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Excerpt - City of the Dead by T.L. Higley

Today's Wild Card author is:





and the book:



City of the Dead (Seven Wonders Series)

B&H Books (March 1, 2009)



Up from the sands of Egypt rises the Great Pyramid, where Hemiunu, Pharaoh’s Grand Vizier, commands the historic building project as he orders his life—with justice, truth, and precision. But when a series of murders at the site threatens chaos, Hemi must abandon his legacy to hunt down the killer who may be closer than he would like to think. Can he restore justice to the city before his careful life and work are destroyed, or will a mysterious people and their strange God uncover the secret past that Hemi has tried to forget?



ABOUT THE AUTHOR:


From her earliest childhood, there was nothing Tracy loved better than stepping into another world between the pages of a book. From dragons and knights, to the wonders of Narnia, that passion has never abated, and to Tracy, opening any novel is like stepping again through the wardrobe, into the thrilling unknown. With every book she writes, she wants to open a door like that, and invite readers to be transported with her into a place that captivates. She has traveled through Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Israel and Jordan to research her novels, and looks forward to more travel as the Seven Wonders series continues. It’s her hope that in escaping to the past with her, readers will feel they’ve walked through desert sands, explored ancient ruins, and met with the Redeeming God who is sovereign over the entire drama of human history.

Visit the author's website.

Product Details:
List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 400 pages
Publisher: B&H Books (March 1, 2009)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0805447318
ISBN-13: 978-0805447316

AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:

Prologue



In my dreams, it is often I who kills Amunet. Other nights it is Khufu, in one of his mad rages. And at other times it is a great mystery, destined to remain unknown long after the ka of each of us has crossed to the west.



Tonight, as I lay abed, my dreams reveal all the truth that I know.



Merit is there, like a beautiful lotus flower among the papyrus reeds.



“Hemi,” she whispers, using the shortened form of my name in the familiar way I long for. “We should join the others.”



The tufts of reeds that spring from the marsh’s edge wave around us, higher than our heads, our private thicket.



“They are occupied with the hunt,” I say.



A cloud of birds rises from the marsh in that moment, squawking their protest at being disturbed. Merit turns her head to the noise and I study the line of her jaw, the long curls that wave across her ear. I pull her close, my arms around her waist.



Her body is stiff at first, then melts against mine.



“Hemi, you must let me go.”



Some nights in my dreams I am a better man.



“Merit.” I bury my face in her hair, breathe in the spicy scent of her. “I cannot.”



I pull her into my kiss.



She resists. She pushes me away and her eyes flash accusation, but something else as well. Sorrow. Longing.



I reach for her again, wrapping my fingers around her wrist. She twists away from my grasp. I do not know what I might have done, but there is fear in her eyes. By the gods, I wish I could forget that fear.



She runs. What else could she do?



She runs along the old river bed, not yet swollen with the year’s Inundation, stagnant and marshy. She disappears among the papyrus. The sky is low and gray, an evil portent.



My anger roots me to the ground for several moments, but then the potential danger propels me to follow.



“Merit,” I call. “Come back. I am sorry!”



I weave slowly among the reeds, searching for the white flash of her dress, the bronze of her skin.



“Merit, it is not safe!”



Anger dissolves into concern. I cannot find her.



In the way of dreams, my feet are unnaturally heavy, as though I fight through alluvial mud to reach her. The first weighted drops fall from an unearthly sky.



And then she is there, at the base of the reeds. White dress dirtied, head turned unnaturally. Face in the water. My heart clutches in my chest. I lurch forward. Drop to my knees in the marsh mud. Push away the reeds. Reach for her.



It is not Merit.



It is Amunet.



“Amunet!” I wipe the mud and water from her face and shake her. Her eyes are open yet unfocused.



I am less of a man because, in that moment, I feel relief.



Relief that it is not Merit.



But what has happened to Amunet? Khufu insisted that our royal hunting party split apart to raise the birds, but we all knew that he wanted to be with Amunet. Now she is alone, and she has crossed to the west.



As I hold her lifeless body in my arms, I feel the great weight of choice fall upon my shoulders. The rain pours through an evil gash in the clouds.



Khufu is my friend. He is my cousin. He will soon wear the Double Crown of the Two Lands of Upper and Lower Egypt. And when Khufu is Pharaoh, I will be his grand vizier.



