Iruhotep walked past the low wall that marked the Per Ib's boundary. A white paved road continued perfectly straight for 100 strides. Smaller paths branched out at right angles every 20 strides to form small, square gardens. Like the estates of nobles, the garden plots were meticulously maintained and every plant was chosen specifically to maximize its apparent grandeur from the street. The first few squares in the gridded garden were ponds, sporting lilies and other plants whose roots required complete immersion. Radiating outward from the entrance, the plant life grew steadily taller. First, low grasses and flowers. Then pomegranate bushes pruned to perfect spheres. The trend progression continued, culminating in towering palms casting cool shadows on the Per Ib itself.
The courtyard was abuzz with activity. Dozens of scholars thrummed around the main pathway, creating impromptu caucuses. Instructors made small talk, older students compared notes, and some younger students were being taught ink preparation. Grinding the black pigment cakes into powder was messy work. The charred vegetable matter easily stained anything it came into contact with if the scribe was not careful, and first years were, definitionally, not careful. At least outside, black smudges on surfaces matter less than on the brilliant walls of the Per Ib.
Iruhotep navigated through the crowd, nodding politely to several colleagues whenever he made eye contact. To a select few that he rather liked, he stopped for a moment to offer a verbal and tactile greeting.
"By your hand, you have returned!" Iruhotep announced with a smile upon seeing Hihmenka, the only other khenra currently in residence at the Per Ib.
"Praise the gods." He replied. The jackal-headed humanoids tapped each other's forearm at about eye-level, a common greeting for scribes of equal status. "It is good to see you, Iruhotep."
"And you as well, my friend. It has been a while. We keep missing each other like camels in a storm."
"No, friend. I am a camel. You, I think, are more of an owl."
Iruhotep imagined himself with the head of an owl, and laughed. "If I were an owl, why can I not fly?"
"I didn't say you were a good owl. But tell me, Iruhotep, do you stay housed and secluded during the day only to emerge after the sun has set?"
Iruhotep began bobbing his head slightly from side-to-side in begrudging agreement. "More often than not, yes. But that doesn't make me an owl."
"Do you know who sounds like an owl?"
"You! Just now! And if you sleep like an owl and speak like an owl, what does that make you if not an owl?"
Both khenra shared a modest, but genuine laugh. After a few brief moments of small talk, Iruhotep excused himself from the conversation.
"I must speak to The Controller of Mysteries to receive my daily assignments. Give my regards to Hihrenka for me."
"And you to Iruchastep. May the road ever rise to meet your feet."
The scribes once again tapped forearms before going their separate ways.
After leaving his friend, Iruhotep traversed the rest of the path to arrive at the great doors of the Per Ib. Each of the wooden barricades was two strides wide at the base. They rose straight up for three strides before arching inward with small, regular notches. As long as there was a scribe at work inside, the doors were left wide open. The first few normally arrived in a trickle around the first hour of morning, when the sun had barely risen. However, Iruhotep's proclivity towards late nights and general owlishness meant that he always arrived later than his peers. That trickle of scribes had already grown into two rivers of scholars, one entering and one exiting the building. Iruhotep joined the entering stream.
Immediately inside the doorway, there was a large stone basin, filled with water. As people entered, they quickly dipped their hands in, shook off excess moisture, and continued inside. Iruhotep briefly contemplated the stone bowl as he walked in. The water was opaque, darkened by dust, dirt, and ink cleansed from busy hands. His own were still completely clean, but he quickly dipped in the tips of his fingers just the same. He had only taken two steps past the basin when a familiar voice called out to him.
“By your hand, you have returned.”
“Praise the gods,” Iruhotep answered and bowed, right fist over his left shoulder. Although the vocal greeting was identical to the one Hihmenka had used earlier, the context was much more formal. It would be a great faux pas for a middling scribe to act so informally around the Controller of Mysteries.
