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The day was hot, sweltering. The kind of day when predators and prey alike hid among the rocks or under bushes or in the depths of the river. They hid not from each other but from the sun god Re, whose fiery breath drew the moisture from every animal and plant, from the life-giving river itself. Only man, the greatest predator of all, walked about.
Lieutenant Bak, commanding officer of the Medjay police, stood in the sun at the southern end of the long, narrow mudbrick fortification of Kor. Scattered around him were thirty or more donkeys and the baskets and bundles they had carried across the burning desert. A company of spearmen, a few sitting on the collapsed walls of a, nearby building, looked on with avid id interest, whispering among themselves. Beyond and to the I left, four masons repairing a fallen wall sneaked a curious glance each time their overseer's attention faltered.
Sweat trickled down Bak's sun-bronzed face, broad chest, and muscular back, puddled in the crook of his arms, stained his thigh-length white kilt from waist to hem. A fly buzzed around his thick, short-cropped black hair. The sweet scent of cut grain, the ranker odor of manure tickled his nostrils and made him sneeze. He had never in his twenty-four years been so hot., And he had seldom been so disgusted.
"For a single grain of wheat, Seneb, I'd place this load on your back." With his baton of office he prodded several heavy lengths of ebony bound together with leather cords. "Then I'd take you into the desert and make you carry it day after day as you did these poor beasts."
"For every one donkey you see now, I had two before."Sewounded
Seneb's whine was as irritating as the look he affected. "Could I leave so many precious objects behind when the officer at Semna took the other beasts from me?"
Bak's eyes shifted from the trader's round, fleshy face and portly body to the pathetic creatures around them: donkeys so emaciated their ribs protruded and so travel weary they could barely stand. All were galled from heavy, ill balanced loads and all had long, narrow open sores, the marks of a whip. The wounds crawled with flies.
His eyes moved on to the children huddled together in the narrow strip of shade beside the fortress wall. Five girls and two boys, none over ten years of age, hollow-eyed, half-starved, dusky skin caked with dirt, too weak and exhausted to show or even feel their terror. Bak had first seen them tied together in a fine like the donkeys had been. A dark, hulking young Medjay policeman binding an ugly lash wound on the tallest girl's back glanced up now and then to give Seneb a look that promised murder. From the faces of the ten or so soldiers helping tend the children and animals, he was not alone in the feeling. Bak knew he had only to walk away and the trader would meet with an unfoirturiate, no doubt fatal, accident. As much as the thought appealed to him, he could not do so. His task was to serve Maat, the goddess of tight and-order, not balance the scale of justice as it suited him.
The scribe whose task it was to collect tolls had summoixed Bak from the fortress-city of Buhen to the lesser fortress of Kor. Of no strategic importance, with bleak, unpainted walls in a state of disrepair, Kor was a place of shelter for troops marching through the area and for merchant caravans. As the river upstream was impassable to navigation much of the year, ships docked here to off-load trade goods coveted by the tribal kings living far to the south and to take on board the exotic and precious objects the traders received in return.
"Were the animals confiscated in Semna as unfit to travel as these?" Bak asked the trader. "Is that why you didn't report at Iken as you were supposed to?"
Sweat beaded on Seneb's face, reddened from the sun and the effort of justifying his actions. "I thought it best to come on while the creatures . . ." He clamped his mouth shut, realizing his mistake.
"While they still could walk?" Bak snapped. "Before they and those children died of starvation, thirst, exhaustion?"
Seneb's spine stiffened, with indignation. "If anyone isto blame for the it disreputable state, it's the inspecting officer at. Iken. He looks upon me with hatred and would make any excuse to take what is mine. I dared not stop, though my heart bled for my servants, the children, andthese weary beasts."
"I see no blood on your kilt, Seneb, only on your hands."
"You accuse me wrongly, sit. I've dealt out punishrnent, yes, but only when due and only in moderation.."
Bak nudged with a toe the five whips lying on the sand by his feet, leather whips knotted at the end to hurt more. "These speak louder than you, Seneb. And when with kindness we steal the fear from the tongues of the children, they'll speak louder yet."
"You'd accept the word of those wretched savages overthat of a respectable man of Kemet?"
Bak beckoned Psuro, the burly, pockmarked Medjay guarding Seneb's four servants, men as dark as Psuro but taller, reed-thin, naked, bought and paid for like the rest of the trader's possessions. Each man stood with his arms behind his back, wrists clamped together in wooden manacles.
"Shackle this swine." Bak eyed Seneb with contempt...