Authors: Lynda S. Robinson
“She owns the Divine Lotus,” Reia said. “Perhaps she’s being hospitable.”
“Only if it suits her interests,” Kysen said.
With a salute, Reia and the others disappeared, and Kysen continued on his way. A short walk down a road at the edge of the
foreign district brought him to his destination. He mounted the steps that led to the door and shoved it open to reveal a
crowded central chamber designed to imitate a Greek villa. The great hall had a circular central hearth around which many
customers had gathered against the chill of the evening.
Ese had decorated the place with frescoes of women in Greek dress with tight bodices that bared their breasts, flounced skirts,
and gold rosette earrings. Geometric
bordered the scenes—spirals, zigzags, and stripes. By designing her tavern after a Greek megaron Ese attracted Egyptian customers
to an exotic place, and foreign ones were drawn by the novelty of the serving maids, dancers, and hostesses dressed in the
fashions displayed in the frescoes.
Walking over to a table laden with wine and beer jars, Kysen traded a small faience amulet on a string of shell beads for
a jar of beer with a strainer. Holding it and a ceramic cup he wandered over to a corner and stood drinking and watching from
the shadows. On mats and cushions throughout the room rested Greeks from Crete and Cyprus, nomads from the eastern desert,
a wealthy trader from Corinth, and sailors from ships as far away as Rhodes and Tyre. The shadows far from the hearth provided
lurking places for every kind of charlatan and predator attracted to the capital of a mighty empire. Pirates, corrupt government
officials, and ordinary villains abounded. Kysen wasn’t looking for any of these; he was searching for Dilalu, the weapons
Inquiries into the man’s past had revealed that Dilalu had sold horses to Queen Nefertiti. Delving further, Meren’s agents found
that while profiting from this royal patronage Dilalu had been busy arranging to sell scimitars, bows, arrows, daggers, and
lances to rebellious Egyptian vassals in Canaan. Among these had been Aziru of Amurru, a troublemaker who defied the pharaoh
Akhenaten and pledged his loyalty to the king of the Hittites.
Before she died, Nefertiti had ordered her agents to find whoever was supplying the vassals with weapons and destroy him.
So Dilalu had had a good reason to want the queen dead. With her gone he could ply his trade throughout Canaan, Syria, and
Palestine, making himself rich on the interminable disputes of Egyptian vassals.
Kysen hadn’t taken more than a few sips of his beer when he saw Reia come in with another charioteer. A third man appeared
shortly afterward, followed by a fourth. He was halfway finished with the jar, however, before Dilalu strode into the tavern
holding his pet cat clutched to his chest like a treasure. Dilalu never went anywhere without his pet cat, a corpulent tabby
with a nasty disposition and a flat head.
The weapons merchant had a gait like a pyramid block with legs. He walked with his chin jutting out and his elbows likewise,
and Kysen knew that when he came close to the man he’d smell of expensive unguents. The merchant’s soft skin was oiled, as
was his hair, which he wore in tight curls and which hung above his shoulders. He’d recently shaved his beard so that his
cheeks and chin were a lighter brown than the rest of his face.
Kysen caught Reia’s eye and nodded in the merchant’s direction. Reia eased over to lounge near Dilalu while the others circled
at a distance. Oblivious to their presence, Dilalu chatted with Ese’s assistant, a woman with long, red-tinted hair. Kysen
knew Ese. Although the Divine Lotus catered to the physical comfort of its guests—whether it be thirst, entertainment, or
lust—Ese seldom bestowed her personal favor upon a customer. If she did so, it was for an enormous fee. She detested most
men, and Kysen was sure she would never consider entertaining the portly and slimy Dilalu. No, Dilalu was visiting Ese for
some more nefarious reason. Possibly he wanted her to introduce him to agents of vassal princes in need of weapons. Whatever
the case, Ese would probably make him wait to see her, thus asserting her importance and command.
Near the hearth musicians struck up a tune with a heavy drumbeat, and three women began to dance. As patrons surged toward
the center of the room to see the performance Dilalu followed his hostess toward the rear, through a stairwell and out a door.
