Daughter of Egypt
I have decided that I must be insane. Not dangerously so — I feel no need to go out and kill, or destroy things. I am not a raving lunatic by any means. Just — insane. Mad. Crazed.
I can’t say, exactly, when it was that I started to go crazy. It might have had something to do with the liquor I stole several nights ago. I drank the whole pint bottle in the barn, and the rest of the night is blurred. The only thing I clearly remember from the next day is vomiting for what seemed hours in that barrel behind the carriage house. But, after my head stopped pounding, and my stomach stopped heaving, I felt somewhat normal. So, perhaps it wasn’t the stolen whiskey that made me insane.
Perhaps it was her.
I feel somewhat justified in blaming her, for it was, after all, her story that first assured me of her, and eventually my own, madness. How, you might ask? It’s very simple. Her story is unbelievable, and absolutely impossible.
And yet I utterly believe her. Every word.
Which makes me as mad as she is, doesn’t it?
My name is Daryl, and I am English. I was born in London, in 1913, the first daughter of Delia and James Bromley. By the time I was five, my parents had relocated to Cairo. During most of the year, my father worked at the Cairo museum, while my mother taught English to a group of children whose parents were well-to-do Egyptians. Once the digging season began, however, I would be left in the care of a family friend. My father, who fancied himself an archeologist, would disappear into the Egyptian desert with my mother at his side. While I read books and played with a few other children, my parents were looking for dead kings and tombs of treasure.
They never found any.
One year, when I was fourteen, they failed to return. After several months, they were declared dead, and I was sent to live in a juvenile facility. The orphanage was run by well-meaning, but naive members of the upper class, most of them non-native to Egypt. They tried to teach English culture to the children, who were all native to Cairo. The children, like most of Cairo at the time, resented the English and foreign elements that controlled their city. Even though I was from the same social class as most of them, being rather poor, I was obviously white, with reddish hair turned golden by endless days in the sun. Even if I could have hidden my hair, and dirtied my skin to match the deep Egyptian tones, I would still stand out as a foreigner: my eyes are emerald green, and there is no way to hide them. Because of this, I was resented by my fellow orphans, and hardly a day went by that I didn’t suffer some humiliation at their hands.
I can’t blame them; we English have raped their country and stolen some of their most precious treasures. But, being only fourteen, I could do nothing to make amends. All I could do was defend myself, and even that came to be a useless gesture. Finally, after six months of abuse, my fifteenth birthday arrived. I celebrated it by running away, figuring I could live on the streets as easily as in the home.
Which I soon found out was a completely ridiculous idea.
But, there I was: on the streets and in dire need of food. Water I could find (it wasn’t always fresh, but it was available). Food was the one thing that I was severely lacking. My choices were simple. One, I could starve to death. Two, I could go back to the orphanage. Three, I could become a prostitute. Or, four, I could steal for a living.
The first two were absolutely out of the question and the third was very unappealing. So, I stole. And I taught myself to be damned good at it.
Now, don’t get the idea that I’m proud of it, because I’m not. If I had a choice, I would have been in college, studying to be an archeologist like my father (only better). But an orphan, with no money, and no formalized education beyond the elementary years, has no chance of getting into any institute of higher learning, much less a university with a good archeology program.
So, I became a thief. I started out just swiping foodstuffs to stay alive, and graduated to picking pockets. For a long time I was satisfied to just slip the wallets out of those well-to-do English that wandered about in the market place. I learned to pick locks as well as pockets, but never really enjoyed breaking into places. It was easier, I thought, to simply relieve individuals of their cumbersome piles of cash and jewels. I was caught only once, and that was by a fellow who was so drunk, he thought the extra hand in his pocket was his own.
I realize that this is a very short way to describe three very long years. Living on the streets, sleeping in abandoned buildings and sometimes going without food for days at a time is a hard way to live, and there were several times I didn’t think I would survive. But I did. In fact, I was becoming very good at living this way, and even began to take a few extra chances, stealing books that I read by candlelight in the back store room of a local brothel. The few friends I had made called me “little lucky” — little, because I am rather short; lucky, because I was never caught.
I suppose that eventually my luck had to run out, and it did.
I was following this terribly obnoxious man around the market. He kept pushing people out of the way, and yelling at the vendors. He’d cheated several of them, and threatened others. I think, if it wasn’t for the fact that he was English, obviously wealthy, and had several military guards with him, he would have been taken into one of the alleys and beaten to a pulp. But, he wasn’t, and he continued to get louder and more irritating.
I finally slipped up beside him and snuck his wallet from his pocket. Unfortunately it was just seconds later that he reached for it. I wouldn’t have been in trouble, except that, as he turned around in the crowd, he knocked over one of his own guards, who fell against me. The wallet fell from its hiding place in my tunic, and the chase was on.
Now, the marketplace curves in a big horseshoe, and if you want to get out, you need to head for the wide open end. However, if you’re in a hurry, which I was, you can sneak in between the booths on the west side, near the turn. From there, it’s a slip under the bottom railing on a wooden fence, and a climb over a stone wall. Then it’s a clear shot into the maze at the edge of the city, where tracking a person is virtually impossible, as the streets are so very narrow that two large men walking side by side would have trouble passing through them.
Normally this is my escape route, and I had never had problems getting over the wall, and into the maze. This time my foot slipped, and I felt, rather than saw, the ground coming up at me in a rather hurried manner. I closed my eyes and prayed it would kill me because if it didn’t, the guards would — and they wouldn’t be nearly as gentle.
To my utter shock, I never hit the ground. Instead, I found myself caught in the arms of a person who cradled me in his arms like a child. I looked up into vivid blue eyes framed by a tan face, and dark hair covered by a turbin. For a moment I couldn’t tell if this was a man or a woman. I didn’t want to wait for an introduction, though, and twisted out of his embrace, intending to try the vault over the wall again.
I figured that it had to be a man, and an exceedingly strong one at that. He wrapped his hand in my tunic and lifted me off the ground, wrapping an arm around my waist for good measure. I had just started kicking in earnest when the first soldier came tearing around the corner. He drew a pistol from his belt and aimed at me, and I did the smartest thing I could think of: I fainted.
I woke up on a bed that I thought was in the jailhouse. I didn’t open my eyes because I didn’t want to see the bars, or the view from them. Finally, though, it registered in my brain that I didn’t smell the sweat of other prisoners, or the mildew that grows on old cement. Instead, there was the soft smell of sandalwood, and the fragrance of fresh linens.
I cautiously opened my eyes, not certain what I’d find. To my surprise, I was laying on a large bed, with a white lace canopy. There was a sheet pulled up over me, and as I sat up, it slid down my body, which no longer was covered by the filthy remains of my shirt, or the stained and torn trousers I’d been wearing for a year and a half.
In fact, I wasn’t wearing anything.
That fact made me nervous enough, but discovering that I had also been bathed had me downright upset.
Cautiously, I opened the curtains, to see the tall man who had caught me by the stone wall. He was leaning against the wall, staring out the window, with one booted foot up on a short stool. His back was to me, and I could see the broad shoulders outlined beneath the blue linen. The lines of his body tapered down to a slim waist, and very long legs encased in soft suede trousers. His coal black hair was pulled back into a long loose braid.
There was no one else in the room.
I waited a moment, then pulled the sheet up around myself, and cleared my throat.
He turned and faced me, one dark eyebrow raised over an impossibly blue eye.
I nearly swallowed my tongue: he was really a she.
The curve of her breasts was obvious even in the soft light of the fire. The planes of her face were angular and sharp, and there was an unearthly quality in the crystal blue of her eyes.
She looked highly amused as she sipped from a brandy snifter.
I glared at her.
“Where are my clothes?”
She chuckled. “I burned them.”
One corner of her mouth edged up in a smile. “I burned them. They were no more than rags, and they reeked. I stuffed them in the fireplace.” She raised the glass again and drank. “Don’t worry, I have some others you can wear.”
The smile on her face irritated me. “So, is there a reason that I’m here? I expected to be in jail.”
“You would have been. But I convinced them to let me take responsibility for you.”
Her voice was deep and soft, very cultured, with just a touch of an Egyptian accent. Her English, however, was very good.
“And just why would you take responsibility for me? You don’t even know me.”
She smiled, her lips parting slightly. Those crystal eyes actually twinkled in the light from the fire.
“Ah, but I do know you. I’ve watched you for weeks. I’ve seen you pick pockets, snatch jewelry, and slip fruit off the stands and into your shirt.” She crossed in front of the fire and slowly sat down in an overstuffed chair. “I’ve also seen you pass food and money on to those who need it as much or more than you. Like little Rashad, for instance.”
Rashad was a small boy that I had met in the market place nearly a month before. He had been caught stealing, and had his hand cut off. It was barbaric, in my opinion, since the portion he’d stolen had actually been marked for the slop heap. He worked now in the small laundry room in the brothel I occasionally slept in — the women there had taken pity on him as I had. So, whenever I could, I gave him food, or money, or whatever I could. After all, the boy was barely eleven years old.
My heart started pounding. If she knew about Rashad, then she really had been watching me for quite a while.
“You’re not with the Cairo police, are you?”
The woman smiled at me. “If I was, do you think you’d be here?”
She had a point. “Then why am I here, may I ask?”
“It’s really very simple,” she said. “You have talents that I need to employ.”
“Oh, really?” I folded my arms and glared at her. “And why would I wish to be employed by you?” I was trying very hard to be quite serious, but the effect was ruined when the sheet slid down to my waist, once again showing my small breasts to her. I grabbed the linen and yanked it back up to my shoulders.
She smiled, but didn’t laugh. “By accepting employment, you will no longer need to live on the streets. You will have all that you need, including food and clothes. At the same time I’ll also make sure your friend Rashad is taken care of.” She sipped from her glass. “Little boys like him should be playing, not working.”
I was surprised by her statement, but tried hard not to show it. Keeping my gaze locked on hers, I asked, “So, you’ll pay me for this? Or will I work for room and board?”
“You’ll be paid, though not until the job is completed.”
“I see.” It was very tempting. “And what is this job you need my talents for?”
“I need you to steal something for me.”
It wasn’t really a surprise — stealing was the only talent I currently had.
“Why do you think I’m the one to steal it? There are others older than I am, and with more experience.”
“I believe you’re the one I need because you are the best. From what I’ve been able to learn, you’ve lived on the streets for four years. In that time you’ve never been caught by the police, or by anyone that you have robbed. You also seem to have some sort of conscience about you; your victims are always wealthy Englishmen, who can more than afford to give help, and don’t. I think you have the skills I need, and,” she paused, “and I think you deserve this chance.”
“Right. The chance to steal for someone else other than myself. Go from stealing for survival to stealing for profit. What a wonderful opportunity.”
She set her glass down on the widnow sill and folded her arms. “I promise you this: if we are successful, it will be the last time you ever have to steal anything.”
That stopped me, and I stared at her for a moment.
“Okay,” I said, nodding, “just what is it that I have to steal?”
Her gaze dropped to the floor, and the smile disappeared. “I want you to steal something from the Cairo museum.”
I stared at her in shock. The sheet fell back to my waist, but I didn’t notice.
“The museum? Here in Cairo?”
“Are you insane?”
She smiled at me. “Possibly.”
I shook my head. “No. I won’t do it.”
“Because I don’t have a death wish.”
She gave a sad smile to that. “I see.”
“So, if you’ll just give me something to wear, I’ll get out of your bedroom and be on my way.”
“I don’t think so.”
I blinked at her. “You don’t think what?
“I don’t think you’ll be leaving. You see, I signed papers, and paid a fine for you. A very large fine. You are in my custody. So, you’ll either do as I ask, or I’ll return you to those nice gentlemen who were chasing you.”
She retrieved her drink and moved to the door. “You’ll find suitable clothes in the top drawer of the dresser. When you’ve finished dressing, join me in the other room. We have a robbery to plan.”
She left without glancing back.
I cursed as I got out of bed.
But I got dressed and headed for the living room. What else could I do?
The other room held a couch and a large table with chairs around it. There was food waiting on one end, and what appeared to be a map laid out on the other.
My hostess stood looking out into night once again. The window she was staring through gave a wonderful view of the sunset, with the Giza plateau off in the distance. I realized, by the angle of the view, that there was only one place we could be: this was a suite in the Pyramid Hotel, one of the most expensive in Cairo.
“I ordered dinner for you,” she said, pointing to the other end of the table. “I wasn’t sure what you would like, so I got several dishes.”
I nodded, and sat down. I glanced up to see if she would join me, but she was looking back at the scene in front of her.
“So, what is your name?”
The blue eyes pinned me as I reached for a slice of bread.
“It’s not one that you need to know, nor would you understand it.”
More mystery, I thought. “Fine. What should I call you?”
She seemed to think about that, and one dark eyebrow rose again. “You may call me Shayt.”
I nodded. “Nice to meet you, Miss Shayt. My name is –”
“No,” she shook her head, “just Shayt. No title is necessary. It’s just — Shayt.”
“And I know who you are.”
I stopped in the middle of a bite. “Oh, really?”
“Certainly. Daryl Chelsea Bromley. Your parents were archeologists, and your father was a curator for years at the Cairo museum, before his disappearance five years ago.”
“Four years, nine months, thank you very much.”
She smiled. “My apologies.”
I glared at her, and turned my attention to my food. It had been years since I had eaten so much at one sitting, and I continued eating even after my appetite was gone. Who knew when I’d get another such meal?
My hostess eventually came and sat across from me. I watched her while I ate, admiring the ease of her movements, and the way she held herself. Shayt didn’t merely sit in her chair, she occupied it fully. Leaning back in a negligent pose, she sipped from her refilled glass and watched me as I stuffed myself.
When I reached for a third helping of koshary, she leaned forward.
“Aren’t you full yet?”
“No.” I was, really, but I wasn’t ready to stop.
“You’re going to regret it if you eat any more. You’ll be sick.”
I stuffed another bite into my mouth. “No, I won’t.”
She sighed and leaned back.
Finally, I pushed my plate away and leaned back. I had finished the third helping and felt uncomfortably full, but I wasn’t about to admit that.
“Now, did you want to discuss this plan of yours?”
She smiled and stood. “Come, let me show you something.”
“What’s this?” I asked as we approached the other end of the table. As I got closer I could see that it wasn’t actually a map, but a layout of a building.
“This is the Cairo museum, which you are probably familiar with.”
I shrugged. “Somewhat. Though, they’ve redecorated since my father’s death, I understand.” I looked at the diagram. “You know, there’s a simple way to do this.”
“Really? And what’s that?”
“Well, the best way to heist something like this has always been to create a disturbance, and then grab the item while no one’s looking.”
“Certainly,” she nodded. “But there is a problem in that plan.”
“Well, sure, because once the excitement is over everyone notices the missing item. The trick is to hide the piece someplace on the premises, somewhere they’d never look, and then go back to get it at another time.”
“Clever. But not possible.”
“Because the item I’m looking for is not on display. It’s somewhere in the back, in a cabinet.”
“Oh.” I nodded. “You’re right. That’s a totally different circumstance.”
She pointed to the drawings. “Show me the easiest way to get in.”
We went over the plans to the building several times. I showed her the entrances to the work rooms in the back, and expained how to navigate between the rooms, of which there were many.
Finally, I sat down again, looking up at her. “You do know which room and cabinet this item is in, don’t you?”
She grinned. “No, I don’t.”
I groaned. “Do you know how many cabinets are back there? It would take us days to find anything unless you know where it’s at.”
“I said I don’t know. But I believe you might.”
I felt my own eyebrows rise in surprise. “Me? Why would I know?”
“Because it was found by your father nine years ago on one of his expeditions.”
My mouth dropped and I stared at her.
I swallowed hard. “My father never found anything of consequence. He and my mom dug for years, and the most they ever discovered were a few mummies, some figurines, and several stacks of stone tablets with undecipherable markings.”
Shayt nodded. “Yes. But among those figurines was a statuette of Bastet.”
“The cat goddess?”
A nod. “That’s what she is known as today. But she was so much more.”
She went very silent, and I watched her carefully. There was something in her face that spoke of loss, and of age old pain. Having seen loneliness in the eyes of many, including myself, I couldn’t help but notice it in the crystal blue of Shayt’s eyes.
I wondered if we would know each other long enough for me to learn her story.
“There might be an easier way, you know.”
My words brought her head up and she looked at me questioningly.
“To get the statue, I mean.”
I shrugged. “Well, I am my father’s daughter. Most of the stuff he discovered ended up in boxes in this chest in one of the back rooms. The museum had no desire to display it, nor did they feel his finds held much academic value. I know most of the people there, and it is always possible that, if I present myself request my father’s papers and artifacts, that they will simply give them to me.”
“Not very likely.”
“It’s worth a shot, though, isn’t it? At the very least, I’ll ask to see them again, just to remember my father. That should give us the location of the item. If we go in to steal it, and it’s not where we think it is, it could take all night, or even several nights, to find the statue.”
I waited as she considered. Her long fingers tapped softly against the table.
“All right. We will try it your way. You will go to the museum tomorrow and ask about your father’s things. However, I would not suggest that you mention my name to the head curator there. He and I have had dealings in the past, and we are, in every sense, adversaries.”
That’s strange, I thought. “Is the curator still Mr. Randolph?”
“No. Randolph died two years ago. His assistant, Mr. Caster, was promoted soon after.”
“Yes. Do you know him?”
I grimaced. “I remember Edward Caster. My father hated him.”
She nodded. “I’m not surprised. Still think your plan will work?”
After a moment’s thought, I nodded. “I’ll just have to be careful who I speak with. Father had many friends, and I’m sure at least a few of them are still there.”
She watched me yawn, then glanced at the clock on the mantel. “It’s getting late. You should sleep. I’ll wake you in the morning.”
Shayt stood, and led me back into the bedroom. “The clothes in the top two drawers are yours. I believe I remembered to purchase a nightgown for you.”
I opened the drawer, and found the gown, but a thought stopped me. “Just how long have you been planning this little venture, Shayt?”
She smiled at me. “Several weeks. I was going to wait a few more days to approach you, but your sudden misfortune changed all that.”
“I see.” I turned back to the clothes in the drawer. “And after we secure this item? Then what? You’ll send me back to the streets?”
“No. I promised you a reward, remember?”
“Yes, I remember.” I moved to the bed and sat on it, the silk nightgown in my hand. “So, you’ll give me money and then disappear?”
Shayt shrugged. “If that’s what you want.”
“And if it’s not?”
“Then you can come with me.”
She smiled, and moved backwards towards the door. “Sleep well, Daryl. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Shayt closed the door, and I heard a key turn in the lock.
Breakfast the next morning was a pleasant affair, even if a bit quiet. My hostess was reading through several papers, and largely ignoring me and her breakfast. When the attendant came to remove the remains, she allowed him to take her plate as well, even though she’d barely touched her food.
“There are starving children out there, you know.”
I sighed. “I said there are starving children out there. And you’re throwing away your breakfast.”
She glanced at the door of the suite as it closed behind our waiter, then looked up at me with a guilty expression on her face.
“You’re absolutely right. Next time, I’ll invite one of them to join us for breakfast.” Then she lowered her head and began making notations on the many sheets in front of her.
I shook my head. Shayt was an interesting mix of generosity and arrogance. She had completely forgotten about tipping the waiter, and only did so when I reminded her. Then she looked exasperated, but gave him a more than generous gratuity.
It was irritating, and yet at the same time, merely a part of the puzzle that was Shayt.
After breakfast, we went to the Cairo Museum, with Shayt driving us in an old battered truck. She was dressed once again in boots, with khaki breeches tucked into them, and a white linen shirt that appeared to deepen the tan on her already dark skin.
I envied her. Instead of the comfortable breeches I’d worn to dinner the night before, I was in a yellow dress, complete with hat and parasol. I felt ridiculous, though Shayt said I looked exactly like the English women she’d seen in her travels around the city.
I only agreed to wear the thing until after we were finished at the museum — then it would be back into those soft trousers from the day before.
She dropped me in front of the museum, and gave me my instructions once more.
“Alright. If you can get the statue, do so. If not, try to find out where it’s located. And watch out for Mr. Caster. If he discovers you’re working with me, he’ll toss you out before you can say good morning.”
I nodded, and climbed unsteadily out of the car. “You’ll be nearby?” I asked.
“Yes, close enough to see you when you come out. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.”
“Right.” I said it with confidence, but inside there was this quaking feeling that I hadn’t experienced before.
I found one of father’s old friends as soon as I entered the building. Or, should I say, was found by one.
Charles Kendrick towered over me and stared for a long moment. I smiled at him, and was about to call him by name, when he reached out and hugged me to him.
“Daryl! By God, it’s good to see you!” He held me at arms length, looking me up and down. “Why you look like a lovely young lady! Whatever happened to that little tomboy who loved to play in the dirt?”
I had to laugh. “Oh, she’s still there, Uncle Charles. Just a little older, is all.”
He laughed and hugged me once more. “What are you doing here, child? I thought that since your parents were…” he trailed off for a moment, “well, you know.”
“Yes, I know.”
Charles looked at the ground and sighed. Then he peered at me again and said, “I thought you’d be in England anyway. What are you doing in Egypt yet?”
I wanted to ask why he didn’t remember that they’d put me into an orphanage, but I didn’t. Instead I smiled. “Well, I decided that I wanted to come in and see all of Father’s old papers and such, and the artifacts that he collected. I never received them after his death, so I would presume they’re still here, correct?”
His eyebrows drew together in a deep frown, and he pushed his glasses up onto his very large nose. “Well, you know, I can’t say for sure what happened to those things. Could be they’re still in that old cabinet of his. Or in one of the boxes in storage.” He rubbed a hand aross his chin. “Any reason you want them?”
I couldn’t very well tell him the truth, but I supposed he did need some sort of explanation.
“Well, I’m about to enter the University, to study archeology. I thought it would be good luck for me to have Father’s things with me.”
Charles looked pleased. “Well, good for you, lass! I always knew you’d follow in your father’s footsteps.” He put an arm around me and led me towards the back, away from all the display rooms. “Let’s just go and have a look-see, shall we?”
As I expected, it didn’t take long to find my father’s file cabinet; it had been left exactly where I thought — at the very back of the storage closet. The drawers were stuffed full of papers, and old plates and cups, and even a few bones that he had wrapped up and brought back from some unknown gravesite. There were also his tools, and a picture of my parents together. My mother’s logbooks were there as well.
But I couldn’t find the statue.
Uncle Charles helped me to box things up, tying the lids closed with a thin cord we found in one of the drawers. I figured that in order to make the ruse seem authentic, I’d have them delivered to the hotel later that day. That way, if she wanted, Shayt could go through his papers if she wished.
Or I could, when I wanted to.
As we were packing the last one, I asked Charles about the figurine of Bastet.
He put a finger to his lips, and his face took on a serious pensive look. “I don’t remember — oh, wait, yes I do. The one done in basalt, and painted black. With the symbol of Sakhmet on the base.”
I nodded, then stopped, looking at him in puzzlement. “Sakhmet? Why would a statue of Bastet have the symbol of the war goddess on it?”
He shrugged. “Don’t know. I remember, though, that Mr. Caster was intrigued by it. I think he took the statue.” He looked around with a cautious air, and leaned close to my ear. “I don’t trust that man, Daryl. Perhaps that’s a piece you should let go, hm?”
One of my eyebrows went up of its own accord. “Well, could I at least see it? After all, it is about the only thing Father ever found that was actually worth something.”
Charles put his hand on my shoulder. “Daryl, your father was a first rate scientist. Just because he cared more for history than gold doesn’t mean he failed, you know.”
“I know,” I said with a sigh. “But, he did want so badly to be the next Howard Carter. He tried so hard and had so little to show for it.”
The older man nodded, squeezing gently on my shoulder. “I know, lass.” He pulled out his pocket watch and looked at it. “Tell you what. I believe Mr. Caster is gone to a meeting right now, with the Egyptian authorities. We could take a look and see if he has the Bastet sculpture on his desk. All right?”
I smiled at him warmly. “That would be wonderful, Uncle Charles.”
Unfortunately, Edward Caster wasn’t quite gone from the premises yet. As we rounded a corner close to his office, I bumped into him, knocking a stack of papers from his his hand. They spilled across the floor.
He glared at Charles.
“You imbecile! I’ve been working on this proposal for two weeks, and you and this, this…” he stopped and stared at me. “You. I know you. Where do I know you from?”
“Begging your pardon, Mr. Caster, but this here is Daryl Bromley, James’ daughter. You remember little Daryl, don’t you?”
I hoped he had forgotten me, but his expression turned to one of distaste and disgust. “Oh, yes, now I remember.” He looked me up and down while Charles bent to retrieve the fallen papers. “And just why are you here, Miss Bromley?”
“She came to get her father’s things, Mr. Caster. She’s entering the University soon, to study archeology like her father.”
It was strange to hear the words of my own lie from someone else’s mouth.
“Is that true?”
“Uh, yes, yes it is.” I stammered. “I’ll be returning to London shortly to begin studying.”
“And just how did an urchin such as yourself move from an orphanage in Cairo to the University in London?” He folded his arms and glared at me.
“I, um, was able to get in touch with a distant cousin, you see, and he helped me. Took me back to England, and sent me to school.”
“Really. I was under the impression your father had no living relatives save you.”
“It was my mother’s cousin,” I heard myself say. This lying thing was beginning to get far too involved.
“Mr. Caster, my apologies for the damage to your papers. I’ll be leaving shortly, and I’m sure you’ll be happy to have my clumsiness out of your way.”
Charles frowned, but Caster’s gaze softened just a touch. “Well, then, many happy returns, Miss Bromley, and do take care as you leave the building.”
“I will; however, Mr. Caster, there is just one thing. Mr. Kendrick here was kind enough to help me box up my father’s old papers and his tools and things, but there is one item missing. I suppose that the museum has decided to keep it, but I did wish a last look at it before I leave for London. It’s the cat statue, of the goddess Bastet?”
He looked surprised, but recovered quickly, clearing his throat. “Yes, well, we did decide that the museum should keep it. It’s an excellent representation of the cat goddess. It’s also the only thing your father ever found that was worth anything.”
I managed to close my mouth on any kind of retort, and simply asked, “May I see it?”
Mr. Caster raised an eyebrow, and I thought for a moment he would refuse. Finally, though, he nodded. Without a word he led the way to his desk, and went to a file cabinet behind it. After unlocking the middle drawer, he pulled out a rolled piece of canvas, with string tied around it. Undoing the knot, he set the bundle on the desk and slowly unwrapped the two layers of canvas. Then he pulled away the final covering of linen, and sat the statue upright on his desk.
It was just as I remembered it. Approximately fifteen inches high, and maybe six inches in diameter, the figure was seated on a throne, in regal robes. It had the head of a cat, and the paws as well, but the body was human, and definitely female; the breasts stood out in bold relief from the rest of the body.
I leaned in and looked at it closely. As Charles had mentioned, there was indeed the symbol of Sakhmet on the base, right next to the hieroglyph for Bastet. I tried to read the rest of the inscription, but couldn’t see them clearly.
“Have you deciphered the glyphs on the base, Mr. Caster?”
