Temple of Spies
Even though it was hard for Ash to break away from the spectacle of Giza, Alim and Ash headed to where the battery had been before the pirate attack, dodging the crewman as they readied the ship. It was not on the workbench where they had left it.
Ash’s biggest fear had come true – during the battle, the ship had made some abrupt turns, tilting the deck almost verticle to the water.
“I hope it didn’t fall overboard. You search that side,” she told Alim. “I’ll look over here.” Her heart sank as she looked in the stacked sails and supplies that surrounded the work area. She was frantic because her charging cable, and the only iPhone lightning connector that existed in the past, was attached to the clay jar.
She found no trace, not even some broken pottery. When she looked over her shoulder, Alim stood at the workbench, empty-handed.
The boat thudded against the dock, and for the first time on her journey, Ash felt hopeless. The majesty of Egypt stood before her in all its glory. But all she could think of was how she had lost touch with home.
“Well,” she said to herself in English, “I guess I am really stuck now.” She felt Alim’s hand on her shoulder, comforting her the only way he knew how.
“Who is your favorite trader? The master of the sea?” It was Duzi shouting from the far end of the ship.
Ash said to Alim, “I am in no mood for his bragging.”
Duzi kept on as he walked towards them. “Defeater of pirates, procurer of exotic spices, exporter of the greatest olive oil in the east, and importer of the finest rugs from the far west?”
He stopped behind them, and Ash said, “not now, Duzi.”
“But, I have one more claim to fame.”
Ash sighed. “Go ahead, what is it? Purveyor of succulent goat eyes? Seller of ice to Eskimos?”
“The first one is disgusting. And the second, I have no idea what ize or an esk-kee-mo is.”
“I, my skilled, beautiful, and mysterious foreign artificer, am also the finder of lost lightning jars.”
Ash spun around to look at him. He was standing next to the bench, with a toothy grin spread across his face. His arms were wrapped around the battery jar, the charging cable still attached to the two copper contacts. Relief surged through her. But at the same time, she could not look away from his infectious smile or stop thinking about how he had called her “HIS skilled, beautiful, and mysterious foreign artificer.”
She walked up to him, gently took the jar from his arms to place it on the bench, threw her arms around his neck, and kissed him all over his face. She found herself lingering a bit on his lips as he started to kiss her back. She lost herself in the feel of his strong body holding her.
The sounds of the dock, the crew moving about, and the blood rushing in her ears blocked out Verihbitt’s not-so-subtle vocal cues to get Duzi and Ash’s attention.
Frustrated with trying to be subtle, she yelled, “Duzi! The customs agent is waiting at the plank to speak to the shipmaster. I informed him that our captain fell overboard, and instead, we have an infatuated boy who is supposed to be in charge.”
The couple broke their embrace and flushed with embarrassment.
Ash said, “Um, thank you, Duzi, for finding my jar. It was very important to me.”
“We can all see how important it was to both of you,” said Verihbitt.
Duzi collected himself, flashed Ash that same smile, and said, “I should find your lost things more often.” Then he went in search of the customs agent.
Placing her backpack over one shoulder and gathering the battery in her arms, Ash followed Verihbitt and Alim off the ship in a daze. They stepped off the plank and onto the stone streets of Giza.
She took in the sites and sounds of the city and said, “I really do not know what came over me.”
Verihbitt laughed and tossed her long hair over her shoulder, “I know exactly what came over you. You need to build up resistance to the smile. He wields it as deftly as he does a spear.”
The oarsmen split into three groups. One in front of and another behind the travelers. A third group stayed on the ship. Duzi and Alim continued to talk to an official in long robes and a faded headdress. Ash saw a knowing look pass between the three men, followed by Alim passing a leather pouch to a slave next to the official. Once the bag was stashed away into the slave’s robes, they all bowed slightly to one another and parted. Duzi shouted an order to his men and joined the rest of the group to begin walking into the city.
The brightness of the painted walls and statues was almost overwhelming to Ash. Raised on pictures and video ruins with weathered stone, she had always pictured ancient cities as brown and gray. Although most of the homes and shops were made of mud bricks, plenty of markets and temples along their path assaulted the eyes with vivid coloring.
They walked up a small hill and turned into a courtyard to find a cluster of buildings that stood out because they were so different. Ash recognized the Phonecian architecture and the image of Baal over the entrance to the temple that stood in the center of the courtyard. A lush, green garden filled the space between the temple and the covered walkway that ran along the edges. Doorways to dark, and cooler rooms, peaked between the plants and columns. A single fountain gurgled off to one side.
