Reviews for other books by this author.

The Planet Dweller

Jane Palmer’s first novel Is a real find -definitely a specimen of higher lunacy. The Planet Dweller appropriates all the furniture of TV sci-fi and duly stands it on its head, with a wonderfully pragmatic absurdity - that’s been done before, of course (Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams), but not quite this way.
Mary Gentle Interzone

A hilarious story in which the Earth is threatened by the deadliest life-form in the universe: the Mott. Diana, a menopausal mother, and Yuri, a practised drunk, are the two humans destined to fight them
SFF Books

Palmer has more in common with Muriel Spark than Marge Piercy. Her alien invasion of Earth takes place among the kind of people who cause havoc at the supermarket checkout.
Jane Solanas Time Out

Jane Palmer’s novel, The Planet Dweller quite unashamedly a good sci-fi adventure,
Liz Adams Chartist

The Planet Dweller is a much more traditionally sf novel, and also funny in a Tom Sharpe/Douglas Adams sort of way:
Paperback Inferno

Jane Palmer’s first novel The Planet Dweller comically (and Britishly) juxtaposes menopausal female reality with a farcical chauvinist SF subplot about the Molt and their plan to rule the galaxy.

The Planet Dweller has more in common with Dr Who . . . including a sense of humour.
David Sexton Sunday Times

Jane Palmer spins a confused but amusing tale of earth menaced by extragalactic baddies. Her heroine, Diana, a menopausal housewife and administrator of an architectural museum, is original, sympatico and fun.
Sunday Times Supplement

The Drune

As in her 1985 debut novel The Planet Dweller, Jane Palmer likes to confront wildly eccentric but plausible humans with alien weirdness, producing offbeat SF comedy containing the occasional serious barb ... Palmer's narrative bubbles with frivolous inventiveness and unhinged dialogue, and has a gentle sting in the tail.
David Langford

Palmer has some points to make about humans, civilization, and civility. The fact that she works them in to a wild, through-the-looking-glass adventure eases the lessons into the most resistant brain, with little or no pain.
Lisa DuMond SFF Site

Jane Palmer's fabulous and complex universe is pleasantly refreshing … [this] lively, bubbling and buzzing universe is a gentle call for a more harmonious, tolerant and generous society.
Martha Fumagalli WiPlash

And the story itself is the most remarkable blend of sci-fi, fantasy, the self-defeating effects of bigotry, power, control, love, self-sacrifice - and the ending is simply perfect.
Joules Taylor WordWrights




Jane Palmer


First published in Great Britain
by Dodo Books 2008

Copyright © Jane Palmer 2008

This is a work of fiction and any
resemblance to persons living or dead is
purely coincidental.

The author asserts the moral right to be identified as
the author of this work.

ISBN 978-1-906442-16-3

All right reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

Other science fiction books by this author





The cloudbanks were glowing orange canyons in the setting sun, and the horizon's curving rim gleamed like a burnished ring mounted with the jewel of the solar disc. As Ahmose soared higher, silver meteors intermittently stabbed the thin layer of atmosphere, and above its misty curtain the constellations made a diamond collar against the backdrop of space.
The bird followed the Earth's rotation to bathe in the sun's perpetual warmth. Then he plunged back to the planet's surface through a whirlpool of cloud, sleet hammering against his golden plumage, and out into the glare of white mountains where Neanderthal tribes hid from the spears of the new hominids.
While the silence of space touched the highest peaks, busy winds swirled through the flower-speckled valleys below. Here, thatched stone outcrops and dank caves were dormitories for populations doomed by encroaching ice sheets.
Further south, land was being pushed up by erupting volcanoes. In a bright blue sea a chain of islands lay in a dusty girdle about the caldera where there used to be a mighty civilisation. The planet's crust had blistered, then blown away its people, artefacts and history. Crumbs of what it once was glistered in the art of other lands. Now only the dolphins remembered.
Ahmose floated in the rising thermals with the albatross and migrating swallow, across the boundary of one empire and over the deep green ocean of another. Here leviathans rose like bald grey islands and blew fountains of drizzle at circling gulls.
The wind picked up. It was fast and icy, buffeting the water into cliffs topped with ragged fringes of spume. As they arched over, the golden bird soared through their funnels until, dizzy with exhilaration, he misjudged the speed of the next wave and it crashed down on him.
Ahmose woke with a start.
The Nile was gently lapping against the side of the reed boat. The priest sat up and looked about. His horse was peacefully cropping the tufts of coarse grass on the bank above and the ferryman was dozing. A lad placed a bridle on the grazing animal and led it to the temple stables.
The royal barge came gliding ghostly over the water like a huge furtive pelican. The river's current brought it alongside the small jetty and the crew secured its weighty grandeur to the flimsy mooring posts. The prow and stern of the barge were curved over in elegant stems sprouting enormous lilies, their white cedar petals now shrouded by brown linen. The canopy decorated in gold at the centre of the vessel had also been covered and the lighter skinned crew members crew wore dark tunics with hoods; their oars so well muffled even the fish wouldn't hear them being stroked through the water.
Ahmose left the reed boat and climbed aboard. The captain was unable to conceal his surprise at the champion selected to save Queen Ankhesenamun. A full featured man, his shaven head glowed in the rays of the sinking sun, and the animal keeper’s kilt was too large for his slight frame. There was an aura of holy innocence about him. Many in the Egyptian clergy were undoubtedly holy, though usually only as innocent as self-preservation would allow. In those troubled times that was as much as a scorpion waiting its chance to dash from a crack in the crumbling fabric of the Aton cult.
Ahmose was used to others observing him. Even the sacred animals in the menagerie of the temple of Amon Ra at Innu gave him curious glances. The crocodile of Sebek had a particularly disconcerting stare. The other priests held him in contempt for being literate, though not a scribe, and living next to the flood plain, but not owning land. Yet none of them dare feed the crocodile of Sebek. Every temple needed someone dedicated to do the dirty, dangerous work so they praised Ahmose a little and gave him the occasional small gift of honey, cheese or olive oil for treating their oxen, donkeys or servants. The animal priest wondered if his brethren would have been so patronising if they had known the real reason for his absence? Surely they didn't believe he had travelled so far south after all these years just to take a wife?
As he waited on the deck of the royal barge, Ahmose watched the sun set in the rose pink sky. Though the craft was moored a safe distance north of Thebes, as soon as some vigilant medjay or minor official questioned its disappearance, none of them would be safe.
A small party approached the royal barge and some sailors pushed out a ceremonial gangplank. Queen Ankhesenamun and her attendant, who carried a cedar casket banded with electrum and inlaid with ivory, came on board.
‘Could you find nothing faster?’ the young Queen asked her priest advisor as he caught up with them.
‘Once away from here, who would try to stop a royal barge? When you reach Innu, Ahmose will hide you until your ship arrives.’
Queen Ankhesenamun then noticed Ahmose. Only sixteen, she had the imperious glance of a middle-aged matriarch, probably learnt from her large intimidating companion wearing a correspondingly huge wig. The animal priest frequently had to conduct such formidable women through the temple menagerie and it had left him with a fear of being engulfed. Fortunately he lived by a lake well away from the temple precincts and the world outside only intruded on inspection days.
Ahmose knelt before the Queen, his head almost touching her jewelled sandal. She looked at the wisp of a man as though he were a fallen leaf.
The Queen's advisor read the misgivings in her face. ‘Ahmose is the second keeper of the sacred animals of the temple of Amon Ra at Innu,’ he explained as though that should reassure her.
‘What does the first keeper do?’
‘Being senior to Ahmose, he is solely responsible for the bull of Merwer.’
‘Well, Ahmose, second keeper for the sacred animals of the temple of Amon Ra, get up and let me see which beast you most resemble.’
Ahmose obeyed, trying not to look too simian.
His innocent, yet enigmatic, expression made her hesitate. ‘What strange eyes you have. Like two pools of ink waiting for a scribe to spell out eternity.’
The priest advisor feared his plans could unravel for the sake of a colleague's haunted expression. ‘No one is more devoted to the Aton than Ahmose. No other is trustworthy or dedicated enough to risk their life for your safety.’
The Queen reached out and placed a delicate hand on Ahmose's shoulder. ‘I’m sorry, holy one. I am too used to priests with political minds.’
Her advisor was also aware of the danger he was in. ‘I must go now. When I return to Thebes, I will try to delay Eye by telling him you are hiding in Akhetaton.’
‘No, you must return to your temple. The old scoundrel would have fewer qualms about executing you than declaring his marriage to me.’
Ahmose was astonished. ‘He has married you?’
The Queen looked at Ahmose as though some passing zephyr had just spoken. There was nothing extraordinary about his voice; it came as a surprise to discover he possessed one.
‘Yes. Eye now has no reason to keep me alive.’
The Queen's advisor hastily bade farewell and returned to his waiting ferry. As soon as the senior priest was out of sight, Ahmose realised the danger he was also in and a chill of fear made him shudder. Thinking it was because of the night air Ahouri, the Queen's companion, wrapped a woollen cloak about his shoulders.
Ahmose looked puzzled.
‘This material is the same colour as the night,’ Queen Ankhesenamun explained. ‘It is possible to see that your kilt once used to be white.’
‘Surely the second keeper of the sacred animals of the temple of Amon Ra has a better robe to rescue his Queen in?’ Ahouri joked.
‘This is my best kilt.’ Ahmose looked at his paw stained garment. It was much washed and threadbare. Embarrassed, he pretended to be interested in the sailors rowing the barge out into mid river where it could catch the current.
He turned back to see Ahouri holding a garment of soft white folds.
The Queen took it from her and shook out the fine linen. ‘Toss that other rag into the river.’
Ahmose refused to take the kilt. ‘Even the High Priest would not wear a garment as splendid as that.’ Especially his High Priest. He never wore anything finer than coarse brown linen except on ceremonial occasions.
‘It belonged to a pharaoh. He has no need of it now.’
In the light of a lamp shielded by her companion's cloak, Queen Ankhesenamun delved into the casket Ahouri had brought on board, then beckoned Ahmose to her. He approached hesitantly. The Queen removed the small copper earring the priest wore in his left ear and replaced it with a gold pendant. She looked for the hole in his right ear lobe to hang its companion.
Ahmose was intimidated by the value of the gifts. ‘I only wear one earring.’
‘Why? Humility?’
‘It was painful enough having one lobe pierced.’
She laughed, replaced the spare earring in the casket and lifted out an opulent necklace collar. Its jewels and gold glittered in the flickering light and probably hadn't been worn since leaving the hands of the goldsmith. The Queen would have placed it about Ahmose's neck if he hadn’t backed away.
‘No my lady, it would attract attention.’
‘I don’t expect you to go unrewarded for the risk you are taking.’
‘I want no reward. It is for the truth of the Aton I do this.’
The cynical smile on Ahouri's face faded as she realised that he meant it.
On the journey north, Ahmose sat in the stern and wondered why the Aton had chosen this fool. He had been caught out many times, talking to the sacred animals, and eventually learnt not to mention that he understood what they said. Whatever the hippopotamus of Taueret told him wasn't worth repeating anyway because it was only interested in scandal and its appetite. Ahmose also dared to believe that the Aton listened to him. Amon Ra and the whole pantheon of deities were minor manifestations compared to the mighty oneness of the Sun. The Aton's rays had swept up Ahmose, and many more, leaving them suspended in the cushioning wonder of the Universe. Now Akhenaton had gone and his vision been eclipsed by the vengeful old order. The Aton had become like a comet that would not return for two thousand years.
While the daughter of Akhenaton slept, Ahouri watched the animal priest's bald pate catch the moonlight like another moon rising from his dark cloak. She was fascinated by Ahmose's wise innocence, but thought better of encouraging him to talk in case she became exasperated and was tempted to tip him into the river.
Several nights later the royal barge glided into a tributary below the city of Innu. The crew was paid in gold and copper debens, then Queen Ankhesenamun, Ahouri and Ahmose disembarked. They watched as the barge was rowed back towards Thebes. When it was out of sight the animal priest led the women from the river margin in the moonlight and along a tortuously narrow path to an entrance pierced in the rock at the bottom of an escarpment.
As the party went in they felt as though a serpent with icy breath was swallowing them. The ample Ahouri had trouble negotiating the twists and turns in the passage. Just when she thought she had lost the others she stumbled into a vast chamber. It was full of gold; they were entering the gods' treasure chest. The lamps of pure olive oil that Ahmose was lighting had not tarnished the precious metal, and it was now obvious why gold didn’t impress the priest - he had a temple full of it.
‘What is this place?’ asked the Queen.
Ahmose pointed to a huge gleaming disc. The descending rays ended in human hands. ‘The temple of the Aton. When your father died, everything dedicated to the One God was brought here for safety. The cave was excavated as a tomb a long time ago but the roof cracked it was never used.’ He added hastily, ‘It’s quite safe. Hardly anyone remembers it existed.’
The Queen ran her fingertips over the muzzle of an alabaster Anubis. ‘The Aton was only worshipped in temples open to the sky.’
‘That would attract attention, and during the day the sunlight does enter from those rock chimneys up there.’ Ahmose hesitated guiltily. ‘I have little time to worship.’
‘Are you this temple's priest?’
‘Goodness no! The High Priest of Amon Ra allows me to be its guardian.’
Ahouri laughed. ‘Its guardian! And what honour does he bestow on you for taking such a risk?’
As she would have found the idea of a menial animal keeper being the confidant of a High Priest even more amusing, Ahmose gave an innocent smile. ‘The honour of serving the Aton.’
Ahouri and the Queen glanced at each other. What could they say while Ahmose wore that pious expression? Any other priest would have demanded bolts of fine linen, several years’ supply of grain, and a herd of oxen for taking such a risk - and needed to be drunk when agreeing to the arrangement. They doubted Ahmose was even capable of inebriation. The priest probably refused to don the dead pharaoh's robe because he wore poverty to reflect the greater glory of Akhenaton’s god.
Ahmose felt like the subject of an autopsy trying to determine how badly he was riddled with piety. He tried to sound businesslike. ‘Do you know when your ship will arrive?’
‘Soon. My agent will bring a boat to the place where we disembarked.’
‘How will he contact us?’
‘At dusk he will use a mirror to signal from the other side of the river. You must keep watch every day just before the “Aton” goes down.’
‘It's a long way from the menagerie and I can't spend too much time from the animals. My assistant is a willing lad, but I've already been gone for some while.’
‘You will only need to wait for a short time at sunset.’
A deluge of apology swept through Ahmose. ‘Please forgive me. I didn't mean to be unhelpful.’
‘Oh shut-up,’ snapped Ahouri. ‘Is it possible to get some sleep in this place?’


