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Author's Note: This story has been inspired by a long-lived love of action/adventure movies from Indiana Jones to "The Mummy", as well as my favourite historical mysteries. I've tried to inject as much history as possible, but if you see any errors, please let me know.
The night sky blanketed the world, the only light coming from the tiny pinpricks of light shining from distant stars. She stood before the tomb, eyes not on its gaping entrance, but on those distant specks of light. There was the Great Hunter to the north, his loyal dog following him through his celestial journey. She tapped her foot on the sand, preferring to mourn her late husband behind the walls of their palace. Although she would never speak against the gods, it was unfair that they had seen fit to take her husband’s life without warning.
Nineteen was too young an age to begin the journey to the afterlife, especially when that journey had to be taken alone.
A bitter sigh escaped, Ankhesenamun, wife of the Great Pharaoh, as she watched the empty shell of her husband enter the hastily-carved stone tomb. Because of his age at death, there had not yet been a tomb made for Tutankhamun. Instead, he was to be placed within the tomb of a lesser noble, not the grand palace of death granted to a pharaoh. Even the treasures for the afterlife were not of the highest quality, nor were there enough to satisfy his needs in the next world.
The light from the flaming torches cast an eerie glow upon the inner sarcophagus, making the gold and jewels glitter as though magicked. The priests sung the incantations, the magic flowing from their rods of office and surrounding the door of the tomb. Once the body and conopic jars were placed within, the final incantation would be given and the tomb sealed. Forever.
The bodies of their three daughters, none of whom had breathed the air of life, would also be placed within the tomb to spend eternity with their father. He had been the kindest and gentlest of Ankhesenamun’s husbands, respecting her as though she were an equal, not a stupid child, or worse, a vessel for the king's pleasure. Together, they had brought back the Old Ways, restoring the gods to their proper positions and bringing peace and constancy to a slowly cracking society. They had done everything together, as a king and queen should.
Now, only her failure remained. Failure to protect her husband, failure to produce an heir. She would be married off to the highest bidder, a mere commodity, no longer a queen, but a slave of men. Although she had written in secret to the Hittites, begging for a husband - an act of sheer desperation - she had heard no reply. Even Egypt's enemies had failed her.
“My lady,” said a voice at her side. “Why do you not weep for your husband?”
She hid her grimace beneath a face of stone. Ay, the grand vizier. Perhaps the one to have brought Death to the pharaoh. He would use her to make the final step toward supreme power, and there would be nothing she could do. It would be in her best interest to marry him, to remain in the palace as a queen, to keep life in her body even as her soul longed for the Other World. Never again could she be whole; a piece of her soul would always be lost in the darkness of Seth’s realm.
“I do not cry because my eyes have no tears left." The words emerged sharper than she intended. “These last many days have dried my eyes like a desert wind.”
“Do you regret his death then, my lady?” He was persistent, as though her apparent lack of grief warmed his iron heart.
“Of course I do!” She turned away, tears dripping down her copper cheeks and falling into the sand below. “Leave me in peace to mourn my husband.”
Ay smiled, his dark eyes shining. Her sorrow only gave him joy. “Then you will forgive me, my lady. I must cast the final spell. No tomb robber will dare to desecrate the Pharaoh’s tomb with such a protection as mine." With a mocking bow, he left Ankhesenamun, who was quickly surrounded with handmaidens busy drying her tears.
Although she did not dare watch Ay perform the spell of protection, she could hear his grating voice reciting the ancient words of power. It had rarely been used in the past centuries - too many feared it - but Ay’s pride would not stop him from using it on the tomb of the young pharaoh.
He stood at the top of the tomb steps, rod held high above his head. As he recited the incantation, magic surrounded the tomb door. A black shape appeared in the air above the mourners, the demon's flashing red eyes sending them fleeing into the shadows. It swirled around the tomb and Ankhesenamun could have sworn that she heard it screaming, crying out against its new prison, the curse that would seal it within the tomb for all eternity.
And in a flash of white light, the spell was completed. The stone door slammed shut, a cloud of sand in its wake.
If the tomb was ever opened by any but the preists, the demon called from the realms of Seth himself, would have to destroy all who desecrated the tomb of the great pharaoh, sending them into the depths of darkness with no hope of an afterlife. There would be plague and suffering in its path should it be set free, but Ay knew this.
Ankhesenamun shivered at the thought of death without afterlife, without solace. As a handmaiden wrapped a shawl around her queen's thin shoulders, the young queen looked once more at the stars, hoping that her own death would not be long in the future. She would find him again and they would bask in the warmth of heaven. Only then would she remember what it meant to live.
As the handmaidens lead her away, a strange sensation plucked at her nerves like the musician plucks at his strings. With a backward glance, she saw Ay perched on the edge of the cliff, head still thrown back so that he could face the heavens, glorying over the power that soared through his veins. As the spell faded, it cast his face in an eerie light and he seemed to fade into shadow.
For all that it was a creature of Seth, the demon was a being to pity. The true demon was the man who had allowed magic to consume his soul. Magic, yes. That was the gift of the Evil One.
The mourners footsteps were lost amidst the shifting sands even as their cries still echoed through the cliffs. But there was no one to hear the demon's screams.
Author's Note: This chapter was intended to more explicitly connect this story to the Potterverse. It is not entirely necessary to read it to understand the story - think of it as a prequel to the rest of the story.
In the House of Black
There are countless ways to tell this story, but only one can make sense of the events which occurred after the opening of Tutankhamun's tomb. We told one story to pacify the Muggles, another to the Ministry, but there is another, though even that I cannot call the truth. Sometimes, I still wonder whether all of it was a dream. I am sure that many readers don't believe in magic, and even those who are witches or wizards might not believe in the existence of daemons. I certainly didn't, not until I meant one.
For the first eighteen years of my life, I lived in a narrow world, my life having only one purpose: carrying on the pureblood line. I was born to one of the most affluent wizarding families in England and grew up to think little and do even less. Or was it do little and think even less? I never thought about the world outside, that world without magic, except to believe that it was a lesser place, filthy and cruel.
My life changed one spring afternoon when the garden was filled with blossoms, the sun warming their faded petals. I had been out of Hogwarts for a year, doing what I could to avoid the marriage market. The Great War was raging across the Channel where both Muggles and wizards fought side-by-side. My parents did not agree with the War, thinking it illogical for wizards to fight a Muggle battle, yet they did nothing to prevent my brother from going, so Hector left for France with other young wizards to fight what appeared to be a losing battle.
Two years later, we received the owl which bore the tidings of my brother’s disappearance. They would never find the body.
The house elves covered the windows with black crepe and used the same material to surround my brother’s portrait in the drawing room. The portrait disregarded all sense of propriety, complaining how the black did not suit his complexion. It's funny to think of it now; I can't even remember what he looked like, his face a pale blur beneath blond curls. There is too much of my early life which has gone forgotten by my aging mind.
His wife was a sickly girl who had given herself up to Hector before he was to leave for France. It was my parent’s side of the agreement that he marry if he chose to join the army and Gwyneth Nott was a suitable wife, if nothing else, and utterly useless at anything, despite her sweetness of nature. Pretty, yes, but many said that she would have been a Squib if not for her father's power in the Ministry. I'd never seen her even light a candle.
"It takes too much energy, wouldn't you agree, Helen? Getting out the wand, then remembering the spell, then trying to make it work..."
"But that's the easiest part!"
She sighed. "Hardly. I'll just have house elves to do it for me."
Gwyneth wasted away in an appropriate manner three months after the owl arrived. It started with fainting spells and dramatic illnesses, then a loss of appetite and disinterest in anything, even her infant son.
"Take him to play, Helen. I'm too tired."
"You should get some fresh air. It'd do you good."
Her face crumpled. "Some of us aren't made for exercise."
Or for life in general. She died in late summer, leaving her son an orphan. She had worried too much about her failing health to remember that the boy even existed.
Thus my mother's eye, so long distracted by her beloved daughter-in-law, at last rested upon me.
It was September of 1918. The War continued, seeming to have no end to its madness. Not that I ever troubled myself about it. Self-absorbed in my accomplishments, I avoided society, pleased to remain the untouchable Helen Black. The one all the young wizards must have wanted, the ideal pureblooded witch, not that I ever heard from them. The world could do what it pleased, I was happy enough with my music and my painting.
Father entered the room, the creases on his face deepening by the day.
A single word, so ominous. I made sure to slam the piano shut before following him to the library. It was not my favourite room in the house, reeking of my father's cigars, but its contents were the cause of endless fascination. The leather-bound volumes were not often removed from their shelves, so many secrets hidden away in manor houses across the England, our history in the control of the privileged.
"Helen, have you ever contemplated marriage?"
He sat behind his massive desk, staring at me over his spectacles, knowing full well how much I hated when he did that.
He almost looked surprised.
"But not for myself." The pause had been perfectly timed.
Father smiled in spite of himself, but the creases in his forehead did not budge. “I'd never assume you ever would, but things have changed. Your role in this family is one of those changes.” His face darkened, and I knew that these words were not my own. Only one of my parents ever spoke to me in this way.
I heard voices in the hall approaching the library door. Father turned, his expression still dark, his hands clamped on the arms of his chair. He seemed desperate, like a cornered animal. Something was happening around me and until that moment, I had taken no notice of it.
"Your mother believes that Abraxas requires a more... stable family unit, parents to raise him as though he was their own." He hesitated, fingers tightening on the chair.
I stared at Father, only partially understanding his meaning.
"But what about both of you? You could still raise him...."
Father swallowed uncomfortably. “Your mother has rejected that option, claiming that you are in greater need of something to do, as she put it. A child would do just that, as would a...”
I opened and closed my mouth a number of times before the words emerged. "A husband."
He looked away, eyes wandering across the shelves, anything but look my way. “Most fortunately for you she has made a wise choice in husband for you,” Father continued, his voice lowering. “Even though I am opposed to you getting married so soon as I was with your brother’s untimely departure, Canis will serve you well as husband. He has many fine qualities.”
The strangled sound that emitted from my throat at the sound of that accursed name rang through the room. “Canis Malfoy?"
His cheeks flushed, his upper lip turning up in a typical pureblood sneer. “The Blacks and Malfoys have been connected for centuries. Your marriage would strengthen certain holdings and further the pureblood cause. You know all these things already, Helen."
I bit my lip, trying to fight back tears. Father was supposed to be an ally against my mother, protecting me from her schemes and manipulations. He had been the only one after Hector's death to stand between myself and marriage, letting me claim that I was still too young even as all my peers made wise attachments and ran their own households. But Canis Malfoy, of all people? That slimy, arrogant bastard, my brother's age, but never his friend. He had known was Canis was really like, why so many girls could not bear to speak his name.
"It is unfortunate that you are displeased at the match, but it is a necessary one for the continuance of our branch of the Black family. Our City cousins cannot be let down by your failure." He was growing more serious, a sure sign that he was not about to change his mind anytime soon.
I was trapped. A bird in a gilded cage, soon to be placed between the cat's greedy paws. No, wolf. Canis was far more canine, as suiting his name.
"I will not marry him." Blunt, and perhaps the most honest thing I'd ever said.
Father ripped off his spectacles, his cheeks flushing in frustration. Had he expected me to agree to this immediately? It made no sense. Surely he knew me well enough, knew why I had been avoiding society since graduation.
“Who else is there to marry? If you can name someone, please do.”
There was no one, nor had there ever been. Even with my appearance, my accomplishments, the boys at school had looked, but never touched, nor spoken, nor demonstrated any interest whatsoever. I could see that now. Some would be dead others maimed by the war, and those who had remained, they would be long-married, sitting behind their desks at the Ministry, anything to avoid their controlling wives. It was surprising that someone like Canis Malfoy had stayed behind. He was so great a coward that he didn't even think it necessary to fight himself, not when there were others who'd gladly take his place.
The sound of Father’s chair being pushed back from the desk alerted me to the approaching voices which had now reached the door of the library. I could hear my mother’s impatient voice berating someone about the proper treatment of his cloak. He'd always been that way. And to think that they wanted me to share a home - a bed - with this man disgusted me. No, not just that: it terrified me.
"Please, don't make me marry him, Father. I can't. I won't."
“I cannot make both you and your mother happy,” was his only reply. So it was to be my mother over me. She would win, as she always knew she would.
He'd always had a weakness for her whims, loving her too much, I supposed, though it might have been something else. Perhaps he wanted something from her that only marrying me off could ensure. I lowered my eyes, hands folded in my lap, wishing that I had been born a Squib.
“And look how modest she is, Canis." Mother's voice resonated throughout the room, filling all its silent corners, disturbing the fragile bindings of the books. “Such a dear she is! Now come here, my dear. I assume that your father already told you of the plan."
She patted my shoulder with more affection than I thought her capable of. Oh yes, she was definitely pleased to be getting rid of me at last, that millstone around her neck. People must have been wondering why the perfect Black girl hadn't found a husband. Must be something wrong with her...
They were right, of course. But I couldn't tell them, I couldn't tell anyone the reason. A promise is a promise.
"I'm afraid that I cannot accept Mr. Malfoy's offer. I do not wish to marry anyone."
In the silence, I kept my eyes downcast, imagining my mother’s reddening-face and the glares she'd shoot at my father like jinxes, blaming him for this streak of obstinacy. As for Canis, I dared not to think. Perhaps he was leering at my silhouette, or worse, staring at me with disgusting thoughts in his head. It wasn't below him. Nothing was.
“Never marry, what an idea!” She must have turned to Canis at this point because her voice lowered an octave. “Don’t mind her, she’s simply astonished at such an honour. You know how girls are these days.”
“Theodroa." Father attempted a soothing voice. "Perhaps it is the timing that has brought on this answer. Gwyneth's death-"
“Oh rubbish, Cygnus!” Oh, she was livid now, and it was with a struggle that she maintained the polite mask she wore in company. “Helen enjoys her little jokes, especially at my expense."
“I do not disagree, but perhaps putting this off for another week, even month..." He trailed off, his attempts to quell her rage failing. Putting if off, ha!
Canis watched with interest. Too much interest.
Mother's voice began to break. "Never! If it is not done as soon as possible, then it will never be done! What sort of wizard are you, to be so weak against your own child?"
He closed his eyes and turned away to look out the window. The Cornish coastline was neatly framed by the curtains, all grass and stones, the waves raging below the cliffs. There was no comfort to be found in such a sight, a place that Nature had forsaken in her own way.
“Never marrying means that I don’t want to marry today nor any other day." I rose from the chair, hands clenched. "Postponing it won't change my mind. Either I stay here, or I leave, but either way, it's as a free witch."
Unfortunately, Canis actually looked impressed at my speech. Damn him. My mother did not fare so well, staring at me as though I'd admitted to being a Squib. Hector had been her favourite. I was a girl, something to be passed off at the first possible moment, preferably with the least expense and the most benefit. She'd never wanted me, and she'd never been afraid to show it.
There was a snicker from above the mantelpiece. A portrait of our prominent cousin Phineas Nigellus, one of three such portraits, was looking down at the scene with much amusement. He must have arrived to see the spectacle.
“You can tell she’s a Black by her stubbornness." He laughed again, then nodded to Father. “I always said that you spoiled her too much. Obviously even a Malfoy isn’t good enough for her now.”
“Enough!” Father turned to point his wand at the portrait. Curtains appeared, hiding Phineas’s grin. The only remaining voice of reason was vanquished.
Father at last looked toward me, jaw set in fury. Between Mother and myself, we'd made quite a scene. Knowing Malfoy, it would be heard within every pureblood household by the end of the week. “You will marry Mr. Malfoy no matter what idealistic notions you've been harbouring. You need to correct those childish attitudes of yours.”
When he transferred his gaze to Mother, I could see how wrong I was. There was no infatuation there, no eagerness to please. I would never know what it was that had made him believe that marriage to Canis Malfoy was my best option. He opened his mouth, then with a frustrated glance toward Malfoy, he made for the door, slamming it shut behind him, a house elf leaping out of the way just in time. Mother collapsed on the couch with a screech, hand to her forehead. Canis knelt beside her too eager in his attentions, and that was when I knew the truth.
It was too easy to slip away, to go where they would not find me.
There were corners of the house where I could hide for hours, but that would not do. I had to leave entirely, wipe my existence off the face of their world forever.
But to where? Not London, to the City cousins. They would only send me back again, laughing at my insolence (or country ignorance). Not France, not now, nor Europe in general. No interest in going to America, a certain exchange student had reduced any passing interest to dust. There had to be other places where magical people could reside, but even then, I might be seen, recognised. Perhaps it would be best to stop being magical, to hide where they could never find me.
My possessions stowed in my school trunk, excepting the fabulous dress robes Mother had been bribing me with these past months. A book or two from the library, some money, jewels from my mother's box - borrowed, but never returned.
And so I ran away from home, like a character in a book, stealing away in the dead of night from an unwanted marriage.
But it was real.
I was in Liverpool before I had decided. Father had mentioned some banking interests in Egypt, worried for their safety in the possibility of the country gaining independence, which the Seers had been forecasting for years. From the books I'd read about the place, it sounded fairly interesting, even if I knew next to nothing about it. Tombs, museums, temples, crowds of tourists to get lost in, where it was warm and dry, no more of that infernal dampness of the Cornwall coast.
Yes, Egypt definitely was the place for me.
In the Valley of the Kings
The sun was hot for so late in the year. I still wasn't used to this damned unending summer. Damned weather, damned place. It wasn't even a real valley, just a big ditch carved out by water during the rainy season. Whoever called it the Valley of the Kings was looking for romance, not practicality when he - it always men who did the naming, thanks to Adam - chose that name. Honestly, how much romance can anyone find in a graveyard filled with bodies that have been decomposing for the past two thousand years? There is the treasure aspect to take into account, and after Rider Haggard and that Stoker fellow had it seemed like everyone and their mother wanted a piece of it, but few of the tombs they'd uncovered these last few years had contained more than smashed pottery and an empty sarcophagus.
Until now. Until Tutankhamun.
This glorious new tomb was why a crowd had gathered by this old rubbish pile. No one was certain what kind of tomb Mr. Carter had stumbled upon. It could have merely been another cache of mummies. The optimists believed that the find would not only be a tomb, but one still intact. That was the only bloody reason I was standing in the crowd getting burnt by the sun as an egg is fried on a hot stove.
Despite everything, I was still optimistic.
Three years had passed since I'd left England, alone and free. I hated the first and basked in the other. I was free to stand here in the sun in this damnable valley for as long as I wanted.
Yes, freedom. Ha! Upon my arrival in Egypt, I had used the few skills I had to survive. I was a young, unprotected white female lost in a foreign city with limited positions, primarily horizontal in nature. For once my accomplishments came in handy. I was able to do somewhat better, gaining employment with a producer of fake antiquities, painting the faces on poorly-sculpted Egyptian deities alongside the most supportive, if motley, collection of ladies I'd ever met. I came to know the names of the deities, their purpose, and their stories. Thus I began to learn the history of this country.
Half a year later, I found myself at the Luxor train station with money in the pocket of my ragged coat. The knowledge I had of Egyptian history was still patchy, but I conned into a secretarial job with an old professor of Egyptology. The way he lectured on and on about history meant he knew I was a fraud. He must have kept me on for my looks more than anything. Dear old Hubert.
He was still a man. He had needs. I left when they came to include me.
Once again I was on my own, not that I complained about it. There were just some things that a person didn’t bother to complain about, especially when in my position. I took on small jobs with museums or even with archaeologists if I was lucky, though not too many of them were happy to find that I was a woman. A pretty one, so they didn't mind too much, but sometimes the price was one I refused to negotiate.
Eventually things came to the point where I stood in the dusty valley in the scorching sunlight among a crowd of increasingly malodorous individuals, unemployed for three weeks and starting to feel it in the pit of my stomach. But it hadn't been long enough that I couldn't still convince myself that, if not for the lack of money (and the unpleasant looks I received from my landlady's son), I would have been happy.
At least, I'd like to think I would be.
It was opening day for the one tomb that every person in the crowd had waited weeks to see, even if it was only to have view the smallest statue or piece of jewellery. No one really expected to see very much until Mr. Carter had conducted his obsessively careful excavation, and so I turned my attention to the crowd. It is never a wasted task to watch people, to see how they function, to measure their expressions, their behaviour. I was certain that most of these people cared only about the treasure, anything of monetary value that private collectors would love to hide away in purchased baronial manors alongside other pilfered items that belonged in museums.
There is no doubt that the crowd was sprinkled with thieves biding their time, observing every nook and cranny in the Valley, every object brought forth from the tomb. The man standing beside me, with his swarthy skin, unshaven cheeks, and leering eyes, could have walked the boards as the Pirate King with very little effort.
His dark eyes watched every movement made by the workers gathered around the tomb entrance, and while he appeared at ease, a vein pulsated against his temple and the small finger of his left hand twitched periodically.
If this man wasn't a thief, then I was a Squib.
Before I could look away, he caught my gaze and actually winked. His less-than-white teeth showed when he smiled. I responded to neither.
"Exciting occasion, isn't it?"
Wonderful. An American. It would certainly explain his - shall I say troubled? - sense of hygiene.
I affected the finest British drawl I could manage. "Indeed. Quite a cause for celebration."
The crowd had blocked me in. Damn. No chance to retreat into anonymity and avoid further conversation.
"So why're you here then? Surely a pretty lady like you should have better things to do with your time."
My warning glare had no effect on his apparent cheerfulness. If anything, it did the opposite. His grin widened, eyes looking me over with unbridled interest.
“I am an Egyptologist."
Amateur would be more accurate, but I wasn't going to blurt out my life story. I was a fake, just like those antiquities I'd helped make.
“Lucky you. I'm just here for the spectacle. Amazing stuff they keep bringing out, don't you think? It's better than those motion pictures."
So my initial suspicions about his trade were very possibly true. It was becoming more and more likely that at that moment I was standing beside a tomb robber who would whisk away all the treasures in a bat of an eye. Hell, he'd probably sell his mother, too, if she was in that tomb. Good old Hubert would have been outraged, screaming to the heavens that every antiquity should be in a museum, especially the British Museum.
"So you're a lady archaeologist then? Fascinating what you girls get up to these days."
I scowled, which was considerably less than he deserved. My hand was itching for my wand, which was safely hidden in an inner pocket of my jacket. A nice jinx would do this man well, teaching him a lesson he would never dare forget.
"It's not as easy as it looks."
His eyes betrayed the sort of admiration I found it best to avoid.
Yes, he was definitely interested in looks. Mine in particular.
"Your own profession doesn't seem to have much in the looks category." I gave him a once-over with my eyes, noting the impressive musculature without looking much impressed at all.
When he began to laugh, I wondered why my sarcasm was only making this predicament worse. Most men would cringe and slide away quietly, their pride severely damaged. This man, however, was actually amused by my words. I stared at him as though he'd turned into a flying monkey, the expression intensifying when he reached out his hand.
“It’s certainly been awhile since I’ve met a lady with a head on her shoulders." There was something genuine in his laughing voice. “The name’s Moody. Alexander Moody of Lima, Ohio.” His pronunciation was exquisite.
I shook his hand, feeling the thick callouses on the palm. A farm-boy then. How original. And there I'd thought he was a thief.
"And you are?"
Hades, he was persistent. I thought of making something up, but went with the truth. Maybe he wouldn't believe it.
"Helen Black. It's a pleasure to meet you."
Well, not the entire truth.
“I'm sure you are, Miss Black." He winked again. Disgusting. "It's pleasant to be in such company. Never thought I'd find something more blinding than that damned sun, 'cuse my French."
My jaw clenched. Insolence. My hand twitched near my wand. Just a little jinx, escalating into a few curses, than an Unforgivable or two. The Ministry had fingers down here, but there was so much magic in this Valley that they would never know. Imperio was awfully tempting. Make him jump around, like a monkey or better yet, a ferret. It could be the highlight of my year...
"You're a quiet one now. Most English ladies don't know how to stop talking, especially to me. Perhaps you can explain it, Miss Black."
Was there someone emerging from the staircase? I couldn't see from back here. This is what came of having a lie in. Getting stuck at the back of the crowd beside a nosy American who could have passed for a pirate.
"Explain what? My silence or their stupidity."
When he began to laugh, attracting the gaze of others around us, I bristled further. Bad, very bad, to attract attention. At any moment I could be recognized, yet here I was in broad daylight, offering my name to some stranger who could very well have been sent to find me. Anger turning to fear, not yet terror, I suppressed a shiver.
"Why Miss Black, is something the matter?"
Genuine again. This man actually felt the words he spoke. But I didn't have time for him, or anyone else.
"I must go. Excuse me, Mr. Moody."
As I made my escape, my thoughts rushed in an unwanted direction. He may have just been flirting with me, but what if he had been following me, tracking me down like a dog on the hunt? Damn the tomb, I had to get away, just for a little while. If he had found me here, perhaps he had not yet found my lodgings. But if he knew those, too, then I'd leave, find another place. Luxor was small, but still large enough to get lost in.