Mnihh’dm climbed up on the low wall around the base of the fountain, filled his hands with water, and splashed his face.
He turned to the group and, with a flourish of his hand, pronounced, “welcome to this most sacred shrine to Baal, Lord of the Heavens, the southernmost home to the most divine and magnificent King Attiball, and his most trusted and loyal embassy to the mighty Pharos of Egypt. In that it is also very empty, I suspect that the King’s most honored caretaker is once again taking care of our most trustworthy ambassador, the King’s eighth son, at the most luxurious, discriminating, and expensive brothel in all of Giza. “
The group laughed a little nervously at Mnihh’dm’s irreverence.
“Come, Verihbitt, let us find and purify the women’s quarters for you and our foreign guest while Alim sweeps out the King’s suites and Takaa chases that rats from the barracks.”
Things were not as bad as the Mnihh’dm had implied. They had also found a group of Temple servants sleeping the afternoon away behind the altar. With their help, the quarters were squared away just before the sun began to set. Ash had even found a small workshop in the back corner that she commandeered. The battery was stored in a safe place, and she dispatched two of the temple servants to get her two baskets of whatever citrus they could find.
Ash kept looking for Duzi as they all hurried around the complex. He occasionally popped out into the courtyard to bark orders at his men. But he never glanced towards her. Doubt started to set in as she wondered if he had only responded to her affection out of reflex. And worse, that he now regretted his response.
When she ran out of things to do, she went looking for her friends. She found Verhibitt, Takaa, and Mnihh’dm sitting under a tree in the garden, drinking watered wine and snacking. Ash hesitated. She remembered what had happened that last time she had joined them in a courtyard, under a tree, for a light afternoon snack.
Takaa noticed her and the look of fear on her face. “Ash, please join us. Duzi’s soldiers are guarding the entrance and patrolling the walls. This meal will not be as exciting as the last one we had in a garden.”
Mnihh’dm held out a bowl of wine, and Verihbitt motioned to a spot on the bench next to her. Soon she was laughing with her friends and discussing their adventures since they had met. A witch trial, saving the King’s life, rescuing Verhibitt’s father, and escaping pirates. That was enough to put Duzi and his ignoring her out of her mind. The warmth of the food and wine mixed with the cool breeze blowing down the Nile, and she caught herself yawning.
Excusing herself, she headed off to her new bed. Laying there, she could hear both her friends and the oarsmen talking. She wondered if Duzi was with his troops, but she could not make out his voice across the courtyard. She fell asleep arguing with herself about what she should do first in the morning – talk to Duzi and figure out what was going on with them or charge up the battery and try and talk to Alex.
In the clear morning, contacting the future won out. As soon as Ash was washed, she headed to the workshop and rounded up a couple of the temple servants to squeeze the fruit their compatriots had scrounged up the previous night. Before long, she had a full pot of yellowish liquid. Ash sent them away and then slowly poured the juice into the battery. She then replaced the cloth around the copper contacts.
After testing the current with her tongue, she took a deep breath and plugged the connector into her phone.
She felt the phone vibrate in her hand. Ash was so excited she gave out a small squeak of joy. Then, a simple icon appeared on the screen showing an empty battery with a lightning bolt.
“Yes! It worked.”
She was not sure how long she paced back in forth in that small room. It seemed like hours, but the sun was still low in the sky when she tried to turn the phone on. The screen showed a time and five-percent battery.
Ash was so nervous it took her four times to put her PIN in. The warning about locking the phone terrified her, so she took her time on the fourth try and was rewarded with her home screen. One bar of signal showed in the upper right corner.
The messaging icon soon displayed the number five in its small red circle. Ash opened up the app and read messages from Alex.
Ash, are you there?
Checking in again, I hope your battery is not dead.
“Long one, just in case you get signa .Just to let you know, the FBI is involved now, as well as some other government people who don’t talk a lot. Like men-in-black looking government people. I’ve been “isolated” in the basement. They gave me a cot and bring food. I have some new friends that watch everything I do. Texting now from the bathroom stall. Sorry TMI. Oh, I can only send to you if I’m down in the basement near the fancy secret computer. I didn’t tell them what you told me. Let me know if that is OK. I did tell Harriet. She says time travel is not covered by short-term disability. And that she misses you and is very worried. They have told us to not shut down the quantum temporal server. I think they know it was involved in your disappearance, but they are telling me nothing. Your bossman Doug actually asked if your batch job was still running and if someone could take a look and try and get results from it. Yes, I know. I could not believe it either.”
