Armed with the certainty that Queen Nefertiti did not die of the plague but was murdered with poison, Lord Meren is hot on the trail of her killer.
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Memphis, year five of the reign of the pharaoh Tutankhamun
Beauty the goose shuffled slowly through the forest of legs that blocked her way. She fixed her shortsighted gaze on the hard-packed earth in search of the occasional cricket. Around her, in the breezy coolness of late evening, servants gossiped in the kitchen yard. Oblivious to the sounds of lute, harp, and flute that floated from the house, Beauty never paused in her quest even when she encountered feet arrayed in a line in front of her. Above her women's voices droned on, chattering and laughing.
Beauty's small, flat head and beak remained pointed toward the ground. She took another step and pecked at a bare toe. Never lifting her beady gaze from the spot directly in front of her, Beauty took two more waddling steps, eyed another set of toes, and snapped at them. They danced out of her way.
She continued down the line of toes, never lifting her head, never varying from her course, certainly not avoiding.the feet, until she reached the back gate. There she nipped at the ankle of the porter in one last ill-tempered and satisfying attack before she sauntered beyond the high wall that enclosed Golden House, the great mansion of Lord Meren, the Eyes and Ears of Pharaoh, Friend of the King, and advisor to the young ruler of the Egyptian empire, Tutankhamun.
Had she been a young, fat goose, Beauty would have soon ended up stewing in a pot. But since she was a pet, everyone had to put up with her menacing ways. She lived up to her name, however. The boldly patterned plumage on her head attracted attention. She had a black crown, hind neck, and facial marks against a white face, a black lower breast, and russet cheek patches and upper breast. Her short, thick neck was no hindrance to her bullying ways, nor was her small bill.
Not long after the goose terrorized the kitchen staff the animal's owner came into the yard, her pace quick in spite of swollen joints and frail bones. "Beauty, where are you? Come to your mother, my little daub of honey."
Satet passed among the servants congregated in the kitchen yard calling the goose's name. She questioned many, always receiving a wave in the direction in which the goose had traveled, and receiving as well complaints from those ambushed by her evil-tempered pet.
"You know she's aged," Satet replied. "You should get out of her way."
Hurrying toward the gate, Satet nodded at the guard. "You're not supposed to go wandering," he said. "You know Lord Meren dislikes it."
"I'm not going to get lost again," Satet retorted. "I'm searching for Beauty, and she can't have gone far, so I'll be back quickly."
Before the guard could reply, Satet scurried into the dark street, muttering to herself. "Lord Meren indeed. He cares about me only because my sister served Queen Nefertiti."
The old woman took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The furnacelike heat of day had ebbed from the hard ground beneath her feet, and her mood lightened the farther she walked from the gate. She was weary of being confined to the grounds of Golden House. True, it was a great estate within the city of Memphis, but Satet liked to travel about, visit the markets, docks, temples, and the wells at which people congregated to exchange news.
It was also true that her wits tended to wander a bit, but she wasn't mad and didn't deserve to be pestered and watched all the time. After all, it had been her sister, Hunero, who'd been Queen Nefertiti's favorite cook. Lord Meren said Hunero had poisoned the queen's food, but Hunero had been murdered too, and now Meren wanted Satet to tell him anything she could about Hunero's life that might be of use. But Satet didn't remember anything important. How could she? Queen Nefertiti had died years ago-eleven according to Lord Meren. Or was it longer? Oh, it wasn't important, because the lives and doings of great ones had nothing to do with her. Exploration was far more interesting.
Ever since Lord Meren brought her here from the country Satet had taken advantage of the opportunity to see the sights of pharaoh's greatest city, the capital of the vast Egyptian empire. Looking for Beauty when she wandered away served as the perfect excuse to explore the city.
Satet glanced up and down the street. Moonlight showed nothing to her left, but to her right she glimpsed something on the ground. Satet picked up a scrap of flat bread, the remnants of someone's meal devoured in a hurry while on the run. Beauty was following a trail of food. Setting off down the street, Satet shook her head and grumbled.
"Wouldn't have to sneak off to enjoy myself if that boy would leave me alone."
She always called Lord Meren "boy," ever since they'd first met in her sister's old house. He'd been suspicious of Hunero from the beginning, and once that boy got hold of an idea, he didn't let loose until he was completely satisfied he knew everything there was to know. Only last night he'd been after her again to recall Hunero's doings when she'd worked for Queen Nefertiti.
It wasn't fair, because Satet hadn't been there. Hunero had been far away, in the queen's household in the city called Horizon of the Aten. Satet hardly recalled anything her sister said about what went on in that city in the middle of nowhere. Oh, she knew it had been built by Nefertiti's husband, the heretic pharaoh Akhenaten, who had nearly destroyed Egypt with his attempts to banish the old gods in favor of his own. But Satet had barely listened to Hunero's ramblings about the old days at Horizon of the Aten. It had nothing to do with her.
