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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, unwilling to miss an assault should the pursuer catch his quarry.
At the first angry yell, Lieutenant Bak hurried to the railing of the large, broad-beamed cargo ship on which he stood. Though the heavily laden vessel rode low on the water, 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 thehem 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 moments, 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 southern 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 fight and order.
Imsiba's smile broadened and he clasped Bak's upperarms; not merely as his second-in-command, but with an affection close to that of a brother. "I've missed you, myfriend." The big Medjay was half a hand taller than Bak, afew years older, dark and muscular. His eyes were quick andsharp, and he moved with the ease and grace of leopard.
Bak returned the greeting, nearly overcome with emotion."I can't begin to say how happy I am to see you again." Hetransferred his smile to the men and women crowdingaround them on the deck: his company of Medjays; Imsiba'swife and Nebwa's and their children; four other women wedto Medjays; his spy Nofery; and, shouldering a path throughthe circle, Commandant Thuty. "Not a day has passed that Ihaven'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 andwarm, teasing, laid a hand on Bak's shoulder. "How longhas it been since you left us behind in Buhen? Two months?Time enough to grow accustomed to the good life, to turnyour 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 neededcombing. His appearance was deceptive. He could be crude at times and tactless, but he was a most competent and experienced 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 ...A Cruel Deceit. Copyright © by Lauren Haney. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.