Lynda Robinson: Murder at the Feast of Rejoicing

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Lynda Robinson Murder at the Feast of Rejoicing
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    Murder at the Feast of Rejoicing
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Lynda S. Robinson

Murder at the Feast of Rejoicing

Chapter 1

Year Five of the Reign of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun

Kysen hadn't wanted to come to the ghost-ridden and deserted city of heretics. But what son of Egypt would dare refuse the wish of the living god, the Son of the Sun, Tutankhamun? He walked to the railing of the barge that had brought him to Horizon of Aten, leaned over the water, and listened to the slap of waves against the side of the vessel. The scribe who was taking down his letter stopped writing and waited patiently, rush pen twirling in his fingers. When Kysen failed to return, he shifted uneasily.

"Is something wrong, lord?"

"No… no, I don't think so. Did you hear anything?"

"No, lord."

"I thought I heard… I'm sure it's nothing." Since coming here he'd been on edge, certain that renegades, outlaws, or some chance intruder would penetrate the isolation so vital to their task.

Before him along the east bank of the Nile stretched a city once filled with courtiers, government officials, servants, and royalty. Its carefully planned avenues, so different from the snarled and twisted streets of older cities, were now empty-empty and silent. Even the men on the five barges moored in a line beside them were quiet.

Kysen brushed his hand over his brow. "It was nothing." The scribe remained seated, awaiting orders. He was one of Meren's. He would wait all night if Kysen ordered it.

The sun was setting, but there was still enough light to see the tiny figures of infantrymen standing guard on the cliffs to the east. Kysen glanced over his shoulder, and movement caught his eye. A charioteer drove over the rocky surface of the western desert, the first of a long, widely spaced line of vehicles that patrolled the environs of the city.

Inhabitants of nearby villages had been evicted, as had the royal mortuary priests and necropolis guards. Akhenaten's capital city was truly abandoned now, except for pharaoh's soldiers and the fleet of barges, freighters, and service ships. The whole of it had been Meren's idea.

The ships' crews were in fact royal sailors, the passengers royal agents assigned by the king and his advisers. Traveling in a group designed to look like a flotilla on an expedition to the south, Kysen and his companions affected to be traders of the temple estates of Ra. Traders of the temples, royal institutions, and great households plied the waters of the Nile and markets of Egypt, dealing in commodities both rare and abundant; Kysen's cargo was rare indeed.

After criminals had desecrated the tomb of Tutankhamun's heretic brother, the Pharaoh Akhenaten, the king had asked him to witness the secret removal of the bodies of Akhenaten and his queen, mother, and daughters from their houses of eternity. He was to aid in the execution of a plan to keep their bodies safe until new tombs could be provided, a task better suited to great generals and priests. Yet pharaoh had chosen him, and a few others whose faces weren't well known, for this sacred effort. It was almost finished.

Some of the grain and fine limestone on board had been put ashore to make way for the intended cargo. Kysen watched a pair of sailors carry a load of grain sus-pended from a pole on their shoulders. Timing their steps, they crossed the gangplank and stepped onto the bank.

Others on deck rearranged bags on top of a long, tarp-covered mound. The outer layer of this mound consisted of grain, precious Tura limestone, and natron. Had this expedition been real, the ships would have returned from the south carrying gold, incense trees, leopard skins, and, sitting on the mast, baboons. Catching his lower lip between his teeth, Kysen tried not to think of what lay beneath the tarps and ropes.

He would never forget his first sight of the most precious of all their cargo, lying in the royal tomb, bereft of outer shrines and draperies. Urged on by the commander of the expedition, he had stepped into the wavering torchlight as master craftsmen strained and grunted to lift a heavy weight. Into his vision emerged a wall of gold. Then Kysen realized why the craftsmen were straining so hard. The heretic's innermost coffin wasn't of wood overlaid with gold foil like the outer ones-it was of solid gold. He hadn't slept through a night since.

He was only the son of an artisan, of such humble origin that he would never have dared look into the eyes of pharaoh. It didn't matter that Lord Meren, pharaoh's most trusted confidential inquiry agent, had adopted him. Deep in his bones, to the innermost recesses of his ka, his soul, he was still a carpenter's unwanted son. And to look upon the body of a pharaoh in a coffin of gold made him want to sink to the dirt and hide his face in fear. He hadn't, though, for that would have disgraced his adopted father and his new, noble lineage.

So now he awaited the arrival of that golden coffin in the form of a man. A special place had been reserved for it inside the hollow mounds lined with the dismantled outer coffins of the king and the Great Royal Wife, Nefertiti. The queen had already been gently shoved into place. Other family members would be concealed on the accompanying barges, to be hidden in out-of-the-way places assigned by the vizier Ay. There they would await the preparation of eternal houses in the royal burying grounds at Thebes. At the moment Kysen was waiting for Nentowaref, called Nento.

Nento posed as the chief overseer of the expedition, head of the so-called traders of Ra. His real titles were numerous, as Kysen had discovered to his regret. Nento was most proud of the simple appellation Royal Scribe, but he also loved to be called Scribe of the Royal Treasury, Overseer of the Seal, Overseer of the Magazines of the Temple of Amunhotep III, and Bearer of Floral Offerings to Ra. His most important duty on this expedition was to serve as a makeshift priestly guardian to their royal charges.

Kysen couldn't remember any more of the honors Nento kept repeating to him. When they'd first set out, Kysen had thought Nento officious and suspected him of condescending to a youth of common blood. Then he realized that Nento was trying to impress him-because of Meren. Nento had many titles, but none of them included that of Friend of the King.

Leaning on the railing of the barge, Kysen gazed down the road that led from the quay to the city. He heard a low rumbling sound before he saw them. Slowly, their paces matching the beat of a drum, a line of men and oxen rolled a sledge over logs toward the barge. The cargo was padded with linen to protect it and disguise its true shape. It was covered by tarps lashed with ropes. Ahead of the sledge, glancing back every third step, rode Nento in a chariot manned by a driver. Nento couldn't drive a chariot without tripping both horses. Charioteers rode on all sides of the group around the sledge.

His eyes darting to the cliffs that formed an arched backdrop around the city, Kysen checked once more for a soldier out of place, a suspicious movement. He swept his gaze over the rooftops of the city, then across the river and over fields and the encroaching desert. Nothing but charioteers and infantry. What was he doing? More experienced men than he manned strategic posts and scanned the horizon for just such clues. All at once it seemed as if a stone slab lifted from his chest. He sucked in a long, deep breath.

He could envision the scene in the eastern desert now taking place, the disguised priests of the royal Theban necropolis huddled around the restored blockage of the royal tomb shaft, the application of thick plaster, an arm moving in wide, swirling circles. Then at last, and forever, a seal pressed into white dampness, the seal of the heretic royal cemetery. It would never be used again.

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