“Uh, no, I haven’t.” He waved his hand in a dismissing motion. “They’re probably nothing.”
“I see.” But I didn’t see.
Caster picked up the piece and covered it in the linen again. He carefully rolled it back into it’s canvas protection, then replaced it in the drawer. I watched him lock it, and then turned away.
“Well, Charles, it’s been wonderful to see you again. Thank you for your help today.”
He gave a slight bow from the waist, and smiled. “My pleasure. It’s been wonderful to see you again, Daryl. Hasn’t it, Mr. Caster?”
“Er, yes, very nice indeed, Miss Bromley. Now, if you will excuse me.” Caster picked up the papers from the corner of his desk, and left the room.
Charles walked me to the front door, and we made the arrangements for the boxes to be delivered to the hotel. I left, thinking there was something Mr. Edward Caster was hiding.
True to her word, Shayt was waiting, and before I took two steps into the street, the truck pulled up in front of me, and the door opened.
I climbed in, wanting very much to be out of this ridiculous dress.
“Were you able to get it?”
“No, but I saw it, and I know where it’s at.”
“Good job. So, we go with our break in plan tonight.”
I said nothing at first. She turned and glanced at me.
Finally, I nodded. “I guess I should tell you, though. We’ll be receiving some boxes from the museum. They’re sending me all of my father’s papers and things.”
She didn’t say anything, and I became a little concerned. Then she shrugged.
“Fine. Perhaps there’s something useful in them. Besides, you’re father was very meticulous in his notes. He probably left a great deal of information behind that you could learn from.” She paused. “If you ever decide to follow in his footsteps, that is.”
I stared at her, my mouth hanging open. “Why would I wish to do that? And more importantly, how could I?”
“I told you, if we’re successful, you’ll never have to worry about money again. And I’m sure you can find a way to get yourself into a University if you wish.”
“Wait. You told me I’d never have to steal again. You never said I wouldn’t have to worry about money.”
“Didn’t I? I’m sorry.”
She went silent, and we approached the hotel. She pulled into a parking space, and turned the motor off. I grabbed her hand. “Is there something you aren’t telling me, Shayt? Something about the statue?”
She frowned slightly. “Like what?”
“Well, how is stealing this statue going to make me wealthy? Why do you want it so bad? And why would a statue of Bastet have the symbol of Sakhmet on it?”
One dark eyebrow rose, but she said nothing. Instead, she pulled her hand away, and climbed out of the truck.
I opened my door and got out as well. She was waiting for me as I came around the front of the vehicle, and she held up a hand before I could say anything.
I followed her up the stairs and into our suite.
It’s funny how a human can adapt to a new situation so quickly. Within twenty-four hours I had gone from having little or nothing on the street, to thinking of a wonderful room in a hotel suite as being ‘mine’. When we entered the suite I immediately headed for my room to change into my other clothes. As I did so, I chuckled at the strangeness of the situation.
When I got back to the living room, Shayt was there, with her characteristic glass of brandy. She was staring moodily out the window again, and I had to call her name twice before she turned to me.
“Will you answer my questions now?”
She pondered that for a moment, then nodded. “Some of them at least.” She pointed to a chair by the table. “Sit. Ask what you will. I’ll tell you what you need to know.”
I leaned back in my chair and regarded her.
“Can I have a glass of that?”
“I’m old enough, you know.”
“Yes. But you need to stay sober for tonight.”
“And you don’t?”
Shayt smiled. “Oh, I will be. Now, ask your questions.”
“All right.” I thought for a moment. “How did you know about the statue? It’s been in the museum for nine years, and was never displayed. How did you know my father found it?”
She shrugged. “I got to meet your father. Before he died. Before his last trip into the desert. He heard of my interest in Bastet, and told me about the statue he’d found.”
“My father’s been missing and presumed dead for five years.”
“Four years and nine months.”
“Right. You don’t look anymore than about 24 or 25, maybe 26. So, you would have been in your late teens, maybe just turned twenty, when you met him.”
She shrugged, and looked uncomfortable. “Something like that.”
“Where did you meet him?”
“He was doing some research in Alexandria. We met there.”
I nodded. My father would make trips to Alexandria quite often.
“All right. What is so special about the statue? Why do you want it bad enough to steal it?”
Shayt frowned at that, and stared into her brandy. “Well, there’s a legend that goes with it. That there’s something hidden inside.”
“And what’s that?”
“A compass? You mean, like something to tell north, south, east and west?”
“No. This compass is very specific. Legend has it that if you line it up correctly, with the exact positions of stars and landmarks, that it will point the way to a hidden tomb.”
“Oh.” I had to stop and think about that for a moment. “And who is supposed to be buried in this tomb?”
She smiled at me. “That’s not something you need to know.”
“Okay. If you find the compass, are you going to look for the tomb?”
“For archeological purposes? Or to hunt down whatever treasure might be there?”
“Again, not something you need to know. Next question?”
I frowned. “Fine. What kind of arrangments are you going to make, or have you made, for me? Why is it that I won’t have to worry about money?”
“When we part company, I will give you the access code you need to reach the bank account I’ve set up for you. I’ll tell you the bank, and the account number. There is enough money in the account to keep you comfortable for the rest of your life.”
I stared at her. “Okay, where did the money come from?”
This time I got a wink with the smile. “You really don’t want to know.” She stood up, leaving her empty glass on the table. “All right. Get some sleep. I’ll have dinner ready for you when you wake, and we can go back over everything for tonight.”
I nodded. “Fine.”
She left, going through a door into what I figured was the second bedroom.
I sat at the table for several long moments before heading for my own room.
The plan for swiping the statue was fairly simple, really. We would wait until the guard had done his initial pass by one of the rear doors where equipment and other things were delivered, and then slip in while he was checking another part of the museum. Then I would pick the lock on the door, and together we would slip into the work area.
Of course, inside we would have to deal with another guard, and his dog. While we would certainly try to avoid them both, it was always possible that we’d run into them, or that the dog would hear us or catch our scent. Shayt said if that happened, she would take care of it. My job was to get the statue out of the locked drawer and into the cushioned sack that we were taking with us. From there, Shayt would get us out.
Everything was quiet when we got to the museum. Shayt had parked her truck in a side street several blocks over, and we walked through the alleys until the door was in sight. The guard was in his normal pacing back and forth in the rear delivery area. We watched for several minutes until he finally stopped, lit a cigarette, then picked up his lantern and went around the corner to start his general round of the building.
I hear a whispered, “Move,” from Shayt, and we were off, running toward the door while bending over. It was only a moment until we were hidden in the shadows against the building, right next to the door. The lock was so old it took me barely half a minute to spring the mechanism, and then we were slipping inside. Shayt locked the door behind us, and we crouched against the wall to get our bearings.
The office we were looking for was off to our left, but if I remembered correctly from that morning, the quickest way was blocked by several large crates. I led the way around several work tables and a row of file cabinets. After several stops and starts I saw the open aisle that led to Caster’s office.
Shayt kept an ear open for any sound of the guard as I approached the file cabinet. After a moment I was able to get the lock to open and I pulled the drawer out.
That was when our luck left.
As my elbow went backward with the drawer, it tapped against a measuring stick that was leaning against the wall. Before I could grab it, the stick clattered to the floor. I froze, eyes wide.
Shayt whirled towards me, then turned back to the outer area where a dog was barking and a man’s voice could be heard yelling. I cringed, thinking of how long I would spend in jail for this little adventure.
I felt a slap to my shoulder and looked up at Shayt’s tense face. She was holding the sack out to me and whispering to get the statue. I reached into the drawer and picked up the wrapped bundle. After sliding it into the bag, I rolled the whole thing up and put it into a knapsack that hung from Shayt’s back.
I had just drawn the string closed and tied it off when the dog and guard came around the corner into the office. I held up my hands, hoping the guard would neither shoot nor send the dog after me. I halfway expected Shayt to pull a gun and kill them both.
Instead, she stood straight up and flipped on one of the electric lights in the office. The guard was blinded for a moment, and so was I. When I could see again, Shayt was standing over the unconcious guard and the dog was sitting calmly and looking up at her. Shayt reached over and flicked the light switch back to off.
“Daryl! Come on!” she hissed at me. I stepped over the guard and followed her toward the door. Glancing back, I noticed the dog was simply sitting there, merely watching Shayt, his tongue hanging to one side as he panted.
We were almost to the door when we heard the voice of the second guard. He was unlocking the very door we’d come through only minutes before. Shayt pushed me behind a work cabinet, and ducked down herself. As the guard entered we could hear a second voice and I cursed silently.
Edward Caster was with him. Both men had their guns drawn.
I looked over at Shayt to see an amused smile on her face. For a moment I thought she was enjoying this, but then the smile faded and she looked at me.
There was no response to the calls of the guard. Caster turned the switch for the overhead electric lights, and the two of them took a winding route towards the office where we’d left the dog and his unconcious master.
I stopped breathing for a moment as they stepped past our hiding place without even glancing down at us.
After they were past Shayt leaned in and spoke quietly in my ear.
“Stay down. Head for the door quickly, but quietly.”
She stopped me with a hand over my mouth. “I’ll be a moment or two behind you. Don’t worry. Just go.”
I nodded, and began to make my way towards the door.
There were curses and shouts from the office. I could make out that the guard was yelling at the dog to attack, but from his continued orders, the dog wasn’t listening. Which didn’t make sense, but I wasn’t concerned with that particular piece of the puzzle.
Suddenly Caster was back and he was shouting out a name.
“Ashayt Kemshet! Where are you?”
There was no answer.
“Come out, you damned bitch! I’ll find you, and I’ll tear your heart from your –”
I was close to the door, but if I reached for it, he’d see me across the open space. Besides, Shayt was somewhere behind me, and I wasn’t leaving without her.
The guard returned and said he was going to check out the display rooms, and call for assistance.
“Yes, yes, go. Make your call.”
I could hear the footsteps of the man as he left the workroom. I wondered where Shayt was.
Caster continued searching in the work room. Every few minutes he’d mutter something about ‘that black haired bitch’.
“Where are you, Kemshet? Come out and let me kill you!”
From somewhere in the room, I heard Shayt laugh. Then she whistled softly.
The clack of the dog’s toenails was loud on the tiled floor.
I decided to chance it, and I reached out for the door. A shot took out a piece of the wood next to the handle, and I lurched backwards to where I’d been hiding.
“So, that’s where you are, eh, bitch?”
“No,” Shayt’s voice replied. “I’m over here.”
I peeked up over the edge of the desk I was hiding behind, and saw Shayt stand up, to the right and slightly behind Caster.
He whirled around, but as he did, Shayt said something, and the dog attacked. Caster had barely time enough to pull the trigger, and the large hound was on top of him, snarling.
I saw Shayt flinch as a bullet hit her, but she turned toward me and shouted, “Go!”
I yanked on the door and fled.
As I was running for the truck, I heard feet pounding behind me, and I turned to see Shayt sprinting up. She slowed her pace to match mine and pulled the knapsack off her back. We reached the truck at the same time, and I yanked open the passenger door, diving inside.
Shayt got into the truck and started it. She stomped on the gas pedal, and we took off with a spray of dust and dirt.
We were almost to the hotel when I remembered she’d been shot.
“Shayt? Are you all right?”
“Fine.” She pulled into the parking lot and opened her. door. “Stay here; when I get back we’re leaving Cairo.”
“Later. Now, stay put!”
I nodded and she slammed the door.
I checked the seat of the truck. There was no blood.
She was back in moments with a few bags which she threw into the back of the truck. Hopping into the front, she started the engine and reached for the shift to put it in gear. Before she could, I grabbed her arm.
“Don’t you think we should get you looked at? I saw him shoot you.”
Her eyes were glittering, but it wasn’t the twinkle I’d seen before. Instead it was rage that filled those crystal blue eyes, and I pulled my hand back with a gasp.
As I did, she froze, and her eyes calmed. After a moment she shook her head and merely said, “I’m fine.”
I said nothing more.
Within another thirty minutes we were on a very late train to Alexandria.
Shayt booked us into a sleeper car, and then left to order a late dinner. I sat on the bed and went back over the evening carefully.
I remembered her flinching as the bullet hit her. She even reached for her side. But there had been no blood, anywhere.
She had changed her shirt before leaving the car, and I searched through the towels in the water closet until I found the garment. As I thought, it had a bullet hole in it, just a few inches under the left armpit, and another one in the back.
I felt very cold.
When Shayt got back I was sitting on the bed, holding the shirt tightly in both of my hands.
“Dinner is on the way,” she said. “I got some –”
“Who are you?”
The question stopped her and she turned and stared at me.
“Who are you?” I showed her the shirt, pointing to one of the holes. “He shot you. I saw it. You flinched.”
She looked down at the shirt, and I saw her go very still.
“But there’s no blood. Not on the shirt, nor in the truck, not anywhere.” Her eyes tracked up to me, and I asked her again. “Who are you?”
She sighed, and her shoulders seemed to droop a little. She leaned against the door and seemed to consider her answer.
“Are you sure you want to know?”
“All right. Let’s wait until dinner arrives, and while you eat, I’ll tell you the story.”
I didn’t know whether I was more excited or frightened.
Dinner was actually dinner for one. Once again, Shayt poured a glass of brandy for herself and sat across from me at the small table while I ate.
I gave her time to finish one glass, and then asked her to explain.
She gave me a half smile and leaned back in her chair.
“Well, to start, my full name is Ashayt Hathor Idut Kemshet. My father was Amenemhet I.”
I choked on the wine I was drinking. Shayt smiled while I wiped my chin.
“Say that again?” I asked.
“My father was Amenemhet, the first Pharaoh of the twelfth dynasty. He actually was the vizier of Mentuhotep III, but when the Pharaoh died prematurely and left no heirs, my father, who was also in command of the army, decided to declare himself ruler of Egypt. His bid for the throne was successful, and he reigned for over thirty years.”
My food forgotten, I leaned forward to listen closely. Shayt continued sipping her brandy. Her focus seemed to be on the darkness outside the window, but she continued speaking in a soft steady voice.
“I was the fourth daughter of Amenemhet and Knumhet. I had two brothers, Knumhotep, and Senusret. Knumhotep was the eldest, and by a different
queen. He had expected to inherit the throne, but my father found him lacking in discipline. Instead, Knumhotep was named a general in the Egyptian
army. Senusret became my father’s right hand, and in the 24th year of his reign, Father named him as a co-ruler of Egypt.
“Knumhotep was furious, but there was little he could do. Instead, he bided his time, and gathered his forces. His position in the army allowed him to
place his own men within the royal guard surrounding my father. Even then, he waited, building up his plan to steal the sceptre of Egypt.”
Shayt turned her head and looked at me.”I was, at this time, a priestess of the war goddess, Sakhmet. You see, I had been dedicated to Sakhmet at an early age. I had always been a warrior, able to hold my own against my brothers in all manner of combat. My father even told me that if I was a man he would make me Pharaoh.” Her smile was sad. “I told him that I was honored enough to be Pharaoh’s daughter.”
The darkness captured her again, and she returned to her story.
“Many years after my father declared Senusret co-ruler, Knumhotep seduced a priestess of Bastet. The priestesses were not allowed to lay with any man, and once she had done so, the priestess became a tool in Knumhotep’s plan. He forced her to bring him the sacred texts of Bastet, where in lay the recipe for immortality.
“Now, you must understand. In those days, magic held a much greater power in the world. The gods were not all powerful or all seeing, but they were
more than imagination or myth. The sacred spells of the gods contained the seeds of great powers. It was the duty of priests and priestesses to see that
these texts never fell into the wrong hands, or were never used for evil.
“My brother’s plan was purely evil. He wanted to become immortal, and then use other spells from the scrolls to give himself the power over life and death itself. He wanted not only control over the world of the living, but that of the dead as well. All he needed was the help of a few willing priestesses.
“I served Sakhmet at the great twin temple to Sakhmet and Bastet, which lay in the desert, east of Lisht, my father’s capital city, and south of the great city of Memphis. It was at the great temple that the rites of Immortality had to be performed, and the ritual itself had to be performed by priestesses of both goddesses. Knumhotep knew that there was no one at the great temple who would listen to his plan, or help him. There were, however, other temples, and many other priestesses. My brother was a powerful man, with a great deal of charisma. He secured help from a foreign temple that was dedicated to Sakhmet. And when the time came, he brought his chosen priestesses to Memphis, where he waited for the right moment to strike.
“Senusret left the capitol for Thebes, and Knumhotep began his attempt to sieze the throne. First, he ordered his personal guard to gather the priestesses of the twin temple. He knew that those loyal to Sakhmet would fight — and we did. But we were outnumbered, and the few of us that were not slaughtered were taken to a storage room within the temple walls. Along with us, they imprisoned all the priestesses of Bastet, save the single one who had aligned herself with my brother.”
Shayt stopped for a moment and drank from her glass. As the story progressed, I could see the emotion within her growing. There was an anger waiting to come out, and anger, it seemed that had been there for millenia.
“The sacred ritual of Immortality had never been used before. It took just under a full day to perform the rites. Knumhotep was warned that it might fail — no one knew if the spell was correct, and if it was not, it could kill him instead of granting him eternal life. He needed a test subject to work the spell on first — and he chose me.
“I had been injured in the fighting and was locked in the storage room with the others. I was soon dragged from its confines, however, and tied to the alter between the statues of Bastet and Sakhmet.
“Knumhotep approached me and told me his plan. First, he would make sure the spell worked, by using it on me. And if it did work, I could thank him for saving my life because I was obviously dying of my wounds. Then, after the ritual, he would send men to the palace, and the royal guard would turn on my father, killing him in his sleep. After that, while the family was in mourning, and awaiting the arrival of Senusret, the ritual would be performed on Knumhotep, who would then wait for his brother’s arrival and kill him, making himself Pharaoh of the Two-lands.
“I struggled so very hard, but I couldn’t loosen the ropes. I prayed with all my soul to Sakhmet to help me, and also to Bastet. There was no answer.
“I don’t wish to go into details about the ritual. Suffice to say it is very long and,” she paused, “painful. At some point I fainted from the pain and the loss of blood. When I awoke I was drifting in the state between life and death. I hoped I would die. But at the last minute, as I was approaching the other side, I was violently pulled back into this world. My eyes opened to see the face of the priestess as she completed the ritual.”
Shayt’s face was drawn, with dark circles under her eyes. The blue crystals that normally looked out at me were dark and foreboding. I almost felt sorry that I had asked her.
But I wanted her to continue.
“They made me immortal. I was no longer a creature of flesh and blood, but a gebbeth, a thing outside of nature. I cursed my brother, even as he laughed at me. The order had already been given, he said, and my father was dead. He would be Pharaoh within days.
“I was still weak, and they took me to the room that had earlier been my prison. I waited there, hoping against hope that it wasn’t true, and that death was still coming for me. But, instead of growing weaker, I felt my strength returning — and growing.
“The other priestesses tried to help me. They offered prayers to the goddesses, and said there had to be a way to reverse the spell if they could just get to the sacred books. As my strength grew, so did my anger. The next time one of my brother’s guards entered the room to bring food and water, I killed him with a single blow.
“I wanted to die. I took the man’s sword and plunged it into my body over and over again. I felt the blade go through my skin, and slice into my organs. But each time, there was no blood. Even as I watched, the wounds would seal themselves, never leaving even a trace of any scar on my body.”
Her voice trailed off. I waited patiently, but she said nothing more for several minutes. Even the brandy in her hand was ignored.
Finally, with a slight shake, she continued.
“Since that day, I have had no need to sleep, or eat, or drink. I enjoy the taste of certain wines and liquors, but I do not feel their effects. I do not burn in the sunlight, nor even in flames. There is no mortal weapon that can wound me. Even being shot by a gun causes no more discomfort than a pin prick.” She gave a half smile. “My reaction this evening — what did you call it? a flinch? — was to the feeling of a foreign object penetrating my body. It was a momentary sensation, and quickly disappeared.”
“Can you tell me what happened to your brother? Was he successful?”
She shook her head. “No. After I killed the guard, I handed his sword to one of my temple sisters. The two of us led the rest of the priestesses out of the room. I took the front, intending to kill every single intruder into our temple. My brother would be the last to die, I decided.
“They were in the middle of the ritual when we entered the altar room. The guards were quickly dispatched, and the foreign priestesses were killed as they chanted the sacred words.
“My brother lay on the sacred alter, his eyes open and staring. I knew that his soul was stranded at the border between life and death. One tug from either direction, and he would go to either side of the veil.
“The only thing needed to call him back as an immortal was the blood sacrifice. You see to complete the ritual, they had to pour the blood of a living soul over his body, and into his mouth. Then, as the heart of the other individual ceased, my brother’s heart would begin beating again, never to stop.”
The blood of a living soul, I thought. That meant they had sacrificed someone in order to make her immortal. I shivered at the thought.
“Two women held the wrists of a young girl over the temple altar, and over the body of Knumhotep. The priestess of Bastet held the knife in her hands and was preparing to slice the veins and begin the sacrifice. I grabbed her by the back of her tunic and spun her around. Before she knew what was happening, I had broken her neck.
“One of the other women had drawn her dagger in an attempt to complete the ritual. Before she could, though, an arrow struck her in the heart. The young girl, screaming, pulled away from the last of her captors, whom I dispatched to the underworld by smashing her head against a wall.
“It turned out that Senusret had returned earlier than expected. He had been warned by a dream that there was treachury afoot at the palace, and the great
temple. He and his troops had pushed their way past Knumhotep’s forces, and joined us in the battle.
“Knumhotep did not rise. Instead, he was beheaded, and his body sealed in a tomb under the temple floors. The priestesses would guard his corpse for the next seven hundred years. After that, the sands would cover the temple, and spells would be spoken to hide it from those would either search for it, or stumble upon it.”
She shifted in her chair, her eyes reflecting dully in the dim light.
“I remained a priestess for several years, but my uncanny abilities made people afraid of me. My family tried very hard to love me, and Senusret made it
clear that I would always have a home in Lisht. But, after a few years, I became aware that the people in the capitol did not trust me. They would wave
talismans at me as I passed them, and they would look away from my face, not wanting to be caught in my evil gaze. So, I left Memphis at the age of 54 — though I looked even then as you see me now. I died and was reborn at the age of 24 — and that is the age I will be forever.”
And with that, Shayt finished her brandy and stood from the table.
“We will be in Alexandria by midafternoon tomorrow. Rest. We will leave for Memphis in a few days.”
Before I could say anything in reply, she left the compartment.
I turned off the lamp and crawled into bed. There was nothing else I could do.
I couldn’t sleep well that night. I tossed and turned, thinking of all that Shayt had told me.
It was an absolutely incredible story. There was no way that it was possible. If she was who she claimed to be, she would be almost four thousand
years old. Which was utter nonsense.
And yet I believed her.
That was the night I decided I was insane.
At some point I dozed off, because when I next awoke, I could make out the silhouette of Shayt as she sat in a chair against the opposite wall. The
moonlight streaming in the window glinted off the ever present glass in her hand. She was perfectly still, without a hint of motion in her.
But those crystal eyes were wide open, and their haunted look made me shiver even under the blankets.
When I woke again, it was morning. Shayt was standing at the door to our compartment, speaking to a porter. There was food already on the table.
For someone who hadn’t needed to eat in four thousand years, her sense of taste was still very good.
I rolled out of the bunk as she closed the door and turned around.
“Good morning. We’re five hours from Alexandria. As you can see, breakfast is served. Help yourself.”
Blinking sleepily, I joined her at the table, still in the nightgown she had once again provided.
“You know, Shayt, I think I’ve eaten more in the last two days than in the last two months.”
She smiled at this. “Good. You need some more meat on you.”
I looked down at myself, noting how the gown hung off of my body.
“Perhaps.” I shrugged. “But if you keep feeding me like this, you’ll soon have me too fat to do anything but eat!”
She laughed, a full blown, head back, belly shaking laugh. I realized this was the first time she had relaxed enough around me to do more than chuckle.
I watched her as I ate. Her story was still fresh in my mind, and I knew that she was waiting for my reaction. She probably expected me to be afraid, and if truth be told, I was, at least a little. But not of her. I was afraid of the powers that she had described, and what her story meant in terms of my belief in science. I was English, and while I had spent enough time on the streets to know that there were a great many forces in the world, I also had always known that the god of the twentieth century was science, with its empirical data and repeatable results. Knowing that there was something out there, something that science could not explain, and that it was standing right in front of me — this shook me to the core.
But I was not afraid of Shayt herself. Instead, I was almost mesmerized by her, examining her even as I ate the platter of fruit that was my breakfast. The dark and flawless skin I had admired early on took on a whole new meaning for me. Her black hair, which once again hung down her back in a braid, shone like perfect silk in the light of the sun. I could suddenly imagine her as she stood in the temple, garbed in the robes of a priestess, with a sword girded at her waist.
Only her eyes stood out. I had never seen a pure Egyptian with eyes of crystal blue. I stared at them, transfixed, forgetting even to eat.
Shayt turned her head and looked at me.
“What is it, Daryl?”
“Have you always had blue eyes?” I blurted out.
A shadow seemed to once again cross her face, and I was sorry I’d asked.
“No. They were a result of my …. transformation. When I was born my eyes were dark brown, almost black.” She gave a small shrug. “The change occurred due to the spices used in the recipe for Immortality.” She picked up a glass, this time of orange juice. “Have you always had green eyes?”
I couldn’t help but smile. “Yes. My father always said they reminded him of the rolling green hills of England.” The smile faded. “Not that I remember the hills, or will ever see them again.”
She looked at me, her head tilted to the side. “Is that what you’d like? To go back to England?”
Back to England? I had to consider that, and I bit my lip as I thought. Finally, I shook my head. “No. England is where I was born. But, Egypt is what I know and love. My mother always told me I had an old Egyptian soul, and I think she was right.”
Shayt smiled gently. “Yes. An Egyptian soul, like a gift from the Nile.”
Her eyes met mine, and for once, neither turned away. We stayed like that until the porter returned to take the breakfast dishes away.
As Shayt was speaking to him once again in the hallway, I found her knapsack from the night before and set it on the bed. Opening it, I took out the cushioned bag, and opened that as well. I waited until Shayt had closed the door and turned around before I began to unroll the statue.
“What are you doing?”
“Looking at the results of my work,” I said. Soon there was only the linen covering left.
“That’s not yours, you know.”
I looked up at her, a grin on my face. “I helped steal it. I should have the right to look at it.” The linen came off the statue, revealing its sleek black curves. Once again, I was struck by its simple beauty.
Shayt sat down on the bed next to me as I turned it over and over. Finally, I looked up at her.
“You never told me — why would the name of Sakhmet appear on a statue of the cat-goddess?”
She shrugged. “Legends that have come down to this time do not tell the truth of the gods or goddesses. Sakhmet was the goddess of war, and was pictured as a lion. Bastet was the cat goddess, and the two of them were often worshipped together.”
“I thought Sakhmet was normally featured with her husband and son. What were their names? Ptah and Nefertem?”
“Right, in the Old Kingdom that’s true. But when Sakhmet became the protector of Pharaoh, her son and husband were dropped from her cult. She became, in many ways, the partner of Bastet. In the Middle Kingdom, to which my father’s reign belongs, the two goddesses were honored in twin temples, such as the one I served in.”