I ducked behind a carriage dumping off another load of tourists. The encounter with Moody brought back too much. He may have just been a random man looking for a good time with a pretty girl, but I was still afraid of being found, being dragged back to England to marry Canis Malfoy. Or would that be such a bad thing after all? My current existence was almost pointless, based entirely off a freedom that I never actually experienced. I was and had always been irresponsible, thinking of myself before others.
I had abandoned my family, leaving my brother’s orphaned child with my overbearing mother and the man she would have married me off to. I could have had a family, money, material comfort. Were my fears only delusions? Would they put forth the effort to seek me out after all this time?
It was too late now to go back. Father was probably dead, murdered by Mother and whoever else she could get under her graceful thumb. Orion was probably being spoiled to death by nursemaids, destined to become a little brat, as arrogant and selfish as every other Black in existence. Canis had either married Mother, became her lover, or had married a distant cousin who resembled me enough to take my place at the altar.
Okay, maybe I've read a few too many sensation novels, but all the same, I couldn't go back. That world should be no more than a passing thought, a mere thing that passed through my head only to be forgotten again. The world I'd grown up in, believed in, no longer existed.
The carriage drew away. I rejoined the crowd, eyes on guard for any approach by Moody. His curly black hair was visible past a group of Scandinavians. They were a convenient group, their colouring so similar to mine that I appeared as one of them. Amusing, how easy it was to become someone else, if only for a short time. I was comfortable to belong nowhere, to no one.
The noise of excitement drew my attention, and that of everyone else, to the narrow staircase in the cliff. It sounded as though the door had finally been broken through, and the ancient seal had been removed from the door it had been placed upon thousands of years before. I wondered if the seal had to have been completely destroyed in order to get through the doorway, though that was likely the case. The incantations and spells on that seal would have been fascinating to read (not that I would ever have been given the chance). How much were they similar to the ones that were taught in the present? I had tried many times to trace Ancient Egyptian spells, even try them out myself, but something was missing, preventing my success. I needed a key of some sort to fully understand Egyptian magic. It could very well be that this tomb, whatever was within it, held the key to comprehending and using the magic of the Ancient Ones.
As the archaeologists brushed away the debris from the broken door, something in the air changed. The sky seemed to darken and the wind rose, blowing sand and dust into my eyes. Swirling dust clouds danced across the valley floor, causing the horses and camels to stomp their feet in protest. The perspiration on my skin that had been building up for the past hour suddenly chilled, and I hugged my arms close to my chest. No one else appeared to notice any of these mysterious signs of nature, that anything different had happened at all. They simply continued to stare toward the tomb, enthralled by nothing more than the sixteen steps that led to a dark doorway and the noises emerging from that void.
Whispers, only whispers, speaking of love and hate, of war and peace, of plenty and deprivation. They told of what had been and what was to come. They said everything that had ever been spoken as well as the words that each being until eternity would speak. The timbre of each voice was so widely different that I wondered how any one thing could create them. Yet somehow I knew that one being was making all this happen, making me see these visions and hear those voices.
Something had come from the tomb. Something magical. And dangerous.
The crowd was buzzing with excitement, not noticing the ominous signs of the tomb's guardian. It had to be a guardian, that could be the only thing that emerged from a Pharaoh's tomb. I'd read of them, vaguely mentioned in Dark Arts books (there was something to be said about growing up Black with access to all sorts of dark magic), but I'd never pursued the subject in detail. Perhaps other tombs hadn't required a guardian summoned from another world. If this was Tutankhamun's tomb, shoved into some random hole at short notice, then there wouldn't have been time to create the usual man-made safeguards, what some liked to call booby-traps. Powerful magic would have been a necessity to keep the Pharaoh, and more importantly his treasures, safe from tomb robbers.
But that didn't explain why no one else was noticing its presence. Surely they felt the chill in the air, or the sudden deepening of the shadows around them. Why me? Why only me?
I would have at least expected Gringotts to send an emissary to witness this opening, to make sure that the Muggles weren't bombarded with curses.
Then came the wind.
It gathered around me like the fabric of a silky dress, wrapping itself around me, running itself up and down my body, touching every inch of skin possible and more. It was as gentle as the hands of a lover, but without that lust that tainted all men, all the men I had known. Its softness against my skin only increased my shivering so that I could have been in the Arctic instead of the Egyptian desert. Against my own will, it played a intimate game with me, forcing a quiet sigh from my lips as it brushed across my mouth and throat. Unseen hands played with the loose strands of hair at the nape of my neck, while another part of the breeze caressed by fingers. It was far from anything I had ever known or experienced. Far from anything that existed in the secular world. Only magic could do such a thing. Only magic could strike such a fear into my heart.
I didn't know why, but it sent my nerves tingling. I was afraid of this being, this thing that was doing this to me. What was it that played such games, tricked the senses into seeing and hearing things that were not really there? And why did it play with me and me alone? Whatever it was seemed to be enjoying itself at my expense, and I hated that, just as I hated anyone with that power.
It whispered something in my ear in a language I could not recognize, then it pulled away, pulled back into the tomb. I took in a deep breath of air, as though I was emerging from the water. Certainly the exhaustion that overtook me suddenly was similar to that of a long-distance swimmer. Nothing around me was out of place, no one seemed to notice anything out of sort. They did not appear to see my flushed skin or shaking hands. I was invisible.
They gave a collective oooh and ahhh, even though there was nothing to see. Ugh, tourists.
Pinching the skin on my arm to see if I was still real, I turned away from the tomb entrance, feeling the need to take a very long and cold bath. I only hoped that whatever it was that came out of that tomb, for that was the only place I could think of such a thing coming from, would not return. But, of course, hope never got a person very far in life - it only makes one feel better about it.
I could hope that Mr. Carter would magically hire me (that was an idea!). Or that I would return home to find Mother gone and my Father welcoming me back with open arms (equally improbable). Or that a prince in shining armour would appear to whisk me off to his castle (slightly disturbing).
Damn. Moody again. Waving absently in his direction, I hid behind the Scandinavians once more. Thank Merlin they were so tall, and that they were moving in the same direction as where I'd left my ride.
The best I could realistically hope for was that I'd have enough courage to come back and witness more of the tomb's opening, including the removal of whatever lay within. That is, if nothing else, be it spectres or assumed thieves, got in my way.
I should have hoped they would. Luck enjoyed playing the reverse psychology game with me. Tomb guardians were supposed to do more than flirt with whatever witches happened to be nearby. Their job was to guard the tomb at all costs or face eternal damnation, one's soul wiped out of existence. Usually it meant being consumed by that crocodile-headed creature who sat by the great weigh scale. Never could remember its name. He wasn't a popular one among the tourists.
Checking every other second that Mr. Moody wasn't on my tail, or rather the tail of my mule, I took myself off to my lodgings for dinner. Another hopeless prospect. Back to my books, perhaps I could learn hieroglyphics by dinner. That would be just fantastic. Not to mention impossible.
If any curses came my way, I'd probably welcome them, just to break up the monotony of things. What was that horrible novel again? She? Or was it King Solomon's Mines? Or the other one? A hidden treasure, an ancient demon come to protect it, destroying all who got in its way. Yes, that would make a delicious story.
The mule brayed. Probably wanted to dump me off (or take a dump of its own).
"Shut up, you ass."
Thankfully, there was no one around to see how much the sun had affected my brain. Maybe the spectre was not a fabled tomb guardian, but just a figment of my scorched brain.
In the Temple of Luxor
The page had gone blurry, the symbols dancing across it, ever elusive. Even with bright sunlight filtering through the window, my eyes refused to focus on the hieroglyphs I'd been hoping to translate before my own civilization collapsed. It wasn't as though I needed to do this; I was sure that my work would only be rejected. But, if I thought of it that way, I would probably end up dead drunk in the Winter Palace. Not a pleasant prospect. It was bad enough I already had a reputation for salaciousness. Lovely word, that. Had a great way of rolling off the tongue.
I pushed away the muddled paper I’d been scribbling on and rose with a sigh, itching to do something that didn’t involve hunching over a desk. My dream to become a real archaeologist - was it that cliched a thing to wish for? - had not yet been fulfilled. That didn't stop me from trying. Each day since the tomb’s opening, I had ventured down to watch the stream of workers going in and out, in and out, then in and out again. Once or twice I saw Mr. Carter emerge from the depths, talking excitedly to one of his colleagues. No one appeared to notice my presence; I suppose they took me for a curious tourist. Or a primped tour guide (was there more money in that?).
In the days following the tomb's opening, I could find no explanation for the strange wind that had come out of the tomb. It was probably just dehydration and sun-stroke. Simple enough to get out here in the desert.
There was always the chance that something magical had happened, and it had come into contact with my own magic. The Ancient Egyptians were known to use magic, especially in the sealing of tombs to protect the Pharaoh’s soul on its journey to the afterlife. The tomb of Tutankhamun was nearly intact, having been sealed by the priests, who would have, of course, made sure that the spells on the tomb were in working order.
But all that was merely conjecture. The magic of the Ancient Egyptians had been long forgotten. Hell, their language had only been rediscovered in the last century. It was one thing to learn an ancient language, but quite another to learn their magic as well.
I shoved back my chair, still rubbing my eyes. There could be no harm in taking a nice walk through Luxor and treat myself to dinner at one place or another. It wasn’t like Cairo, where a person could nip into the grand market and eat one’s fill on whatever one could discreetly snatch from the stalls. Here, I would either get caught and my hand promptly chopped off or I’d be seen by some scandalised acquaintance of mine. Knowing my luck, I’d be seen by a prospective employer. Not that anyone was actually serious about giving me a job.
"Yes, that's a perfect idea."
It was nice to hear a voice sometimes.
Now, to change. I couldn’t exactly walk into the Winter Palace wearing my current eccentric mix of native and European clothing. I might as well wear a backless ball gown. The question of which would be more gossip-provoking came to mind. It would certainly be an interesting experiment ... but not tonight. All I wanted was peace and quiet, preferably not in my lodgings. That bottle under the bed needed some time away from me.
After a walk down a dusty road and a harrowing ferry ride across the Nile, I managed to arrive on the East Bank none the worse for wear. The village ferry was usually less crowded than the tourist ones, but unfortunately, it did not receive the same degree of upkeep. I was never a fan of boats, even less so after my sojourn in Egypt. Sneaking behind a well-placed palm tree, I dusted off my clothes, making me presentable enough for entry to the Winter Palace, as tempted as they may be to turn me around and send me out again. Come to think of it, that would have been a better choice. At least then I would not have run into the most annoying Moody.
Of course he was there. Where you expecting otherwise?
Entering the restaurant awarded me with a number of strange glances that were entirely unwarranted. What was wrong with a single young Englishwoman wanting a nice meal? I sat down and placed an order, glaring right back at a rather plump woman wearing a dress that would have been in fashion perhaps twenty years before. When she sniffed and looked away, I smiled to myself, then focused my attention on my teacup. I couldn’t help but wonder sometimes if the fact that I was a witch was evident to Muggles, and that's why they couldn't stand the sight of me. Or perhaps it was my lack of proper wardrobe, social graces, and patience for their ignorance.
And money. One could not forget money. Except I had.
My eyes widened at the thought. I reached into my pocket, hoping that I had enough for dinner, or even for the cup of tea I was drinking. One, two, three ... no, not quite; I was short a few shillings.
“Shit,” I muttered under my breath, trying to ignore the low growl emanating from my stomach.
“Now that’s not very lady-like, Miss Black." That drawl... oh Merlin, not him. “No wonder that lady in the old dress over there is looking at you in such a way.”
“Blast." I made sure to say this so that only he could hear. “What the bloody hell are you doing here?”
There was a flash of off-white as he grinned. His teeth were even more noticeable in comparison to his pristine white shirt. “Mind if I join you, Miss Black? My treat.”
The stomach, ever victorious, voiced a complaint I could not ignore. It would be worth sitting through a meal with him in order to actually get that meal.
I put on a dazzling smile. “That’s very kind of you, Mr. Moody. Please, sit down.”
He slid into the chair with all the ease of a serpent curling up on a rock.
“In answer to your question, miss, I came here to catch up with Luxor’s social scene. I suppose that you’re doing the same?” His gaze was almost unnerving. Too curious. Step lightly.
“You can think what you like of me, Mr. Moody. Everyone else seems to enjoy that pastime.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Tut, tut. Bitter, are we?”
I snorted loudly, making the frumpy woman across the room look even more discomfited. She stuffed another biscuit between her scarlet lips.
“Indeed I am, and if you knew me better, you might understand why.”
Step lightly, ha. Couldn't even follow my own advice.
He winked. The repetition was annoying me. “I wouldn’t mind knowing you better, Miss Black. It’s not every day that a man like me meets a woman like you.”
I almost regurgitated the whole cup of tea. Was this man real? Better yet, was he sane? They didn't seem to teach much in the way of manners over in Lima, Ohio.
“I can tell you one thing, Mr. Moody, and that is if you knew me better, you honestly wouldn’t like what you saw.”
He smiled, eyes taking on a carnivorous light. “I’ve always loved a girl with mystery.”
Oh for Merlin’s sake! He took every word I said and turned it around to suit his own desires. It was like he was running circles around my mind, and it was putting off my appetite. Too much thinking doesn't do well for the stomach. I signalled to the waiter, pretending that Moody had vanished into the ether.
He remained silent until the food arrived, interrupting me as soon as I raised the fork to my mouth.
"Have you been back to the tomb?"
Taking my time to swallow a large mouthful of chicken, I nodded. “If I hear of something interesting coming out, that's all. Gaining entrance is beyond my means." Damned if I’d tell him that I went everyday, filled with childish hope. With my luck, he’d already been inside the tomb and was only waiting to gloat.
But he was nodding in agreement. “Same here. I’m not really the type that they’d offer an invitation to.”
So perhaps I wasn’t right all the time. That didn't mean I had no excuse to dislike him.
“Most of the people in Luxor now are in the same boat,” he continued, sorting through the vegetables on his plate. “What I’d do to get into that tomb. From what I saw of you at the opening, Miss Black, I’d say that you feel the same way.”
I glared at him before taking another forkfull.
“Don't guess at my thoughts, Moody." He didn't deserve the Mister part, not if he was as low down the social scale as I was. "You'd definitely not like what I'm thinking now."
“And what would that be?” he asked innocently. His eyes had grown so wide that I expected to see the edges of his eyeballs.
I thought of turning him into a toad. Only then would I be a real witch in these Muggles' eyes.
"I'm thinking of throwing down my napkin and screaming to the world that you were attempting to seduce me." It sounded like a lie to my own ears, even though I thought it wasn't a half-bad idea.
He started to laugh, attracting more attention to us. I hoped that all these onlookers would also see the fury inscribed across my face.
“You probably would have done that anyway, Miss Black." He sounded far too cheerful. "Except that I'm treating you to a meal.” Now he lowered his voice. "One that you seem to have needed."
Damn him! Damn him to Hades and back! I’m sure the man would even find a way to send Hades begging for mercy. I had to escape his presence, even if it meant missing dessert (and they made such nice cake at the Palace).
Of course, I made sure that my plate was clean before throwing my napkin on it in anger.
“Thank you for the meal, Moody." I rose from my chair with all the grace I could muster. "However flawed the company."
He rose and bowed gallantly. “The pleasure was all mine, Miss Black.”
I decided not to swear at him under my breath. He didn’t deserve the attention.
Stalking out of the Palace while grumbling about annoying Muggles, I hardly noticed my direction until I found myself in the middle of Luxor temple. With a quick glance around to ensure that I hadn’t been followed by Moody, or anyone else for that matter, I settled down for a nice evening stroll through Amenhotep's colonnade. Among the monuments of a bygone era, I was able to find a small degree of peace. There was something in this place, in all of Egypt, that made all my troubles worth struggling through.
I wandered until the sun vanished from view, forgetting myself in imagining the temple as it once had been. It really wasn’t a long walk to the ferry from the temple, except for the fact that I’d probably missed the last Balidi Ferry to the village. The tourist ones ran longer into the night for those who were taking a moonlight stroll through the archaeological sites. But tourists travelled in herds, rather like sheep, and I was very much alone.
It seemed that I was more than just very much alone. I was absolutely and entirely alone in an isolated temple. Noises from the town were still present, but none close enough to provide comfort. Definitely time to go.
Walking towards the entrance, I began to feel rather odd. Something was out there, watching me, spying from a dark corner, and it was not human. It didn't feel right. Or rather, it felt right to me, recognizable as something magical, something remotely familiar. As far as I knew, there were no other witches or wizards closer than Cairo at the branch of Gringotts there. None of the recent tourists were of my kind; I could just tell if someone was a witch or wizard, even if they appeared in Muggle costume.
Biting my lip, I continued down the pathway between the rows of sphinxes. My hands were beginning to tremble as I imagined spectres leaping out from behind each stone. The eyes of each statue seemed to be watching my every move. It was like a very bad Muggle novel.
I reached into the folds of my blouse to retrieve my wand. Nothing. I'd left the damned thing in my lodgings. Wonderful. Pretty soon, I'd be another stupid Muggle woman, helpless in society. I'd have to take to stowing a knife in my boot or something like that. Even if I'd had my wand, when was the last time I'd used it? Did they go rusty over time?
A good spell to use on miscreants. Hmmm... Preferably not an Unforgivable (never actually tried one before). The body-bind jinx, perhaps? But what was the incantation?
Useless. Bloody useless. Just like a Squib.
When I finally reached the entrance to the temple, I kept my back against the wall, glancing about to try and see if anything or anyone was about. There were some carousers further down the street, singing bawdy songs; they'd be more of a hindrance than a help in that condition. Most of the houses were dark - just how late was it? I could have sworn it was just only sunset, unless the sun had taken a hell of a long time to set.
There was a whisper in the shadows. Nothing there. My mind must have really been going. Or the fear was getting to me.
With whatever it was out there watching me, I really shouldn’t have been surprised. Beings like the one I thought it was had strange control over the world and over time. It wanted me in this place at this particular time.
Lumos would have been handy right now, if only to light my way.
One of the shadows to my left moved. I ducked out of the way just as a nasty-looking stick cut through the air where my head had been a moment before. Rolling on the ground, I avoided the next attacker as he - it had to be a he to carry a stick like that, damned phallic symbols - aimed a kick at my abdomen. The boots on his feet told me that I wasn’t dealing with any petty thieves or beggars. These men meant business, not at all good. Drunks I could handle, but not professional assassins (dramatic, yes, but it sounded good). All I had was my bare hands. Everyone knew that Slytherins never fight with bare hands - that was reserved for idiotic Gryffindors - but they were better than nothing.
So I kicked back at the kicking man, right in the knee cap. The resounding crack was quite stomach-turning, but it did stop him from trying to impale me with his extremely large foot. Probably steel-toed, from the looks of it.
Before I could get my feet under me, I was slammed into the nearest wall, stunned.
"Well, well." He spoke with a slight accent, indiscernible above the roaring in my ears. "Just what we were looking for. A pretty one."
He began to laugh, the smell of his breath invading my lungs. Vodka, the really heavy stuff. A hand, too smooth to be that of a poor man - a tourist? another archaeologist? - ran down the sharp protrusion of my hip bone. The lack of curves made him hesitate a second; and there I'd thought skinny was in fashion these days. His partner was rising from the ground, swearing as he limped over to the wall, his breath heavy with pain.
One out of two wasn’t so bad, after all. He'd be an easy one to crush... if I had my wand, that is.
Then something came to mind, an obvious thing that revealed how much of Muggle I was becoming. Apparition. Did it require a wand? No one had ever mentioned that it did. But would it work? That was the question. Even though I did have my licence, Father had never approved of using apparition in and around the house. He called it lazy.
A knife appeared in the hand of my attacker. I could hear the grin on his face as he brought the knife to rest against the flesh of my throat.
Even if I tried to Apparate, he'd slit me right open. That was not part of my long-term plans.
So I took the lady-like way out. I pretended to faint.
"Oy!" His cry split the silent night. He'd not been prepared for any weakness on my part. Interesting.
The knife departed from my flesh, giving me room to lift the heel of my boot in the direction of his groin. Thank Merlin for sharp heels. Practical at the best of times.
He gurgled, nothing more, but it was enough to give me the strength to push away from the wall, sending him tumbling into his fallen comrade. While they fell against one another, I bolted. At this instance, the boots were utterly impractical, slowing my pace, but I hadn't spent two years in this backwater without learning the labyrinthine street pattern.
I thought of presenting myself at the Winter Garden for assistance, perhaps medical help for the scrapes on my face and arms, but any reception there would not be worth the trouble. Like it rough, eh, Miss Black? Instead, I took the ferry, hiding in the shadows so as to keep away from prying eyes.
It was safe to say that I was very confused. I'd felt the same presence as was at the tomb; it was there in the temple, waiting for me. Yet I had been attacked by those men, not a magical thing. Those had been Muggles, certainly not wizards, who would have immediately taken advantage of my wandless state. At least one of them had been drunk, so it was likely that they were gentlemen on the town, looking for excitement à la Jack the Ripper.
No, no, that couldn't be right. It didn't seem plausible enough; there hadn't been any reports of crazed Englishmen hanging about.
A couple passed by my seat. I made sure to keep my face averted.
If the men had been thugs, they'd be decently-educated ones. Nice clothes, public school accents, imported liquor on the one's breath. Even the knife had been of good quality, un-knicked and well-polished. It was more of a possibility that they'd been sent after me, but by who?
Pain shot up my arm. The bastard had twisted it behind my back when holding me, and how I wouldn't be able to move it for a week. Damn him. Damn all men.
Could Moody have sent them?
I couldn't think of a motive. My brain was too weak to think of anything. Bath, bed, maybe a shot of that Firewhiskey to keep the nightmares away. I'd have a good few of those now.
When I reached by lodgings after a too-long walk, the first thing I did was not jump into the bath or reach for a nice stiff drink. No, I tripped over my blasted Persian rug, falling face-first into a chair. My face would look splendid in the morning.
“Sitt, are you alright?” asked a shy voice from the doorway.
The youngest son of my landlady stood there, watching me with gigantic eyes. I jumped up and felt my face flush with embarrassment. My day was going from bad to worse. Maybe I'd skip the drink, just to avoid the hangover.
"Fine, yes. Just tripped over the carpet.” The words spilled out of me.
He tilted his head and looked down at the rug with curiosity, as though he expected it to explain things.
“Did it mean to trip you, Sitt?”
This boy was smarter than any of his siblings.
“It has a mind of its own.” Perhaps the truest thing I'd said all day.
“There was an effendi to see you,” he said, giving me a look filled with suspicion. Perhaps he doubted my virtue, too.
“What sort of effendi?” If it was Moody, I could safely ignore the message, whatever it was.
“What other sort is there?” he asked with a miniature sneer. “He looked like he comes from the same place that you do. All pale and sickly.”
Moody may have been American in voice and manner, but he was too swarthy to ever be regarded as sickly. It could be another possible employer... or my attackers of tonight, looking for me here before trying the temple.
"Did this effendi leave a message?" Hopefully my voice didn't give away too much of my terror.
He reached out with a small folded piece of paper between his fingertips, as though unwilling to touch too much of its tainted surface.
"Thank you, Hassim." I passed him my final few pence.
He rolled his eyes and left the room at his usual shuffling pace, probably wondering why his mother had taken on such a poor lodger. It was something I often asked myself. She had more patience than a saint to put up with the likes of me.
As soon as he was out of sight, I leapt behind the desk and rummaged through the drawers until my hand came upon my wand. It was a rather pretty thing of mahogany, about ten inches long, with a very nice carved handle. Father had paid dearly for it, I remembered with a small frown when I saw a small dent in the wood. It felt better just to hold it again. No Muggle was going to get the best of me in a fight. Never.
Stuffing the wand in my pocket, I unfolded the letter, which was more of a short note. The penmanship was enviable, all monkish in style with clear letters, all smooth and sloping to the left. A lefty then. Legend had it that Slytherin himself had been a lefty. Good sign.
Its contents were even better. I smiled, pleased at the words.
A job. The honest pleasure of that alone helped to alleviate the pain of today's numerous failures. I tried not to think of all the different forms of employment this Mr. Cadogan could offer, but instead imagined the clinking of coins and crinkling of monetary paper. Oh the sweet sounds!
The nightmares still came, the face of my attacker merging with whatever corporeal form a tomb guardian took (anything from Chimaera to Dementor), his voice emerging as an unintelligible whisper. I smothered my cries, then later my sobs, in the pillow. Choking on the feathers was worth the trouble.
Merlin, a job would do me good.