But it would seem that I hold our future in my hands now, as surely as I hold this girl’s body.



I lower Amunet to the mud again and awake, panting and sweating, in my bed. I roll from the mat, scramble for a pot, and retch. It is not the first time.



The sunlight is already burning through the high window in my bedchamber.



The past is gone. There is only the future.



And I have a pyramid to build.









1



In the fifth year of Khufu, the Golden Horus, Great in Victories, Chosen of Ra, as the pyramid rose in the desert like a burning torch to the sun god himself, I realized my mistake and knew that I had brought disorder.



“Foolishness!” Khons slapped a stone-roughened hand on the papyri unrolled on the basalt-black slab before us, and turned his back on the well-ordered charts to study the workforce on the plateau.



I refused to follow his gaze. Behind me, I knew, eight thousand men toiled, dragging quarry stones up ramps that snaked around my half-finished pyramid, and levering them into beautiful precision. Below them, intersecting lines of men advanced with the rhythm of drumbeats. They worked quickly but never fast enough.



My voice took on a hard edge. “Perhaps, Khons, if you spent more time listening and less blustering—”



“You speak to me of time?” The Overseer of Quarries whirled to face me, and the muscles in his jaw twitched like a donkey’s flank when a fly irritates. “Do you have any idea what these changes mean?” He waved a hand over my plans. “You were a naked baboon at Neferma’at’s knee when he and I were building the pyramids at Saqqara!”



This insult was well-worn, and I was sick of it. I stepped up to him, close enough to map every vein in his forehead. The desert air between us stilled with the tension. “You forget yourself, Khons. I may not be your elder, but I am grand vizier.”



“My good men,” Ded’e interrupted, his voice dripping honey as he smoothed long fingers over the soft papyrus. “Let us not quarrel like harem women over a simple change of design.”



“Simple!” Khons snorted. “Perhaps for you. Your farmers and bakers care not where Pharaoh’s burial chamber is located. But I will need to rework all the numbers for the Giza quarry. The timeline for the Aswan granite will be in chaos.” Khons turned on me. “The plans for the queen’s pyramid are later than grain in a drought year. A project of this magnitude must run like marble over the rollers. A change like this—you’re hurling a chunk of limestone into the Nile, and there will be ripples. Other deadlines will be missed—”



I held up a hand and waited to respond. I preferred to handle Khons and his fits of metaphor by giving us both time to cool. The sun hammered down on upon the building site, and I looked away, past the sands of death, toward the life-giving harbor and the fertile plain beyond. This year’s Inundation had not yet crested, but already the Nile’s green waters had swelled to the border of last year’s floodplain. When the waters receded in three months, leaving behind their rich silt deposits, the land would be black and fertile and planting would commence.



“Three months,” I said. In three months, most of my workforce would return to their farms to plant and till, leaving my pyramid unfinished, dependent on me to make it whole.



Khons grunted. “Exactly. No time for changes.”



Ded’e scanned the plateau, his fingers skimming his forehead to block the glare, though he had applied a careful line of kohl beneath his eyes today. “Where is Mentu? Did you not send a message, Hemiunu?”



I looked toward the workmen’s village, too far to make out anyone approaching by the road. Mentu-hotep also served as one of my chief overseers. These three answered directly to me, and under them commanded fifty supervisors, who in turn organized the twelve-thousand-man force. Nothing of this scale had ever been undertaken in the history of the Two Lands. In the history of man. We were building the Great Pyramid, the Horizon of the Pharaoh Khufu. A thousand years, nay, ten thousand years from now, my pyramid would still stand. And though a tomb for Pharaoh, it would also bear my name. A legacy in stone.



“Perhaps he thinks he can do as he wishes,” Khons said.



I ignored his petty implication that I played favorites among my staff. “Perhaps he is slow in getting started today.” I jabbed a finger at the plans again. “Look, Khons, the burial chamber’s relocation will mean that the inner core will require less stone, not more. I’ve redesigned the plans to show the king’s chamber beginning on Course Fifty. Between the corbelled ascending corridor, the burial chamber, five courses high, and the five relieving chambers that will be necessary above it, we will save 8,242 blocks.”



“Exactly 8,242? Are you certain?” De’de snorted. “I think you must stay up all night solving equations, eh, Hemi?”



