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"I'll slay him!" The short, stocky ship's master, his face aflame with rage, glared at the tall, rangy villager standing before him. "I vow to the lord Hapi, I'll take his life with my bare hands!"
Hapi was the god who personified the river flowing below them, for much of its length broad and sedate, predictable. Here, however, its waters were split into a labyrinth of narrow, swift channels forcing their way around black granite boulders and islets, with just a few supporting sparse green growth.
The Medjay sergeant Imsiba took a firmer grip on the seaman's upper arm. Tall and sleek, with dark, glowing skin and the grace of a leopard, he towered over the man he held. "You'll take no man's life today, Captain Suemnut."
"He wrecked my ship!"
"Through no fault but his own, that I swear." The villager Neny, a man burned dusty brown by sun and wind, spouted the words with contempt.
Lieutenant Bak, Imsiba's commanding officer and head of the Medjay police at the fortress of Buhen, a two-hour trek downstream to the north, scowled at the pair. Buhen, the largest of eleven fortresses along this rugged and desolate segment of the river called the Belly of Stones, served as administrative headquarters for the area. Thus, his involvement in their squabble.
Their enmity was long-standing, he had been told, a sore that festered each time Suemnut had his ship hauled upstream through the rapids or eased back down on his homebound journey. Unfortunate, since each needed the other in equal measure. This stretch of rapidscould be navigated only when the river was swollen and only with the help of the local men, who, using stout ropes, puffed the ships upstream or guided their passage downstream. Neny was the most influential and skilled headman in the area, able to collect sufficient men from neighboring villages and use his vast knowledge of the rapids to see a ship safely through the rocks. The land on which his and the other villages stood was the most barren along the Belly of Stones, and without the products merchants such as Suemnut exchanged for their aid, the people would have starved.
Certain he would get nothing useful from either man, nothing uncolored by anger and dislike, Bak walked a dozen or so paces to the end of the sandswept promontory on which they stood. The lord Re, well on his way to the western horizon and his descent into the netherworld, glowed bright yellow in a pallid sky. Bak's shadow was elongated, the head and shoulders falling over the edge of the low cliff. A stiff, north breeze dried the sweat on his broad, deeply tanned chest, ruffled his short-cropped dark hair, lifted the hem of histhigh-length white kilt. He licked his lips, tasting salt, and waved off a fly buzzing so close to his head he could hear its song above the roar of the rapids at the base of the promontory. The distant honking of geese drew his eyes downriver, where a flock was settling into a reedy backwater, a safe haven for the coming night.
Beyond the broad stretch of rapids, the brownish, frothing water rushed down a narrow, steeply sloping channel clutched between a multitude of black granite crags, bleak and bare, glistening wet. Other than the swiftness of the flow, the passage looked as safe as a stone-paved street leading to the mansion of a god. Its appearance was deceiving. Obstacles lay beneath the surface, concealed by silt and froth: rocks and falls and eddies that could send a ship careening to certain destruction against the boulders. Unless its journey was controlled by men, men like those standing or kneeling on the boulders and islets at either side of the channel.
What, then, had happened to the vessel lying broken and helpless near the lower end of the passage? The modest traveling ship, roughly sixty paces long, lay smashed against a cluster of three craggy boulders rising at the near side of the channel. Water surged through an impressive hole torn in the vessel's hull. The deck tilted at an impossible angle, yet a surprising amount of cargo remained on board. Bundled cowhides lashed in place, soaked by the turbulent waters. What had gone wrong? Bak found it difficult to believe Neny would deliberately destroy a ship, even a vessel belonging to a man he hated. Other ships' masters would be sure to retaliate, finding a headman who pleased them more, leaving Neny's village to starve.
His eyes raked the rocky outcrops and islets along the channel, where fifty or more nearly naked villagers idled away the hours, awaiting Neny's signal to set to work. Coils of thick rope lay on the rocks at their feet. Other ropes, lifelines attached to the broken vessel, were wound around boulders or heavy poles jammed into crevices, holding the ship in place until the men could swim out and salvage the cargo.
"My beautiful ship," Suemnut wailed, coming up behind Bak. "Why, oh, why did I wait so long to sail north? Why didn't I sail at the highest flood stage, as I should've?"
Bak looked at a man truly distraught. "You were on board when your vessel broke loose?"
The captain nodded. "Only the gods kept me from drowning. Me and my crew."
"Tell me what happened."
"I was standing on deck, as always, but with the fate of my vessel in other men's hands. I don't like Neny, but never once have I had reason to doubt his skill, nor did I this time. I was watching his men laboring to pass us down the channel, taking care not to tangle the ropes. They were working in teams, singing. All seemed well. And then something . . . " He shook his head, as if denying a fact impossible to refute Bak bit back the urge to prompt, preferring the seaman tell the tale at his own pace and in his own way.A Vile Justice. Copyright © by Lauren Haney. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.