The fabulous bird soared through clouds rotating over deep gorges, churning the atmosphere into ionised soup. Suddenly daggers of lightning shattered pinnacles of desert sandstone as though they were blocks of salt on a blacksmith's anvil. The air twisted clouds into funnels of spinning fury. Like the trunks of cosmic elephants, they drank up everything they touched - sand, water, buildings, and ships.
From the stratosphere, Ahmose could see the moon's powdery glow giving off insipid warmth, its craters and rills an enigmatic jigsaw fretted out by Thoth. Up here the stars were huge and bald, wearing bland, cadaverous expressions that loured at the soaring spirit.
Suddenly a finger of plasma shot up from the storm below and the odour of singed feathers filled Ahmose’s nostrils.
The animal priest picked himself up from the stone floor of the tomb and rubbed his head. He had these dreams so often he should have known how to avoid crash landings.
Ahmose trimmed his lamp and prepared food and wine for the Queen and Ahouri. Before they woke and the shafts of morning light streamed through the fissures in the tomb's roof, he rode back to his small hut in the temple menagerie.
Ahmose cleaned and cut the animals' food then went into each pen to make sure his apprentice hadn’t missed any signs of moult, listlessness or foaming at the mouth. By the time he had been licked by the jackals and oxen, pawed by the leopard, butted by the pigs and splashed by the hippo, he needed to wash his kilt again. He didn't mind, the animals were his family.
Ahmose had reared the hippopotamus from when it had been small enough to fit in a breadbasket. Now its bulk filled the pen it had once looked so lost in. As he had refused to have its massive tusks trimmed, it had bitten its way through the wall that separated it from the beautiful mud bank. Sometimes it would follow the keeper along the lake or riverside like a mobile sarcophagus, but always returned to that small pen.
The lion was a gift from a Babylonian prince. Its intellect had never been great, to the everlasting contempt of the elderly Bast cat. Desert lions were no larger than wolves, though formidable hunters in their natural habitat. Now domesticated, this one was quite content in its garden of rocks, roaring for the visitors and living on a diet that it could never have hoped to catch in the desert. If it ever managed to reach the ibex of Thoth it would never remember what to do about it anyway. Ahmose had more trouble with the Bast cat. He often had to scold her for hungrily watching the aviary. While the ibis and falcons paid little attention, the racket the ducks made could have prematurely resurrected the dead.
The crocodile of Sebek always greeted the priest with a gaping pink mouth. However dead the meat thrown into its jaws, the reptile would thresh it about in the shallow water just to make sure. Any onlookers privileged to watch were awed by the priest's nerve. It was easier than believing he could talk to the animals.
As Ahmose sat waiting for his kilt to dry, the old Bast cat joined him. She was wiser than the other animals and noticed things they missed.
She sensed that his scent had changed. Her nose wrinkled. 'Are you ill, son of Ra?'
Ahmose momentarily allowed himself to become aware of his middle-aged body. 'No. What makes you think that?'
'Perhaps that corpulent man in the large wig worries you?'
'What corpulent man?'
'The one who has been watching for your return.'
'Probably a temple visitor waiting to inspect the animals.'
The old cat dozed off in a cushion of vigorous purrs; it was her way of dropping out of a conversation.
Ahmose heard the tread of his apprentice's large feet. The Bast cat sleepily raised her head to see who was coming and gave a matriarchal mew as the youth bounded to where the priest sat.
Goose had a large face, stubbly hair that refused to submit to a razor and a wide, perpetually smiling mouth that made him look slightly dim-witted. Nevertheless, he had a better grasp of reality than his mentor did.
'Hello Goose.'
'Where is she then?'
Ahmose had forgotten the excuse he had given for his journey. 'Who?'
'Your wife. Everyone in the lower temple can't wait to see her. Is she like you?'
The priest had never seriously thought about marriage and the complications of using that reason for his absence had not occurred to him. Now the world wanted to see what sort of woman was prepared to take the lowly animal keeper as a partner. To his horror he suddenly felt disappointed, and it showed in his face.
Goose never gave him time to answer. 'Oh – I’m sorry! Wouldn't she come?' 'I'll fetch you a drink and your other robe.'
The youth dashed off, leaving Ahmose to wonder why he had allowed the thought in.
The Bast cat's eyes remained inscrutably closed. 'There, I thought your scent had changed.'
'I don't want a wife.'
'Never used to want a wife.'
Ahmose sulked until Goose returned with a dry robe and some beer. Unable to remember having a father, the youth wasn’t sure how to treat older men. He had always tried to show respect. The animals may not have been any trouble; his mentor was an enigma, however, and often exasperating.
Goose lifted the Bast cat from the priest's lap so he could dress himself. 'The Merwer bull has mange.' His tone had a degree of smug satisfaction.
Ahmose nodded. 'As it's never allowed outside, I'm not surprised.'
'I told them that, but they wouldn't let me touch it. Perhaps they want it to die so they can have a funeral.'
'Goose!' Ahmose chided.
'Well, we haven't had a good embalming for months. Think of how long that bull would take.'
'Lord Monte's funeral wasn't so long ago?'
'By the time they found him and his hunting party the sand had dried them out. The remains were so brittle we didn't need natron. Couldn't even get a piece of wadding up his backside.'
Ahmose laughed. 'Disgusting brat. Why did you have to become an assistant embalmer?'
'It pays well and you get used to the stench. It’s also less dangerous than looking after a tomb full of Aton artefacts.'
The priest seized his arm. 'Has anyone asked you about that?'
Goose was puzzled. 'No. The only others who know are the priests of the inner temple. As they were the ones to move everything in there in the first place, they're not likely to say anything. Now the Aton's temple has been rededicated to Amon Ra, who's going to be any the wiser? What's the matter with you? That blackbird been perching on your roof again?'
'Someone believes that I’m too trusting.'
'Well, you're daft enough to trust anyone.'
Ahmose plunged his cup into the lake and tossed the water over his apprentice.


Several evenings later, Ahouri was shaking out bed linen beneath the great golden disc of the Aton. ‘Tell me, little priest, does no one suspect you of helping us?’
Ahmose stopped topping up the lamps. ‘The only ones who know of this place are the senior priests of Amon Ra.’
‘You still believe in the Aton, though?’
‘Isn't generosity of spirit worth dedicating a life to?’
Ahouri laughed. ‘Yes, if other people are going to show it to you.’
‘Why do you always sneer at me?’
‘Because I'm fond of you.’ Ahmose grazed his shin on a bed frame in an attempt to move out of the intimidating matron's range. ‘Not like that. My husband was twice your size and as unfaithful as any pharaoh. I'd never want another. Because you happen to be considerate, you expect everyone else to be the same.’
‘Even I could never be that unrealistic.’
‘Your mind knows that, but your heart doesn't. If you were ever given a noble's funeral, the embalmers wouldn't know which organs to put into which Canopic jars.’
‘From what Goose says, they're not always that fussy. Many a dignitary has travelled to the West only to have Anubis weigh their intestines instead of their heart.’
‘Don't change the subject.’
‘Your reasoning is too fierce for my lotus thoughts.’ There was a sarcastic edge in Ahmose's tone.
Ahouri was reassured that he might not have been a paragon after all. ‘Don't you ever listen to anyone?’
‘The animals.’
An eerie sensation prickled the scalp under Ahouri's huge wig, and it wasn't lice. She suspected that the unassuming priest was trying to frighten her. ‘What sort of entity can see into the mind of an animal?’
‘I've always been able to understand other creatures, except humans.’
‘Not even your parents?’
‘When I was a week old, a lady's pet goose found me by the river. I was too ugly to keep so she donated me to the temple of Amon Ra.’
‘Your parents deserted you because you were ugly?’
‘Unless they thought that water was my natural element.’
Ahouri scrutinised his slight frame and full features. ‘No, you never looked like a fish. It was because of those eyes. Their expression is unworldly, like that of a courageous gazelle's. But courage is for the lion, Ahmose. Why invite danger when all the other priests of Amon Ra pivot like locusts before a pouncing lizard to avoid it?’
‘I have the brain of a river horse.’
‘You may be stubborn, but you haven't the jaws to bite a crocodile in half.’
‘That would annoy Sebek and the taste would no doubt be foul.’
‘So you do respect the other gods?’
‘All gods are what you believe them to be. When Seth is good I respect him as well.’
‘Is Amon Ra bad?’
‘The Aton is better.’
Ahouri raised her hands in exasperation. Ahmose was afraid she was going to shake him. ‘The Aton is dead! All this is self-deception, the fancy of Akhenaton's fuddled mind. I know fuddled minds have moulded terrible tyrants and we should be thankful that his madness was benign, but he has been gone many inundations now and his daughter is fleeing from the usurper who some believed murdered her young husband.
‘Do you believe that?’
‘Goodness no. The silly boy spent more time in his chariot than on his throne, managing the country. He had an accident and the wound became infected. Even if he wasn’t responsible, Eye would show you none of the Aton's compassion if he discovered your part in Queen Ankhesenanum's escape. By allowing yourself to be used by these priests, it’s inevitable that suspicion will fall on you. Give up the Aton, Ahmose. Be a priest of Amon Ra and live!’
Ahmose looked thoughtful. ‘Can you let me have a wig?’ he asked.
Realising that there was no way to intimidate common sense into the animal keeper, Ahouri gave up. ‘We only have women's hairpieces with us.’
‘Yes, I want a woman's wig.’
Having lived in the court of a hermaphrodite pharaoh, nothing could surprise Ahouri. ‘You're welcome to it. You haven't even tried on your new robe, though. Would you prefer one of the Queen's instead?’
‘No thank you, the one she gave me is long enough to be taken for a woman's when I wear it. I would like some eye make up.’
Ahouri went to the cedar casket and pulled out what he had requested. Ahmose carefully arranged the wig on one of the gilded wooden guards at the chamber's entrance and hung a mirror of polished silver on its spear. He looked objectively at his reflection.
After several moments, the priest turned back to Ahouri. ‘Haven't you ever known a man wish he were a woman?’
‘That wouldn't explain you.’
‘No. I often dream that I am a large glittering bird that soars through the heavens bathed in the light of the Aton. It must be something to do with that goose finding me.’
‘Stop going on about the Aton. I had enough of that when the Queen's father was alive.’
Ahmose yawned. ‘I feel tired.’
‘Sleep here tonight.’
‘I daren't. I could be seen leaving in daylight. The city medjay are always gossiping to the doorkeepers and the new mayor demands to know everyone's business.’
‘Well don't try flying off any hills in the darkness. I doubt that anyone as bald as you could grow so much as one feather. If you could, I would braid it in my hairpiece and wear it forever.’
‘If I ever manage it, what colour should it be?’
‘Gold of course, and long enough to circle my wig.’ Reluctantly fascinated by the odd little priest, Ahouri stroked his face. ‘Be careful. There is no Aton to watch over you during the night.’ She wrapped a cloak about Ahmose's shoulders and he left.
As soon as his soft footsteps had faded, Ahouri went to the casket and pulled out two amulets and the wide golden necklace collar set with jewels. She arranged them on the gilded guard wearing his wig.