“Nothing? It’s been another day here. We hope you are OK. Try and let us know how you are and if we should tell the g’ment.”
Ash stood looking at her phone for a long time. So much to take in. She started to type:
I’m still here. Had to build a battery from scratch. It worked! Don’t have much juice, fig n lit 😊 I’m safe. Won’t lie, it’s been dangerous. The ancient world is a ruthless place. I’ve made friends and we are helping each other. Ask H if I have enough vacation left to cover this? Lol. Seriously, tell her I miss her and have her tell my parents everything but to keep it to themselves. Until we figure out what happened, I don’t trust them. I watched too much x-files. Does that make me Skully and you Moulder? 😊 Battery going down, will try again tomorrow with more charge.
Ash reread the message and wanted to make some corrections but was worried her small charge would be gone. She pushed send. The phone made a whooshing sound and said sent.
She leaned her back against the bench and waited. Soon, three little dots appeared next to the “Alexes.”
So glad to hear from you!!!!! wOOt. Will do as you say. Please send any clues to help. Harriet is nice, but no hacker.
The real-time connection with the future sent adrenalin through Ash’s body. Her hands shook as she typed a response.
“Thx! Please send any info you have as text.”
Before she could add more, the phone’s screen went black.
She went to find Alim and asked him to organize a steady stream of citrus fruit and squeezed juice, asking him to have the filled jugs left at the door to the workshop. Once the pitchers started showing up, she replenished the liquid in the battery. It seemed to her that the charging lasted about fifteen minutes. She resisted the temptation to send another message and instead left the phone off and concentrated on building up a full charge on her phone. Her brief time in the past had taught her that she might have to grab everything and run. She could not risk not having a full charge.
She worked like this, alone, taking solo walks around the courtyard between draining and filling the battery. The rest of her group seemed to be out doing other things, except Alim, who occasionally stopped in to check on her and offer help. When the sun set, he brought her an oil lamp and some dinner so she could keep going into the night.
“Ash, wake up. Ash.” Verihbitt was gently shaking her. “It is almost mid-day.”
Ash opened her eyes and saw wood. She had fallen asleep on the bench. She groaned in pain as she straightened her stiff back. With a start she remembered her phone and turned it on. While she waited for it to boot, she thanking Verihbitt and apologizing to her while she waited to see what charge she had.
The phone turned on and showed 97%. There were no new messages from Alex, so she turned it off and put the phone into her backpack’s pocket.
“Your magic clay tablet is working again?”
Ash said, “Yes, thanks to all of your help. It will be useful. I was so focused on fixing it that I let the day get away. Did I miss anything yesterday?”
“Let’s take a walk around the garden, and I’ll fill you in.”
A short time later, Verihbitt and Ash shared a sedan chair while Takaa and Mnihh’dm trotted behind the oarsmen who carried them. They were headed to the Temple of Montu, the Egyptian falcon god of war. While Ash had been charging batteries, the rest of the group had been out trying to find out more about the mysterious king that was terrorizing the eastern part of the sea. An Egyptian, recently returned from that part of the world, agreed to meet them there and fill them in on what he had seen.
When they arrived at the temple, Ash was once again so awed by what she saw that she was speechless. The tall, thin building had giant carved pillars at the entrance that depicted Montu’s consorts. Every wall was covered with colorful hieroglyphics. Ash wanted to stop one of the priests who scurried around the entrance and ask them to read the passages.
Verihbitt pulled on her arm and said, “Close your mouth and come inside.”
The massive interior was dimly lit by torches and a single shaft of light that came through the ceiling. More carved columns stretched on either side of the space. A huge statue of a falcon-headed man sat at the far end of the chamber. The three Phoenicians walked purposefully towards an altar at the base of the statue. Remembering to close her mouth, Ash scurried after.
A man in elaborate robes stood to the side of the altar, gazing up at the statue. When the group got close, he turned towards them and asked, “did you bring the sacrifice?”
Mnihh’dm stepped forward and deposited a wrapped bundle on the altar.
“We have brought a sacred cat to honor the god Montu.”
The package was bigger than any cat Ash had seen, and she thought she heard the sound of clinking coins when Mnihh’dm placed it on the altar. The robed man picked it up to gauge its weight, and Ash clearly heard the coins. Once her eyes adjusted to the gloomy interior, Ash noticed more robed men milling about all around them, their faces hidden in large hoods.
The man bowed and said, “The god will be pleased.” He spoke something in what must have been Egyptian towards a dark alcove in the side of the chamber, and a thin man in a tattered tunic stumbled forward.