In Conversation with Madmen
One would be hard-pressed to find a Black, any Black at all, even the disgraced ones, who was not sensitive about his or her appearance. This first meeting with Mr. E. Cadogan – E. What could it stand for? – was crucial to my future. If I couldn’t get a position with him, I wouldn’t be able to eat for the next week unless someone took pity on me again. Just like– I shoved Moody from my consciousness and drove another pin into my hair. A tight bun, prim and proper. Business-like, but still feminine clothing, all British-made (purchased at ridiculous cost from the lost articles basket behind the Winter Palace). There were a few inkstains on my hands, but it was better to appear bookish than... anything else. Yes, this was perfect. How could he not hire me straight off? I definitely looked the part.
Five minutes early. It was not a good thing to be early for a job interview. Showed too much eagerness, and no one wanted a too-eager tour guide. They would tire you out before lunchtime, running you through the sites before you even had a chance to figure out how to pronounce the name of the place. You’d be whipped through Egypt before you’d stepped off the boat at Alexandria.
He was an early type too, it seemed. Pleasant voice, too. I set him in the key of G major.
I turned in the direction of his voice, not at all sure what I was expecting to see. He was extremely pale – Hassim had not be exaggerating on that point – but it was not a sickly sort of pale; it was just one of those complexions. Came from being a red-head. He was also very tall, towering over me like a crane, all angles. There was a stoop to his shoulders that showed how conscious he was of his height; he wanted to fit in. It was his eyes that grabbed my attention. Bright, bulging, and blue, the kind that stared right through a person.
Not handsome, I’d never say that, but he definitely stood out from the crowd.
He deserved every inch of smile I gave him.
“You must be Mr. Cadogan.” I offered my hand. In the most cliched way possible, he brought it to his lips instead of shaking it, but it was an anything-but-insolent action.
If he were Moody, I would have smacked as hard as I could. With this man, I almost simpered. What was wrong with me?
“Have you been in Egypt long, Mr. Cadogan?”
Everything about him said no, but I was trying to be polite. Vamp him up a bit. His dark clothing certainly screamed “foreigner,” though I’d seen a lot of tourists who at least knew to wear light colours in the sun.
His smile was lopsided. Must have been positively endearing as a child.
“I have only arrived recently, Miss Black. It is an enchanting country, is it not?”
Enchanting. Not a word I would have used. It implied a certain amount of fairy tale that hadn’t existed for most of Egypt’s occupants. How very colonial of him.
“Most definitely.” Small talk. The death of intellectuals everywhere. “Now, excuse me for being forward, Mr. Cadogan, but why–?”
He waved a hand – huge it was – to silence me. Against my better judgement, I complied.
“I require someone with intimate knowledge of this area and its history. I was referred to you as a suitable candidate for the position.”
I resisted the temptation to ask who. No one around here was insane enough to refer me to anyone else as a “suitable candidate” unless it was for the most menial of tasks. Intimate knowledge of the area and its history? Not bloody likely.
“What would you like to know, Mr. Cadogan? My education? Accomplishments?” I hoped he wouldn’t ask. Hogwarts was not a recognized institution among Muggles.
Narrowing my eyes, I tried to figure out if he actually was a Muggle. It was not all too obvious, which triggered some suspicion. Some wizards were highly skilled at hiding in the Muggle world, working as spies or in other covert roles in order to better control the Muggle population. If this was one of them, or a wizard sent in search of me, I couldn’t tell. The closer I could get to him, the better.
He waved his hand again. One used to getting what he wanted, I presume. Lots of servants and lots of money to keep them happy enough.
“That is not necessary, Miss Black. I already see that you are perfect for the position.”
How? I didn’t recall having cited the Pharaoh’s in chronological order in his presence.
“Perhaps we could start with the general environs?”
He offered his arm, but I pretended that I had not noticed it. I was in his employ as a tour guide, nothing more. It was something to do, and I hoped he enjoying eating all the meals of the day (sharing them with me, of course).
Unlike others I had led around the area, Mr. Cadogan betrayed no interest in the museum nor in the numerous tombs I led him through. His eyes would glance for a moment at the carvings and decorations, then glance away into the shadows, as though expecting a mummy to come prancing out. I gave him the grand tour, from the grandest temples to the most interesting night life the area had to offer. But the stoic Mr. Cadogan seemed to take no pleasure from any of it.
If ever I asked him about what he would like to do next, he would turn to me, his eyes staring through me.
“You are the expert, Miss Black. I am in your capable hands.”
As this was always spoken without a hint of sarcasm, I put aside any curiosity and went on to the next important location on my list, which was, I might add, conveniently taken from an old edition of Baedeker’s. But why would anyone come to this place without showing any interest in the sites? He was here alone, from what I could tell, so there was no excuse of being dragged along by a mad relative. Most of the time we were together, I felt like I was talking to myself.
Someone like Moody would have made a comment about me being the prettiest guide in Egypt. I did catch sight of that bastard once or twice, but I happily avoided him, even taking Mr. Cadogan’s arm at one point when I was sure that Moody was looking. Petty, but worth it.
Mr. Cadogan did not require my services on the Friday after he first paid his way into my company. Of course I ventured down to the tomb, taking a seat on the retaining wall close to the tomb entrance. An elderly couple glared at me as I settled into a hollowed out section of stone, but I was clueless as to why. I was not dressed like a belly dancer or anything otherwise inappropriate. I had even remembered to wear my hat.
A wooden chest was then carried out of the tomb on a stretcher, and I stopped caring about most everything else.
It was a beautiful thing, all inlaid wood and precious materials forming images of pastoral scenes. The people around me gasped in appreciation of the object, only one example of the greatness to be found within that tomb. Merlin, I wanted to be in there, the first eyes to gaze upon each object. It was probably a wretched hole carved into the rock, something quickly put together for a pharaoh who should not have died for another few decades, but it was the objects within it that mattered. The funerary equipment, the furniture, the statues, even the simple items for use in the afterlife.... Green with envy, I sighed in what must have been a most pathetic manner because the elderly couple once again glared at me. What did they think of me?
I left soon after. The old woman took my place on the wall, parasol in hand.
Wandering down the Valley, I took in the barren, stony walls and crowds of tourists in stride. Neither truly wanted the other to be there, but really had no choice in the matter. Come to think of it, the walls did have more of a choice – they could crumble down on top of the tourists at any moment, crushing them all to bits. That would certainly rid the area of a number of problems, yet also cause more to the economy.
“Fancy meeting you here, Miss Black.”
I closed my eyes. Now here was someone who ought to have been crushed long ago.
“Ugh, not you again.” Of course I should have known that insults only attracted him like a fly to dung.
He grinned and loped along beside me. “Off looking at the tomb?”
“Just a guess.”
I said nothing. Maybe if I ignored him for long enough, he would go away.
“I heard that you’re showing around someone with lots of cash.”
A growl emitted from my throat. “Only an American would come up with a word so vulgar as ‘cash’ and why would you care about who I work for? I certainly don’t as long as he pays well.”
I regretted those words too soon after they tumbled out. The connotation they held was too embarrassing. He was good at bringing out all the wrong in me.
“People are talking about strange goings on around here.” He wisely changed the subject. “The usual talk about curses and mummies and such, but now I’m thinking there’s a bit more truth to them.”
I shrugged. “Probably the hotel owners trying to rack up business. Curses always get people coming in droves.”
His eyes were full of laughter. “Now, Miss Black, you’re the last person I’d expect to be believing in curses.”
Oh, if only he knew the beginning of it. “Most of the parchments I study contain curses and spells of different sorts.” Should I have said papyri, instead? What was the proper term for those things?
“But you don’t believe in them, do you?”
Yes, I used to practise them on a daily basis. Not that I was going to announce my proficiency in Defence Against the Dark Arts (better known to all Slytherins as the Dark Arts class. No better way to learn all the good curses except to learn the counter-curses), not to a Muggle. The Ministry would be on me in a second.
“That would be silly, Moody. Curses, of all things!”
My voice quavered a bit, betraying more hysteria than I was aware of experiencing.
“You know that you’re one of the strange things I was talking about.” His manner was careless, but his eyes betrayed a greater seriousness.
Must deflect. “Only because you’re trying to seduce me.”
He took the bait.
“Not at the moment.”
“Then would you mind going away?”
“I’m not done yet.”
“But you just said–”
“I’m talking, not seducing.”
“Then please get to the point. I really can't spare the time.” Actually, I did, seeing that I had nothing to do at the moment, but I was not going to lead him on further.
“You’re a difficult person to put a finger on.”
“Literally or metaphorically?”
He stopped and glared at me. “Please have patience, Miss Black. I am genuinely curious, and perhaps even worried for you.”
I stood facing him, my arms crossed in front of me. He looked far better with a glare than a grin. Instead of making him look unworthy of trust, the glare gave his expression a sharper intensity that almost - almost - lent him some sort of appeal. The glare also meant that he had his mouth closed. At least for a little while.
“Who are you?”
I laughed, tossing aside a surge of fear. “Do you have selective amnesia, Moody?”
He waved this aside, but not in the masterful way of Mr. Cadogan. “No, I know what name you go by, and as for your real name I couldn’t care less.”
So he didn’t actually believe I’d given him my real name. Surprising.
“Then what do–”
“Perhaps that was not the best question.” A flush coloured his throat. It was rewarding to have the upper hand for once. “Let me try again: what are you?”
A witch. Yes, Moody, I am a witch and will now erase your memory while I prance off to another country.
That would go over well. If he didn’t think I was giving my real name, then I didn’t see him believing that I was part of a secret society that possessed more power than any Muggle empire. Off to the madhouse for you, Helen.
Moody was waiting for my answer. The longer I held off providing it, the most suspicious he would become.
“I could ask the same of you, but it’s none of my business, isn’t it?”
I walked away too quickly, my footsteps guided by instinct more than reason. My reason was busy interpreting the clues, the things he had given away in the short time I had been acquainted with the irritable Alexander Moody. The way that he mentioned curses and persisted in asking questions made me wonder if he had been sent to find me.
Yes, I was more than a little paranoid about being chased down by my parents and/or Canis Malfoy. Unlike the City cousins, there was no tapestry for our branch of the family. If they wanted to write me out of inheritance, they’d have to prove either my death or my willing abandonment of the family. In keeping the name Black and continuing to practise as a witch (and definitely not dead), I fit into neither category.
He was good at chasing after me, wasn’t he? But I still didn’t see him as the hired vigilante type. Too damn genuine in his words, actions, and emotions. It would have made him an expert assassin or a very innocent man.
Either way, he was not one whose company I desired. Not a male of the species, nor as a Muggle. I had principles, too.
I rather enjoyed eluding him a second – not quite third – time. He did follow me for a short while, but vanished by the time I reached the Valley’s entrance. Most unfortunate. I’d been looking forward to a merry chase across the desert. Instead of running home to bed, I circled back to watch more of the tomb proceedings. The old couple had left (presumably for an afternoon nap), so I settled in for a nice afternoon in the sun.
They were hauling out another box, this time of ebony and red-painted wood. It was possibly a jewellery box, about the same size and shape as my mother’s overstuffed box of jewels. A Pharaoh’s jewellery would be different from hers: not gaudy Victorian things, but instead representations of deities and lotus blooms all in coral, lapis, and turquoise. The box disappeared into Seti’s tomb, the excavation’s on-site workroom, and the crowd drifted away again. It wasn’t likely that anything else would be removed today.
The light was already fading. A whole day gone, already? It’d be back to leading Mr. Cadogan around places he wasn’t very interested in seeing. Perhaps I needed to try interrogating him a bit more, requesting more information about why he was here.
And then he walked past, on the other side of the Valley. I knew it was him; his height and red hair left no doubt. It shouldn’t have been surprising to see him here, another tourist doing the rounds of the Valley, except for the fact that we’d walked the Valley the day before. Nothing in his manner had betrayed any desire to return, but then again, he had the face of a statue. Not that he deserved such coldness from me; professional jealousy was getting in the way.
I stepped forward to call out his name, but he had stopped to speak with someone from the tomb, one of Mr. Carter’s assistants. He was nodding at whatever Mr. Cadogan said, then pointed to a location further down the Valley. Just asking for directions, that’s all.
Mr. Cadogan looked back, as though sensing my voyeuristic gaze. I ducked behind a pile of debris – the place was littered with such piles – bumping into a woman about my age, who was checking her complexion in a compact mirror.
“Sorry about that.” I cringed, hating to attract notice.
She gave a lazy shrug, brushing an invisible speck from one cheek. “You’re likely going to be the only interesting thing that happened today. Who’re you hiding from, if I may ask?”
Was I that obvious? Hiding, indeed! Perhaps she was just a perceptive sort; the accent gave her away as pure Oxbridge material. A bluestocking, dragged here instead of to the Greek isles for Christmas hols?
Her quick perceptiveness meant I needed a lie. A good one.
“It’s my fiancé.” I took on a similar tone, as though consumed by ennui. “Been evading me since catching sight of that actress at the Palace. Did you see her, all dark and mysterious?”
All good lies require some truth. That actress was real enough, probably looking to play Cleopatra in some version of Shakespeare’s play and wanted to pick up as much ancient jewellery as she could.
My new friend’s expression brightened. Finally, something interesting in the world! Oh please, if only she knew how interesting the world could really be. It’s hard to have ennui when you’re too busy counting every penny.
There was the bitterness again. Must control it better.
“Oh! I saw her, quite a looker.” Or it could have been hooker she’d said. Hard to pay attention when trying to keep an eye on too many things at once. “Which one was your man?”
“Red hair, tall, just walked down that way.” I pointed around the corner.
She frowned. “Missed him. Drat.” After a pause, which I spent peeking out from behind the rock – still talking to the assistant, good – she pointed in the opposite direction. “And there’s the actress. Probably coming to see the tomb for herself.”
My contrived scenario was sounding better by the minute. Had I accidentally performed some act of Legilimency, calling the actress to this spot at the exact right moment?
The girl was nattering on. “It’s really too perfect, you know. He waits here for her, both acting like tourists, meeting by chance. Then you arrive in disguise–”
Was that what she called my dusty trousers and wind-blown hair? Practical, yes. Unconventional, most definitely. But a disguise? She must have read too many novels. More than even I had.
“And now there’s that lovely man over there watching you. This is fun!”
My heart skipped a beat. Lovely man?
It was Moody, assessing me with the most curious of expressions. At the sight of him, I started to wonder at this girl’s sanity. Lovely, really? But I could not allow myself to be distracted by the improper use of an adjective.
“Well, I’m afraid I’ve got to run. Thanks.”
What I was thanking her for, I did not know. Perhaps for the insight into the modern Muggle female. It might come in handy if I ever needed a disguise, a real disguise, that is
I rushed off into the crowd, but they were all moving in the wrong direction. It was like trying to plow through a herd of sheep on the road, except that in this crowd, one could not kick the sheep aside. These sheep would bite back. Was there any place these people didn’t go?
Mr. Cadogan was no where to be seen. It was possible that he had gone the other way, but I was certain that I would have seen him in the crowd.
My feet halted as my head turned about, looking for any sign of Mr. Cadogan.
A wind passed through the Valley, making all the hair on my arms tingle and rise. It was the magic again, playing at the sand on the ground, swirling it up in alien patterns around my boots. I stepped back, hand reaching for my wand. Muggles be damned.
Voices from further down the Valley, out of sight, calling out in alarm. Had the wind reached there already?
Wand in hand, I stepped back, ready to face whatever it was using the sand to take on a corporeal shape. It chose that moment to vanish, the sand dropping to the ground. Never harmless, but silently waiting for the next breeze to make it come to life. I kicked at it.
“Miss Black? I was not aware you were here today.”
All that time looking and Mr. Cadogan had found me instead.
I started to innocently brush off my clothes when I realised that my wand was still in my hand. He was looking at it with too much interest, but no surprise. Dammit, he knew.
“Oh. This. Just a silly souvenir. You know the strange things they sell in the market.”
Play the fool, Helen. Go ahead.
After a painful moment, he gave a smile that would have dazzled me on a better day.
“Ah, I see, drawing designs in the sand to attract the sight of the gods?” His voice was so light, almost dancing across the words. “I have heard that doing so requires a special artful rod, and certainly yours is made of very nice wood.”
In other words, not some cheap souvenir, not when it was made out of mahogany. Whatever he was saying about drawing designs in the sand was utter tommyrot.
“Um, yes. This location is just the right spot for these things, you see. The lay lines are right.” Could one safely combine Druid lore with Egyptian history? I quickly shoved the wand in my pocket – what was that Auntie Druella had said about wands in pockets? – and deigned to match the brightness of his smile.
There was a moment when he seemed about to say something, but his eyes flickered away to the place he must have come from: a narrow offshoot from the main Valley. How had I missed seeing him in there as I passed?
He offered his arm. I blinked, mind working too slowly to catch up to what was taking place around me.
“Perhaps some dinner is in order, would you not agree, Miss Black?”
My own hesitation was concluded by the sudden grumbling in my stomach.
He was laughing now, and the arm under my hand was relaxing. So he had been tense, too, had noticed something in the air. Perhaps that wind–
“That is more than enough of a response for me, Miss Black.”
There was something compelling in his charm. I couldn’t deny it.
“Please, call me Helen.”
He pulled me rather closer to his side than I preferred, but I did not resist. That look in his eyes when he saw my wand. I would have to stay close to him from now on.
“And I am Emile.”
I took one final glance at the sand. It remained on the ground.
Where it belonged.
In the Blink of an Eye
Once again properly fed, I set down my napkin with satisfaction. The meal tasted far better than the last I had partaken in the Winter Palace, even though I had ordered the same plate. It must have been the company. Emile did not pry and was far more charming than I expected. This charm was not staggeringly overwhelming, but it made him a far preferable dinner companion to Moody, who was, if anything, the cliched bull in a china shop.
“I hope you do not mean to walk to your lodgings alone, Helen.”
He still paused before saying my name, pronouncing it with unfamiliarity.
My finger traced the rim of my wineglass. “That is my usual habit.”
“Why do you live on that side of the river? It cannot be comfortable for a lady.”
A British lady, he meant, a civilised lady. There were a lot of women living on “that” side of the river, thank you very much. The fact that few of them were European....
But there were certain things one could not say to one’s employer, particularly if he had just treated one to dinner. I let out a small sigh of impatience.
“It is comfortable for me, not to mention closer to the Valley.”
Our eyes met, and I braced myself for whatever attack was going to come. If he possessed magic as well as the power of a Legilimens, there was nothing I could do to keep him from viewing the contents of my mind. I kept watching him for signs of magic, for the things I tried best as I could to keep subtle, but each time, I came up with nothing. If anything, he was a Squib, which made him very boring indeed.
He looked away first. Had he seen any thoughts in my head, they would have only been for him. That was a rather convenient way of getting about Legilimency, thinking of nothing in particular.
“And that is what sets you apart, Miss Black.” He sat back in his chair, arms crossed and a smile on his face. “You place comfort before all else.”
I shrugged. “It is an essentially English trait, is it not?”
There was a small smile on his face. He did not meet my eyes, but he was still amused
“Indeed. And look, I have already failed to retain use of your first name. Forgive me... Helen.” He bowed his head in a way that seemed more French than English. “A perfect name, if I may say so. Your parents must have had a great premonition of your beauty.”
I stiffened automatically. Too automatically.
“Oh, forgive me!” He took up my hand, eyebrows flying up his forehead. “I have spoken wrong. It was a very improper comment and I am sorry for it.”
He actually thought that my reaction was about his silly comment about being as beautiful as Helen of Troy, ha! So his brain leapt from my being “set apart” from the other frivolous English ladies to being as shy and maidenly as they pretended (and it was more an act for them than for me; I practiced what they preached).
I extricated my hand to take a sip of wine, thinking. It was best if he continued to believe as he did; I could not allow him to know anything of my family.
The smile that came onto my face was painful in its sweetness. “There is no need for that, Emile.” A little batting of the eyelashes here, a little pout to the lips there. “I am not used to gentlemen making such advances, so forgive me for my... naivety.”
So the wording was more appropriately that of a virginal bluestocking who’d learnt about “the birds and the bees” from a book, but it seemed to work well enough on him. At least he was more subtle about his attraction, unlike Moody. In just about every regard, he was far superior to the querulous American, and it would not be difficult to believe that Cadogan had singled me out as a tour guide just so that he could look at a pretty face.
I sincerely hoped that looking would be the extent of it.
“Well, I should really be going now, Emile.” Tossing back the last dregs of wine, I rose and planned on making a quick exit. “Early morning tomorrow, if you’re up to it.” It sounded light and cheery on the outside, but was edged with a sharp note of stubbornness.
“What will be the destination of our journey?” He was also getting up, laying down a few bank notes without even glancing at their value.
I started walking away, too fast for him to follow without making a mess of things. He was not the type to go charging through a dining room, and it left me enough time to do some charging myself, out the door and into the ill-lit streets. No, I would not wait for the ferry tonight, for then he would find me and I just wanted to be alone now. It had been one of those days, those days that drain all of one’s energy.
Just enough energy for apparition, that was all I needed. Energy and a little bit of time.
Which lead me to run off in the direction of the temple instead of the ferry, where I assumed he would assume I would go. Something still nagged at me, but what? I tried to recall the expression on his face when I had named Philae. It had been somewhat of a test, to see if he knew of the place, and if he did, whether he would question the choice of that particular location. An island submerged in the Nile for much of the year, it was supposed to be an excellent example of temple art and architecture that was only accessible by boat. A confused reaction would have proved– what exactly?
This was the fatigue sending me off on tangents. Now I actually had to take him to Philae, which meant finding a boat and explaining the purpose of such a journey upriver.
I ducked down an alley and leaned against a wall, taking a deep breath. Not the best of choices, seeing that my previous experience against walls had not been a positive one, but there seemed to be no one about, no shadows, no voices. There was a little window further down the alley, high up on the wall. Light shone from within, a flickering lamp, but it was far enough away.
Stepping away from the wall, I brought out my wand and went through the motions, turning quickly, and just as the magic took effect, I saw a shadow at the end, just past the window.
My breath stopped, but it was too late, I was already home.
Someone had seen me apparate, a Muggle.
Or worse. Someone like me.
The early sun woke me, a strip of orange light falling across my face through the shutters. Another day and I had not yet gotten over the previous one. Perhaps it would have been preferable to ask for the day off that Muggle servants always seem to get. It was a very different thing having human servants than house elves, who needed no holidays at all – I could not imagine what they would do with themselves on such a day.
Upon emerging into that sunlight, now a blinding yellow, rising steadily, I tried to remember whether I had given Emile any details about today’s proposed trip. Nothing. Just a name tossed as a challenge across the dinner table. Just perfect, Helen. This is the way to keep yourself employed.
The usual cloud of dust rose up from the direction of the Valley as the crews were already well into the working day. I thought of walking, then hesitated. No, I would have to go into town for this infernal trip. With each moment, I hated the idea of it more and more, if only because it took me too far from here, no matter whatever problems “here” offered.
There was a distant commotion, a horse galloping up the road, shooting past at top speed, the dust swirling up around its hooves. Its rider was unrecognisable, but he too obviously wore a uniform. One of those interfering British soldiers (who were, by this time, not supposed to be quite so present), likely to be followed by more or the police. I knew the signs. This was not a place devoid of crime, and from the looks of things – his direction, the frantic speed – the crime seemed to be one of great interest.
I turned and followed on foot, jogging part of the way.
It was a very long way.
Usually, I borrowed my landlady’s mule, but he was not in that morning (perfect timing for her sons to have taken him down to market laden with wares). There was the option of bartering a ride on a rickety cart or blistering carriage top, but the last time I’d done that, I hadn’t been able to sit straight for a week, whether from the blisters, slivers, or potholes, I could never be sure. Walking was, however, out of the question, so a couple coins, saved from being fed by generous male subjects, paid my way.
By the time I actually did arrive, just as blistered, and now sunburnt and sand-covered from head to toe everything had been cleared away and the tourists were getting back to their business, unabashed and unashamed.
That alone told me that no crime against a tourist had been committed, and if it had, the authorities had done a bloody wonderful job at concealing it. The solider and his horse were still hanging about, providing a semblance of imperial order and looking very put-out. And then came the straw that broke the camel’s back: Moody standing to one side, arms crossed and brows furrowed menacingly. Dressed as he was in unrelieved black, he had to be boiling from the inside out (and outside in), but from the look on his face, I could see that such mortal considerations were below him at the moment.
From the state of his appearance, I would bet that he’d even taken a bath.
Perhaps it was that above all things that drew me closer. Of all the people here, he was the type to have observed everything that had gone on before I’d arrived. And, better than that, he would answer my question as to what that “everything” had been.
I didn’t think of it being a very stupid idea until I’d already spoken his name.
He smiled in the most demeaning way possible. “Ah, Miss Black. What a surprise.”
I swallowed, letting stubbornness take root. “I suppose I don’t need to ask whether it’s a pleasant one for you.”
The smile widened into a leer, but the glint in his eye revealed actual amusement.
“It’s not every day that a beautiful girl walks up, calling my name.”
It was like he wanted to goad me into arguing with him. Probably liked the attention, the prick. But I wasn’t going to give in, not when I wanted to know something and know it now.
