ASP

It was twilight the next evening when Khamet was finally able to reach the structure. The immense construction loomed before him even larger than he had imagined. The vast city began to close down and go to sleep, but the torches in the great structure still flickered and glowed. The light cast shadows that danced on the wall. There were two wide bodies of water surrounding the entire structure and gave it the appearance of being an island. Everything was lined with trees and well kept.

The first thing to really catch Khamet’s eye was the colors. In the twilight, the gold accented walls shimmered and those parts shone in the fading yellow sun. The wall before him was far too tall and steep to run up so he wandered around until he came to a long ramp leading upward to a great archway flanked by two guards.

Khamet moved up the ramp and caught the scent of something slightly familiar. Without warning something growled and a large bristling ball of grey fur exploded from behind one of the guards. Khamet jumped back and the guard yanked a leather strap as the creature’s claws barely missed the cat. The baboon halted and choked at the end of its tether, while the guard harshly pulled the creature back. The guard took a step towards Khamet to gently run him off and keep him safe from the agitated baboon.

Khamet ran up the ramp and into the structure. He had known a few baboons. There were two in his part of town that were pets, but they too had nasty tempers and were always kept well tethered. The mau knew not to go around them. There had been a third once, but one day it had got loose and killed a cat. For that offence, both the baboon and its owner had been killed.

Reaching the top of the ramp, a large courtyard opened up before him. Water streamed in through the center of the space and continued through a wall into the structure. Khamet wasn’t the only cat or animal in the courtyard, but he was the only one moving about with some sort of purpose. The courtyard was large, as large as the entire area of houses he was used to exploring. People went one way or another and paid him no mind.

There were community bowls of food for the mau everywhere, but there was no garbage or waste in any part of the courtyard. On the right and left at the far end were two large openings where people came and went. Overhead was a platform with a great stone chair with a linen tent covering it. In the center of the courtyard was an enormous golden figure of a woman with a mau head. People knelt before it, and some were crying. Khamet had seen the cat-headed goddess Bast before, but never had he seen such colors or so much shimmering gold.

Outside the chamber, darkness was setting and the torches illuminated the walls and paths. Khamet saw an opening he hadn’t noticed before and slipped through it into another courtyard as big if not bigger than the first. Before him a great pool stretched like the ocean throughout the entire courtyard. The walls and pillars were all lit with torches and they cast a glow over the water, reflecting the light. The sky was open in the center and the stars were coming out. Passages lined the walls around the pool and as Khamet moved around he heard the sound of animals. He turned down one of the paths and went through chamber after chamber following both the sounds and scents to a vast network of cages. There were no cats here, and at the sight of Khamet some of the animals growled and rattled their cages.

A man came out and gently shooed him away. Khamet quickly retreated back the way he had come to the courtyard. Two dogs, leashed to the walls, began barking and Khamet ran to a tree near the pool area. He climbed it quickly to find a perch. A second cat looked up, swooshed its tail and dropped his head laid back down. Khamet watched the other cat warily for a moment then he crouched and lazily scanned the courtyard. People were here as well. A few waded in the shallow pool as others passed or chatted while they performed some chore. Khamet allowed himself to close his eyes and sleep, but in these new surroundings, he did not sleep well.

The twilight slipped into night and the pool was abandoned. The sound of hurried sandals roused Khamet from his sleep, still perched upon a limb. His green cat eyes opened to the darkness. The torches still burned and illuminated a tall figure moving along the pool’s edge, carrying something. Khamet felt a strange sensation not unlike the feeling of déjà vu that arrived when he was going to be harmed. This was different and Khamet decided to follow.

The figure slipped through the torchlight and when it reached the edge of the chamber and the beginning of the passage it stopped and looked around a moment.

Khamet saw the profile of a man.

He was now fully aware that humans thought nothing more of him than a simple creature. He learned he could intrude on anything and not cause alarm. Khamet leapt down from the tree and ran towards the man. Upon seeing Khamet the man did something Khamet found unimaginable, he kicked at him.

The man’s sandal slipped beneath Khamet who jumped high and fast, narrowly escaping the hefty foot. The cat landed and ran to the darkness of the wall as the man ducked into the chamber. Now very curious Khamet followed.