"Can't help it if I don't remember," Satet whined to herself. "Hunero was always bragging about being in service to the queen-may she live forever with the gods&$151;but that was years ago. Who can remember all her boasts?"
Satet turned into another street. This one was wider, with old houses on either side that leaned toward each other. Ahead of her someone stepped into a house and closed the door, leaving the street deserted. If she shouted for Beauty, she'd rouse the whole street and get into trouble, so she half whispered, half hissed.
A flap of wings answered her, and Satet caught sight of Beauty as she snapped up something from the street and gobbled it down. The little beast had almost reached the well on the far end of the street. Satet hurried. She was approaching her seventieth year and had to stop a couple of times to catch her breath. The second time, she slowed her pace because Beauty was busy eating something beside the well. No sense hurrying now.
She might get back to the house and have to talk to that boy again. He'd been around too much lately. Wia, one of the family servants, said it was because he'd taken an arrow while fighting a traitor. The wound had festered, causing fever, and demons of infection invaded his body. No doubt the traitor's evil ka, his soul, had tried to avenge itself upon Lord Meren.
Whatever the case, the boy had been confined to his bed, and the whole family had descended upon Golden House. Fear reigned for weeks, but he was strong, his ka equal to the challenge of fighting off the demons of disease. Now he was recovering, which meant that he had the strength to pester Satet. After being subjected to several sessions of his meaningless questions, Satet had finally lost her temper the previous evening.
"Why do you keep asking me these things? I don't know if Hunero spoke to any strangers during the queen's illness. Why don't you ask her?" When Meren reminded her that Hunero was dead, she'd fended him off. "Then why don't you go to Syene and ask the queen's bodyguard? Sebek ought to know more than anyone. Quit pestering me, boy."
Satet was proud of herself for thinking about Sebek. The bodyguard was probably dead, but if a journey to the great southern city of Syene would take Meren away from the house, she wouldn't have to listen to him for a good long time. Of course, his daughter Bener would try to stop him from traveling. She wanted him to rest. She said he wasn't well enough to walk around his garden, much less go on a journey. When her father wouldn't listen to her and insisted on joining his charioteers in the practice yard, Bener had brought in an ally, Lady Bentanta.
A childhood friend of Meren's, Bentanta wasn't intimidated by him as most were. She'd come in response to a message from Bener and had spoken a few words to the invalid in a low whisper. The great Lord Meren, Friend of the King, warrior and royal confidant, had immediately left the practice yard and retired.
"Wonder what she said to him," Satet muttered to herself.
Whatever it had been, it was powerful enough to keep the boy in his bed. Lady Bentanta had remained at his side for almost a week, and during that time they fought. Then one day shouts had erupted from the boy's chamber. Lady Bentanta burst out of the room, turned around and yelled. Satet had never heard anyone yell at Meren. Everyone held him in awe and quite a few feared him. But not Bentanta. She'd stood in his doorway with her hands on her hips and shouted.
"If you don't rest, I'll be back!"
"A fearsome threat," came the bellowed reply. "To avoid another of your visitations, I'd stay in this bed as still as a corpse on the embalmer's table for a year!"
After that scene Meren's mood got worse. That's when pharaoh sent a troupe of musicians to cheer his friend. They'd been so successful that Bener now had them play every night until her father was lulled to sleep. Once he'd regained his full strength he'd be off chasing murderers and other evil-doers. The possibility cheered Satet as she reached the well.
It was so late that no one was around the well, except Beauty. She joined the goose beside the well and saw that her pet was feasting on crumbled fig bread. Someone had been careless.
Beauty was almost finished eating. Satet tried to pick up a piece of the fig bread, but the goose nipped at her fingers and honked.
As she bent to try again, she heard something behind her. Satet turned her head only to encounter a moving shadow. It swooped at her, and her head burst into dazzling pain. Beauty screeched and flapped her wings when Satet fell beside her. The bird scuttled out of the way before her owner hit the ground. Dazed, aware of little but the agony in her head, Satet felt her body leave the ground. She opened her eyes, glimpsed the yawning blackness beyond the spiral stairs leading to the base of the well, and felt her body drop. She cried out as her head banged against the side of the well. Darkness deeper than that of the well enveloped her as she hit the water.
In the street above, Beauty the goose fussed and flapped and attacked bare toes. She honked and launched herself out of the way when her assailant tried to bash her with a long-handled weapon. The blow landed on packed earth with a crack. Beauty spread her wings, sprang into the air, and flew out of reach. The attacker cursed the goose, looked over the edge of the well at the body floating in the water, and faded into the shadows.
Meren rose from his bed and shoved aside the sheer curtains that hung from the frame surrounding it. The vent in the roof caught the night breeze and funneled it into the room as he listened to the quiet. In a house this size, with its gardens, kitchens, stables, barracks, and servant's quarters, silence was a rarity. He fumbled around until his hand met a table of cedar inlaid with ivory. Using it to steady himself, Meren cursed quietly.