“So, what happened here?” In sounding casual, one usually sounds suspicious.
A raising of his eyebrows was all I got at first. He turn to survey our surroundings before bothering himself to respond, arms still firmly crossed in front of him.
“Nothing to concern yourself about, Miss Black. It wasn’t too interesting, anyway.”
This from the man who was standing as close to the spot as possible, looking around as though he was expecting something. An answer, perhaps. I dropped my eyes to the ground, scanning the sandy surface for something that was probably already long buried in the sand. Cursed stuff, that sand. It was always getting in the way.
“You won’t find the blood, if that’s what you’re looking for.”
He let the bait drop, and like a well-schooled fish, I rose to it.
“I thought you said it wasn’t interesting.”
One of his shoulders jerked in what was meant to be a shrug. “Just a dead worker. Like I said, nothing to concern yourself about.”
That was, of course, the usual Western response. It was the reason why no tourists remained at this spot, gawking and exclaiming about bad food, the pains of the heat, or a pharaoh’s curse (all three of which were equally possible fates for tourists). It was also the reason why the soldier who’d rushed here with word of a dead body had looked so disconcerted. He needn’t have rushed at all. Probably didn’t need to bother coming, for that matter.
It was not something I believed for myself, and from the stiffness in his stance, the guardedness of his expression, Moody didn’t either.
“Death is death. Details, Moody. And don’t look at me like that.”
He was looking at in me in a more disturbing way than usual. This was no lascivious up-and-down glance, but it wasn’t lacking in admiration nor surprise. His eyebrows were raised again, and he loosened his arms to let one hand rub the day-old stubble on his jaw.
“Not just here for the thrills, are you?”
So he was still intent on figuring out my place in the whole grand scheme of things. He really must have been bored. Not enough thievery out here, not with the size of the guards lately. As tall as they were wide, in some cases.
All the same, I felt that he needed some grain of truth, if only to temporarily pacify his starved curiosity.
“A bad feeling. Something’s off here.” I waved a hand at the Valley. “This whole place isn’t right, not the way that it should be. Not since the tomb–” In other words, not until I’d met him. That was the day I’d felt the magic in the sand and wind, the powerful force that knew what I was right away, something no Muggle had so far found out.
But that was getting too far ahead of myself. Moody was not a wizard, not even a hit-wizard, and however... odd he was, the most he could be was an annoyingly curious Muggle, one of those who had glimpsed the magical world, perhaps, or who was naturally suspicious of everything.
Rather like me.
“Was opened, yes.” His eyes narrowed, assessing the situation.
“I thought that because you were here right now, that you’d seen the proceedings, and that it made you the best person to ask.” Batting my eyelashes would have been too over-the-top, so I resisted the temptation.
The eyes narrowed further, and I wondered how he did it without fully closing his eyes. Must be a lot of willpower there.
“Will you walk with me?”
Because one wouldn’t want to shock the tourists with talk about dead natives. Not that any of them were looking our way. A grim, black-clad man and a very disheveled young woman were oddities, to be sure, but easily forgotten ones, especially when the crowds were too busy scouring the cliffs for the next big find.
Still, there were too many eyes and ears here. A bit of paranoia goes a long way.
He led us away from the main path, and my footsteps slowed instinctively.
“I’m not going to touch you. Won’t even look at you, if you’d rather. God, you’re a strange one, for all the things they say of you.”
I let that one pass, having no idea how to respond to it.
“Tell me about the body. Were there any wounds?”
He rounded on me so fast that I tripped backwards into the sand.
“Would it surprise you if I said no?”
I bit my lip, but hid my face as I rose, dusting off my clothes with equally dusty hands.
“Nothing at all to show how he died?”
He stared now, forgetting his promise (if it was even that) not to even look at me.
“Nothing. His heart stopped on its own.” His upper lip pulled back in distaste. “They put it down to poor health, though he wasn’t an old man, nor an unhealthy one.”
I stepped closer to Moody, surveying his face. Too hard to read. Those features were inscrutable when they wanted to be, however much his voice revealed. He must have known the dead man, if only a little. It explained things.
What could not be explained was the possible use of the killing curse in a place like this. There were curse breakers around, I was sure, but they were always good at hiding themselves amongst the Muggles, vanishing as soon as their job was done. Not that they would ever use the killing curse, even if faced with an angry hoard of Muggles.
But – and this was a heavy, terrifying “but” – if there was another witch or wizard in the vicinity, they might have detected my own magic.
“Not even fear on his face? No shock?” My voice shook, however much I hated it. I looked away from him, finding great interest in the rocks.
I’d only ever heard about the effects of the killing curse. No sign of harm, just death, the heart stopping, supposedly as soon as the spell hit, though some argued that a second or two passed before death actually happened. It was enough time for the fear to strike, the shock of death suddenly taking over.
“You know what did it. Or you think you do.”
I did not need him to read my thoughts. It would just get messy.
“No. I just thought that he’d been scared to death, that’s all.”
He moved toward me, grabbing my arm in a violation of his first potential promise. He was not doing very well, overall, but he did manage to make me look at him, and something in his face prevented any complaint. It was not masculine authority (that is easy enough to ignore), but rather fear, a fear of knowledge, of someone else’s knowledge, a knowledge that exceeds your own. His skin, tanned as it was, had gone pale.
“A poison, then. Something he’d ingested.”
Well, he did have a point. He’d seen the body, not me. He would know what the man’s face had looked like, how the man had been lying, though why I assumed he’d know all this, I cannot be sure. It must have been the way he’d been standing when I’d found him, with that appearance of being entirely in control of the situation.
How strange for a thief, if that was what he was. I really had no idea, but unlike him, I was not going to harass the object of my curiosity with endless questions.
I had an idea about this death, insane as it would sound to him. After the things I’d felt down by the tomb, the magical trace in this area could be from a creature, not a witch or wizard, something conjured up by the pharaohs left to roam the Valley at night (I made a mental note to check the current moon phase).
“Or something he saw.”
Moody glared this time, all semblance of fear melted away.
“Curses again, Black.” So I was no longer deserving of any title. That was fine with me, seeing that I’d stopped using one for him ages before. “So the mummy was running around last night, scaring grown men to death?”
I wrenched my arm out of his grasp, turning my back on him.
“I never said that. A man can die of fear.”
Could he? I must have read about it somewhere for the idea to have come to mind, but all examples were evading me completely.
“I don’t have time for this.”
He passed me, returning along the same route from which we’d come, not glancing back to see if I followed. Not that we were necessarily far from the Valley entrance, but still, all these blasted rocks looked the same.
I couldn’t believe that, this time, I was the one doing the pursuing.
He turned his head as my voice echoed along the cliffs, but there was another sound, a crunching, a scraping, or something in between. It echoed downward, and I knew, I could feel the ground trembling beneath my feet, the stones and shards of stones rattling against the sand.
I could not. I trembled with the ground, eyes forcing themselves to look to my right.
But I blinked, and saw only the back of my eyelids, followed by sand, and a very close examination of Moody’s chest. This was accompanied by the sounds of my breath being forced out of my lungs, a tuneless grunt (not mine), and a crash as the boulder landed in the exact spot where I had stood, preparing myself to chase after Moody.
“Are you alright?”
A nonsensical question to ask the person upon whom you were lying. I could not breathe, much less reply. From the feel of his weight crushing me into the ground, I surmised that the rock could not have been so painful. Sudden death by boulder wasn’t painful, not when you were dead as a result.
“Ugh,” I gurgled, hands struggling to find something to grab onto that was not him.
Moody raised himself on his elbows, keeping low as he glanced one way, then the other.
“Gone already. Shit.”
“What?” The lessened pressure allowed for single syllable words to emerged, one at a time.
“Whoever pushed that, obviously.” He stared down at my face, hair hanging down over his ears. “The rocks don’t fall on their own.”
It was a highly uncomfortable position, though perfect had I been a proper heroine, and he worthy of the title “hero”. I was neither interested in being a heroine nor was I aware of any sort of tension between us in this moment. All I wanted him to do was get off and get away, cursing myself for calling him back (conveniently forgetting that, if not for him, I’d be dead, or worse).
“Why the hell would anyone want to kill you?”
He was getting up now, reaching a hand down to help me. With a glare at him and it, I rolled and struggled upright on my own, probably looking like I’d been wandering the desert for months (if not longer).
“Maybe they meant you.” I continued to glare as I brushed off my clothes.
A little smirk appeared, breaking that stone-hard visage. “Then they have very bad aim.”
I looked down to retrieve some coins that had fallen from my jacket, and when I raised my head, he was gone.
“What in Mer–” No, no. No wizarding curses in range of Muggles, remember (I should not have needed such reminders, after this long. Perhaps I was starting to miss home at last).
He was still there, just scaling the cliffs in a spider-like manner. Strange man, indeed.
The rock became my point of interest. Perhaps it had, after all, just fallen. There had to be tremors or something that could shake these things loose. There were a few others, fallen around the place. This particular rock looked no different from the others, except in size. Ah, yes, it was larger, which should have triggered warning bells, if I had been not continuing to curse Moody and rocks and all human kind under my breath. Any idea of the killing curse being used on a local Muggle and whatever unnatural occurrences were taking place around the tomb had vanished in that impossibly short moment. The noise, then the rock, the expression on Moody’s face–
“No footprints, but something was there.”
He was back down again. I thought only apparition could make one move that quickly.
“How can you be sure?”
Eyebrows rising, he pointed down at the rock.
“Didn’t you see the marks? Something scraped against it before it fell. Metallic, I think.”
Yes, it was there, if you squinted and turned your head upside down to see it. I knelt beside the stone, touching my hand to the marks. Stretching my fingers, I could fit one into each shallow groove. I could not suppress a shudder.
No. That was not correct.
I bit my lip, not daring to meet Moody’s gaze.
In the Teeth of the Lion
“You have some explaining to do, Black.”
Moody was now glaring down at me, for all the world sounding like the sheriff of some distant western American town. I half-expected him to rip a pair of pistols out of his jacket, silver star glittering on his chest as he stared down the enemy with cold dark eyes.
It was an amusing image, and I reacted accordingly.
“Hell, she’s gone hysterical.” His face actually softened a touch. “Calm down,” he said louder, placing his hand on my shoulder. “Those are strange marks, but they can’t be what you think they are.”
I pulled away from him, rubbing a sleeve over my face. “I’m not hysterical.” A little bit of a lie; I’d be surprised if I wasn’t hysterical at that moment. “And they are exactly what they appear to be. Claws. From a very large animal who’s bloody brilliant at climbing sheer cliffs. And what did I say earlier about touching me?”
He was examining the rock for himself, probably not listening to a word I said. I stood over him with crossed arms, dividing my gaze between him and our surroundings, just in case. Neither was worth trusting, even if Moody had saved my life. Yes, I was ready to admit that he had, but that didn’t mean I had to trust him, or better yet, like him.
When he finally rose again – and it seemed like hours had passed – he looked around once more, eyeing every grain of sand.
“A good climber and well-camouflaged.” He ran a finger along the scar that ran from ear lobe to chin. It was thin and pink, slightly puckering the skin around it. “It must be a strange animal. Perfect for this place, don’t you think?”
He turned to look at me, that grin playing around the corners of his mouth.
“And it definitely doesn’t like you.”
Much too cheerful about this, and thus was his revenge against my earlier laughter.
I wouldn’t stoop to responding to such a comment. My only defence was to leave, scrambling back to civilization with my tail between my legs, the bruises on which would require attention if I wanted to wear a fashionable hemline. Stockings could only cover so much.
“It’s best if I go back now.”
Easy to walk away.
Until he caught up.
“Going back to your beloved boss, Black?” He was far too entertained by his alliteration.
I made a face. “Beloved? Certainly not.”
“Just another job, then?” His teeth showed, whether from a sneer or laugh, I could not tell. He was talented at inscrutability.
Stopping, I felt my fists clench. “Yes, it is. And shouldn’t you be more worried about the rock that almost killed us?”
He met my eyes. “You. Almost killed you.”
The fear, the shock of it all, was sinking in. I could feel its weight on my lungs, its impression on my imagination. And the only thought that came to mind was that even Canis Malfoy wouldn’t think of killing me that way. A quick spell, that would do the trick, an Avada Kedavra that would reveal nothing to a Muggle, no sign of violence. Malfoy was not a hands on sort of wizard.
I could also be sure that Moody was not an assassin. Although I could be sure that he was a low-life of the lowest denomination, assassins weren't really in the business of saving lives. No, instead, he has to save my life, and according to the deepest, most ancient laws, a connection had been forged between us, one that I must forever resent.
“So you need to be more careful.”
Of course he didn’t care about deep and ancient laws of magic. I made a face. “Thanks, Mummy. I’ll be sure not to talk to strangers.”
He reached out to grab my arm, then pulled it back at the last moment, his fingers curling inward. I could see more scars on that hand, and they weren’t from a pet kitten.
“It’s not surprising that no one puts up with you for long.” His once-laughing mouth twisted into a sneer. “Shouldn’t have wasted my energy in saving you. Good day, Miss Black.” He gave a mocking bow and started walking in another direction. Not into the desert as such, but it seemed like it at the time.
So I asked the obvious question: “Where are you going?”
Speaking of hysteria, at that moment I realised that I didn’t want him to leave. Not just to leave me here, but to leave at all. I watched him take each step, a startling black figure against the sand and sky, and I very much wanted him to turn back against all my better judgment.
Wait. Hadn’t we gone through this already? I glanced from side to side, waiting for the next stone to target my head.
After a few more steps, he turned, arms at his sides, but with tense shoulders. “Just listen to one word of advice, if you’ll ever take any. Don’t trust that employer of yours.”
There was a little twinge in my stomach that was, for once, not from hunger.
He took a step toward me. “Because no one knows how he arrived in Egypt. No boat or train brought him. It’s like he–”
“Appeared out of nowhere,” I mouthed along, now staring into nothing.
It made sense, at the same time that it didn’t. Maybe Cadogan had just come by some private boat – he seemed wealthy enough for that distinction – and there were a large number of illegal means by which he could have travelled. It made things difficult, but only for those trying to discern who he was and why he had come to Egypt in the first place.
And then I wondered how some swarthy thief-like individual like Moody would have heard such news. That was an even stranger thing and something I could not rationalise.
Perhaps the question was in regard to one Alexander Moody. He could have been faking that accent – it was a bit too American-sounding, if you know what I mean, very much on the cliched side of things – and all those scars and... well... swarthy visage could have been artificially applied. Maybe tattoos or makeup. Everything about him could have been a lie. Even the saving my life bit could have been staged so that I would begin to trust him, enter into an uneasy friendship....
“Moody! You’re so damn dramatic.”
“The pot shouldn’t call the kettle black!”
How ironic of him. Without another word or thought, I turned my back on him and hoped to Merlin that I could find my way back from here without getting lost amid the ever-changing sands.
That was a bit of an exaggeration because I only had to follow my nose.
I will not begin to philosophise on the smell of domestic animals and improper sanitation in the colonies as that would take far too long and would cause too much of a disturbance to the readers. Needless to say, it was not a very pleasant smell at all, but it was practical enough for the situation.
I hadn’t gone very far when I looked back. Always the fatal mistake, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Moody was already out of sight.
So I got myself out of sight too and returned to my lodgings.
It was, at first, hard to remember the events of the previous day; I had promised to take Cadogan on a cruise to Philae. It was a very stupid idea, not at all made more dear by Moody’s warning. While I also distrusted him, but it would not be wise to ignore his words. He knew something, and I had to find out what that was.
Just think, I was fully prepared to trust Moody and I did not, would not, rebel against it.
I stood for too long on my rug - its mood of late made me refuse to call it a carpet, its proper title – and it shooed me off with a shake of its tassels. Horrible object! But I refrained from kicking it or, worse, stamping on it. It might come in necessary at a later time, when I would not have the opportunity to argue with it over my negligent treatment of its fine woolen strands.
A bath was definitely required, the day already having been exhausting, frustrating, and marked by being knocked into the sands by one who was neither light nor fresh scented. Moody continued to ignore the more basic levels of hygiene. All I could, at the moment, manage was a wet cloth to wash the perspiration from my forehead and neck, but it was moderately successful in clearing my brain.
The book on Philae was in my hands after a useful “accio” and opened to the correct page: the map. Maps are very handy things, and having never been that far south myself, I needed to know the lay of the land down to the smallest detail. It was an island, I knew, threatened by the flood waters from a dam just slightly younger than myself.
The book went limp in my hands.
It was also an island that lay beneath the water from October to July. The buildings were entirely submerged now, and had been since beneath the war. Its loss stood for the wonders of British Muggle technology, destroying in order to create.
With all of this in mind, it was easy to distract myself from the worries at hand.
I had to admit to myself that he had been very successful at ingratiating himself into my consciousness. When I thought of something, his voice would answer in disagreement. Madenning at the very least; disturbing when I contemplated the sub-conscious motivations behind it. One thing to trust him on one single occasion, quite another to think of him inside my head.
The rug slapped my leg and crawled away.
I went to bed. It may have only been midday, but it felt as though weeks had passed since the sun had rose that morning. The run across to Thebes. The discovery of the murder scene. Being crushed beneath Moody as a rock fell over our heads. It was more than enough for a day.
When I re-opened my eyes, it wasn’t yet evening. It seemed like a good opportunity to take advantage of the slowly-passing hours. There were still many things to plan, to organize, to understand, that when Hassim scampered in with a solemn look in his eyes, I knew that there would not be a moment for any of it. .
“Sitt, there are men come for you. Are you leaving us?”
Men. Come for me. That did not sound encouraging.
“Not that I know of, Hassim. Your mother won’t lose her income anytime soon.”
He screwed up his mouth in disbelief. “One is the effendi who came last.”
The rug was still twitching. At least Hassim knew better than to stand near it. Unlike me.
“I’m definitely not leaving forever.” I gave him a very fake and silly smile. “Just going for a quick trip up the river, alright?”
He wasn’t fooled a single iota.
“I have no good feeling about this, Sitt. You should not go with this effendi.”
There seemed to be some information circulating that I had no knowledge of. How was it that all these other individuals – male individuals, when I came to think of it – were all so concerned about Cadogan? He was an odd man, to be certain, and I wasn’t sure what to make of him, but I wasn’t about to do let my guard down in his presence. Constant vigilance was always wise.
So when I went outside to see what was going on, I realized too late that I’d forgotten my wand again.
I was not at all performing well in the constant vigilance category.
It was Cadogan. Some wistful segment of my imagination had raised the possibility of Moody reappearing, perhaps with a bouquet of flowers and a sincere apology, but as I said, it emerged from a very wistful part of my imagination.
“Miss Black! I am prepared for our journey.”
The sound was spoken by my lips as I stared at him.
He had, it seems, taken my earlier suggestion – had it only been yesterday morning? – to heart and had made all the preparations for such a trip, assuming that I too was prepared to start that very day. It had been only a few hours....
“Already?” I asked, glancing over at the open carriage, the horses pawing the ground in impatience. He was nearly doing the same thing.
“You have not yet packed?”
“Packed? No.” I took a deep breath and swallowed before finding any rational train of thought in my head. “I wasn’t aware that you wanted to depart so soon.”
He held out his arms, brilliant white suit blinding in the late day sun. “But it’s the perfect day to go, Miss Black. Helen,” he added after a pause, eyes meeting mine. “A few days away from this....” He looked over my shoulder at the house and didn’t need to say anything more.
A few days away, even if in his company, could not do any harm. It would give me time to keep him in close regard, witness his personal habits, and perhaps understand who he was and why he was here. And I will not neglect to mention the other bonus of leaving: that Moody would also be left behind, as well as whatever kind of thing threw that rock at us.
I gave him a bright smile, hopefully as blinding as his suit – how did he keep it so clean?
“I’ll just go in and finish. Won’t be long.” I turned on my heel and vanished into the house, running across to my rooms.
A wave of my wand sent them flying into my trunk. I made sure to bring my only dinner dress, a gift of the past, and not too many years out of date.
Second, hygiene insurance, including makeup.
Third, reading material, though I couldn’t be sure that I’d need it.
The rug wiggled beneath me, each edge twitching. It could be a very helpful object, if worst came to worst, and it fit perfectly into the trunk, which I slammed shut before the rug could escape. The whole trunk shook once or twice before it gave up.
With another wave, I shrunk it down to a decent size and reentered the sunlight, blinking, to announce that I was ready. He didn’t make any comment on the length of time, or rather lack of it, that I’d taken to pack, but maybe he was trying to be polite. Silent. I liked people who understood the fine art of silence.
I earnestly wished that I could feel comfortable that nothing at all could possibly go wrong, especially when Cadogan realised just what condition in which the famed Philae currently was. Not to mention that a witch on a boat for a long period of time is never a very happy situation, and there I went to spend Merlin-knew how many days on one.
Have I also mentioned that I have a small problem with sea-sickness?
Though even there I exaggerate. Small is not the correct term.
The boat was an antique out of the last century, called a dahabeeyah, with stunning white sails and a wooden body that appeared to be neither rotting nor damaged. But all the same, it would be close quarters for the next number of days, and that I was not at all looking forward to.
“Do you like it?” Cadogan asked. He sat opposite me, watching my face for its reaction.
So I decided that honesty was necessary.
“Is it large enough?”
He smiled. “It is larger than it appears.”
I wondered if he knew just what kind of monument I was going to be showing him on this little trip. Not that it could be that upsetting for him. It was for me. Very much so. It meant lacking the necessity to leave the boat at any time.
He led me onto the boat, arm around my waist, guiding me around to each room of importance, and I still did not tell him about Philae. It was not much larger than it appeared, the rooms small of size, seeming even smaller because of the bulk and quantity of furniture included in each. One room for him, one for myself, a dressing room and water closing, as well as a sitting area. I did not see any area for the staff, obviously destined to sleep on the deck.
“Now tell me what you think.” He smiled down into my face, and my own lips twitched in response, wanting to smile with him, wanting to... to... no, that couldn’t be right....
“It’s very nice.”
He laughed and bells rang in his voice, echoing off the walls and clanging within my ears.
“Nice, such an ambiguous word. It cannot at all be trusted.”
There was something in his eyes that pulled me in. They seemed, no were, they actually were endless in depth, their fathoms never explored, always to be unknown. I fell up into them, as impossible as it had to be. I fell and fell and drowned within those eyes that had no colour of their own, the blue was of the sky and the water, not of him. There was so much within those eyes, within him, that I was so easily lost, so easily defeated.
Whether I leaned toward him in my falling or he leaned toward me with his mesmerism, I could only be sure of the briefest touch of his lips upon mine, and combined with the caress of his fingers, he assured my body of all that was to come.
“Fate is perfect, is it not?” his whisper was only another caress. “To bring two such as we together in such a way?”
What thought could there be of resistance to such an assurance, one given with so much confidence and grace? My mind was no longer my own, and soon my body would join it.
“In the temple–”
A noise from the deck made him release me in all senses of the word, and disappear into the sunlight above, his voice glowing as he addressed the crew with stern words, unclear to my still-reeling head.
I stared at the wall, eyes wide and unblinking, akin to the dead. The room was crackling with something akin to magic, but my senses were all confused and befuddled, wandering about in the darkness without him that I could not tell for certain. Nothing at all felt certain anymore, not after that. He’d been inside my head without any apparent effort, without me even realising it until I had been cast adrift.
“What are you getting yourself into, Helen?” I said the words aloud to reassure myself that I did still have a brain.
The boat slipped out of the dock, and I could not retain my balance, smooth as our exit was. Cadogan appeared once more, though I had not heard him on the deck.
“I believe that not having your sea-legs is the correct phrase.”
He helped me onto my feet, gripping my hands in an oddly delicate manner. His hands were unnatural in shape, the bony fingers protruding far beyond the normal length. He would have made a very good pianist, stretching his fingers to those long octaves in the Moonlight Sonata. Ivory in colour, his hands should have been in some long-lauded portrait of a poet or saint.
“Are you alright?” Now more than ever, his voice was beautiful.
I pulled away before I dared meet his eyes again. “Yes, and no, I don’t have sea-legs. It made the journey from England absolute torture.”
He watched me for a moment before speaking again. “I will leave you to rest until you are well. Come up when you are ready.” His smile was dazzling, and I allowed myself to be dazzled, if only within his presence.
None of the chairs here were particularly soft, and when I settled into one, it groaned beneath my weight, revealing its poor quality. I hoped that the boat was not in a similar state of repair. Then I hoped that I was not having a romantic entanglement with my current employer. Next to death, that was a very serious issue indeed.
What would have happened if he had kissed me? Would it have continued from one step to the next, following that age-old pattern of seduction and submission, loss and abandonment? And then I would be the woman that I had been labelled by gossip, the woman I never wanted to become, no matter what the circumstances.
“How fast, effendi?”
The voice drifted down from the deck.
“Not fast at all. Time is not an issue.”
