Lauren Haney: Place of Darkness

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Lauren Haney Place of Darkness
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    Place of Darkness
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    Исторический детектив / на английском языке
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Lauren Haney

Place of Darkness

Chapter One

“You’ve no need to inspect my vessel, Lieutenant.” The short, stout ship’s captain scratched the thick black hair on his chest in a show of indifference. “You know how careful I am with what I take on board.”

Lieutenant Bak, officer in charge of the Medjay police at the fortress of Buhen, laid an arm across the man’s sweat-damp shoulders. His voice was a bit too genial, as was his smile. “It’s not you I worry about, Amonemhet. It’s the traders you bring south and the goods they bring with them.”

“I provide nothing but transportation,” the captain said, trying with meager success to conceal his worry beneath a veneer of self-righteousness. “I’m not responsible for the kind of products my passengers choose to export from Kemet, or for the quality of their merchandise.”

“Then you’ve no reason to object to an inspection.”

Bak glanced at his Medjay sergeant, Imsiba, who stood a few paces away with a half-dozen Medjay policemen and the elderly scribe who would document their findings. The swells from a passing ship lapped at the long stone quay beneath their feet and rocked the squat, broad-beamed cargo vessel moored alongside.

Captain Amonemhet slipped out of Bak’s embrace as if unable to tolerate such an intimate display of friendship. His manner turned hostile. “If you wish to waste your time, Lieutenant, feel free to do so. When my passengers complain of damaged goods, I’ll refer them to your commandant.”

Grinning to show how unconcerned he was, Bak stretched out his arm, his open hand inviting the captain to precede him and the Medjays up the gangplank. The ship had been moored less than an hour earlier beside the central of three quays that formed the harbor of Buhen. The vessel was un-painted, its deck darkened by time and dirt and spilled oils.

It smelled of stagnant water, probably seepage through the hull. The sail, furled against the lower yard in a slipshod manner, was yellowed with age and dappled with lighter patches. Mounds of cargo were lashed down the length of the deck, allowing barely enough space for the ragtag crew to use the oars and work the sail.

Bak fell back to talk with Imsiba, who had allowed their men to go on ahead. Where the officer was slightly above medium height, broad in chest and shoulders, the sergeant was tall and muscular, a sleek dark leopard in human form.

Both had short-cropped dark hair. Both wore thigh-length white kilts damp from perspiration and a minimum of jewelry, a single bronze chain around each man’s neck from which hung a half-dozen colorful stone amulets. Both looked at the world with sharp, intelligent eyes.

“Amonemhet takes care to keep his fingers clean, my friend, as you well know. He fears losing his ship by confiscation.” Imsiba gave Bak a sharp look. “What are you really after?”

Bak laughed at the Medjay’s acumen. “The trader Nenwaf.”

“Nenwaf? The wisp of a man standing in front of the deckhouse?”

“Each time he passes through Buhen, I feel he’s laughing at us. As if he’s gotten away with something. Let’s find out this time what it is.”

Bak stood on the prow of the ship, watching his men move slowly down the deck from one trader’s merchandise to the next, inspecting the mounds of goods destined for the land of Kush. Sweat poured from his body; his thirst was un-quenchable. He wished he had planned a shorter, quicker inspection.

The day was hot, the air still. The sky was colorless, bleached by a sun that offered no mercy. The river was a leaden sheet, reflecting birds of passage and the golden orb of Re. A smell of decaying fish wafted up from a muddy backwater. Sails hung limp on a scattered fleet of fishing boats. The words of an age-old river song drifted across the water from an approaching traveling ship, sung by oarsmen forced to take up their long paddles when the prevailing northerly breeze failed. Blue and white banners drooping from masthead and yards were those of the garrison commandant, who was returning from Ma’am, where he had responded to a summons from the viceroy. Bak wondered fleetingly how the journey had gone.

The Medjays had begun at the stern and worked their way forward to the deckhouse. Thus far their inspection had revealed few transgressions and no surprises. A large basket of trade quality beads brought south from Mennufer had been found to contain four military issue bronze daggers, special gifts for special friends, the portly trader had said, never mind that trade in army equipment was forbidden. Over a hundred brilliant blue faience amulets pilfered from the workshop of the mansion of the lord Ptah near Mennufer had been found among several rolls of heavy export linen. A randomly chosen wine vat had revealed that a bearded trader from the land of Retenu had brought mediocre wine from his homeland at the eastern end of the Great Green Sea and labeled it as a prime vintage from a northern vineyard in Kemet.

Imsiba and his men rounded the deckhouse. Nenwaf greeted them effusively and invited them with open arms to inspect his merchandise. Bak sauntered back to join them, getting a broad smile and the same smug look that had initially attracted his notice a year or more ago. The trader had something to hide, he was convinced.

In less than a half hour the Medjays had examined all Nenwaf possessed. They had found every object listed on his travel pass-and nothing more. Absolutely nothing. The trader’s smile grew more expansive, his demeanor much like a cat licking the taste of sparrow from its whiskers. Bak’s conviction strengthened. The man was smuggling. But what? And how?

Standing beside Imsiba, gently tapping his baton of office against his leg, Bak studied the objects spread out on the deck before them: rolls of linen; jars of wine, beer, honey, and oil; baskets of beads and cheap jewelry; coarse pottery ware; crudely made faience cosmetic pots; and toilet articles such as combs, mirrors, tweezers, and razors. Much the same merchandise as the other traders were taking to Kush.

No, he erred. There was a difference.

Few traders dealt in beer or honey, and none aboard this vessel but Nenwaf. Beer was as easy to make in the land of Kush as in Kemet, and the large pottery jars in which it was stored were ungainly to handle and easily broken during transit. Bees were raised in far greater numbers in Kemet than Kush, but honey could sometimes kill, the reason unknown. Since an unfortunate incident a few months earlier where several small children had died, many traders feared deadly retribution in a remote and alien land.

Kneeling beside a basket filled with reddish jars of honey, he lifted two from among the rest. Each was ovoid in shape, fairly wide-mouthed, and as tall as his hand was long. Each was plugged with dried mud and carried the seal of. . He did not recognize the seal but guessed it had been impressed by the beekeeper. He glanced at Nenwaf, saw an odd closed expression on his face.

“Why do you take beer to Kush?” he asked. “Is that not like taking horses to the land of Hatti?” All the world knew that the strongest and finest horses came from the distant northerly kingdom.

“The beer I trade is lighter and finer than most, with fewer solids in the bottom of the vat.” Nenwaf came forward, hovered. “I trade with a minor king who demands the best.”

Raising a skeptical eyebrow, Bak replaced the two jars and picked up two others. Nenwaf’s hasty smile, no longer so smug, told him the man was worried, but whatever was amiss evaded him. “Is the honey unusual as well?”

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