The old man approached Iruhotep, arms clasped behind his back. This was one of the most senior administrators in the Per Ib, Uwerrekh, the Controller of Mysteries. His head and face were shaved clean except for his grayed eyebrows, which stood in sharp contrast against his olive skin. Ever obsessed with cleanliness, nobles regularly removed body hair as part of their morning routine. This was one of the many ways the upper class distinguished themselves from the rabble. Commoners could also strive to meet the same standard, but rarely had the free time required for daily shaving. Khenra were exempt from this norm by virtue of impracticality. If Iruhotep had to begin every morning by removing all hair from his body, it would already be evening by the time he was "presentable." There were many who were vexed by this special consideration.
"One might expect you to arrive earlier given your truncated cleansing rituals, Iruhotep," Uwerrekh said with some sarcasm as he closed the distance between the two. “I trust you were not here too late. You might damage those young eyes from strain. Then what use would I have of you?”
“I pray you would take pity on an invalid and find a purpose. After all, my penmanship while blind is still better than many with sight, wise master.”
Uwerrekh laughed and slapped Iruhotep on the back a little too hard. “You might be quicker with a brush than the rest of us, but you could still learn some humility.”
“May I find it under your excellent tutelage.”
While Iruhotep was forbidden from making purposeful physical contact with a superior, at least publically, the same was not true of Uwerrekh. To him, Iuhotep was a subordinate, a tool to use as he saw fit. If that happened include being overly friendly with his charges, then those tools should feel honored at the attention.
“Well then, let’s put you to work, shall we?” Uwerrekh turned around and walked deeper into the Per Ib, followed closely by Iruhotep.
The bulk of the Per Ib consisted of a single long hallway flanked by rooms which grew smaller the further one ventured. Each had a single entrance, but none had doors, allowing any passers-by to see inside. The first six chambers were classrooms, each large enough to accomodate two dozen students. Here is where the first six years of instruction took place. Each crop of students entered together based on the year of their sowing. Uwerrekh led Iruhotep into one of these classrooms. Iruhotep dipped his hands into another wash basin positioned just inside the doorway. This one held water that, while much cleaner than the one at the entrance to the Per Ib, still had a thin layer of black sediment on the bottom.
“First, I want you to instruct some of the third years by having them copy The Lost Voyager,” decreed Uwerrekh. He pointed to the left side of the room. "I believe that rack should already have some copies made by the last crop."
Iruhotep shook water from his own hands as he followed his senior's finger with his eyes. The rack in question was made by criss-crossing poles held together with twine. Between three and six scrolls inhabited each of its diamond-shaped cubbies. Iruhotep took a scroll and gently reflected back a layer of paper without unrolling the document, revealing the opening lines of The Lost Voyager. Legible, but far from graceful, it had obviously been made by a student rather than a master scribe.
“How harshly should I critique their handwriting?” Iruhotep asked.
“Well, they’re only thirteen. I don’t expect them to produce anything of great value at this juncture. Just make sure you can read it. The words should be spelled correctly and not substituted. I don't care that they mean the same thing."
"Of course, sir. The specific words were chosen for a reason."
Uwerrekh grunted and nodded. "I'm glad you understand. These new crops have no regard to tradition. At least the frequent pruning has benefitted the grounds."
Iruhotep nodded grimly. If a member of a crop were found wanting, they were pruned. Their education was concluded and they were separated from their peers. Of course, their previous training was not wasted. Now called the culled, the former scribes were put to work: gardening, making ink, cleaning containers, and whatever else their betters demanded of them.
"Instruct them for about two hours," Uwerrekh said. "I don't think their attention spans can handle much more than that. Then, clean up whatever the culled cannot from the lesson. After that, keep working on your reproduction of the Wisdom of Mesenmutef for as long as you’re able.”
Iruhotep began to bow again, but paused for a moment, recalling his conversation with Chas. “Sir, I have a request that might increase the quality of my work.”
“Oh? What are you thinking now?” Uwerrekh asked.
