The tall man wearing a long blue robe grasped Ipi by his hair and held him firmly. Ipi tried to wriggle free from the painful hold, but couldn't. He pummelled the man's stomach with his fists but with no effect. His legs were beginning to tremble with fright and felt as though they were not going to support him much longer. The man's right hand reached for the handle of a dagger stuck in his belt ...
"What's wrong, son?" Ipi's mother asked, her voice full of concern. Ipi opened his eyes and realized that he was at home, lying huddled on a papyrus mat on the flat roof of their house, as he did every night. There were beads of cold sweat on his forehead. In the distance, the baboons in the temple of the god Djehuty were welcoming the rays of the morning sun with their shrieks as they did every morning. The city was waking up. The whole thing was just a horrible nightmare. "Nothing, mum!" he said. "Just a bad dream!" He sighed with relief. Yesterday was yesterday, and he was in Mennufer. This was not a desert, where one might run into dangerous strangers and, so people said, even strange beasts with wings and heads growing on their backs!
Today would be a very special day! Sennufer, an old family friend, was going to take Ipi and Meryt to see the royal palace! It stood in the northern part of Mennufer, surrounded by high walls, and only those who worked there or who came on business were allowed inside. It was the place where state affairs were conducted not only by the king himself, but also by the prime minister and other high officials of the kingdom.
Ipi often stood outside the palace gates and waited for them to open. Dignitaries of all ranks came to brief the prime minister and the King on various affairs of the state. Overseers of building works reported on the progress of the construction of new temples. Army generals, covered in dust after long chariot journeys, brought the latest news on the military situation in the border areas to the south, west and north-east of Egypt. High priests in charge of Egypt's largest temples, of the god Ra in On, of Ptah in Mennufer, and of Amun in Weset, came to demand more help in the restoration of shrines which had suffered badly during the reign of the King's father, Akhenaten. Foreign ambassadors, dressed in sumptuous robes and accompanied by bearers of exotic gifts, waited patiently for an audience with the King. Royal messengers, still weary after strenuous trips up and down the country, returned to the palace with news of the situation in the provinces. It was so exciting! But Ipi had never been past the palace gate.
Sennufer was an old man who came to Mennufer when Tutankhamun abandoned the city created by his father Akhenaten in Middle Egypt. Sennufer was a trusted servant in the service of Queen Ankhesenamun and was able to go as he pleased almost anywhere in the palace. He would, of course, be breaking the rules by bringing children with him to work, but he was pretty certain that even if their presence was discovered and reported, the Queen would not judge his transgression too harshly. She loved children and it was rumoured that she herself was expecting her first baby soon.
Meryt, her eyes still full of sleep, was waiting outside the house when Ipi climbed down from the roof. Sennufer had a huge bunch of flowers which the children were going to carry for him. He himself held a long stick which marked him out as an old dignified man in one of his hands, while in the other he carried a small wooden cage with a young hedgehog, a present for the Queen.
They set off immediately, following the path which took them along the eastern side of the temple of the god Ptah. Then they turned west and before long found themselves outside the palace compound. The huge Nubian who opened the gate at first looked suspiciously at Sennufer's young companions but when he saw that they were loaded with flowers he did not say a word and let them through. They entered a large open court. On their right was a small temple of the god Amun, the most important god among the multitude of Egyptian deities. The palace was right in front of them. To their left, there were various offices, buildings which housed the prime minister and other high officials of the realm, and state archives. Next to them there were palace kitchens, granaries, storerooms, stables, and dwellings for members of the palace guard. Palace servants, cooks and grooms were already busy in preparation for a new day. Women were grinding grain on large stone querns and others were huddled around fires on which they were pre-heating pots for baking bread. All buildings, including the palace itself, were built of sun-dried bricks, but their walls were plastered and painted dazzling white.
Through the half-open gate of the royal stables Ipi caught a glimpse of horses and would have loved to stay and watch them for a while. But Sennufer hustled the children quickly through the palace entrance into a corridor which skirted the ceremonial front part and led straight to the royal apartment at the back. A side door connected the corridor with a large columned hall in which stood a throne on an elevated pedestal. The walls of the hall were decorated with beautiful paintings of marsh scenes, with birds hovering above papyrus plants, butterflies fluttering their multicoloured wings in the sun and fish making the water full of life. This was the place where the King received his officials and foreign envoys, and the children would have liked to inspect it more closely. But Sennufer did not want his young charges to be seen by some nosy servant keen on making trouble and so he did not stop. He rushed them along the corridor and several small rooms behind the hall until they reached the royal apartment. Here they could relax; Sennufer knew that the King and Queen were attending the early morning ceremonies in the temple of Amun and were not going to be back for some time. Only a few servants were allowed to enter the royal suite and all these were Sennufer's friends.
Both Ipi and Meryt were overwhelmed by the elegance of the royal household. They had never seen such beautiful furniture: chairs with legs in the form of lion's paws, beds with ornamental boards, folding stools, small tables and boxes carved in wood and inlaid in ivory, blue faience, coloured glass or semi-precious stones. There were vases, some of them of fantastic shapes, made of yellowish alabaster. The King's ceremonial robe which he wore on state occasions was casually thrown over a wooden mannequin figure which looked startlingly lifelike. Small lamps in the shape of human arms holding a large sign meaning 'life' were ready to illuminate the rooms on dark evenings. Colourful textiles which were suspended from the walls transformed the rooms into a cosy home.
Sennufer busied himself with the flowers, replacing those brought the day before with the fresh ones, re-arranging them and changing water in the vases in which they stood. Meryt was helping him. They were so absorbed by the task in hand that they did not notice that Ipi was no longer with them ...
Ipi spotted a narrow corridor leading to small door at the back of the royal apartment which communicated with the domestic quarters behind the palace. Curiously, it was not guarded, perhaps because the sentry knew that the royal couple were not at home and so he left his post to have a quick chat with a friend who worked in the royal stables. And that was also the place Ipi wanted to see as he quietly slipped out of the palace. No chance of visiting the stables with Sennufer on the way home! The old man's nose, thought Ipi with a mischievous smile, was conditioned too much by the scent of his flowers to tolerate the rich aroma of the stables! But for Ipi it was like smelling a lotus flower. The horses in the stables were magnificent animals which eyed him warily with their large dewy eyes. They were like light-footed dancers, ready to stamp their hooves and prance. Their grooms and charioteers were too busy making sure that the horses and chariots were ready at a moment's notice if the King decided to take a trip outside the palace. They paid no attention to a small boy watching them with his mouth open. "If by any chance I can't become a foreman like my father", Ipi decided, "I shall be a charioteer!"
As he stood there admiring the beautiful beasts, he did not notice a tall man who appeared behind him, as if from nowhere. He grasped Ipi roughly by his hair. This was not a dream! Ipi tried to free himself but couldn't. His fists flailed ineffectually at the man's blue robe. He began to tremble with fright. Then the man's right hand reached for a dagger in his belt ...
On to Chapter 10.