I ran my finger over the glyph, thinking. “So, this piece would actually be from the Middle Kingdom? Do you know when it was made?”
“Yes. It was created two hundred years after my father’s death.”
“And the goddesses were still worshipped together?”
“As they would be for another two or three centuries.”
I nodded. “Then, I would bet that somewhere, who knows where exactly, there is a sister statue to this. One that depicts the lion goddess, Sakhmet, and carries the name of Bastet on its base.”
I turned toward her to find an amused smile on her lips.
“Very good. There is indeed a sister to this piece.”
I imitated her raised eyebrow look. “Would you happen to know where it is?”
She nodded. “If you like, I can show it to you when we get to Alexandria.”
I couldn’t stop the grin that appeared on my face. “I’d like that very much.”
We sat on the bed like that for quite a while. I continued to hold the figure of Bastet in my lap, turning it from side to side and holding it up in the light from the window.
“I don’t see how this could be a compass.”
“I didn’t say it was.”
“Oh, right. You said the compass was hidden inside.” I started looking for openings, or cracks in the stone, and found none. “But I don’t see how that could be either.”
With a chuckle, Shayt held out her hand and I passed the statue over to her. She stood the figure up on the bed, then pushed simultaneously on the symbols of the two goddesses. I could hear a soft click. When she picked up the statue again, the base stayed behind. Within it, there was a disc of gold, approximately three inches in diameter. I whistled softly as I picked it up to examine it.
It didn’t look like a compass to me. It appeared, actually, to be a piece of a machine. There were small holes in the center of it, and one half of the piece had a raised lip, standing another half inch above its surface.
I looked up at Shayt quizzically. “This is a compass?”
“Part of one actually. The base. There’s a second part that slides on top and then a third that goes through the middle of the other two pieces.”
“I see.” I turned it over in my hand several times. “So, without the other pieces, this part doesn’t mean much, does it?”
She shook her head.
“Do you have the other two pieces, Shayt?”
She smiled. “No. I have the one that was hidden in the base of the twin statue.”
I nearly slapped my head. “Of course! That makes a lot of sense.”
“Do you know where the third one is?”
A nod. “I’ll have it before we leave for Memphis.”
I looked back at the piece, trying to imagine what it would look like when all three pieces were put together.
“Why are we going to Memphis?”
“Because one can only find the hidden temple while standing in the tomb of Queen Sobeknefru.”
The name was totally unfamiliar to me. “Who was she?”
“She was the last Pharaoh of the twelfth dynasty. She reigned for only four years before chaos descended upon Egypt. Between civil wars and bad leadership, it was at least two centuries before the country had a true leader again.”
“I thought Amenemhet the third was the final ruler of the twelfth dynasty.”
“No, but close. His son only ruled for seven years, and three of those were with his mother as regent. He died in his teens, and the battle for the throne is what threw the country into chaos.”
Shayt had leaned back against the wall, and for the first time there was a relaxed attitude in her pose. I wanted the trip to last for days, so I could work on discovering this enigmatic woman beside me.
“Have you left Egypt, Shayt? Traveled anywhere else?”
“Yes. I believe at some point I’ve touched most of the world. I’ve never been to the Australian continent, but I have traveled as far as the Americas, and seen what you call the Far East.”
“You’ve been to England?”
She smiled. “Yes. I’ve been to the land of Arthur and Camelot.”
That made me stop and think. “Shayt — was Camelot real? Did Arthur exist?”
“Of course Arthur existed. Though by a slightly different name. And no, Camelot did not fade away into the mists. It was destroyed, by a horde of Celts.”
“Was it really called Camelot?”
“No. I forget the name. It was a long time ago.”
I had to stop and think about all that Shayt had seen and lived through. Not just the Great War in this century, but the entire history of my country, of Europe, and more. She had lived through the birth of Christ, and the fall of Rome. She had been alive when Pompeii was crushed beneath Vesuvius. When the prophet Mohammed walked the earth. When the crusades devastated the Holy land.
This, I realized, was a treasure in itself.
“There are so many things I want to ask,” I said, suddenlly filled with awe for this woman who sat beside me.
“Well, then, ask. We have a few more hours till we reach Alexandria.”
I could tell you incredible stories about the things Shayt shared with me in the long hours of our train ride.
The true cause of the fire that destroyed the library at Alexandria. The story of Cleopatra. The terror of Caligula’s reign in Rome, and how he really died.
The coming of Christianity and the barbarism of the crusades. The horror of the black plague, and the wonders of the Renaissance.
The history that Shayt had lived through could never be recorded. Knowing, however, was enough for me, and I listened avidly as she wound the stories of centuries around us.
As we approached the city, her tales faded away, leaving us in a comfortable silence. Both of us were still on the bed, our backs against the wall, and our shoulders barely touching. Shayt had her long legs drawn up in front of her, while my shorter ones dangled just over the edge.
I had rewrapped the statue, the compass back in its hiding place. It was once again inside the canvas wrapping and the cushioned bag.
As the city came into view through the window, I decided to ask her one more question. It was something I’d been putting off, not wanting to destroy the relaxed pose she’d affected.
“I understand now why we’re going to Alexandria, and then backtracking to Memphis. You needed to get the other parts of the compass so you could find the temple, right?”
“But, that still leaves the question of why you wish to find it.”
As I expected, her eyes darkened, and shadows crossed her face again. The lines of her body went taut.
“Because there is something I need to do there. Something…. that needs to be finished.”
I raised an eyebrow at that. “Finished?”
She nodded, and stood up. “We’ll be in Alexandria soon. I’ll go –”
I grabbed her arm, hanging on in spite of the raised eyebrow.
“Tell me what needs to be finished, Shayt.”
The blue eyes blinked, but she said nothing.
“From your story, Shayt, the only thing left undone was the completion of the ritual for your brother’s immortality. Is that what you need to finish?”
She stared at me. “My brother is buried far beneath the hidden temple, and will never awaken.”
I sighed in relief. “Then tell me what you need to finish?”
She shook her head and pulled her arm away from me. “I can’t. It’s…I just can’t, Daryl.”
Then she stepped to the door. “I’ll check with the porter about our luggage. Be back in a minute.” And she was once again gone.
The city of Alexandria stands on the banks of the Mediterranean Sea. Here, it is easy to forget that Egypt is a country of mostly sand and dry winds. The sea air of the city is always moist, and salty, with a hint of fish from the market.
It was completely different from Cairo and I inhaled the scents and the sounds with exhilaration.
Our baggage, including the boxes of my father’s belongings, would follow us to our destination. Shayt led me along a winding road that came ever closer to the sea. Just before the harbor, she turned and we began to climb a hill that led to an iron gate. At the gate, she rang the bell, and waited.
“Where are we?”
“At the temple of the God Bes. My rooms are here; they’re the only permanent dwelling I keep.”
I watched as two guards stepped away from the building and came toward us. “Why here?”
“Because,” she said softly, “this is the one place in all of Egypt where I feel comfortable. It is the only place that I know I am accepted and …”
Her words trailed off as the guards opened the gate. I was surprised when they both bowed to her, one arm outstretched in a gesture of welcome.
Shayt smiled. “The only place I am honored.” She nodded to the guards as she passed them. I followed her, as she climbed a small set of stairs and entered the building.
We were in the front hall of what very well could have been either a temple, or a museum. Paintings lined the walls, as beautifully and skillfully done as any that graced a Pharaoh’s tomb. There were four doors leading into the room where we stood, and each of them had a niche built into the wall next to it. In these small holes sat figurines, each with the same face, but in a different pose.
In front of us was a grand staircase, and on either side of the stairs stood a statue of a strange figure. The image was that of a short, fat little man, with a lion’s mane around his head, and great bushy eyebrows.
The stairs themselves went up to the second floor landing, on which there was a painted image of the same short man. The words written above the painting said, “You are welcome in the Temple of Bes.” To either side of the landing, more stairs led onto different wings of a third floor. The ceiling rose up high above us in a unique dome shape that I had never seen before. Light poured in through windows that ran around the room in a circle, just below the dome itself.
I looked down to find a mosaic on the floor, forming the picture of a desert temple, with the Great Pyramid rising in the background. I wondered if this was the hidden temple that Shayt was seeking.
There were footsteps on the stairs and I looked up to see the approach of a short woman in a long flowing gown. She was maybe a full inch shorter than me, with long black hair that hung down her back in a flowing wave. She was well built, thin, but not painfully so. Her brown eyes were pleasant, and her smile was warm as she came down and bowed before Shayt.
“You know better than to bow to me, Mishra.” The woman stood and Shayt leaned over to give her a hug. “It has been a long time since I was Pharaoh’s daughter.”
“Ah, but you will always be the Princess Ashayt.” Mishra looked up, peering into the blue eyes. “You look tired, my friend. I think it is good that you have come home.”
Shayt nodded. “I think so, too.” She smiled at Mishra, the motioned toward me. “I bring you a guest. This is the daughter of James and Delia Bromley. Daryl, this is Mishra, high priestess of the temple of Bes.”
Mishra lowered her head. I did the same, and then looked up into warm brown eyes that seemed almost as ageless as Shayt’s blue ones. Judging only on her first appearance, I would have guessed that Mishra was perhaps thirty years of age. But her eyes showed many years more.
“You are welcome, Daryl Bromley. Allow us to give you the hospitality of Bes.”
I nodded, trying to think of words to thank her properly. “Um, it is an honor to be here, Priestess. My thanks for your warm welcome.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Shayt smile, and guessed I had said something right.
Mishra placed a hand on my shoulder and looked up at Shayt. “We have one small problem, Princess.”
A dark eyebrow slowly rose. “A problem?”
“Yes. We have no guest rooms at the moment. Would it be possible for her to stay with you?”
“No rooms?” A second eyebrow joined its partner.
“It is the time of the festival. Friends have come to join us from as far away as Thebes.”
“Festival already?” Shayt frowned. “You are early in your celebrations, aren’t you?”
“Yes, we are. Our forecasters told us it would be early, and I myself received a dream telling me the ceremony should be performed the first night of the full moon, which is tomorrow night.” She spread her hands out. “It has been hard to find rooms for everyone as it is; I’m afraid we don’t even have a spare bed for our new friend.”
Shayt gave a sigh, and ran a hand across her forehead. “Yes, all right, put her in my room. If necessary I can sleep on the divan, and let her have the bed.”
I was about to protest, but a glance from Shayt left me silent.
“Mishra, will you have a bath sent up, please? Two of them? It has been a long ride from Cairo.”
Mishra bowed once more. “Of course, Princess. Shall I send dinner as well?”
“Yes, please.” She pointed toward me. “This one is skin and bones under those clothes.”
The priestess laughed and nodded. “Dinner it is. Go, my friend, and rest.”
Shayt squeezed her friend’s shoulder, then led me up the stairs to the third floor. As we took the turn at the second landing, I glanced back down to see Mishra watching us with a speculative look on her face.
“Shayt, what type of festival were you and Mishra speaking of?”
We were alone in Shayt’s room, which actually turned out to be a suite of three rooms, including a bedchamber, a sitting room, and a small library.
The bath had been delivered, and to my surprise it was one tub, large enough for both of us. We sat facing one another, leaning back against the sides of the tub, letting the hot water relax us.
“Do you know who Bes is?”
“I believe so. Bes is the Egyptian god of wine and celebration, isn’t he?”
Shayt had her head back, and her eyes were closed. The water lapped gently at the area just above her breasts. Her arms were spread out along the edge of the tub, and her whole position was one of total relaxation.
I figured if I was careful, I could ask more questions.
“Well, Bes became the god of wine, but only after the Greeks entered Egypt. In their eyes he was similar to their god Dionysus, the god of the vine. Bes, however, was worshipped for more than wine and song and dance.”
“And this celebration that begins tomorrow?”
She smiled, not opening her eyes. “It is the festival of the new wine.”
“Yes. The temple of Bes today, as in the old days, makes sweet wine from the fruit of the palm tree. The harvest of the dates has been completed, and in celebration they will open the first bottles of wine made from last year’s harvest. The wine will be blessed by the priests and priestesses, and everyone will drink.”
“Ah, so this is basically an excuse for everyone to have a giant party, is that it?”
That got a chuckle from her.
“I suppose you could think of it in that way. But it is more than a party. Before the partaking of the wine there will be a ritual to thank the god for the harvest, and ask him for continued good will in the year to come. Since Bes is seen as a god of fertility, couples may come and ask for his blessings so that they may have a child. There will be other rites as well.”
I was surprised to see a light flush color Shayt’s cheeks.
“Just…. never mind. I’m sure you’ll find out tomorrow.”
“Will I be allowed to go to the festival? Or do I have to be initiated or something first?”
The blush deepened slightly. “Um, no, you don’t have to do anything. You won’t be allowed to see all of the rituals, but you’ll certainly be more than welcome at the celebration.” She shifted her position, drawing her arms down into the water. “But, you might want to be careful. The new wine, once it is blessed, is very powerful. I’d suggest that you not drink it.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
“I’d rather you didn’t, just the same.”
I shrugged. “All right.”
A smile skipped across her face and was gone.
“Do they know who you are, here?”
Her head came up and she looked at me. “Yes. They know who I am, and what I am.”
“How do they know? And why do they honor you so? Is it simply because you were the daughter of a Pharaoh?”
I half expected the shadows to cover her face again, but instead she simply looked down. Her long fingers played in the water as she spoke.
“Did you see the mosaic on the floor downstairs?”
“The one of the desert temple? Yes, I saw it. Is that the great temple you’re looking for?”
“No.” She shook her head. “That is the temple of Bes that stood in El Bahariya, near the oasis. It existed there for nearly two thousand years.”
I had never heard of such a temple. “What happened to it?”
“In the middle of the eleventh century A.D., as you Christians count the years, the temple came under attack. The worshippers of Bes were told to convert to Christianity, or perish. Parts of the temple were demolished, and people were killed. Hearing about the attack, I traveled to Bahariya and managed to rescue the high priest and most of his disciples. In doing so, however, I had a spear thrust into my stomach. Instead of dying, I removed the spear and sent it flying back into the chest of the man who threw it in the first place. I was called demon and devil by those in the crowd, but they would not touch me. I helped the cult of Bes move to the city of Alexandria, where I had been residing. The high priest, having heard the stories of pharaoh’s living daughter, declared me a sacred member of the cult, and swore I would always find sanctuary with them. I have continued to make certain that no one disturbs them, and they have given me …. a home, of sorts.”
“So, you’re their hero.”
“No,” Shayt shood her head vehemently. “I’m no hero. A hero is someone who does something special against all odds — someone who defies the gods and stands up to them, instead of becoming their plaything. Me? I’m the toy of the gods.”
The shadows were back on her face.
“If you’re looking for a hero, look somewhere else.” She stood and climbed out of the bath. Turning back to me, she looked down and said, “If you need a hero, look to yourself — you had the courage to survive, and you did, against all odds. That makes you far more heroic than I.” She grabbed a towel from the stack on the nearby chair, and retreated to the bedroom.
I closed my eyes. Even though I’d heard her words, I couldn’t really fathom what she was saying.
Perhaps because I’d been looking at one of the most perfect bodies I’d ever seen.
The image stayed with me and I sat there in silence until the water turned cold.
Shayt left the apartment as I was just beginning to dress. She reminded me that dinner would be on its way up, then closed the door before I could answer her.
Closing my eyes I could see her body once more as she climbed from the bath. Long legs, silky skin, with firm breasts that swayed back and…
There was heat covering my skin, and I opened my eyes again, shaking my head.
This wasn’t the first time I’d found a woman’s body attractive. At the orphanage, I’d gotten into trouble by having a crush on one of the older girls. She was sixteen and didn’t take kindly to this fourteen year old that followed her around like a puppy.
After I’d run away I had met another young woman in the market place. Just a half year older than I was, she would let me help her in her job at her father’s stand, where he sold fresh produce. After the market closed, the two of us would often stroll down by the banks of the river, just south of the piers. After we passed out from under the city lights, she’d take my hand in hers, and I can still remember trembling from the contact.
When her father announced they were moving, we were both bitterly disappointed, and on the night of our final stroll, I gathered my courage and kissed her on the cheek. She smiled, and kissed me on the lips before squeezing my hand and running away, back to her father’s house.
Hours later, her two older brothers found me as I was walking back to the hole in the wall that was currently my home. For the crime of “corrupting their sister” they stuffed my mouth with dirty cotton, held me against a wall, and used a switch on my back.
I’d never approached another woman, in friendship or anything else.
Men had never held any interest for me. I’d had several who wanted to sleep with me, and one or two that even offered marriage. I had declined all such offers. I was, as most people thought, unnatural.
And here I was, having unnatural thoughts about the woman who had saved me from the streets.
I was in the middle of these thoughts, and worrying whether Shayt would abandon me if she saw the way I looked at her, when there was a knock at the door. Pulling a shirt over my head, I answered it, to find a young woman, about my own age, holding a platter of covered dishes.
“I have brought your dinner, mistress.”
“Come in.” I opened the door wider and let her step through. “And please don’t call me mistress.”
She placed the tray on the table and then held out the chair for me.
“How shall I address you then? We were not told your name — only that you were the guest of the princess.”
“My name is Daryl.”
She smiled at me and nodded. “Daryl. Good. And I am Mandisa.”
“Nice to meet you, Mandisa.” I sniffed as the aroma from the tray reached my nose. My stomach growled in response.
The young woman laughed. “I can hear how hungry you are. Sit, Daryl. Enjoy.”
I sat, pulling the cover off the main dish. “Will you join me?”
“I have already eaten.”
“Then just sit and talk to me, please?”
She glanced uneasily around. “Would the princess be upset with me?”
“For what? Sitting here and talking to me?”
“Well, for sitting alone with you, in her rooms. I mean…” her voice trailed off as I stared at her. After a moment, she pulled out a second chair from the table and sat.
“Good,” I said.
We grinned at each other.
“So, what do you do here, Mandisa? Are you a cook?”
She laughed. “No. You should be very glad I didn’t cook for you. The last time I tried to help in the kitchen, the cooks said I nearly poisoned everyone. Now, I just serve.”
I swallowed a bite, and sighed. “Well, whoever did cook is very good.” I stabbed at a piece of meat, tearing it free. “So, you just work here?”
“No, I’m a priestess here at the temple. Most of the people who live here are priests or priestesses.”
“How long have you lived here?”
“Oh, nearly six years now. And before you ask, yes, I love it. I knew long ago that I wanted to follow my older sister in her calling.”
“And who is your sister?”
I stopped in the middle of a bite. “Mishra? Is your sister?”
She laughed. “Yes, my much older sister. I’m not quite 20, and she’s nearly 45. We share the same father, but had different mothers.”
That made sense, I thought.
I decided to change the topic.
“So, how long have you known Shayt?”
Mandisa raised an eyebrow. “The princess? Oh, I don’t know. She’s been here since I was a child. I think she was gone for several years before that, but for the past — I don’t know– eight years or so she’s been staying here very regularly.”
“And you know who she is?”
“Princess Ashayt Hathor Idut Kemshet, the living daughter of Pharaoh Amenemhet I, Princess of Upper and Lower Egypt, blessed servant of the goddess Sakhmet, beloved friend of the god Bes.”
I stared at her for a moment, then swallowed. “Um, yes. I guess you do know.”
She shrugged. “It is not a secret within these walls. Her history is known here, and the records of her life are kept in our library.”
“Really.” That sounded intriguing. “I’d love to read that.”
Mandisa frowned. “I — don’t know that you’d be allowed. The library is the place of study for the priests and priestesses. You’d need permission to be allowed in.”
“And who would i go to for permission?”
She shrugged. “Mishra.”
“Okay. I’ll ask her. Do you think there’s any reason she’ll say no?”
The frown returned. “Well… maybe. I don’t know how she’d feel about showing the Princess’s private records to her new lover.”
I stared at her in shock. “Ne–” My voice squeeked, and I had to clear my throat and start over. “New lover?”
“Yes.” She looked at me in confusion. “Is something the matter?”
“Umm…” I couldn’t speak. They think I’m her lover? What does that mean? “Could you explain that please?”
“Explain wha — oh.” Mandisa put a hand to her mouth, then moved it away. “You mean, you’re not?”
I shook my head. “Umm. No. Not at all.” I had a sudden memory of Shayt’s body, and I began to sweat.
“Oh. I see. I’m sorry. I’ll make sure to pass the word.” She cocked her head in a thoughtful position. “I wonder if that means…” Mandisa let her voice trail off.
“Means what? What could that mean?” I asked.
“Well, I’m wondering if that means she’ll celebrate the festival with Mishra, like she used to.”
“With Mishra?” I felt a little chill.
“Yes. Her and the Princess have always been… friends, and they’ve spent many celebrations together. There are even rumors they had an affair.”
The chill grew until it covered my back.
“An affair? You mean, as in romantic? And…”
“And sexual. Yes.” She frowned again, and looked at me intensely. “Do you have a problem with that? I mean, I know most English women are raised to believe in only men and women falling in love, but –”
“Yes, and so are most Egyptians.”
“Yes. Which is why I’m so glad I grew up here. The ways of the god are those of love and pleasure. Not hate, like many I’ve heard of.”
Love and pleasure. The chill got a little bigger, reaching the top of my shoulders. “So, this festival tomorrow.”
She smiled and started telling me about the new wine, and the celebration.
I listened and smiled while she described what I could only picture as an orgy.
But the chill kept growing.
Shayt hadn’t returned by the time I finished dinner, so I found myself in her suite with nothing to do. In deference to our friendship, and knowing what a private person Shayt was, I refrained from exploring her belongings. Instead, I just wandered through the rooms, looking at certain items making mental notes as to what questions I wanted to ask of my companion.
The suite was not ornate in any way. The walls were a soft beige, but filled with frescoes in brilliant colors. Some of the art depicted merely shapes and objects, while others were scenes of great intricacy. There was a one showing Shayt as the priestess of Sakhmet. In another she bowed to the god Bes, whose hand was stretched out towards her, offering his follower a bottle. The detail in these paintings was amazing, and I shivered as I gazed into the blue eyes that blazed almost as brightly as my friend’s.
The furnishings were comfortable, and included a large couch along one wall of the living room, where I decided I would be sleeping that night. Shayt had done enough for me — let her sleep in her own bed tonight.
A set of windows stretched across the room opposite the couch. The scene it presented was a mixture of peace and chaos. Closest to the building was a garden, where beautiful trees and flowers grew unhindered, cared for by loving hands. Even now, as the sun began to set, there were people weeding and pruning, picking fruit from the trees. Beyond the garden was the road we had traveled up, and a wide grove of palm trees. On the other side of that was Alexandria itself. The noise of the city couldn’t be heard this far away, but I could imagine it well as I watched camels, people, rickshaws, and even a few motorcars move back and forth through the streets.
This, I thought, was my life in one picture. For so long it was the chaos of the city. Now, thanks to Shayt, it was the peace of the garden.
Irritated by my maudlin thoughts, I turned from the window to continue my examination of the suite.
I found myself in the library, which was really just a room with a small table and lamp, and a comfortable chair for reading. This appeared to be the most used room in the suite, and I could easily imagine Shayt spending long hours here.
The walls of the room were covered in bookshelves which were themselves filled by books and manuscripts. Here and there was a stack of parchment, and occasionally a scroll appeared nestled among it’s hardbound companions. I found myself gazing around in almost reverence, before I shook my head and sat down in the chair.
There was a stack of books on the floor near the foot of the nearest bookcase. I tilted my head and began to read the titles. One of them seemed familiar, and I reached down to pull it from between two others.
The title was The God-Cults of Egypt, and the author was Marlon le Fleur. My father had owned a copy of this book and I had read it numerous times. It disappeared when he did, along with my mother. Seeing it made me smile sadly. I glanced back at the other books, and noticed several other familiar names and titles. The subject matter included Greek and Egyptian mythology, archeological finds in Egypt, and a dissertation on the translation of hieroglyphics. There was also a thin book that I didn’t recognize entitled “Sakhmet and Bastet: Cat Goddesses of Egypt.” At first that made no sense, since only Bastet was pictured as a cat. Then I remembered that Sakhmet was often pictured as having the head of a lion, much like Anubis had the head of a jackal and Horus the head of a falcon. Most of the Egyptian gods were represented in this fashion.
Curious, I pulled the book out and opened it. As I began to read, I noticed that there were marks off to the side of the text, in the margins. While they made little sense to me, they felt familiar, as if I’d seen them somewhere before. Irritated, I tried to block them out and just read the book.
I was about halfway through when I came across the notation Twin temple — S says she knows where one of the three compass pieces is. Believe one is in Cairo, and last one is near Thebes. The handwriting was once again familiar.
I don’t know what it was, whether divine inspiration or just curiosity, but I flipped quickly to the back of the book. There, in the same handwriting as the notes, was the name James Bromley. I stared at it for what felt like hours.
For a moment I couldn’t think. Then I reached down for another book, and checked the back page. Again, James Bromley. The same name was inscribed in a third book, and then a fourth. As I kept examining the stacked books, I realized all of them had belonged to my father. And they had all disappeared with him and my mother four year previously.
Shayt had not only known my father, but she had seen him between the time he left Cairo and the time he disappeared in the Egyptian desert.
I flipped back to the note in the middle of the book I’d been reading. There was a message there and I needed to decipher it. “Twin temple” meant the temple of Sakhmet and Bastet. “S” had to be Shayt.
Thebes was the last place I had gotten a letter from my parents.
So, they had been helping Shayt to look for the compass pieces. She already had one piece, or knew where it was when the notation was made. Father had believed one to be in Cairo — probably the same piece that I had helped Shayt steal from the museum. Which left one last piece unaccounted for. Father had obviously been searching for it near Thebes.
Had he found it? Shayt had told me on the train that she had it in her possession. How did she get it? And did she know what happened to my parents?
Did she have a hand in what happened to my parents?
Suddenly the room seemed to take on a more menacing aspect, and I glanced around to find shadows creeping over me. I stood, gathering several books with me, and left the small library.
I moved toward the couch, intending to drop the books there and then go find Shayt. A figurine on a shelf in the corner stopped me cold.
It was a stone statuette of Sakhmet, with the same proportions and coloring as the sculpture of Bastet. It stood on the same type of heavy black base. For a moment I just stared at it. Then I dropped my books and moved to the statue.
The names of both goddesses were inscribed in the base, and I pressed them hard at the same time. I was rewarded with a click, and I lifted the statue off it’s base, revealing the golden compass piece inside.
I was still staring at it when I heard a noise at the door. I whirled around to find Shayt entering the suite.
She noticed me, and stopped. Her eyes flicked over me, and then to the statue I stood by. An eyebrow edged up slightly and she closed the door. Folding her arms she leaned back against it.
“If you had asked me, I would have shown you the piece.”
I swallowed and had to clench my fists to keep from either screaming at her, or breaking down in tears.
“Is this the one my father found near Thebes?”
Her eyes widened. After a glance at the pile of books on the couch, she nodded, as if to herself. “Yes, it is.”
