From the depths of despair and terror she had cried out to Isis, and out of the depths of the foul pit of the Vault of the Damned there had risen in answer a voice Nephri would not have thought to hear again outside the halls of Osiris.
Then her brother Ozymandias had been right after all, in thinking that by chaining her here in peril he could lure the youth he wanted to kill. En Sabah Nur had indeed come for her, crawling through the dead and rising up from among them in the flickering dim of the cavernous Vault. More fearsome than the serpents that wound threateningly about her limbs, he had seemed a very apparition of Set, the comely body-shape of a young man topped with the features of a monster, blue-marked and heavy-jawed, rearing up from the corpses and snakes, gray skin coated with filth.
He had offered her no harm, though, hastening near to strip the rot-slimed coils of the asps from her limbs before the death in their fangs could reach her. Her soft skin still burned from the scrape of their scales across it as he had snatched them away. Now the snakes slithered agitatedly through skeletons and across the stone at her feet, and Nephri paid them small heed, her brown eyes fixed in horror on the great thrashing the lesser reptiles fled, where her rescuer was himself caught in the crushing coils of a monstrous serpent, the late-arriving guardian of the depths of the Vault.
The great, sinuous abomination writhed and contracted, its hiss filling the fetid air. Nephri fancied she could hear living bones break within its grip, through the clack and rattle of the dried ones its lashings tossed aside.
She gave up hope: nothing could survive that deadly embrace, no one. But then the coil surged and heaved, and Nur arched from the abruptly loosened, sagging loops to take a mighty grip of his own on the struggling body and rip his adversary in two, its fluids spilling down on him as he roared his determination and wrath.
Then he was back beside her, the torn pieces of the monstrosity thrown aside as he reached over her head, massive hands grasping the chains above her wrists and breaking them apart with a single jerk. Nephri watched open-mouthed and terrified as he freed her. How could one man, one boy, have the power to do such things?
Did it go along with that fearsome face? What was he, truly, that even he professed not to know?
She stared at him, almost beginning to shrink back. The metallic echo of the snapping chain still rang in her ears, but Nephri pulled her gaze resolutely from the inhuman blue markings and heavy, misshapen jaw to the eyes she had stared into before, in the burial chamber meant for Rama-Tut. She reminded herself that Nur was using these frightening powers for her sake, when her brother had once more betrayed her.
"Nephri, come with me. Away from this." His voice sounded a little tired, but still strong -- and still the same one she remembered from within the pyramid, from the outside of the Sphinx. The voice that had murmured of her beauty -- all men noticed that, but she found her stranger's ingenuously simple compliments infinitely preferable to Rama-Tut's occasional gloating. The voice that had tried to persuade her to leave before danger met them at the Sphinx.
He didn't wait for her to answer, but scooped her up and tossed her over his shoulder to carry out. She choked, pulled hair out of her mouth, and then swallowed the indignant shriek of protest at such treatment. No further noise; Ozymandias would be waiting. He had probably heard them already, but she could hope to give him no more clues -- and if the way Nur was carrying her lacked dignity, at least it was better than trying to keep up with him while stumbling through disheveled skeletons. ~Be still,~ she told herself.
Her heart suddenly reproached her, too, with the memory of what she had done after he had seized her wrist to prevent her uncovering his face. She had protested, had sworn never to abandon him -- and then later had turned from him. ~Ah, Nur -- you refused me and defied Tut out of fear that I would do... exactly as I did. Forgive me... I will not break my oath to you again!~
Nur had reached a comparatively clear piece of ground, and Nephri twisted to see the space ahead of them -- there should be a way out, and perhaps she could keep up now. Surely she was encumbering him -- "Nur -- put me down," she told him, her voice a bit breathless from having her ribs pressed against his shoulder. She felt the muscles tense in the arm anchoring her, and realized he probably thought she meant that she wished to be away from him -- ~No!~ "I can walk with you now; put me down," she insisted.
The next second she landed hard on her side and blinked dizzily before scrambling to regain her feet and breath. She was about to complain -- ~I didn't mean for him to fling me down!~ -- when she saw Nur struggling to rise himself, pitched forward among the corpses with a spear piercing his shoulder. He must have thrown her aside to safeguard her from it....
Nephri started towards him, but twisted to glance back at the sound of her brother's voice calling out insults and commands from behind his troops, urging the soldiers onward from the main entrance to the Vault. Her foot hit something slick while she wasn't looking where she went, and she slid and fell, bruising her hip. She had to jerk back out of the way as booted feet dashed past.
Fury boiled inside her suddenly, the blood throbbing behind her eyes. She was distantly surprised at the intensity as she climbed to her feet again and watched with unrepentantly savage satisfaction while her rescuer broke the spear impaling him and tossed Ozymandias's men aside like so much chaff. When he broke the last one and turned to look for her she ran to him, realizing only as she reached him that he had grown during the battle, into a giant. Pushing bewildered awe to the side for later, she took note only that his eyes lit when he saw her coming before she turned, back pressed against him, and glared back at her brother with all the force of her newfound rage.