The man fell to his knees and began to mumble a sing-song chant towards the statue.
“You can pray later.” Said the robed man, who Ash assumed must be a priest. “Now, you need to tell these people what you saw. In the language of the traders.”
The prostrate man rose to his feet, and in broken Phoenician, began to talk.
“We were five weeks in voyage, traveling with a wealthy tax collector. He wanted to show his wife the west. Past Tripoli, we were. We see the black towns.”
He stopped and dropped to his knees again, and began to pray. Ash could sense the terror in his voice, even though she did not know the language he spoke.
The priest pulled the man back to his feet and shook him.
“After many places we find black, we turn back to Tripoli. We see it there and then the thunder brought the sun to us and flames. Death. I jump in the sea. Grab piece of wood. Wake up on shore near Tripoli. Our ship gone.”
Verihbitt stood in front of the man and gently grabbed his shoulders. She asked, “What did you see before the thunder, before the sun came?”
The man looked away. He began to shake and cry. Finally, he said, “We see the largest ship we ever see. It long and –“
One of the hooded priests was running towards the man, a large club raised above his head. Before Ash or any of her companions could gather what was going on, he brought the club down and the man’s head. Brains and blood spattered over the altar and the base of the statue.
Ash heard a loud banging and turned just in time to see the large bronze doors at the entrance to the chamber slam shut. Several groups of hooded priests slowly moved towards them.
Takaa shouted, “Behind me.”
Ash muttered, “not again” in English, and dashed to get behind the bodyguard. Both he and Mnihh’dm pulled long bronze knives from beneath their cloaks. Verihbitt leaped up onto the statue and pulled a spear from the stone hands of the god.
They slowly backed to the side of the statue, a hieroglyphics-covered wall behind them. The priests continued to move forward. Each one carried a large club like the one used to murder the man they had been questioning.
Their guards were outside, locked outside of the bronze doors. Ash realized, with a cold hard shiver, that they were trapped.
Her three friends took a defensive stance in front of her as she tried to reason out some solution. She thought about taking her phone out to text a message to Alex and her parents. Then she remembered the flash on the phone and how the people in the market had been terrified by the bright light. She quickly took the phone from her backpack pocket and turned it on. The priests got closer, forming a semicircle of at least a dozen men.
The phone turned on and she hit the photo icon, turned the flash on, and snapped a picture of the men approaching them.
They shouted in fear and covered their eyes, shouting the Phoenician word for bright lightening. Noticing their distraction, Verihbitt stepped forward and smashed an oil torch hanging from the wall, sending flames towards the priests. That stopped enough for them for Mnihh’dm and Takaa to jump forward, slicing and stabbing their long knives. Ash flashed the camera again, and Verihbitt joined the two men to hack and slash at their foes. Before she could push the button for a third flash, all of the priests were fleeing, bleeding on the floor, or screaming in agony from the burning oil that covered them.
Verihbitt leaned on the sacred spear she had borrowed from the god and said, “These are no Egyptian priests of Montu. They were speaking fluent Phoenician.”
Takaa said, “You are right, and look.” He bent to pull the robes off the chest of one of the dead priests. She reached down and pulled a necklace of the corpse. “They are all wearing these.”
The necklace had a large bronze disk that was clearly a stylized sun. Below the shiny disk, a half-dozen lightning bots shot from the sun in different directions. Ash had never seen anything like it in any of the Phoenecian jewelry she had studied.
Verihbitt took the necklace and looked at it more closely. She turned it over, looking for writing or any additional marks. She handed it back to Takaa. Then she walked to the base of the statue of Montu and gently placed the spear in its lap.
“Most honored Montu,” she said, “I am sorry we desecrated your shrine. But these men are not your priests. They are adherents to a cult that worships Reshef and Shapash. A cult that I thought my uncle had exterminated. Thank you for protecting us here in your shrine and for the use of your spear. We ask for your protection and guidance as we travel further west.” She then backed away from the statue, head bowed.
Verihbitt turned around when she reached the altar, grabbed the oversized coin-filled cat, and said to the group, “I think we should take this sacrifice with us to Tripoli. It might come in handy.”
– To Be Continued –
Please subscribe to our newsletter, so you will know when the next installment, “Journey to Tripoli,” is released, wherein, after a brief stay in Egypt to gather supplies, Ash and friends sail westward again to the ancient Phoenician city of Tripoli (well, it ended up being called Tripoli later) and Ash learns of a plan to get her home and learns how Duzi feels about her.