“When did he find it?”
“Just days before he died.”
I felt the breath catch in my chest. “You know what happened to my parents?”
She nodded. “I do.”
The pain from my hands let me know that my nails were cutting into my palms. But the pain was helping me stay in control, and I just squeezed them tighter.
“Did you kill them?”
Shayt tilted her head and looked at me with a speculative glance. “What would you do if I told you I did?”
That was a good question. There was nothing in this world that could harm her physical body. Even beheading her wouldn’t kill her.
But I knew something that would hurt her. I reached into the opened cavity within the statue and took out the compass piece. It was similar to the one I’d seen earlier that day. Calmly, I placed the piece on the desk and picked up the statue that had held it. I raised it over my head and glanced back to see Shayt standing straight up, her eyes wide.
Gold, you see, is actually a very soft metal. Striking it with a heavy stone object, I thought, could damage it enough to make it unusable. Shayt’s reaction proved me right.
“I didn’t kill them, Daryl.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“Because. I can tell you what happened to them, and you may also ask Mishra and Achmed. They were with me in Thebes.”
I lowered the statue, but didn’t put it down. “Tell me what happened.”
She sighed and came further into the room. “Do you want the whole story of how I met your parents, or just the story of their deaths?”
“Both. But tell me how they died, first.”
“All right.” Shayt sat down on the couch, next to the haphazard stack of books. “As you probably figured out, your father was helping me find the pieces of the compass. He figured out that the sculpture of Bastet he’d found years earlier was probably the one I was looking for. There’s one that’s hidden here in the temple of Bes. The third one I had no idea of how to locate.
“James had a scroll that he’d found in a collection in Cairo. Translating it, we found clues about where the statue had been taken. It’s last known location, recorded in the eighth century, was a valley oasis near Thebes. The oasis is actually desert now, and the ruins there are dangerous. There are no real roads into the area, and thievery abounds. When he said he wanted to go, I asked him to wait — I wanted to go with him, but couldn’t at that time. He sent me a telegram saying he and your mother would meet me at the site.”
Letting out a long breath, Shayt leaned forward, resting her arms on her knees. “I was out of the country at that time, and the telegram waited for me here at the temple. When I received it, I asked Achmed, one of the priests here, to accompany me. Mishra insisted on going along; she and your mother had become friends of a sort when I had brought your parents here for a short stay.
“When we got to Thebes, we found that they had been staying at a hotel, and only traveling to the ruins for a day or two at a time. Then they’d return to the hotel and replenish their supplies. It was tedious, since it was a half day’s camel ride out to the site, but it was good strategy — it kept the thieves off balance as to when they would be where. Most of the thieving rings in Thebes are disorganized, and they pick on unwary travelers and foolish archeologists. Your father was neither of those things.
“We found their rooms vandalized, their belongings either missing or destroyed. Leaving Mishra at the hotel, Achmed and I made our way out to the valley, looking for any signs of their dig. I hoped they had just gone for an extended stay and the mess at the hotel had been random. But as we entered the valley, I could hear gunshots, and shouting. A group of thieves had James and Delia trapped between two walls in the ruins of an ancient building. James had a rifle but that was it, and there were five men facing him. Achmed pulled out the rifle he carried, and began firing, trying to draw the attention of the attackers. I made my way through the ruins, and took the men out one by one. When the last one fell, I went to check on your parents.”
Shayt leaned back and I could see a wetness on her cheeks. She stared up at the ceiling.
“Delia was dead. There was a bullet wound in her back, and a gaping hole in her chest. There was nothing I could do. When I checked James I found him alive and conscious, but he’d been hit and was bleeding bad. He told me that he’d found the statue and hidden it in Thebes.” She raised a hand and wiped her cheek. “Then he asked me to watch out for his daughter, and he died in my arms.”
We were both silent for a few minutes. Finally, Shayt cleared her throat and turned to look at me. “One of the thieves was still alive. He admitted that he and his men had been paid to find the Bromleys and take a certain statue from them. They knew it had been found, because the man who hired them told them he’d heard it from Bromley himself. They had searched the hotel room, and then come to the dig site to find the statue. He couldn’t tell me his employers name, unfortunately. And I hadn’t left any of the others alive.”
She shifted position and looked down at her hands. “We buried them in the desert, Achmed, Mishra and I. James had always told us that was what he wanted, to be buried among the ruins he’d spent his life discovering. We erected stones for each of them, inscribed in hieroglyphics. Then we retrieved the statue and returned to Alexandria, bringing all their belongings with us. To the authorities, it seemed they had just vanished into the desert. I thought it best that it remain that way.” Blue eyes turned to me with an apology. “I’m sorry. I should have gone to Cairo right after that, and made sure you were taken care of. But when I inquired at the museum, I was told you were in an orphanage and doing fine. There didn’t seem to be anything else to do.”
“Who did you speak to at the museum?”
“Caster. He told me you were being well taken care of.” She shook her head. “It wasn’t until six or eight months ago that I realized what a rat the man is. I discovered that he had made a deal and was helping to remove Egyptian treasures from the country to Great Britain. When I found out you weren’t at the place he said you were, and that you hadn’t been for some time, I began to look for you. It was just two months ago that I saw you in the market, and knew you had to be James’s daughter. So I watched you, waiting for an opportunity.”
“When did you figure out where the statue of Bastet was?”
She picked up the small book I’d been reading ealier. “This was stuffed into a box of James’ belongings. I decided to read it and discovered a note he’d made.”
I nodded. “I found it earlier this evening.”
Shayt turned the pages of the book slowly. “He was a good man, your father. I’ve missed him for the last few years.”
That was finally enough to make the tears roll down my face. I put the compass piece back in its box and wiped at my eyes. As I replaced the statue onto its base, the pain settled firmly in my chest, and I started to sob.
Suddenly I was in Shayt’s arms and she was holding me close, lifting me up to carry me to the couch. She made soothing sounds, trying to calm the tremors running through my body as I wept.
It took quite a while for my grief to retreat back into the recesses of my mind and heart. I found myself wrapped tightly in Shayt’s strong arms, my cheek resting against the curve of her breast. I sniffled a few more times and then lifted my head.
Those blue eyes were so close, and I could see sympathy and concern in them. I gave her a half smile and lifted my hand to her face.
The feel of her skin was like rough silk, warmed by the sun. I gently stroked her cheek with my fingertips, watching the swirling depths of her bluer than blue eyes. As I gazed at them, they changed, deepening in color. Her nostrils flared slightly, and I thought for a moment I could see desire in her eyes.
Then her gaze dropped, and her arms loosened around me. I pulled my hand away from her cheek, and slowly untangled myself from her clasp.
“It’s been a long day. You should go to bed.”
I nodded, standing up. “All right. I’ll sleep here on the sofa.”
“That’s not nece–”
“I insist.” I put my hand up to stop her protest. “The couch is just fine, and I have not desire to kick you out of your bed.”
She smiled at me, and chuckled. “Fine. You take the couch.” She stood in front of the couch looking around awkwardly. “Well, do you need anything else? Sheets, pillows?”
I shook my head. “No, Mandisa brought some up earlier. I’ll be fine, I’m sure.”
Shayt nodded and took a step towards her room. She looked back at me. “If you need anything, I’ll be in the other room. Just yell, or…” she paused, “come get me.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine.” I waited a moment. “I’m sorry about earlier, Shayt. I didn’t really think you’d killed them.”
She dropped her head again, then raised it to look at me. “I wouldn’t have blamed you if you did. I should have told you the whole story sooner. I’m glad I told you now.”
I nodded, and smiled at her. “So am I.”
We stood and gazed at one another for several minutes, before she slowly, reluctantly, turned away. Shayt looked back once when she got to the bedroom door, and smiled at me. “Goodnight, Daryl.”
The door closed behind her and I practically fell back against the couch. Whether I was feeling relief or regret, I couldn’t tell.
My friend was once again gone when I woke in the morning. I thought about waiting for her to return, but then my stomach growled, and I went in search of food. Mandisa found me as soon as I left the room. After breakfast, she showed me the kitchen, and the music room, and took me into the gardens to search for Mishra. We found her picking herbs in a shady area under an olive tree.
She looked up at us, one hand blocking the sun. “Good morning, friend of the princess. How are you feeling?”
“I’m well, thank you.” I followed Mandisa’s example and bowed to her.
“There is no need for formality, little one. You are not of our temple or our ways, and I am merely your elder, nothing more.” She looked up at her sister. “Are you prepared for the ritual this evening?”
Mandisa smiled and nodded. “I’ve done all that’s required, except for the cleansing, which I’ll do after the noon meal.”
“And until then? Do you have duties?”
“Only to guide our new friend, here. The princess asked me to keep her company.”
Mishra nodded. “Good. ” She handed to her sister a basket full of herbs. “Please take these into the kitchen, and bring me another basket. I will keep our guest company until you return.”
“Yes, Priestess.” My companion smiled at me and left.
“Come, Daryl Bromley, sit down beside me.” I moved closer to Mishra, sitting beside her on the ground. “Do you know about this herb?”
“No. What is it?”
“It is the bodhi plant. In the land of India it is sacred to Vishnu. Buddhists believe that the Buddha took shelter under its leaves.”
“Here it is used in our worship. The leaves will be dried, ground, and stored in jars. This evening, some that has already been dried will be mixed with cinnamon, sage, sandalwood, and dragon’s blood to make an incense that will be burned during our ritual.”
“A resin, from the sap of the palm tree. As with herbs, dragon’s blood is dried, and ground. It increases the power of the incense, and therefore the ritual.”
“I see.” I watched her as she picked several more leaves, carefully removing them from the plant. “This ritual tonight. What is it? What happens?”
She glanced at me. “Mandisa told you nothing?”
“She told me some, but I didn’t understand it all. To me it sounded — um –”
“Sexual?” There was a smile on her face, and she gave me a wink. “It can be. If the energy is right. Bes is the god of wine, but he is also the god of pleasure, especially pleasures of the flesh.”
“So, tonight is basically an orgy?”
“No. Tonight is a solemn ritual, celebrating the completion of the harvest and the opening of the new wine. It is also to ask for the fertility of the earth to continue.”
“And after the ritual? Then there will be an orgy?”
Mishra looked carefully at me. “It will not be an orgy. An orgy is for the pleasure of the participants only. This will be a sexual ritual for the pleasure of the god. There is a difference.”
“Okay.” I raised an eyebrow, but didn’t disagree. “I wanted to ask you something. I would have asked Sha– I mean, the princess, but I don’t know where she is this morning.”
“She is in Alexandria. Something about arranging for transportation. I understand the two of you are taking a trip.”
“That’s what she told me.”
“So, your question?”
I looked down at the ground, playing with a shriveled leaf. “I was wondering if I could read the records in the library. The ones on Pharaoh’s daughter.”
Mishra was silent. I kept my attention focused on the leaf, and waited. Finally, she sighed, and I looked up.
“I cannot give you permission for such a thing. That can only come from Ashayt herself. I’m sorry, little one.”
“But, since you seem to be so interested,” she smiled at me, “I will have Mandisa take you to read the scrolls concerning the ritual this evening. Part of it will take place in the inner sanctum of the temple, and that you will not be allowed to observe. The rest of it, you can see, and even participate if you wish.”
“Shayt didn’t seem to think that was a good idea.”
Mishra laughed. “The princess worries too much. I don’t think you would be harmed by participating.” She looked closely at me. “You have been with a man before?”
I shook my head.
“Ah.” The priestess’s face turned pensive. “I can see why she is concerned. The ritual can be — overwhelming.”
“Okay.” I noticed that I’d shredded the leaf I’d been holding. “But I can read about it? And observe?”
We both looked up as Mandisa returned and handed her sister a new basket.
“Thank you, Mandisa. Would you be kind enough to take our guest to the library? You may show her the scrolls concerning the ritual for this evening.”
“The scrolls? Perhaps the translations would be better.”
“Perhaps. Let Daryl see the scrolls at least. If she is anything like her father said, then she could probably read the old language.”
“My father spoke of me?” I asked. Part of me was sad that I had never been able to see this place with my parents, or share their secrets.
Mishra smiled and put a hand on my shoulder. “Your parents loved you very much, little one. They were proud of you, and knew you would become a wonderful young woman.” She squeezed gently. “And you have. I’m sure they’re very pleased.”
For a moment I couldn’t speak, or even move.
My parents proud of me? I was a thief. A street urchin. I had nothing to my name, and would have been in prison if Shayt hadn’t saved me in the market.
When I didn’t say anything, Mishra turned fully to me and put her hands on my face. She brought my gaze to hers and smiled. “You are a beautiful young woman, with so much yet to learn. Do not dwell on what has been; look instead to what will be.”
I still couldn’t say anything, but I nodded, and gave a half-hearted smile.
Mandisa held out a hand and helped me stand up. I followed her silently as we walked back into the building.
Reading heiroglyphics is a fascinating chore. Each glyph is actually made up of several symbols, much like English sentences are made from words. If you can’t remember the meaning of each symbol , then you are always rereading, and trying to fill in the gaps between known glyphs.
My parents had raised me on the language of Egypt, and the ancient written tongue was not neglected. I was by no means an expert, but I could decipher most texts with only minor problems.
Mandisa made sure I had the translations as well, just in case, and then left me to the scrolls on the religion of the god Bes.
I skimmed through most of them, that merely went over the basics of how Bes came into being. These were the same legends I’d heard and read before. The things Bes represented had changed many times over the centuries, and the scrolls carefully recorded each manifestation of the god. From divine protectorate to guardian of pregnant women, Bes had changed as the needs of his followers evolved. When the Greeks and Romans entered Egypt, Bes became a god of wine, similar to Dionysus.
The oldest scroll, an ancient piece of papyrus, however, contained a part of the history that I had never read. It spoke of Bes as a sexual entity, with desires of the flesh. He was described as the giver of both life, and pleasure. There were pictures drawn of Bes in sexual poses with both men and women.
This papyrus also said that of all the gods, only Bes would never sleep.
It was interesting, but not what I was currently looking for. I wanted to know what the rites were, what would happen this evening. Finally, I found it, but the writing was unclear, and in frustration I searched for it in the translations.
After thumbing through the handwritten manuscripts that Mandisa had left, I finally found a small section in the back of one book. It described a ceremony called the Rite of the New Wine.
As the gods give gifts in the bounty of the earth, so should we honor them with the first of that bounty. Thus, the first bottle of the new wine belongs to Bes, so that he may be bless us with his wisdom.
This wine is to be offered to Bes at the first full moon after the harvest. Let us come together in celebration for the pleasure of the god.
The description of the ritual itself involved the lighting of candles, and incense. The bottle of wine was to be poured into the statue of the god, so that he may taste the fruit of his gift. After that, several more bottles were to be opened, and poured into a great vat of some kind for the blessing of Bes. Supposedly, the god would do this in person, within the sanctuary in the very center of the temple. After the blessing, the wine would be brought out of the inner sanctum, and shared among all the celebrants. After that, the wine would allow the worshipers of Bes to follow divine desire and release the bindings of mortality, until the next sunrise.
During this time, couples who wished for a blessing of fertility from the god would go into the sanctuary where Bes, or a representative of Bes, would bless the womb of the woman, making her fertile. Young men and women just entering their adulthood would be taken in and cleansed, before being allowed to partake of the blessed wine.
To me, it still sounded like a large festival, that would eventually descend into drunken sexual revelry. A party is a party after all, even if it is for the honor of a god.
When my curiosity had been satisfied, I left the library in search of Shayt. I figured that she had to be back by now, and I had questions I wanted to ask.
Mandisa found me first though.
“Come, it’s time for lunch. And then you will join me for the cleansing.”
“The cleansing. It’s just a bath, but it’s very important if you’re to join us tonight.”
I shook my head. “I won’t be joining in the ritual. I’ll be there, but Shayt and Mishra have told me I shouldn’t participate.”
She stopped tugging at my arm and looked at me. “But why not?”
“I don’t know. Shayt said it was just better if I didn’t, and Mishra said it was — overwhelming.”
Her dark head shook silently. “I don’t really understand, but if that is what the princess desires, you must obey.”
She tugged on my arm again. “But come join me for lunch and a bath anyway. We can talk more.”
I shrugged and nodded. I could find Shayt later.
The bath Mandisa was talking about was in a large communal bathing hall, where all the priestesses came for their ritual cleansings. The room was heated by two great furnaces under the floor. Along the walls were large ceramic baths lined with stone. In the center of the room was a large table laid out with several large buckets, and stacks of towels.
Mandisa chose a corner tub for us, and left me to watch while it filled. She returned with a handful of flower petals, two fluffy towels, and a small cup of white crystals, which she poured into the water. After mixing it with her hand, she added the petals, and smiled at me.
The water was warm, coming from a heated reservoir just outside the bath hall. I sank into it with pleasure.
“What are the petals for?”
“Perfume, to please Bes.”
“And the crystals?”
“Salt, to aid in the ritual this evening.”
We stretched out side by side, relaxing against the side of the tub. Unlike the one Shayt and I had used last night, this one was wider than it was long, though it was still too long for me to touch the other side with my feet.
Mandisa sat with her head against the edge, her eyes closed. I didn’t know if she was in meditation or not, so I didn’t speak.
“You can ask, you know.”
She raised her head and looked at me. “You can ask. About the celebration tonight.”
“Okay.” I fingered a floating flower petal. “Have you ever been in the inner sanctum?”
“You mean during a festival? No. Mishra presides there, along with the high priest, Achmed. You’ll get to meet him tonight.”
“So, you don’t know what happens inside the little room?”
“Sure I do. The first bottle is offered to Bes, and then he blesses the wine. After that, there are couples to be blessed, and cleansings and initiations to be held.”
“Sure. I went through it when I first became a priestess. It’s the only time I was ever allowed into the heart of the temple.”
“What happens during an initiation?”
She shrugged. “A new priest or priestess is greeted by the god, and must answer the questions of Bes. If you answer correctly, you are accepted, and will be given the mark of Bes.” Leaning forward, she pointed to a mark on her left shoulder blade. The face of a man with the mane of a lion had been tattooed in indigo.
“And that’s done in the inner sanctum during a festival?”
“No. Just the test, and the outline of the mark. The actual tattoo is done later. It takes a great deal more time.”
I shook my head. “Christianity may have its faults, but at least it doesn’t require you to mark up your body.”
“No. It removes the body from worship, saying that only the soul is worth saving. Right?”
“Well –” I had to think about that. In a way, she was right.
“And what does Bes say about the division between the body and the soul?”
“Bes teaches us that the body is as important as the spirit. Just as we create statues, vessels for the gods to live in, so did the gods create the human body, so that mortal souls could live. They made our bodies fallible so that we would learn lessons of humility. Without the trials of the flesh, we could never learn the pleasures of the spirit. But, not all of our earthly existence is a trial, and Bes tells us to celebrate ourselves, and our creation, along with the gods who created us.”
It was a very interesting philosophy.
“So, gods created mortals so that mortals could learn humility. We die when we’ve learned that lesson?”
“That, and whatever else we need to learn in this life. And then we cross back into the spirit world.”
“And go where? To the underworld, the land of Osiris?”
“Some, yes. Others will return to this earth, either to learn new lessons, or,” she shrugged, “relearn those that they forget.”
“Yes. Souls are not perfect, and some must relearn humility over and over again.”
I snorted. “If that’s true, I know several people who will come back to earth for the rest of eternity.”
The room became quiet suddenly, and as I looked up I saw women rising from their baths only to bow their heads. Mandisa rose as well, and I looked up at her in question.
“The princess is here,” she whispered.
Sure enough, there she was, covered in a white robe, her long black hair standing out against the pale colors in the room.
“Please, continue with your baths.”
Activity resumed, and voices rose again, though at a much softer level.
Shayt noticed me, and raised an eyebrow. Changing direction, she maneuvered around the towel table and came up to our tub.
“Absolutely. Mandisa has been explaining the teachings of Bes.”
She smiled at the young woman, who blushed.
“Looking to make a convert, Mandisa?”
“No, Princess. Just… talking.” For a moment she looked concerned. “I hope that was all right, I didn’t think –”
Shayt waved a hand. “It’s fine. Daryl is a very intelligent woman, and probably curious as hell. Besides, the worship of Bes is the only part of the ancient religion which survives intact to this day. It’s always a good idea to pass the knowledge and traditions along.”
Mandisa’s blush deepened, and she gave Shayt a shy smile. “Thank you, Princess.”
Rolling her eyes, the Princess answered, “Please, don’t call me that. It’s bad enough when it comes from your sister, I don’t need you doing it too.”
I couldn’t resist. “Just think, Shayt, if we hang around here much longer I might start calling you princess.”
“You do and I’ll make you walk back to Cairo.”
“So,” she continued, “what’s with the ritual bath? I thought it was agreed that you wouldn’t be taking part.”
“I’m not. Just keeping Mandisa company.”
She nodded. “Good. Well, I’m off for my own cleansing. Can I leave you with Mandisa until this evening?”
“Sure. Will you be watching the ceremony with me?”
“No. As a representative of Bes, I’ll have to be in the inner sanctum, to speak to the god. We’ll talk after dinner in our room, before the festivities begin. All right?”
Shayt squeezed my shoulder, and gave Mandisa a smile that made the young woman blush again. Then she left in search of her own bathtub.
She found it just down the wall directly in our line of sight. We both watched quietly when the robe slipped from her shoulders to pool at her ankles. As long legs stepped over the sides of the tub, I heard Mandisa give a slight gasp. When I looked at her, she was biting her lip. The blush was still strong on her delicate features.
“Beautiful, isn’t she?”
Mandisa nodded. “Sometimes I wish I was as lucky as my sister.”
“In what way?”
“That I would get to sleep with the Princess this evening.”
I nearly choked on my tongue. “What?”
She smiled. “Well, you know what happens after drinking the blessed wine. The princess has in the past attended festivals, and she always stays with us for the first hour or so, but after that, as the energy intensifies, she usually slips away with Mishra. The two of them aren’t seen until morning, when they come out of the inner sanctum togehter.” Mandisa sighed. “One day I’d like to be High Priestess. Then perhaps Ashayt Hathor Idut Kemshet, daughter of Pharaoh, will be my lover.”
For some reason, I was wishing very hard that would never happen.
And as I watched Shayt raise her arms and begin washing, I was also wishing that the bath was a much cooler temperature.
During dinner, which was simply bread and fruit, Mishra informed me there would be a set of clothes waiting for me in Shayt’s suite. I excused myself to go and change. Mandisa squeezed my hand and told me she’d look for me before the ceremony started.
Then she leaned forward and whispered, “If you change your mind and decide to participate, let me know. I’d like to be your guide.”
I smiled and thanked her.
When I got to the room there was a simple white gown laid out on the divan. I picked it up, marveling at the feel of the silk in my hands. A noise behind me made me turn, and I nearly gasped.
The woman standing in the bedroom doorway was not the one I knew as Shayt. This was the Princess of the Two Lands, Pharaoh’s Daughter, and I barely stopped myself from bowing in awe.
Her hair was pulled and gathered in a silver clasp at the back of her neck. Her skin gleamed darkly against the sleeveless white gown which clung to her. Just above the neckline, which scooped down to reveal the tops of two perfect breasts, lay a medallion dangling from a gold chain that circled her throat. When the candle light struck her at just the right angle, the diaphanous cloth seemed to disappear and her body, as it was outlined through the material, spoke of carnal delights the likes of which mortals had never known.
I stood silent for several moments as she completed the ensemble with silver guantlets. Then she looked up at me and smiled.
“Do you like what you see?”
I swallowed and nodded.
“Good. Then I suppose I am presentable enough for tonight.” She stepped into a pair of sandals that waited at the bedroom door.
“Is your gown all right? Does it fit well?”
I could say nothing, as the blood from my head was still circulating in other distinctive places.
Her eyes narrowed. “Daryl?”
When she spoke my name a second time, I shook myself, and turned away.
“It’s — um — very nice. I like silk.”
Out of the corner of my eye I could see her take a step towards me, and I tensed. If she touched me, I wouldn’t be responsible for my actions.
But she stopped, and sighed, then turned away. “You can use the bedroom to change, if you like. I had Mishra also bring up some sandals for you.”
“Thank you –” I almost said Princess, but not quite.
She raised an eyebrow, though, and I think she heard my unspoken word. “Better hurry, Daryl. The ceremony begins in just a half hour.”
Picking up the dress, I entered the bedroom.
It took me several moments to figure out how to put on my new clothing. The robe I had been given wrapped around my body, and was fastened with two ties, one on the inside, and one on the outside. I got the inside fastened, and was reaching for the second, when I heard the door open.
“Daryl? Are you almost ready?”
“Just about.” I pulled on the ends of the knot and turned to face her. “How do I look?”
One eyebrow disappeared into her hairline, and the corners of her mouth twisted upwards. “Beautiful.”
I blushed again. “Yeah, right.” Mumbling about flattering princesses, I gave my gown one last twitch and walked over to slip into the sandals.
Shayt sat down on the bed. “Listen, Daryl. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about what’s going to happen tonight.”
“Why? I read all about it in the library this morning.”
The dark head shook. “It’s not the same. That can tell you the ritual. It can’t give you the experience.”
“Which is why I’m going, isn’t it?”
She frowned. “Well, yes, I suppose. But there are some things you need to know.”
“Like the fact that you’ll disappear off with Mishra? Mandisa told me. She said the two of you would sleep with each other in the inner sanctum.”
Blue eyes opened wide for a moment, then grew shuttered. “Yes, I’ve spent many festival evenings with Mishra, waiting for the blood rush from the wine to ease. Sometimes it’s easier to do that with one person than a hundred. But, outside of the festival, Mishra has never been my lover.”
I shrugged. “Okay. So, what else did you explain about tonight?”
“You mustn’t drink the wine. Take a pitcher of fruit juice, or water, but you must not drink the wine after it is blessed.”
I frowned. “Well, the sharing of the wine is part of the ritual, and I’m not going to be part of the ritual, so I suppose that’s appropriate. But I don’t really understand the concern.”
“Look,” she said as she leaned forward. “The dates in this area have a narcotic effect all on their own. Fermented in the wine, it’s even more potent. But, combine that with the drug that is the blessing from Bes, and you have more than an aphrodisiac.”
It was my turn to raise an eyebrow. “Uhuh. So, that’s why they mix the wine in a vat, instead of just saying a blessing over the bottles.”
She smiled. “Right.”
I considered for a moment. “What does it feel like? What does it do?”
Shayt dropped her eyes and stared at the floor near my feet. “It is . . . like floating. Like drumming. Like . . . being a part of everything, and wanting to be a part of everyone. And when the heat fills your veins, you don’t think about who is in your arms. You just know they’re there.”
I couldn’t name the emotion as it fluttered across her face. It lit her eyes up, though, and turned them a deeper blue. As Shayt continued to stare at the floor, her breathing seemed to increase. I wanted to know what she was seeing in her mind.
But the moment ended, and she stood quickly from the bed.
“Well. Now you know why you shouldn’t drink the wine. Are you ready?”
I followed her from the bedroom, out of the suite, and down the stairs.