The man smelled heavily of dog, which made him easy to track through the enclosed area. This was a part of the palace Khamet had not explored. He followed the man through an enormous network of passages, some dark, some lit, until he came to a large door that had just been closed. The bottom of the door was several inches off the ground and Khamet dropped to his side and used his claws to pull, first his head, and then the rest of his body through.

Khamet found where the garbage went.

The door led to a path that had been carved along the back of the palace and just below the back wall. The odor was familiar to the streets of his part of town, the scent of sun dried refuse. It was dark, but Khamet could see the man moving ahead carrying a large basket with him.

Windows and balconies lined with linen draperies of fine colors flapped in the night. Rather than follow, Khamet scrambled up the side of the wall to the ledge. It was steep, and at the top he began to slip backwards. Khamet scratched at the stone and clay for purchase. In the darkness there was no telling where he might land and he hoped he didn’t miss the ledge. Khamet’s claws continued to slip as a breeze caught the drape. It billowed out past his paw and Khamet reacted quickly. He released his grip and leapt for the drapery. His claws latched on to the coarse linen, and the mau pulled himself up onto the arm of the balcony.

Khamet crouched, watching as the man looked back a moment, as if he heard something, but his pace did not slow. At the next balcony the man peered through the linen drapery. Then he quietly slipped over the railing and vanished into the darkness.

Khamet arrived at the balcony just in time to see the man plunge a long knife into the back of another man. The victim reacted with shocked silence and dropped the spear he was holding.

The tall man was limber and very fast. He spun his victim around to snatch the spear with his free hand before it hit the floor. Then he dragged the wounded man to the edge of the balcony, hefted him up and pitched him over the side. Khamet watched the man hit the ledge and tumble into the darkness with his spear chasing after him. The assassin then picked up the wicker basket he’d been carrying and moved to an opening that sloped into a stairway.

The royal apartment was as large as six of Khamet’s houses including the narrow street. The space was broken into three chambers that reached across both balconies with an even grander balcony of its own. The receiving room had golden statues and ornaments in every corner. A large drapery separated the second, which was also quite large with pillows and an enormous table in the middle. Cats were nestled about mostly asleep, but it seemed some had awakened with the almost silent commotion down the stairs.

The man with the knife ignored the animals and carried the wicker basket to the curtain at the far end of the room. This curtain was thick and allowed very little light to filter through. The man squatted near the edge and pulled back the drapery to peer into the chamber on the other side. Then he silently slipped through the curtain.

Khamet received purrs and slight rumblings as he entered the second chamber. The cats that were awake called out in sleepy meows as if to say, “What’s going on?” Khamet ignored them and shoved through the curtain.

The royal bed chamber was lush and well scented with oils and lamps burning. The balcony covered half of the room with the far wall open to a large sundeck that surrounded the top of the palace. It allowed Pharaoh to step out and observe.

Even the bed was grand, covered by a sheer fabric to protect from insects and such. Khamet could see the outline of at least three people in the bed and looked around the room for the man whom he could not see anywhere.

Khamet crept around the bed towards the balcony. He saw the wicker basket overturned right next to the bed and froze. He moved around to get a better view of what was inside the basket and stopped when he saw that it was empty. He eased forward. He could smell the heavy scent of dog that the assassin carried but another scent came to him as well. Instinctually Khamet crouched and began to hiss. He stopped and peered around in silent alarm with his ears flat.

Khamet scanned the room and began to turn as his mind froze again, he saw… a dark shape slipped out of the darkness… it snapped and he was struck from behind in the neck… it fangs sank quickly Khamet felt the poison permeate him… his vision blurred… his heart slowed… he slipped away… Khamet leapt straight into the air as the cobra slipped out from beneath the bed and struck right where he was. He landed facing the snake and hissed. The snake hissed back sniffing the air with its tongue and Khamet dropped even lower stepping back as the snake moved closer.

Khamet had seen snakes, they were common, but never had Khamet seen one so big. The cobra was enormous and it seemed to know its business. The oblong face above the hood was easily a foot above the mau and it stared down at him. The markings on its chest shifted as it continued to advance for a better strike point. A single slip and it would be over.