I inclined my head to the pyramid, now one-fourth its finished height. “Look at it, De’de. See the way the sides angle at a setback of exactly 11:14. Look at the platform, level to an error less than the span of your little finger.” I turned on him. “Do you think such beauty happens by chance? No, it requires constant attention from one who would rather lose sleep than see it falter.”



“It’s blasphemy.” Khons’s voice was low. It was unwise to speak thus of the Favored One.



I exhaled and we hung over the plans, heads together. Khons smelled of sweat and dust, and sand caked the outer rim of his ear.



“It is for the best, Khons. You will see.”



If blasphemy were involved it was my doing and not Khufu’s? I had engineered the raising of the burial chamber above ground and, along with it, Khufu’s role as the earthly incarnation of the god Ra. It was for the good of Egypt, and now it must be carried forward. Hesitation, indecision—these were for weak men.



“Let the priests argue about religious matters,” I said. “I am a builder.”



Ded’e laughed. “Yes, you are like the pyramid, Hemi. All sharp angles and unforgiving measurements.”



I blinked at the observation, then smiled as though it pleased me.



Khons opened his mouth, no doubt to argue, but a shout from the worksite stopped him. We three turned to the pyramid, and I ground my teeth to see the workgangs falter in their measured march up the ramps. Some disorder near the top drew the attention of all. I squinted against the bright blue sky but saw only the brown figures of the workforce covering the stone.



“Cursed Mentu. Where is he?” Khons asked the question this time.



As Overseer for Operations, Mentu took charge of problems on the line. In his absence, I now stalked toward the site.



The Green Sea Gang had halted on the east-face ramp, their draglines still braced over their bare shoulders. Even from thirty cubits below I could see the ropy muscles stand out on the backs of a hundred men as they strained to hold the thirty-thousand-deben-weight block attached to the line. Their white skirts of this morning had long since tanned with dust, and their skin shone with afternoon sweat.



“Sokkwi! Get your men moving forward!” I shouted to the Green Sea Gang supervisor who should have been at the top.



There was no reply, so I strode up the ramp myself, multiplying in my mind the minutes of delay by the stones not raised. The workday might need extending.



Halfway up the rubble ramp, a scream like that of an antelope skewered by a hunter’s arrow ripped the air. I paused only a moment, the men’s eyes on me, then took to the rope-lashed ladder that leaned against the pyramid’s side. I felt the acacia wood strain under the pounding of my feet, and slowed only enough for safety. The ladder stretched to the next circuit of the ramp, and I scrambled from it, chest heaving, and sprinted through the double-line of laborers that snaked around the final ramp. Here the pyramid came to its end. Still so much to build.



Sokkwi, the gang supervisor, had his back to me when I reached the top. Several others clustered around him, bent to something on the stone. Chisels and drills lay scattered about.



“What is it? What’s happened?” The dry heat had stolen my breath, and the words panted out.



They broke apart to reveal a laborer, no more than eighteen years, on the ground, one leg pinned by a block half set in place. The boy’s eyes locked onto mine, as if to beg for mercy. “Move the stone!” I shouted to Sokkwi.



He scratched his chin. “It’s no good. The stone’s been dropped. We have nothing to—”



I jumped into the space open for the next stone, gripped the rising joint of the block that pinned the boy and yelled to a worker, larger than most. “You there! Help me slide this stone!”



He bent to thrust a shoulder against the stone. We strained against it like locusts pushing against a mountain. Sokkwi laid a hand upon my shoulder.



I rested a moment, and he inclined his head to the boy’s leg. Flesh had been torn down to muscle and bone. I reached for something to steady myself, but there was nothing at this height. The sight of blood, a weakness I had known since my youth, threatened to overcome me. I felt a warmth in my face and neck. I breathed slowly through my nose. No good for the men to see you swoon.



I knelt and placed a hand on the boy’s head, then spoke to Sokkwi. “How did this happen?”



He shrugged. “First time on the line.” He worked at something in his teeth with his tongue. “Doesn’t know the angles, I suppose.” Another shrug.



“What was he doing at the top then?” I searched the work area and the ramp below me again for Mentu. Anger churned my stomach.



The supervisor sighed and picked at his teeth with a fingernail. “Don’t ask me. I make sure the blocks climb those ramps and settle into place. That is all I do.”



How had Mentu had allowed this disaster? Justice, truth, and divine order—the ma’at—made Egypt great and made a man great. I did not like to see ma’at disturbed.



