Grey dust danced in the air as the sun’s last rays moved through the room. The khenra, Iruhotep, lifted his head from a scroll to find an empty room. His senior had gone home long ago, only telling the subordinate to clean up before leaving. Iruhotep had maybe half an hour of sunlight left and the table was littered with scrolls, brushes, ink palettes, and jars. If he didn’t start cleaning now, he would be forced to sort literature by lamp light, an expensive and potentially dangerous prospect when working with incredibly flammable materials. Slowly, scrolls were returned to their proper cubbies, brushes cleaned, dry ink placed in storage, and wet vials capped. For good measure, the table was also given a quick wipe and the floors swept in the final moments before sundown. With the Per Ib clean, Iruhotep washed his hands, closed the gates, and walked home.
Broad paved streets lined with decorative palms and shrubs were typical of the noble district. Low, brilliantly white walls made of stuccoed mudbrick marked the divisions of individual estates. Courtyards consisting of short foliage in the front and towering columns further back were designed specifically to show off the great prosperity of each clan. During the day, masters managed servants in these amphitheaters of affluence while keeping an eye on their neighbors so as not to be outdone. At this hour though, very few people were out and about; a lack of sunlight meant that properties could not be properly seen, so what was the point of even being outside? With the exception of a single cook frantically running in the direction of the market while furiously admonishing himself about forgetting butter, Iruhotep walked back home alone.
The Tep family estate was a smaller one towards the edge of the district. Their courtyard didn’t boast the same fifteen-khet-tall obelisks that were typical of the inner properties, but a gazebo and octagonally-arranged gardens made smart and thrifty use of the small space. As he passed, he allowed his hand to loosely tweak some of the plants. Tall stiff reeds swayed to-and-fro like a metronome before coming back to rest. A dense, but perfectly-manicured bush gently scratched the underside of his hand. The rough bark of a squat palm refused to yield at all to his gentle pressure. During the day, the garden always felt artificial to Iruhotep, like every shoot and shrub were just a display piece and trophy. At night though, when the vegetation no longer had a "proper purpose," things felt truly alive. Each plant was not here for the amusement of, or more accurately to elicit the envy of, some random sentient creature. No, at night, every plant existed of its own accord. Iruhotep enjoyed spending time in the garden whenever he could. However, it was only during the evening, unshackled from prying eyes, that he felt his appreciation was properly honest.
He walked through the broad wooden doors at the front of the estate and continued into a short entry hall lined with frescos of his heroic khenra ancestors. A khenra resembled a human in most respects. They possessed much more hair, which covered their entire bodies, and their nails were more akin to claws, but from a distance they could be mistaken for a man. Provided, of course, that their head was somehow obscured by a tree limb or sufficiently low flying cloud. For a khenra's most recognizable physical feature was their jackal-like head atop their human-like shoulders.
Iruhotep continued down the hall and entered a doorway cut between two khenra hauling fish into a boat. The adjoining room was similarly decorated as the entry hallway but with an emphasis on scenes of feasting, as was expected of the dining room. Dinner had been served about two and a half hours ago. The servants had already cleared most of the long table at the room's center since the rest of the family had finished eating at least an hour before Iruhotep's arrival. Save for a single clean place-setting surrounded by small plates of food, the surface was immaculate. It was a rare occurrence to actually have Iruhotep on time for a meal, so this was an entirely normal procedure for the kitchen staff. He quickly ate and went upstairs knowing a maid would take care of the dishes later. He opened a door and entered a large, undecorated room inhabited by a single khenra kneeling at the center of the space.
The waiting figure looked up at Iruhotep and smiled, exposing white pointed teeth along his canine snout. “About time you got home. My legs were starting to kill me.”
“You know you don’t have to kneel while you wait for me,” Iruhotep chided his brother as he dipped his hands quickly into a nearby basin of water and dried them on his robes.
“Well you don’t have to stay out so late. Besides-” Iruchastep rose and tossed a blunted sickle-sword towards his brother. “I thought you could use a handicap.”
Iruhotep caught the weapon with his left hand and transferred it behind his back to his right with a flourish. “I hope you don’t regret that.”
“I haven’t yet. How long has it been since you last beat me?”
“Ask me again in five minutes!”
Iruhotep moved quickly towards his “younger” brother and brought his sword forward in a thrust. He hoped to keep his profile difficult to read, but the attack was parried readily. This was a normal ritual for the twins. Iruhotep was the first to enter the world by all of two minutes, making him the elder and proper heir to the Tep clan. Iruchastep, the second son was treated with equal reverence within the family and the siblings were regarded no differently until reaching their tenth season.
Ho swung his sword in a short arc centered upon Chas’ neck. Chas ducked under the strike and, in the same motion, tripped Ho, bringing him to the ground completely unguarded.
Chas reached out a hand to his brother and asked, “Has it been five minutes yet?”
Ho accepted the aid. “I didn’t say five minutes today. I meant ‘five minutes from now, tomorrow.’”
Both twins laughed.
“So, what’d I do wrong this time?” Ho asked.
“You overcommitted. You’ve gotten a lot better about stupidly telegraphing your strikes, so at least you’re not fighting like a glory-starved recruit. But when you think your attack is going to hit, you position yourself firmly to make the most of it. That’s great if your opponent doesn’t intend to move. But what was the problem?”
“You moved.” Ho answered.
“I moved,” Chas repeated, nodding. “If you had just been a little lighter on your feet when you swung, I couldn’t have put you off-balance. Here, let’s try that same exchange again.”
Ho and Chas took the same positions they were at before and slowly went through every motion they had just taken. Chas stopped his brother as necessary to address mistakes. They practiced until Ho was capable of the correct motions without thinking.