People had begun gathering for the rites in the great hall. I estimated that the number of participants, all garbed in white robes, had to be well over fifty, with more than two-thirds of them female. I hadn’t known there were so many people in the temple, and I told this to Shayt.
“Oh, not all of them live here. Many live and work in Alexandria, and only share in the worship. A couple have just arrived, having taken today’s train from Cairo.”
“So, they’re not all priests and priestesses.”
“No. The only ones allowed to participate in the actual rites are the devotees of Bes. The wine, though, will be shared among everyone who wishes to join the celebration.”
As we walked through the crowd, I noticed that every eye was pinned to my companion. The sea of faces parted easily as we walked towards the small room in the center of the great temple.
The heart of the temple, as the inner sanctum was sometimes referred to, was a round room, the walls of which were painted, at least on the outside, with colorful murals showing the process of wine production. Portraits of Bes, with his lion’s mane, were stationed in four places in the upper part of the wall.
Shayt and I met Mishra and Mandisa near the entrance to the inner sanctum. Like everyone else, they were dressed in white robes, though Mandisa wore a simple cotton gown, while Mishra’s shimmered in the lights of the torches.
“I have an assignment for you, Mandi,” said Shayt. The young woman blushed again, turning even redder at the shortening of her name. “I’d like you to look after Daryl until the wine is passed out. Make sure she has a comfortable spot where she can watch, but won’t be disturbed. Get her a pitcher of fruit juice, hm?”
The princess turned to me with serious eyes. “There may come a point when you want to leave. Feel free to do so. Just remember, don’t drink the wine.”
Mandisa took my arm, looking at Shayt with a solemn expression. “I’ll take care of her, Princess.”
Shayt smiled at her, and then turned to Mishra. The two of them began to converse in low tones, and Mandisa led me away from them.
“They’ll have things to talk about; how many people are getting married, and whether or not there are cleansings, or initiations.”
“Are there any?”
“Yes, there are. There always are, and since the princess is here, she will preside over them.”
I followed her to the back wall of the hall, where there was a raised dais with stone benches. It was directly across from the door to the sanctuary.
“You should be fine here. You’ll be able to see everything, especially when the rites inside are finished, and the princess emerges.” She leaned closer to me. “I’m going to try and stay near the door. Maybe then I’ll have a chance to catch her eye.” She winked at me, and then moved off quickly, ducking through the crowd with light steps.
She was soon back, bearing a cold pitcher of juice and a mug. “Here you are. It will get hot in here, with the lit torches and dancing bodies.”
“Not to mention the other activities.” We grinned at each other.
Suddenly the sound of a gong boomed through the room.
“That’s the signal for the devotees to take their places. I have to join the circle.”
Mandisa turned to go as the booming continued. Then she turned back and said, “Wish me luck.”
I smiled and nodded, but couldn’t help thinking that I really didn’t want her to catch Shayt’s eye.
Around the small room in the center of the hall, the priests and priestesses gathered in a circle. The booming stopped, and for a moment there was almost absolute silence. I saw Shayt and Mishra standing next to the door that led into the sanctuary. The door began to open outwards, and the princess turned and entered, followed by the priestess and several others.
Then, soft and low, I could hear the sound of a stringed instrument being played. Craning my neck a little, I could see that there was a group of musicians on the other side of the room, tucked away into a corner. The string instrument I heard was a buzuq, which is long necked lute. As I watched, a young man lifted a reed flute called a nay and began to play a haunting melody, winding it around the tune being strummed on the buzuq. Other instruments joined in, including a mizmar, with is a type of oboe, and a mijwiz, the double clarinet.
Incense was lit, and the smoke from it mixed with the torches, creating a soft haze throughout the room. The scent was unlike any I’d ever known, spicy, yet sweet. As I breathed it in, I could taste it in my throat and on my tongue. I washed it away with the fruit juice, only to have it once more fill my senses.
The devotees gathered in the circle began to dance to the music, moving slowly in synchronic patterns. One priest began a chanted hymn in praise of Bes, and the others picked it up, repeating his lines as they moved. The effect of the music and the dance was at once stimulating and hypnotic.
The dancing must have continued for close to an hour, with the only movement coming from the dancers. The same plaintive notes came time and time again, till finally the flute fell silent, and the strumming stopped. The dancers froze in position, backs arched and arms outstretched in supplication to their god. Then the door to the sanctuary opened, and the devotees relaxed, bowing their heads.
Two young men exited the sanctuary, carrying a very large ceramic vessel between them, taking slow steps as they crossed the floor. Slowly they made their way to a small carved stone table. Lifting the vat, they gently placed it on the table, slipping it into well worn grooves. Then they backed away from the table, making room for Mishra and Shayt to approach.
Mishra raised her hand and the room once again fell into an eerie silence.
“The god has spoken. He has accepted our offering, and blessed us, granting us protection and assistance in the year to come.” A small cheer was raised, which Mishra quickly hushed. “We are lucky tonight to not only receive the gifts of Bes, but to have the company of our beloved princess, Ashayt Hathor Idut Kemshet, daughter of Pharaoh.” She raised a hand, and I saw Shayt bow to her in acknowledgment. “It was she who stood in the place of the god, and performed the blessing of the new wine, acting as the hand of Bes come to earth.” This time it was Mishra who bowed before Shayt.
“Here me, then, oh children of Bes. This night is declared a celebration. Drink, dance, revel in the gifts our god has given us. Do all this in honor of Bes.”
A tray was brought forth, with two wine goblets perched gently on it. Mishra took them both, and passed one to Shayt who stepped up beside her. Together they raised their glasses, and drank.
There was a cheer at that, and the circle of devotees broke as the other celebrants joined in. Two priestesses climbed onto the table and began filling mugs with the wine from the vat. Some of these were placed on trays and carried into the crowd, but most of the cups were handed directly to waiting hands.
Music began to fill the room again. Along with the reeds and the strings, several heavy drums began to beat. More incense was added to that already smouldering. Dancing began, but it wasn’t like the earlier synchronized movements. Instead, this was a dance that reeked of sensuality. The dancers moved in time with the music and with each other. They were never still, and their bodies swung in sinuous patterns, hypnotic in many ways. Watching them sway, I could feel something stirring inside me. I wanted to join them, and I found myself swaying even as I sat.
Someone approached me and offered me a glass of the wine blessed by the god. I was about to decline when I saw Mandisa approach Shayt. Without thinking, I took the glass, setting it on the stone bench next to me.
I hadn’t really thought about whether or not the wine would have the power to affect Shayt, until I’d asked her what it felt like. Her words and strange expression told me that the combination of drugs and alcohol would indeed make her feel something. That was obvious now in the way she moved. There was a feverish look on her cheeks that I could see even from my seat. Those crystal orbs and the smile she offered to people around her were to me the most sensuous thing in the room.
Shayt allowed Mandisa and another young priestess to draw her forward into the dancing, and I watched, absently playing with the glass I’d taken from the offered tray. The music picked up for a moment, then slowed again. Shayt’s hips moved as if they controlled the tempo, swaying back and forth as her arms rose above her head. One woman moved behind her, and the other stood in front. Together they made one moving, writhing creature, exuding an aura that was both alluring, and dangerous.
Jealousy surged through me, and my muscles tightened. Shayt leaved over and kissed Mandisa full on the mouth. I raised the glass and drank.
Within moments I could feel the power of the blessed wine as it sank into my veins. The music wasn’t just sound anymore. It was like a snake, winding around me, drawing me up and into the dance. The incense that filled the air also filled my lungs, and I could feel it carressing me, both inside and out. The combination of the drugged wine, the powerful scent and the rythm of the drums was enough to overwhelm my senses.
I was moving, without knowing it. Someone took my hand and led me further into the dancers, and I went willingly. Another person came up behind me, and by the feel of the body, I knew it was a man. He drew me back against him, and I went. His hips moved with mine, and his hand snuck around to my stomach as he pressed me against him. I didn’t care.
Then someone stepped in front of me, and Shayt was blocked from my view. I frowned, and tried to step forward. The hand against my stomach held me back. Someone leaned forward to kiss me, and I cried out angrily. I wanted to see Shayt. The grasping hands were too restraining, and I started pushing against them angrily.
I must have been yelling, but I don’t remember it. I only remember Mishra’s voice, telling those around me to let go. I stumbled forward, only to be caught once again by an arm around my waist. I was pulled backwards and held tight, but this time I didn’t fight. I could hear Shayt whispering in my ear.
“Daryl, stop! Easy, love, easy.” I felt her mouth kiss my throat. “Let me guide you, Daryl. Just relax, and let me take you….”
She pulled the two of us away from the dancers, closer to the musicians. The music grew louder, and I leaned into her, letting her support my weight with her body. Tilting my head back as far as I could, I saw those beautiful eyes as they gazed at me. There was a hunger in them, and I felt my own appetite grow in response.
Shayt leaned down and kissed me. At first it was gentle, but then her lips became hard, demanding. She twisted me within her grasp, turning me until I faced her, never releasing my lips. My arms slid around her neck, and my hips pressed into hers. I felt her bend slightly, and then her arm was under my knees and I was being carried, through the crowd of dancers and into the small room used for the rites of Bes, the god of pleasure. It was the same place she’d disappeared to earlier.
I didn’t think it was possible, but the music was even louder inside the room. Shayt set me down on a padded dais, and used her hands to pull open my robe. Her hands burned as they carressed my back, reminding me of the desert sands in the way they were never still, and always hot. Her mouth was moist, and filled with heat, and the taste of the wine.
She was more intoxicating than any drug could be, and I held on tightly, drinking from her mouth even as my hands wandered inside the gown, finding skin as smooth as silk.
Almost by accident I found the clasp holding the material to her body, and with a twist it was gone. Pulling away from me she pushed the gown from her body, and then reached for the tie at my side. A strong tug, and moments later my robe had disappeared as well, letting me feel the heat of her body as she pulled me tightly against her.
Instead of my lips, she kissed my jaw, then my neck, and the sensitive area behind my ear. I twisted in her grasp, trying to get my lips back on her skin. I cried out in frustration, needing to taste her again. Even so, the denial excited me further, and I concentrated instead on covering her body with my hands.
I had thought her invulnerable, and expected skin like stone. Instead, it was firm, but yielding. I dragged my nails across her, wondering if she felt it. A flinch told me she did, and a soft groan of pleasure reached my ears. Shayt was soft in most places, but rough in others, and I explored the angles and planes that had been part of my dreams the night before. I think my last clear thought was that the reality surrounding me was beyond all imagining.
She kept her hands busy, always moving, teasing, pinching, stroking. The scent of the incense clung to her body and her skin. Her mouth was hot, and drew me deeper into the web of arousal, till I was crying and begging her for something I couldn’t name.
The first touch of her mouth on my breasts made me sigh with desire. As she raked her tongue repeatedly across my nipples, her hand found another, more intimate place, and her caresses made my hips surge forward against her, as I gripped her shoulders and back with all my strength.
Her touches grew more insistent, and her mouth became wild upon me. Breathing raggedly, she moved away from my breasts and once again took my lips with hers. She wrapped one arm around my waist and pulled me even closer, forcing my thighs to open wider.
When she entered me I cried out. There was a flash of pain that ran through my blood like a flame. I jerked away from her mouth, gasping for air. She whispered in my ear, holding me close, her fingers within me, gently moving, soothing, burning.
“Easy, Daryl, be easy. It’s me inside you, loving you. Feel the flames, and just let go….”
I gripped her shoulders with one arm and stroked her cheek with the other hand. Needing to see her, I opened my eyes, finding crystal blue staring back at me. Her gaze was enough to spread the fire within me again, and the next time she moved her hand, I moved with her, feeling the sensation within my body.
Soon, she was thrusting forward, pushing deeper into me with every movement, and I was begging her again, moving closer and closer to something I couldn’t begin to understand. There was a pressure building, one which only she could stop, and I hung on to her for fear of falling into the maelstrom of sensation and never finding my way out.
When she bit into my throat, I convulsed, every muscle in my body tightening in spasms as I screamed. I was no longer falling, instead the maelstrom had grown, and swallowed me whole. It lasted, in my mind, for hours, days, months, and when it was over, I was shaking and crying. Shayt’s hands held me up, and she whispered softly in my ear, sometimes using words, then humming softly.
I relaxed into her arms, my head falling forward onto her shoulder. There was no tension in any of my muscles, and I couldn’t have moved if I wanted to. I knew only that Shayt was there with me, and I needed nothing else in my world.
With her voice in my ear, and her eyes burning in my mind, I felt my eyes slip closed, and I sank into a delicious oblivion.
The rest of that night is mostly a blur in my memory. I remember waking, still held tightly in Shayt’s arms, her mouth on my throat. The pounding rhythm was still driving me along, and I threaded my hands in her hair as I pulled her lips to mine. After that, there was skin, and sweat, and the taste of sweet flesh, as we joined each other in the flames time and time again. I remember rising higher and higher, and each time I thought I had to come down, Shayt would start a new pattern of seduction, and desire would lift me again, until there was nothing left but sensation.
Sleep finally came, finding us locked together, me on top of her, with her hands clasped tightly against my back.
And as we slept, I dreamed.
At first, I didn’t think it was a dream. Even though there was a haziness about everything, it appeared that we were still in the heart of the temple. Around the stone walls were the lit torches, still burning brightly. The pounding of the drums was still there, even though it seemed muffled right then. I had almost convinced myself it wasn’t a dream at all when there was a shuffling sound on the other side of the chamber. I turned my head and saw the statue of Bes come to life, it’s red stone turing to golden skin right in front of me.
That’s when I knew it was a dream.
Shayt rose without a word, and walked across the chamber. It was a strange tableau, this beautiful, naked woman, kneeling before the short statue of a man with the mane of a lion. Now that she was on her knees, she was face to face with him.
There seemed to be a quiet conversation between them, as the statue put its hands on Shayt’s shoulders and leaned toward her. Several times Shayt shook her head, and once she looked like she was arguing. Then her eyes lowered, and the god put a hand on her head. I couldn’t catch all the words, but Shayt seemed to relax, and she smiled slightly.
Then she was reaching out to grasp something that glittered like gold in the torchlight. She held it up, and her shoulders slumped a little. The look on her face was one of exhaustion and relief.
Still convinced I was dreaming, I sat up and called Shayt’s name. She turned to me, and so did the god. His thick lips curled up in a smile, and his eyes locked on mine.
Leaving Shayt behind him on her knees, Bes began to approach me. I didn’t move. Dream or not, there’s no reason to be impolite to a god.
“This one,” he said, “shall be more than she knows.” His voice was low and raspy, and it felt as though the very tone echoed inside my head and chest. “She shall accompany you on your journey, and ease your spirit.” Behind him, I saw Shayt stiffen, and one eye brow rose. She looked surprised.
Bes stopped in front of me and held out a hand. “You, Daryl, shall be god-friend.” His hand touched my neck, just behind and below my ear, and a burning pain went through me.
As I sank into darkness, I thought it very strange that I should be able to feel pain in a dream.
I started to wake the next morning, feeling myself in an uncomfortable position. My neck was tilted at an almost painful angle, with my chin almost touching my chest. I started to stretch a little, and frowned because the pillow under my head was very hard. So I punched it —
and realized it was Shayt’s thigh.
I sat up quickly, then groaned as a wave of dizziness passed over me. I waited until it was gone, and then looked cautiously up at Shayt, who was watching me with a speculative gaze.
I gave her a half hearted grin. “Morning.”
She shook her head and handed me my robe to put on. “I thought we agreed, Daryl,” Shayt said, “that you were not going to drink the wine, much less participate in the celebration.” Her head tilted. “Or did I just imagine that?”
“No, no, you’re right. We agreed.”
One dark eyebrow rose. “So what happened?”
My mouth opened automatically to answer her, but I couldn’t find the words to say. After all, I wasn’t quite sure myself.
“Well, you see, it really….. um, I didn’t…. I mean, I kind of….” I blew out a breath and started looking around the chamber. “So this is what the heart of the temple looks like. I’d been wondering.”
“Daryl.” Her voice was very controlled and I swallowed hard before meeting her gaze. “Tell me why.”
“Um….” Damn! How the hell do I tell her I was jealous?
A concerned look came into her eyes. “Daryl, please tell me that no one forced –”
“No! No, no one forced anything, I just,” I took a deep breath and let it out in a rush as I said, “I just got really jealous when you kissed Mandisa, and that was when I drank the wine.” I couldn’t look at her.
There was silence in the room. I don’t know if you’ve ever known true silence. It’s not like normal silence when there’s the sound of something in the distance, or the wind, or even the soft settling of the building around you. This silence, with neither of us moving, or hardly daring to breathe, contained not even the slightest note of life.
Shayt broke it after several long moments.
“Are you telling me you drank drugged wine and lost your virginity because you were jealous?”
“Why? Did you want Mandisa for yourself?”
I shook my head. “No. I wanted you.”
Both eyebrows shot up, and once again silence descended. I waited, finally finding the courage to look her in the eyes. There was a stillness in their blue depths, and a sadness beyond anything I’d ever known. Just the look in her eyes made me want to cry.
For the first time it was Shayt who dropped her gaze first. She stared at the floor by her leg, where moments earlier I had been sleeping.
“There are better ways to lose your innocence, Daryl.”
“Maybe. But I thought this was a pretty good one.” I had to smile at her. “It was with you, after all.”
I don’t think she had an answer for that.
A thought crossed my mind, and I got nervous. “Shayt? Did you want to be with Mandisa last night?”
She actually smiled, and I felt a thousand times better. “No. I wanted you, too.”
I let out a relieved breath.
“But it shouldn’t have happened.”
“Because. It just shouldn’t have.”
I was starting to get a little angry. “Why not? Because you’re a princess and I’m just a thief?”
“Because I’m mortal, and I’m going to die? And you won’t?”
“No.” She sighed and leaned her head back against the wall. “Because I’m four thousand years old, and I’m the one that’s going to die.”
I froze and stared at her. “What?” I whispered. “You can’t die.”
There was no humor in the laugh that came from her. “You’re right. I can’t just up and die. And there is no poison or accident or mortal weapon that can injure me.” I watched as weariness seem to come over her entire body. “But in the twin temple lies Sakhmet’s dagger. It was forged by Sakhmet, and blessed by Bastet. And it is the only thing — the only thing — that can harm me.”
I realized what she was saying, and I swallowed. “You want to find the temple so you can kill yourself.”
She nodded, her head still resting against the wall. In almost a whisper she said, “Four thousand years is a long time, Daryl. Too long. I’ve wanted to end it for quite a while, but there’s always been enough of a reason not to.” Her shoulders lifted in a shrug. “Now, I can’t find a reason to stay here. And I’m so very tired…” her voice trailed off and she sighed.
My first instinct was to tell her no. To yell at her, shake her, make her understand. To stop her.
But after a moment my rational mind took over and I thought about all she’d been through. How many times had she watched friends and lovers grow old and die? How many betrayals had she experienced? How many generations had come and gone while she just continued on, watching and waiting?
My parents had been kind and loving, and I cherished their memories. The remembrance of those times had been enough to carry me through the past few years on the streets. Instead of giving in to the temptations of drugs or suicide, I hung on, clinging to life with a hope that it would get better.
If I had to be honest, though, I’d have to admit that it was already beginning to wear on me. There had been nights, just before I met Shayt, that I almost hoped I wouldn’t wake in the morning.
And if four years were too much for me, what did Shayt feel after four millenia?
I swallowed, and wiped my eyes. I hated it, but I had to accept what she was going to do. Taking a deep breath, I raised my eyes to hers.
Shayt was, I realized, waiting for my reaction. Every muscle in her body appeared tense. Her face was mask like, not showing so much as a hint of emotion. Her whole attitude was one of someone awaiting the executioner’s axe.
How ironic that it was exactly what she wanted.
“Have you told Mishra?”
“No. She would try to talk me out of it. And I don’t want her to.”
“So, you’ll just disappear, and never return?”
She shook her head. “No. I told her I was searching for the temple. She thinks it’s for another reason though.” A sad smile crossed her face. “She insisted that she wanted to be there. Her and Achmed, and maybe a few others.”
“They’ll be traveling with us?”
“Yes. I made the arrangements yesterday morning. We’ll take the train to Cairo, then there will be some trucks to take us to the spot where Sobeknefru is buried. We’ll be met by a friend at the nearby oasis, and from there we go on camels to the site of the temple.”
“Camels? Why not trucks?”
“Because trucks in that area would be cause for investigation. Camels will not. We’ll be mistaken for the tribes that make the desert their home.”
I nodded. “Good plan.”
We were both quiet again. “This is why you said last night shouldn’t have happened, isn’t it?”
I moved closer to her. “Why are you telling me all this? Why not just keep to your plan and not tell me?”
“I didn’t want you thinking that we could become lovers. I have every intention of being dead by the end of the week, if not sooner. It would be wrong to let you think there could be anything between us.”
I had to think about what she was saying, and what she was implying.
“You admitted earlier that you wanted me.”
Blue eyes tracked to mine and held. “Yes.”
“And the reason you don’t think we should be lovers is because you’re going to die in a few days. Is that right?”
I nodded. “But if you were going to live, you’d accept me as your lover?”
She raised an eyebrow. “You’re not going to talk me out of this, Daryl.”
“I’m not trying to, Shayt. Just making a point.” I leaned forward a little, keeping my eyes locked with hers. “Answer me. If you weren’t going to kill yourself, would you be my lover?”
The staring contest went on for a few moments before Shayt finally sighed and nodded. “Yes.”
I started to get a little excited. “Do you think you’d be happy if that happened?”
She raised an eyebrow. “It’s not going to.”
“No, it’s not. But if it did, do you think that I could make you happy?”
Very slowly, Shayt nodded.
It was nice and cool in the chamber, but I could feel my palms start to sweat. “Well, I can tell you that I would be very happy being your lover. Even if,” I reached out and touched her arm, “it was only for a very short time.”
I waited, and after a moment understanding showed in her eyes.
“When you told me what you wanted, my first instinct was to say no and try to stop you. But I realized I have no idea what kind of trials you’ve gone through. You’ve been alive since before the time of Christ. And I have no right to judge you.” I took a breath, but jumped back in before she could speak. “I promise I will not try to talk you out of anything, nor will I tell Mishra of your plans. But only on one condition.”
“Let me be happy for the next few days.” I reached up and touched her cheek, letting my fingers slide across the smooth skin I found there. “Let me be with you as long as I can be.”
For a moment I thought she might refuse. She stayed absolutely still and the silence closed in once more.
When she answered, it was in the form of a kiss, and she pushed me backwards, covering my body with hers.
It was a little after the noon hour when we emerged from the heart of the temple.
We were still dressed in the robes from the previous night, and I was feeling very self conscious. Every face I saw seemed to have a knowing smile on it. It didn’t help that at some point during our morning exertions my robe had gotten torn.
When we met Mishra on the stairs, I groaned, and tried to hide my face in the back of Shayt’s gown. The priestess just laughed, then leaned forward and kissed my forehead.
“I had a feeling it might be you that ended up in her arms last night.” She looked at Shayt with a gentle smile. “You can not fight the will of the god, princess. Four thousand years, and you still don’t know that?”
“It’s my nature to argue with him, and he knows it. Sometimes I think he enjoys playing a power game with me.”
Mishra laughed. “Maybe he does, my friend, maybe he does.”
We shared a late brunch in Shayt’s suite. We were quiet, but it wasn’t an uncomfortable silence. I saw my friend smile more in that half hour than she had since I met her.
“We’re leaving tomorrow morning?”
“Yes, we’ll be on the early train; probably get to Cairo about three or four.”
“You’re not concerned about Caster finding us?”
“No, we won’t be staying long enough for that. We’ll stay over the one night, and start off for Memphis the next morning.”
I nodded. “How long do you think it will take us to get to the tomb?”
“I figure about 6 hours. It’s rough terrain, with no roads that I know of.”
“And the next morning we go by camels?”
And that would be the day she died. It meant I had just two and a half days — less than 72 hours.
She stood to move away from the table, and I took her hand. With a smile I led her into the bedroom.
“What are you doing?”
I turned to her and put my hands on my hips. “I’ve got less than three days with you, and I want to know what it’s like to be with you without the wine and the drug.”
She smiled and closed the door behind her.
We made love slowly, gently. For the first time I got to touch her without the urgency that had ruled us the night before. Shayt’s beautiful body was soft and her response to my caresses was one of passion. I craved the taste of her skin, and she needed the touch of my body on hers.
When she touched me I felt it deep inside; not just in my body, but in my spirit. Her kisses drove my senses from me, until all that was left was pleasure.
Afterwards, we rested comfortably, with her leaning against the headboard, and me using her body as a backrest. I dozed for a little while. I don’t think Shayt did. Every once in a while she’d hum a tune I didn’t know, her voice a low burring in my ear. A few times her arms tightened around me, almost convulsively, and I wondered what she was thinking. I was still hazy with sleep and pleasure, however, and I didn’t ask.
Finally, she yawned, and stretched underneath me. She gently moved me aside, then pulled herself up off the bed.
“We need to get up, Daryl. There are still things to get done before we leave in the morning. I need to make sure the supplies are ready, and you need to pack.”
I nodded, and sat up on the edge of the bed. I watched as she pulled on her clothing, thinking how very at home she appeared here.
That got me thinking about home in general, and where I would go after Shayt died.
I wrapped my arms around myself in misery. With Shayt dying, I would have no where to go. I would have money; Shayt had promised that. A home, however, was something I was still sorely lacking.
“Daryl? Are you alright?” Shayt’s eyes peered into mine in concern.
I nodded, and reached for my clothes.
“Are you sure?”
She noddedand turned towards the door. “Shall I send someone to bring you dinner?”
“No, I’ll go down. I have to face Mandisa sometime before we leave.” I winced as I thought of the young woman I had begun to consider a friend. After last night, that might not be true anymore.
Shayt smiled gently, and winked at me.
She closed the door behind her once again. This time it was inbetween us, though, and I had to wipe away my tears as they fell across my cheeks.
As I walked through the temple towards the dining area, I could feel the eyes on my back. They’d been watching me since Shayt and I had arrived, but never with the intensity that I felt right then. Now, instead of the Princess’s friend, I was her lover, and therefore an even hotter topic of speculation.
I could swear that the conversation level dropped several notches when I entered the hall. It picked back up quickly, but my face was still red with embarrassment as I looked for Mandisa. At first I couldn’t see her, and I thought about getting a tray and taking it back to the suite, where there were no prying eyes.
Then I saw her at a corner table, talking with some friends. I took a few steps towards her, but stopped. I had no idea what I could say to her.
Someone at her table pointed in my direction, and I saw Mandisa turn. I could feel heat rise to my face, and I looked quickly away. When I ventured another glance at her, she smiled and waved me over.
I was hesitant in my approach, still not sure what her reaction would be. One by one, her friends left the table, and by the time I stood in front of her, we were alone.
“Hi.” I scuffled my feet, not sure whether or not to sit down.
“Are you hungry?” she asked.
She cocked her head. “Then why are you still standing? They don’t know to serve you unless you sit, you know.”
I sat down across from her. “Mandisa, I’m sorry.”
“I — well, I just….”