Kysen followed, waited at the door until he saw the woman leave her guest alone in a garden court, and then slipped outside.
Dilalu had wandered to a reflection pool in the court and was trying to keep his cat from leaping at some ducks swimming there.
He wore a fine wool robe that must have taken a flock of sheep to make. It was yellow, blue, and red with a fringe spangled
with gold thread. While he wrestled with the cat his sandals slipped on the tiles that bordered the pool.
Dilalu admonished his cat. “Behave yourself, Enlil.”
He moved away from the water to stand beside a tall lamp stand, nearly knocking it over and causing the flame to flutter.
Behind the merchant Kysen remained in the black shadow of a date palm as the cat squirmed and clawed. Dilalu yelped, and twisted
around, his gaze finding Kysen at last. He squinted, then smiled.
“Mistress Ese, at last. My eternal thanks for agreeing to help me, for I seem to have attracted too much attention from those
in authority, that cursed Lord Meren, especially. I need your help in leaving the city without being noticed.” When Kysen didn’t
answer, Dilalu moved nearer and squinted harder. “Mistress Ese?”
“Greetings, merchant,” Kysen said.
Dilalu turned around, saw Kysen, and lifted one eyebrow. “Who are you? Don’t I know you?”
“I want to speak to you.”
When Kysen made no threatening moves, the merchant scowled at him and stroked Enlil.
“I’m busy, youth. I await Mistress Ese.”
Kysen glanced around the courtyard and spotted Reia, who nodded. The other charioteers were already moving around the garden
to surround their quarry.
“Mistress Ese isn’t coming,” Kysen said.
Alarmed, Dilalu backed away, his eyes flitting from one man to another. He opened his mouth and emitted a high scream.
“Shut up!” Kysen clamped a hand over Dilalu’s mouth. The cat Enlil growled and raked his arm with sharp claws. Kysen cursed
and withdrew his hand.
Luckily the music, drums, and clapping that accompanied the dancers in the tavern made it impossible to hear Dilalu. The merchant
scurried away from Kysen, his cat under one arm, dodging Reia and the other charioteers. Kysen ran after him, leaping over
a corner of the reflection pool. He landed in front of Dilalu, who shrieked and threw the cat at him. Enlil yowled and bounced
off Kysen’s chest, hit the ground, and became a ball of claws and teeth. As the drums and music grew even louder, Kysen sprang
backward out of his reach and whirled around at the sharp clang of metal. Half a dozen men had appeared without warning. Armed
with scimitars and swords, they rushed the charioteers. Kysen had come armed only with a dagger. He drew it as Reia dispatched
an attacker and pounced on another.
Dilalu took advantage of the distraction to maneuver around Kysen and race along the edge of the pool. Kysen ran after him
and caught Dilalu’s robe. The merchant tripped over the fringe on his gown and fell to his knees. Kysen stooped, intending to
grab the neck of the robe, but something heavy hit him from behind, and his knees buckled. Before he could defend himself
another blow glanced off the back of his head. He fell face forward in the water, and someone jumped on him and shoved his
head under; Kysen breathed in water and struggled frantically.
As suddenly as he’d been shoved under the water he was released. He came up choking and sputtering. Water erupted from his nose
and mouth, and he sucked in air.
“You idiot, that’s him!” said a harsh, foreign-accented voice. “Bring him, quickly.”
Someone grabbed Kysen’s wig. It came off, and he heard a curse. Before he could gather enough strength to resist he was bashed
in the head again and slung over a shoulder. Dazed, Kysen felt his stomach try to fall into his throat. He was moving. Then,
without warning, the ground slammed into him. Around him he heard the noise of battle, then shouts and the pounding of retreating
feet. He made swimming motions in the dirt, and gathered his legs beneath him. His vision cleared, and he was able to roll over.
Someone was standing over him. Kysen’s hand went to the dagger sheath at his side. It was empty; he’d dropped his dagger when
he’d been hit.
“It’s me, lord.”
“Reia.” Kysen blinked up at the charioteer. “What happened?”
Reia helped him stand. “You took a blow to the head, lord.”