“The manuscript which I’m reproducing is modern. Do we have an older copy that I might use?”
Uwerreck sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “You know that’s not how things are done Iruhotep. For my entire tenure here, we have recreated from the most recent batch like a baker proofing his dough.”
“Yes sir. I’m not proposing a reversal of existing rules, more of an audit to ensure quality.”
“Are you suggesting that you should have been the one to record the thoughts of Mesenmutef himself?”
“No sir, only that the great words of Mesenmutef should be reproduced without scribal error.”
Uwerrekh threw his hands into the air in exaggerated exasperation. “You age me, Iruhotep. Always with your questions and challenges. I thought you were better than the rest.” He placed a hand to his chin, staring at the floor in thought for a moment. “It may be best for my health to allow this dalliance once. You have my permission to retrieve an older copy from the sanctum after you have finished your instruction of the third-years.”
Iruhotep once again placed his fist onto his left shoulder and bowed, “Thank you sir.”
“Yes, yes,” Uwerrekh said while waving a hand. “I have other things to attend to.” He walked past Iruhotep, leaving the classroom without touching the water basin on his way out.
With his superior gone, Iruhotep began to prepare for the imminent lesson. Every crop held exactly 24 students at its outset. Each student required brushes, ink, and paper. Iruhotep extracted these materials from various storage areas, and began to organize 24 work areas on the two large tables, at the center of the room. Young crops were required to make their own materials, but these were third-years; they had already demonstrated mastery of menial tasks. Now, their only responsibility was mastering the art of writing. Soon, gods willing, they will be creating documents that will outlive their authors by thousands of years! Iruhotep couldn't help but smile as he set writing tackle at the table like a servant preparing for dinner.
The first students began to enter the classroom just as he finished his preparations. A pair of boys took their seats and talked quietly to one-another, waiting for the rest of the crop to assemble. Then an elf girl who joined her cropmates. Iruhotep smiled and greeted every new addition, reminding individuals as needed to dip their hands into the basin before sitting down. While a scribe's work was not nearly as dirty as that of a ditch digger, the sediment in the basin was evidence that a fair amount of grime still found its way onto one's hands. If they began working on a fresh sheet of paper, they would leave smudges everywhere. Every tiny imperfection is forever preserved for eternity. This was also true, Iruhotep mused to himself, of non-physical things. Whatever he held in his heart would end up on the page if was not careful. It was important, therefore, that a scribe not only be clean of hands, but light of heart before beginning their work.
Ten minutes after the first student arrived, the last made her way into the classroom. The girl, a drow, quietly dipped her hands into the basin, gently shaking off water as she took a seat at the end of the table. Iruhotep looked around, there were 23 scribes-to-be and a single empty space. One of their crop had already been pruned, but their space was prepared nonetheless as a reminder to the rest. Iruhotep sighed. So much for working with a light heart.
Iruhotep waited a minute or two, before making eye contact with the closest pupil. They immediately fell silent and looked straight ahead. The behavior spread like a ripple through the classroom until all were quiet and ready for instruction. Iruhotep walked to the rack containing the last crop's manuscripts and pulled scrolls, six at a time, to disseminate among the class. When there was a poorly rendered document in front of every student, including the missing one, Iruhotep began the lesson.
"Before each of you is a scroll created by a previous crop. Today, you will be creating your own copy. Now, open your scrolls."
At his command, the crop began unsealing their manuscripts. Each had a thin string wrapped thrice around the center of the scroll, slightly cinching it like a belt. The strings were held in place with an ordinary bit of clay bearing the seal of whomever last wrapped the thing. The students carefully plied the clay from the paper, breaking it as necessary, to release the string.
When all scrolls were unrolled and the students were again quiet, Iruhotep began to speak. "You have all you require. You may start your work and I will critique as needed. Now-" Iruhotep trailed off for a moment. The drow girl caught his attention. She seemed confused, her eyes darting back-and-forth at her own scroll and those of her peers.