This had been the routine for the brothers since their trajectories split. Since Ho was just ever so slightly older than Chas, he was sent to the Per Ib to learn of matters of state. Chas was sent to the Per Khet, where he learned of war and combat. The bonds of khenra twins though, were near impossible to break. After returning home from their individual schooling, the brothers were both eager to hear about the experiences of their counterpart. It wasn’t long until they settled into a regular pattern. While the sun was still up, Chas sparred with his brother and taught him military strategy. Then, Ho would take over instruction, relaying mathematics, the basics of magic theory, writing (which became a lot easier when he learned to conjure a small magical light), and especially the stories of the founding of Ta’nefret. Of course, the twin who spent six hours on a single subject had an advantage against the one tutored for a single hour after the fact, something Ho became very aware of whenever they sparred.
“So, what’d you do today?” Chas asked, slightly panting, as he lowered himself to a comfortable sitting position against a wall.
“Same as last week really," Ho said between much more ragged breaths. "They want me to keep copying manuscripts. There’s a high demand for wisdom literature, so I’ve made at least four copies so far of the same father telling his son to brush his teeth regularly.”
He managed a sigh after finally catching his breath. “Are other fathers not telling their children to brush their teeth like Inek or Seninek did for us?”
“Not every race is khenra, you know." Chas responded. "We have twice the family as others. Maybe they forget things because everybody has twice as much they need to remember.”
“That’s a good point,” Ho chuckled and sat next to his brother. “I remember the strange looks I got when I talked about ‘second father’ to an elf."
Every khenra had a twin. This "twinning" was by far their strangest feature compared to the other inhabitants of Ta'nefret. Pointed ears and furred faces hardly warranted a second glance with the likes of elves, halflings, aven, and other "bizzarre" humanoids sharing space. However, the khenra cultural expectation of always having a second entity, a shadow to one's light, was regarded as particularly odd. So, most khenra clans adopted certain necessary customs to fit in to broader society. This was very obvious when it came to inheritance. Khenra familial matters were often muddy and unclear due to the sheer size of immediate and extended families. Most other creatures though, demanded a clear succession. Despite being born within mere minutes of one another, Ho had the honor of being the heir of the Tep clan.
After a moment of silence, Ho recalled a fascinating tidbit from his mundane day. "Oh, I did find an interesting scroll towards the end of the day.”
“Is that the reason you were later than normal today?” Chas chided.
“Maybe a little, but it was really nostalgic. It was an older scroll. Maybe 1,000 years old, but probably closer to 500 if the state of its seals is anything to go on. Remember Djadjaemankh?”
“The story about the magician and the boat?”
“Yeah! It was a perfect copy of the one they had me do years ago! I ended up double checking it against more recent examples to see if anything changed, and it looks like we’ve done a pretty good job of preserving history. The modern scrolls are almost verbatim.
Chas’ brow furrowed. “Everything was identical?”
“Yeah, pretty much. There was a single sentence where the words were rearranged slightly, but the meaning remained identical. Why?”
“Didn’t the story start by saying it’s relaying a true story from 500 years ago?”
“Yeah. Oh. That’s...strange.”
“Your 500 year old scroll said the story took place 500 years before. So-”
“When did the actual story take place?” Ho finished his brother’s sentence. All of these stories were hand-written copies of a previous work; any scroll around today was not an original, but a faithful reproduction of a reproduction of a reproduction. Iruhotep had always assumed that the stories were true and accurately dated, but if every scroll began by simply copying the date it was created rather than amending it, there was no way of knowing exactly when the original was first penned. What was certain though, was that Djadjaemankh did not split the waters of a lake 500 years ago. It must have happened at least 1000 years ago, if not earlier.
Both brothers were lost in thought for a moment before Ho spoke up. “I wonder if other stories are like that.”
“Can you check?”
“After I get done making copies of Iuwerink telling kids to bathe once a day, I might be able to look through the old scrolls again. I’ll need permission to access the archive.”
“I take it that 'permission' isn’t something given out like harvest cakes in the fall.”
“No, but I might be able to manage with some pretext and get off with a stern talking to after the fact.”
Chas thought for a moment, gently scratching the fur just below his neck as he formulated a plan. “Maybe you need to recheck that whatever you’re working on-” He began before Ho interrupted.
“The Wisdom of Mesenmutef”
“Right, you need to check that somebody else didn’t screw up Mesenmutef’s perfect message.”
Although dripping with sarcasm, it wasn’t altogether a bad idea. It would surely ruffle some feathers, but if phrased properly, could be a plausible reason to look through the older collection.
“I can’t guarantee that it’ll work, but I can give it a try.”
“We’re all just doing the best we can, Ho. Can’t ask anything more than that.” Chas stood up and slapped his twin on the shoulder. “Tell me if you find anything, but I need to get some sleep. Some of us work outside during the day and are actually required to wake at a reasonable time.”
Ho shot out a leg in front of his brother to trip him as he left the room, but Chas deftly leapt over the obstacle.
“The day’s overrated! We keep all the old manuscripts in the dark for a reason" Ho said before Chas had exited.
“I’ve seen you forget your writing tackle when it was draped over your shoulders,” Chas scoffed. “If you can't see something obvious right in front of your face, I worry about what you're going to miss in the dark. At least I can take some solice in knowing my shadow knows where he belongs.”
Chas waved to his brother and slipped out the door before he could respond to the taunt. Left alone, Ho began thinking of exactly how he should broach the subject of inspecting older scrolls. Whatever he came up with, he would have to phrase it with just the right amount of reverence to the Controller of Mysteries. Iruhotep began to scratch the top of his head in frustration. His superior was such a hard person to deal with. With only a half-formed plan and a cart's worth of resignation, Iruhotep stood up from the floor and exited the room, being sure to quickly dip his hands in a basin of water near the exit.