New York Times Book Review
Drinker of Blood (Lord Meren Series #5)by Lynda S. Robinson
The highly celebrated Lord Meren mystery series featuring historical intrigue during the reign of Pharaoh Tutankhamen continues with the investigation of the murder of Queen Nefertiti.See more details below
The highly celebrated Lord Meren mystery series featuring historical intrigue during the reign of Pharaoh Tutankhamen continues with the investigation of the murder of Queen Nefertiti.
New York Times Book Review
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Memphis, year five of the reign of the pharaoh Tutankhamun
His wife had always hated the night, for demons and lost spirits of the dead roamed in the darkness, but Bakht had always liked it. Night was the time of coolness, when Ra's solar bark vanished into the underworld. Besides, he'd never met a demon or disgruntled dead one while on guard duty in his many years as a royal soldier.
Bakht hefted his spear on his shoulder and paced slowly beside the perimeter wall of the royal menagerie. Beyond that wall and behind several others, far higher, lay the royal palace. Inside, surrounded by his most trusted bodyguards, the young king slept. He would need his rest, for the feast of Opet approached, a time of ceremony and celebration that would take pharaoh to Thebes. Bakht was looking forward to the days of feasting and merriment. His special place as a favored guard of pharaoh allowed him to be one of those to escort the king to the great city.
His bare feet slid over the packed earth, kicking aside pebbles. Bakht sniffed a pungent vegetable odor and stepped aside to avoid a dung pile. He glanced across the menagerie, a vast area filled with cages, biers, pens, and stalls and sheltered by palms, sycamores, and acacias. Accompanied by the rhythmic snarls of a male lion, Bakht walked by a giraffe pen. Far away from the peaceful animals lay the heavily reinforced domain of the predators—not just the lions but cheetahs, leopards, and Syrian bears.
Bakht heard his name called and turned to see the new guard, Khawi, approach. Khawi was young and in awe of his new responsibilities, and even more confoundedby Bakht's position as the oldest regularly serving soldier at the palace. Ever since he'd learned that pharaoh often sent for Bakht to hear stories of expeditions to Nubia, raids against Libyan bandits, and other tales, Khawi had treated Bakht with the reverence due a great one.
Bakht tried not to grin as Khawi marched toward him with meticulous correctness. "Amun's blessings upon you, young one."
"And upon you, Guard Bakht." Khawi dipped his head and saluted at the same time.
"Admit it, young one. You thought this old man would forget to relieve you."
Khawi's eyes widened, and he shook his head vigorously. "Oh, no, Guard Bakht. Never would I think such a disrespectful thing."
Bakht took pity on the boy, who was no more than sixteen and far too naive for his own welfare. "Walk with me awhile, young Khawi. Someone's got to rid you of this habit of puppylike trust. It's a bad trait for a soldier, especially a royal guard." As Khawi fell in step with him, Bakht swept his arm around to indicate the menagerie, the pleasure gardens, the palace itself. "If you want to be like me and serve under many pharaohs—may they live forever—then you listen to me."
"They say you have served since the time of the father of Amunhotep the Magnificent," Khawi said with awe.
Bakht snorted, disturbing the rest of a red junglefowl. "Donkey-witted, that's what you are. I wasn't born until year nine of the Magnificent. But those were days of glorious happenings. I traveled into Nubia to serve the viceroy, and we crushed a mighty gathering of rebel tribes."
"Nubia," Khawi breathed. "Is it truly a savage and dangerous land?"
"Some of it."
Whipping around to face Bakht, Khawi gripped his spear in a stranglehold and danced from one foot to the other. "Tell me about the golden ones, Bakht. Tell me about the kings."
They had reached the ostrich pens. Pretending reluctance, Bakht rested his spear against a fence and spread his arms wide, stretching muscles that had grown slack with age.
"Please," Khawi said.