Ahmose rode his donkey back to the menagerie.
Too tired to notice that he was being watched, and without bothering to shut the moonlight out of his hut, he toppled onto his reed bed and fell asleep.
Since being caught up in Queen Ankhesenamun's intrigue, the animal priest's dreams had become filled with even stranger images and, as well as being a bird, sinister, gaunt faces had started to appear. The apparitions didn’t bother him any more than the whispers that echoed through the tomb's tunnels and chambers. Goose had explained how the change in temperature caused the night air to rush through cracks and crevices - ‘Merely Anubis escorting the dead into the presence of Osiris.’ The thought of the jackal deity on his journey to the land of Duat worried Ahmose less than the bad omen of the blackbird perching on his roof.
As usual he woke early, only to find something large and furry sitting on his chest.
‘I warned you to be careful of the visitor, didn't I,’ mewed the Bast cat.
‘What?’ Ahmose mumbled.
The animal priest’s frail reed chair was valiantly taking the weight of a corpulent man in a wig larger than Ahouri's.
The intruder with the voluminous jowls beamed like a toad. ‘I hope you will excuse me dropping in like this.’ He poured something into a copper cup and his Nubian servant handed it to Ahmose. ‘Drink this. It will help you wake up.’
The Bast cat smelt it. She mewed that it was all right, then jumped from Ahmose's chest so that he could sit up and drink the mixture of pomegranate juice and honey.
The priest wondered why an important dignitary was honouring him with this early morning visit.
‘My name is Kahu, deputy to King Eye's new vizier. I recently received a message from Thebes.’
A tingle of horror reminded Ahmose's much shaven head that it still had hair roots.
‘I understand you had a friend in Thebes? Used to be a priest of the Aton in Akhetaton?’
Ahmose cautiously nodded. Being a senior priest of the Aton after the death of Smenkhkare, Akhenaton's successor, was not a very healthy occupation.
‘Poor fellow. Met with the most dreadful accident. It's pity we can't find the Queen to let her know that her advisor is now taking that long journey to the West.’
‘What happened?’ the animal priest asked in an attempt to conceal his horror.
The toad smiled amiably. ‘I think the beating my Nubians gave him was a little too severe.’
Ahmose's horror quickly turned to indignation. ‘But he was a senior priest of Amon Ra!’
‘And he is in the process of being dispatched with all ceremony due to such an elevated position.’
Ahmose knew that Kahu was inferring that a menial animal keeper could expect far less consideration. ‘What do you want with me?’
‘You kept in contact with this priest through letters.’
‘Written on small pieces of fine linen and carried by pigeons. That was really clever of you, talking those dim creatures into such important errands.’
‘Birds aren't stupid.’ Ahmose remembered the ducks. ‘Mostly.’
‘But then, you know more about other creatures than I do. You might also know something that could save you from...’ Kahu didn't need to go on. His powerful servant, head brushing the beams of Ahmose's hut, looked as though he could make the priest admit anything. ‘It would be reasonable to assume that your friend might have mentioned something about the movements of the Queen?’
‘The Queen? Surely the King must know where his wife is?’ Ahmose realised too late that very few could have known about the widowed Queen's betrothal to Eye.
‘Ah!’ The large man's belly juddered with a deep gurgle of glee. ‘Life isn't always as simple as that.’
‘So people keep telling me.’
‘King Eye is rather keen to find out where his wife is.’
There was stubbornness in Ahmose's tone. ‘Why would the Queen want to flee, and all the way from Thebes? It's such a long journey.’
The vizier's deputy knew that the frail chair wouldn’t stand the strain of him leaning back to express his tedium, so he fixed the animal priest with a menacing glare instead. ‘No harm would come to the lady if she returned to her responsibilities.’
Ahmose's gaze was so intense, Kahu felt as though he was reading his bloated entrails.
The potentate gave an agreeable smile. ‘If you remember anything, it will be for the good of the Land.’
‘Good of the Land?’
Kahu wondered how much Ahmose really knew about current political intrigues. ‘Though Queen Ankhesenamun is very young, she can scheme as well as any high priest, even your's. When you decide to remember I will be waiting on my boat.’ He rose. The chair creaked with relief and sprang as far back into shape as it could. ‘I do have a few guards about the place, but they won't bother you.’
Kahu left, almost taking the narrow doorframe with him.
As he was going to be constantly followed, Ahmose wondered how he could keep watch for the signal of the Queen's agent. Something soft caressed his legs.
‘I can help,’ said the Bast cat.
‘Your sight isn't what it used to be.’
‘I can see some silly signal.’
‘Lives depend on it, and I know what happens to your concentration when you find a lizard to chase.’
‘You have no choice, son of Ra.’
‘I keep telling you not to call me that.’
‘Have you noticed the sun lately?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It has a curious halo. Your father is angry’
Ahmose glanced out at the sky. He noticed nothing odd, only that infernal blackbird peering down from the roof of his hut. ‘You imagined it.’
‘Oh no, the air is charged with something strange - Are you sure you don't want me to eat that blackbird?’


Not daring to leave the menagerie in daylight, Ahmose remained with the animals. They sensed something was wrong and paced their pens, howling and baying so loudly it disturbed the devotions in the temple.
Goose had no need to attend the mortuary, as there was nothing apart from a noble's dog to embalm. Only two-legged nobility was lucrative enough to require his assistance.
When Ahmose started to pace up and down with the animals, this was too much for his apprentice. Goose sat on the wall of the lion's pen and looked down at him. ‘What is wrong with you? Have you been bitten by something?’
The animal keeper stopped in surprise. So did the lion, as though demanding the youth's credentials.
Ahmose climbed out of the pen and pulled up the ladder. He rubbed his upper arms as though cold, then suddenly said, ‘I want you to promise me something Goose.’
‘Only if you and the animals stop walking grooves in the ground.’
‘If you knew I wasn't going to be here tomorrow, would you stay?’
‘Of course I would. Are you going away again, then?’
‘I may have to. I'm not sure.’
Making sense of the priest could be a fine art at times, and it was too early in the morning for Goose to try. ‘I'll always be here to feed and clean out the animals.’
‘Make me a promise.’
‘What is it?’
‘You must disown me.’
Goose slid down from the wall to face Ahmose. ‘How could I do that?’
‘Because you must stay here to care for the animals.’
‘How could a son renounce his father?’
‘From the seventh cataract to the blue ocean, this country teams with so many priests the loss of one will hardly make the inundation fail.’
Believing that Ahmose had become totally eccentric, Goose put a gangling arm about his shoulders. ‘How could I suddenly not know you?’
‘You not only have big feet, you are a brash youth. I’m afraid you might try to snatch me from the jaws of the Ammet.’
Goose was bewildered. ‘Tell me what has happened?’
‘Just make that promise.’
With no intention of keeping his word, Goose nodded. ‘All right.’


The Bast cat sat and watched, ignoring every rasp of scales and scraping of small claws. The desert creatures seemed to know that the old eyes were not interested in them. As the sun sank behind her, the low rays reflected a sequence of flashes from the other side of the river.
When the Bast cat returned, Ahmose was scouring the animals' feeding bowls clean with a bundle of reeds and sand. ‘Tonight? They’re bound to see me. What will the High Priest say about me betraying the location of the Aton's temple?’
‘Nothing much,’ mewed the Bast cat. ‘He and that fat Kahu will probably split the sacred gold between them.’
Ahmose ignored her slander and left the bowls to rummage in his chest for the scrap of papyrus on which he recorded the animal mortalities. He wiped it clean, trimmed a reed pen and wrote a note Goose would be able to understand. Though the youth could count his mortuary wages well enough, reading had never been his strong point.
Ahmose threw the dark cloak Ahouri had given him about his shoulders and rode off into the night on his donkey, across the flood plain to the desert margin.
The animal priest used every detour and narrow pass he knew to reach the cliff above the tomb. He looked out over the river, but couldn’t see the lights of any ship. It must have been standing off further north while its small boat waited in the cover of the reeds for Queen Ankhesenamun. There was much Ahmose hadn’t been told. However, this was not the time to remember the deputy vizier's allegation about the young woman’s scheming nature. He released the donkey to find its own way home, then darted down into the tomb.
Ahouri quickly helped the Queen prepare for her journey. When they re-entered the main chamber they were surprised to see Ahmose applying elaborate eye make up in front of the polished silver mirror the gilded guard now clutched in his spear hand. The priest was already wearing the late King Tutankhamen's robe, amulets and necklace. Lastly, Ahmose put on the large wig. Its long ringlets fell to his waist. The transformation was amazing. Although he lacked breasts, the wig concealed this and the small priest had become a stunningly attractive woman.
‘What are you doing?’ asked the Queen.
‘I’ll go first. Give me time to get away, then leave.’
‘You are coming with us, Ahmose,’ she commanded.
‘No my lady, I cannot.’
‘Why this disguise?’
‘Merely a precaution.’
‘Are we being watched?’
‘Probably not,’ lied Ahmose.
‘Come with us, little priest,’ pleaded Ahouri. ‘That way we can be sure you are safe.’
‘Then tell me where you are going?’
‘We cannot.’
‘What foreign land could need the services of a minor animal keeper?’
‘You will be my advisor,’ Queen Ankhesenamun promised.
Ahmose almost told her what had happened to the last one, then realised it would have only strengthened her argument. ‘Travel safely, my lady. When I have finished with this jewellery I will dedicate it to the Aton.’
‘It belongs to you, not a figment of my father's irrational imagination.’ The Queen took some jewel-encrusted sandals from the cedar casket and Ahouri placed them on the priest's feet.
Ahmose hardly ever put on footwear and found them uncomfortable. He couldn’t afford another time wasting argument and turned to the entrance.
‘Your cloak!’ Ahouri wrapped the garment about his shoulders then reluctantly watched him slip into the twisting passage.
As soon as he was clear of the tomb's entrance Ahmose let the cloak fly off. Glittering in the silver moonlight, he dashed towards the river.
Someone was pursuing him. He daren’t stop to pull off the crippling sandals. If he were caught too soon the Queen and Ahouri wouldn’t have time to reach their boat.
Despite his lungs being raw through gulping the freezing night air and the straps of the pharaoh's sandals cutting his feet, Ahmose didn’t stop until he reached the river. He dived through the reeds of a narrow tributary in hope of finding one of the fishermen’s’ small boats.
As he stepped ono a mat of rotten papyrus stems a counterweighted cord ensnared his ankles and brought him down. Without bothering to examine their catch, two huge Nubians half carried, half marched the priest to a boat moored on the river. Under its decorated canopy, sitting like massive toad waiting for its supper, was Kahu. Ahmose was unceremoniously dumped before him.
‘Well madam, what fools you must think we are.’
The priest had the urge to let him know just how much but couldn’t disabuse the monster of his mistake too soon. He kept his head well down so the wig obscured his face and chest.
‘Did you really believe you could escape like a traitor in the night?’ Kahu had expected a little more response from his precious catch. She had never been short of protests before.
As the potentate hadn’t wanted to attract attention to his regal kidnapping, there were few lamps. He leaned forward from his cushions to take a closer look. At first he didn’t believe his eyes, then told an attendant to bring a light closer. In a spasm of rage he snatched off Ahmose's wig. The priest grabbed it back and replaced it on his bald head with a girlish smile.
Kahu's jowls convulsed in fury as he squealed like a pig robbed of its swill. ‘Idiots!’
The bungling agents stepped back in horror at their mistake.
Had Ahmose not been enjoying his deception so much, he could have taken the opportunity to jump over the side of the boat. Unfortunately he left it too late and Kahu's hypnotising gaze settled on him.
The huge man’s voice was cold and toneless. ‘Where is the Queen?’
‘I don't know.’
‘If you help us catch her you might be spared a thrashing.’
Ahmose remained silent.
‘You do realise that you have been tricked into helping an enemy of this country?’ It was obvious the priest didn’t believe him. ‘Your precious Queen Ankhesenamun is guilty of the ultimate treason. She dispatched a messenger to the ruler of Hatte, our greatest enemy, to demand he send one of his sons to marry her. He would have become pharaoh of the Upper and Lower Kingdoms.’
Ahmose's eyes widened in horror. Despite every sentimental thought he had about the delicate Queen, he believed the fat toad.
‘Fortunately, while she was still trying to convince this enemy of Egypt, I discovered the plot. Hatte eventually did send a princeling. He never reached Thebes.’ Kahu lounged back, confident this throne wouldn’t collapse under his weight. ‘Well priest, now will you tell me where Queen Ankhesenamun is?’
Ahmose's thoughts were arguing amongst themselves. He had been warned. Not only was her priest advisor dead, so was the prince she intended to put on the throne. She deserved to be betrayed. Having used so many, why should she escape? Even Ahouri must have known. However, what Ahmose lacked in common sense, he made up for in stubbornness.