An old nightmare had torn him from sleep as it had many times since his eighteenth year. Usually his own gasps and moans jolted him to consciousness while at the same time pain lanced through his wrist. Now he turned his face to the cool wind issuing from the vent and gulped in air. He tried to calm the racing voice of his heart. Sweat covered his body, and he shivered. In the darkness his fingers searched out the scar on his wrist; it always hurt after he had the dream.
In the night vision he was back in Horizon of the Aten, and his father had just been executed for refusing to abandon the old gods in favor of the pharaoh Akhenaten's new one, the Aten, who was the sun disk. It had been midday, but the city had fallen silent in the way that small creatures do when they sense the presence of a predator. Meren was alone in his house except for a few servants, and his father hadn't been dead more than a few days. Without warning shouts broke the unnatural silence, and Akhenaten's guards burst in and dragged him into the streets.
They took him to a cell near the palace. For days they'd beaten him and asked questions to which he had no answer, certain he was a traitor to pharaoh's new religion. Suspicion had become a sickness with Akhenaten, for Egypt refused to believe in the Aten and clung to the old gods who had created and governed her for thousands of years. As the firstborn son of a traitor, Meren was suspected of aiding the rebellious priests of Amun, the king of the old gods.
After days of starvation and beatings, he hadn't cared when his tormentors came into his cell to kill him. He lay on the floor, naked, his wounds caked with dirt, his vision blurred with sweat, and watched several pairs of feet walk toward him. Rough hands lifted him, and he bit his lip to keep from crying out at the pain. They dragged him into another room where dancing shadows cast by torches made him dizzy.
A cold hand lifted his chin, and Meren opened his eyes to stare into those of Akhenaten. Black as netherworld darkness, brittle as obsidian, those eyes raked him as if trying to divine the very essence of his ka, his soul. Then Akhenaten began to speak, saying that Queen Nefertiti's father had defended Meren.
"Ay speaks on your behalf. He says you're young enough to be taught the truth. My majesty thinks not, but the One God, my father, commands me to be merciful to our children." Akhenaten toyed with a lock of Meren's hair. "We will ask once, Lord Meren. Do you accept the Aten, my Father, as the one true god?"
Meren blinked and swiveled his head. There was Ay, standing silent, looking hard at him. Meren stared into the eyes of his mentor and gave his head a slight shake. Ay was asking him to bring damnation upon his ka. Father had died rather than risk his eternal soul; could he do less? But Ay wanted him to live; Meren could see it in his eyes. And may the gods forgive him, Meren wanted to live.
That was when he'd opened his dry cracked mouth and said, "The Aten is the one true god, as thy majesty has pronounced."
Ay nodded to him, but the movement was so slight that Meren could have imagined it.
"Words come easily for you," the king said as he turned away, "but my Father has shown me a way to claim your ka for the truth. Bring him."
The Guards dragged him after the king and stopped before a man who crouched behind a glowing brazier. Meren's vision filled with the red and white glow of the fire. Without warning, he was thrown to the floor on his back. This time he couldn't stop the cry that burst from him as his raw flesh hit the ground. A heavy, sweating body landed on his chest. Meren bucked, trying to throw the man off, but the guard was twice his weight.
He could see the brazier and, beyond it, the fine pleats of pharaoh's robe and the edge of a gold sandal. He fought the guards when they spread out his right arm. In spite of his resistance, the arm was pinned so that his wrist was exposed. The man behind the brazier lifted a white-hot brand. A guard knelt on his upper arm, making it go numb.
Although he couldn't see his arm, Meren felt a wet cloth wipe the flesh of his wrist, saw the brand lift in the air. It was the Aten, the sun disk, whose symbol was a circle with sticklike rays extending from it and ending in stylized hands. The glowing sun disk poised in the air, then the guard pressed the hot metal to Meren's arm.
There was a brief moment between the time the brand met his flesh and the first agony. In that moment, Meren smelled for the first time the odor of burning flesh. Then he screamed. Every muscle convulsed while the guard held the brand to his wrist. When it was taken away Meren broke out in a sweat, and he shivered. Pain from his wrist rolled over him.
He lost consciousness briefly, and when he opened his eyes, the man who'd branded him was smearing a salve on his burned flesh. The pain receded as he was lifted and held so that he faced the king. Akhenaten's black fire eyes burned into him as no brand ever could. Pharaoh took Meren's hand, turned it to expose the mutilated wrist, and examined the crimson symbol of his god. He placed Meren's hand in Ay's.
"He is yours now. But remember, my majesty will know if the boy is false. If he falters from the true path, he dies."
He dies. Meren shook his head and tried to banish the sound of Akhenaten's voice, high, hard, like the sound of a metal saw drawn against granite. Oh, yes, he still remembered that voice even after sixteen years.
Rubbing the back of his neck, Meren shivered and stepped out of the path of the night breeze. There had been something different about this night's evil dream. At the last, when the brand burned into his flesh, something strange happened to him. Suddenly it was as if he'd left his body and floated, invisible, beside the tortured figure on the floor. Only the prisoner who suffered at his feet wasn't himself. It was Tutankhamun. The boy king writhed in agony, screaming, his dark, haunted eyes wide with terror, his body streaked with blood, dirt, and sweat.