I did not like the sound of that. Ominous at best, it should have induced me to leap into the Nile right away.
Although hardly begun, I wanted it to end.
But it was my fault that I had been set into the boiling cauldron. I myself had made the suggestion of this trip in the first place. Had he misconstrued the situation to believe that I– that I could have possibly– had I really invited such an incident with my suggestion? All along, he could have been planning this, taking me on in order for this to happen, and now I was trapped, my only escape apparation, a pretended splash from the end of the boat that would make him believe that I had fallen overboard, drowned.
I could not have drowned any more than I had by looking into his eyes, by being so close, too close, to him.
He had smelled like mint.
Head in hands, I leaned over my knees. How was I going to escape this mess?
In the Dream of Night
I was still in that position when Cadogan entered once again some time later. It was becoming rather like a bad play, one of those confusing dramas that, with the love-triangles and long-lost relatives, really ought to instead by a comedy. I did not want my life to be a comedy. Blacks were supposed to be above such trivialities.
Then again, I wasn’t the usual type of Black. No, I had to be the one who had run away from home, reject my intended husband, live with Muggles, pretend to be a Muggle, and because of all this, be entirely open to trouble of all sorts.
Cadogan stood over me, his air rather more gloating than genuinely worried.
“You are very unwell, then?” I could only see his legs, the creases of his trousers beyond perfection. “Do you require any medicine, anything at all?”
He was being nice as though nothing had happened at all. Once more I was his employee, one who was needed, but not necessarily wanted. I really should have been relieved, but for some reason, I wasn’t. I was bloody disappointed.
When I didn’t respond soon enough, he walked to the door that led to the other rooms.
“It is your stomach, I fear, that pains you, and it also affects your head. I will find some remedy for that.”
I looked up when I heard his footsteps recede into the water closet. I couldn’t be sure whether I was awake or dreaming anymore. Everything seemed of both worlds, neither real nor unreal, but part of each. Some would say that, as a witch, I already was of that other, imaginary world, the one in which anything was possible and there could be no need or want, but that was far from the truth, so painfully far. My first nineteen years of life were spent in want while the last five were spent in need. I had willingly left the magical world that had betrayed me and I couldn’t go back, never in the same way.
Magic could do very little to make a person happy, nor could it save one from suffering.
Or danger, for that matter.
Perhaps it would be easier to pretend that I was just seasick. Better to forget than remember that power in his eyes, a power that could only lead to–
“Here you are. Drink.” The thing in his hand was not from an apothecary, as I’d assumed. Rather, it was a cup of tea that smelled peculiar, like biscuits at Christmas, still soft inside, their sweet, spicy scent tingling the nostrils.
Ginger. Including it in tea was beyond my knowledge, but Herbology had been my worst subject in school, rescued from Troll status only by a stroke of luck, not even my own. It was also of note that no one had ever made me special tea before, making this strange man one of the few individuals who had actually cared about me.
I stared at him with what must have appeared to be the eyes of an owl.
“This will relieve your distress to some degree.” He put it into my hands, then placed his around mine. They were warm.
There appeared to be nothing untoward about the tea, and I smiled to thank him.
“I’ve never been good on boats” was the only excuse I could offer for my weakness.
Our eyes met by chance, and my stomach lurched once more, the bile rushing to my throat, its acids burning the flesh. I felt myself falling into their odd shade of grey, or was it blue, or green marked with hazel? I could not be sure, could never be sure about him. He changed with each second, shaping and reshaping himself to suit the passing moments.
I was glad when he was the first to look away.
He rose like a tower, straightening his form to well-above six feet, so unnatural and painful to see. Every doorway was an obstacle and every person nothing more than the top of a head. Not that the top of a person’s head wasn’t particularly revealing; it was merely a portion of the body that I rarely caught sight of myself.
“Avoiding a fear only makes it more frightening.” Looking down on me like an ant on the ground, he seemed older than he appeared, the lines of his face filled with all the incredible experience of life, of many lifetimes.
It made me feel even smaller than normal. I definitely had the short end of the stick.
“Very true, but it isn’t easy to make that first step.” Evidently that feeling made me rather philosophical. “There are some things in the world that will always remain frightening.”
Including food from dubious sources, no matter how alluring it smelled. I took a closer sniff of the tea, then put it down on the shaky table beside me, trying not to look his way to see his reaction. I straightened my skirt for the fifteenth time, probably doing more damage than good. Oh damn and blast, why was I being so conscientious?
“Well, look at me not avoiding boats right now.” A silly grin crossed my face, though it must have been the most fake one in history. “As long I’m kept distracted, I think I just may survive this little trip.”
There was a spark of pity in his eyes when I dared to look up at him. “And here I have forced you on a journey you were not ready to take. My apologies.” He put a hand over his heart and bowed. “Now I will give instructions to the cook in regard to our dinner.”
I swallowed, hands growing red against the cup. “Dinner?”
He moved toward the door, turning at the last moment, his face in shadow. “I will ensure that we are docked before eating. Some sleep will help you prepare for our outing tomorrow”
Gone again. His footsteps were quiet, even on the stairs to the deck.
Sleep did sound like a good idea, I thought, driving my mind to a less anxiety-inducing topic. My eyelids grew heavy as soon as he had mentioned it, though that has a tendency to happen, just as the word “yawn” will, in turn, make those who read it yawn. If I was lucky, nothing would happen and I would awaken refreshed, ready to guide him around a... a... very large lake.
That thought only increased my desire for sleep. I took the tea with me to the room that contained my trunk. It was separated from his room only by the water-closet, which wasn’t much of a water-closet, all things considered. I took one look at it, then tossed myself onto the bed, face plunging into the thin pillow, my eyes shut and my mind already in the keeping of Morpheus.
There was a dream there, vague and colourless, but it was too far beyond my reach, voices touching my ears that threw me into memory. Not one of those melodramatic moments when one relives one’s life, of course. I cannot remember what they were as I write this, some twenty years later, and it must have been later events that make me now believe that, when at last the dream began to clear, the veil dropping, I saw a face and heard his warning.
“...no one knows how he arrived in Egypt. No boat or train brought him. It’s like he–”
“Appeared out of nowhere.”
From nowhere. A rare thing among Muggles, but not among other–
When I sat up, I was not alone, the eyes of another spying as I slept, waiting, perhaps, or something more. I wanted very much to ignore the feeling of violation, especially since it came at what seemed to be the most significant portion of my dream, but it was not a feeling that could be easily disregarded. However, I did take my time in opening each eye and lifting my head from its place of rest.
“Emile.” The correction was immediate, his voice light. “I trust that you have had a satisfying rest. You have slept long..”
“Hopefully not too long a one.” I offered a little smile as I peeled strands of hair off my forehead, then tried to rescue my clothes from their wrinkles to no avail. They were too old and soft to retain any neat shape.
When he looked into my eyes this time, I was a little more prepared, but still weak against his mental onslaught. I could hear his demands, what his mind wanted and how it should be done, and my hands strained against themselves, yearning to follow direction, gripping the chair arms with painful reluctance. How could I resist? How dare I? A young girl such as I without power, without history, only a stubborn resistance against that which could only improve her, help her, make her better, more effective. Too much independence filled her mind and gladdened her heart, giving her this... this... this....
The thoughts were inside of my head, drifting through my own thoughts, alien at first, but slowly becoming familiar, growing and growing until–
“Come. Dinner is ready.” He took possession of my arm and returned me to the sitting room, where a table had been set as I had slept, steaming food on china plates. At the sight, my stomach managed a pathetic grumble.
I was just being paranoid. Again. My mind was hiding something from me, I could feel it. Hiding something behind that wretched mask of paranoia.
He deposited me in a chair and took the one across the table. I was relieved that he followed decorum; my breath was still having trouble making its way to my lungs. It made me lightheaded, and I of course blamed it on hunger, a rather unfortunate word if one thought about that doctor’s ideas regarding the mind. I could just hear what he would say, prefaced by a Germanic Ja, “this hunger is not related to your stomach, Fraulein.”
I put down the fork that I had picked up, staring down at the food, feeling a green tinge settle over my features.
He had been watching me, rather than touching his dinner.
“You are still unwell?”
My eyes remained lowered on the table so that I could only see his hands, palms flat downward, fingers outstretched, bones protruding. It helped to think of them as monstrous.
“Do you require prayer before meals? I had not thought–”
“No! No, I just had a slight dizzy spell.” I hastily retrieved the fork and stuffed some matter of food into my mouth, chewing with gusto. “The movement of the boat,” I added around a potato.
I did not hear him eat, but I was intently concentrating on the contents of my plate, and only noticed that his food had silently disappeared, the plate cleaned bare. Someone appeared to take it and my plate away, though I do not know how Cadogan could have given the signal; no one had been with us in the cabin. These helping hands returned to clear away the rest, including the table cloth. I think they would have removed the table and chairs had we moved.
But we had not.
Most men would take out a cigarette or cigar at this time, asking if I didn’t mind without really caring either way. They would ask for their port and drink deeply, as though the combination of nicotine and liquor were the only way they could survive the evening, probably also the night. Cadogan sat on, watching me.
“Are you cold?”
“Then here.” He rose and removed his dinner jacket. I stiffened, but he did not notice, coming around to drape it over my shoulders, smoothing down the fabric over my arms before returning to his chair.
I was stricken with the smell of him, clearer even than when he had kissed me. Or nearly had. My memory played tricks on me, telling me that he had, then that he hadn’t, and then again that it’d been true. Mint was strong in my nostrils, soothing my dulled brain with its softly cloying scent. I began to wonder whether his skin smelt the same way, not even bothering to check my thoughts. It seemed unnecessary, though I did not know why, or even how I had come to regard it in that way.
“You are oddly silent tonight, Helen. I am afraid that this little excursion has done more harm than good.” His voice was soft, sliding over the syllables with ecstatic precision.
I put a hand to my head. “I’m sorry for being so delicate. It’s not like me at all.”
Something in his voice made me look at him, expecting pity, but seeing... seeing–
He was not a good-looking man, but there was an aspect to his looks that was deeply compelling. It could have been the vibrancy of his eyes, or the set of his features, but it was neither. His aura positively oozed out of him, every fibre of his being intense upon the subject of his gaze or thoughts.
At that moment, as it had been so many moments in our acquaintance, that subject was me.
“I trust that everything here is comfortable for you.”
“Yes, thank you. It is.” My voice wavered and I cursed myself.
He rose, and I took in a sharp breath. Blinking, he turned and stared down at me, eyes opening wider than I’d seen before, but it was a darkened room, the candles on the table the only illumination. I saw them reflected in his eyes.
Yes, I looked into them, but felt nothing of the fear of before, succumbed to nothing. It must have been a fancy of mine to imagine that he had tried to control my mind. What I had seen in his eyes was myself, the things that went on within my mind that, for so long, I had held back, kept locked in a tiny box, deep within. They were the memories of school, of watching at keyholes, of catching Canis Malfoy at his business. He had known. It was the reason for all else.
Cadogan watched me earnestly, and I knew that everything was passing across my face. I could not help but look up at him and pass over his features with a gaze that was anything but casual, as though a mask had fallen from my face. Perhaps it was the one that Moody had seen, the side that he constantly tried to pry out of me.
But it was Cadogan who managed it, without even trying.
“Would you like a drink?” his voice was strained, yet his eyes were steady.
I shook my head, eyes drifting toward the darkness. The chinking of glass and pouring of liquid was the only sound. Even the water outside had stilled, the men silent. The air was asking for the inevitable to occur, I could hear it calling, and from the stiffness in his spine, I could tell that he did too. What else had he expected?
So many perhapses running through my head. I had more than a sneaking suspicion that he was a wizard. It explained so much. But he hid it better than I ever could for Merlin knew what reason. Perhaps he was running, just like me. A lonely man, hardly forty, more uncertain of himself that of the world around him. In that way, he had the advantage.
It was the way he held himself, one hand seeking his pocket while the other cradled the snifter, swishing the liquid from one side to the other, his shoulders gently sloping downward, his head bowed, the red curls glinting in the flicker of candlelight. I could see his story written on his back, could feel his uncertainty reverberating through the room.
I waited for his choice. I supposed that he still had one if he had been driven to drink rather than follow through. I would never think of myself as an easy catch; even in my depraved state, I still had my principles. They were why I kept making up excuses for my attraction to him.
After three drinks, he had not made his decision, pouring out the third with trembling hands.
A lost cause. Typical.
The mood – what else could one call it, irrational as it had been, hiding all his flaws, the light playing on his features, reshaping them into another, more desired, visage – had passed. My nerves resorted themselves, no more electricity in the air to stimulate their fragile tips. I stood, my legs still shaky beneath my feet, or was it for the other reason? I was surprised at the disappointment festering in the pit of my stomach.
At the door to my room, I stopped, catching sight of myself in the mirror. The jacket dwarfed me, the sleeves hanging low at my sides. My stomach lurched as I thought of returning to the main room, but my curious hands reached into the pockets, already conscious of what I would find.
Ten inches of willow branch, very plain, but practical nonetheless. I wasn’t entirely sure whether it suited him, but as in many wizarding families, particularly the poorer ones, wands could be handed down through the generations. I would say that Cadogan’s was about fifty years old, so perhaps it had been his father’s. The initials EC were hand-carved on the hilt, possibly denoting that he also shared his father’s name, but I wondered if the edges of the letters weren’t a little too juvenile, a small boy with messy curls greedily making the wand his own.
He was a wizard, though I wondered at his behaviour, much of which was not suited to someone of our race. There was a Cadogan family in the books, though it had died out long ago, or so I’d thought. The portrait in Hogwarts of a knight was the only reason I remembered; now he was an annoying cad, certainly well-named.
This Cadogan – dare I call him mine? – was a very different sort.
One may think that it should have bothered me to have, at last, come across a wizard, particularly one who showed so much interest in me. He could have easily been sent by Malfoy or my mother to get rid of me once and for all, but I didn’t want to believe that. Not of him.
There was a handkerchief in the other pocket, a small, delicate thing that I would have taken for a woman’s, if it wasn’t from a man’s coat. The embroidery around the edges and on the monogram – again of an E wrapped around a C – spoke volumes regarding the maker, a viscous little woman with rock-hard eyes, stitching in anger, poking herself with the needle without removing the blood-stained thread.
Only a wife could have made this.
I blinked, crushing the fabric in my hand before stuffing it back into the pocket. I cannot describe what I felt at that moment. Betrayal may have raised its ugly head, but not before reason stilled its hand. He had worn no ring, though those were easily removed, but he did not act like a man on the run from his spouse, chasing down any bit of skirt in his path. I knew that such reasoning wasn’t very good, laughing at myself even as I thought of it.
But the laugh was bitter, my thoughts darkened, stained.
It was not that I had a heart that needed melting at the hands of the right man. It wasn’t even that I was too wounded by the past to think of being in love, or even sharing any mutual attraction with someone else, man or woman. I had always been alone.
I looked at my reflection in the mirror and saw the same girl I’d seen five years ago, before I had left England. She was of middling height and build, her chin proudly tilted upward no matter the situation, grey eyes boredly curious, or was it curiously bored? surrounded by dark circles. Her hair was fair, hardly gold, but a pale yellow, styled according to fashion, or near enough so. My nose was too long and my lips too small. I may have been called pretty, especially now, in the dim light of a candle and the moon.
My eyes fell. Self-consciousness was a strange feeling. What would they say of me in Luxor now, seeing my as a failure of femininity? No wiles, no beauty, just a naive girl who, at that moment, may have supposed herself, at long last, to have been in love with the wrong man.
There was a creak behind me, but I took it for the movement of the boat on the water. I did not know where in Egypt we were, or where in all of Africa, for that matter.
When I looked up once more, meeting my own eyes in the mirror, I froze at the sight of the shadow looming behind me, a pair of pale hands reaching around my neck.
The quote found in the middle of this chapter is from Shakespeare's "The Tempest", III.ii.137-141.
In the House of the Goddess
The hands grew closer, fingers outstretched, their shadow severing my head. At first I froze, helplessly staring at the scene playing out on the mirror's stark surface.
A small cry escaped from my strangled throat, and I tried to reel around, but recognition of his hands stopped me, the soft ends of his fingers pressing into the jacket, apologetic, reassuring. My heart was beating too fast, lungs drawing breath too harshly. I could not politely pull away from him to say a curt “good night” and shut the door. The ends of his fingers grew into his palms, holding my shoulders in a firm grasp. His lips drew close to my ear.
“I am sorry to have frightened you,” he whispered, brushing back strands of hair with deft, dare I say, eager, fingers.
In the mirror I could see his face, the widow’s peak of his hair catching the light, mingling pale flesh with the stain of bloodied hair. His eyes rose to meet mine in the mirror, and from their depths, I could see the answer for which I had waited.
“I leave the decision in your hands, Helen.”
From the men I had known, this would be an admission of weakness, something to be scorned and defiled. From this man, it was something else. A kind of concession. I was powerless, yet he placed all the power in my hands. I wanted to ask him about his wand, the handkerchief, but I was already lost, the feel of his breath at the back of my neck shoving reason into the deepest, darkest hole of my skull.
I gasped when he touched his lips to the nape of my neck, but then he began to pull away, hands loosening their hold, taking the jacket with them.
My legs lost their weakness. My heart stopped its course. My breath came only called for, between each taste of the brandy I stole from his mouth. The jacket fell from his hands and he closed the door behind us, my hands grasping at his chest, his coming to rest on my waist before moving to the small of my back, pulling me to him.
He hesitated only once.
“You are certain of your decision?”
I looked up, but not as far up as I had once expected. Had he given me height along with the power to chose my way?
“Are you?” I touched the line of his jaw before he took my hand in his, pressing the palm against his mouth.
Time began to move at a different pace. The sands in the hourglass dropped one by one, like articles of clothing, falling at an impossible lack of speed, each touch followed by another somewhere else, every ounce of being following hands, mouths, the caress of his toes against mine. The sun was high and the world stood still, or was it going backwards, around the other way, the moon shining its silvered light through the window? I could not tell.
The water was as glass, its surface a brilliant sapphire, its shade only matched by the sky. I saw it as he reached to extinguish the candle. His eyes were black pearls, his cheeks garnets, the world made of jewels and burnished metal, their light blinding in the darkness. It was Ra himself driving his chariot across the heavens. I could almost see him, a glowing shadow hanging above me, his head painted with scarlet and gold, the stars reflected in his eyes. I closed mine against the brilliance, mesmerised by his movement, his curious tenderness.
Again and again, our mouths met and my body arched to meet his. I felt myself change.
We lay, at last, together, without any sign from him that he desired to leave. His head was on my shoulder, my hand sorting through his hair, his breath warm on my breast, his hand splayed across my ribs, body curled against mine. Neither of us reached for a blanket. I felt him find sleep before I dared to close my eyes again, his heartbeat slowing, breath easing, muscles loosening. I did not think myself tired enough to sleep, every nerve still resounding at his touch.
And yet, even so, it did not take long to dream.
...and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
...when I waked, I cried to dream again.
Nothing seemed to move except the light. It endlessly shone and reflected back again, its power beyond knowledge, its speed beyond imagination. Nothing else moved in this land, this unreal world that felt more real than it should. I wondered how I could exist in this paradox.
I lifted a hand and it moved at the correct pace. I was not slowed, only time, just as it had been before...when...during. Nor was I defenseless, my wand was in the pocket of my–
Robes. Black as those from school or worn by those who worked at the Ministry, the equivalent of the London city suit for Muggles. Not that different, we were, when one really thought about it, the similarities ringing forth as sparks of light in the midnight sky, so long after night falls and so long before morning rises. I rejoiced within to wear these robes again; so long had they been hidden away in the bottom of my trunk, moth-eaten and turning to dust. But now... but now.... things were as they should have been, should always be.
I looked to my left and he was there, the one who would be known as Emile Cadogan, far into the future of the world, some three thousand years.
He looked it, too.
Dressed as an ancient, his linen garments blended with his pale skin except in that it was tinged with blue, untouched by the biting rays of the sun. His wrists were bound in gold inset with coral and turquoise, revealing his wealth, his power. He looked at me, but said no words, though I heard ideas in my head that could only have been his, the thoughts that only made sense for him. I could feel his touch from within, shy refinement disguising... what?
My chin lifted upwards at his bidding and I knew it had to be a dream. No place such as this could exist in my world, its frescoes vivid with all the colours of life, the columns towering into eternal sky, the stone impenetrable.
This was Philae, in the Temple of Isis as it had been in its glory, all the gods of Egypt envious of Isis’s shrine.
I turned this way and that, taking in each detail with starving eyes, my hands itching for any instrument of writing and parchment, for any way of recording this place, its lines and colours, its image, however adulterated by my feeble hand. Even a camera, clumsy as they were, could never capture what my eyes drew in.
At the end of the hall was her statue, impossibly tall and overwhelming in its perfection, solid marble carved to formed her features, black as death, but blinding in the light. She was life and death and all things, the woman who had collected the pieces of her husband cast across the land of Egypt to save the kingdom from his brother, Seth. The red-headed one.
It was odd that any Egyptian could have red hair.
He touched my arm and I halted. There was no time for distraction, have my mind bend away, drifting from the point where he was. He was the anchor in the river that gushed around me, threatening to drown if I let go for the briefest moment. I watched the water swirl round and round the island, its waters rising and falling, a constant reminder of mortality. My mortality. I clutched at his robes at the sight of the water, constantly rushing, always threatening.
There was no need for him to force me down this road, this path to the goddess. I would go myself, even without his commands to guide me. I could feel the goddess’s power in this place, all of her magic feeding the life of this imaginary world that, like my own world, lay hidden until the right person crossed its threshold.
What threshold? I turned back and saw nothing, no boat, no path, nothing lay behind. Every footstep forward erased the one before. It was a world of nothing, living within his mind and now mine. It was his world, wherever it was, whatever he was. He could not be just another tourist, or even another wizard, this man who....
I did not know.
I knew nothing of him as he had told nothing, had revealed too little in action or habit. A wizard. Married, at one point.
“...It’s like he–”
“Appeared out of nowhere.”
I wondered at the look in his eyes when he had watched me from across the table. It was not the same look in his eyes now in this dream. Once more had returned the demonic stare that saw into my soul, that desired to control, to possess.
Under the pressure, I struggled. At least, I yearned to struggle, and I shut out the glittering world with obstinate, wearying eyes. After the darkness of the night, this world was blinding, painful, overwhelming a mind still fresh from– from that which–
Another breath and he had hold of me again, his hand encircling mine, fingers brushing against the tiny hairs, his skin cool and soft upon my rough, fevered flesh. The air grew thick, each step a chore, each breath a hated necessity. In the distance I could hear the chanting of a long-unspoken language, forgotten in the sands of time.
I had no memory of arriving here.
The thought was a tiny crack in the wall. Water splashed onto the island. Sand raged at my feet, mingling with the water to form something nameless and terrible.
“What is this?”
My words were a hollow echo in this space of endless height.
He looked at me and the waves receded, yet not as much as they should have.
“You said you would take me to Philae.”
His voice was distant, coming from the stones themselves, his lips not moving.
“You couldn't come here yourself?”
I felt so small beside him. He walked with the pride of ages, all the greatness of the history of the Egyptians propping up his shoulders and neck so that his head was held high, eyes seeing only the sky, too haughty to bother with the mortal realms, far below.
“Only one of your kind can bear me.”
The word ‘bear’ in this context did not inspire confidence, not when the image of my sister-in-law clouded my vision, the load she bore a fatal one, the child sucking the life from her veins until nothing of her remained, her already weak magic faded away to nothing. She had watched as they had taken it from the room before she died, and she had continued to stare at the door even though I spoke to her, held her hand.
I shuddered, and he breathed through his mouth as though to taste the air. Just like a snake.
“Why me? There are lots of other wizards and witches about.” It was a struggle to retain mastery over emotion. The last thing I wanted to do was bear anyone...or anything.
He blinked slowly, eyes sharpening their gaze as his lips turned up in a ghastly smile, the grin of a gaping skull. “I know.”
The water drew closer again, but the sand rose against it, against us, wiping away the paintings, the carvings fading against the hewed stone. Soon it, too, would deteriorate, the rocks falling down upon us, turning all back into sand. The gods taking back their own.
“What are you?” My voice was now pitifully soft. It was the same question that Moody had asked me, his voice painfully quiet, suspicion pouring from each syllable.
I received no answer.
The water drew higher, higher, its tendrils licking at my heels, splashing upwards.
The sand rose in storms, twisting, turning, rising higher and higher above the water, above the cavernous temple to the sky.
He was still there, untouched by all.
Water and sand filled my lungs at the same time, drowning, suffocating. There was nothing, nothing to be left, nothing to be found, the world lost within the clutches of this villain, this villain who had stolen the body of my... of my... and now would steal my life.
I saw his arm above me, reaching down, the same hand I had seen in the mirror grasping at my throat, squeezing tighter and tighter until the water, the sand, none of it mattered.
