Five days ago they’d stood in their bedchamber and argued, and Baleel had tried to convince Isfet to flee with him before the armies from the north broke down the city gates.
And she had asked him, “Where will we go? What else is there?”
“Other lands,” he’d said. “Other cities. A life together.”
“Other lands where they force people with skin like ours into slavery. Or prostitution. This is my home, Baleel.”
And then he’d wiped a tear from her eye, and drew his sword.
They marched together to the city gates, and there they spilled blood, gallons of it, enough to drown in. But it wasn’t enough.
And when Isfet fell, Baleel fell down beside her, and he never stopped falling.
Baleel spread his tools out onto the table next to Isfet’s body. A sandstorm raged outside, one that had lasted for days and showed no signs of stopping. Baleel made the space as clean as he could in the short time he had to prepare, but the storm sent the curtains into a frenzy and sharp blasts of sand tore at his skin. The torch fixed into the wall over his head flickered unsteadily, threatening total darkness. The sky was black, the sun just a pale shadow hidden behind a veil of storm clouds.
And though he couldn’t see the fires in the distance, Baleel could smell the scent of smoke on the wind, and with it the scent of death.
Baleel washed Isfet’s hair with sacred oils, and rubbed them into her skin. There’d been no time to let her body dry; nor would there be.
He reached for his ceremonial knife, a slender silver blade with a carved ivory handle, and he sliced into Isfet’s left side, letting her organs spill into a basin at the foot of the table. Some organs he retrieved, placed into jars and sealed. Others were cast into the fire. Once empty, he washed the body cavity and then rubbed a mixture of sand and natron inside, taking care to be as thorough as time would allow.
Baleel worked from memory, recalling similar tasks from his time as an apprentice in the temples, before war had called him to faraway lands. Though he’d never preserved a body himself, he’d been witness to the procedure countless times.
He would’ve gone to a priest now, were they all not lying eviscerated in the streets. He would’ve consulted the holy scriptures, if the libraries and churches had not been reduced smoldering ash.
Baleel sewed up the gash in Isfet’s side, and carefully parted her eyelids. And then, as he gazed into his beloved’s eyes, he paused for a moment. He leaned back into the wall and used it to brace himself against a wave of dizziness. He sat for several minutes in this way, running his fingers across his blistered scalp and shaking his head. He screamed prayers and curses at every god he had a name for.
The sand, indifferent to his plight, continued to beat against the outer walls, determined to wear the stone down to nothing. Even if it took forever.
Baleel looked away as he removed Isfet’s eyes, and he didn’t dare glance back at her corpse until the eyes were sealed away, covered with cloth so that he would never have to look upon them again. He used bits of the same linen cloth to stuff the empty sockets.
The sinuses were penetrated with a bamboo stick, and Baleel emptied the head cavity, tossing the bits of gray flesh that came loose into the fire. Then, finally, he rubbed Isfet’s skin with sand, and wrapped her body with linen strips.
Finished, he carried her outside to the hole he’d prepared, one deep enough to keep the dogs from digging her up, but not so deep he couldn’t get her back out.
There was only one thing left to find, and his work would be complete, a vessel for her soul.