“I stared down at five severed heads that lay in the dust, at the god-forsaken crossroads, in the small, dark hour before dawn.” Not a bad opening sentence for the third in Nick Drake’s Egypt series featuring Rahotep, Seeker of Mysteries, during the final years of XVIIIth Dynasty Egypt. The heads belonged to five poor Nubian boys, and have been expertly severed at the neck.
Rahotep has hit hard times in the years following the death of Tutankhamun and the marriage of his young widow, Ankhesanamun, to the elderly courtier Ay, who has seized the throne. He has been dismissed from the Medjay, the Theban police force, and is mostly living on his wits to support his wife and three children. He meets his old colleague Khety, who is still an officer in the Medjay. Khety tells him that there has been a rash of decapitations in Thebes, and that he is carrying on his own investigations, which have led him to believe that there is a powerful drug cartel operating in the capital, smuggling opium in from the North. The operation is led by a ruthless killer with the code name Obsidian. Rahotep advises him to drop it, fearing for his friend’s life.
Rahotep is beginning to fear that his family will sink into poverty, when he is summoned by Nakht, a high noble with whom he has been involved with before in the solving of previous mysteries, and who has become his friend. Nakht needs Rahotep’s services again, this time on a secret mission to Hattusas, the capital of the Hittite Empire (in modern Turkey). Rahotep is given an audience with Ankhesanum, who tells him that her husband Ay is dying, and the court greatly fears that on his death the throne will be seized by Horemheb, the powerful Commander of the army. She wants Nakht, accompanied by Simut, Commander of the Palace Guard, to go to Hattusas with a letter to the Hittite king, asking him to send one of his many sons to Egypt to marry her. As a reward the Hittite prince will occupy the throne of Egypt, and the eternal wars between the Hittites and the Egyptians will come to an end. Rahotep is to go too and protect Nakht with his life if necessary.
Before the expedition departs, Khety is also decapitated and Rahotep is thirsting for revenge against the drug cartels. Nakht forbids him to pursue this course – he must concentrate entirely on the mission. However, he carries on his own investigations privately during the long journey to Hattusas.
This journey and the return take up most of the book. There is an uneasy atmosphere at the Hittite court. There are stories circulating about a terrible, murderous army that has invaded and completely destroyed isolated settlements. On the journey back with the Hittite prince (a pretty pathetic specimen), the Egyptian party is captured by the Army of Chaos under its ruthless female leader, Inanna, and taken to the secret valley which is the source of the opium. If you can get your tongue round the names (or even if you can’t) it’s a real page turner.
Nick Drake has an excellent knowledge of Ancient Egyptian history – the letter to the Hittite king asking him to send one of his sons actually exists. It is also extremely interesting to note that the situation in the ancient Middle East is not that dissimilar to that of today. The tension is kept up until the final pages, when the identity of Obsidian is finally revealed.