My eyes flew open and was alone, laying across the covers of the bed, the boat drifting in the dawn, the waters of the Nile pushing it gently back downstream. There were birds in the distance sounding their displeasure. There was light coming into the room, pale, but true.
I was drenched in a cold sweat, not of the night’s exertions, but of the nightmare, that dark resounding fantasy from which I gleamed more deep-rooted feeling than anything Cadogan had done, could have done to arrest my heart. For years to come, I would awake from its power, without warning, my eyes blinded by unnatural light, my lungs gasping for air.
When I looked down at myself, I saw that I had been dressed, wrongly, but dressed all the same. The shirt he had worn the night before was now mine, the sleeves hanging low over my hands. It smelled of him, even more so than his jacket around my shoulders. There was so little difference between wearing it and being with him that I smiled.
It suited me better to wake alone. No naked embarrassment, no evident regrets, no need to have the face of an unshaven man with unpleasant breath lowering over mine for an encore.
My dressing gown was near at hand. I tied the belt in the corridor, ears perked for any sound.
There was only the water, the birds high above.
I looked into the sitting room, but found no one. Nor was he in his own room, the sheets untouched, though his clothes were moved about, yesterday’s trousers draped over the end of the bed. Still hearing nothing, I stepped closer to his suitcase, which bore his initials in addition to stamps from expensive hotels across the Mediterranean basin.
To look inside, however, would surely break some ethical, if not moral, law. It didn't seem right to make a search of the belongings of the man with whom I had just spent the night, to make use of that convenient euphemism. I could not stoop to the notorious when the expectation of another night brightened my eyes even as it stayed my hand.
That did not prevent me from seeing the book under his trousers. It had not been in the pocket last night. He must have left it there, on the bed, placed it there before he returned from my room, as I lay, trapped in the dream. The gold lettering on the cover caught the light. I pulled it out, turning to see the letters upright.
Demonology: a History of the Demon, or Djinn.
It sounded like a thrilling read, but it did reveal a little more about the elusive Cadogan, namely his chosen career. He would not be a demon hunter – that career required an unfortunate psychotic state – but he could very likely be a curse breaker. They apparently had to deal with angry demons locked up in tombs for thousands of years. I would be grumpy after all that time.
If he was a curse breaker, then it explained his presence in Egypt. It certainly explained his interest in the Valley, an interest he’d had to severely play down, but why?
Not that it explained anything else about him.
Thinking about him made me wonder where he had gotten to.
I stopped to listen for something, anything, but there was no sound of human life on the boat. Surely by now–
My feet took me to the deck, their soles scraping against the timeworn surface when I took the turn too fast, only to lean against the wall of the cabin, hiding my eyes from the sunlight. At first I was back again in the dream, my hand held hostage by the not-quite-Cadogan, the overpowering sun beating down on my black robes.
I blinked the light away. I swallowed down the bile. The boat seemed incapable of remaining motionless beneath me.
After a moment, I could step into the full light. We were not very far downriver; around the first couple of bends in the Nile, but not yet halfway to the dam. There were only farms in sight.
I walked toward the front of the ship, keeping an eye out for any sign of human life. I had a growing suspicion that this was still part of the dream, or another dream that I had somehow been thrust into, isolating me from all the world for... what? There were lots of witches in the ocean to play with, and I wasn't going to be anything’s playmate. I wanted to wake up, with or without Cadogan there, and get on with my life, as much of a failure as that had turned out to be.
The pieces of a puzzle were slowly, ever so slowly, coming together in my head.
There had been something very wrong at the tomb. The way that the sand had behaved... it led me to believe that something had come out, something ominous.
Those men had attacked me that night in Luxor.
Cadogan had appeared just when I was in need of employment.
That day in the Valley of the Kings, when everyone, including myself, had seemed mad. The sand had raised then, too, just before I’d been discovered, wand in hand, by Cadogan, of all people. And he had said nothing about it.
The body of the Native worker, whose place of death had been presided over by the great Moody himself.
Yes, Moody. He was the only point of connection between all of these events, even Cadogan’s appearance, warning me away from him, and I didn’t think that jealousy alone was the reason. I couldn’t get his voice out of my head, the way he had actually sounded worried even though he’d done nothing to stop me from leaving Luxor with Cadogan.
That rock had only come down the cliff when I had been with Moody.
I had too many suspicions of him. I still had some of Cadogan, though they were fading with the knowledge that he was, after all, a wizard. Not that it made him trustworthy, as he had failed to admit it to me, full knowing that I was a witch.
No one in this place was who they said they were. No one was honest or forthright.
The only place I knew that exceeded this level of intrigue was the House of Black.
Egypt was indeed just like home.
The book was still in my hands, and I stepped forward, seeking a place to sit and glance between its covers, anything to distract me from the aftershock of the nightmare. The study of demons was most often reserved for serious professionals or crackpots, but in my state, I was willing to take whatever lessons were handed me on a silver platter. There were too many strange things going on–
My foot hit something. The book flew out of my hands (though not, my ears told me, into the hungry Nile). I fell forward, not noticing until the very last second what I was about to fall upon.
When I landed with a sharp exhale of breath, I waited for a reaction from Cadogan, who had made the odd choice of sleeping on the deck. I had, after all, tripped over the man, an action that should have sent him into the air, cursing at me, literally and figuratively.
I rolled to get a better look at him.
He was in his dressing gown, which was a garish thing of purple and gold paisley, his bare legs folded at the knee, just like he had been sleeping on his side, a common enough position. As my eyes drifted up his body, I could see that his wand was in his hand, a very dangerous thing, seeing that we could be in view of Muggles. I snatched it from his hand, awaiting further reaction.
Nothing. Nothing at all.
Then I made the mistake of looking at his face.
Scuttling back on all-fours, I gasped. Had the circumstances been improved, I would have patted myself on the back for not going into hysterics because, well, I really should have. It was anything but normal for me to sit up, soundless, against the front of the boat, unable to feel any emotional reaction to this sight.
You see, he was dead, his eyes bloodshot and staring, his mouth gaping in a silent scream, his wand arm outstretched in useless self-defense.
This was certainly not a dream.
No dream could feel so lacking in reality.
In the Pit of Snakes
After that point, my memory enters into questionable territory, and I’m afraid that I cannot provide you with the details you may wish to hear.
There are, however, two things that I do remember. The silence and the light, the winter sun beating down on the deck, down on him, lying there, hitting him in just a way that made his hair look like fire. He was not the sun god of my night, just another Icarus of the morning after. The birds were there on the riverbank, their voices raised, a great cacophony, cheering on the fall of another who had reached for the sky, but only grasped the dirt.
No, not even that. His hands were empty. There was no dirt here.
The mummies I’d seen were nothing like this, their features too decayed to seem human, their existence prized only as relics of an ancient past. Cadogan was still too real, and but for his wide, terror-stricken eyes, I had thought him still alive, still human.
I took one last look at him, then deafened, blinded, I stumbled back inside.
From what I have scraped together of my memories and the hearsay of another, I must have packed all of my belongings, as well as those items of his that betrayed his magic, and released my carpet from its long sojourn in my trunk. What other way was there to escape? The crew was gone, and I did not think that taking the ship into harbour, complete with dead body, would not be a wise decision. Anyway, the carpet was only too pleased to fly, for it took me away from the dahabeeyah at a great speed, the air whipping against my face, the wind scouring the guilt from my flesh.
It was one thing to possess a magic carpet, but quite another to actually make use of it.
My memory returns at a point when I stood at the front desk of the Winter Palace, the porter staring rather oddly at my chosen costume. Looking down, I was gratified to see that I had at least changed out of the dressing gown, but the combination of native and English dress was something I tried to avoid when entering so-called civilized territory. When I met his gaze again, I raised a single, elegant eyebrow and gave him a glare that would send Medusa scurrying back to her cave.
It was enough, in the end, and he spluttered a little before speaking.
“Mr. Moody is not in, miss. Would you like to leave a message for him?”
I shrugged negligently, but could not disguise the impatience in my scribbled incoherent message that was meant to relay all of the relevant information while preventing my own condemnation. Nor could I entirely hide the shaking of my hand as I passed the note to the porter, but he gave no sign of taking notice.
My memory then skips to the scorching heat of tea on my tongue as I sat on the terrace, feeling remarkably calm. Perhaps they had learned how to make something more than a weak brew of century-old leaves, though it is more likely that I was so desperate for everything should appear as normal, that nothing of the morning, the night, the previous day, had occurred, that I convinced myself that I had never left Luxor, that I had never gotten on that boat and, perhaps if I was lucky, I could even convince myself that I had never known a man my the name of Cadogan.
He was there, in my mind’s eye. I kept seeing him, the shadows of him, always on the edge of my vision.
Moody did not appear. Seeing him would only be a comfort in that he was familiar. I could not be certain that he would believe my garbled and heavily-truncated, but at least he was aware of the extraneous circumstances involved. I caught myself wondering what it would take for him to convince him that I was not a murderer. I was not innocent, but I had not committed this particular crime, and if anyone was going to be made to believe me, it would be Moody..
I went home soon after to stare at the ceiling, black cloth draped over the window to keep out that blinding light, the sun’s murderous rays.
In the darkness, I thought I saw him. Cadogan. Just a shade, a flash of white in the corner of my eye that vanished when I turned my head. His face as it was in the shadows before he kissed me, his pale skin reflected in the mirror, crowned with fire. Maybe it was just a dream and I would wake beside him, then the story could go on from there.
Huddled on the carpet, my back to the wall, I stared out into the dim light of the room, and knew that, if I continued to deceive myself, I would go mad. His shade, that menacing ghost was there in my mind’s eye, nothing more. He was dead. I had run away. There was nothing more to be told. Until they came for me.
How long would it take to discover the boat? Not long to find the body, though perhaps the birds had gotten to it. They always started at the eyes, didn’t they? The softer flesh was easier to consume, and so the body went back to earth, starting at the beginning again.
Where was that cursedly useless Moody? His leering face and tasteless jokes would be an odd comfort, anything to distract, to annoy, to retain my focus so that I would stop chasing the ghosts in my head, round and round. I tried to picture Moody’s face and his reaction to my story. He would believe it. He must because, if he didn’t, I had nothing, no one. I would be alone again.
Being alone, truly and wholly alone, is a terrible thing.
They came for me at last, their fists thudding hollowly on my door, clashing with the echoes of their footsteps in the courtyard beyond. They were neither Aurors nor the prefect’s men, but a pair of surly Muggle soldiers, their leave home long delayed by political meanderings.
“You’re coming with us, miss.”
I did not like the look of them, but by this time, I really didn’t care what fate had in store for me next. It really couldn’t get any worse, could it?
Well, in case you were wondering, it did.
Some time later, I found myself in a filthy cell, balanced on the edge of an equally, if not more filthy cot, my arms wrapped around my legs, afraid to let my toes dangle too low in case my cellmate the rat arrived to take another nibble. There was a window, very well-placed, if I may say so, ensuring that a small quantity of sand blew in at regular intervals. Perhaps if the breeze continued, enough sand would collect so that, by the time I starved myself thin, I could squeeze between the bars and find my freedom.
I had discovered one additional difficulty of being a witch: the lack of a passport, and therefore, a lack of citizenship. I may have spoken the King’s English and had the general appearance of an English female, but when it came to the English records, I technically did not exist.
The group of officials debated my citizenship for an uncomfortable amount of time, then interrogated me regarding it for an even longer and more uncomfortable amount of time. It did not take long before the words “German spy” entered the fray, and that was when I was rudely shoved into the deepest, darkest cell they could find with no hope of afternoon tea.
It was Moody’s fault, of course, for being absent at just the time when I needed him. Somehow, I wasn’t surprised.
He was the only other person who I knew shared my suspicions regarding the recent activity in the Valley of the Kings. Something was wrong, and now it had cost another life. Right beneath my nose, too. Perhaps that was the most frustrating – or should I say worrying? – thing of all: that I had slept through Cadogan’s death.
It had not been a large boat and the walls were certainly not thick, so it seemed impossible that I should have missed the terrified screams of a dying man, or at least his movements on the deck, struggling for life, or even of whatever had caused his death. It all couldn’t have occurred in utter or near silence.
But there were too many perhapses that got in the way. Perhaps I had been drugged. Perhaps Cadogan had spelled me to stay asleep when he’d woken. Perhaps his murderer had used magic.
Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
None of it mattered. He was dead, and I was in prison. Nothing else mattered.
With that, I leaned my head against the wall and closed my eyes, now waiting for the scrambling claws of the rat.
At least I didn’t have to be alone.
Time slowed, each second feeling like a month, each minute a year. Perhaps they would leave me in this dungeon forever. “There’s a murderess, the traitorous spy,” they would say, pointing down a dark corridor. “Name it and she’s done it.” All the crimes in the world laid at my door.
They would claim that I’d robbed the tomb next. That wouldn’t surprise me one bit. It would be the first crime that I’d wish that I had committed. To see the inside of that tomb....
The question of what I would give for such an opportunity occupied me for some time, long enough for the cell to grow dark and my eyes to remain shut, the sound of scrabbling nails on the stone floor lulling me into a fitful sleep. Thoughts of the tomb filled my early dreams, for dream I did, my mind drifting through the dark, secret corridors deep within the earth’s surface, much deeper than the reports of the tomb’s design had described. It was meant to be shallow, a minor tomb appropriated for the body of the too-young, lately-dead pharaoh, but instead I followed tunnels for what seemed like miles until, impossibly, there was a light ahead.
It always remained ahead, at the same distance, and even though I walked and walked, growing weaker with faltering steps and palms scraping against the tunnel walls, I never reached it.
“Not long now,” a voice whispered, so close that I could feel the breath stir my hair. “But not yet. Not yet.”
The darkness overtook me, and I awoke.
It was night, no more scorching sunlight pouring in through the high, barred window. There was only silence now. I supposed that even rats had to fall asleep sometime.
Imagine dreaming of the tomb, of all places! This cell was no better than a tomb, when one really thought about it. In fact, it possessed one thing that a tomb did not: a window. I had to be thankful for small favours. For all the wondrous things an ancient tomb could contain, it was also a house for the dead, continuously reeking of death, never distinguishable from its purpose.
As I didn’t mistake myself for the Count of Monte Cristo, I had no worries of this jail cell becoming my tomb, so after taking a mouthful of tepid water from the jug near the door, I curled up on the cot for another round of broken sleep.
He flashed before my eyes over and over, the living man of the night blurring with the dead man of morning to wring drops of sanity from my mind. Everything replayed itself in ghastly detail, joy and horror set in reverse. I was there again before the mirror on the boat, watching as dead, white hands reached over my shoulders, their skeletal fingers grasping for my throat. A flicker and the scene changed to the blinding light of morning on the deck where he smiled up at me, his hand extended, beckoning me to join him. To join him in death.
His features took on a darker aspect, the fiery hair burning low as his light eyes turned black. There it was. That thing which had invaded my dreams, polluting my memory of Cadogan. It stared out from his eyes, smiling with his lips. It opened his mouth.
“Resist me.” The words rang hollow, echoing off every grain of sand. “Fear me.” It grew in volume. “But in the end, you will come to me.”
I was there again on Philae, there with him on that impossible island, the water gushing around us, rising, falling, ever in motion. My black robes had been replaced with a white shroud gathered tightly across my chest and tied to a thick leather collar at my throat. He pulled me along, though I struggled, though I used all my magic to resist, he drew me toward him, closer, closer, until all I could see was his face, all the little details, perfections and imperfections....
The face closed in, growing to obscene proportions until it consumed me whole.
I shut my eyes tight until a gentle hand touched mine. Exaltation swept through my veins, raising every nerve to a raging point. Another voice, more familiar, too familiar, glided into my ears, its dulcet tones no longer silenced by the hand of Death.
“Do not let it catch you.”
Waking, I sat up with such speed that the cot shuddered on its rusted legs. I blinked, rubbing the sand from the corners of my eyes. It was everywhere, the sand, always getting into everything. There was no escape from its presence. I dusted it off my clothes, though it made no difference to their state of wear.
Blasted dreams. If I paid too much attention the unconscious mind rattling its chains all night long, I’d end up in the madhouse much sooner than expected.
I leaned my head back against the wall, but did not close my eyes. I wanted to think.
All of this trouble had begun when the tomb had been opened. Nothing irregular had coloured life before that day. The monotony of it all had been excruciating, but that day, something had happened. The way the sand had acted, it was as though something had come out of the tomb, something intangible, not an object but a being, a living thing. I’d heard of curses and demons, but only peripherally. There had never been any major tomb openings since I’d arrived in this area, and even then, it wasn’t as though the curse breakers would make a public spectacle of their work.
Speaking of which, it was impossible that anything should have escaped the tomb without first being caught and destroyed by the curse breakers. They were fabled throughout the country; even in my avoidance of all things magic, I had heard of their ruthless efficiency, their quiet persistence in carrying out their work under the noses of Muggle archaeologists. Perhaps that was the sort of job I should have aspired to, however much the thought of grappling with demons terrified me.
But where had they been at Tutankhamun’s tomb? I assumed that they’d have been in and out before Carter had broken the seals, but if so, they had missed something. It was impossible, and I knew that if I’d gone to the authorities, they would have laughed me back into the streets. The curse breakers could do no wrong. They never made a mistake.
If not that, then what?
I knew what I’d seen, what I’d felt. I also knew that things had been going wrong ever since that day, for me, and for many others, especially those who died as a result.
If there was actually something roaming around the desert, surely it would have killed me by now? The thing which had forced the rock down the cliff-face had left behind claw marks, as though metal had ripped through stone. The thing which had killed Cadogan had been horrific, even monstrous, enough to leave that look on his face... oh Merlin, that look...
It was there, again, before me. That face. That horror. Those eyes, the sound of the birds screeching above....
“–hardly your best accommodations, Major.”
My eyes shot open, the cursed things having closed again, for Merlin knew how long. The sky outside the window was blue and clear. Morning had come. So had a vistor.
“We don’t provide for murderesses, sir. She’s got what she deserves. More even.”
It was my jailer, his keys jangling against his holster, his accent thick as mud, all the letters slurring together out of drunkenness rather than lack of education and status. I daresay he was one of those jolly English-fellow types to most of the world, but to me, he was an undistinguished brute.
But the other one, the other voice, it was strange. English, but not English, too. I could not place it and strained to listen for a hint, any hint at all.
“There’s very little proof of that, you know. She is, after all, a lady.”
The Major guffawed, a hideous sound that made me clench my teeth and itch for my wand. Now here was the kind of Muggle who was just asking for–
“Her? Never! We’ve had word of her little game for ages, but nothing concrete ‘till now. We’ve got her good, believe me.” There was a pause filled with the jangling of keys as he unhooked the ring from his belt. “Are you sure you’ll be wanting to see her, sir?”
“I’m sorry to say that I’ll be taking her off your hands, Major.”
The keys hit the ground with a clang.
“The evidence on the boat was inconclusive, Major. You know that as well as me, and even if Miss Black has been getting, and I quote, ‘what she deserves,’ I don’t think it fair to charge an innocent young woman with a murder she obviously did not commit.”
The Major fumbled to pick up the keys.
“Now will you please open this door?”the voice continued.
“Pardon me, sir, but she’s the only one who could have done it. They were alone out there, entirely alone–”
There was a different kind of laugh; it must have been from the other man. It gave him away.
When the door opened, I thought I knew who to expect, but I found myself staring at a pair of very polished black shoes, neatly-pressed linen trousers – my eyes made their way upward – a blazer with a blazing white handkerchief in the pocket, its blinding whiteness only matched by the open-necked shirt he wore. With one hand, he adjusted an obsidian cufflink, the stone a perfect match to his eyes, which surveyed the room and my person, displeasure taking root in the twist of his lips as he addressed the Major.
“I think you may expect a transfer soon, Major.”
“I’m sure that there are places well-deserving of your, let us say, attentions?”
He turned to the Major, his smile broad, but entirely without feeling.
An awkward swallow was his only reply.
“Very well, then. Thank you, Major. Please have Miss Black’s things – all of them, mind you – ready for her departure.”
The sound of jangling keys faded into the background, or was it that they faded with the roaring in my ears at that moment? All of this felt less real, more dream-like, than anything I had yet experienced all the night through.
“What is it, Black?” Moody asked, crossing his arms in what seemed to be his favourite pose, his voice slipping back into its American lilt. “Aren’t you glad to see me?”
I blinked. I gaped. There were no words for this vision.
“That much, eh?” He grinned, but anxiety flashed in his eyes before he reached out a hand to pull me to my feet and brush some sand off my shoulder. “Come on, Princess. We better be out of here before the dear Major starts losing his awe for my godlike appearance and starts checking up on my credentials.”
The dryness in my throat was only one reason why I found it difficult to speak. I grasped at the first thought that entered my head as I heard his extravagant and impossible speech.
He led me toward the door, but my footsteps lagged, my feet tingling with numbness. They weren’t the only portion of my anatomy feeling numb.
“I can’t say you look it at the moment, but looks can be deceiving, as you can see.” He bowed me out of the cell before guiding me up the corridor, his hand resting just above my elbow.
It wasn’t my numb feet that drew me to a halt. I stared straight ahead, not seeing the corridor or the jail, not feeling Moody’s presence close beside me, not even aware of my body’s aches and pains as it sought to remind me of the neglect it’d been suffering over the past twenty-four hours. My mind was at work, tying knots, pulling threads together.
“Yes, that’s very true....” my voice trailed off.
His fingers tightened around my arm.
I looked up at him. “....a person could be many things at once.”
Perhaps the missing curse breaker hadn’t been missing after all. Perhaps he had instead failed, somehow; it didn’t matter how, only that something went wrong. He takes on a new identity, pretends to be a Muggle tourist, hires the local witch, but again, something goes wrong, but this time, I knew what that something was.
Cadogan. Me. That night.
But Salazar’s socks, however was I going to explain that, or anything else, to Moody?
No need to call the gravediggers for me. I was going to do a very good job of it myself.
In the Hand of the Devil
The train compartment was no larger than the jail cell, but it was worlds away, no matter how hot, how dusty, and how noisy it proved to be. I leaned back against the worn red velvet, trying to remember the last time I had ridden first class. They had served tea and cakes in the dinning car, and clean, new frock had awaited me in a tiny lavatory. It was, in fact, just short of heaven itself.
Well, excepting my companion. He sat across from me with crossed arms and a raised eyebrow, Milton’s Satan in a Savile Row suit. In the last week he’d transformed from a beastly thief into a... God only knew what he was now. He must have been significant enough to warrant the expense, yet once we’d settled into the compartment, he’d shed the persona of slimy government official with an easing of his shoulders and jaw, his accent reasserting its rebellious colonial identity as he began on a moralizing tirade which revealed just how much he knew of my circumstances. I closed my eyes and half-listened, taking unexpected enjoyment from the rhythm of his speech. After all, he was only telling me everything I already knew.
“How you’ve managed to survive this long, I have no idea. Most people of your sort couldn’t have made it a week out here on their own. You should have gone into gambling, with all the luck you have.”
It was probably one of the few things I hadn’t yet tried.
“One might almost think it was–”
His elegantly arched eyebrow said it all. He had recognized what I was from the beginning, though he wasn’t a wizard himself, unless he was very good at disguising it. Surely I would have felt something, a certain frisson in the air around him, if he had been. There should have been something wrong about his appearance, an inexperience with fashion, an eccentricity of style, but he was flawless from his onyx cufflinks to his well-oiled hair. Even his shoes were polished to a mirror state. It was problematic, to say the least. I couldn’t categorize him in any of the usual ways.
We were miles away from Luxor and many more from our first meeting. I couldn’t even remember how much time had passed since Alexander Moody had sidled his way into my life. He had transformed little by little, a true chameleon, and even now I didn’t think he was himself. Maybe he never was. It made him as dangerous as he was useful, for even as he lurked in society’s shade, adapting to its every whim, he could unflinchingly turn traitor.
“Like you would know.” I sat back with crossed arms.
Did I detect a tightening of his lips in response? For a second I could have sworn that a wild look had appeared in his eyes, fury burning in their depths..
The carriage rattled over a precarious switch. I blinked. The moment passed and his face had relaxed.
“Don’t judge a kettle by its looks. It can still make a damn good tea.”
It was one of the strangest things I’d ever heard. Maybe that was why it made so much sense. He was not as he appeared, neither before nor, if I guessed correctly, now. He had been too pleased about his performance in the prison. Yet he couldn’t have been a thief, either. There was too much of an official air about him; there had always been. I had just been too pig-headed to take it seriously.
“So what are you, exactly?”
A series of muscles on his face twitched.
I waved aside his words. “So is everything lately.”
One corner of his lips moved, whether upward or downward, it was hard to tell.
“I work for the Liaison Office. If any agency in the region requires my... expertise” – he pronounced this word with relish – “they send me to look after things.”