"I suppose I can spare a few moments," Bakht said as he leaned against the fence. "Of course, the Magnificent was the greatest of all. He built the mighty halls and gates of the Theban temples, and statues." Bakht pointed at the sky. "Great figures of himself as high as that star. Cunning as a crocodile, was the Magnificent. Chose the most brilliant ministers, the wisest and most beautiful of wives."
"The great royal wife Tiye."
"Ah, she was clever, was Queen Tiye. Played those cursed foreign kings against each other, kept them distrusting one another."
"So they didn't make trouble for Egypt, boy."
"But they did make trouble," Khawi insisted with the stubborn lack of tact of the young. "My father said that Pharaoh Akhenaten—"
"Shhhhh!" Bakht hissed and clapped the young soldier on the side of his head. "I was right. You have the wits of a donkey and the flapping tongue of a green monkey. Be off with you, and try to cultivate a clever heart before you get yourself into trouble."
Babbling apologies, Khawi scurried away. Bakht heard the main gate open and shut behind the boy as he resumed his rounds. His many years and his experience allowed him to take a familiar view of the family of living gods whom he served, but such an attitude was improper in a youth.
Muttering to himself of the carelessness of young ones today, Bakht trudged by the thick mud-brick walls of the rhinoceros enclosure without making his usual stop to admire the beasts. He would not allow the flapping tongue of Khawi to disturb his tranquillity. After all, he had survived three pharaohs—the Magnificent, the heretic Akhenaten, and poor Smenkhare, who had barely ruled before dying and leaving the throne to his brother Tutankhamun, may he have life, health, and prosperity.
Yes, he had survived, and prospered too, through serving the living gods of Egypt. And of those he'd served, the Magnificent had been the most interesting. He'd been the embodiment of the grandeur of Egypt. The Magnificent had been the first to advance Bakht, rewarding him for saving the life of a royal relative on that Nubian expedition. The Magnificent's eldest son, Thutmose, had been as gracious as his father. A pity he'd died. And of all his royal masters, Tutankhamun—life, health, prosperity—was the most charming. The golden one was full of curiosity about foreign lands and loved to send for Bakht and listen to tales of Kush, Libya, and cities like Byblos and Ugarit.
Now that he thought about it, of all the sons of the Magnificent, Thutmose had been the most tragic, and Akhenaten the most irritating and dangerous. Bakht could never reflect upon his service in the heretic's city without relief that he had lived to look back upon it. Had he not earned a stipend and a prosperous farm from his work in Horizon of the Aten, he would have left royal service. Even guarding the great royal wives hadn't made up for enduring the great heresy. Sometimes Bakht thought of Akhenaten's reign as an evil dream—the time when pharaoh cast out all the ancient gods of Egypt and forced the worship of the Aten, the disk of the sun. Certainly at the last he must have been possessed by a netherworld demon to have done what he did then.
Bakht rounded the corner of a pen containing hartebeests and rumbled to himself, "He's dead. Forget about him. Even his city is almost deserted."
Yes, the heretic was gone, and he could look back with pride at his many honors. Not the least of them was having served the most fascinating and clever of women, the royal wives. Of these, he had felt sorry for the foreigners, the Mitannian and Babylonian princesses sent to Egypt to seal alliances with pharaoh's fellow monarchs. They arrived full of their own consequence, proud of their blood and heritage, only to be met with Egyptian ignorance and sublime lack of interest in the greatness of other peoples. He had seen the great cities and temples of Babylonia and Assyria and thus could understand why these women felt equal to any Egyptian.
The foreign women were taken into pharaoh's household and given Egyptian names, households, and possessions, and after a while they seemed to forget their homes. Perhaps it was the greater freedom they found in Egypt that seduced them at last. Bakht often wondered at the lives of such exotic creatures as Babylonian princesses. Such beings were as far from him as the lives of the creatures in the menagerie.
Thinking about such mysteries relieved the boredom of standing guard over things no one with any sense would steal. What would a thief do with a giraffe in Memphis? It wasn't as if he could hide the animal. However, he would be entertained tonight, for tonight he was meeting an old friend near the baboon pit.