She had been sickened and angered long enough at Ozymandias's growing cruelty, at the way he played at being the usurper's toy and used her as a tool in his quest to regain their family's power -- but even that was not beyond what might be asked of a sister; it was her blood too. But now?
~As if the rest were not enough, as if the indignities to which he had already subjected me were not enough, now he must needs use me as BAIT in a deathtrap for a worthier man than he'll ever be! Well, he has said we are no longer kin, and Rama-Tut is nothing but a thief -- I owe them nothing, and all to Nur and to Mother Egypt.~
More soldiers were on their way after the first group, but seeing the last daughter of the House Royal standing in their path, even men under her brother's direct order faltered slightly. She smiled faintly; it would be a fleeting triumph, but her warlord brother had taught his personal troops too well loyalty to the blood.
"Go on!" Ozymandias raged. "Kill the upstart slave -- and KILL my treacherous sister!" The warlord raised one lean arm into the air, his fist clenched and shaking as if he would strike them from there.
"I am not the traitor, Ozymandias!" she shouted back. "You are the one who voluntarily serves the usurper!"
Still the hesitation, still the too-small space between the pair of them and the soldiers. "Nephri," Nur whispered urgently. "You might want to get out of the way."
"There isn't an out of the way," she pointed out, just as quietly. The path he had chosen could lead them out of the vault indeed, but even if she went past him upon it, the curve of the wall would force her out to where she would be exposed to the battle. "And I swore, did I not, to remain with you? I am untrue to myself and my house and to Egypt as well as to you, if I make myself a liar."
One enormous gray arm came to encircle her waist for the barest of seconds before the soldiers began to move, and En Sabah Nur snatched her up to place behind him in a single motion, whirling back with incredible speed to meet the onslaught. Nephri silently cursed the fact that she'd been taught almost nothing of battle, and pressed herself against the filthy wall to be as little of a target or impediment as she could.
Perhaps at the least she could cause some confusion? "Ozymandias orders you against the TRUE royal blood!" she called out, the piercing shriek carrying even unto her brother through the sound of battle -- she could tell by the venom patent in her one glimpse of his face past Nur's body. "True men of Egypt, turn on HIM!" It was impossible for her to tell whether any even paused at her words, but it had been worth at least stating her position.
Blood showered back towards her as Nur tore the swordarm from one man; she glimpsed another's entrails and shuddered at the ferocity with which her champion fought. ~It is necessary,~ she told herself sternly, squeezing her eyes shut for a second. ~For him alone to take on an army, it is necessary. This is not wanton.~
"Nephri." When she hastily opened her eyes again, Nur was methodically dashing broken and dismembered soldiers back against their oncoming comrades, using them as both bludgeons and obstructions. "Start moving along the pathway. Not too quickly."
His voice cut somehow through the clashing noise of the battle, and Nephri nodded, forgetting he could hardly spare the time to look at her and see the motion, and edged away from the wall and a little closer to the exit.
Nur stepped back, closing the gap between them again. With startling precision, his heel brushed the arch of her foremost foot. Nephri hurriedly backed up again and swallowed. The light, almost ticklish contact sent tingles racing up the length of her leg and stirred her already-racing blood to impulses entirely inappropriate and wholly impractical in the midst of a fight. Her body, illogically, had wanted to halt and let the shift of his weight onto that foot bring him against her. But leaving him no room to maneuver -- he had little enough as it was! -- would bring death, and so she kept her distance and let the feeling dissipate. ~For now.~
A few more steps in that fashion, Nephri cautiously creeping backwards within the shelter of Nur's protection. He kept pace with equal care -- and then set himself more firmly, planting both feet and bracing himself against soldiers who shouted in triumph and surged forward en masse, encouraged by his retreat. Nephri hissed in sympathetic pain at the sight of a barbed spearhead biting into Nur's side, and bit her lip as it jarred and tore free, carrying shreds of bloody flesh with it into the death-heaps. To her astonishment, the wound closed smoothly within moments, leaving no scar. ~Did he even notice it? Surely he must have, but -- it seemed not to have affected his movements at all!~
She flinched at the glint of a long blade loosed from its owner's hand and flying, then gasped as Nur plucked it from midair and slashed through the press before him. With a little space cleared in front of him by the sweep of the blade, Nur leaped backwards -- Nephri scrambled to get out of his way this time. Then he crouched and reached down to scoop up whatever came to his free hand from the heaps of bones and decaying flesh and unidentifiable bits of things Nephri was just as glad not to examine too closely. She was glad enough as well that she could only see parts of the carnage past the one perpetrating it. Once, twice, three times he grabbed handfuls of debris to hurl at their pursuers, and the third time he set down the scimitar. She very nearly screamed in revulsion at the sight of the unwieldy thing he lifted with both hands -- not because it was formed of two corpses tangled together in their decay, but because of the writhing nest of serpents that dangl! ed and dripped from the central hollow.
