Lauren Haney: Cruel Deceit

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Lauren Haney Cruel Deceit
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    Cruel Deceit
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Lauren Haney

Cruel Deceit

Chapter One

“Stop! Thief!”

Two men raced along the busy street, darting around the many people ambling among piles of produce on the ground or looking at offerings displayed in open stalls. The man in the lead carried a squawking goose under his arm; the other brandished a short wooden rod.

“Help! He’ll slay me!” the man with the bird screamed.

“Stop him!” the other yelled. “He cheated me!”

“It’s my goose. I bought it for fair exchange.”

“The wheat you gave me was moldy.”

“You added bad grain when my back was turned.”

The response was lost to the angry cackling of the goose.

The merchants within the stalls and those seated with their mounded produce, the people filling the street, many idly browsing rather than shopping, stopped to gape at the pair. Individuals peered out from the interconnected two story white-plastered buildings behind the market. Sailors on the ships moored along the waterfront ran to look. A stream of men and women had even begun to follow, unwill ing to miss an assault should the pursuer catch his quarry.

At the first angry yell, Lieutenant Bak hurried to the rail ing of the large, broad-beamed cargo ship on which he stood. Though the heavily laden vessel rode low on the wa ter, its deck rose well above the muddy escarpment, thanks to the floodwaters that lapped the roots of the few tough grasses and bushes that survived untrodden. From where he stood, he snatched glimpses of the pair speeding through the milling throng. A northerly breeze cooled the sweat trickling down his chest, dried the thin film of moisture coating his broad shoulders, and ruffled his short-cropped dark hair and the hem of his thigh-length kilt. He thought to give chase, to thwart a confrontation and see justice done. But crime along the waterfront was none of his business. The harbor patrol was responsible here. Still…

He glanced at Sergeant Imsiba standing to his right and

Troop Captain Nebwa to his left. Both men nodded and, as one, the trio hurried toward the gangplank, a wide board joining deck to land.

A sharp whistle rent the air, stopping them before they could leave the vessel. The signal was familiar, one often used by Bak’s company of Medjay policemen. Within mo ments, a unit of armed men raced out of a side lane and down the busy street. All were Medjays and each carried the black-and-white cowhide shields of the harbor patrol. They quickly encircled the man with the goose and his pursuer, disarmed the one and took the squawking evidence from the other, and led them away. The patrol officer, also a Medjay, walked along the line of stalls in search of witnesses.

Bak, Imsiba, and Nebwa moved a few paces away from the gangplank and grinned sheepishly at each other. They were no longer at the fortress of Buhen on the remote south ern frontier, where such activities were theirs to resolve.

They were in the capital city of Waset, where other men were responsible for upholding the laws of the land, thus satisfying the lady Maat, goddess of right and order.

Imsiba’s smile broadened and he clasped Bak’s upper arms, not merely as his second-in-command, but with an af fection close to that of a brother. “I’ve missed you, my friend.” The big Medjay was half a hand taller than Bak, a few years older, dark and muscular. His eyes were quick and sharp, and he moved with the ease and grace of a leopard.

Bak returned the greeting, nearly overcome with emotion.

“I can’t begin to say how happy I am to see you again.” He transferred his smile to the men and women crowding around them on the deck: his company of Medjays; Imsiba’s wife and Nebwa’s and their children; four other women wed to Medjays; his spy Nofery; and, shouldering a path through the circle, Commandant Thuty. “Not a day has passed that I haven’t thought of each and every one of you.”

Sitamon, Imsiba’s lovely wife, stepped forward to greet him with open arms, after which he knelt to hug her son. He took Nebwa’s wife, small and dark and shy, into his arms, with her small child between them. A moist-eyed Nofery, obese and no longer young, swept forward to tell him how little she had missed him and to cling to him as if he were her long-lost son. His Medjays surged around him, clasping his hands, clapping him on the back, in every way letting him know how much they liked and respected him.

Greetings over, the Medjays and women spread out over the ship, gathering their belongings. The deck, piled high with equipment and supplies, was too cramped for anyone to remain on board when other quarters were available. Bak had found a small building where his men could dwell as long as they remained in Waset, and had arranged to get food and other perishable supplies from the quartermaster of the local garrison. Thuty’s wife, who had come ahead of her husband, had arranged housing for Nebwa, Imsiba, and their families and the four Medjays’ wives.

“We feared you’d forget us.” Nebwa, his smile wide and warm, teasing, laid a hand on Bak’s shoulder. “How long has it been since you left us behind in Buhen? Two months?

Time enough to grow accustomed to the good life, to turn your back on the likes of us.” The hard-muscled, coarse featured troop captain, second-in-command to the comman dant, was a man in his early thirties. He wore a rumpled kilt, his broad beaded collar hung awry, and his hair needed combing. His appearance was deceptive. He could be crude at times and tactless, but he was a most competent and expe rienced officer.

Commandant Thuty, who had been the first to greet Bak when he boarded the ship, drew the trio to the bow, well out of the way of the Medjays and women hustling around the deck.

Bak noticed that the crew and passengers on the large and graceful traveling ship moored at the water’s edge in front of them were equally busy. The sailors were preparing the ves sel for a long stay, while a white-haired man and two young women ordered servants about and checked storage baskets and chests soon to be carried away by waiting porters. A no bleman, he guessed, and the members of his household. If the four feathers painted on the prow, symbol of the lord In heret, god of war and hunting, told true, they had come from the provincial capital of Tjeny. All were chattering like swal lows, clearly happy to reach Waset and all the good things it had to offer.

Climbing into the forecastle for a better view of the wa terfront, the commandant eyed the long row of vessels moored end to end and, farther along the river’s edge, tied together side by side four and sometimes five deep. Bak,

Nebwa, and Imsiba could see almost as well from the bow.

Naked masts rose above vessels of all sizes, the decks of most empty of cargo and passengers. Fittings squeaked, loose lines flapped, a sailor fishing from a deck whistled a merry tune. Sharp-eyed squawking crows settled on yards and masts to bask in the sun and keep an eye open for an easy meal. A pack of dogs fought, snarling and mean, over a furry object too dirty and tattered to identify.

“I’ve never seen the harbor so crowded,” Thuty said.

“There’ll be a better than usual turnout for the Beautiful Feast of Opet, I’d guess.” He was short, broad, and muscular, with heavy brows and a firm chin. The long voyage with few re sponsibilities had relaxed the normally hard set of his mouth.

“Yes, sir,” Bak nodded. “Many men have been drawn to the capital in the hope of seeing the lord Amon and our sov ereigns, Maatkare Hatshepsut and Menkheperre Thutmose, the two of them together.” To find the royal pair in one place was a rare occurrence, but a measure of the importance of the Opet festival and the rituals the dual rulers would per form throughout the week, reaffirming them as the divine offspring of the lord Amon.

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