Lauren Haney: Flesh of the God

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Lauren Haney Flesh of the God
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    Flesh of the God
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    Исторический детектив / на английском языке
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    Английский
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Lauren Haney


Flesh of the God

Chapter One

“All men who err must suffer the consequences. If you’d offended the gods to the extent some men have…” Commandant Nakht must have realized how harsh his voice had become, for he clamped his mouth shut, focused on Bak, and smiled. “Forgive me. I’ve no wish to burden you with the wrongs of others.”

Bak uttered a sharp, bitter laugh. “Is that not why I’ve been sent to Buhen?”

Nakht, commandant of the fortress of Buhen, eyed him thoughtfully, shook his head. “No. Some burdens are mine alone.” He turned away, closing the subject, and began to climb the long series of ladders that led to the battlements. “Come, Officer Bak, let me show you your new home.”

Bak wondered if he should press further, but Nakht’s rigid back forbade him. He climbed after him, his thoughts returning to the dull and dreary life he faced in the grim, uninviting fortress.

The interior of the tower was dimly lit, the mudbrick walls too thick to admit much light through the narrow loopholes placed at regular intervals so archers could rain arrows down on the enemy. Except, Bak thought dismally, the last uprising in this foul land of Wawat had been smashed twenty-six years before. The battles now were little more than skirmishes with tribesmen who swooped down on the caravans, stole whatever they could, and slipped away in the desert.

The two men climbed to the uppermost landing, passed through the open portal, and stepped onto the sunstruck walkway atop the massive white mudbrick wall surrounding the city. The hot breath of the lord Re, the sun god, enveloped them. Rivulets of sweat trickled down Bak’s face, chest, and legs. Even skirmishes, he thought, would be better than the loathsome task he had been given.

“I’m an officer,” he said, “a man trained in the art of war. Give me a company of spearmen or archers. I’d at least be doing what I best know how to do.”

“No, Bak.” Nakht’s voice carried a note of sympathy, but was firm nonetheless. “Commander Maiherperi sent you here to police this city. That you will do.”

As if to stress the finality of his words, he strode up the walkway. Wide enough for four men abreast, the path connected the regularly spaced towers projecting from the outer face of the battlemented wall. Bak walked beside him, half-blinded by the glare. A warm northerly breeze stirred the air, vying with the heat to dry the moisture seeping from his body. A dog’s mournful howl sounded in the distance. The faint odors of fish, cooking oil, and animal waste mingled with a dust so fine he could feel it between his fingers but not see it.

Far below the breastwork lining the walkway, the white rooftops of the buildings within the citadel lay spread out like a map. Block after block of interconnected structures filled the almost square fortification, each block separated from the others by narrow lanes and streets. The heat rose in waves from the roofs. Air-shafts and courtyards, flimsy pavilions erected for shade, and the people who walked the lanes seemed to shimmer in the slight breeze. A second, outer wall enclosed a much larger rectangular area spreading north and west and south of the citadel, its stark white towers appearing to melt into the pale sandhills rising behind Buhen.

Bak eyed the city with distaste. “I’ve been torn from my regiment and my companions. Another officer leads my men. My horses grow fat and lazy at my father’s home and my chariot grows dusty. Is that not punishment enough?”

Nakht stopped in the shade of a tower and silenced the plea with a reproving scowl. “You were a lieutenant of high merit, I’ve been told. Yet you felled a man of noble birth and you, with the men in your company beside you, laid waste to a house of pleasure frequented by the highest men of our land. What do you expect from me? A reward for your lack of wisdom?”

Bak smarted at the repetition of his offense. “Not a man in that house used honest throwsticks. They won all my archer’s implements of war and mocked his loss. They thought the rest of us too lowly, too meek to speak up for what was ours.”

“There are many ways to right a wrong, Bak, but few so rash they draw the eye of our sovereign, Maatkare Hatshepsut herself. You should be grateful you’re here and still an officer. Instead you plea for a task I cannot grant you.”

Bak studied the commandant, searching for a crack in his will. He found none. A hint of compassion maybe, but an unbreakable resolve to follow the instructions he had been given, instructions sent by Maiherperi, commander of the palace guard in the capital city of Waset.

Maiherperi had called Nakht an exemplary officer, a man without peer. So he seemed, in bearing more than appearance. He was of medium height, a hand’s breadth shorter than Bak, and probably fifty years old, more than twice Bak’s age. Where Bak’s shoulders were broad and his muscles clearly defined, the commandant was slender, his well-formed body more graceful. His dark curly hair, gray at the temples, was clipped short and followed the curve of his head. Bak’s hair was thick and straight, bobbed below his earlobes in the military fashion. Both men were tanned a deep bronze. Both wore thigh-length white kilts with a sheathed dagger hanging from a narrow belt. Only the commandant wore jewelry, a turquoise scarab ring and a broad collar made of red and blue beads. And only he carried a baton of office. Bak had not yet been given a new baton denoting his altered status.

“I’ll do as you command,” Bak said, bowing his head to acknowledge Nakht’s authority.

Nakht could have reminded him he had no choice. Instead, he glanced toward the sun as if checking the time, then walked to the nearest crenel, rested his hands on the base of the opening, and looked out at the distant horizon.

“To be an officer in charge of a company of Medjays is an honor many men would envy,” he said. “Those who guard the palace and those who police the mightiest cities of Kemet are highly esteemed for their courage and honesty.”

“That I know,” Bak admitted. “During the voyage from Waset, I learned to like and respect the men I brought with me, especially my sergeant, Imsiba. But to stay within these walls, to punish men who pilfer and cheat, to break up drunken brawls…” He paused, unwilling to confess he thought the task degrading.

Nakht swung around so Bak could see his wry smile. “The punishment suits the offense, does it not?”

Bak’s face grew hot with embarrassment.

The smile vanished and Nakht leaned back, elbows resting on the base of the crenel. “You think your task unimportant and not worthy of your skills. In that you err. True, you’ll not have your chariot and horses, but you’ll use your other skills. And your wits as well.”

Bak was offended. Surely the commandant knew he had led the first rank of chariots, the premier company of charioteers in the regiment of Amon. Was he implying such a task required no thought or planning?

Nakht raised his baton to acknowledge a passing sentry, a muscular, square-faced man wearing a kilt like Bak’s, carrying a white cowhide shield and a spear taller than he was. The sun, high overhead, touched the bronze spearpoint, making it glitter more like gold than the baser metal.

If the commandant was aware of Bak’s indignation, he gave no hint. “Since the great king Akheperkare Thutmose took back this land from the rebels, we’ve rebuilt the city within these walls. Now, the time has come to hone its rough edges, to make it more a place for living and less a garrison. The soldiers, the traders who come and go, the prisoner-miners who pass through, and the camp followers who serve their base needs-all must learn to behave as they would in any city of Kemet. That is why I asked Maiherperi to send a company of Medjay police. They, with you at their head, will go far toward making that happen.”

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