When it landed in their midst, the soldiers did scream.
Nur half turned and hurried her a few steps back, the large gray hand warm on her shoulder despite the grime and gore smearing it. One of the lampstands flashed past at the edge of her vision, bronze gleaming in the firetray's own warm light, something she barely noticed until Nur seized it and threw it down in the path. The long pole added slightly to the obstacles barring the way for the soldiers, who were already impeded, as she suspected Nur had planned, by the bodies of their slain fellows and the rapidly unraveling tangle of provoked asps. More importantly, the coals spilled out from their tray onto dry bones and rags, and flames began to lick away from their source, rising in the expanse across which any weapons thrown by those soldiers farther back on the path would have to fly.
"Now move quickly, Nephri!"
Unquestioning, she turned and fled towards the exit, but failed to hear his footsteps behind her. Despite the allure of a breeze that reached in from the opening and briefly caressed her breath with its freshness before leaving her to choke on the stench that met the renewed sensitivity of her nostrils and throat, she paused. She turned back in time to see him crouch by a projecting stone and dig his fingers into the rock itself, then throw his weight against it until the unmortared block slid grindingly free. He heaved it towards the soldiers as well, crushing two of them squarely.
It must have been an important support: those above it shifted and groaned. Nephri saw alarm in his eyes when he saw her still there, and turned to run again as the grumbling of the stones began to grow. The pounding of his feet caught up with her and she suddenly found herself lifted off her feet and carried rapidly forwards, clutched against Nur's side by one strong arm.
"That can't have been good for the ceiling," he said in her ear, and then devoted his breath to speed.
~At least I'm right side up this time.~ She drew her feet up to keep them from smacking into his thighs as he ran; his hand caught her under the knees so that she was half cradled, half perched on his arm. Nephri put her own arms around the massive neck and glanced worriedly back at the Vault of the Damned as what looked like half the ceiling smashed down with a roar. A second later, though, they were out.
Out into the blessed air of just before dawn. Nephri tilted her head back and breathed deeply, then bent forwards to press her lips to Nur's temple. ~Dawn is coming and we're out of that pit.... I can almost feel Isis smile.~
Startled people scattered from their path; snatches of shouts reached her ears. "Demon," she heard them say, which angered her.
~No minion of Set would do what he has done. None such could be so gentle, or would try to send me from danger!~
The cries ranged from that to "prince" -- that must have been someone who had paid more attention to the start of Rama-Tut's... announcement... than to its end -- and "queen," which was premature to say the least.
Nur shifted her slightly. "We need to get out of sight! Would they think to look in the burial chamber?" He began angling his run in that direction.
Would they? No. ~Rama-Tut sent Ozymandias to await us at the Sphinx, yes -- but not to seek us out where we hid!~ "Not if we can keep from being seen entering, from outside." Not easy, but in the present chaos it might be possible.
"That could be difficult, but I can attempt it.... We have become rather conspicuous, though."
"Last time we went there, it was after my brother cast you from the pyramid and then you rose up from a lethal fall and glowed. Like the sun. How much more conspicuous can this be?"
Despite the seriousness of the situation, he laughed. Quietly, but she felt the vibration of it in his chest.
"I see what you mean...." Their advantage before had been the chaos and shouted orders, no one paying them full attention for long except the few she had summoned to help her; most had been either fighting at Ozymandias's orders or defending themselves. Now it was Nur's speed and skill at evasion, along with the general confusion and uncertainty as to what, exactly, was going on. En Sabah Nur veered off to take a circuitous approach to the pyramid entrance, traveling around as many view-blocking obstacles as possible in a short time.
Nephri thought rapidly over the list of people she thought they should be able to trust. Those she had been able to count on so far, especially those who had helped her hide Nur before. There were old soldiers whose true loyalty still fell to her blood, who distrusted Ozymandias and the changes in him, who doubted him for his subservience to Rama-Tut -- her on submission they saw as helplessness or prudence; she was only a woman, and if her schemes had been quiet so far it was only wisdom. Ozymandias, some of them whispered amongst themselves, should fight. Nephri knew well that direct resistance to Rama-Tut could, at times, be impossible; she didn't understand all of how he did it, but she knew why her brother had not yet challenged him directly. She had two problems with her brother's schemes to regain the throne, however -- one was that she didn't believe they would work. The other was that she had long since given up hope that his reign would be any better than Rama-T! ut's own.