"Yes, young one. Do you have a question?"
She looked up, shocked at being noticed. Instruction was given, not reciprocated. Questions were seen as a personal failing to understand directions.
"It is okay, speak your heart. You have done nothing wrong." Iruhotep assured her.
"Well, master Iru-ho-tep," She began, carefully emphasizing each portion of his name individually, a practice some took to after learning of Khenra naming conventions. "Why do we recreate this scroll?"
"We recreate from the most recent batch like a baker proofing dough," Iruhotep said without thinking, echoeing Uwerrekh's words.
"Yes sir," she answered, clearly not satisfied but unwilling to speak up.
"Was there some other issue besides the method that we follow?" Iruhotep asked.
"Yes sir," She replied with some unease.
"Perhaps you can rephrase your initial question." Iruhotep prompted.
She nodded and thought for a moment. "Why do we recreate the Lost Voyager and not wisdom literature?"
"Ah," Iruhotep said, finally understanding. wisdom literature was very, well, literal in its intention. Narrative pieces like The Lost Voyager were metaphorical, mere stories without explicit purpose.
"And why do you think we should copy wisdom literature?" Iruhotep asked the class in general, trying to turn the crop-mates into participants rather than observers in the exchange.
The drow girl was the first to answer, having already acclimated somewhat to the back-and-forth of the conversation. "Wisdom literature teaches us to be better students," she said, glancing at the empty seat at the table. "And it is important to be good."
Her eyes returned to Iruhotep. "But the Lost Voyager is just a story. There is nothing to learn from it."
Iruhotep looked around the room to see several other students nod their heads in agreement. "Are you certain that there are no lessons to be found in The Lost Voyager?" He asked
The crop exchanged confused looks. They were certain, but a superior had just implied they were mistaken.
A human boy was the first to speak on the group's concerns. "But how can it contain any lessons? It's just something that happened?"
"Because all true things carry a lesson," Iruhotep proclaimed, emphasizing the statement with an outward sweep of his arms. The crop however, was unimpressed. Furtive looks spread amongst their ranks as they collectively wondered if correcting their instructor would be appropriate.
"An example, then," Iruhotep announced. "First, is the Lost Voyager a true account of a past event?" All heads nodded. Here at least, there was no disagreement.
"Good! Now, what did the serpent say to the sailor after the man had told his tale?" Iruhotep asked.
"After hardship, happiness can be found in retelling the past."
"Excellent. And what does this mean?"
After a moment, a human girl from a different table answered. "Sharing bad experiences makes them hurt less?"
"Exactly!" Iruhotep said excitedly. "Now, is this true? Think of a time you shared a hardship. Did you feel better after?"
More nods of agreement spread through the crop. Several again looked towards the empty seat of their pruned peer.
Iruhotep too looked forlornly at the empty workstation. "There are lessons everywhere if one has the inclination to look." He shook his head. "But let us attend to the present. Start making your copies. Attempt to find lessons within the text as you copy it. As always, it is most important that your work be legible so that any future reader may properly understand its message. I will ensure that your penmanship is adequate. Now, begin."
The crop quickly got to work. Iruhotep began slowly pacing around the chamber looking over the students’ shoulders. He watched them dip their brushes into ink pots and draw glyphs in sweeping strokes on rough paper. He examined their technique, rhythm, and posture. The work of a skilled scribe should resemble a measured dance, restrained yet beautiful. These students, though, had only just committed their first jig to memory. There was much to desire in the execution, which was precisely why they required an instructor.
“You need to make the loop on that glyph more distinct so it is not confused with another,” he said to one student.
"There is too little ink on the brush. It will be difficult to read," he told another before immediately reprimanding a different pupil for using too much ink.