"Damnation." Meren paced back and forth beside the bed. What did this new vision mean? He couldn't consult a magician priest and expose the fact that he'd dreamed about the living god of Egypt.
"Calm yourself, you fool," he muttered. "You dream about things that worry you. You always have."
And he'd been worried about pharaoh for some time. Only fourteen, Tutankhamun had lost most of his family, including his mother, Queen Tiye, and the woman he thought of as a second mother, his brother's wife, Nefertiti. Now that he knew the queen had been murdered, Tutankhamun grieved anew for Nefertiti's loss. He'd been very young during his brother's reign and so had understood nothing of the violent hatreds engendered by the Aten heresy. Tutankhamun remembered Akhenaten as a doting older sibling, a limitless source of toys, sweets, and exciting chariot rides.
Akhenaten's sudden death had brought both confusion and relief to Egypt, but after a period of turbulence during which the next heir, Smenkhare, succumbed to illness, Tutankhamun became king. Inheriting the throne of Egypt and becoming a living god who controlled a vast and fabulously rich empire had been a formidable task for the boy. But he'd succeeded, only to find himself condemned to opulent isolation. Grave, beautiful, and headstrong, Tutankhamun had faced the burdens heaped upon him with courage, but in the last few months those burdens had grown. Evildoers had desecrated the bodies of Akhenaten and Nefertiti in their tomb at Horizon of the Aten.
Tutankhamun had faced that crisis and endured, but after years of trying hard to be a great king, he was beginning to show signs of strain. More and more he would slip out of the palace with a single guard to accompany him and seek relief in escapades that terrified his ministers. So far no harm had come to the king, but how long could this good fortune continue?
What was worse, Meren could see the strain in the king's face. During an audience or ceremony at a temple he would see a distant look come over Tutankhamun, and Meren knew he was thinking of Nefertiti, wondering who could have killed his beloved second mother. He was wondering if her ka wandered lost and mad in the desert, as the souls of unavenged victims were said to do. Did she haunt the boy's dreams, visit him and cry out for vengeance? Meren saw evidence of it when he looked at the king, in the shadows beneath those large, somber eyes. And then Meren would wonder-how long could the living god, who was after all a mortal boy as well, continue to bear this intolerable burden before he succumbed?
Meren shook his head, went to a chest and pulled out a kilt, which he belted around his hips. He covered the Aten brand on his wrist with a leather band. Finding Nefertiti's killer was urgent. As strong and brave as the king was, he was far too young to endure such anguish and the torture of uncertainty for long. The only solution was to find the truth and present it to the king. If Meren could give Tutankhamun the murderer, perhaps the boy could find peace. Perhaps Meren could find some peace as well.
Still rubbing the brand on his wrist beneath the leather band, Meren left his bedchamber. He wasn't going to get any more sleep, so he slipped out of the house with a brief command to his own guards to be silent regarding his absence. During his enforced rest he'd gone on long walks in the hours before dawn before his daughter Bener was awake. Arguing with her tired him as no exercise could.
This would be his last walk, a test of strength before he went in search of Nefertiti's favorite bodyguard, Sebek. He'd had his men searching for the queen's old servants, including Sebek, for some time, but they'd been unable to locate him. However, his persistence and patience with Satet had borne fruit unexpectedly when the old woman had mentioned the guard last night. He'd been surprised that she remembered Sebek, but her memory tended to appear and disappear like the ephemeral clouds in the Egyptian sky. Learning Sebek's whereabouts was a good sign. Perhaps the guard knew something that at last would reveal the identity of Nefertiti's murderer.
He left the house and walked down the avenue between the two reflection pools to the gate. He glanced at the water lilies floating on the surface of the water, their buds closed and invisible. He heard a fish snap at an insect and felt a tiny spray of water drops. He reached the gate. One of his guards let him out, and he set off in the direction of the temple of Ptah, the god of the city, thinking as he walked.
He knew who had supplied the poison to Nefertiti's cook, Hunero, but someone else had conceived of the idea of killing the queen. Nefertiti had been engaged in a dangerous attempt to reconcile her husband with the old gods of Egypt. Losing her had nearly sent Egypt into chaos along with her pharaoh. That had been more than eleven years ago.
Now Tutankhamun was king, and bore the responsibility for healing Egypt's open wounds. Some who had suffered at Akhenaten's hands wanted to keep those wounds open and bleeding. It was this group who fostered the unspoken belief that the boy was tainted with the blood of a line that had nearly destroyed Egypt. Tutankhamun lived with the certainty that they wanted to rid the throne of its tainted occupant. A heavy burden for a boy not yet fifteen.