She waited as I stuttered for a few more minutes. Then she reached out and touched my hands.
“Daryl. Calm down. What’s wrong?”
Taking a deep breath, I asked her, “Are you upset with me?”
Mandisa frowned. “No. Why should I be?”
“Because if it wasn’t for me, you might have gotten your wish.”
She smiled. “You mean to be with the princess?”
I looked up at the sound of her laughter. Her attitude confused me. I’d expected her to be angry, upset, jealous. Laughter didn’t seem to fit with any of those moods.
She looked up at my puzzled face and tried to stop her giggles. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t laugh.” Mandisa wiped her eyes and leaned forward, her arms resting on the table between us.
“I’m not upset with you, Daryl.” She frowned. “Okay, I was at first, when I woke up the next morning and realized what happened. But it didn’t last long.”
“Well, for two reasons. Number one, Mishra told me that she had foreseen it.”
Mandisa nodded. “And number two, whatever is between you and the princess was strong enough to break through the power of the new wine.”
That made me frown. “What do you mean?”
Her brow furrowed as she tried to explain. “Well, when a person is under the effect of the wine, the call for touch is very great, and after a few minutes, it’s so loud that it’s all you know. It doesn’t matter who is doing the touching, just that you’re being touched.”
I nodded. Shayt had told me something similar before the ritual.
“But, that’s not what happened between you and Shayt. You began calling out for Shayt, and she responded. You actually fought against the touch of someone else, which has never happened during a ritual celebration. And Shayt shouldn’t have cared — but she did.”
“Very.” She looked at me very seriously. “I admit that I lust after the princess, but Mishra says there is a connection between you that will last your whole life. I envy you that. But I’d never ask you to give it up.”
I swallowed. My whole life?
A plate of food was set before me, along with a cup of honey mead. I smiled up at the man and thanked him.
“So,” Mandisa asked when he left, “what was it like?”
I took a bite of my dinner in order to think about her question. Then I looked up at her. “It was…. exquisite.”
She smiled. “Details, Daryl. I want details.”
Mandisa walked up the stairs with me.
“So, you’re leaving first thing in the morning?”
“Yes. Before breakfast, I think.”
“That’s what Mishra said as well.”
We stopped on the second floor landing.
“I’ll miss you, Daryl. I enjoyed getting to know you.”
“Same here.” I smiled shyly at her. “It’s been a long time since I had a friend my own age.”
She smiled back at me and hugged me tightly.
As she pulled away, she gasped slightly, and turned my head, peering at an area behind my ear.
“Daryl, when did this happen?”
“What?” I felt her fingers brush over my skin and I flinched. “Ow. What is that?”
“It’s a mark, like a burn.” She gently pulled my chin back around to look at my face. “When did you receive the mark?”
“What mark?” I ran my own fingers over the area, disturbed at the feel of a raised welt.
“There’s a small circle, with the head of a lion in it.” I stared at her. “It’s the same mark that Shayt and Mishra carry — the mark of a god-friend.”
God-friend? “From my dream…” I whispered.
I shook my head. “Nothing. I better get back. Shayt will be waiting for me.”
For a moment, Mandisa looked like she wanted to argue with me, but then she closed her mouth and nodded. After another hug, she wished me well, and told me to goodbye. I watched her climb the steps to the third floor before I went down the hall to the suite.
Shayt was in the living room, staring moodily out the window towards the city.
“Did you talk to Mandisa?”
“Yes.” I stared at the floor, my fingers once again tracing the mark on my neck. “Shayt?”
I dropped onto the couch, biting my lip. “I had a dream this morning.”
She turned away from the window and looked at me. “What kind of dream?”
“Well — it was strange. You were there. You were talking with a statue — only the statue was alive.”
After a moment, she sighed and came to sit beside me on the couch. “What do you remember of your meeting with Bes?”
I stared at her. “What?”
Shayt smiled gently at me. “It wasn’t a dream, Daryl. You met the god.”
My mouth opened, but nothing came out. Finally, after several tries, I got my voice to work.
“B-but . . . the gods . . . didn’t –”
“Exist? Sure they did.” Shayt shrugged. “I thought you would have gotten that, since I’m still here.”
I hadn’t thought about that. She was right, though. If I accepted that she was really the immortal daughter of Pharaoh, then I had to accept that the gods of Egypt had been real.
“Does — I mean, do they — um,” I stuttered, trying to figure out what I wanted to ask.
“Yes, Daryl, they’re still here.” Her gaze turned towards the window again. “Gods can’t die, but they can be forgotten. And when they are, they either change, or they lose the part of their energy that comes from their followers. When that happens, they no longer have a reason to exist — only they can’t just stop existing. So, they sleep.” Shayt’s face was sad, and her eyes had dulled. “I don’t know where most of them are. Bes has hinted that some left Earth and went to the stars, but he never said who, or where they went. Most of the ancient gods found tombs in the earth, where they sleep even today. Among them are Sakhmet and Bastet, who are entombed together under the ocean.”
There was a strange expression on Shayt’s face, one I had never seen. After several moments, as her last words replayed themselves in my mind, I finally realized it was betrayal. Shayt, devoted servant of the two goddesses, had been condemned to this eternal life while the very goddesses she served chose to leave her behind.
No wonder she wanted to quit. Her goddesses already had.
“Bes is one of the very few that are still awake and active. He has adapted over the years, and stayed in very close touch with his followers. It has given him a reason to fight the lethargy that overcame the other ancients.”
I nodded. “So, he’s real, he’s still awake — and you spoke to him this morning?”
She smiled and turned towards me. “Yes. And he spoke to you.”
“He called me something.”
Her smile widened. “God-friend.” She reached out and ran her finger over the mark behind my ear. “When he touched you, he gave you the mark of a god-friend.”
“What does that mean?”
Shayt took my hand and squeezed it. “It means that you are blessed by him, and considered one of his children, his followers. It also means he will watch over you, and guide you if need be. If you call upon him, he will answer.”
I sat there for several minutes, looking at our joined hands. “Are you a god-friend?”
“I have been for many, many years.”
We sat silently for quite a while, each lost in her own thoughts. I wondered if Bes realized what she intended.
Which reminded me that we were leaving in the morning.
I looked around the room, trying to think what I would have to pack. My eyes fell on the boxes of my father’s records, and my eyes misted again.
“Shayt? Do you think you could ask Mishra if I could leave my father’s belongings here for a while? Just until I figure out where I want to go.”
The blue eyes turned to me. “I thought you wanted to stay in Egypt.”
“I do. But I can’t go back to Cairo, at least not right now. And I don’t have any other place I can call home.”
Shayt took hold of my hands and pulled me to her. I went willingly.
“You have a place, Daryl. I’ve left a scroll with my wishes and instructions, that I will give to Mishra before I leave. It will inform her of my decision, and ask her to respect it. It also will give you rights, legal and otherwise, to all that I have. That includes these rooms, here in the temple. If you want it, you have a home here.” She smiled. “Besides, as god-friend, you have every right to live in the temple.”
I stared into her eyes. After a moment, I nodded. She leaned forward and hugged me.
At least I wouldn’t have to worry about finding a place to store things. But I knew I could never make this place my home. Without Shayt, it just wouldn’t be the same.
I held on to her tightly, not letting go until I could once again hide the sorrow in my eyes.
I spent hours in Shayt’s arms that night. Time and again we made love, until I dropped into an exhausted sleep. I don’t know if Shayt even closed her eyes.
I woke up when she left the bed to begin preparations for our journey. Not able to sleep without her next to me, I rose and dressed, waiting for her to come back and tell me it’s time to leave.
Sitting by the window in the living room of Shayt’s suite, I can hear the city of Alexandria beginning to wake. The sun will be coming up shortly. By the time it reaches full dawn, we’ll be on a train bound for Cairo, where this whole strange adventure began.
Part of me wants to believe that I truly am insane. I don’t know. I haven’t really decided.
All I know is that in a few days I’ll follow Shayt into a temple in the middle of the Egyptian desert. If everything goes as she wishes, I’ll walk out alone.
Perhaps by then it won’t matter whether or not I’m crazy. Maybe by then, I’ll simply hope that I am.
Because if I am, then this whole thing is a dream, and perhaps I’ll dream a way out of this.
And if I’m not, I’ll lose Shayt forever.
Insanity is looking infinitely better all the time.
We boarded the train shortly after dawn. I watched from the windows of our compartment as the city of Alexandria faded from view.
There were three people accompanying us: Mishra, Achmed, and a young man named Onuris, who was studying to be a priest. Shayt and I stayed in one compartment, and the others in one directly across from us. The two cabins took up one entire train car.
I spent part of the day talking with Shayt, asking her questions about things she had seen, and done. This time I recorded them in a notebook that Mishra had given me. Even though it could never be proved, I wanted to know, and be able to remember.
As the midday sun rose high in the sky, the heat began to make me sleepy, and Shayt insisted I get some rest. I had another surprise awaiting me, as she sang a soft lullaby to me, crooning into my ear until sleep took me completely.
I awoke to the feel of lips on my throat, and hands kneeding my breasts. Even half asleep I could feel the urgency in Shayt’s touch, the need in her kisses. I responded by guiding her mouth to mine, and teasing her tongue with my own. In her haste to get my clothes off I heard the rip of material. I didn’t care, wanting only to feel her skin against mine. It took longer to get our breeches off, but soon they were gone, and I had the taste of that smooth skin in my mouth again.
She was relentless in her love then. Time and time again she would bring me to the heights of ecstasy, and before I could fall she’d be pulling me back, moving away from her previous place of assault to find another spot that inflamed my senses.
When she finally let me fall, I was begging and pleading, tears on my cheeks. I had to bite hard into her shoulder to stop myself from screaming. With anyone else, the skin would have broken, but with Shayt I didn’t even leave marks.
I wanted so badly to slip back into the lassitude of sleep, but Mishra began knocking, telling us that we would be pulling into Cairo in just a few minutes. I groaned, not wanting to move. Shayt laughed, and kissed me before sitting up, drawing me with her.
“Come on, little one. There’s always the bed in the hotel.”
Shayt’s excitement at drawing close to her goal was transforming into sexual desire, and I was the focus.
Not that I minded, really.
Being back in Cairo was a little strange. Things looked familiar, but it had all changed. Or maybe it was just that I had changed, or my circumstances had. I wasn’t sure which.
We were at a hotel near the marketplace, and I stared out the window towards the place I had lived for so long. I realized that I wanted to return. Not because there was anyone there that I wanted to see — there wasn’t. Instead, I wanted to say goodbye to that part of my life. I needed to show myself that I was not that street urchin anymore.
Shayt seemed to understand. She gave me a small purse with money in it, and said not to worry about spending it. Asking Mishra to accompany us, we set out on foot.
I sniffed the air as we walked. It was as I remembered, with the scent of rotting garbage and sweaty bodies hanging over the strong odor of horse manure. The sounds of wagons, rickshaws, and shouting vendors was just as familiar. I recognized various people, some of which had been victims of my thievery, others which had been the closest thing to friends.
There was almost no recognition in their eyes, and that stung for a few moments. But I didn’t tell them who I was.
Before, if I had been coming around certain booths, I would have been run off by the vendor. Now, however, I stood and examined the merchandise they offered for sale. No one bothered me.
The longer we stayed, the more comfortable I became. Shayt would catch me eyeing some item, and offer to buy it, or give me extra money for it. Most of the time I just smiled and shook my head, but I did let her talk me into buying a couple of silk shirts that she said went well with my green eyes.
I realized, though, that I was still looking at the merchandise in terms of how easy it would be to steal, and how much money or food I could get for it. As I fingered a jeweled buckle, the urge to shove it into a pocket was almost overwhelming. It was something that would have fed me for a week or more when I lived on the streets.
I put it down and moved quickly away, a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. For a moment it had been as if nothing had changed, and I was still the street rat. The knowledge that those instincts were still a large part of me was frightening.
As we neared the food vendors, I could smell the falafels cooking, and my mouth watered. I looked longingly at the gatayefs, small pancakes that were stuffed with nuts and cheese. I could almost taste the rich syrup that covered them.
Shayt saw where my attention was focused and gently took my arm, pulling me towards the food vendor. Before I could protest, she had gotten snacks for each of us. I bit into mine with relish, savoring the taste.
The best part about it was knowing I hadn’t stolen it.
Mishra asked where Shayt and I had met. I could feel my face turn red as Shayt laughed.
“Daryl could show you. It’s not far from here.”
I grumbled, but agreed. I led her through the space between booths, and showed her the wall.
“I was climbing the wall and slipped. Shayt caught me. I thought I was dead.”
“She caught you? As you fell?”
“Then what happened?”
I shrugged. “I fainted in her arms. Seemed like a good idea at the time.”
“It’s not that funny, Mishra.”
“It most certainly is. What a portent of things to come.” She tilted her head and grinned at me, then winked. I blushed hotly as I realized she was right.
It was only the first of many times that I would sleep while wrapped in Shayt’s arms.
As we headed back to where Shayt was waiting for us, I noticed two familiar faces in the crowd. Usi and his sister Urbi were twins who’d ended up in the market when their parents died in an influeza epidemic just two years ago. At first Urbi had been a prostitute, allowing herself to be used for money. Usi put a stop to that when she became pregnant and miscarried. Being only sixteen at the time, she had barely survived.
Now they made a living selling simple wood carvings and picking pockets.
I noticed that they were eyeing Shayt as she stood against a wooden post at a vendor’s stall. Urbi went one way, and Usi the other. I could tell that they were about to try for Shayt’s wallet, which many people had seen was thick with money. Their usual routine was to ‘pretend’ to meet near their intended mark, and then stage an argument which would end with Usi dragging his sister off in the direction of their victim. She would stumble against the person, knocking them down, and as she and Usi helped him or her back up, Urbi would pick the unsuspecting victim’s pockets.
I reached Shayt’s side just as the twins went into their yelling routine not six feet away.
Slipping past her, I moved into the two of them, and the three of us went down.
There was a moment of shocked recognition as Urbi looked into my eyes, but she said nothing. I stood up and brushed myself off, assuring the people around me that I was fine. Usi tugged on his sister’s arm, and they made their way through the crowd. I saw Urbi turn and look at me once more before the two of them disappeared among the throngs of people.
“Are you all right?” Shayt asked quietly.
“Yes, I’m fine.” I brushed more dust from my pants.
“That was a very kind thing you just did, Daryl,” Mishra said.
I shook my head. “Not really. It’s just that if they take it from me, they don’t have to try someone else and maybe get caught.”
Mishra took my arm. “You gave them something more than you think, Daryl. Not only the money, but their dignity, and a chance to start over.”
I raised an eyebrow at her. “What do you mean, start over?”
She smiled back at me. “I know how much Shayt put into that pouch. And so do you.”
I held her eyes for a moment more, then dropped my own to the ground.
I knew exactly how much money Shayt had given me.
There was one more place that I needed to visit before we left the area. Walking quickly through the maze of streets, I found myself in the place I had lived for my last several months on the street: a hole underneath the back porch of a tailor shop.
It was obvious someone had moved into it, and I wasn’t surprised. Even when I was here everyday I had often had to fight off one or another of the street beggars in order to sleep there. The only reason I won was because no one ever expected a little girl like me to fight dirty, with kicks and bites and punches to the crotch. My dad had taught me that. It was one lesson he drilled into me early. There’s a difference between sparring and fighting, he said. One can get you a black eye, the other can get you dead. If you’re fighting for real, do whatever you have to to win. And I always had.
I was still staring at the space when I heard Shayt clear her throat. She put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed gently.
“This is no longer your home, Daryl.
I had finally lived up to my nickname here. They had called me Monifa, Lucky. And meeting Shayt had indeed been pure luck.
I thought about how my life had changed. Just now, for the sake of Urbi and Usi, I had let go of more money than I had seen in all the years before I met Shayt.
As we walked away I smiled, knowing I was leaving the thief behind as well.
We were once again going to be leaving early the next morning, so after an early dinner everyone retired. I had almost fallen asleep at the table, and Shayt threatened to carry me upstairs.
But I couldn’t sleep. There was just too much going on in my head.
I lay in Shayt’s arms listening to her breathing. She seemed much calmer tonight. Almost peaceful. I wondered if it was because she’d worn herself out on the train, or if it was because she was getting closer to her goal.
“What do you think will happen when you die?”
There was absolute silence in our room. I saw her eyes open, glinting in the moonlight from the open windows.
“What brought that on?”
“I don’t know. Just thinking.”
She shifted under me until she was flat on her back. I slid partly off her body and rested on my forearms as I watched her face.
“I’m not sure.” She frowned. “I asked Bes a long time ago what happens when people die, and he told me it depends on their beliefs, and the darkness in their soul.”
“What else did he say?”
“Well,” she took a deep breath, “he told me that most people go through two judgments — the first to decide whether or not they have a good soul. If they do, they go to a second judgment which decides what lessons, if any, they still need to learn. Those that have learned what they needed go on to the afterlife. Those that haven’t, are returned to earth to live another life.”
“And those that don’t have a good soul?”
She shrugged. “I’m not sure. He was very vague in his statements about evil.” Shayt rolled over onto her side, leaning on her elbow. “He did remind me that no human soul is ever beyond redemption. Humans are incapable of being either completely good or completely evil. So, even the darkest souls are sometimes returned to earth.”
“And you? Did he ever tell you what would happen to you? Or did you not tell him what you were planning?”
Shayt looked down for a moment, her fingers playing with the sheet. “I told him. I had to. It’s never a good idea to keep secrets from a god. Besides, to get the third part of the compass, I had to tell him.”
A memory flashed in my mind, and I saw something golden in her hands as she stood before Bes in the heart of the temple.
“I think I remember that. It seemed like part of my dream — that turned out not to be a dream.”
Smiling, she nodded. “Right. The compass was hidden inside the statue of Bes that stood in the inner sanctum. I couldn’t get it without his permission.”
I frowned. “Why not? I mean, it’s just a statue. How would he have known?”
“It’s hard to explain. The easiest way to put it is that there are two kinds of statues. Those that are simple representations of the gods, and those that are vessels for the gods. The statue in the inner sanctum is a vessel.”
“Mandisa mentioned something about vessels, but I didn’t understand her.”
She sat up completely, wrapping her ams around me. “Do you remember the story of Athena’s birth?”
I glared at her. “You’re not going to tell me she really sprang from Zeus’s head, fully grown, are you?”
Shayt laughed. “Well, I wasn’t there, but no, I don’t think it’s true. But, do you remember why she was birthed from Zeus in the first place?”
“Um, no. I don’t think so.”
“Well, her mother, who was a mortal, asked Zeus to grant a request. Zeus agreed, and she asked that he appear to her as a god, in his true form. Zeus begged her not to ask that, as the true form of a god is like white fire and would burn her. She insisted, and he appeared before her. She was engulfed in flame and burned to death, but Zeus snatched Athena from the flames and sewed her up inside himself.”
“It’s not true, is it?”
“Any of it?”
She shrugged. “I doubt the actual story, but it is true that gods are more energy than substance. The Greek gods were willing to appear in a more human form, but they used carefully concocted spells to make those bodies. Our gods, like Bes, Anubis, Sakhmet, and Horus were less willing to expend energy creating what appeared to be human bodies. Instead, they allowed their followers to build vessels for them to fill. Now, the large monuments, like Karnak, were just that. Monuments, honoring the gods. But the smaller statues inside the temples, like those in the sanctuaries of Pharaoh’s temples, were dedicated to the gods. They were used like bodies, filled with the god’s spirit and energy when he or she wished to speak with their followers.”
“So, if you had just taken the compass from the statue it would have been a violation of the god’s body.”
I yawned, finally feeling a little sleepy. “So, Bes knows what you’re planning?” She nodded. “Does he approve?”
She frowned. “Well, no, not really. It seems almost like he doesn’t believe I’ll really do it.”
“Did he say that?”
“No. It’s just the feeling I get.” She layed back down, taking me with her. “I did get him to promise that he won’t interfere.”
“You think he’ll keep his word?”
“A god must keep his word. It’s the only thing that binds his worshippers to him, and gods need to be worshipped. It gives them more energy.”
Another yawn stole over me, and this time I couldn’t keep from closing my eyes. “So he won’t interfere. I, um, guess that’s good.”
She looked down at me. “Having second thoughts, Daryl? You could stay here if you want. Mishra and Achmed could come back for you after it’s over.”
“No, no, I’m fine. I want to be there. Really.”
She gave me a half smile and kissed my forehead. “Sleep, then. It’ll be another early morning.”
“Right.” I let my eyes close again. And another late night tomorrow. My last night with you, and I won’t sleep at all…..
The next morning I discovered just how uncomfortable it is to take a truck across the Egyptian desert.
The first several hours went well, since we were still on roads. None of them were paved outside of a few in Cairo, but at least they were fairly smooth. Then we turned off the roads and crossed the dunes.
Sand flew in my face and stung my eyelids. I tried hard to breathe through the scarf that Shayt had made me tie over my mouth and nose. The truck kept bouncing up and down, and the sweat caused by the severe heat would fly into my eyes every time I opened them.
Shayt called a halt just after midday. I was glad, since my stomach had begun to threaten rebellion.
Together, we sat in the shade of the truck and she watched as I drank from a bota bag.
“Daryl, are you sure you’re up for this? Tomorrow is just going to be hotter.”
“Yeah, but tomorrow we’ll be on camels. They don’t go as fast as the truck, and they don’t bounce up and down quite as much, so my stomach should be okay.” I smiled at her. “I’ll be fine.”
“You know, you could stay –”
“Shayt.” She stopped and looked at me. “Don’t try to talk me into leaving your side. I won’t do it. I intend to hold onto you until the very last minute.”
Her face colored slightly, and her eyes dropped. Finally, she nodded.
She never asked me that again.
Two hours later the truck coughed to a halt outside a line of rock outcroppings. We were an hours drive west of Memphis, just south of Saqqara, and there were many tombs in this area, most of them non-royal. The one we were looking for had been deemed that of a wealthy merchant’s wife, or perhaps a courtier of Pharaoh.
Shayt said she knew that was wrong because she had helped to bury the queen that had lain within.
“Sobeknefru wasn’t a very popular queen, and there weren’t many riches in the tomb. The carvings and other preparations weren’t even near completion when she died.”
“How did she die?” I asked as we walked up the slight incline to the entrance of the tomb.
The princess squinted in the sunlight as she looked across the sands. “Well, I can’t prove it, but I had reason to believe she was murdered. Poisoned, I think.”
She shrugged. “Didn’t matter. She wasn’t a very good queen. I was one of her advisers for awhile, but she wouldn’t even listen to me. Her taxes became so overwhelming that the people refused to pay them. Then she ordered the army into a battle that everyone told her she couldn’t win. Those that were loyal to her went, and were destroyed. The rest rebelled, intending to kill the queen. But she was dead before they got there.”
“And you helped bury her?”
“Yes. We got word that the army, led by one of her top generals, was marching on Memphis. We had just enough time to complete the basic rituals for mummification, and nothing else. There was none of the pomp and circumstance normally associated with a Pharaoh’s burial. Six of us carried her sarcophagus into the tomb. The others left while I did the final spells, and when I was finished, I made sure a rockslide covered the entrance to the tomb. It was pure luck that it was found in 1910.”
“You put spells on the tomb? What kind?”
“Just things to protect it. To prevent robbers from finding it — anyone who meant the to do harm to the tomb or the one within.” She dropped her eyes and scuffed at the ground. “I also had to complete the spell that allowed the compass to point to the hidden temple. The original plan was that I would leave the compass in the tomb, but I chose to take it with me, in case something happened and the tomb was discovered.”
“And then you split the compass up and put it in the three statues?”
“Why did you need the compass? Don’t you remember the place?”
She looked at me. “After thirty-three hundred years, not even my memory is perfect.” Another shrug. “I made sure the sands of the desert completely covered the temple where I had been transformed. I knew it had to remain secret, as the sacred texts of Bastet would be kept there, along with the dagger of Sakhmet. So, I waited until everyone who had known of its location was dead. Then I made sure the place was obliterated, and nothing remained to be seen. Using spells given to me by the goddesses, I was so thorough that not even I could see where it had been. Only the compass could point to its hiding place.”
We had reached the entrance, and I hung back, not sure if Shayt wanted me to go inside with her.
“Ready?” she asked.
I grinned. “Sure.” I wasn’t really so certain of this, but if Shayt would allow me to be with her, I wasn’t going to say anything.
The ceremony was simple. There was a short stone pillar in the middle of the tomb, and within it a sconce where the compass, now complete with all three pieces, slid gently into place with a click. Shayt lit four candles and sprinkled some incense over the compass. After a few chants, which she sang in a low voice, there was a rush of wind, and three candles sputtered and died. The last one burned stronger as the needle of the compass slowly turned, pointing to the south west.
“That’s it?” I asked.
Shayt gave an embarrassed shrug and grinned. “That’s it. Not so difficult, hm?”
“Nope.” I eyed the compass. “Okay, you know the general area that the temple is hidden in, right?”
“Then why the compass? Isn’t it just going to show you the general direction?”
“For the moment, sure.” Shayt relit the lantern, and blew out the candle. The compass needle never flickered. ” But the needle won’t stray from it’s objective, and as we get to the place, it will point to the exact spot where the entrance to the temple lies beneath the sand. The compass now cannot be taken apart again until it has passed the door of the temple. After that, it will no longer point to anything.”
She picked up the golden object carefully, folding it into the sack she’d been carrying it in.
“Come on. It’s still a few hours to the Faiyu Oasis near Lake Moeris. We’ll sleep there tonight, and the camels will take us to the temple in the morning.”
I groaned. “Tell me there are roads at least?”
She put an arm around me. “Well, no, not for a few more hours yet. But don’t worry. You can sit on my lap so you’re not bouncing in the bed of the truck.”
“Won’t you be uncomfortable?”
With a grin, she said, “Nah. If you get to heavy I’ll just change places with you and sit on your lap for a while.”
“I don’t think so, Princess.”
We were laughing as we left the tomb, but I couldn’t help the pit in my stomach that was growing.
On the way to the Oasis, as the truck bumped up and down, and Shayt held me in her arms as she said she would.
I thought about what was to happen the next day. This could very well be my last night with Shayt. Unless something went wrong, she would be dead by sunset tomorrow.
Part of me was still feeling respectful of her decision. I very much understood why she wanted this neverending life to stop.
A larger part of me, however, realized that I had fallen in love with her. There was little I could do about it. And when she left me, when she picked up the blade in the tomb and left this earth, I would once again be alone.
The pit I had felt in my stomach earlier had become a chasm that I felt I was swinging over. If I did nothing, I would lose Shayt to her own death. If I chose to try to stop her, I would possibly delay her plans, but I would lose her friendship in the process. And, since I could see no real way to prevent her from reaching the temple, I would lose her anyway.
For once I was glad of the covering over my face as it hid the tears as they slid from my eyes down my cheeks to disappear into the cloth.
Faiyu is a small town, village really, that grew up around a small oasis just south of Lake Moeris. There was no hotel, and few buildings of any kind. Instead, Shayt’s friend, Ishaq, had set up three tents to house us. Mishra and Achmed would stay in one, Ishaq and Onuris in the second, and Shayt and I in the third.