This would be a good time for the dogs to come in Khamet thought, and added a loud growling meow in the hope the animals would stir. Maybe even the humans could help. The dogs did not stir. Khamet had always thought they were stupid animals anyway, not like cats.

The cobra struck again and again Khamet saw it before it happened. He shifted to avoid the strike and gave two quick swipes with his claws pulling himself onto the cobra’s neck. He bit down as the cobra whipped around. Khamet jumped off its back and moved across the room hissing loudly. Still the dogs did not stir.

The cobra circled to pursue as Khamet ran towards the dogs. His senses seized him before he reached them. Their tongues lulled and one of them stared at him with ghostly black eyes. They were dead. The cobra couldn’t have done this, perhaps the man with the knife…

the cobra struck again…

Khamet shot to the left as the cobra came near the dogs and turned to face the mau. Then suddenly Khamet’s mind showed him something else and as the cobra approached he didn’t move.

The snake slipped forward and rose up on him with its signature hood. Khamet stood his ground. Then the cobra maneuvered until it was only inches away and Khamet froze and stared into the things black beady eyes. The first coil slipped around him and there was pain as he was squeezed and held. He stared into the eyes and suddenly he was somewhere else and then he was gone.

Khamet was lost, in a great abyss and hanging in the air over the scene. He saw his mother, swallowing bits of his siblings while the others suckled and survived, her teeth, those great claws of hers, so determined and final, ready to take him as well. Then the tongue began its cleaning. The tongue, his mother’s tongue, like the firm hand of creation began its caress, clearing his nostrils, opening his airways. It licked over his belly, moving his bowels and bringing him back. Back from…

Suddenly he was being squeezed, still trying to breathe, his heart struggling. Where had he been? He thought. A glimmer of some lost memory slipped through his mind.

The moonlight and the dull colors of the room reflected in the cobra’s eyes.  Khamet could see himself in the tiny beaded black pool, but it wasn’t himself. The reflection, tiny as it was, was not him, but it was looking at him. The reflection he saw was a mau, but different in some way that he could not measure. The reflection tilted its head and it seemed to beckon him forward. Khamet then saw the cobra strike… a flash of movement right at the cat’s neck… he felt the pain and the poison again paralyzed him…

Khamet reached out at the cobra as it struck. His own mouth open with all his claws out, Khamet grabbed the snakes head and latched onto it. Then he was released. Khamet scrambled around to the back of the snake’s hood and began biting. Khamet continued to claw as the snake whipped around, but his cat’s claws were set and he chewed into the symbol in the back of the hood.

The cobra flipped in a frenzy slapping its tail on the floor, whipping around to get hold of the little cat on its back. Khamet knew all he needed to do was to hold on a bit longer. The cobra spun to snap, but the cat’s claws were digging in deeper and every roll was being countered before the snake could complete it. The mau bit and released and bit and released again, holding onto the snake’s back until a voice began crying out. There were shouts, then the curtain parted and men were all around. There was a clank as a blade struck the ground beside the cat. There was another strike and Khamet released the cobra and ran away in sheer terror.

From the corner of the room Khamet watched the cobra flop in pain as several men stabbed at the ground until it was dead. The man standing on the bed spoke in angry tones and unceremoniously the snake was quickly scooped up and thrown off the balcony. The man walked over to the dogs and released a noise of absolute frustration, he kicked the wicker basket and the other men picked it up along with the dogs and then everyone quickly retreated from the room. Two went out to check the balcony. The man spied Khamet in the corner and began speaking to him. Then he said something loudly. A woman came in a moment later with a large pillow and a plate of food and water. She placed both in front of Khamet and retreated.

Another woman came from the bed and said something to the man then moved to Khamet. She sat and began to stroke him lightly as he ate and he began to purr loudly. He finished eating and lay back on the pillow and the woman moved back to the bed. There was a lot of discussion and the man left the room. There was more yelling from outside and down the stairs. When the man returned he moved to Khamet and crouched beside him, bowing low and repeating some words over and over again. Khamet saw up close that the man had a wide nose and olive colored skin and parts of his face were painted black and gold. The man finished speaking and reached out to gently stroke Khamet. He then carefully picked up the pillow and set it at the foot of the bed. The man said something to the guards and two were in the outer chamber and two more were on the balcony. Then the man returned to the bed and they all drifted to sleep.

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