Meren shook his head as he remembered how, despite these adversities, the king was determined to become the epitome of a warrior king. In pursuit of this ideal he'd insisted on going with the army on a raid against an outlaw band. The boy had taken too many risks in that skirmish. Tutankhamun was the incarnation of the king of the gods, but he was still mortal. A bandit's arrow could kill him in an instant, and then what would happen to Egypt?
Turning down the avenue that led to the temple, Meren breathed deeply, taking in air laden with moisture. The floodwaters of the Nile were receding, and soon pharaoh's surveyors would spread across the land to remeasure field boundaries and estimate crop yields. During inundation the population of Memphis swelled with laborers from the country ordered into the service of temple and government projects. Royal granaries and supply houses dispensed vast quantities of grain, wheat, barley, oil, and other commodities to pay such workers who would otherwise have little to do.
Indeed, it was a busy time of the year for pharaoh's ministers, including Meren's old mentor, Ay. Meren had been concerned for his friend ever since he'd discovered that Nefertiti had been murdered. He had never told Ay of this discovery, and the old man still believed what everyone had assumed when Nefertiti died-that the queen had fallen ill from a plague that had killed her daughters. Meren was reluctant to tell Ay about the murder until he knew who the killer was. If he could capture the one responsible, the old man might bear the news better.
Thinking hard, Meren turned down a side street, away from the temple's massive pylon gate with its carved and painted reliefs and giant doors covered with gold. He would make his way around the walls that surrounded the temple complex and return home. Before an enemy had tried to kill him a couple of months ago he'd been on the track of three suspects, men powerful enough to have arranged the queen's death. Yamen the army officer was dead. Another was the Syrian Dilalu, who sold weapons to anyone rich enough to pay for them. The last was Zulaya, an elusive merchant from one of the Asiatic kingdoms, perhaps Babylon. This was one of the reasons he'd asked that one of the Eyes and Ears of Pharaoh stationed abroad be summoned home. He needed to speak with someone whose task it was to keep an eye on people like Dilalu and Zulaya.
Yamen had been killed before Meren could question him about the queen's murder. An unseen, unknown enemy always preceded him before Meren could question someone who might shed light on the mystery. That someone had caused the deaths of the cook Hunero and her husband. He'd brought Hunero's sister to Memphis in the hope that she might remember something of use, but her memory faltered often. Meren was of the opinion that Satet deliberately forgot things that were inconvenient or frightening to her.
Turning a corner Meren paused, realizing he had taken a wrong turn and was in an unfamiliar area. The neighborhood around the temple was old, as old as the ancient ones who built the pyramids. Over the years the houses and storage buildings had multiplied and expanded, taking up parts of streets and creating a network of roads that dead-ended, alleys that zigzagged and looped back on themselves and burrowed into the warrens of mud brick that served as combination dwellings, mangers, and workshops.
Having taken one wrong turn, Meren now found himself in a narrow little alley that ended in a blank wall. At one time an exterior stair had stood against this wall. Only five mud brick steps remained, leading nowhere. Meren back-tracked only to find himself in an alley hardly wide enough for one person to pass, and this took an abrupt turn that went back the way he'd come. Meren stopped and sighed. He would have to find another stair so that he could climb high enough to see where he was from a rooftop. Luckily he spotted one a few houses down. He reached it quickly and set his foot on the bottom step.
"Out for a stroll, is we?"
Whipping around, Meren found the way blocked by a man with the mass of a temple column. Although light was only beginning to permeate the darkness of early morning, he could make out a skewed smile filled with broken teeth and eyes the whites of which had yellowed. Meren's hand went to his side. Where the scabbard for his dagger should have been there was emptiness. He hadn't brought a weapon.
What madness. He always carried a dagger. That cursed nightmare must have disturbed him more than he'd thought.
Meren planted his feet solidly and said, "Go away."
"Not before I get my hands on that pretty belt. Give it to me."
Sighing, Meren waved the man away. "I've no patience with thieves. Leave before I decide you're worth the trouble of dragging you to the city police."
He should have realized the thief was too dim-witted to recognize authority when he encountered it. His rank protected him most of the time. Few commoners would dare speak to him, much less steal something from him. But he'd wandered into the Caverns, the disreputable area of the city near the docks, the denizens of which recognized no higher authority than the edge of a blade. If he hadn't been thinking so hard he would have realized the danger. As it was, his new friend responded to the dismissal by drawing a knife.
"You got one last chance to do what I say. Gimme the belt."
As he finished speaking the man waved the knife at Meren, who grabbed his arm and jammed it against his knee. The thief grunted but didn't let go of the blade. He rammed his fist into Meren's jaw and kneed him. The blow caught Meren in the side at the site of his healing arrow wound. He cried out as his knees buckled. He caught himself by planting his palms on the ground, but fell when his attacker rained blows on him from above. He felt a knee on his back, twisted, and grabbed the thief 's arm as the knife came at him. Staring at the tip of the blade, Meren felt his arms quiver from the effort to hold off the man's full force.
Just when he thought his strength would give way, a dagger blade descended from nowhere and settled against the thief 's throat. The man went still, his eyes protruding while he made a high-pitched squealing sound.