There were many small things that needed to be observed: stroke order, the position of one's elbows and shoulders, bracing the paper, creating perfectly straight columns of prose, all of it required attention. Iruhotep was very cognisant that any bad habits left to fester at this stage would grow to become cancers later in their careers. There were also a few scant occasions that Iruhotep felt he could compliment the penmanship of a pupil rather than critique it. At this stage, only some of the simpler glyphs were worthy of praise. By a happy utilitarian coincidence though, the simple glyphs were the most used in any given work, so early mastery was a crucial milestone.
Ordinarily, a large portion of the instruction period involved tapping students on the back of their neck to refocus their attention. There was an old saying from some wisdom text or another: “Students have two pairs of ears: one on the side of the head, and one on the back of their neck. If they fail to listen through the side, they hear better after striking the pair on the neck.” Many zealous instructors took this lesson to heart and carried a wooden rod for better results. Iruhotep found that students had been “properly” encouraged so often over the years, that a small, firm tap was enough to get their attention. This particular crop, however, was very subdued by comparison. Iruhotep again looked at the empty seat. The pruning must have been recent. All true things carry a lesson, and the loss of a loved one was a powerful lesson indeed.
After two hours of mostly quiet work, it was time to dismiss the students as per Uwerrekh's command. Despite the old man's misgivings about the attention spans of modern youth, all of the crop were still diligently working. Uwerrekh was also mistaken about the frequency of pruning. All crops lost between three and four members over the course of their ten years of training. This had been true even when Uwerrekh was a child. Factual inconsistencies aside, Uwerrekh's authority was uncontested in the Per Ib. Iruhotep halted the lesson.
"Well done. For now, you may keep the work you have done with you. I encourage you to find the time to complete it as you are able. Accept the truth that exists within the text and absorb the message within the narrative. It will serve you just as well as copying the plain text of the wisest sage."
After a pause, Iruhotep summoned his most authoritative voice and said, "Your labor has concluded," officially ending the class' instruction.
The crop rose from their seats and began to exit the room. Each bowed slightly as they passed Iruhotep and washed their hands on the way out. Alone once again, Iruhotep began to clean. He began with the most technical part: resealing the scrolls. He brought all the copies of The Lost Voyager to a small corner table, separate from the mess on the main central ones. Iruhotep smiled wryly when he "read" the copy at the top of the pile. While it was legible in the most charitable sense, he would have had an incredibly difficult time making sense of the thing if he didn't already know the plot.
“It's a good thing we produce so many of these things," Iruhotep thought to himself. "If this ended up being the only example of the work left to future generations, the narrative would be all but lost! Worse yet, if this was the last copy but was referenced constantly by other works. The atrocious penmanship might be regarded as a thing of beauty by people who knew no better."
Iruhotep scratched his brow in frustration, sympathizing with hypothetical scholars stuck in a ludicrous and unrealistic scenario. He shook away the strange intrusive thoughts and got back to work. He rolled up the scroll and instantly felt a little better with the mangled glyphs hidden from sight. He took a bit of twine and tied it around the base, with a loose knot. Finally, He grabbed a dollop of clay, worked it in his hand for a moment to soften it, and applied it directly over the knot to hold everything in place. For the final step, Iruhotep removed a necklace hidden in his fur. On the thin braided-gold chain was a ceramic ring with his name incised on its surface. He gently pressed the signet ring into the clay, careful not to press too hard and crease the paper. Whatever the quality of the document, Iruhotep was still a professional and acted accordingly. He repeated the process for every other copy and returned them to their rack.
Next came the general mess of the table. There were only a few sheets of unused paper left, which were returned to their storage case. Brushes were washed in a wooden basin and placed on a shelf. Ink was consolidated, full pots were placed next to the brushes, empty pots left next to the wooden basin for a culled to thoroughly clean. After a final wiping of all surfaces, Iruhotep's work in the classroom was done. With Uwerrekh's task completed, he was now free to pursue his own interests. Iruhotep left the classroom, washing his hands in the stone basin on the way out. Clean of hand and of heart, he made his way deeper into the Per Ib, to the sanctum where the original manuscripts were stored.