The High Priest of Amon Ra was an enigmatic creature. Few believed he was Egyptian. His expression was so like a cat's, he should have been a devotee of Bast. His skin was creamish beige and he had the eyes of an Eastern magician's, slightly crossed as though he were looking beyond the person confronting him and at some ghostly image over their shoulder. Instead of being roundly moulded like most Egyptians', his cheekbones could have been hewn from jade.
The High Priest never cared for the finery of his office. When he wasn’t obliged to don the ceremonial leopard skin and stiff white double kilt, he preferred to wear an austere brown robe of coarse linen. The only other concession to his rank being a pectoral with the horns of Amon surmounting the disc of Ra and surrounded by the Cosmic serpent. It was gold inlaid with a strange green stone unknown to Egyptian jewellers and counterbalanced by a scarab beetle of electrum.
Like everyone else, Goose was in awe of the High Priest and expected to encounter his icy wrath for daring to get direct access to his presence by following the Bast cat. No one knew if the High Priest had a temper. If he did, his rage would have been capable of sandblasting the soul.
As the Bast cat made her serpentine greeting against the High Priest's legs, he took Ahmose's note from Goose and silently read it. Anxiety crept over his stony features as though someone had threatened to push him into the waters of Nun without so much as a papyrus prayer to grasp. The bizarre truth dawned on the assistant animal keeper. Someone not intimidated by the crocodile of Sebek was unlikely to be in awe of the High Priest of Amon Ra. It was obvious that the simple-natured Ahmose and the all-powerful High Priest were close friends. Goose shuddered at the condescending way he had always treated the animal keeper.

* * *
Totally shorn of body hair and ritually cleansed, the six mystics of the inner sanctum wended their way into the temple of the Aton where Ahmose had given Queen Ankhesenamun sanctuary. Their wan skins never saw sunlight, their thoughts were permanently purged by meditation, and loins forever celibate. Most of the other, more worldly, priests didn’t know of their existence. They would have been unable to comprehend such commitment.
Unlike Ahmose, these mystics had never dedicated their lives to the Aton, or to the great pantheon of Horus and Ra. Their conviction stemmed from the primordial ocean of Nun. They were the guardians of the linchpin that held together many versions of the same truth; the essence of creation and the all-in-oneness of the Universe. Such semantics would have been beyond the animal keeper, yet it was not to enlighten him that they had gathered. It was to fulfil a strange prophecy. Although he would be unable to save his friend's life, the High Priest was determined to preserve Ahmose's soul in a permanent state of grace.
The true nature of his devout and unassuming confidant had always been an enigma to the High Priest. So the mystics of the inner sanctum had meditated on the mystery of eternal life. On the same night, at the sacred hour, they all experienced the same vision. The land rose from the waters of Nun and the great golden Phoenix perched on the Benben column. The song of the deity heralded the coming of all things that are, and all things to be. Then light and life filled the newly formed land. The Benben column was transformed. With the downbeat of the Phoenix's wings, an image appeared. It was not Horus, Ra, Isis, Osiris or Neith. It was a small round-featured creature with large honest eyes.
Learning of this, the High Priest was convinced that the prophecy meant Ra intended to bless Ahmose with immortal deification in Duat. It meant that the primeval deities, who created all things after creating themselves, would accept the animal priest into their pantheon. After all, wasn’t the Aton the monothiestic manifestation of all entities, as well as Ra? A mere name could hardly matter to the Supreme Being … could it?
Silently the priests of the inner sanctum lit the lamps in the Aton's last temple. In the gleam of Aton gold, they started their magical ritual.


Like phantoms rising over the reeds, lights from a party of senior priests at their most inscrutable appeared on the bank.
Ahmose saw his chance and dashed to the side of the boat. Kahu's attendant caught him; the wig kept on travelling and landed in the dark water. Huge jaws snapped and it disappeared.
The vizier's deputy knew this was a timely warning that, however menial, the animal priest belonged to the temple of Amon Ra. The last thing the usurping Pharaoh Eye needed was a conflict with the most influential religious centre in Lower Egypt. The Queen's advisor may have been a traitor, yet there was no law that said a man could be executed for dressing up as a woman.
The High Priest of Amon Ra and an anxious youth clutching a crumpled note waited on the river jetty as a small figure glittering with a pharaoh's jewels was hustled towards them. As soon as he realised who was concealed beneath the eye shadow, Goose snatched Ahmose away from the Nubian guards.
Without a word the High Priest, unescorted, boarded Kahu's boat. There was a murmur of alarm amongst the waiting priests, though none of them attempted to follow. Trying to protect their superior would have been like standing below a tree to catch the panther about to drop out of its branches.
Kahu had never known the true meaning of sinister until he looked into the depths of the High Priest's feline eyes. In them he saw damnation waiting to swallow his corpulent incarnation. Fortunately he was in the realm of the living where he still held some sway.
‘There is a battalion of the King's men within two days journey from here. They have instructions to search out and eradicate all mention of the Aton, including those who used to pursue its heretical cult.’
This meant the icy paragon before him, and all the senior priests and scribes within the precinct of Amon Ra's temple, not to mention the local population.
The High Priest still said nothing.
Kahu's expression was at its most toad like. ‘King Eye’s reign may not last, but it will be long enough for his soldiers to purge your temple before someone else overthrows him.’
Though Kahu was too well insulated to have cold shudders, the silent rage mirrored in the High Priest's expression made his blood run cold.
The vizier's deputy dare not back down. Credibility was everything; there was always some snake waiting to make a meal of this toad and claim his expensive burrow.
Kahu leant forward and glowered at the holy obelisk. ‘Not only will your temple be purged, all those in the Delta who crafted the monuments and artefacts of the Aton, and their families, will be annihilated.’
The High Priest's stony glare radiated an unspoken curse.
Kahu knew he had to offer a way out if he wasn’t to meet the jaws of the Ammet in the afterlife. ‘Surrender the animal priest and nothing will happen. The King's soldiers will be sent to deface monuments somewhere else … Not unless you are prepared to tell me where Queen Ankhesenamun is of course?’
The High Priest gave a thin-lipped smile and pointed towards the sea.
The toad's leer dropped into his jowls. ‘Escaped?’
The High Priest had known it would end this way since he saw the note Goose brought him. What could he do? He had no right to allow the inhabitants of a city to be massacred.
The ritual of the mystics of the inner temple was now complete. The High Priest turned his back on the amoral mountain of flesh and went ashore, convinced that Ra would install Ahmose as an immortal in Duat.
Goose and the others watched hopefully. Only Ahmose understood. He could read his friend's thoughts as well as the animals in the menagerie.
Ahmose took Goose's arm. ‘Can you remember everything I told you?’
The youth was baffled. ‘About what?’
‘The animals, of course. Remember that the crocodile only needs feeding every five days, the cats must have flesh in the morning or they will try to attack the cackler and waterfowl. Men, the butcher in the city, will always supply ox or pig's offal if you can’t get it from the outer temple-’ Before he could finish, Kahu's guards had seized Ahmose.
Goose launched a murderous attack on the Nubians. The High Priest caught the youth and held him back with the strength of three stone masons. Ahmose, still shouting instructions to his struggling apprentice, was taken aboard Kahu's boat.
Goose turned his rage on the High Priest. ‘How could you murder your friend? What sort of monster are you?’
The other priests were puzzled by the youth's apparent brainstorm and assumed he had caught some disease from the animals. Although expecting him to foam at the mouth any moment, they decided that their superior was doing quite well without their assistance.
‘Be still, priestling.’ The High Priest's voice was cavernous. ‘There is no other choice. Would you see everyone you know slain and Innu destroyed?’
Goose realised that he was cursing the only other person who felt the same way as he did. ‘How could you do such a thing, though? Why Ahmose?’
‘Ahmose's soul has been committed to the care of Ra.’
The hollow tone frightened Goose. This was the icy voice that could persuade thousands to put their trust in irrational miracles. ‘I don't understand?’
‘Most misunderstandings occur because of belief. Belief is the element that allows Nut to hold up the heavens, Ra to overcome Apep and rise each morning. It is the Inundation, the call of the Great Cackler and the life force of Isis.’
Goose was now sidetracked. ‘You mean … the Universe is really a misunderstanding?’
‘Stupid boy. The belief belongs to the second keeper of the sacred animals. You are the one who misunderstands.’
It was too much to take in all at once. ‘Ahmose ... immortality?’
‘He has been chosen by the gods. His soul will become immortal and a deity greater than any pharaoh's.’
‘Oh no,’ Goose murmured. ‘I don't think he'll like that.’
The High Priest frowned. ‘What do you mean?’
‘What sort of immortality will the gods confer on him?’
To his superior, immortality wasn’t a thing of compartments. Everyone aspired to everlasting life and it wasn’t for lowly mortals to question the form it came in. And here stood a scruffy adolescent challenging the wisdom of his mystic authority.
‘Ahmose a deity?’ Spoken by a semi-literate apprentice priest, it now sounded odd.
The High Priest knew he would remain awake all night wondering what monstrous mishap he might have set in motion.