“Such as errant witches causing mischief.”
He shrugged, but the smile was growing on his face. “Among other things.”
The Liaison Office was new to me, though he seemed to expect that I knew something about it. Maybe the name itself was supposed to be a clue, but I didn’t feel like venturing into linguistic analysis at that point in time.
“How long have you known what I am, Moody?”
He blinked, his lips twitching, but the smile held, even if it lost some of its authenticity.
“I knew for certain when I saw you apparate outside my window.” His voice had lowered, softening to what must have been his normal accent, impossible to place.
The train rattled on. I tried not to stare open-mouthed, but the coincidence was just too much. To think that he had been that shadow, that I had chosen that particular alleyway at that particular moment. It was as though something had made that moment possible, fate bringing us together. Or just my bloody bad luck.
“It was a convenient coincidence, to say the least.” He watched me through half-closed eyes, his lashes visible from my side of the compartment. “You were otherwise very good at concealing your... special abilities.”
What a strange way of putting it! But I postponed my analysis of his diction for the time being.
“So that’s why you tried to stop me from going to Philae. You knew how dangerous it would be! Next time, do put greater effort into your methods of persuasion.” With crossed arms and an exaggerated frown, I must have looked like a petulant child.
He had the gall to shrug. “I had to return to Cairo to check the records. And there are a good few of those about you.”
If that was meant to pique my curiosity, it was successful, not that I’d ever admit it.
“Now that you know what I am, pray enlighten me on the subject of your occupation.”
“Officially, I am a translator.” He sat back, awaiting my reaction.
“So you’re a spy.” I didn’t even blink.
With a sigh too long and a frown too deep, he leaned back in his seat. “You really take the wind out of a man’s sails, Black.”
“When I’m not killing them, you mean.”
My lips tightened too late. Moody’s eyes went wide as he digested the words, suddenly unable to meet my gaze. He fumbled in his pockets – one... two... three... – before he extracted a worn pack of cigarettes and a strange metal box. I watched as his thumb flicked over one end of the box, again and again until a flame appeared.
Perhaps I jumped because he finally looked back at me.
“A lighter.” After taking in a deep breath, he spoke again. “Not magic. Invention.” He tossed it in my direction.
It looked like it should have been a magical object, with its fancy engraving of twisted leaves. I ran my thumb over the mechanism, but it would not produce a flame.
“I’m surprised you’ve never seen one before,” he said with a puff of smoke.
The smell of gas overpowered that of the smoke, and I returned it to its owner without hesitation. How was it that the whole object did not explode when lit? There would be advantages to such a thing, which was far more practical than a pile of failed matches, but I didn’t think I could ever be comfortable carrying it about. All the same, it proved that Muggles weren’t the dimwits my people seemed to think them.
“Would you prefer if I opened the window?”
I shook my head, unwilling to trust myself to speak. It was still too fresh. If I closed my eyes for a moment too long, it would all come crashing back. The cry of the birds. The stillness of his flesh. The light on his eyes.
My fingers picked at the alien fabric of the frock, crisp and smooth. I’d only seen the likes of it on the Dumb Doras that waltzed through the sites with their empty heads and full wallets, only to be snapped up by the first eligible male who looked their way. It was the life from which I’d escaped, the life that had despised me as much as I despised it. So why was it that when I needed a disguise, this was it? Why was it a role that people assumed would fit?
“It’s only temporary.”
I looked up.
“The dress. You’ll blend in.”
“The tourist district. The Cairo Ministry was induced” – here his upper lip turned upward – “to move quarters into a more convenient location for visiting wizards.”
“Can’t have them running amuck in the back streets?”
He shrugged, attempting to exhibit a disregard for the subject, but his shoulders resisted the motion. A nationalist, then. Not that I minded – quite the contrary. The country may have been declared an independent state the previous year, but there was still a long process ahead to entirely free itself of British rule. Those soldiers back in Luxor were only one symptom of a larger, lingering problem.
Some would say that I was another as a member of the British gentry. But at least I could argue that, officially – meaning by Muggle standards – I was a citizen of nowhere. No passport. No papers. I was happy enough to adopt this country, if it would have me.
“I’d have thought you lot would have commandeered a pyramid for the purpose.”
That brought a fleeting smile to his face. “They did for a while, but there was this smell that no spell could... dispel.”
“Mmm. The sweet smell of decay.”
His laughter was not pleasant in the least. He barked out the notes like a poor comedian, yet his face displayed genuine mirth. Even the tightness of his jaw had lessened, and for the first time I wondered whether he was younger than I’d initially assumed.
Funny, is it not, how a person could be caught up in the strangest of mysteries – like something straight out of a bad novel – and yet here I was, with greater curiosity for my travelling companion than for the murder that had taken place right under my nose. Maybe it was a coping mechanism, my mind darting away from the source of the trauma. I didn’t like to think of the way Cadogan had used me. Had he been possessed by a demon, or had he been trying to entrap it, with myself as the bait? And those dreams–
No, no, Moody was a far safer subject of speculation.
I watched as he finished off the cigarette and flicked the remains into the small brass chalice hanging beside him. His laughter had died quickly enough, his face settling back into a misleading state of repose. That was my problem with him: he was never just one thing at a time, but all things at once. I liked for things in my world to remain clearly defined.
Once again pulling at the hem of my frock, I watched us pass the world by.
After some minutes of the train’s persistent rattle, he drew a book from his pocket and my heart stopped, plunging into the underworld with a deafening boom. This was not so much due to the sight of a book in Moody’s odd, scarred hands as it was the book itself, one that I had nearly flung into the Nile. It was Cadogan’s book, the gilt letters glittering between Moody’s fingers.
I drew in a breath, and he raised his eyes to peer at me over the top of the book.
“He recorded his work in here. I’ve been told he was one of the best.”
“Curse-breaking. He didn’t normally work in the tombs, though. Maybe that’s where it went wrong for him. Tomb demons are a nasty sort.”
I frowned. “But why wouldn’t they have found someone with experience curse-breaking tombs? It seems so strange, especially for a tomb of such importance.”
He lowered the book so that it lay open across his lap. “The war, mostly. And from what I’ve heard, it’s been difficult to train new ones fast enough. The goblins and Department of Antiquities can’t agree on anything.”
“Of course not,” I murmured, uncertain of how else to respond. I knew too little of wizarding politics, but I had little interest in rectifying that grave error in my education. History of Magic had focussed on all of the wrong things, dreary rebellions and other events that held no value because we never learned why they mattered, only that they had occurred. It was trying to read a history that only ever featured wizards and British ones at that. How did he rest of the world work? If I had not left England, would I have ever noticed?
“Are you seeing it again?”
My eyes watered as I struggled to refocus them onto reality. “Pardon?”
Moody tilted his head. “What happened to you.”
He hesitated, the seconds stretching between us. There was a subtle narrowing of the eyes and a slight twitch above one corner of his mouth.
“Anyway, all his notes are in code, but this book could still be of use to us.” He gestured with the book in hand. “It describes the nature of every known type of demon, from those most often used to guard tombs and temples, to those we’ve only seen in paintings. Some haven’t made an appearance in millennia.”
One of my fingers tapped against the seat. “Let me guess: my demon’s one of those.”
His eyebrows raised, I assumed because I’d claimed the demon for my own.
“Don’t get your hopes up too high, Princess. It may be more than a standard tomb demon, but its strength appears to fall well short of apocalyptic proportions.” He flipped another page, this time too dramatically to actually be reading the damned thing.
I put out my hand. “Give it to me.”
The book was passed across the compartment without complaint. The spine crackled as it fell open on my lap, revealing yellowed pages and cramped annotations in the margins. Alchemical symbols appeared between the paragraphs, presumably those necessary to call forth the demons and send them back again. Everything was written in a sort of archaic English, halfway between Latin and Shakespeare, and while my grasp of the Muggle classics had been improving these long, last boring years, I still couldn’t get my head around these sentences.
“It’s certainly nothing like my old schoolbooks.” There went the bloody eyebrow again. “And no, they weren’t cute girly things about manners.”
“That’s obvious enough.”
Oh, so he hadn’t changed at all. I could have cursed him, the bastard! Every muscle in my body tightened until pain shot through my limbs. But I mustn’t show anger. I might as well have been perched at my mother’s knee as she enumerated on all of the ways I was an inappropriate little witch and I had to hold my tongue under threat of being jinxed.
The image slipped away as fast as it had come, another taking it place. Philae. The water lapping at the temple’s base, the red-headed god looming above me.
“Only one of your kind can bear me.”
“What was that?”
Moody leaned forward in his seat, hands on his knees.
I picked up the book, riffling through the pages. It had to be here, some reference, some description of the things from my dream. The demon had created it, a sort of vision, like the old oracles. It was likely the same moment that it had arrived on the boat–
The book fell open at a much-creased page.
Unless it had been there all along.
“What is it?”
I looked up into his face, close beside mine. It should have startled me, should have repelled me into the next compartment, but I held, frozen by the words I’d seen on the page.
So that was it. The demon hadn’t arrived on the boat; it had been there from the beginning. It was Cadogan, taking on his body, doing God knew what with his soul, transforming him into a tourist, engaging me as a guide, then enticing me onto that boat, and from there... I hadn’t been wrong to feel afraid as the hands had reached for my throat. He was a murderer, and I had– I–
But no, he had changed before that moment; his hands had been shaking, his manner had softened. He had given me a choice.
It seemed possible that the demon had relinquished its hold for some yet unknown reason, then returned, discovered Cadogan’s betrayal, and killed him. But there was also the dream. Which had occurred first?
“It spoke to me in a dream. I thought– Hell, I don’t know. There wasn’t time to think.”
The air was hot and close, no thanks to the lingering scent of his cigarette. I should have let him open the window, but I did not want to speak. The dream... what had it meant? It would be easiest to slip it into the back of my mind, to claim that it was only due to indigestion and the rocking of the boat, not to mention an overactive imagination. I had, after all, thought for a moment that Cadogan wanted to strangle me–
“The temples are dangerous places for magic.”
I shook myself from a reverie. Moody was leaning back in the seat beside me, staring at the ceiling, appearing to be entirely unperturbed by the heat.
“The Temple of Isis would be a stronghold of ancient magic, the kind that would attract a demon trapped in our world.” He glanced sidelong at me. “Isis was a particularly powerful witch, to use the modern term, and her priestesses were selected from the best in the land. If anyone could send a demon back to its world–”
“It’d be one of them.”
The book was still open in my hands and my eyes wandered across the page, though I could not concentrate. I slammed it shut with an awkward laugh.
“It thinks I can do it too.”
It was just what I needed: a demon mistaking me for some sort of priestess, of Isis no less. Perhaps there was a compliment in there somewhere.
“That’s how it would appear.”
“So why murder the worker? Cadogan I can understand, but that was after it tried to kill me!”
After a moment, he rose, reached for his cigarette case, then with a minute shake of his head, he went instead to lean against a window, one hand still in his jacket pocket. His muscles were taunt, the jacket straining across his shoulders. He had changed again, genuine feeling knocking that mask of the suave Ministry official aside so that even the suit fit him ill, yet when he at last turned to face me, his face might as well have been carved from stone. Except for the scar that traced the line of his jaw, thick and pink.
“There’s too much we don’t know and perhaps will never know. I’ve been ordered to take you to Cairo.”
I held up the book. “So why bring this? Not for light reading.”
He said nothing.
“Come now, Moody, you’re not the type to just follow orders and be done with it. You were as interested in the death as I was, and if not for you, I’d have never seen those claw marks on the rocks.” I took a breath, clutching at the book. “Someone has to stop the demon.”
His face took on the most perfect example of a glower, his lips twisting in disgust.
With studied precision, he straightened his clothes and once more took the seat across from me, refusing to meet my eyes. He stared out the window and did not say a word until we reached Cairo, the train screeching as it entered the station, but even that sound was difficult to register amidst the roar of the crowds. Moody must have been used to the din because he used hand signals to guide me through the station. Something about his presence deterred the sellers of jewellery and fake antiquities; they scattered after one glance at his face, turning to the overwhelmed tourists behind us. The only being that did not remove itself from his path was a flea-bitten cat with only a half a tail. It rubbed against his legs, its purrs audible above the noise of the city.
Moody reached down to pat its head. “There isn’t enough time for a meal. I’ll get us something on the way.”
As we traversed the labyrinthine streets, skirting the main streets, I wondered at how much and how little the city had changed. There were so many things I seemed to have missed during the year I had lived here, yet the atmosphere of the place remained constant. The same people pushed past, the same stalls occupied the marketplace, the same urchins snatched at whatever was within reach.
At some point, Moody passed me a handful of Turkish apricots, and soon after, as we entered a main road, he slowed his pace to match mine. His demeanour had changed again, his mouth taking on a dull droop, gazing at the world with practised indifference.
“I thought it best to not hire a car. You are not tired? Good,” he added in respond to my nod. “It’s not much further. There is Shepheard’s.”
He pointed out the old hotel, its edifice a grander version of the Winter Palace, the wrought iron porch framed by sycamores and squat palms. Ladies in Parisian dresses and long strings of beads stood side-by-side with men in linen suits, waiting for their motorcars or preparing for a stroll. It differed little from the sight in Luxor, yet I could not help but stare at a perspective of Egypt so unlike my own.
We turned down a street that ended in a sea of green, an oasis in a metropolitan desert, the Ezbekiya Gardens. I had an exaggerated memory of some place comparable to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, though the reality did not seem in the least disappointing. The disappointment came when Moody redirected me through a backdoor of the American Mission. There was an unpleasant smell emanating from the floor, but that soon disappeared as we passed through another set of doors, down a flight of stairs, and through a tunnel lined with mosaics. I paused to study a scene depicting a priest in flowing robes dwarfed by a raging blue demon while a tomb opening gaped behind them.
“Look here, Moody.”
After making a dramatic effort to check the time, he glanced over my shoulder.
“Yes, that’s how they would have summoned the cursed thing. If only it also showed how to send it back again.”
I looked back at the demon’s face before following Moody away. It was strange to see how well hatred could be represented in little chips of stone.
My name echoed down the tunnel, and I hurried along, feeling as though I’d been transported back in time to Hogwarts, some professor or another calling out as I dashed down to the common room. That too had been underground, but damp and cold, even in late summer.
At last we turned into a vast room tiled in lapis and gold, with three storeys of archways and windows in the Islamic style surrounding a courtyard where a fountain burbled and splashed. And all of this was below the surface, below the Muggle city. I was rooted to the spot until Moody let out an impatient cough. Soon, we stood before a closed door on the upper storey, but when it opened, Moody slipped away without a word. I was about to complain when a voice emerged from the room.
“Ah, Miss Black. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”
Chapter 12: (Out of the Frying Pan) Into the Fire
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(Out of the Frying Pan) Into the Fire
The room withing looked to be little more than a gaping hole that led to the nearest set of dungeons. It was not entirely out of the question, even at this point. One more step forward and I passed into a bright light that soon faded, but the damage to my eyes – and focus – was done. Glancing back, I could see through the doorway into the courtyard, but I detected a glimmer of the charm that allowed the occupant complete privacy while offering her a view of everything that went on in the Ministry
Yes, she. Until this moment, I had not known that the Prefect of Egypt was a woman.
Moody might have told me, but then again he did not seem to know the full extent of my ignorance. Perhaps it was for the best, as it prevented me from any ill-conceived notions of what to expect
My first impression of Rasima El-Manawy was largely confused, and thus I must rely on the memory of subsequent meetings to describe her with any great accuracy. She was not one to have patience with first impressions nor with any form of prejudice. Her position as Prefect of Egypt’s magical government was constantly under scrutiny from Egyptian and Briton alike, and she maintained control only because she never made a mistake. Some would say she achieved this because she was too afraid to err, but anyone who had been in her company could affirm that it was because error was simply not in her vocabulary.
From the whispers I would hear in years to come, she had been working her way through the corridors of the Egyptian Ministry since the turn of the century, but no one was quite certain from where she had come and how she managed to take on responsibility after responsibility until, at the end of the war, she was found to be the only suitable candidate for Prefect.
While I was still attempting to get my bearings, she stood behind a massive desk, a relic of nineteenth-century colonial rule strewn with parchments and artefacts.
“Please sit, Miss Black. I have already ordered tea.”
She watched as I stepped forward rather clumsily and took the offered chair. “Thank you, Madame.”
There was a twitch that might have been a smile. It reminded me of something, but the tea service arrived before I could bring the right thought to mind. It was distracting, the sight of a teapot and cups floating past, followed by trays of food. They landed on the Prefect’s desk without a sound, and she waved her wand to pour the tea, launching into the elaborate ceremony required for every guest. She hesitated only to gesture toward the milk, but I shook my head. We ate as the tea cooled, speaking of polite things such as the weather, that staid and true subject, and the sights of Cairo. It was not until we finished the first glass of tea that she sat back in her chair, regarding me through half-shut eyes.
“I have seen your file on my desk a surprising number of times, Miss Black. It contains more than sufficient material for a sensation novel, perhaps too much.” Amusement flickered across her face. “To see you now, I can only just believe that you are the same person.”
I struggled not to fidget. “How much do you know?”
It was far from the best question to ask. Why couldn’t I have flashed a charming smile and said something about having no idea what she could possibly mean?
Her gaze sharpened, watching me as though I was a particularly interesting scientific specimen. “Four years ago, there was a raid of the workshop of an illegal antiquities producer. Some of the workers managed to escape, including a girl whom the others swore was English. Her work, painting the statues of the Old Gods, betrayed a trained eye and hand, as one would expect from an accomplished young lady. In the months that followed there were sightings of this girl, or one like her, throughout the city, stealing in places, taking employment in others, always with obvious signs of magical ability. Then she vanished for a time.” She paused to pour another glass of tea. “Am I correct thus far?”
I managed a half-shrug.
“In 1920 she finally reappeared, this time in the household of an eminent archaeologist. I need not mention his name, I see.”
She saw too much, those half-open eyes taking in the slightest change in my countenance.
“This girl – now I think I shall call her a young woman – worked as a sort of secretary, though she was far more of a student. He supposed that she would prove an even better wife–”
A noise, something between a squeak and an explicative, sounded in my mouth.
“He refused to report the stolen items, claiming them to be parting gifts although it was clear that he had unforseen her departure. It was the books that upset him most, I think.”
She at last lowered her eyes to sift through the papers on her desk. A photograph rose to the surface, displaying the grainy image of a light-haired woman at the feet of a statue of Rameses. The lighting was all wrong, leaving her face mostly in shadow, but there was enough of the rest to make her identity clear.
It had been a moment of weakness, a sudden impulse to be agreeable, if only for a moment, and allow the damned photograph to be taken. He had asked again and again. However sweet and gentle he could be, he still lived by the colonialist’s creed: never take no for an answer.
Her voice broke through my thoughts. “It took some time to find her again, and it was believed that she had moved on, perhaps to Palestine or India, only to discover that she had – what is the phrase? – gone to ground in Luxor.” A row of creases appeared on her forehead. “Twenty years ago she would have made a fine addition to any excavation as an artist, but now in the age of the photograph, there is no place for her, and so she wanders, an object of condescension and suspicion. A true exile.”
It had the sound of a rather good story, and I could imagine how, with only a few alterations, it could be transformed into a fairy tale, with an exiled princess cast adrift in the desert, pursued by the demons of her past...
The Prefect abruptly set down her teacup and I snapped to attention.
“I wish to make you an offer, Miss Black. Your particular talents may be of use to the Ministry.” She leaned forward, placing her hands flat down on the top of her desk. “You need not wander any longer. The choice is yours.”
There was a hollow drumming in my ears. My hands had gone cold and I clasped them tightly in my lap, wondering if all of this was a clever trap. She had made no reference to anything prior to my arrival in Egypt. No report of a missing witch. No request to send word back to my family, or worse, to send me back to cold, withering England. It was the one thing that kept me from being truly frightened of what might come next.
“And if I choose to... wander?”
Her face was as the statues I knew so well, the impassive queens, the serene goddesses, unafraid of the power they wielded in delicate hands.
“You have not yet heard the offer.”
I swallowed, but nodded. It is true that I have a tendency to leap face-first into conclusions, lead primarily by my acute sense of distrust, and this had contributed to nearly, if not all of the more objectionable aspects of my history. I did not want to repeat these mistakes by prematurely bolting out the door. The word ‘offer’ was of particular interest.
“All of this” – she placed her hand on the file – “can be altered in your favour, including your current charge of murder under Muggle law. Additionally, the Ministry can provide the... let me call it stability that is currently absent from your life.”
I held my breath at the word ‘murder.’
“What you must do in return” – these were the words that sent my stomach plunging to hell – “is assist in the elimination of the Tutankhamun demon.”
An unsavoury word dropped out of my mouth.
“The nation is at stake should the demon remain free. I have already lost two curse breakers as a result of its escape.” Her gaze held mine. “You have been closest to it, Miss Black. Yet it has not killed you.”
I lowered my eyes to look at my hands, white-knuckled and blotchy. Was it just luck that I had survived so far? That rock had come close, and those men who’d attacked me couldn’t have just done so by coincidence. There was too much going on and very little of it that I properly understood, pieces in a puzzle designed from a cubist painting, or something like that.
“Surely there are trained people who can better–”
“Those who did not die in the war have retired honourably.” There was a slight tightening of her jaw as she spoke those words. “Mr. Carter’s discovery was unexpected, as I am sure you know, Miss Black. There were many who believed that Nefertari’s tomb would be the last great find of our age.”
“That was twenty years ago!”
The Prefect raised an eyebrow. “Undiscovered tombs are very rare. Those which have never been touched even more so.” She took a sip of tea, the eyebrow remaining firmly in place. “The Muggle societies have been focussed on excavating cities and temples these last two decades, work that hardly requires any magical intervention.” A note of bitterness entered her voice. Was this her way of excusing the poor magical response to Carter’s discovery? Or was it more that she resented that the Muggles, plodding and mechanical their methods may be, had found it first?
I took a deep breath, then another. Mere procrastination, but it gave me the necessary time to assemble the puzzle she was laying out before me.
The demon had not yet killed me. What did it mean and how could this be potentially useful? There was the strange Temple of Isis connection, but I couldn’t make heads nor tails of it.
Madame El-Manawy was unwilling to spare another curse breaker, the first two having already been killed – Cadogan and who else? Perhaps that worker whose death Moody had been investigating. It would be a perfect disguise for a curse breaker, affording open access to the tomb before even the archaeologists.
Other questions began to resolve themselves on their own. If a request was made to the British Ministry, or even to the goblins, for additional curse breakers, the Egyptians would be sacrificing their power over the tombs and the artefacts they contained. Bad enough that Carter and Carnarvon were on unfriendly terms with the Muggle Department of Antiquities, but to also allow the British to walk all over the magical side of the excavation would result in a complete loss of control.
“If you should accept this offer, then you would receive some training alongside our current recruits.” When I looked at her, an unspoken question in my eyes, she added, “None of whom are yet twenty, nor do they, I might add, possess your extraordinary good fortune, Miss Black.”
There was a slight smile lurking in the corners of her eyes, but it soon faded. “I will make use of them in the event of your failure.”
She might as well have said in the event of my death. It’s certainly what she meant.
“But if you do succeed in neutralizing the demon, then you will become, with them, a curse breaker of the Egyptian Ministry and a citizen of the Egyptian state.”
This was not what I had expected. It had seemed more likely that I’d be shipped off to the White Desert for a good number of years, whatever was the suitable punishment for thievery these days. But this? A career? A future existence that would make me respectable, not to mention rather important? It was nothing short of extraordinary.
Until I took into account the cost. The offer required that I eliminate or at the very least neutralize – whatever either of those terms entailed – the demon. Seeing that I had no ghost of an idea regarding how to achieve such a thing, I might as well take myself off to Farafra and be done with it. What kind of duelling skills did I possess? Any predilection for charms or curses? Anything even remotely practical? Hell, I think my best NEWT was in Astronomy.
“But it is not only the demon who worries you, is it, Miss Black? Is there something more to your story that you would care to add?”
My hands tightened around the arms of the chair. “Why don’t you tell me, Madame? You’ve done so well at telling my story.”
A nerve near her temple flickered beneath the skin. Something akin to annoyance appeared in her eyes, then was as quickly pushed aside. There was a reason why she had clawed her way to the top. There was also a reason why she had succeeded. Some can never bear to be anything other than in control.
From the pile before her, she retrieved a roll of parchment that bore the broken seal of the Ministry of Magic and held it up between two fingers.
“According to Ministry records, the only Helen Black of your approximate age died five years ago, not long before your arrival in Egypt.” She let the words fall flat into the room.
“How–?” It was the only word that crawled out of my throat.
The Prefect’s eyes met mine. “Suicide after a hysterical breakdown.” Her gaze slid aside. “A not uncommon verdict.”