On the ramp, a woman pushed past the workers, shoving them aside in her haste to reach the top. She gained the flat area where we stood and paused, her breath huffing out in dry gasps. In her hands she held two jars, brimming with enough barley beer to allow the boy to feel fierce anger rather than beg for his own death. The surgeon came behind, readying his saw. The boy had a chance at life if the leg ended in a stump. Allowed to fester, the injury would surely kill him.



I masked my faintness with my anger and spun away.



“Mentu!” My yell carried past the lines below me, down into the desert below, perhaps to the quarry beyond. He should never have allowed so inexperienced a boy to place stones. Where had he been this morning when the gangs formed teams?



The men nearby were silent, but the work down on the plateau continued, heedless of the boy’s pain. The rhythmic ring of chisel on quarry stone punctuated the collective grunts of the quarry men, their chorus drifting across the desert, but Mentu did not answer the call.



Was he still in his bed? Mentu and I had spent last evening pouring wine and reminiscing late into the night about the days of our youth. Some of them anyway. Always one story never retold.



Another scream behind me. That woman had best get to pouring the barley beer. I could do nothing more here. I moved through the line of men, noting their nods of approval for the effort I’d made on behalf of one of their own.



When I reached the base and turned back toward the flat-topped black basalt stone where I conferred with Khons and Ded’e, I saw that another had joined them. My brother.



I slowed my steps, to allow that part of my heart to harden like mudbricks in the sun, then pushed forward.



They laughed together as I approached, the easy laugh of men comfortable with one another. My older brother leaned against the stone, his arms crossed in front of him. He stood upright when he saw me.



“Ahmose,” I said with a slight nod. “What brings you to the site?”



His smile turned to a smirk. “Just wanted to see how the project proceeds.”



“Hmm.” I focused my attention once more on the plans. The wind grabbed at the edges of the papyrus, and I used a stone cubit rod, thicker than my thumb, to weight it. “The three of us must recalculate stone transfer rates—”



“Khons seems to believe your changes are going to sink the project,” Ahmose said. He smiled, his perfect teeth gleaming against his dark skin.



The gods had favored Ahmose with beauty, charm, and a pleasing manner that made him well loved among the court. But I had been blessed with a strong mind and a stronger will. And I was grand vizier.



I lifted my eyes once more to the pyramid rising in perfect symmetry against the blue sky, and the thousands of men at my command. “The Horizon of Khufu will look down upon your children’s grandchildren, Ahmose,” I said. I leaned over my charts and braced my fingertips on the stone. “When you have long since sailed to the west, still it will stand.”



He bent beside me, his breath in my ear. “You always did believe you could do anything. Get away with anything.”



The animosity in his voice stiffened my shoulders.



“Khons, Ded’e, if you will.” I gestured to the charts. Khons snorted and clomped to my side. And Ded’e draped his forearms across the papyrus.



“It must be gratifying,” Ahmose whispered, “to command men so much more experienced than yourself.”



I turned on him, my smile tight. “And it must be disheartening to see your younger brother excel while you languish in a job bestowed only out of pity—”



A boy appeared, sparing me the indignity of exchanging blows with my brother. His sidelock identified him as a young prince, and I recognized him as the youngest of Henutsen, one of Khufu’s lesser wives.



“His Majesty Khufu, the king, Horus,” the boy said, “the strong bull, beloved by the goddess of truth—”



“Yes, yes. Life, Health, Strength!” I barked. “What does Khufu want?” I was in no mood for the string of titles.



The boy’s eyes widened and he dragged a foot through the sand. “My father commands the immediate presence of Grand Vizier Hemiunu before the throne.”



“Did he give a reason?”



The prince pulled on his lower lip. “He is very angry today.”



“Very well.” I waved him off and turned to Khons and Ded’e, rubbing the tension from my forehead. “We will continue later.”



The two overseers made their escape before Ahmose and I had a chance to go at it again. I flicked a glance in his direction, then rolled up my charts, keeping my breathing even.



Behind me Ahmose said, “Perhaps Khufu has finally seen his error in appointing you vizier.” Like a sharp poke in the kidneys when our mother wasn’t watching.



“Excuse me, Ahmose.” I pushed past him, my hands full of charts. “I have an important meeting.”



It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!



You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Comments

  1. Sounds wonderful! I have always been fascinated with Egypt and it's pharohs.

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