Having once again overcome the underworld serpent, Apep, the rising solar barque of Ra sent its rays soaring into the dawn sky like fountains of hope and lit up Goose’s boat. The new day didn’t reassure him. All night, by torchlight, he had been searching for Ahmose in the dark waters of the river and its tributaries. Although there was no chance of finding him alive, he wanted his body to be decently embalmed. As the sun rose higher, Goose had to accept that crabs were probably eating the animal priest’s remains at the bottom of some stream.
He steered his boat into the reeds and watched the senior priests wending their way to the bank. They lifted their eyes to the rising sun and prayed to Amon Ra. The god may not have been listening but, in the menagerie, the Bast cat sensed an odd charge in the still air. Her thin fur rose and she growled as she warily paced the perimeter wall.
The priests went to Kahu's boat, expecting to find Ahmose's body waiting for collection. Unlike Goose, they believed that death was innately tidy.
Kahu's servant glowered back at them. ‘Where are our master's guards?’
The priests looked at each other to make sure none of them were responsible for the disappearance of those two mountains of muscle. Their scribe raised his pen as though about to record a confession, then tucked the papyrus back into his belt as it became evident his brethren didn’t know the answer.
A cry cut through the still air.
Having helped disembowel all manner of corpses, Goose shouldn’t have been so horrified at his discovery. Yet, when the first fragment of human head floated out of the reeds and nudged his boat, the part of the expression it wore made him almost topple into the water. By the time the priests and Kahu's servant had reached him, he had netted enough remains to make up one and a half muscular guards.
The High Priest appeared to ensure that none of the parts belonged to Ahmose. ‘What did it? Crocodile?’
‘No,’ Goose called back. ‘Probably a river horse.’
‘What about your master?’
‘No river horse would have touched Ahmose.’ Goose pulled in the net. ‘Shall I send these back to the vizier's deputy so he can try stuffing them himself?’
Regardless of the razor jawed wildlife, Kahu's servant plunged into the water and helped haul the net ashore. The others watched in dull amazement as the man cursed its contents with alien profanities.
‘What's he muttering about?’ a priest asked.
The scribe understood the language too well to give an exact translation. ‘Something about serving them right. He's an animal worshipper. Saw Ahmose talking to his cat and believes he was a magician.’
‘I can see part of a boat!’ Goose called. He stood up and pulled off his kilt. ‘I'm going in to look for him.’
The High Priest's almond eyes grew round with some secret terror. ‘No! Wait!’
The other priests murmured in surprise at their superior's sudden command. For someone with the presence of a granite pillar, his behaviour had been a little erratic that morning. They had put it down to giddiness brought on by his austere diet. How could a man who never touched beer or honey cakes hope to keep his sanity forever?
Then they saw it.
The centre of the river was bubbling like frantically fermenting liquor. Deep beneath the boiling surface there was a large sphere of fiery light. It rose, and a beautiful, eerie sound filled the flood plain, making the walls of the temple ring with the clarity of a cosmic bell. Lightning struck the large sphere. There was a silent explosion and white light dazzled the onlookers.
When their eyes had recovered they could see a shape in the sky.
A large golden bird briefly merged with the rising solar disc like a child paying homage to its parent.
The sight transfixed goose.
‘Come ashore quickly, boy!’ the High Priest called.
‘How beautiful! What is it?’ The youth then came to his senses, retrieved his kilt and scrambled ashore.
The colour drained from the High Priest’s face as his worst fears were realised. None of the other priests understood - How could they? Most of them were too married to the material to visualise the gods they had dedicated their lives to. None of them would be dragged down into the Great Abyss in their meditations. Their minds were so earthbound, they would soon be wondering if they really had seen the Aton bird rise from the river after all and put it down to excitement or badly digested fig.
The High Priest was not excited, nor had he eaten for a day and night. He could feel himself going down beneath those primordial waters suffocating his soul for daring to believe it was possible for a mere mortal to bargain with the gods. The animal priest had been a devotee of the Aton, whose cult briefly usurped the glory of Amon Ra. The High Priest hadn’t taken into consideration that Ahmose had surrendered his life to save the daughter of the Aton's prophet. The only reason Ra wanted to deify the animal keeper was as a punishment. Instead of casting the protecting wings of Nephthys about Ahmose, Ra had sent the Phoenix to swallow his spirit. The priest was now doomed to immortality on Earth instead of everlasting rest in Duat.
Miracle or not, the other priests soon decided that life should go on as usual. They may have waited a lifetime for a sign from the gods, but that didn't mean they were obliged to believe it when it came.
‘Ahmose always fed the animals about this time,’ one of them reminded Goose. ‘He wouldn't want you to keep them waiting.’
Knowing he would never find Ahmose's body, the youth returned the reed boat to the fisherman he had borrowed it from and rode off on Ahmose’s donkey to collect food for the menagerie.
Automatically he chopped up the meals before taking the buckets down to the pens. As they had been able to sense Ahmose's thoughts, he expected the animals to be agitated. Instead they were mysteriously content and ate well.
Then Goose remembered the Bast cat. She was always fed first. The cat had long since stopped living in her pen and taken up residence in Ahmose's hut. As she had few teeth left, Goose chopped her food finely, intending to leave it on the hut's cool floor where the flies would take longer to find it.
When he pulled the coarse curtain aside he thought the sun had risen again in the animal priest’s room. The keeper's meagre possessions were bathed in a rich golden glow.
The Bast cat was in deep conversation with a visitor.
Goose's knees gave way in fright and he sank to the floor, nearly dropping the food.
Perched on Ahmose's rickety table was a large bird. Its wings and body were gold, and the tail a cascade of white streamers. On its head was a dazzling crest that rose like the flames of a torch and about its neck a deep collar of scalloped feathers.
‘Stupid boy seems about to faint,’ the Bast cat mewed.
The bird gave a low, soft whistle. There was something familiar in its tone and Goose tried to come to his senses.
‘Mind my food, you oaf,’ scolded the Bast cat.
Unable to make his legs obey him, Goose pushed the bowl aside and cautiously approached the magical bird on his hands and knees. Those eyes. Only one person had that gentle, haunted look about him.
The youth put out his hand to touch its plumage. It was like reaching from the shadows to feel the rays of the sun. Goose was saturated in soothing warmth. Then he keeled over into a deep, dreamless sleep.
When Goose woke, the bird had gone and the Bast cat, having finished its meal, was curled up on Ahmose's bed.


A southerly breeze filled the sail of the white ship.
Suddenly the circling gulls deserted the sky and a school of dolphins rose from the depths to ride before its bows in arches of black, white and yellow.
Ahouri smelt an odd fragrance as she went up to the stern's upper deck. The sailors noticed a change in the sea zephyrs and scoured the darkening horizon for a storm.
The lookout on the masthead spotted a bright star in the slate grey sky. A fireball was heading straight towards them!
The captain tried to calm his crew, though he had no idea how they could avoid the collision. Thunderbolts from the gods never missed their targets, though he had no idea what crime he had committed to deserve it.
The blazing bolt of fire didn’t hit the ship. It spun like a fiery tornado, sending down shafts of light that patterned the brown sail in gold. The lookout frantically abseiled to safety as a huge entity blazed on the top of the mast, making the ship shudder.
The ghostly song of a fabulous bird with gleaming plumage filled the air. The glorious phantom spread a wing and plucked out a long golden feather. Catching the breeze, the deity floated down to Ahouri like a dazzling umbrella, and dropped the plume into her hands. Then with one downbeat of its wings it soared into the sky and disappeared from sight. The clouds in the leaden sky disappeared and the gulls returned.
As the deity hadn’t been the herald of some sea monster or typhoon, the crew decided not to mutiny.
For a long while Ahouri stood murmuring to herself, ‘Those eyes, those beautiful eyes...’

* * *
Scribes, advisors and the temple baker believed that the High Priest's prolonged fast had turned his mind. Though overcome by guilt, it was not penance, but necessity. He was purging his body in preparation for mummification - there were always problems when drawing cadavers with full digestive tracts. His corpse had to remain intact for eternity or, failing that, longer than any pharaoh's.
Goose continued to blame the High Priest for allowing Ahmose's death until, after watching him endure so many complicated rituals, the man's stoic resolution captured his reluctant admiration. Goose didn’t understand what was going on, though was practical enough to realise that by now Ahmose was soaring through the skies far beyond the land of Punt.
Goose and the other priests were dismissed before the six emaciated mystics arrived like phantoms from the bowels of some Earthly underworld. Knowing these sinister, shrivelled men were going to send the High Priest on the first stage of his journey, Goose didn’t want to witness their magic. The animals depended on him to stay Earthbound.
Two days later, as assistant embalmer, Goose once again met the High Priest.
After more interminable rituals, the dedicating of his corpse took one hundred days instead of seventy. Then it was placed in a plain coffin lined with papyrus text. The mummy was sealed in a stone sarcophagus that was lowered to the bottom of a deep shaft where it would remain, standing upright, for eternity.



Its tail of gleaming feathers ribboning in the thin air, and crest glittering like faceted jewels, the fabulous bird spiralled down to the banks of billowing clouds.
On wide golden wings, the entity had seen the crystal stars above the atmosphere and flown the world to dip its beak in stormy oceans. It had spun in tornadoes, floated on dry desert breezes, fanned life into creatures desiccated by drought, plucked rubies from the crowns of tyrants and dropped them into the hands of the poor.
The dazzling deity filled the centuries, soaring in the sun's rays like a mesmerised eagle then hanging dormant in the stratosphere like a sleeping swallow. Now legend and illusion, the Aton bird lived out the marvel it had once dreamt of as a mortal. Over the centuries it learnt secrets from every corner of the pristine Earth and watched quakes rend its crust and oceans erode its coral reefs.
Now the bird felt a pang of weariness and was aware of a shadow trying to drive a stake through its magical heart. The familiar gaze of cat like eyes appeared in its mind's eye and a jackal-headed staff pointed downwards.
Before the deity could descend, fiery tendrils tried to drag it back into the sky. Confused, the bird started to tumble, claw over wing, faster and faster as two determined entities battled to pull its mystical wishbone.
Magical though the bird might have been, its intellect was no greater than the animal keeper's it had incarnated from. It didn’t know what to do and no longer knew what it wanted. Before then it had just been. Questions like, why? What for? had never troubled the Aton bird as it had glided through cavernous blue grottoes, swooped down on coronation crowds or perched on ziggurats. The entity had believed that it owned its own immortality. It came as an unpleasant surprise to discover that it did not.