Bakht disliked the hairy, barking creatures with the doglike snouts and always hurried past their enclosure. Ugly animals. They had hands like the hands of a man, and eyes that seemed to look into his heart and understand his nature. With reluctance, Bakht directed his steps toward the baboons.
The creatures lived in an area bounded by a steep wall. They had more room than most people, as the menagerie overseer had found that crowding them resulted in nasty fights. Arriving at the foot of the steps that led to the top of the enclosure wall, Bakht looked around for his friend to no avail. Sighing, he used his spear as a walking stick, trudged to the top of the stairs, and sat down on the small landing. He could see groups of dark, huddled shapes, dozens of sleeping baboons.
Most of them were females and babies, brown with naked red faces and bottoms. Drab little things, they were, and the males were worse. The males had silvery gray capes of fur around their shoulders that made them look larger than they were. Nevertheless, the males possessed vicious canine teeth capable of tearing a man apart. Bakht didn't believe the overseer, who maintained that even the most aggressive baboon wouldn't attack a man unless there was no other choice.
What did it matter if baboons announced Ra with their cries and dances when he was born again in the eastern sky? Bakht had looked at them closely. They had low foreheads, tiny mad eyes, and dog snouts that made them look as though they wanted to rip his throat with their fangs. Glancing uneasily at the baboons, Bakht noticed that several big males had awakened and were moving toward him in the moonlight. He was glad the wall was steep, for they were excellent climbers.
Still, he regretted his impulse to sit here in full view of them. Baboons might be sacred to the god Toth, lord of the moon and inventor of writing, but Bakht preferred to keep clear of them. He peered into the darkness and spotted a male crouched nearby. The animal was looking at him. Suddenly the baboon started, gave a strangely human cry, and pulled back his lips to bare yellow teeth the size of Bakht's finger. Alarmed, Bakht stood, but the male wasn't looking at him anymore. Bakht turned and sighed as he recognized his friend coming up the staircase.
"Greetings. I was beginning to think you'd forgotten the meeting place."
His friend lifted a hand in response, and Bakht stood back on the landing to allow room for the other man to join him. As he came closer, Bakht noticed the hand that had lifted in greeting hadn't been lowered. There was something in it.
Frowning, he said, "What are you—"
He got no further, for his friend reached the landing, and the hand struck. The blow jolted the air from his body. He dropped his spear and grabbed his stomach when the pain hit—searing floods of agony, as though the baboon had sunk his fangs into Bakht's flesh. Hot liquid poured forth between Bakht's hands. Feeling foolish, he looked down at the blood flowing over his fingers, then up at his friend in time to see the dagger this time. It hurtled at him, sinking into his chest. Bakht's feeble attempt to ward off the blow cost him his precarious balance. When he stumbled to one knee, a blow to the side of his head sent him over the enclosure wall to land at the feet of the silver-caped baboon.
Stunned, Bakht barely heard the screams of the creature. He sucked in air and tried to stand, only to fall on his face. With one hand gripping his belly, Bakht pushed himself up to rest on one elbow. He opened his mouth to scream back at the baboon. The noise that came from his throat was a feeble whisper compared to the chorus of shrieks that assaulted him. More and more males joined the silver-caped one, and behind them came the females.
In terror, growing weak and dizzy, Bakht thrashed about on the ground, trying to get away. As he moved, he grabbed pebbles, sticks, anything he could use as a weapon, to hurl at his attackers. At last his back hit the enclosure wall. Bakht threw a rock at a furious mass of fur as it scampered at him. It screeched and retreated.
Summoning the last of his strength, Bakht cried out, knowing all the time that he would never be heard over the mindless screams of the baboons. His body was growing heavy. With one hand still pressed to the hole in his belly, his free hand scraped the packed earth, scooping up dirt. As blackness overcame him, he hurled the dirt in the snarling dog-face of the baboon that rushed at him.
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