"Be good enough to stop that, if you please," said a low, easy voice.
Meren felt the thief remove his weight. He sat up as a dark figure herded the thief away from him. The man backed away from the dagger, eyeing the newcomer. Suddenly he growled and took a threatening step toward his enemy. The dagger snaked out and carved a neat X on the thief 's belly. He yelped and clutched his stomach.
"Run along now, or I'll have to kill you, and that would be so tiresome."
The thief staggered away from his tormentor, turned, and ran. Meren was too surprised to move. He sat down, his hands braced on the ground, and gaped as his rescuer cleaned the dagger, stuck it in a scabbard, and whirled around to offer a hand.
"Rescuing the great Lord Meren. A most edifying experience after my long absence from Egypt."
Speechless, Meren stared at the small hand with its immaculate nails and the row of gold bracelets above it. He followed the delicate line of an arm to a curved shoulder, and finally his gaze found a smiling mouth of dusky crimson and eyes that tilted up slightly at the outside corners. His amazement grew as he took in a small-boned frame taut with disciplined musculature. His rescuer wore a gown of the finest and softest wool. Red with a blue border, it fastened over one shoulder and cinched at the waist with a belt of lapis lazuli and gold beads. There were few in Egypt who dressed in such a foreign style.
Meren felt a flush burn up his neck to his face. "By all the gods of Egypt. Anath."
Before he could get up, Anath grabbed his hand and hauled him to his feet.
To cover his embarrassment at being rescued by a woman, even this woman, Meren busied himself brushing dirt from his kilt. Then he faced her, his features composed. "Welcome back to Egypt, Eyes of Babylon."
Anath cocked her head to the side, planted her fists on her hips, and studied him. Then she laughed.
"You should have seen yourself squirming in the dirt. You've grown soft lolling about here in Egypt."
Feeling his face heat again, Meren decided not to respond to Anath's teasing. She hadn't changed in the two years she'd been away. She found humor in the oddest places. She was the daughter of a concubine, fathered by a nobleman called Nebwawi. Neglected by her elderly father, Anath had roamed the city without escort and turned up at odd places like the royal docks and in temple schools to which only boys were admitted. Nebwawi had been a friend of Meren's father, and Meren had watched Anath grow up. She loved horses, spending more time in the stables than the house, and she could commune with almost any creature-cats, dogs, birds, monkeys, even the royal lions and leopards.
A leopard, that's what she reminded him of, a diminutive hunting cat. Anath had inherited her mother's wildly curling black hair, but her light, gold-brown eyes were unique. Nebwawi came from a family prominent in the delta, where Greeks and Mittannis intermarried with Egyptians. Whatever its origin, Anath's uniqueness served her better than her beauty did. Small yet athletic, she could outshoot many of his charioteers at the bow, and certainly had as much skill in driving a chariot. Still, Meren had never understood what had prompted Ay to train her to be one of the Eyes of Pharaoh. That had been at Horizon of the Aten.
Anath had spent several years under Ay's tutelage. She managed to avoid the notice of the unpredictable Akhenaten, but when pharaoh's behavior became even more erratic, Ay had sent his protÈgÈe to Memphis to complete her education. Later she had gone to Tyre, then Byblos, and finally Babylon.
Not yet thirty, Anath was now one of the most successful of the Eyes of Pharaoh under Meren's direction. She lived in Babylon most of the time, posing as the wealthy widow of an Egyptian trader. She had inherited her father's fleet of ships, and they plied their trade at ports like Mycenae in Greece, the cities in Cyprus, and those in the Egyptian empire in Canaan and Palestine. Her wealth gave her power, which in turn gave her access to foreign courts and kings. However, Meren still remembered her as an awkward girl in Horizon of the Aten. Always by herself, neglected and allowed to wander, she'd rush into rooms, late for meals or receptions, sweaty and smelling like horses.
That was all long ago, and now she was looking at him the way she did a lame horse, the way his physician did during an examination. Meren straightened his spine and muttered his thanks for her timely intervention. His charioteers would chuckle behind his back for weeks when they found out he'd needed rescuing by a woman. Irritated, Meren forestalled the questions he could see Anath was going to ask.
"What are you doing in the Caverns at this time of night?" Anath glanced up at the brightening sky. "I docked yesterday, and I was on my way to see how my horses fared after the long journey home. You know I rise early."
"I remember you hardly slept."
"I sleep," she said with a toss of her head. "I just don't sleep long. Life is too interesting to waste it sleeping, Meren."
Somewhere nearby a donkey brayed, and they heard the scuffling and muted tap of dozens of sheep's hooves. The new day was beginning. Anath put one hand on the hilt of the dagger at her waist and swept the other in a gesture indicating that Meren should precede her.
"I think I should escort you home. You shouldn't be wandering the streets in your condition."
"How did you know-never mind," Meren said. He shook his head as he led the way out of the alley. "I forgot with whom I was speaking."
