Series: An Evil Spirit Out of the West trilogy, by Paul Doherty
Summary: We all believe in something. For Mahu, it's puzzles, and nothing puzzles him more than Sobeck and Djarka.
Mahu has seen too much to believe in gods, and yet he can't deny their influence. In the end, they're as omnipresent as the stench of war and the panic after a theft. Even if they aren't real, he thinks, the chaos they inspire is.
“Mahu,” Djarka says after one of their first religious debates, “If you don't believe in anything, you may as well be sailing without a compass.”
“So I've heard.” Mahu is considerably more agitated by the conversation than his friend. That is nothing new; few things seem to really dig under Djarka's good humor. It isn't like arguing with a priest, although Djarka's faith is at least as unfailing. Perhaps even more steady, since he doesn't stand to gain any payment or influence from his loyalty to the gods. “But the gods' path leads to the Underworld, without fail. Who needs a compass for that?”
Djarka laughs, which signals an end to the topic. “I think I see you now.”
“Are you going to be buried with your gold or possessions?” Sobeck asks, when he learns that Mahu has already been given a tomb outside the City of the Aten.
How Sobeck came across the information, Mahu will never know for sure.
“Jackal,” Mahu says, without any real feeling. “You wish to know so you can pick my corpse clean?”
Sobeck just grins, his teeth strangely white, perhaps because his face has been burned so dark.
What Mahu plans to be buried with is sarcasm, and the truth. The former will be carved into the walls; the latter will be clasped in his hands.
The nationalist talks are almost as bad as the religion debates. Djarka stares across the firelight at Mahu, leaning forward intently with his elbows on his knees. Mahu makes a few wordless, uncertain sounds.
“You must believe in it,” Djarka reasons, “If you would do all this.” They both know that's not true. People kill every day without pride, without loyalty guiding their crime. But Djarka believes Mahu is different.
“I don't believe in The One,” Mahu says warily, skating the truth. “No more than I believed in a crocodile god.”
“Then you believe in Akhenaten?”
Mahu scoffs quietly. “You aren't the first to ask me that. Do I believe he is insane, is that what you mean?”
Djarka tilts his head to the side, an almost nod. He doesn't expect an answer to that, because he knows Mahu would never say so out loud.
“He is the Pharaoh,” Mahu says instead, as he always does. It's almost a mantra. “He is the rightful heir.”
“And who gave him that right?” Djarka's eyes sparkle as if they're sharing a joke at Mahu's expense. “Who gave his father or his grandfather that right?”
Mahu grunts, and flicks a grape across the fire at him.
“In the Red Lands, you only meet an enemy.” It's an old proverb, but it springs to mind in the heart of the city as Mahu moves down the alley to where he hopes he will find Sobeck alive.
Sobeck is the self-named Lord of the Darkness (the darkness being Thebes' “other world”, the realm of thieves and murderers, grave robbers and prostitutes), but Mahu knows that no Lord can keep an entirely happy kingdom. Sobeck never elaborates on how he keeps order, but he is as bright and cocksure as he was when they were growing up together in the Kap.
Mahu knows better than to completely trust his abilities—or anyone's abilities. Mistakes are made. Allegiances are traded.
The moon creeps overhead, and he exhales sharply. Sobeck is late.
Mahu's hand strays to his belt more than once, as people stumble near him. They always pass him by, with barely a glance. He begins to regret not bringing Djarka, but there was no other way. Someone had to stay with the Prince, and there is no one else.
“Hey,” a whisper, but one that he knows. His heart beats so fast, so suddenly, it forces a relieved sigh as he looks up at the dark window. “Come in the back way.”
“You're very late,” Mahu says, sounding annoyed.
Sobeck's head peers out the window to grin down at him. “Sorry, old friend. I had a lady here—she was most insistent.”
How Sobeck can adapt to so many things without every really changing is the real mystery. Mahu shakes his head wryly, and heads in for their meeting.