It was late when we got there; the sun was well on its way to setting. I dropped onto the cot in mine and Shayt’s tent, not even wanting to move for dinner.
“Daryl? Are you alright?”
“Oh, fine. Fine.” But I wasn’t. Between the worry over what would happen, and the bumping of the truck, along with the stinging sand and oppressive heat, I wasn’t feeling good at all. I wanted my stomach to stop hurting, and my head to stop spinning. Maybe then I would feel like moving again.
“When’s the last time you had some water, love?”
I cracked an eye open at the endearment and the soft tone of Shayt’s voice. Her concerned blue eyes were looking down at me as she stood next to my bed, hands on her hips.
“Um. I can’t remember.”
She nodded, and leaned over to touch my head. “You’re not feeling good, are you? A little too much sun?”
“A little too long in the truck. I’ll be okay, though.”
Her fingers brushed my bangs away from my eyes. “You want to stay here? I can bring you some water and something light to eat.”
“No, I’m okay.” I sat up, gritting my teeth against the nausea. “Let’s go.”
Shayt raised an eyebrow but stood aside as I headed for the tent flap.
I stepped outside and got another few feet before the dizziness hit. I knew I was falling, but I had no idea which way was up. My knees hit the ground, sending up a cloud of dust. Before I knew it, I was in Shayt’s arms. I looked once more into her eyes before everything went black.
I woke up to a pounding headache and the feel of water drops rolling across my temples. Someone was holding my hand. There was movement next to me, as someone placed a cold cloth over my forehead. Whoever’s hands they were, they were shaking, and I opened my eyes just a crack to see who it was.
To my surprise, it was Shayt. And to my utter shock, she appeared to be crying.
I sighed deeply, and let my eyes open all the way. Shayt immediately leaned over and kissed me on the forehead.
“Don’t scare me like that again, okay?”
I nodded very slowly. “Got it. No scaring Shayt.”
She smiled at me, and wiped her eyes.
“Are you crying?”
A shake of her head. “No. Just got some sand in my eye.”
“Right.” My tone said I didn’t believe her.
We smiled at each other, and she squeezed my hand. She wasn’t shaking anymore.
I don’t think she slept that night. I didn’t sleep much myself, but everytime I opened my eyes, her clear blue ones were staring back at me. By morning, I felt better, and she looked much calmer.
I thought she’d ask me to stay behind, but she didn’t. Instead, she simply made me ride on her camel with her. It wasn’t the most comfortable I’ve ever been, but it did keep me in her arms, which is where I wanted to be in the first place.
Shayt also made sure I drank a lot of water. She had some kind of canopy up over the camel, so that I wouldn’t be directly in the sun. When we set off after breakfast, which she made sure I ate, I found myself much cooler than I’d been since we’d gotten off the train in Cairo.
But I still ached inside.
I’d missed my last night with Shayt. This evening when we reached the temple, she’d disappear from me forever.
“Shayt? How long will it take us to reach the temple, do you know?”
She frowned. “I’m not sure. It’s quite a ways. In the trucks I would guess we’d reach it in the late afternoon, but on camelback — I’d say right just past sunset.”
I swallowed. “Shayt?”
“Will you wait till tomorrow?”
“Wait for what?”
I didn’t say anthing. She looked down at me, then back up at the sands of the horizon.
“Oh.” After a moment, she squeezed my shoulders a little, and nodded. “Yes, Daryl. I’ll wait.”
“Thank you.” I leaned back and relaxed against her.
I had one more full night.
A plan started to form in my mind.
Traveling through the desert on camelback is similar to watching a snail move across the floor. You know he’s actually moving, but it’s so slow you can’t really tell if he’s making progress. It felt this way for me as I dozed off and on in Shayt’s arms. The scenery never changed, just constant sand dunes and blue sky.
There were four camels in our small caravan. Shayt and I were in the lead, and behind us came Mishra and Ishaq, followed by Achmed and Onuris. They pulled along a fourth camel loaded with provisions.
We made frequent stops during the day. Each time, Shayt would check the gold compass once again to be certain we were still traveling in the right direction. I couldn’t tell if she was honestly concerned she’d forgotten where the place was, or if she was just excited about being on the way to it. Either way, the compass continued to point the same direction we were heading. We didn’t have to shift course once.
It was late in the afternoon when we met with a few Bedouins that live out here in the sands. Shayt spoke with them, and they quickly let us pass, but she looked worried about something. Since they’d been speaking a dialect I rarely heard, so I only understood a few words, like ‘men in trucks’ and ‘English.’
“Hm? Oh, nothing.” But she was still frowning.
“Shayt, come on. You got really tense while you were talking to those men. What’s wrong?”
She shook her head. “Probably nothing. They just said that they’d been watching us for a little while, from the top of those cliffs,” she pointed off in the distance toward an outcropping that the riders were headed for.
“Do they have a problem with us being here?”
“No. They wanted to know who we were, but I told them we were pilgrims headed for a holy place.”
I grinned up at her. “Which is partially true, right?”
She quirked an eyebrow, then gave me a half smile as she nodded. “Right.” The smile slid off her face quickly. “They don’t have a problem with us, but they said that there were trucks in the distance, almost following us. They’re too far back for us to see them, but possibly on our trail.” She shook her head. “I don’t like it.”
“Do you know who it might be?”
“Not really. Not a clue. Could be an archeologist; there are some ruins around here.”
It was my turn to frown. “Well, yeah, there are, but not many that are well known, and most of them don’t have anything to do with royal tombs, which is where the biggest digs would be concentrating.”
“Not all archeologists are out for gold, Daryl.”
“You think I don’t know that? My father found just about zero gold, Shayt, and he was a very good archeologist. He loved the history.” I sighed. “But his kind are few and far between.”
“I know.” She was quiet. “I think you’d make a good archeologist, Daryl. You already have a good background, and can read the ancient tongue as well as most scholars can. Plus you have a love of the country and its past. You’d be a very good Egyptologist.”
I thought about that. “Perhaps. But, I’m not sure that’s what I want.”
“You don’t want to be an archeologist?”
“Oh, I’d love to be an archeologist. But — for me anyway — the term Egyptologist means someone more interested in the treasure of Egypt than her history.” I looked up at her. “Caster is an Egyptologist.”
She nodded. “Right. We’ll just call you an Egyptian archeologist, okay?”
I smiled. “That’ll do.”
It was near sunset when Shayt finally called a halt and said we would camp there. Mishra gave a thankful sigh as she climbed off her camel.
“You know, Princess, you are the only one I would ride a camel for. I’m getting far too old to go on adventures like this.”
Shayt smiled at her. “Don’t worry, my friend. This is the last one I’ll ask you to go on.” She paused. “Oh, wait, I didn’t ask you to go on this one.”
The rest of us laughed and Mishra pretended to pout.
The tents were set up and dinner was almost ready when Shayt picked up her compass and started to walk toward the sands. Everyone became very quiet, watching her.
I jumped up and ran after her.
She turned around and I grabbed her arms, almost knocking the compass from her.
“You said — you said you’d –”
“Shhh. Daryl, calm down.” She opened her arms to me and I hugged her fiercely. “I’m just locating the door. Nothing more. I won’t even go in tonight.”
I felt her lips press against the top of my head. “Promise.”
I sniffed once and started to let go of her. She held onto me, with one arm around my shoulders.
“Come on. Walk with me.”
Sniffling, I did so, staying by her side as we went further into the dunes.
It was just a few minutes later that we stopped. Shayt was staring at the compass, a smile teasing the corners of her mouth. I looked at the compass to see the needle standing straight up into the air.
“We’re right on top of the temple. The door is just a few feet in front of us.”
I looked but didn’t see anything.
With a nod, she handed me the compass and pushed me away from her. Standing with her arms out stretched she chanted into the air, calling on the names of her goddesses near the end of it.
There was a hissing that I recognized as the sound of sand beginning to shift. The wind picked up for a moment, and the ground shuddered. Then a soft roar hit my ears, and everything stopped.
Shayt was grinning. She looked at me and pointed to the sand in front of us. There, about ten feet away, was a hole in the sand. In the fading light from the sun I could see the top of a staircase.
“The temple?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said softly.
We stood there in silence for several minutes, until she sighed and turned around. Taking my hand she started back to the camp site, tugging gently on my arm.
I followed her with a hollow feeling in my stomach.
Dinner was quiet, with Shayt mostly staring off into the desert. She drank several glasses of brandy, but didn’t eat anything. Mishra and Achmed discussed business for the temple in Alexandria while Ishaq and Onuris sat some distance from the camp, pointing out the constellations they each knew.
I watched Shayt.
She caught me staring at her, and smiled gently. I decided it was time and stood up. Holding out my hand to her, I smiled back and nodded towards the tent. One dark eyebrow rose, and her blue eyes twinkled. She took my hand and let me pull her to her feet.
“Mishra, Achmed, I think we’re going to retire for the night.” She was grinning at them as she said this. I felt a blush coloring my cheeks, but I just ducked my head and smiled at them.
“Good night, Princess,” Achmed replied. He bowed his head in a sign of respect, and smiled at her.
Mishra walked over to us. Taking both of Shayt’s arms, she said softly, “Tomorrow is a special day, for all of us. I am honored to be among those who will witness this change.” She leaned forward and kissed her princess on the cheek. Then she looked at me. “Enjoy this night, Daryl. Tomorrow, everything changes.”
I swallowed. She walked away, and I felt sick.
Shayt’s arm settled back on my shoulders and I looked up into gentle blue. I swallowed again, this time in determination, and took her hand to lead her into the tent.
If I was going to lose her, it wouldn’t be without a fight.
It took only moments for Shayt to get naked. I was taking a little longer, not letting her pull the clothes from me. For what I was planning, I needed to be in control, and if I let her touch me too much, I’d lose it very quickly.
I didn’t tease her, necessarily. I only prolonged the inevitable.
Finally, she couldn’t stand it and she reached over and grabbed the edge of my shirt which I was holding up to cover my breasts. She pulled it toward her, and instead of letting go, I went with it, landing in her lap. She rolled me over, and took the shirt from my hands, tossing it over her shoulder. Her lips were an inch from mine when I took a deep breath and put a hand on her shoulder.
She stopped and looked down at me. “Hm?”
“Can I ask you something?”
An eyebrow rose once more, but she nodded. “Go ahead.”
“Why are you really doing this? Killing yourself I mean?”
She stared at me. “You know why.”
“No, I don’t. I mean, we talked a little about history, and I know you’ve been alive a long time. I know you’re tired. But you’ve never told me why you want to do this. Or why it needs to be done now.”
For several moments we just lay there, face to face, her blue eyes pinning my green ones. Then she sighed and rolled over, staring up at the tent ceiling.
“Do you really want to know, Daryl?”
I propped my head on my hand and watched her face. She focused on a spot in the tent ceiling, and sighed.
“It’s been nearly two hundred generations since the members of my family died. The last of their descendents died nearly a millenia ago.” There was a pause as she swallowed a few times and took a very deep breath.
“I have watched thousands of friends die. Watched as they grew old, and sick, while I stayed exactly like I am.” She shrugged. “After a long while, I stopped getting close to people. Stopped caring about them. It hurt too much. Love is meant for mortals, because they can grow old together, and help each other, and end their days together. But time and time again I stood over the grave of a friend — or a lover.”
One lone tear glistened as it leaked from her eye and rolled down her temple and into her hair.
“But, I was born a mortal. Feeling for other people, feeling love for other humans, isn’t something I could just turn off like a machine. It was relentless, this drive to be with people. To love another. And each time, when they left, it hurt just a little more.
“Then I started thinking. Instead of just continuing with this torture, I could grow old with a lover and then end it. I could hold them while they died, and then go to the temple, take the dagger and join them.”
Her hand brushed a couple more rebellious tears off her cheek. “But, each time, there was something else I had to do. There was a reason not to end it. Something had to be done to save a person, a city, a country. And, being indestructible, it would fall to my shoulders.”
She looked up at me. “First, I had to save the cult of Bes, and move them to Alexandria. Then there were wars that Bes asked me to stop. Plots for world domination that had to be foiled.” Shayt shook her head. “I became the servant of Bes, and he sent me on voyages across oceans and deserts. I went to the Russian steppes and stopped two tribes from going to war. Bes sent me to France, to try to save Jeanne D’Arc.” She frowned. “Stubborn girl. I could have gotten her out of there, but she chose to be a martyr instead.”
“Well, maybe she felt that was her destiny.” I stroked her dark hair. “Or maybe she thought you were from the devil and wanted to be sure not to give in to temptation and be damned.”
A short laugh came from her. “No, she was just being stubborn as a camel.”
I chuckled, and continued letting my hand slip through black silk. “What other errands did Bes send you on?”
Another sigh. “To the United States, where I dressed as a man and stopped an assassin from killing George Washington. Then to England, where I stepped in front of a bullet to save Queen Victoria.” A half smile appeared on her face. “No one there ever knew what happened. They thought the man was pointing an empty gun at the queen.”
My eyebrow rose. “I think I remember reading about that. Someone tried to shoot her while she was in the royal coach, but the gun jammed, or wasn’t properly loaded?”
“Oh, believe me, it was.”
“But no one heard a shot.”
“They couldn’t. It was during a salute for her majesty’s birthday, and there were firecrackers going off in celebration.”
“Ah.” I waited, but she didn’t say anything more. “So, what happened? Did you become tired of saving the world? Or did Bes run out of things for you to do?”
She sighed. “Both. Neither. I don’t know.” The sorrow that lined her face made my heart hurt in sympathy. “Actually, it was something much less earth shattering than that.” Shayt looked at me. “I fell in love.”
For just a moment, I froze. I hadn’t been expecting that.
“I fell in love with a young woman from Greece. We met in a small fishing village on the coast. Her father had died, and her neighbors thought it was wrong that she wanted to run his fishing boat herself. The small crew quit, and she couldn’t have done it on her own. The other fishermen were pushing her to sell the boat. All except the mayor, who decided that he wanted to marry her. She was twenty-three; he was fifty-six. Of course, she said no — to the proposal, and to selling the boat.
“I was just passing through the town when I found two men accosting her. I sent them off, and hired on to help on the boat. We fished in an area that her father had told her about, and always came back in with a large catch. The other men grumbled, but they couldn’t do anything about it. Not with me there.”
Shayt smiled, and her eyes lit up. “I loved her so much. Her name was Anysia, and she had eyes that were golden brown, like wheat in the field. Her hair was the color of wood, but silky soft. Her laugh was like music, and her touch — ah. Her touch filled me with peace.”
I couldn’t believe the jealousy flowing through me from hearing Shayt speak of this woman. I had to force my fingers not to close into a fist. Instead, I kept them softly stroking her hair, trying hard not to let on just how much her words were affecting me.
Shayt’s eyes became like seas, with waves splashing over her eyelids.
“There was a storm. It came up very suddenly. I told Anysia to lash herself to the mast, but . . .” The tears spilled down her face in streams. “The rope broke. It was one we had been planning on replacing, but hadn’t gotten done so yet. She was swept overboard, and I went in after her. I found her, and held on to her while I tried to guide the boat back in. She was cold, so very cold . . .”
Wiping her eyes, she continued. “By the time we got back to shore, she was in a high fever. There was nothing I could do. I called on Bes to heal her, but he said he couldn’t — her time had come, and I should let her go. I told him to heal her, or I’d find a way to go after her.” She was silent for several minutes. “Anysia died two days later.”
We were both very quiet for several minutes. I tried to imagine that kind of scene. Knowing that your time with this person had just been cut short, and you would never see her again, in spirit or otherwise, because you couldn’t die.
I wavered a little, understanding just a bit more why Shayt wanted to end things. But thinking of the rest of my life without her was enough to make me stand firm.
I was surprised when she laughed a little.
“I just realized. I’ve never told anyone that before.”
She shook her head. “When it happened, I told Mishra that my lover had died. I never told her anything else, or how much I loved her.” Shayt wiped the last of the tears from her face. “I never even told her Anysia’s name.”
“How long ago was this?”
Her eyes drifted closed. “Twenty-four years.” A sigh. “Twenty-four very long years.”
We were silent again, and I listened to the sound of the desert wind as it drifted across our campsite. The voices of our companions came through as well, but I felt distanced, as though Shayt and I were alone in the whole of the desert.
“So why now?” I asked.
Blue eyes focused on me. “What do you mean?”
“Anysia died twenty-four years ago and you’re just now getting around to going to her?”
“There are no longer things standing in the way. No more wars to fight, no more princes to protect. The temple of Bes is as protected as I can make it, and the world is as peaceful as it will ever get.” She sighed. “I’m tired of hurting, of falling in love and losing people to the mortal death that should have been mine so very long ago. I don’t want to feel anymore . . .”
Her words drifted off and her eyes closed, releasing only one more tear which followed the tracks down her cheek and into the crevasse near her ear.
I waited, trying to compose what I wanted to say. I probably would only have one chance, and I didn’t want to mess it up.
“Shayt?” I said quietly. “What would it take to make you stay?”
She looked up at me quickly, and shook her head. “You’re not talking me out of this, Daryl.”
“No, just hear me out, please?”
For a moment she looked like she would to refuse, but then she sighed and nodded.
“What would give you a reason not to quit right now? To stay just a little longer?”
With a frown, she answered, “Nothing.”
“Are you sure? You said there have always been reasons to stay, but now there aren’t. What kind of reason would you need?”
She shook her head. “Daryl . . .”
“Come on, Shayt. Just think about it.”
“Fine.” The frown deepened on her face, etching lines into her forehead. “I guess there would have to be some emergency, some disaster. A catastrophe.”
She threw up her hands. “I don’t know. Another war, or maybe some bad guy to fight. Something that needed me.” A shrug.
I swallowed, knowing I was taking a chance. “Why were you so worried about me yesterday, when I became ill?”
One dark eyebrow slid further up her forehead. “Because heat stroke can be dangerous. You were lucky.”
“Right, but why were you so worried? I mean, even if I had really gotten sick, it wouldn’t have mattered to you. I’m just a thief from Cairo that helped you get the last piece of the compass. Why would you care?”
Shayt sat up quickly, spinning around to glare at me. “You know I care about you, Daryl. You’re not a thief, and you do matter to me.”
I nodded. It was the answer I’d been hoping for. “Right, but even if I’d been sick, it wouldn’t have changed your plans. You would still have just continued on to the temple, and taken your own life. My living or dying wouldn’t have mattered.”
“No! That’s not true. You do matter, Daryl.” She took my hand. “You’re important, not just to me, but to many others, and if something had happened to you, it would have been a tragedy. You have a long life ahead of you, and you’ll do great things, I know you will.”
“So, I’m an important person?”
“Yes. Very much so.”
“Important enough to give you a reason to stay?”
Those blue eyes widened, and she stared at me. “What do you mean?”
I gathered all the courage I had, and all the passion I felt inside, and leaned forward to kiss her.
It was a hard kiss, demanding yet loving, an invasion into her mouth, and an invitation to mine. She responded, and when I could hear her breath shorten, and her pulse quicken, I pulled back.
“I love you, Shayt.” I put my hands on her shoulders and pushed her back to the bedroll. “In the days since we met, you’ve done more than just change my life; you changed everything I knew to be true. You gave me back a part of me I had lost, and opened up a door to a life I never knew existed. With you, I’ve known the mysteries of the world, and the pleasures of love. In just this short time, you’ve come to mean everything to me.” I kissed her again, more softly this time.
“I love you. And I’m asking you, if you care for me at all, like I know you do, please don’t make me do this on my own. Please don’t take away the one thing in my life that has brought me absolute joy — your death will kill everything I am inside, Shayt. And if you love me, please don’t do this.”
I lay fully on her, pressing myself against her, not giving her a chance to respond. With my tongue, I coaxed her mouth open, my hands separating the folds of her shirt, yanking it open.
“If you need a reason to stay, then I’ll give you one. Tonight, you’re mine, and I’m going to do everything I can to make you want to stay.”
I backed off and looked at her, letting my emotions show in my eyes. “I need you, Shayt. Let me be your reason to stay.” With that I plunged forward, connecting once again with her mouth.
She responded as I expected, wrapping her arms around me and trying to push me under her. I pushed back, and finally forced her shoulders to the ground. Her shirt came off in pieces.
Then we were naked, skin on skin, and I reveled in the feel of her. Time and time again she reached for me, to take control. I wouldn’t let her. Instead, I held onto her wrists as my mouth nipped skin in sensitive places; under her chin, the side of her breast, the skin around her navel. I filled my senses with her, breathing in the scent of arousal, tasting the sweat on her skin.
I remembered what she had done to me the day before, and used the same technique on her. Each time she peaked, I changed the rythm of my stroking, alternating between using my mouth and my fingers, bringing her once again over the edge of passion. I didn’t neglect one spot of that tantalizing flesh.
Finally, though, I began to tire. I was, after all, mortal and not blessed with the same stamina as the eternal daughter of Pharaoh. When she noticed my weariness, Shayt took advantage of it, and rolled me over onto my back. Then, with a practiced hand, she gave me pleasure, and I let her hear me scream the words that made her cry.
It was almost dawn when we finally were still, and I lay languidly in her arms. She rubbed my back gently, humming softly in my ear. I fought the feeling of lethargy that came over me, knowing that I might only have these last few hours. Eventually, though, it won, and my eyes slid closed as I murmured once more to Shayt that I loved her, and she shouldn’t leave. Then I was asleep.
I found myself floating in the dreamworld again. I knew I was still asleep this time, because I could see myself. Shayt’s arms were curled around my body, and I saw myself lying on her shoulder, snoring softly.
There appeared a blurry form, hovering over Shayt’s shoulder. One moment it would be mistlike, and the next nearly solid. I recognized it as an image of Bes, similar to the statue in the inner sanctum of the temple.
His voice was low and gravely, as it had been a few nights before.
“The little one sleeps deeply in your arms. She feels safe there.”
Shayt merely nodded.
“She loves you very much.”
“You will do this thing despite her plea?”
She sighed. “Yes. I think I should.”
“Why? She has given you a reason to stay. Or do you not believe her love?”
Shayt’s voice was very quiet. “I believe her.”
“They why would you hurt her?”
An angry look crossed over the beautiful face. “Do you think that’s what I want? I never expected this, or wanted it to happen. I would never wish to hurt Daryl.”
“But you will.”
There was silence between them. Shayt looked sad, and Bes’s ethereal form seemed to reinforce her loneliness. I wanted to wake up and hold her, but I could do nothing but watch in this dreamscape.
“There is another way,” the god said.
“No. I won’t do it.”
“You would rather sentence your love to a life as lonely as yours has been?”
“At the very least it would not be as long.”
“No. But would that make it any less painful?” Shayt stayed silent. Bes leaned closer to her. “She loves you very much, Ashayt. Your death will hurt her more than you could know. But if you live . . .”
The dark head snapped up, blue eyes flashing at the god. “If I live? What will change? Eventually, Daryl will die, and I’ll be alone again. Is there no end? I have buried so many lovers that I can’t even remember them all.”
“Then Daryl is simply one more that you would forget?”
“No. I could not bear to forget her. Her memory would haunt me above all others.” Glancing down at me once more, she asked him, “Must I bury one more just to appease you, Bes?”
“What if you did not have to bury her?”
Shayt went very still. “What are you talking about?”
“I could make her immortal.”
Blue eyes filled with outrage. “No you won’t! I won’t allow it. I won’t condemn her to the same fate I’ve suffered through.”
“What if it was her choice?”
“No! She wouldn’t understand, she wouldn’t, couldn’t know what hell eternity can be. No, Bes. I won’t let you do this to her — I love her, and I won’t see her –”
“You love her?”
Shayt paused in her speech. She looked back down at the still form in her arms, and nodded. “Yes. I love her very much.”
“Yet you would condemn her to the pain of your death.”
“I . . .” she didn’t finish. Instead, she stared down, brushing hair off a fair cheek.
“If you love her, Ashayt Kemshet, you will think of her pain.”
The misty image of the god slowly disappeared, and I felt my own dreamself fading.
The last thing I heard was Shayt’s soft voice, “I do love you, Daryl. But when do I get to think of my own pain?”
Then everything was black.
When I awoke, Shayt was gone.
I stumbled from the tent, squinting in the bright sunlight. Hearing voices, I turned, hoping that Shayt would be among them. Instead, there was only Mishra and Achmed.
They both smiled at me, and Achmed lifted a cup toward me. “Good morning, Daryl. Come, sit and talk with us while we wait for Shayt.”
For a second I hoped he was serious. “You mean, she’s coming back? Where did she go?”
“She went to the temple, Daryl, to do her ritual. She’ll be back when it’s over.”
Mishra reached for a folded piece of paper. “Shayt said it would be better if she went while you were still asleep. Here, she left this for you.”
I sighed, and my stomach fell, along with my heart. I had forgotten that Mishra and Achmed didn’t know the true purpose of her visit to the temple.
Taking the note, I dropped into a place beside the small cook fire. When I opened it, I had to bite my lip to keep from crying.
I stayed up the rest of the night thinking about what you said.
I understand your feelings. Truly, I do.
Know this, my friend — I love you very much. So much so that
I almost gave in to your request. It was just before the sun
edged it’s way over the lip of the horizon, and I smiled, glad
that you were in my arms as Ra made his way to the sky.
Then I remembered watching the sunrise over the grave of
Anysia. And I just couldn’t do it.
I can’t watch you die, Daryl, and that’s what you’d be asking
me to do. I have watched so many others as they were
lowered into their graves, and I don’t think I can bear watching
it. Not again. Not with you.
I hope someday you can forgive me. I do love you, Daryl.
May the gods smile on your travels, and the blessings of
Bes be upon you.
I had to wipe my eyes several times before I could look up. I stared out across the sands to where I knew the entrance to the temple was.
“How long ago did she leave?”
Achmed followed my line of sight, then glanced back at me. “Not long. Perhaps twenty, maybe thirty minutes.”
I sighed. The camp site and the temple entrance were both on rocky hilltops, with a small sandy valley in between. The distance between them, though seeming so short last night, was actually several hundred feet. With half an hour past, there was very little hope.
Tears filled my eyes again as I realized Shayt was probably dead. The grief was a ball of painful heat in my chest, made worse by the knowledge that I couldn’t even tell anyone yet.
Mishra moved next to me and offered me some date bread. Just the sight of it was enough to make me nauseous, and I shook my head.
“You should eat, Daryl.”
“I can’t, Mishra.” There was a hitch in my voice, and I struggled not to cry.
She patted my shoulder. “You’re worried about Shayt, aren’t you?”
“Don’t worry, child. Remember, there is nothing that can hurt her.”
I raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
“Besides, this ritual she is working is important. Bes has been asking her for many years to do this, and she has always refused. Now, the daughter of Pharaoh will come to her true destiny.”
“Which is?” I asked, sniffling.
She just smiled again.
I got control of myself, and let out a deep breath. Looking for something to distract my thoughts I asked, “Mishra, what, exactly, is this ritual, this spell? What do you think she’s doing?”