Helen Maat weighed some mercury. ‘Lower the mirror a little, Dinan, then adjust the lenses to the sun's zenith.’
The alchemist was a middle-aged woman with the acuity of a Greek and temper of an annoyed hippo. Her scientific bent of mind didn’t entertain the domestic, and her wealth had never been wasted on banquets for the idle rich. Such things could wait until she had comprehended the Universe, or at least managed to smelt dross metal into gold.
Dinan wasn’t so sure about his origins. He had been born into slavery and intended as a guard for the women's quarters in Ptolemy's palace. He wouldn’t have survived the operation essential for that position if the court astrologer had not known Helen. She was the only one with the medical skill to save him, and rich enough to disregard the wrath of a Ptolemy. The head eunuch was bribed to declare Dinan dead so he could be spirited away to the remote and maniacal household of the alchemist. When a boy, Dinan had served the court astrologer well and learnt much more than was expected of an adolescent slave. For all his intellect, he still wondered what he had been doing in the eccentric company of Helen Maat for so many years.
With an expert hand, Dinan aligned the mirror and lenses as instructed. When that great fiery orb, beloved and deified by Egypt, reached its zenith, the searing rays would be directed onto the crucible half buried in the sand.
Helen would have chosen the alchemical name of Isis or Nephthys if her rational mind could have coped with the conceit of being called after an all-creating, empathic goddess. Maat, the essence of balance and justice, had a more convincing ring. When experimenting, the Greek wore that deity's feather in her headband even though the heat usually frizzled it.
Then one day Dinan had discovered an extraordinary feather for himself. The exotic plume glittered as the breeze tumbled it over the sand into his grasp. It was gold. Helen had insisted he find the whole bird in moult before she would be impressed. Closer examination had shown it to be from no ordinary plumage and the alchemist wasn't too sure she wanted to encounter the creature that had shed it after all. To annoy her, Dinan wore the long feather in his hair like a pennant.
Day after day they had set up their experiment with the sun's rays. Other alchemists would have used sand and dung baths to distil their ingredients. Helen Maat didn’t have that patience. She had intuitively made the connection between heat and cosmic creation. It was obvious that the answer to all alchemic riddles lay in the power of the sun. Common sense had also told her that she would never be able to create enough energy to generate it, but that had never stopped her before. Peasants and gentry alike thought her mad. They believed Helen Maat’s fiery expression and affinity with large cats meant that she had the protection of Sekhmet, a pretty fierce deity, and they always looked on from a safe distance. Curiosity overcoming personal safety, they were watching at that moment.
The solar barque of Ra neared its zenith. The sun’s rays were concentrated through two lenses to brilliant points of light that seared the contents of the crucible.
Then Dinan glanced up. He rashly removed his smoked glass eye shield and gave a sudden shout, making Helen jump. ‘Look!’
‘What is it?’
‘A bird! A large bird!’
The alchemist was more interested in her experiment. ‘Probably a vulture. Watch the crucible.’
For several minutes Dinan and Helen scrutinised the dross metal being bombarded by the sun's heat. After the surface impurities had been vaporised away in fiery blisters, scrolls of white heat patterned the mixture of smelting metals.
Without warning a fierce glow radiated from the small crucible. At last! The secrets long hidden in the Universe's mystic locker were about to be revealed.
The glow increased and became a teardrop of sun blazing with the intensity of a hundred furnaces.
On the verge of jubilant terror at what they had achieved, the alchemists quickly leapt back.
Then something above them flapped huge golden wings and cast a shadow over the alchemist’s experiment. It hovered a short distance above, gazing down as though unable to believe its luck.
‘What in Typhon's name is that!?’ raged Helen.
‘The rest of my feather!’ Dinan sounded a little too enthusiastic.
‘Well make it go away!’
‘Tell it how many cats there are in this place!’
‘That bird would eat them.’
‘Its shadow will ruin the experiment!’
But the heat of the crucible remained constant and reached some magical temperature.
Before Helen could aim a stone at the golden bird, it fell from the sky like molten fire.
For a millisecond everything was saturated by a wave of mysterious plasma that would have transmuted the elements into gold had the right ones been available.
Believing that Ra had once again hurled his eye at ungrateful humanity, the watching villagers dived for cover.
After their traumatised retinas had recovered, the two targets of his wrath were amazed to discover that they hadn't been burnt to a crisp.
Helen rolled over on the sand to glower up at the sky and let loose a stream of curses that would have made a crocodile blush. Dinan was already sitting up, shivering with an odd sensation she would also experience as soon as her blood pressure went down.
‘Everything's smashed!’ Helen raged. ‘Those lenses will take years to regrind! I hope that wretched bird's dead!’
Dinan stopped shivering. ‘Well, it's certainly not here any more.’
‘Damn its beak! We've spent years working for this!’
Dinan tried to sound sensible. ‘It seems to be turning into something else.’
Helen sat bolt upright. ‘What?’
Standing amongst the remains of the crucible and shattered equipment was a shimmering form. It certainly wasn't that of a bird. It looked uncannily like a golden statue.
Helen jubilantly leapt up. ‘We've done it!’ Then keeled over as she was struck by a strange, crushing sensation. She hammered her fists in the sand. ‘We've made gold!’
Dinan's tone was somewhat flat. ‘Then why is it shaped like a man?’
The alchemist lurched towards the statue. ‘Who knows? That thing is pure gold.’
Dinan stopped her before she could touch it.
‘What's the matter?’
‘Something’s wrong.’
‘How do you know? Have you ever seen a statue of solid gold that size before?’
‘Yes, in pharaoh's palace. And there is something wrong with this one.’
‘Why, Dinan?’
‘The Ptolemies only use gold to sculpt perfection - the immortal, the beautiful … Just look at this.’
‘Well, it's not ugly. Quite cuddlesome in a metallic sort of way.’
‘What else would you want to cuddle.’
‘Don't be insolent, bird lover.’ As Helen calmed down she saw what he meant. ‘The face is rather rounded now you mention it.’
‘Too Egyptian. No Greek would cast an effigy like that.’
‘What a strange little man.’
The statue's eyes suddenly opened.
Dinan fainted and Helen found herself looking into the most haunted expression she was ever likely to see on a human face.
After taking in its surroundings, the statue tried to move. It toppled forward instead, into the alchemist's arms. Half expecting to be flattened, Helen was amazed to find that this sculpture weighed no more than a small mortal man whose breath had the perfume of cedar, and skin the overripe peach pliability of middle age.
Her countenance, usually fierce enough to curdle milk, softened a little in curiosity. The intruder's long golden lashes set a beautiful frame around the only part of him that was a natural colour. Even then, those penetrating, deep brown eyes had a minute furnace blazing in their depths.
Helen gave a smile that could have frozen water. ‘Do you know what you've done to my experiment, little bundle of sunbeams?’
‘I'm, I'm sorry,’ the golden man murmured apprehensively.
‘You’ve got to be bad news from Ra.’
‘I come from the Aton.’
‘The what?’ Helen's grip on his arm increased.
‘All right. They are the same.’
‘You stupid Egyptians couldn't tell a good harvest from the plague.’
‘Everything has its meaning, and many things mean the same.’
‘Ugh! A philosophising statue.’ Helen released him so suddenly he fell down next to Dinan. The large man had come round some moments before but remained on the ground as a precaution.
‘Don't let her bully you,’ Dinan whispered. ‘She gets like this.’ The intruder looked at the friendly black man beside him and retreated a little. Dinan smiled reassuringly. ‘It's all right. My “aggression” was removed years ago. What's the matter?’
‘I was killed by two men like you.’
Not even Dinan could think of an answer to that, but had to keep the conversation going. ‘You make a habit of this sort of thing, then?’
‘The Aton has given me immortality.’
In most people this would have provoked amazement, in Dinan it brought on an anecdote. ‘I've often wondered myself, whether the elixir of life hasn't been overrated. All the mumbling and magic - so many people wasting lifetimes searching for it, still ending up dead. Now, this character who used to own me a long while ago - Sort of prince-’
‘Sort of prince?’
‘Pharaoh had their mother assassinated just in case she had conceived him in adultery, so no one could be sure after that. Anyway, when this prince died they tried to give him the right send off. Full burial rites, libations, coffin portrait, laying in, drying out - you know the sort of thing - all for immortality. So, when the day came to put his body in the coffin, guess what happened?’
‘He was so brittle he fell apart. They overdid the natron.’ Dinan shrugged. ‘All that for an afterlife. I sometimes wonder which part of him became immortal.’
The visitor gave a self-effacing smile. ‘I don’t know why the Aton thought I was worthy of immortality.’
‘What did you do to upset it?’
‘You know of the Aton?’
‘Not much. Most traces of the heretic pharaoh have been obliterated. Something to do with goodness and light wasn't it? And there isn't much of that in the court of a Ptolemy.’
Ahmose was still puzzled but let the subject drop. ‘My name’s Ahmose.’
‘I’m called Dinan.’
Ahmose realised that Dinan's misfortune was to have a mild nature in the body of a giant. ‘I shouldn't have thought evil of you.’
‘I was thinking some pretty strange things about you for a moment.’ Dinan now accepted that he was facing the impossible. ‘What are you?’
Ahmose was just as confused. ‘I'm no longer sure.’
Helen had been listening to the new companions commiserating, and could stand it no longer. ‘You must know who you are?’
The animal priest immediately recognised a predator. This was one fierce creature that couldn’t be bought with soothing words and a freshly caught fish. As for reading her thoughts … ‘I am - was - the second keeper of the sacred animals of the temple of Amon Ra in Innu.’
‘You mean, you weren't even a Pharaoh?’
Ahmose had been so occupied with his predicament, he hadn't given any thought to his appearance. ‘Why no. I was only a minor priest. Then he remembered that he was wearing a king's robe and Queen's jewellery. ‘Oh, the necklace and amulets. I don't know why the Nubians didn't take them. They must have suited me too well.’
Helen held up a shard of her polished metal mirror before him. ‘Look at yourself, second keeper of the sacred animals of the temple of Amon Ra!’
Ahmose unsuspectingly marvelled at the golden image mimicking his movements. Then he realised who it was.
He frantically tried to rub the gold from his skin. When he had just dropped from the sky onto the alchemist's furnace he had been transmuted – not only from a bird. It may have been fortune that he had materialised before two people who weren’t likely to dedicate him as a living trinket to some deity or other.
Dinan helped the priest rise. ‘We‘d better hide you, Ahmose. Too many curious eyes have seen too much already.’ He put his cloak about the animal priest's shoulders.
‘No, it could be dangerous for you. I must go to the nearest temple of Amon Ra.’
Helen laughed. ‘To that lot? They'd melt you down and sell you to the Greeks as finger rings.’
‘Are they still that unscrupulous?’
‘I always thought the way they carried on was traditional.’
Ahmose was afraid the idea might have appealed to the alchemist. She didn’t look Egyptian, and was probably Greek as well. ‘Will you melt me down?’
Helen laughed. ‘Only the bits I can't cuddle.’ She strode off.
Having already fallen into her arms once, Ahmose wasn't that reassured.


