. If I do not return with the High Priest, my mistress will have me flogged!”
Now, Ptah-en-per knew that he was in no condition to leave his post in order to have the High Priest summoned because the fumes from the wine would be obvious to the High Priest who would, in turn, have Ptah-en-per flogged. Alexios took this moment to say to Ptah-en-per.
“My friend, why don’t you go with this slave-girl and play the role of the High Priest? Surely, you have seen him perform such rites before? And you do not seem that much affected by the wine, but, in order to ease your mind, I have an onion here. Take a bite of it and it should take away the smell of the wine.”
“No, no! That will not help for if the woman was here earlier, she would have spoken with the High Priest and she would know that I am not him for he is an old man. I could also be punished if it is discovered that I had left the temple grounds.”
It was at this point that Alexios and I sat there looking like we were trying to think of a solution for our friend’s dilemma, which we had already decided on. I jumped up and said “Eureka!” “I will put on a priest’s robe and take your place while you go and perform your religious duty. Quickly, go to your room and bring me a robe with a hood so that no one who may come by will not see that my head has not been shaven and you go with the girl.”
The priest was at first uncertain, but because of Melita’s hand-wringing and the fear on her face, he decided to do it. He was back in less time than it takes a bird to fly to its nest. After making sure that the robe fit me perfectly, he and Melita ran from the temple. What the priest did not know was that one street over from the temple was one of Cassandra’s henchmen with a club in hand waiting for Melita to signal that the priest was coming. When he reached the spot where the henchman was waiting, the henchman hit him over the head, but not hard enough to kill him and carried him over his shoulder to a nearby empty stable.
While all of this was going on, Alexios and I walked towards the room where the mummified pets were kept. Since the patrons are kept for seventy days in a nitrate solution, their relatives bring the pets to the temple for mummification, which takes less time for animals, and the priests store them in a room behind the sanctuary. Fortunately for us, the old priest who was to stand guard at the sanctuary was in a deep sleep. Alexios and I were about to enter the storage room when I noticed that the door had a lock on it. Alexios tiptoed over to where the priest was sleeping and lifted the keys off of the table where the priest had laid them. While Alexios tried to figure out which key would open the door, I kept an eye on the priest. Soon we were in and taking a torch in each of our hands, we checked the condition of the wrappings on the dead animals. We had each brought a bag with pebbles in them which we planned to substitute for the precious stones that we would take. I was going through the shelves which contained the ibises while Alexios checked the shelves with the cats. Even dead, I told Alexios that there was nothing that would get me to touch the cursed things and he had agreed that he would check the cats. After about thirty minutes, our bags were full and we were getting ready to leave when there came to our ears what sounded like a demon from hell. Alexios and I stopped and looked at each other with fear in our eyes. We slowly turned our heads in the direction which the screech seemed to have come, when we saw the demon’s glowing eyes! We, still conscious of where we were and not wanting to awaken the priest who would then raise the alarm, ran as quietly as we could without yelling. I had stopped to close the door when I was hit in the face by a shrieking bag of white cloth. I felt the demon’s claws draw my blood and, at that point, it was all over for me and I fainted.
When I came to, I found myself clamped to a prison cell with chains. I squinted my eyes in the darkness, but quickly winced when I felt sharp pains on my face. My tongue felt that it had been glued to the roof of my mouth, so I could not call out for water. It was at that moment that the flickering from several torches caused me to turn my head and then I heard a voice speaking in broken Greek.
“So, you try to steal from goddess Bast? Bast will protect her children from tief such as you. You and you friend pay for you crime against Bast. Pharaoh no help for you.”
I looked and saw an Egyptian in his starched kilt, with a staff, sandals, and a gold-lined cloth on his head. I had only heard descriptions of him, but I recognized Ay, the High Priest of Bast who was accompanied by a jailor and five soldiers. The Priest then left, the jailor unlocked my cell, and the soldiers led me away. When my escort and I came out of the building that I had been imprisoned, the sun was rising out of the East. My hands were still chained and I was hoisted into the back of a cart when four other prisoners, Alexios among them. My feet were then chained and a long iron rod was slipped through holes in the back of the manacles. I glared at Alexios and he looked down at the floor of the cart. The cart took off at a slow pace so that the guards could keep up with it and it took fifteen minutes before we arrived at the Court of Justice. It was at this point that I knew that my life would soon be over and I decided to accept it. I was the first prisoner taken into the Court where I was forced down on my knees with my head bowed. I heard a slow tapping of a metal staff on the floor and a voice calling for silence in the court. In Greece I might have been given an advocate, but this was Egypt, even if it was ruled by a Greek dynasty. Ptolemy made some concessions to local custom and thieves were not allowed to have someone be their advocate. I waited for the judge to decide my fate. “Demetrios Panagyros, you have been charged with defilement of the holy temple of the goddess Bast, corruption of a priest, and theft. All of these charges of which you have been found guilty of warrant the death penalty, but someone has requested that you be returned to Athens to stand trial for a previous crime, namely, the seduction of a very important person’s wife. The Archeon Xenon has paid an amount to the High Priest of Bast as compensation for your crimes and you are therefore, put into his charge and banished forever from the land of Egypt under penalty of death. Next case!”
When I heard those words, I could not believe my ears! I would live! But then reality intruded. I looked up and saw the smirking face of Xenon. He ordered two guards to lift me off of the floor and I was then dragged down to the Nile where a dhow awaited us.
“When I am done with you, swine, you will wish that I had let them kill you.” All things considered, I thought to myself, he may be right! I was laying on the bottom of the boat, still in chains, and with the heel of Xenon’s boot on my head. I was in this unfortunate position for quite some time, but soon I heard the roar of many people and smelled the salt of the sea. We had reached the port of Alexandria. Xenon leaned down and grabbed me by my manacles and lifted me to my feet. He pushed me towards one of his men who lifted me out of the boat and marched me to the ship that waited for us. Just before I staggered up the gangplank, I noticed something that I had never seen before; the name of the ship was painted on the bow behind the eye that is painted on every Greek ship:
THE LION OF VENGENCE