"Pharaoh told me you ferreted out a traitor and took an arrow," Anath said as she followed him. "It seems I've come home just in time."
As he walked he looked back at her, scowling. "I asked pharaoh to summon someone to help uncover a murderer, Anath. You're not here to rescue me, by the gods."
As he finished he stepped into an intersection and nearly ran into the path of a woman with a tall water jar balanced on her head. Anath grabbed his arm and pulled him back just in time. Meren tightened his mouth and watched the woman walk by with that steady, smooth gait required to balance a heavy jar. Then he heard Anath chuckle. Setting his jaw, he launched into the street with a quick stride. With luck, he would leave her behind. Three streets later she was still at his heels, and he was the one out of breath. He gave up and slowed down. Anath drew alongside him, unperturbed.
"You must be greatly troubled," she remarked mildly.
"Why do you say that?"
"Why else would you ask me to come home? We both know the king of Babylon is hatching plots with the Hittites, and I'm not going to find out what they are from Memphis."
"You have an able assistant, as I remember. He'll manage until you return. I need to . . ."
His words faded as they came upon the public well near his house. Several men were hefting the sodden body of an old woman up the stairs. Meren hurried to the crowd that surrounded the body as it was laid on the ground. He broke through to see the pale, flaccid features of Satet.
"Stand back," he said to those around him. "Who found this woman?"
"I did, lord," said a woman carrying a water jar. She made a sign against evil and cast a fearful glance at the well. "Poor Satet."
"You knew her?" Meren asked.
"She would come to the well and visit with those who drew water," said the woman. "I came a few moments ago and found her when I got to the bottom of the stairs. She was under the water, just floating there." The woman swallowed hard. "I knew it was too late. She was facedown, and didn't move."
"I see," Meren said as he knelt beside the body. Behind him he heard Anath talking to the men who had brought the body out of the well. He lifted a length of her soggy white hair. A wound on Satet's forehead might have come had she stumbled on the stairs and hit her head. He'd warned the old one about wandering around the city alone, but she'd managed to slip out by herself again. Shaking his head, Meren stood and gave orders for the body to be taken to his house. His physician, Nebamun, would examine it, but there was little doubt that Satet had drowned. The blow to her head wouldn't have killed her, unless she was more fragile than Meren had thought.
Still, with Nefertiti's killer still free, he could never be certain that a witness like Satet hadn't died by design. Someone could have hit her and dumped her into the well. So many witnesses had ended up dead that he couldn't afford to assume that Satet's demise was an accident. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more certain he became. He didn't believe in convenient accidents or coincidences. Satet's body had abrasions on it where the face and shoulders had scraped against the well, probably as it floated in the water. Or were these signs of a struggle? Nebamun might know.
Whatever the case, his enforced rest was now at an end, no matter how much his family might object. Meren walked around the well, but saw nothing out of the ordinary.
"No one heard her cry out," Anath said, as she rejoined him. "No one heard her fall. Her body was stiff ?"
"Yes. I think she died a few hours ago."
"She was a servant of yours?"
Meren leaned against the wall that surrounded the well and surveyed the trampled ground. "You might call her so." He narrowed his eyes as something gleamed in the growing sunlight. "What's that?"
Anath followed the direction of his gaze, picked up an irregularly shaped piece of light-colored pottery and turned it over.
"I don't know," she said.
Meren took it from her. It wasn't pottery after all. He wasn't sure, but he thought it was a piece of ivory.
"What is this doing here?" he murmured to himself. Anath gave the shell a glance and shrugged. "It's litter, Meren. Like that piece of basket over there, and those shards of pottery."
"Perhaps." Meren slipped the ivory in his belt and shoved away from the wall. As he did so the woman he'd questioned hurried to him and bowed.
"Lord Meren, what will we do? We can't take water from the well."
"Have a magician priest purify it," Anath answered. Meren nodded. "I'll send someone when I return home."
"The lord is most kind and generous," the woman said. As he and Anath left, the woman was surrounded by her friends and plied with questions.
Anath glanced at them over her shoulder, then shook her head at Meren. "It seems to be dangerous to live in your household."
"Satet might have tripped on the well stairs, Anath."
"You don't believe that." Her demeanor was calm. Unlike more sheltered women, violent death didn't disturb her.
"She might have tripped," Meren repeated. "But you're right. Since I began to investigate a certain crime, too many people have been killed." Meren glanced at Anath's calm expression. "Have you ever read one of the copies of the inscriptions from the pyramids of the ancient ones? There is one that speaks of great evil-the sky darkens, the vaults of the heavens quiver, and the bones of the earth tremble. If I can't find the one whom I seek, he will cause all that to happen. I fear for the harmony and balance of Egypt."
"One man will do this?"
He stopped and looked down at the Eyes of Babylon.
"One man, Anath, succeeded in banishing the gods of Egypt.
I no longer ask what one man can do if he has the courage, or the madness with which to accomplish evil."