Helen's house sat on the banks of the Nile like an elegant outcrop. During the inundation, her estate became an island that could only be reached by boat, which suited her. While the fields were under water, the farmers often shared their time between building tombs for the nobility, watching the plumes of smoke coming from the alchemist's courtyard and wondering what was in the sacks being ferried to and fro.
Helen and Dinan had so many scars from their dangerous attempts to reshape the laws of physics, many believed that they were attempting to find the meaning of life by trying to lose theirs. Despite her insistence that the experiments were more to do with the inner soul, the locals continued to hang around for free samples just in case she did eventually manage to transmute dross metal into gold.
To be sure that Ahmose's appearance wasn’t a trick of glue and gilt, Helen told Dinan to scrub the priest with a bristle brush until they could see the colour of his blood. Then she tried to concoct a cure for that strange sensation that had come over her since the explosion. Dinan disobeyed her of course, and never even managed to wash away the fragrance of cedar.
As Helen hadn't broken out into a rash, developed a temperature or been beset by severe cramps, her malaise couldn't have been serious but the unworldly feeling had unsettled her logical gyroscope. The alchemist reluctantly admitted to herself that some things were beyond even her comprehension. To make matters worse, she gashed her hand as she was throwing ingredients into a chipped basin. After cursing a little, she forgot about the wound. A short time later it had completely disappeared.
Without warning or apology, Helen Maat deftly removed the bandage covering a recent deep wound on Dinan's leg. That had healed without leaving so much as a scar.
The meal Ahmose had been looking forward to after five centuries as a deity was suddenly forgotten. He wrapped himself in the robe Dinan had given him and, trying not to glow too much, crouched disconsolately in a corner by a statue of Hermanubis. A servant girl, fascinated by the magical priest, brought him a cushion and goblet of wine. By the time Dinan and Helen had decided to plot the conjunction of Sirius with the planets in an attempt to solve the mystery, Ahmose was fast asleep. Silently a panther called Ink, padded over to the newcomer and curled up beside him.
After hours studying charts, scrolls and calculations, Helen was questioning her commitment to logic. ‘There is no explanation.’
Dinan had no such problem with the impossible. ‘Ahmose must be the Phoenix or Bennu bird.’
‘Neither of them are supposed to turn into a man after immolation.’
‘Your experiment must have interfered with its transformation.’
That was the last straw. ‘He!’ She stabbed a finger at Ahmose, ‘interfered with my experiment! I only hope after I've melted him down there's enough gold to pay for my equipment!’
‘Don't let him hear you. I'm sure he is what he says.’
‘A menial priest from Innu? A keeper of the sacred animals?’ Helen suddenly realised that a panther fierce enough to scare off river bandits had snuggled up beside the priest. She lowered her voice. ‘Then how did someone as insignificant as Ahmose manage to get changed into a fabulous bird?’
‘The Aton must have cast a spell on him.’
In a world that believed the world was driven by magic, Dinan had to end up with the only person who would have asked Isis how she managed to sew the pieces of her husband, Osiris, back together without gangrene setting in. ‘Don't talk rubbish. This has a rational explanation. It must be something to do with the sun.’
‘The Aton,’ insisted Dinan. ‘He mentioned the Aton.’
‘The Aton?’
‘The Aton, Aton Ra, Ra, Ra Harakhte, Ra Atum, Khepri, Amon Ra. In Heliopolis there stands an obelisk, a frozen ray of the sun from which the sacred bird heralded creation.’
‘So much for being educated by an astrologer,’ muttered Helen.
‘Start with the legend, and we might arrive at the truth.’
‘Do you really believe in all that rubbish? If he's as old as the legend, then that is supernatural.’
‘You don't question the possibility of matter being transformed by the sun.’
‘Heat transforms everything.’
‘Then why not accept that the Egyptians knew this centuries before the Greeks arrived?’
‘Let's wake him up and ask.’ Before Dinan could protest, Helen shooed away the panther and shook Ahmose.
‘Don't bully him.’
Ahmose was going to take some time to get used to Helen Maat's penetrating gaze and preferred the floor for company, but she pulled him up and pushed him into a chair.
‘How old are you?’ the alchemist demanded.
Ahmose tried to remember how many inundations he had seen. ‘I can't be much more than fifty years.’
‘I didn't mean that, little sunbeam. I meant, how old are you - collectively?’
Ahmose was puzzled.
Dinan interceded. ‘What Pharaoh was on the throne before you changed into a bird?’
‘Oh. The son and daughter of the Aton.’
‘He means the children of the heretic King, Akhenaton.’
Helen turned her penetrating gaze on her long-suffering companion. ‘That was dynasties ago?’
‘It would account for him being a devotee of the Aton.’
‘The little liar!’ she snapped.
‘It is what I remember,’ Ahmose protested thinly.
‘Then why do you know how to speak Greek?’
That name again. ‘Greek?’
She angrily rounded on the priest. ‘What sort of trick are you playing? Who sent you? Was it that wizened old charlatan over the river who wouldn't know how to cook an egg even if you gave him the boiling water?’
Dinan laughed. ‘If he's that inept, it's unlikely he would have managed to produce Ahmose.’
The animal keeper was too exhausted to argue. ‘I had to change. There was something trying to pull me out of the sky. Perhaps I changed into the wrong thing.’
‘What should you change into?’
It was only then that Ahmose became aware of the ghastly trick some cosmic malefactor had played on him. ‘Perhaps another bird’
Helen gave a hard laugh. ‘Or perhaps something with a tongue forked enough to cradle a million lies.’
‘Ignore her. She’s at that time of life,’ Dinan told him. ‘Go on?’
‘I was pulled here. I didn't know what was going to happen. I can't stay like this.’ Unfortunately the only person Ahmose could turn to was the glowering menopausal alchemist. ‘Please help me.’
‘Help you? I don't even know what you are.’
‘But you do understand what caused it?’
Helen Maat exploded. ‘What do you think we've been trying to work out while you were snoring! We should put you back in the crucible and see what your precious Aton does about that!’ Her pent up rage expended, the alchemist snatched one of Ahmose's hands and examined it. ‘Did you scrub him?’ Dinan’s moon features were eclipsed by false guilt. ‘Clear away this mess.’ Helen took a small knife from her belt.
Ahmose flinched.
‘Keep still man, I'm only going to make a scratch.’ She deftly nicked one of his fingers and pushed some blood from it. It was red. Helen replaced her knife and started to pace up and down.
The panther came over and rubbed her broad head against Ahmose’s legs.
‘Where am I?’ the priest quietly mewed to the cat.
‘By the Nile,’ Ink purred.
‘But, which part?’
‘Where there are plenty of reeds and granaries full of mice. Nice, fat, juicy-’
‘Don't be disgusting.’
‘Don't you like mice?’
‘Not to eat. Tell me who these people are?’
‘You mean the humans?’
‘Yes, the mad woman and her placid friend.’
‘Oh, they're all right.’ Ink paused to lick Ahmose's arm. ‘You are odd - No salt.’
‘I know I'm odd. Please try and tell me something useful.’
‘Salt is very good, you know. Helen Maat uses a lot of it. Heals wounds.’ The panther stretched her neck and Ahmose could see a long scar parting her black fur.
‘How did that happen?’
‘An intruder with a knife. He tasted very good.’
‘Please stop mentioning your appetite. I was hungry before you started telling me about it.’
‘Little Green Eyes will feed you. She always feeds me whether I catch anyone or not.’
Helen aimed a kick at a stool that dared to block her path.
Ahmose cast her a fearful look.
‘Oh don't mind her,’ advised Ink. ‘She's bad tempered and shouts a lot, but is very good at curing people.’
‘She frightens me.’
As Helen paced to and fro, she slowly became aware of what was breaking her attention. It was the faint whispering of animal tongues.
Dinan was peering in curiosity at Ahmose and the panther over a pile of scrolls, and the alchemist was glaring.
A tense stillness filled the room.
‘Don't pay any attention,’ mewed Ink. ‘They think they're so clever, yet can't even understand simple directions.’
Ahmose's curiosity overcame his apprehension. ‘Simple directions?’
‘To this treasure the whole nome has been searching for. The grave robbers were executed before they would admit where they threw their loot.’
‘Why let them know? That's sacrilegious.’
‘It was only a human tomb. Us cats have our own catacomb in Bubastis. Shall I tell you where the treasure is?’
‘It might persuade her to help you.’
‘All right!’ Helen interrupted. ‘What's going on between you and my cat?’
‘I don't think she's aware that she belongs to you.’
Dinan was still peering over the scrolls. ‘What was Ink telling you?’
‘She knows where these grave robbers threw their loot.’
In too much of a hurry to reach Ahmose, Helen blundered into the stool she had previously kicked aside. ‘What? Where?’
But the animal priest could be as stubborn as a donkey with a thorn in its flank. ‘I don't know, and I'm not asking her.’
Helen pounced on Ahmose and seized his ear. ‘Do you know how difficult it is to replace parts of the anatomy, especially golden ones?’
‘I can't tell you something like that.’
Helen twisted his ear. ‘Do you know what was in that tomb?’
‘They took a small casket. The priests claimed it contained an elixir.’
‘For what?’
‘And you still want it after seeing me?’
‘Now I want it even more.’
She gave Ahmose's ear a final twist that made him yelp, then released him. ‘Because Dinan and I have suddenly become immortal!’
By the tears Helen's thuggery had brought to the priest’s eyes, Ink realised that he wasn’t a kindred spirit after all. ‘Coward.’ The cat sloped away.
Ahmose rubbed his ear. ‘I don't understand?’
‘Every scar on our bodies has disappeared.’
‘Then why are you angry?’
‘Because I don't know why.’
‘I thought you said that you were now immortal?’
Ahmose suddenly found himself looking into an expression that would have intimidated his High Priest. ‘If our body tissue can renew itself so rapidly, it stands to reason we might never age, be fatally injured or contract any disease.’
The animal keeper backed away. ‘Why should that be my fault?’
‘Because we were only mere mortals before you arrived!’
Dinan dropped the scrolls and placed himself between Helen and Ahmose before real damage could be done. If the mysterious priest had given them immortality, it seemed reasonable to assume that he could do far worse if he put his mind to it.
Ahmose carefully peered round his large body at the alchemist. ‘Surely you can find a cure?’
‘Rumour claims that the answer is in the casket the robbers took,’ Dinan explained. ‘The fact that you exist, must mean the priests did know about immortality.’
Ahmose recalled the unfathomable mysticism of his friend, the High Priest of Amon Ra. If anyone could have discovered immortality, it would have been him. But that was centuries ago?
Before the others became suspicious, he quickly asked, ‘Why don't you want to live forever?’
‘Do you?’
‘Well, no.’
‘Immortality is for the unscrupulous and the fool, priest!’
Dinan compensated for the Greek’s scowl with a moonish smile. ‘Helen Maat's right.’
The alchemist kicked some scrolls out of the way. ‘I want to understand the meaning of life, not cheat death. Do you want our help?’
Ahmose’s resolve stiffened. ‘Not at the price of robbing a tomb.’
‘It's already been robbed. We just need to know where the thieves put their hoard. What's the matter with you, man? Your priestly brethren already do a lucrative trade in grave goods. They would have let the highest bidder take this casket if they’d known where to find it.’
Dinan gathered up the precious scrolls. ‘Why won't you help us Ahmose?’
The animal priest removed his amulets. ‘These are solid gold.’
‘I am already wealthy,’ Helen reminded him icily. ‘I don’t need to rob minor priests.’
‘He's not going to tell us.’ Dinan pushed the amulets back onto Ahmose's arms.
‘He doesn't like pain.’
The priest flinched, then glowered back at Helen Maat.
‘Don't pay any attention,’ said Dinan. ‘She usually mends more than she breaks.’
‘Where did you learn to talk to animals, anyway?’ she demanded.
‘I've always had the ability.’
‘All animals?’
‘Not crocodiles. The only thing they can remember is their last meal.’ Ahmose pulled his robe tight about him. ‘What are you going to do with me?’
‘Before or after I dissect you?’
‘Stop frightening him,’ scolded Dinan. ‘You're as subtle as a hippo in a mud wallow.’
‘No,’ disagreed Ahmose. ‘I can understand the river horse.’
‘Are you calling me a crocodile?’ Helen would have menaced his other ear if the servant girl hadn’t come in carrying a bowl of honey cakes and pomegranates. ‘Who's that for?’
Green eyed and innocent, she placed the food before the animal priest.
Dinan gave a girlish giggle. ‘She's been talking to the cat.’
‘She'd better not,’ snarled Helen.
Green Eyes smiled fearlessly and left.
Ahmose looked at the food hungrily.
‘Well, are you going to let him eat it?’ asked Dinan.
Helen knew he was inferring that her presence could have spoilt the appetite of a ravenous camel. Casting a disconcerting glare at the priest, the alchemist swept out.
Dinan would have followed if Ahmose hadn’t caught his arm.
‘What's the matter?’
‘I don't want to be left alone.’
‘You're safe here.’ Dinan righted the stool Helen had kicked over and sat beside him. ‘We're really all harmless. This house is the logical habitat for any misfit who drifts up the Nile.’
‘You aren’t afraid of your mistress?’
‘Only men who have an ego to defend run from Helen Maat. I am the husband she will never have.’
‘How did you come here?’
‘My ancestors must have managed to get past all six cataracts.’
‘Little Green Eyes?’
‘Green Eyes? You mean Lilia. She never talks, though we're sure she can. Left on our steps when she was three. I brought her up and taught her what I could, but she never talks.’ Dinan shook his head. ‘Yes, we're all misfits here.’
‘I was brought up by the priests.’
‘I'm not surprised you're a mess.’
‘I felt safe when I was a bird, knowing the Aton would always protect me, but now...’
‘Eat your food.’
‘I can't stay like this. If I go outside I would be seen for miles.’
‘Tell Helen where that casket is and she might help you.’
‘No, I couldn't.’
Dinan knew Ahmose wouldn’t change his mind.
Eventually Helen grew tired of being dazzled and tried to find the cure for his goldness all the same. Having decided that the priest was more closely related to a mouse, Ink treated him with contempt. She was too well behaved to eat houseguests, so Ahmose's principal company was Lilia when Dinan was assisting the Alchemist.


One morning, while he sat braiding Lilia's hair, Ahmose saw the black sail of a bireme pass on the river below. Many ships, dhows, barges and ferries filled the Nile, but there was something incongruous about this sea going vessel. A large hand gently pulled him away from the window.
‘It's a pirate,’ warned Dinan. ‘If you can't stop glowing, keep out of sight. Some of the tyrants and satraps about the Aegean would pay generously for a golden deity.’ He smiled. ‘Anyway, even if we can't cure you, we can at least stain you a more civilised colour. You'll still glow a little, though not like the Pharos.’
Lilia mimed that she wanted to help.
‘No, it would mark your skin. I'll do it. Mine can't be stained any darker than it is.”
Helen's laboratory was filled with the acrid smell of pulverised bark. Hay, a servant, was stirring a bubbling cauldron while the alchemist tossed chunks of an evil looking substance into it.
She flashed Ahmose a satanic smile. ‘Your bath is ready.’
The priest had become used to her wicked humour and merely cast her a reproachful look.
‘Oh, if only I could alter the expression in those eyes as well.’
‘Is the first batch cool yet?’ asked Dinan.
‘On the south sill.’
Dinan sat Ahmose down by a table then brought over the bowl of warm fluid. He dabbed the sticky substance onto the back of the priest's hand with a sponge. Much to the patient's disappointment, the gold didn’t disappear, merely ceased to sparkle.
‘Good.’ Dinan started to apply it to the rest of his body.
Ahmose wondered if it would have been easier just to turn back into a bird. ‘How many times will you have to do this?’
‘No idea,’ said Dinan. ‘You will have to be scrubbed after each coating.’
‘The skin reacts by creating an oily film that prevents the next coat going on. Could take weeks.’
‘Thinking of going somewhere?’ asked Helen.
‘The dye will be permanent,’ Dinan promised.
‘I didn't mean to be ungrateful.
The alchemist gave a wry smile. ‘Oh, we're going to be a little mouse again, are we.’
‘Better than a crocodile,’ muttered Ahmose.


Though still gold, Ahmose ceased to gleam after several days, and was cleaner than the pharaoh's favourite concubine.
In between the repeated stainings, he would sit in the courtyard and talk to a couple of friendly mice, until Ink ate them. He tried to persuade Lilia to talk but she wouldn't, or couldn't, speak. Perhaps she knew that all the world would demand of her were explanations and thought that the world should work things out for itself.
One night, Ahmose lay on the flat roof of the large house sleeping in the cool air. Below, a large black sail billowed darkly in a thermal. Ink was out in the reeds hunting, so never heard the soft footfall on the outside steps.
Woke by the faint splash of oars, Lilia ran up to the roof.
Across the flagstones were several wet footprints, silver in the moonlight. Ahmose's thin mattress lay in a tangled heap and some woken pigeons were warbling in confusion.
The whole household heard Lilia scream.
When Dinan reached the roof she was pointing to the black sail silhouetted against the starlit sky.
Helen's voice was next to slice through the night air. ‘They must stop in Alexandria! Tell Hay to follow them and find out where they're going!’
Lilia dashed downstairs.
Dinan was surprised. ‘We're going after him?’
‘Why not?’
‘You were forever saying what a nuisance the priest was.’
‘I wouldn't wish what could happen to him on a demon from Hades. He's still gold enough to make a tyrant reach deep into his coffers, and all the tyrants I‘ve encountered were not renowned for their intellect or altruism.’
‘Where are we going to find a galley crew willing to take on a pirate?’
‘We don't need to. They're not likely to harm Ahmose and bring down his price. What was the ship?’
‘A bireme.’
‘Then we'll hire a trireme.’
‘How will Hay find out their destination?’
‘No ship leaves Alexandria without telling the port authorities where they're going, and Hay has a list of bribeable officials.’
‘So what happens when Ahmose is sold to some power-mad satrap who wants him to explain immortality?’
‘I'll think of something.’
Helen went downstairs to pack.
‘You always do,’ muttered Dinan.



On a desolate peak, where the shimmering desert merges with the sky, there glints a statue of gold. Now immobile as marble, it once lived. Some have tried to reach it, a few out of curiosity, many for avarice. One or two came close enough to see the features of the mirage’s gaunt, mean face. As they reached out to touch it, the statue briefly joined with the sky to become a fretwork of sunbeams against a fierce blue backdrop. Once he had been called king, now few remembered that Pylas had ever lived. Like Ozymandias, there was no one left to quake at the mention of his name. His legend had disappeared because no one wanted to remember the man who had enraged the sun.
Pylas had a lust for gold that turned to madness, and a craving for power that became tyranny. Having murdered his brother, married his widow, and usurped his crown, that alone should have been enough to condemn him to eternity on a remote peak, frozen between heaven and hell. That was not the reason, though. This curious crime was a minor misdemeanour compared with the many other outrages he had committed.
As the province fell into poverty to feed Pylas's greed, the palace walls grew higher. They were faced by the stones from the temples he had sacked, and filled by the pebbles of a whole beach. In his small kingdom fortress surrounded by the sea, cliffs and vast inland desert, nothing could threaten the tyrant.
Then a ship with a black sail appeared on the horizon.


