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Black Sands by Violet Gryfindor
Chapter 12 : (Out of the Frying Pan) Into the Fire
 
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Chapter Eleven
(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.


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