Copyright (c) 2001 by Lynda S. Robinson
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﻿Another case, another hussy. From time to time, Robinson will introduce an appealing female character into this series, but by gosh, they always turn out to be either stupid, evil or dead, unless of course they are all three. I was wondering if Meren¿s middle daughter, who was looking pretty good in the last book, would turn out to be a spymistress for Egypt¿s enemies, but maybe Robinson is saving that for the oldest sister. Until the last couple of books, this series had been excellent in terms of creating a vivid setting, interesting stories, and appealing main characters. The one serious flaw was the maddening streak of misogyny. Well, that remains constant, but unfortunately the plotting is going down hill. Meren and Kysen need a long vacation, because they don¿t seem to be thinking too clearly in this book. Among their least intelligent decisions: Meren, recuperating from an assassination attempt and knowing that someone who is extremely clever and ruthless is out to get him, goes for an early- morning walk by himself, and is, of course, attacked again. Discipline seems to be breaking down within his crack team of charioteers, too. One of the few surviving potential witnesses has been taken into protective custody in his home, and his guards let her wander off with equally predictable results. I don¿t want to say too much about the ending, but it creates as many questions as it answers. Maybe Robinson should take a break from this series; I certainly intend to.
Slayer of gods is a terific murder mystery, set in anicient Egption time period. The book is bound to keep the reader's attention right til the end.
Lynda Robinson's fans always look forward to another in her Lord Meren series, and they will not be disappointed in her latest addition to the adventures of 'The Eyes and Ears of Pharaoh'. I must confess I was beginning to wonder about Lord Meren's detecting abilities, since by this time he had STILL not solved the mystery of Nefertiti's death, but the resolution finally appears in this book! Before that, we are re-introduced to his family members as well as to many colorful characters from earlier in the series. I am sorry that we did not see the reappearance of Naram-sin, an intriguing and slightly sinister character from her previous book, whose interest in Lord Meren was, shall we say, somewhat less than wholesome. Perhaps in her next novel, which I am sure will be as eagerly awaited and gladly received as the others.
Who did it? Readers of this suspenseful, colorful, and mesmerizing series have wondered for quite a while! Who poisoned Queen Nefertiti, the beautiful queen of the heretic pharoh Akhenhaten! In ¿Slayer of Gods,¿ author Lynda S. Robinson feels enough is enough and brings the longest ¿narrative hook¿ in mystery fiction to a close. Thank goodness! This is not to say that this series, now numbering six, isn¿t worth the time it takes (years, if you read them as they were published!). Dr. Robinson expertly weaves the historic with the histrionic and has, truly, legions of followers. Her narrative description seems unquestionable, her knowledge of history keen, and her grasp of the basics of mystery writing far exceeds the minimal! This series, her ¿Lord Meren¿ adventures, is set in the 14th century B.C. and young Tutankhamun is on the throne (and we know it¿s only a brief sit!), but his ¿eyes and ears¿ (Lord Meren) is directed to solve the queen¿s death, questionable under any circumstances. Of course, delving into this investigation is far more complicated than it would seem. Conspiracies abound--some real and some imaginary. Lord Meren discovers that numerous plots continue to run rampant--from the priests in the temples to outside instigators who stood to gain, not only with Nefertiti¿s death, but that of her husband.These enemies of the state do not hesitate to kill the opposition, often quite cruelly (as we¿ve seen in the previous five episodes, too). In ¿Slayer of the Gods,¿ Meren finally has his suspects narrowed to one. It is up to him to catch him, never a more dangerouso fiend to be found, a killer who will stop at nothing, as he represents issues far greater than the death of any single invidivudal. Along with Anath, ( She¿s the ¿Eyes of Babylon¿), a sexy spy herself, Lord Meren is determined to find the truth, even at the cost of his own life. Again Meren¿s household (daughters and adopted son) aid in this quest. Author Robinson does not disappoint us. Episode Number Six, now, has been worth the wait!
Now in his fifth year as the Pharaoh, Tutankhamun continues his efforts to restore the ancient ways that his predecessor Akhenaten disdained. Tutankhamun somewhat finds success in returning to the old capital of Memphis and worshipping the ancient gods instead of just Aten. However, Tutankhamun has never fully recovered from the sudden disappearance of Akhenaten¿s Queen Nefertiti, who acted like a mother towards him. Detective Lord Meren learns who poisoned Nefertiti, but not the identity of the high-ranking instigator of the dastardly act. To provide some closure for his Pharaoh, Meren begins a dangerous journey to uncover a truth cloaked in a deadly conspiracy that could prove quite deadly to him, his enlisted partner the Babylonian spy Anath, and even his family. The sixth Lord Meren Ancient Egypt mystery is the best of a powerful series as Lynda S. Robinson combines fact with conjecture and turns it into a wonderful historical fiction novel. The story line is clever and fourteenth century BC Egypt appears thriving today. The cast, including real persona, adds to the feel of authenticity and plausibility. Historical fiction and mystery aficionados will derive joy from SLAYER OF GODS. Harriet Klausner