The cliff paths were narrow and overlooked sheer drops to sea worn rocks, so the pirate captain wouldn’t trust his precious parcel to the hands of his fumble-fisted men.
The town they passed through once possessed a wall. Now there was nothing left to defend since Pylas pillaged the place to quell its rebellious population. Its bricks had been scavenged to build the small hovels where the survivors cowered.
Those not privileged to live in the palace complex were compelled to pick their livings from the rubbish tip not even the sea breezes could purge the stench from. Small plots of arable land were cultivated for the needs of Pylas's entourage, and the sunken wells that had not cracked supplied only brackish water. No merchants came this way. Given the opportunity, this tyrant would trade in hostages.
The pirate captain was a frequent visitor. His party was allowed through the fortifications to the palace where the wealth of the plundered town had been carelessly scattered about its corridors and courtyards. Even the tyrant's favourite horse had a stable lined with rich carpets and was fed on the precious vegetables farmers managed to grow in the thin topsoil.
Pylas was a man forever fidgeting. Some said - though not out loud - that it was part of his madness, others, that the gods had cursed him with perpetual movement. Tall, lean and stooped, Pylas resembled a vulture about to delve into the entrails of his next victim. Features that might have been distinguished were distorted by cruelty, and that thin, crooked mouth had never raised a smile.
The captain entered carrying a rolled carpet on his shoulder and the tyrant's fingers danced a greedy tattoo on the arm of his throne. ‘Well, well. What have you got? Show me! Show me!’
As his acquisitive frenzy increased the captain knew that, if he was careful, he could get a good price for this booty.
The pirate laid the rolled carpet before Pylas. ‘In here is the rarest, most mysterious treasure to be stolen from the inner sanctum of an Egyptian temple. When the great Amon Ra whispered the secrets of immortality to the mystics who built the pyramids, his sacred breath enveloped a mortal.’
The tyrant was beside himself. ‘Let me see! Let me see!’ He ordered his servants to open two caskets. One contained raw gems of amethyst, tiger's eye, beryl and garnet. The smaller had in it polished and cut amber, sapphires, turquoise, topaz and emeralds.
The captain frowned.
‘What more do you want? Do you want!’ snapped Pylas.
‘There is something else as well.’
‘What? What?’
‘The creature won't admit it.’
‘Admit what? Admit what?’
‘He knows how to make gold.’
The mad monarch halted in mid fidget. The jewelled fingers reached up to scratch his waxed beard. ‘Then why part with him? Part with him?’
The captain shrugged. ‘He is stubborn...’
‘Let me see him, see him!’ Pylas was now dangerously agitated.
He waved another casket forward. It contained a dagger with a hilt and sheaf encrusted in sapphires, two rock crystal goblets, a ruby pendant with strings of seed pearls, several lapis lazuli figurines, an onyx cameo and bowl of carved tiger's eye.
The pirate tried not to marvel at the treasure in case Pylas realised its true value. He accepted the third casket grudgingly while working out how he was going to make it back to the bireme before the tyrant changed his mind.
The captain unfurled the carpet with a sharp tug. Ahmose was sent spinning across the mosaic floor in a flurry of gold and purple.
The court couldn't believe their eyes. They didn't see a small, dazed Egyptian priest, but a glittering deity. Pylas ordered his chief eunuch to try and rub the gold from Ahmose's skin. That only burnished the priest and made him shine more brightly. Until then, the tyrant had believed that there were no more marvels in the world to plunder and was so mesmerised by the Egyptian that he allowed the pirates to leave with the treasure.
Because of drug-induced giddiness, Ahmose felt as though the Aton had clipped his wings in mid flight and let him crash to earth. Then he realised that he wasn't a bird any more, but a hairless, featherless mortal with a severe tyrant problem.
As his new acquisition was in no state to come to him, Pylas left his throne to pinch Ahmose's skin in spasms of excited cupidity. Annoyed, the priest shook the shaking fingers off. He was promptly rewarded with a sharp blow. This helped Ahmose collect his wits. Given his immediate situation, they weren't that much use. In the tyrant's greedily glittering eyes, the animal priest saw the demon in the man's soul. He got up and dashed away, only to find that he was totally encircled by courtiers and guards. Once again Pylas closed in with all the maniacal malevolence that went to make a tyrant. As Ahmose circled to avoid the creature, other hands plucked at his purple robe and touched his skin.
‘You are mine now, mine now,’ cackled Pylas. He pinched Ahmose's face and neck. Not wanting another blow from those gnarled hands jagged with rings, Ahmose tried not to flinch.
‘I have paid a fortune for you! A fortune!’ The tyrant obviously wasn’t open to negotiation on that point. Just as Ahmose believed things could get no worse, Pylas insisted, ‘You will tell me how to make gold, make gold!’
It was a demand, not a question.
Sheer terror nudged the entity deep inside Ahmose and the expression in his eyes made Pylas hesitate. At the back of the priest's pupils gleamed the flame of a very angry deity. Even a tyrant had to think twice about having a god thrashed.
Pylas plucked the air. At this signal, his chamberlain led Ahmose away to the women's quarters, the best-guarded territory in the realm. Its residents found the small priest a welcome change from the tyrant and bossy eunuchs. Ahmose liked their company and thoughts that had seldom crossed his mind before started to peep over its parapets. On learning that the eunuchs were the surviving suitors of the tyrant's wives, they ducked back down again.
Drowsy from the pirates’ drug and a fragrant bath, Ahmose did some illicit dreaming instead before being summoned again.
Apparently Pylas didn’t fidget so much in the afternoons and was less prone to repetition.
Ahmose was on the verge of communicating with the tyrant when a messenger dashed into the throne room. He whispered to a guard who whispered to the cup-bearer, who whispered to the chamberlain. The laws about who could directly address Pylas tended to slow the passage of information. The tyrant hadn't yet grasped how many battles had been lost this way.
‘There is a foreign ship standing off the headland, Sire,’ announced the chamberlain.
Pylas was feeling unusually magnanimous. ‘Leave it for the pirate.’
‘He sailed some while ago, Sire.’
‘Well leave it for the gulls, the gulls! I'm not risking my ships unless it's carrying gold! Carrying gold!’ Thinking Ahmose had dozed off; Pylas poked him with his staff. ‘You, Egyptian! You will tell me how to make gold, make gold!’
Ahmose begged his wits to return but they insisted on dawdling. ‘Gold?’
‘Gold! Gold!’ echoed Pylas.
‘I'm just a minor priest,’ explained Ahmose.
The tyrant’s staff caught him such a blow he was winded. His hopes of holding rational conversation with the creature had been premature.
‘You are gold, so you must know how to make gold, make gold.’
The thought of the yellowish metal was working Pylas into a frenzy, the like of which Ahmose had never seen, even in a rabid hyena.
‘It was an accident.’
‘Accident? Accident?’
‘A curse.’ At last the priest recovered his wits. ‘Some magicians cast a spell on me. They are the ones who know how to make gold.’ Ahmose was surprised at how easily lying came to him in the absence of any honest alternative.
Pylas squinted in disbelief. He beckoned over a bodyguard. Ahmose looked up at the aquiline features of a human predator and his spirit went limp. Judging by the locks of victims' hair hanging from his belt, this man loved his work and he hardly seemed disappointed that Ahmose didn’t have any.


As Dinan carefully lowered the precious lenses and mirror to the small boat bobbing on the night black waves, inquisitive faces peered from the trireme's oar ports.
‘It won't work, I know it won't work,’ Dinan cursed under his breath, anticipating the tyrant's scepticism as well as his speech impediment.
‘Stop muttering and let down the crucible!’ Helen called up.
‘Is she quite sane?’ the captain whispered to Dinan.
‘Depends which side of bed she falls out of.’
The captain gave the eunuch a sideways glance. ‘If you two get into trouble, my crew can't take on a tyrant's army. Pylas is mad y'know.’
‘Let's hope they get on then.’ After passing down the crucible, Dinan tucked the parcel containing Ahmose's jewellery, robe and sandals into his satchel.
‘Is this priest worth the fee for my ship and risk to your lives?’
Dinan wondered for a moment. ‘Helen Maat would travel to the sun if helped explain that Egyptian. If you don't see our signal in two days, sail without us.’ He stepped over the side of the ship and descended the rope ladder like a giant on a stem of columbine.
Helen and Dinan were ferried ashore and left on the beach with their equipment. In the moonlight they could see a small fishing boat being hauled ashore. The crew quickly disappeared into the cliff's shadow with their meagre catch and were lost from sight.
It was impossible to pick out the path the men took, so Helen and Dinan gazed up at the unbroken line of cliffs and wished for a sure-footed mule.
They were still searching for a pass up the rocks when a massive dark man confronted them. Beardless, with a stern expression, he wore a short tunic edged with silver and Phrygian's conical cap. He would have looked absurd if he weren’t so formidable. The man pointed at the weighty equipment on their backs and Dinan instinctively reached for his sword.
Helen caught his wrist. ‘It's all right. He's not a soldier.’
‘I know another slave when I see one, and they're not all as sweet natured as me.’
‘Does he understand Greek? He's not very talkative.’
The other eunuch opened his mouth. There was no tongue to speak with. There was a scar where it had been torn from his mouth many years before. The slave took something from his pouch and laid it across his wide palm.
Helen recognised the earring. ‘That's Ahmose's.’
‘It's probably a trap.’
The slave shook his head and pointed upwards.
‘We've got to trust him.’
‘Because we don't have a choice.’
The stranger nodded.
‘Why should he risk his life for Ahmose?’
Helen asked the mute eunuch, ‘Is the golden man still alive?’
The slave nodded then, giving Dinan a wary look, lifted the lenses and box of equipment from her shoulders. He sure-footedly led the couple up a winding pass and through the foul smelling town beyond. They were being watched, but it was by fearful eyes.
Noiselessly the companions skirted the palace walls until they came to a finger wide crack in its defences. The slave pulled aside a large buttress stone and revealed a short tunnel. Dinan and Helen crammed themselves through it and entered a small, silent courtyard. On the other side of it was a dimly lit room filled with the aroma of cloves and jasmine. The furnishings reflected the refinement of the Lydian court in the statuettes of winged genii, slender lamp holders and a fan shaped array of curved bows - though a noticeable lack of arrows. An elegant woman was sitting on a couch. As they entered, the slave bowed and she beckoned Helen and Dinan to her.
‘I am glad you found your way here safely.’ The woman spoke in halting Greek as though it was a childhood language she was on the verge of forgetting. ‘I am the Queen of this pathetic little realm, first wife to the even more pathetic man who usurped its crown.’
‘Is this some sort of trap?’ Helen asked in a tone too civil to suggest she believed it.
‘Had you walked through the palace gates, you would have never left here alive. You are friends of the small golden man, aren't you?’
‘Yes. How did you know?’
‘Nothing brings anyone to this place unless they are a brigand, hostage or rescue party.’
‘Why would you protect us?’
‘I am a princess of the house ruling Lydia where there is much gold and a little more civilisation. When this realm was contented, I was married to Pylas's brother. You have seen what it is like now.’
‘What do you want us to do?’
‘Pylas believes that your mysterious friend can make gold. I have watched it being sieved from the waters that flow from the mountains of my homeland and worked by the best jewellers in the world. I have never seen it being created from dross lead. That is impossible.’
Helen Maat gave a sinister grin. ‘Oh no, not impossible.’
‘Helen...’ Dinan quietly warned.
She ignored him. ‘Introduce me to your husband and I will show him how to make gold.’
The Queen hesitated. ‘If this were possible, you would be giving a madman the keys to the gates of the Underworld.’
‘The place I have in mind for him needs no key. Where is Ahmose?’
‘We are not sure.’
‘We have to know before we can rescue him.’
‘Pylas would never give you the chance if he believes he can make gold.’
‘Even a tyrant should be granted a last wish.’
Dinan hadn't come all that way just to commit murder. ‘Helen!’
The Queen had never met a person like the formidable alchemist before and, against all reason, believed that she could free the realm of its monster. ‘You can not only make gold, but destroy kings?’
‘A new side line I'm working on.’
‘No!’ snapped Dinan. ‘Let's just grab Ahmose and run.’ Then he had to ask the unthinkable. ‘He hasn't been harmed has he?’
‘A fool like Pylas would not be able to tell whether golden skin can bruise.’ The Queen turned to Helen. ‘My husband is heavily guarded and has many food tasters. How could you kill him?’
‘That depends on how desperate he is to acquire gold - or immortality.’
‘Immortality?’ The Queen tried to see trickery in the alchemist's glittering smile, but the woman meant it. ‘Yes, he would prefer immortality to a mountain of gold, but is that possible?’
‘Trust me. I’m an alchemist.’