Should I have been glad? A part of me may have been. I was a puppet cut from its strings. Some may have said I was free, that the spectres of the life I’d life behind could now be laid to rest. Yet it did not feel that way as I stared at the roll of parchment with its broken seal that flapped back and forth as the Prefect held it in her hands. I thought of snatching it from her to greedily consume the words that at once offered freedom and stole away my name, a bloodline that stretched across centuries.
What was I now? Could I still claim the name of Black?
Even those blasted from the tapestry of Phineas Nigellus’s home maintained the name of Black. It was not a particularly special name, merely a colour. Yet it held a power that permeated deep into the bones of every member. There was no escape from it, no true freedom. My parents could rip the name from my still-living flesh. They could take the risk of scandal, swear that I’d gone mad, anything to avoid admitting that their daughter had run away to avoid marriage to Canis Malfoy. His name had already stunk. As had mine.
But none of that mattered anymore. All those years looking over my shoulder–
“Does this alter your decision in any way, Miss Black?” The Prefect had set aside the roll of parchment and folded her hands on the desk, eyes never flinching, not even to blink.
The Helen Black of England was dead, but the one of Egypt remained.
“I suppose it works out in your favour, Madame,” I said at last, tasting each word before it came into being. “A demon cannot kill one who does not live.”
Madame El-Manawy’s face froze halfway to a smile, a paleness touching the skin around her mouth. There was much she had not said. About the demon’s powers. About Cadogan’s demise and my role in it. About the connection to the Temple of Isis and the ancient priestesses. Yet when she spoke again, it was of none of these things.
“There is more to you than meets the eye,” she said, her voice low like the wind between the great columns of ancient temples. “I think you might even surprise yourself, Miss Black.”
~ * * * ~
When I burst from the door of shadows, still reeling from all I’d heard, it was to find Moody on the other side, overlooking the courtyard, hands folded behind his back. There was something of the overseer, the ruler, in his stance, yet also something of the soldier awaiting his next command. He did not immediately turn, though I knew he heard me, perhaps even felt my presence with a sixth sense I could not imagine him lacking. It was not until I came up beside him that he turned, his features rearranging themselves so quickly that I only just caught sight of his set jaw and the merciless twist to his lips. His eyes betrayed him most, disdain, envy flashing across their surface.
I glanced down at the courtyard where workers dashed back and forth from office to office, each of which would contain row upon row of more workers bent dutifully over parchments detailing this or that. Disdain was logical; bureaucracy has a way of evoking such a feeling. But envy? What was to be envied in such a world? Give me the desert, the tombs, the open sky.
“So you agreed?” he asked, his syllables perfectly measured.
“What choice did I have?” I kept my voice low.
He looked away.
From below came the sound of tapping feet as a clerk passed the burbling fountain.
The ominous silence emanating from Moody did nothing to improve my mood. It was true that there was a light at the end of this tunnel, should I ever be capable of emerging from the other side. It was also true that I had nothing else. My only alternative would be to run. To run and run again as though I had no consideration, no respect, for the places I’d lived, the people I’d known. Even snakes weren’t that treacherous. They knew when to stand up and fight.
I straightened my spine. “What now?”
He raised his eyes and assessed the evidence before him, a half-emaciated form, hollowed eyes above an unhealthy set of freckles, coarsened hair and skin, made all the more pathetic by my attempts to disguise these signs of what I had sacrificed for freedom. It seemed that he was seeing me for the first time, the artificial light of the Egyptian Ministry merciless in its glare. The girl in the photograph had been gone for two years. It was likely that she’d remain so.
“Your training begins.”
My head tilted to one side. “That’s very helpful, Moody. Thank you very much.”
His mouth twitched, and while he launched into an explanation that included something about being outfitted and going off to some place or another, a cold ache flooded my limbs. I had been right when I thought I’d seen it before. It was one of those things that ran in families, something easily revealed when one’s guard was down.
I followed him down a corridor, past offices and storerooms that seemed to stretch until eternity from what I could gauge by the growing pain in my feet. They passed in a blur as I stared at Moody’s back, measuring the lines and angles that showed through his clothes.
Not a thief. Not an American. Not a spy. Certainly not a Muggle.
Somehow this man who had plagued and protected me was a close relative of the Prefect of Egypt. He had been investigating the tomb from the beginning, tracking Cadogan’s movements, then my own, supposedly reporting back everything to Madame El-Manawy to await her instructions. It had meant travelling to Cairo himself, not trusting to owls or pigeons or any other magical means. He had been there all along.
And mystifyingly, he had done everything in his power to hide the truth.
In Too Deep
The realization of Moody’s relationship to the Prefect of Egypt should not have surprised me. My good fortune did not, in my experience, extend to men being honest with me. Rather too much of my mind was still reeling with the knowledge that Cadogan had been a curse breaker, that he had taken advantage of me, allowing me to believe that he was a Muggle.
How stupid I’d been, letting myself be used yet again. Letting myself trust. Had I not learned anything from these last five years?
I let out a long breath, struggling to suppress a shudder.
“Down this way,” Moody said, glancing over his shoulder. I followed him beneath an archway that brought us even lower beneath the city. “The corridors are modelled after some of the more elaborate tombs.”
He tripped over his words, and more than once I caught his sharp gaze, ever assessing, his mind measuring actions, expressions, every minute change in the corridor around them. There was a surprisingly cool current of air running through the chambers and antechambers, the offices and sub-offices of secretaries and undersecretaries, all scratching away at parchments and sorting through the workings of government. Wizards in long white robes, witches in colourful headscarves, some glancing up as we passed, their eyes flickering between myself and Moody before they bent over parchments and papers once more.
Another turn, a stairway, a passage, and finally a large door obstructed our path, the first closed door I had seen thus far. It was solid stone, seemingly impenetrable, and I nearly made a fool of myself with an exclamation, but I swallowed the sound when Moody reached through the illusion to grasp a plain doorhandle.
He paused. “You’ve been quiet, Black.”
“Perhaps I’m stricken with terror.” My tone conveyed anything but. “This is a labyrinth. Surely there must be a Minotaur, too.”
From where I stood, there was indeed a Minotaur, and he was the one leading me down, ever downward. That would have been a surprising twist to the tale, if Theseus had been led into the maze only to realise too late that Ariadne was the very creature he sought.
Moody released the doorhandle to rest his palm against the wall. The light caught on his strange scars, little slices across the backs of his hand, as though someone had—
I looked away.
“There’s something, Black.” He looked at me over his shoulder, brow sharply lined. “What did the Prefect say to you?”
I blinked. “You don’t know?” Unless he was trying to see how easily I’d—what was the saying?—spill the beans. Such a delightfully crude turn of speech. “I assumed she would have told you.”
“I know only what she believes is necessary.”
“For your work, whatever it is?”
He inclined his head, the muscles in his hand tightening. What in Hades’s name was he on about? Was there a law here against plain speech?
Chin tilted upward, I squared my shoulders.
“My options are limited, Moody. And—”
I am alone.
The realisation didn’t just shake, it strangled. I took a step back, hoping he would fail to notice. A vain hope.
There was another pause, his face folding into some expression half-hidden in shadow.
“Anything else?” He sounded out the words with care.
I could not imagine what he meant. Something about himself? Perhaps he suspected that I was on to him or, more likely, that the Prefect had revealed his identity as part of my briefing. But why the anxious questions? They were out of place here, out of place against the growing echoes of my heartbeat, the pulsing red behind my eyes, the ache where my supposed brain kept house.
It seemed an appropriate time to bait him.
“If you’re asking whether she said something about you, Moody, then know this: she didn’t need to.”
As the words sunk in, he seemed to deflate, and what I could see of his face had turned so pale that I thought he might fall into a swoon. But I did not dare approach him, not until I knew where he kept his wand. There was no question that he was a wizard, stringing me along just as Cadogan had done, letting me be the most foolish, idiotic witch this side of the Mediterranean. I had mocked those other girls, the tourists who flocked through appearing ridiculous, only to find that I was the ridiculous one, worthy of all their ridicule.
I hid my hands behind my back so he wouldn’t see them shaking.
Moody shoved open the door and stood aside, his face rigidly set, eyes staring through me. As I passed, I heard his parting shot.
“I thought you would be different from the others.”
The door shut before I could speak. Damn him. Damn everything.
I glared at the door, hands still shaking, but now as much from anger as from... whatever the other thing was. Hysteria, perhaps. There was too much going on. Just too much.
They caught me when my guard was down.
Wards went up around me to form a dome like a murky fishbowl. Figures seemed to emerge from the walls, but I couldn’t see clearly. Everything was cast in a twilight glow, perhaps with a similar spell to the one that shrouded the Prefect’s office door. There were no barked orders, just whispers that raised the hairs on the back of my neck, and a faint breeze of stale air brought goosepimples to my bare arms.
I made no attempt to reach for my wand. I might have, once. But at that moment there didn’t seem to be any point to it. All the odds were against me. They had been for a long while. Moody had sent me into some holding cell. I was sure of it. That whole thing with the Prefect must have been engineered to give me hope, make me believe that I was safe, or that I at least had hope. I seemed to spend a lot of time hoping and an awful lot more time being disappointed.
A wizard materialised, wand out, but not raised in attack. His lower face was obscured by a thick beard. His teeth flashed white against it as he spoke in a ringing, Oxbridge accent.
“Why have you come alone?”
My voice came out as a squeak. “Moody. Outside. He didn’t... follow.”
He twirled his wand in his fingers and filed it away with a slight roll of his eyes. “He is, as always, the great dramatist.”
If I had been capable of rational speech, I would have agreed with him.
“Is it the new recruit?”asked one of the figures, a woman.
Recruit? I latched on to that word, daring to—dammit—hope.
The wizard looked at me with narrowed eyes. “The Prefect sends us another English magi to fight an Egyptian djinni. Iskandar must have been too embarrassed to show his face on such an errand.”
“He is often that way,” said the third figure, a man with a lisp.
“For good reason,” added the woman. She stepped forward and cast the spell that released the wards. “Welcome to the Department of Antiquities, Miss Black.”
I struggled to keep up with their dialogue, trying to imagine Moody as regularly, and justifiably, embarrassed while wondering why the Department of Antiquities would possess such violent methods of security.
But everything in my mind vanished at the sight of this room, this glorious, awe-inspiring room. The shadows had fallen away to reveal an expansive cavern of arches carved out of the rock, lit by a series of mirrors strategically placed about the room. They illuminated an incredible treasure trove of antiquities: statues of pharaohs, untouched by desert winds; shelves of sarcophagi lining one wall; glass cases of jewellery and smaller items stood nearby; and the centre of the room was filled with tables of papyri and instruments, ancient and modern alike.
I stepped forward, hands unclasped, mouth hanging open, my gaze moving from one object to the next. There was so much here, so many things I wanted to examine and admire. If I had known of this place before—
It would have been impossible. I was only here because I had been caught up in something beyond my control. I was useful; that was all.
My eyes took in another sweep of the room. If this was the reward for usefulness, I might have to reconsider my understanding of that vulgar term.
The witch touched my arm, dark eyes glinting with amusement.
“There will be time to explore later.” She gestured to a curtained alcove. “The Master will be ready for you, and you”—she looked down at my skirt—“will soon be ready for him, too.”
Despite the cool air, I felt my skin burn beneath its tan. It was not a wonder that the bearded wizard had been sceptical. I did not look like a witch who could be taken seriously. She, on the other hand, wore robes of a pale rose with tight sleeves and numerous folds across her shoulders and waist. The two wizards seemed to defer to her, slipping back to their duties once she had taken charge of the scene.
The way she held herself was authoritative, keeping her feet firmly planted on the ground, legs braced as though for an oncoming sandstorm. She also moved and spoke with an assurance borne of practised command.
The words echoed against the walls. There would be no such thing as privacy here—every sound seemed to rattle against the stone—and I was glad when she lead me into an antechamber cordoned off by a thick tapestry.
“You mustn’t worry. That frock was the best disguise for the upper levels.” She bent to rummage through a trunk that looked to be a relic of the 18th Dynasty. “It’s unfortunate that the fashions of English Muggles and magi have become so different. You could hardly pass through Cairo in robes unnoticed, but when we do, no one looks twice.”
A heap of cloth was growing on the floor beside her as she pulled out and discarded one set of robes after another.
“The difficulty lies in finding the correct shade. Each position requires a particular colour of robes, but there are so few who specialise in tombs. We never have enough.”
It seemed that there were different types of curse breakers, which explained why, despite the presence of at least four in the Ministry, none of them were being sent to manage the crisis at Tutankhamun’s tomb.
“What do you do...then?” I realised too late that I did not even know her name.
“Written spells and incantations,” she said over her shoulder before extricating another item from the trunk. “Accumulating a complete list of spells from The Book of the Dead is my chief duty, but I also assist the Muggles above with Coffin Texts. And my name is Fahima Hatami, since you have not asked.”
I flushed again. “There’s so much to learn.”
Fahima rose, shaking the dust from a set of grey-ish lavender robes.
“Then do not waste any time.”
She was right, of course. But still, I could not help remembering why I tended to prefer the company of no one.
It did not take long to change into the robes, which may have been softened by long wear, but they neither threatened to tear or stretch over my body. I couldn’t tell whether Miss Hatami was charming the robes or whether they tailored themselves to fit, but when she uncovered the mirror, my eyes widened.
Five years can significantly alter one’s appearance. I had worn Muggle clothes for so long that I had forgotten the impression a set of quality robes could make. Humiliation at my ignorance subsided, drowned out by pride. For the first time in years, I felt like a witch.
“These are suitable for both the Ministry offices and fieldwork,” Miss Hatami said as she spelled away my Muggle clothes. “Keep your hair covered and you might pass unnoticed at a distance.”
I frowned at the mirror. From very long distances.
We exited the alcove, which I suppose was a sort of cloak room, filled as it was with clothing of all types and size, and as we wove through the rest of the department, Miss Hatami relayed a steady stream of information.
“Khalid, the first one who spoke to you, specialises in amulets, which contain the most powerful of curses apart from the djinn. Naseer is still an apprentice and has not yet chosen his field, though he has made it clear that he will not work in the tombs. Ali was our only curse breaker of tombs, may he rest in peace. Even Cadogan was only a temporary assistant to Ali, borrowed from the museum.”
Emile. I almost crashed into a table at the sound of his name. In the distance, I thought I heard gulls crying, the soft lapping of water against—
“...not at all helpful. To this day I do not know what he actually meant to accomplish with his studies into the most arcane aspects of our work. We specialize in curses, Miss Black, not bizarre occult theories.”
We passed a row of menacing mummy cases that looked ready to pop open at any moment, spewing forth noxious fumes or, worse yet, a bandaged set of bony fingers.
“What do you mean?” I asked, giving the cases a wide berth.
“The Cult of the Golden Beetle, of course, and all that nonsense about Hermes Trismegistus, who was not an Egyptian wizard, no matter what those northern wizards claim.” Miss Hatami paused, her jaw clenched and cheeks flushed. “He was not even real, just another fantasy of the Europeans who think our magic is quaint.”
She spat out the words with such vehemence that I took a step back, knocking against a disapproving statue.
I had not the slightest clue of what she talking about.
Not that it was of any consequence whether I did. My presence was of no more consequence to her than if I were a fly buzzing past her ear. She was too caught up in her frustration, though I wondered whether it was directed at Emile Cadogan’s theories or at the man himself. In addition to his... distracting qualities, he had thought rather too much of himself, to put it lightly. I could only imagine what he would have been like in this place, striding through this room, looking down his nose at the curse breakers. I could still hear him, asking me how I could live on the so-called wrong side of the Nile: It cannot be comfortable for a lady.
Certainly no one else had made that mistake.
“Through here. He’s waiting.”
She was half-turned away before I managed to make any semblance of a reply.
“Be honest, Miss Black.” There was the slightest softening of her tone. “He has a way – Legilimency. There is nothing he can’t find out for himself, if he should want it.”
~ * * * ~
Another doorway. Another unknown on the other side. I was beginning to think that this was as much a nightmare as my absolutely enchanting cruise through the Temple of Isis.
But this time I was forewarned.
Miss Hatami’s words drowned out those of Emile, a cool dash of wisdom against a burning wound.
I entered the corridor she had pointed out, wide and vaulted like a Roman tunnel, entirely unlike the room beyond. A lamp flickered lazily, its oil dwindling. The uneven quality of the light made the room the equivalent of some Gothic chamber of horrors in my mind. The walls were like those of the tombs, all paintings and hieroglyphs in bold colours. And they moved. The grass swayed in an unfelt breeze, the rays of Ahkenaten’s sun reaching tiny hands toward his upturned face. I had never seen its equivalent before. Stone walls did not permit the same degree of movement as a canvas or tintype. One couldn’t charm a wall to hold a moving picture. Surely not.
My hand grew more unsteady as I reached to touch the bronzed arm of an Anubis.
“That is something I would not advise, child.”
The voice made me start.
“Why not?” My hand strayed toward my wand.
From the opposite corner of the room came a metallic squeal. A wandlight appeared, illuminating a wizened face and bright, darting eyes. The Master of the Curse Breakers.
“The spell is unstable. We are still perfecting the process.”
I leaned closer, squinting in the poor light. “This is how wall paintings used to look, during that time, I mean? Like our portraits.”
There was another squeak as he wheeled his chair toward me. “Ah, a scholarly interest, I see. Not what I expected from one of your kind, though under the circumstances....”
My kind? What had he been expecting? A witch of the ballrooms and salons of London? That image was long out-of-date. I may have been generally useless, but I didn’t need to be undervalued at every turn. People are, after all, capable of learning, which was precisely what I hoped to do here.
He mumbled and the light detached from his wand, floating upward until it reached an ornate lantern of coloured glass. It did not fully illuminate the room, tinting every surface in a different shade. A red light happened to fall on my hands, and I jerked them behind my back, out of sight.
“Madame Prefect has assured me that you will do well here.”
I swallowed. “Did she?”
His chair squealed again as he propelled himself forward, his face changing from green to blue, at last to gold. He was not as old as he initially appeared, though he may have been the type of wizard who lives well-beyond a century while maintaining the appearance of one thirty, even forty years younger. The strangeness of his features, pale to the point of transparency, were the result of spending too much time over his books, hardly eating, hardly ever rising to the surface where sunlight reigned. The effect was only reinforced by the dark suit, complete with winged collar and cravat, the likes of which I had not seen since childhood.
He could only be one of two things: a vampire or a scholar.
No time was wasted in answering my inane question, and I decided he must be the latter.
“There has been no news of the djinni since the death of M. Cadogan, leaving us to assume that it has hidden itself in the desert. For now.”
“Why?” It seemed ridiculous for it to hide. From whom?
The frown I received in response would have been sufficient to send the demon racing for the lowest circle of hell.
“It has been locked in a small, unfinished tomb for many centuries, as though dormant. It lacks the energy to perform its magic for extended periods of time. And if the report is accurate–” a rolled parchment appeared in his hand. Moody’s report, I assumed. “–it has indeed overextended its powers. There will be no attacks for some days yet.”
He sounded too sure of himself in my opinion. Nearly two days had already passed. And if there was one thing I knew about this demon in particular: it was desperate.
“In the meantime, you will learn the necessary spells and incantations to control the demon, as well as anything else we find you do not know.” The derision in his voice dripped like acid. Oh, he was very excited to have me as his newest curse breaker.
“That’ll be quite a lot,” I muttered, eyes following a procession of mourners in one corner of the room.
My legs began to protest against a new pair of shoes and an unforgiving stone floor. My head wasn’t faring any better; an ache was building above my eye.
Something compelled me to look at him instead and rest, rest, re— He compelled me. It was there in the movement of his lips, the mesmeric quality of his eyes. I could imagine that he was merely attempting to gauge the degree of my ignorance, but from what little I knew of the world and its inhabitants, there was no “merely” about this.
It sent my heart racing to have someone in my head, even for the short time that the Master found it necessary. He soon turned away, squinting into the light.
“There are some who could rid the south of this djinni who would be far more capable than you.”
Not according to the Prefect. Even Miss Hatami had said that no one in the department specialised in tombs, unless... I allowed myself a glance at his legs, but they were concealed beneath a rug. A telling clue. Mildly terrifying, too.
“Then why make this arrangement? One that, I might add, I could not refuse.”
“Because you are no one.”
The words fell like boulders, sending a quake through my veins. With more energy, I may have found the strength to shudder. But the dead have no energy. I could do my best to shove the knowledge of my official death to some hidden corner of my consciousness, yet the truth of it would remain. Helen Black did not exist. I could take any other name, become anyone I liked.
It was at once the most empowering and anxiety-inducing situation I had ever encountered, to have one’s own identity shaken to the roots, one’s own name tossed over the Cornish cliffs.
“What you fail to comprehend is that the djinni can be controlled by no one.”
His voice, while low, echoed around me, through me.
“The priestesses of Isis could only attain their position by forsaking their privilege, their wealth, the protection of their families, even their names, until they became no one.” He pushed the chair forward again, arm muscles straining beneath the fabric of his ancient frock coat. “They would then devote themselves to the study of the ancient magic and await the day that the goddess would take them into her house.”
Moody—even the thought of his name stung—and I had discussed this very possibility. It still sounded preposterous, even when corroborated by a professional.
“They were healers of immense skill. Healers of bodies and of the land itself, repairing even the salted fields left by invading armies, keeping Egypt whole just as their patroness had done before them.” His eyes glittered in a square of golden light. “Isis possessed the key to resurrection, the very power the brother of her husband yearned to take for himself.”
My tongue seemed to have turned to dust. “Seth. The red-headed god.”
The Master raised his eyebrows, eyes darting across my face, before he nodded.
“It is a secret that has remained so, lost in the sands of time. The priestesses disappeared during the Roman invasion, the land beyond all hope of repair, and reports of their existence in the years since cannot be verified. The recent revival of what they call the Cult of Isis is nothing more than smoke and mirrors.” He raised a well-manicured hand to wave the sad fact of it away. “But the djinni does not know this. It does not comprehend what we humans see as progress. It believes things to be as they once were.”
He drifted into silence. The demon may have thought that the world hadn’t changed, but the Master of the Curse Breakers was nostalgic for a past that couldn’t be retrieved.
That was, however, not among my thoughts at the time. I possessed no ability to empathise with him or with anyone in the Ministry. Instead, I clutched at the delusion that I was there against my will when it was instead against theirs.
The Master took a breath, leaning forward in his chair. “It is impossible to know what occurred in the tomb or how Messieurs Ali et Cadogan failed in their assignment. All that can be surmised is that, upon emerging from the tomb, the djinn sensed the presence of what it recognised as a priestess of Isis.” Something akin to a smile flashed across his face, but it just as quickly faded.
In other words, I was only here because a demon who had been imprisoned for three thousand years mistook me for something I was not. Not yet. Or not ever.
But there have been worse circumstances, and worse coincidences.
He reached for a scroll balanced on a nearby table. “I have consulted records of Tutankhamun’s burial, when the sorcerer Ay called out the djinni from the underworld to protect the tomb of the pharaoh before claiming the queen for his own. She was of the un-magicked. Even Tutankhamun was limited in his ability, a symptom of their corrupted bloodline.” His lip drew upward in a sneer, and I took a half-step back. “Ay was a symptom of another corruption, too powerful for the kingdom’s good. He called too great a djinni to protect too small a tomb.”
But what did that mean? The demon was angrier than usual after confinement in such a prison? That would certainly explain why it had killed not one, but two curse breakers and possessed enough remaining energy to try and kill me as well (half-heartedly. I had to give the demon that much).
“Your task, Mademoiselle, will be to take advantage of your unique position and the power that the djinn ascribes to you. You seem, against all odds, to possess a certain affinity for staying alive.” He paused, blinking slowly like a cat. “At least for the time being.”
My mind scrambled to come up with some semblance of an intelligent reply, but I was overwhelmed, not to mention frustrated and tired and more anxious than I’d ever thought possible. So I stood before him like a first year called up to the Headmaster’s office, ankles shaking beneath the hem of my borrowed robes, the connection between my brain and mouth unable to function.
He watched me as though I was quickly becoming an interesting specimen.
“I must know more about this creature.” The Master shifted his chair to a desk where he took up quill and parchment. “Every observation you have made about its behaviour and corporeal features. Sounds, smells, every sense it has evoked.”
Glancing over his shoulder, he motioned me toward a rickety stool on the opposite side of the room. I stared at it.
Be honest, Miss Hatami had said.
For perhaps the first time in my life, I was going to be just that.
Author's Note: This chapter has reminded me of the shortcomings of first-person narration. There is a lot that Helen doesn't know about the Egyptian Ministry and the Egyptian wizarding world, and the challenge is conveying this information despite her ignorance. I have backstories for the Department of Curse Breakers, their Master Francois Malique, and the work they've done since Napoleon's invasion of Egypt - well-worth a story of its own, I think.
In the meantime, thank you for taking the time to read this story! I'd love to hear what you think and any suggestions you might have for improvement.