The priestess turned fully towards me and took my hand. “It is the completion of the spell that her brother started. He was intending to use it only on himself, thinking that it would make him a god.”
She laughed lightly. “Gods are born, Daryl, not made.”
“Then what –” I broke off as Achmed suddenly stood.
“Who would bring a truck out here?” he asked.
Mishra and I turned to look, immediately spotting a small dust cloud on the horizon. It was being made by a truck moving at a quick pace across the sands.
Directly toward us.
I bit my lip, frowning. “Shayt said the nomads yesterday told her we were being followed by a truck.”
Onuris and Ishaq appeared from behind the tents, where they had been attending to the camels. Ishaq was carrying a spyglass.
He pointed at the truck. “It’s carrying several men, and they have guns.”
Achmed reached for the glass. “Who would want something out here? There is only sand.”
“And ruins,” I said. I took the spyglass and aimed it toward the truck which was now obviously coming right toward us.
Ishaq was right, the guns they were carrying were obvious. There were about 4 men in the back of the open truck, all standing, with rifles in their hands. I switched to the front of the truck, which held a driver and —
“It’s Edward Caster from the Cairo museum.” I handed the glass to Achmed, my mind reeling.
“Why would he be coming here? Could he know about the ruins?” Misha asked.
“No.” I suddenly knew what Caster wanted. “He knows about Shayt. And he knows, somehow, about the sacred texts of Sakhmet. And the recipe for immortality.”
“How could he?”
I turned to Achmed and began ticking the points off on my hands.
“He had the statue. He knew there was something special about it. It wasn’t made of gold, which is normally the only thing he’s concerned about, but he still had it wrapped up and locked in his personal filing cabinet. Plus,” I paused to take a breath, “he’s the one my father reported to at the museum. He might not have been told everything, but he had access to all my father’s notes and such. If there was anything in them about Shayt’s history, he would have found it.”
Mishra put a gentle hand on my shoulder. “Daryl, even if you’re right, there is no reason to worry. Shayt is in the temple, and she’ll stop him.”
“How can she stop him if she’s dead?” She looked at me in confusion. “Mishra, she’s not planning on using your spell or ritual or whatever. She’s going to take the dagger of Sakhmet and end her life.” A touch of horror entered her eyes, but she started shaking her head no.
I thrust the letter from Shayt at her, and she took it. As she read, I saw panic begin to fill her face.
She turned quickly to Achmed and asked what they should do. He stared at her, and the two of them looked at the younger men, who were shifting back and forth on their feet.
We all looked back at the truck getting ever closer.
My head was beginning to hurt as my thoughts got clearer. If Shayt was still alive, there was no problem — she could stop Caster. If she was already dead, we were in a lot of trouble.
Next thing I knew I was running across the desert, sand flying under my feet.
Which was really a dumb thing to do, when you think about it.
Behind me, the sound of the truck echoed across the desert. I could hear Achmed shouting orders, but the sound was muffled, and I couldn’t make out what they were.
Then I heard gunshots, and I ran faster.
Running through deep sand is like running through water with lead weights on your legs. You expend a lot of energy and get no where, really fast.
I was on the upslope to the temple entrance when the bullet hit me, and I went down. I rolled to the bottom, my left leg throbbing in time with my heart beat. Huddled on my side, I looked at the tear in my thigh. It didn’t appear too bad, but I stayed still, hoping that whoever had shot at me would think I was dead.
What I would do after that, I didn’t have a clue.
Moments later I heard the truck come to a stop close to me. I watched through slitted eyes as someone in long khaki pants climbed out of the cab. He walked over to me and crouched down.
“Painful, isn’t it?”
I stayed still and said nothing.
He sighed. “Oh, don’t play dead, Miss Bromley, I know better.”
A second man came around and kicked me in the back. I flinched, and decided to open my eyes.
“Oh, look, she is alive.” Caster’s sarcasm was obvious. He stood up, watching as his friend dragged me to my feet and held me there. I hissed as sand in the wound ground a little deeper into sensitive flesh.
“Now, where is your friend?”
“Kemshet, the bitch. Where is she?”
I shook my head. “Don’t know who you’re talking about.”
He turned to me, then smiled. With a deliberate motion he raised his arm and backhanded me. I saw it coming and tried to move with it, but it still opened a cut in the corner of my mouth.
“Shall we try this again? Where is Ashayt Kemshet?”
I wasn’t going to tell him, and simply stared at him. I thought for a moment he’d hit me again, but he didn’t. Instead, he sighed, and motioned to his man.
“Bring her,” he said, and began walking up the side of the hill.
Towards the open temple entrance.
His henchmen dragged me up the incline. All I could do was try to stay on my feet.
The temple was carved deep into bedrock, and the entrance was the top of a long staircase. Caster stopped at the top of it.
“Down there is my destiny, Bromley.”
“Really? Your destiny is stale air and old rocks?”
He smiled. “No. My destiny is the sacred texts of Sakhmet that will give me immortality.” He turned toward me. “And you’re going to help me get them.”
“Why would you want to be immortal, Edward? It’s gotta be boring after a while, don’t you think?”
“Oh, no. Not boring. Not if you know what you want from it.”
“And what do you want from it?”
His grin was malicious. “I want the world.”
There was a look in his eyes that made me wonder if he was sane, but I had no time to dwell on it. Caster jerked his head at his henchman, and I was thrust down the stairs, one arm held in a fierce grip. I stumbled, the pain in my leg making me gasp, but there was nothing I could do except limp down the steps. Caster followed behind us.
The staircase was enclosed, with only an opening at the bottom. From there, I could see flickering light, like torches. There was no sound from the temple, and I tried to make some, scuffing my feet on the steps, and groaning in pain.
As we turned the corner, I held my breath, wondering what we’d find.
The space there was huge, much larger than I could have imagined. It was also filled with statues. In the light of several torches I could pick out the cat headed images of Bastet, and the tall warrior stance of Sakhmet. Along one wall was a long dais and altar, carved with heiroglyphics and other images. It was beautiful, and I almost cried, thinking that my father would have loved to have seen this.
A shove in my back knocked my wounded leg against a statue and I cried out in pain. The sound echoed through the chamber.
It was Shayt’s voice, and it came from further in the temple. There was the sound of movement behind one of the statues and the dark head of my friend emerged under the outstretched arm of the war goddess.
“Ah. Ashayt Kemshet. We meet again.” Caster stepped forward, glancing around. “Interesting place you’ve found.”
Even from across the room I could see Shayt’s eyes narrow. She stood up, ducking around the stone arm.
“What are you doing here, Caster?”
“Looking for the sacred texts.” He smiled. “And you’re going to help me find them.”
Shayt laughed. “Now why would you think that?”
“Because if you don’t, my friend here is going to kill Bromley’s daughter.”
My captor tightened his hand on my arm, and put the muzzle of his rifle against the back of my head.
“And don’t try to tell me you don’t care about her, Kemshet,” continued Caster. “If you didn’t you wouldn’t have taken the street rat from where she belongs.” He pulled a revolver from inside his jacket. “Now, shall we discuss the location of the sacred texts?”
Shayt glanced at me, and I saw her eyes soften in concern. “Daryl, are you all right?”
“Fine.” I winced. “Been better, though.”
Our eyes locked for a moment, and then she blinked and took a breath.
“I hate to disappoint you, Edward, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Please, don’t try to deny it, Kemshet. I know who you are, and I know this is the great temple, and the resting place of the sacred texts. Now, tell me where they are,” he pointed his gun at me, “or she dies.”
Shayt raised an eyebrow. “You know who I am?”
“Oh, I know, Kemshet. I noticed, when I shot you in the museum, you barely flinched. Which was when I knew for certain that it wasn’t just a legend.”
“What wasn’t just a legend?”
“The story of Pharaoh’s daughter, of course. When I first read the story I dismissed it. But it was in the journal of a captain of Pharaoh’s guard who said he had helped bury the temple of the two goddesses. It had to be buried, he wrote, because it still held the sacred texts of the gods, and in those lay the ritual of immortality — a spell, which had been used on a royal princess, who was now immortal. I figured it had to be just a story he came up with to explain the destruction of the temple, or perhaps it was the story told to him.
“But then,” I could picture the cruel smile on his face, “then that fool Bromley showed up with a statue exactly like the one described in the guard’s journal. I examined the piece closely, and found a golden object hidden within its base. And I knew at least part of what the captain had written was true. So, I had Bromley followed, and when it looked like he had another piece of the puzzle, I sent men to get it.” I heard him sigh. “Unfortunately, they never returned. And neither did Bromley.”
I froze when I realized what he was saying.
Shayt’s voice was very low. “You had James killed?”
“No, no. I simply told the men to get the other statue, by any means necessary. After all, even though I knew from the captain’s writings what area to search, I also knew that without all three pieces of the puzzle, I wouldn’t be able to find the entrance. So, I sent them to . . . retrieve it from James.
“Anyway,” Caster continued, “when I shot you in Cairo, and you didn’t even bleed — well, that was the clincher. I knew you had to be the immortal princess, come to find the pieces of the compass. When I found the statue had been taken, I realized that you were working with,” he motioned toward me, “her. Well, once I realized she was with you, I knew I only had to watch the Cairo market to find you when you returned. Street rats can never fully leave the streets behind.”
My brain told my mouth to be quiet, but it didn’t listen. “Maybe not, but at least we don’t stink like you sewer crawlers.”
That got me another backhand. Shayt growled and stepped forward, but the guy behind me pressed his gun harder into me, and she stopped.
“Now.” Caster turned back to Shayt. “We were discussing the location of the sacred texts.”
The daughter of Pharaoh looked down at the ground. After a moment, she took a deep breath and nodded. Then she turned and headed back around toward the other side of the statue.
She stopped and looked back at Caster.
He motioned the other man to go in front, and he shoved me forward. My leg nearly buckled, but I stayed up and limped forward.
Shayt moved around to the other side, and Caster followed. When I turned the corner, I saw a smaller altar, in a private space, layed out for a ceremony. There was a stack of papyrii in the middle, and candles burned brightly from holders along the side of the altar.
On either side of the scrolls sat a dagger. I wondered which one was Sakhmet’s.
Shayt stayed back, leaning negligently against the stone wall. Caster made his way around to the other side of the altar. His eyes were locked on the scrolled texts, his face greedy.
He looked up at Shayt. “Which one is it?”
“You figure it out,” she answered with a shrug. “You wanted them, you have them. You figure out which one you’re looking for.”
Caster glared at her, but then looked toward me. “You, Bromley. I know your father taught you to read hieroglyphics. Get over here.”
The guard shoved me towards the altar, and I limped around it, hanging on to the stone. I could feel the blood still dripping down my leg, but it had definitely slowed.
My arm was grabbed, and Caster pulled me in front of an open scroll. “Read it.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Shayt had tensed slightly. Shifting my eyes towards the guard, I saw why. He too was now leaning back against the wall, a bored look on his face. His rifle was pointed at the ground.
I leaned far over the scroll, peering intently at the beginning of the text. I knew immediately it wasn’t the one Caster wanted. Instead it was a scroll of prayers to the goddesses, and as I read from the papyrus I let my fingers curl ever so slowly around the dagger on the side.
The guard didn’t move.
“Oh, holy goddess Bastet, hear our prayers and grant us peace from our troubles. Oh, great warrioress Sakhmet, guard us in our –”
With a curse, Caster shoved the scroll aside. He put his gun down on the edge of the table, and reached for another text.
It was what Shayt had been waiting for.
She surged away from the wall, reaching for the revolver. Even as the guard raised his gun, I ducked under the altar, the dagger held tightly in my grasp. I heard shots, and saw Caster drop to the ground, clutching his shoulder. His gun hit the floor several feet away from me.
Shayt was advancing on the guard, and I crawled further forward to watch. He continued to fire his rifle at her, but she didn’t even flinch as the bullets hit. Finally, she reached him, and I saw her hand curl tightly around his throat.
Which was the last thing I saw as there was a blinding pain in my upper back. It was so sudden, and the pain was so bad that for a moment I couldn’t breathe. When I finally could draw in air, it rattled in my lungs.
In shock, I fell back to see Caster’s bleeding, grinning face. He held the second of the daggers that had been on the altar. The first lay forgotten in my hand. It was all I could do to keep my lungs working. For a moment I thought I would black out, and I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to force back the darkness. It receded a fraction and I looked up, hoping to see Shayt strangle Caster before I died.
She had finished with the guard and his body was sliding down the wall. Shayt turned, and Caster plunged the dagger into her stomach.
It took me a moment to realize Shayt was actually bleeding. She seemed stunned, and stared down at the blood on her hands.
I realized that I’d grabbed the wrong knife. Caster had used the dagger of Sakhmet, and with it he could kill Shayt. Fighting the pain and fear, I reached out, looking for something to throw at him, to try and stop him.
Caster, realizing he’d actually hurt her, pulled the blade out and went to plunge it back in. Before he could, my hand fell on his revolver, and I raised it and pulled the trigger.
It was a lucky shot. Caster’s body, with a bloody hole in the back of his head, dropped to the floor. The dagger fell with him.
Shayt dropped to her knees and began making her way over to me. One hand was curled around the wound in her stomach, the other helping to pull her along the floor.
There was an icy feeling slowly filling my body, and creeping across my chest. Hands were on my face, and I looked up into Shayt’s worried blue eyes. There was a pallor in her cheeks that had never been there. I smiled and shook my head. Trying to speak, I could only cough. Shayt held my hand and bent down to whisper in my ear.
“Stay still, love. I’ll make it right, I promise.”
The last thing I remember was hearing Shayt tell me she loved me. Then there was only the dark.
I woke up back in the camp cot I’d been sharing with Shayt. It was getting dark, and someone had lit a lamp. There was a pile of bloody clothes in the corner of the tent, and I noticed that they were mine. I had been bathed and dressed in a clean robe. I shivered in the cool air.
There was no trace of Shayt.
I tried to sit up, but pain in my back made me lie still again. I closed my eyes, tears running down my face, both from the pain and from fear.
Mishra came in, carrying a bowl of broth and bread, as well as a jug of water.
“I’m glad you’re awake, little one. The princess was worried about you.”
My ears perked up at that. “Is Shayt alive? Is she all right?” I tried again to sit up, and gasped as the pain flared again.
She pressed a hand against my shoulder. “Yes, Daryl, she’s fine. Now, rest easy. You’ve been healed, for the most part, but you’re still very weak.”
“I’ve been healed?” I slumped back against the pillows. “What do you mean, healed?”
Mishra just smiled and gently stroked my cheek. “Eat first. You need your strength.” She settled herself next to me. “And as you eat, I’ll tell you everything you missed.”
Her story began just after I left the camp. She told me of Achmed and Ishaq taking up positions with the two rifles they had. Onuris had huddled with her near the camels, trying to get them up so they could run if they got the chance.
They didn’t get the chance. Ishaq was shot and killed, and Achmed had been shot in the chest. Caster had left four men at the camp before he drove off toward the temple, and Mishra and Onuris had been tied up next to the priest of Bes.
The men had proceeded to rip apart most of the camp, and had taunted and harrassed the three captives. Onuris, trying to deflect their attention from Mishra, had kicked out at one of the men. They were in the process of beating him when suddenly, Shayt appeared.
Mishra said there had been no warning. The daughter of Pharaoh was just there. One man died quickly with a broken neck. Another had his throat crushed in a powerful hand. The other two had raised their weapons and fired, but the princess didn’t even flinch. Instead, she had stalked towards them, taking the rifle from one and breaking it in half. He’d drawn his dagger and slashed at her, only to find his hand held in a firm grasp. Shayt had twisted his wrist and forced the knife towards his own body, making him slice his own throat.
The last man had actually knelt in front of Shayt, calling her goddess and begging for mercy.
“She stood there, watching him, with this fury still written on her face. I believe she really wished to kill him.”
Mishra shook her head. “No. She had Onuris tie him. He’s restrained now in the back of the truck that we brought back from the temple.”
I looked up at the ceiling of the tent, absurdly glad that Shayt had restrained her fury for that moment.
“Are you sure she’s all right? Caster stabbed her. With the dagger of Sakhmet. I thought it was serious.”
Her brown eyes turned very sad. “I believe it was. When she returned to the camp her clothes were covered with blood. She admitted most of it had been her own, but that she was fine.”
“How did she survive? Did the wound heal before she could bleed to death?”
“No. A wound from the dagger of Sakhmet never heals, Daryl. Never. Which is why it is such a dangerous weapon.”
“But . . . then . . . I don’t understand.”
The priestess leaned closer and touched my cheek. “Do you remember the ritual? The spell we thought she was going to cast?”
“Well, somehow, even while dying from blood loss, she cast it. And it healed her.”
“Oh.” I thought about that for a moment. “So, it was some sort of healing rite?”
She shook her head. “No. It is vastly more powerful than that.” I waited. She closed her eyes, then opened them again, and looked solemnly at me.
“It was a ritual to give her the powers of a god.”
I stared at her. “What?”
“It gave her the powers of a god. And she used those powers immediately.” She pulled the blankets down and pulled the robe slightly away from where the wound in my leg was.
Or rather, had been.
“She used her powers to heal you.”
There was a only a small scar left, surrounded by reddened tissue.
I fingered it gently, not sure what to think about the whole thing. Looking up at Mishra, I asked, “My back?”
“Healed as well. She said you would be in pain because of the initial trauma, and also because you had lost so much blood. But you should regain your strength quickly.” She paused. “Achmed is already up and around, but his injury was not as serious as yours. The bullet to his chest missed his vital organs, while your lung was pierced and torn.”
Remembering the sound of my breath rattling in my chest, I shivered. Mishra gently pulled the blanket back up over me, and gathered the empty dish from my meal.
“Rest now. I’m sure you’ll feel better soon.”
She was raising the flap of the tent when I called her name. The priestess turned back to me.
“Where is the princess?”
Mishra frowned. “She’s out sitting in the valley. Watching the stars rise.”
“How long has she been there?”
A sigh. “Too long.” Then she left.
It was full dark before I felt strong enough to look for Shayt. I could see her sitting in the middle of the valley, half way between the camp and the temple. Her knees were drawn up to her chest with her arms wrapped around them.
She looked neither like a princess nor a goddess.
The moon was already high in the sky, beginning it’s downward descent. Only a sliver away from being full, it lit the valley floor with an eery silver light as I slowly made my way over to the silent figure in the sand.
I stood beside her for a moment, waiting for her to acknowledge me. Finally, she looked up and I smiled at her.
“Mind if I join you?”
She shrugged, and I sat down beside her, letting my shoulder touch gently against hers. Together, we watched the stars overhead.
“Yeah. Still sore and tired, and kind of weak.”
Shayt nodded. “That’ll pass. You lost some blood though, so take it easy tonight.”
“‘Kay.” I waited, hoping she’d say more, but she just went back to stargazing.
“Are you all right?”
“Are you sure?”
I waited, then heard a sigh come from her. She lowered her head and shrugged.
“I’m tired, too.” Her voice was very soft, and full of pain. When she finally raised her head to look at me, there were tears in her eyes.
“Please don’t leave me again.”
There was a soft laugh, with no humor in it.
“I can’t. By using the ritual I took away my last chance of ever dying.” She shrugged. “The only thing now that can kill me is a direct interference from Sakhmet. And she sleeps silently under the earth, a long way from here.”
“Why didn’t you just let me die? I could have joined you.”
“No.” Another shake of the dark head. “I promised your father I’d take care of you.” She paused. “Besides, you deserve to live, Daryl. There’s so much for you to explore, to understand. I couldn’t let him take that away from you — I just couldn’t.”
I realized then that she had traded her death for my life.
My arm circled her shoulders and squeezed. “Thank you, Shayt.”
For the first time that night I saw a genuine smile cross her face. “Your welcome.”
We sat silent for a time. I could feel the emotion building up, and I tried to think of a way to let it down gently.
“Can you fly?”
She looked at me confused. “What brought that on? What do you mean, fly?”
“I mean fly, like a bird.” There was a quizzical look on her face. “Mishra said you had performed a ritual that gave you the powers of a god. I was just wondering if one of those powers was for flight.”
She chuckled softly. “Sorry, Daryl. I don’t think that’s one of them.”
“Darn. I always wanted to fly.” She chuckled again, and I grinned at her. “What can you do?”
“Well,” she frowned, “I’m not positive. I know I can heal people. That was the main reason I decided to use the ritual, so I could heal you.”
“And I can . . . I don’t know. ‘See’ things in a way.”
“You mean you couldn’t see before?”
That time I got a full laugh from her. “Of course I could. I mean, I can sort of see things that I couldn’t before.” She closed her eyes. “Like, I can tell what’s going on in the camp without being there, or even looking that way.”
I glanced back toward the camp, and saw Achmed up pouring himself a cup of water.
“And what’s Mishra doing?”
“She’s telling Achmed that he should eat, and stop drinking wine.”
I grinned. From this distance it had looked like a water skin to me.
“That’s pretty good. What else can you do?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I can kill five men without even thinking about it.”
Her voice had dropped again, and I instinctively reached out to touch her cheek. I realized she was crying.
“Hey.” Her face turned towards me. “It was not your fault, Shayt. You were forced into defending yourself, me, and everyone else. We all would have been killed if you hadn’t acted.”
She shook her head. “I didn’t have to kill all of them, Daryl. I didn’t have to.”
“You didn’t kill all of them.”
“Right. I left one guy crawling in the sand begging for his life.”
“That’s not what I mean. I mean, you can’t take responsibility for Caster’s death.”
I took a very deep breath and let it out slowly. “I killed him. I shot him. Remember?”
Blue eyes widened and I heard her inhale in surprise. There was a pain in my chest as I realized that I really had killed someone. Tears rolled down my face.
Then I was in her arms, and she was crushing me against her as I cried on her chest. Her own tears dripped onto the back of my neck.
We held each other for several minutes, letting the emotions settle. Finally, she eased her hold. I moved around in front of her, leaning back against her chest and pulling her arms around me.
She squeezed gently and kissed my cheek.
“I love you, Shayt.”
“I love you, Daryl.”
Once again, silence descended on us, and this time I felt no need to break it.
There was much we needed to talk about, the violence of this day being only one in a list of many. There were also her new powers to talk about, not to mention our future, and so many other things. But for the moment I was content to simply be in her arms, and know she was alive, and we were together.
It was enough.
The moon was nearly to the edge of the horizon by the time Shayt stirred. She kissed me once more and sighed.
“Come on, little one. Time for you to be in bed.”
“As long as you’re there with me.”
She smiled as she stood up. “I’ll always be there with you.”
I grinned and let her grab my hand to lift me from the sand.
We walked slowly towards the camp, and I smiled, just happy to be at her side.
A thought crossed my mind. A question that I wasn’t sure I should ask.
Hesitating for a moment, I took a deep breath, and then let it out. “When I went into the temple with Caster, I really thought I’d find you dead. I was hoping, of course, that you weren’t. But I thought . . .” I bit my lip. “Achmed said you’d been there for over half an hour. Long enough for you to . . .”
I trailed off, not sure how to ask.
Shayt stopped walking and pulled me around to look at her. She cupped my face in her hands, and gently kissed my forehead.
“I didn’t do it, because I couldn’t.”
I felt my eyes get wide as I realized what she was saying.
“I couldn’t do it, because I love you, Daryl. I had the knife in my hands, and I raised it to my chest, and I was going to strike. And every time I did,” she smiled at me, “every time I did, I saw your eyes, and felt your touch. And I couldn’t do it.”
She shrugged. “Guess you gave me that reason after all.”
I couldn’t speak. Once again I was crying, then her fingers wiped the tears away. She kissed me gently and pulled me close to her.
“Shayt?” I asked when I could speak again.
“Thank you for my life.” I pulled up and looked at her. “I realize what you gave up for it. Thank you.”
There were more tears between us, and a few gentle kisses.
Finally we started walking back to camp, arms around each other.
Despite being tired, neither of us slept till the sun was high in the sky.
I write the ending of this tale from our suite in Alexandria. The sun is setting, just dipping below the horizon, and the glow lights the city in a golden haze. It is beautiful. More so, because I am content.
Shayt is currently getting dinner for the two of us. Though she does not need to eat, nor sleep, she does both with me. We have developed a routine between us. In the morning she shares breakfast with Mandisa and I, then leaves to work in the city. She’s trying to help in the impoverished districts as well as working to build a new Alexandrian library. I spend the mornings working in the garden, learning from Mishra the names and uses of plants. For lunch the two of us normally take a picnic basket into the city, meeting Shayt near the open market here. Then she returns to work while I study with a tutor in Alexandria.
Dinner, usually late for both of us, is taken together in our rooms. It has become our quiet time, when we talk and touch, and enjoy being with each other. Enjoy being alive.
It has been four months since we returned from the desert. The temple there lies once more hidden beneath the sands, it’s sacred texts protected by the ancient spells. The compass is in pieces, though this time they are all here in the house of Bes, under his protection.
Shayt’s powers have not grown, and she has done little to explore them. I think she is still afraid of them, not wanting to be seen as a goddess. While there are many here who know what has happened, they don’t press her or question her. I think her living here has made her more accessible to them, and they find her all the more human for it. They do, however, respect her and her new abilities. When the young son of a priest was injured in a fall from a tree, it was to Shayt they brought him. She healed his broken arm with almost no thought.
No one was truly surprised.
Shayt also spends time in the inner sanctum with Bes. Sometimes these sessions leave her mellow and relaxed, other times she returns exhausted and upset. I think the god wants something from her, and has a plan she does not wish to fulfill. Occasionally they simply talk, and he tells her of the powers she now has. Other times he tells her of events outside of Egypt, things he wishes her to do. So far, she has refused.
I worry about her though. She has accepted her fate now, but I still find her sometimes sitting and watching the stars, a forlorn look to her face. I wonder, as I grow older, whether or not she’ll regret her decision. After all, despite everything, she’ll be forced to watch me die. And this time, there’s no possibility of her following me.
I have yet to meet the god outside of a dream, but he does occasionally send me messages through the princess. One of the first ones he sent was to tell me she cannot fly. Not that it matters. Spending every night in her arms is enough for me. Another message, though, and one that he has yet to explain to either of us, is that I only need to ask. For what, I’m not sure, and Shayt says she doesn’t know. When she asked, he said we’ll both know when the time came. I think he just likes to be mysterious.
The tutor I’ve been working with is convinced I’m now able to pass all necessary tests to enter the University in London. Shayt insists I go, saying that my education is important. I’ve tried to tell her that I have a better teacher than any Oxford or Cambridge could give me. She smiles, but has booked our passage on a ship to Bristol. We leave in a week.
I’ll miss this place. It has given me peace in many ways, along with a future that I never dreamed of. I no longer look at life as a struggle, but as an adventure. A puzzle. A gift.
Looking back at the pages of this tale I find myself amazed at the journey, and its ending. I remember that night on the train, finding myself writing of Shayt’s immortality, and being uncertain of her sanity or mine. I wondered then how she felt when she was shot; if she felt pain, or any other physical sensation. Now, I wonder what she feels when we touch each other in the night, when we drive each other mad with pleasure.
I know for me insanity feels . . . wonderful.
Daryl Chelsea Bromley
July 28, 1931