Kysen shoved his wet hair back from his face. He felt his skull and found a bump that felt like it was the size of a crocodile’s
egg. Mud streaked his arms, legs, and face.
“Where did those men come from? I thought Dilalu was alone.”
“So did I,” Reia said as he sheathed his sword.
Kysen looked around the garden court. “They’re all gone?”
Reia nodded, handing Kysen his dagger. “When we stopped them from dragging you off, they retreated.”
“Strange,” Kysen said as he wiped the blade on his kilt. “Why would they try to abduct me in the middle of rescuing Dilalu?”
Reia was scowling, deep in thought. “Remember what the merchant said?”
“No, I don’t. Not with this knot on my head.” Kysen winced.
“He yelled at his men. He said ‘you idiot, that’s him.’ It seemed to me that he recognized you. In fact, it seemed to me that
he expected to find you here. Hoped to find you. The porter and the guards who are usually on duty at the gates over there
vanished once Dilalu began to speak to you.”
“You think he planned to abduct me? Why?”
“I don’t know, lord. Perhaps Dilalu is in league with the killer sought by Lord Meren. But I may be wrong. Perhaps he was
telling the truth and simply wished help in leaving because you’ve made him wary. But with all the misfortunes that have beset
your father lately, I don’t wish to stand here speculating.”
“Damnation.” Kysen threw up his hands. “Even that cursed cat got away.”
Reia pointed at Kysen’s scratched arm. “Cats are usually good luck, but that one must be possessed by a fiend.”
“Curse it, Reia, I’ve bungled everything. Now we’ll have to root Dilalu out of his house before he flees the city. Come on.”
Kysen took several steps and swayed as the world tilted. Reia and another charioteer caught him.
“Dilalu can wait. I’m taking you back to Golden House so that Nebamun can tend to you.”
“Just give me a moment, and I’ll be fine,” Kysen said.
Reia and another charioteer grasped his arms, and Kysen found himself being steered out of the garden court.
“We’re going home, lord. I can’t be sure you’re the hunter any longer. You may be the prey. Besides, if I allowed you to continue
in your condition, Lord Meren would see me flayed and fed to the king’s lions.”
“I’m not leaving before I talk to Ese!”
“Lord Meren charged me with protecting you before he left. I would greatly dislike being forced to throw you over my shoulder
in the manner of your attacker.”
“Damn you, Reia, I’ll remember this.”
“Of that I’m certain, Lord Kysen.”
Meren stood on the deck of
Wings of Horus.
The cloak of early morning wrapped him in a chilly embrace, and he listened to the water lap against the sides of this, his
fastest ship. Long, sleek, black, it had covered the distance between Memphis and Horizon of the Aten more quickly than he
would have wished. Three days after embarking he was waiting for the sun—Ra, not the Aten—to burst upon the eastern horizon
and reveal Akhenaten’s capital.
He hadn’t wanted to return again to this skeleton of a city, the site of his torment. For most of the seventeen long years
of his rule, Akhenaten and his government had lodged here. Akhenaten had chosen a pristine site for his new capital, a place
where the eastern desert cliffs retreated from the Nile valley and formed a backdrop of crescent-shaped cream-colored rock.
Perched on this barren plain, the city had baked in the relentless rays of the Aten and the fanatic gaze of the god’s son,
Akhenaten. Without the shade provided by trees and vegetation, life had been miserable at first. Everyone except Akhenaten had
welcomed the arrival of an army of gardeners with seedlings and trees from the old capital. Later, when Akhenaten’s sun temples
were completed, worship in sunlight rather than the coolness of a sacred shrine added to the city’s discomfort.
Pharaoh had been oblivious to everyone’s suffering, but the heat had been the least part of Meren’s difficulties. He’d been
so young, eighteen, when his father defied Akhenaten and died for his crime. Sending his beloved wife and daughters away from
Horizon of the Aten had been a precaution, one of which Meren had been glad the day the king’s soldiers had come for him. He’d
been eating his morning meal at home when he heard a crash, and the porter came running to tell him—what? The poor man couldn’t
speak. Meren could see him now, his mouth working noiselessly, his eyes bulging with fear. And behind him five massive Nubian