There were younger soldiers, idealists who loved Mother Egypt with a fervor untempered by time or cynicism, as she did. Of course, the beauty of the princess to whom they dedicated themselves in Egypt's name probably did not damp their enthusiasm... well. Perhaps she was not entirely untempered by cynicism after all. Closest to her and most trusted were her own servants, mostly women who had served her mother before her death. Also their children, and menservants of their house -- and one girl a little older than Nephri herself whose services she had recently acquired from a harsher mistress, a cousin, whom Tut favored in his court.
Nephri knew very well that she had made an enemy -- it had not helped when Ozymandias told the woman jestingly that his sister, after all, would probably not even have needed to cut the girl's face to disfigure a competing beauty. ~Such encouragement of cruelty is the kind of poison Rama-Tut has brought on us. If my mother had been jealous of one of her serving girls the most she would have done would be to veil her, unless she acted to deserve a punishment.~
It would have been wiser of the usurper not to allow her any choice of her own servants.
Her thoughts, flying against a backdrop of sun and sand and stone blurring past while she clung to her secure perch against Nur's side, were interrupted when he abruptly swerved and then halted, half crouched in the shadow of one of the great blocks of stone. It had been abandoned in the chaos of Nur's fall and discovery two days past, the slaves who had been drawing it distracted and likely now dead, and stood conveniently within sight of the entrance that was their goal. After a few moments of utter stillness -- Nephri suspected from the speed of them that keeping his breaths silent and shallow after his run and during this continued tension was a marked victory of discipline -- Nur lifted her again and dashed across the strip of sand remaining between them and their goal.
His timing was good: the only ones so much as facing their direction were the pair of very startled guards at the pyramid entrance. Nephri let go with one hand to wave them hastily aside, but such was Nur's speed that she wasn't certain this had had any effect at all. He halted only a few yards beyond the guards, feet slapping down and skidding slightly on the smooth stone, and turned back. The guards had both turned inward, not attacking -- perhaps they had had time to see Nephri's restraining command after all, or else were simply prudent -- but with their spears at the ready, peering into the gloom.
"Set me down," she whispered. "I will deal with these."
Nur looked warily at the spearheads and the men behind them, but reached over with his free hand to steady her as he let her feet down to the floor. She welcomed the aid, partly because it took a moment for her legs to accustom themselves to standing again after being held so tightly... and partly because his hand was warm against her arm. The shaded air of the tunnel felt chill against the side of her body that had been pressed to his and where his arm had held her to him.
Still, she moved a step away when her balance was back, to straighten and settle garments that had become slightly twisted -- they were not meant for the kind of treatment they had received this night and day! There was nothing to be done quickly about the stains, nor yet the broken chains still on her wrists, so she smoothed her hair rapidly -- the snapped end of the chain brushed cold against her cheek -- and stepped forward. This must be dealt with quickly and preferably without further deaths, before anyone could notice that the guards were no longer standing at their prescribed posts and surmise that something was amiss. Hence she drew herself up with all the dignity of her blood and birth, and though she kept her voice soft and sweet, she gave it all the assurance of a princess who was certain to become queen, with the blood of the gods in her veins. "Guards."
"High-born." The voice was respectful, though edged with uneasiness -- and it was familiar.
~Bless our fortune; the omens are in our favor. This man was here last time I came this way!~
"How may we serve?"
"You may return to your posts. We will proceed deeper into the chambers of the pyramid, and you will remain to guard the entrance -- and not speak of our presence here, to anyone." She looked at them keenly, especially the one who had spoken. "You understand me, do you not? You have aided us before. You will tell no one."
"No one, High-born," the second echoed -- good, then; it was the same pair. She heard him carefully firm his voice in the midst of his next few words. "Even unto your brother, or Pharaoh."
"Excellent. When you are relieved, say nothing to those who replace you. I will speak to them as needed."
"As you command."
"Now return to your places. The pyramid does not appear as it should with you here."
She turned back to Nur before they could respond, but heard their withdrawal to the mouth of the entrance. "Come," she whispered, laying her fingertips on a gray arm in the dimness. "They will neither follow us nor report our presence."
The passageway began to seem less dark as they progressed deeper and her eyes adjusted again to torchlight rather than the sun; she noticed at some point that En Sabah Nur had forsaken the gigantic size to which he'd grown during the battle.
Five more pairs of guards met them and stood aside for them to pass, the princess and her tall shadow-gray warrior, with promises of silence. Nephri lifted a torch from the wall just past the last two, and reached up with it to light the first lamp as they entered the main burial chamber.
Nur took it gently from her hand to finish the rest; he could reach more easily, and Nephri crossed to the mound of cushions in the center of the chamber and sank down on them, heedless of the blood and decay that still spotted her garments. The pillows she'd had brought could be replaced or removed if need be, and even if they were not, well, she cared nothing for defiling the usurper's eventual place of eternal repose.
She watched Nur light the last of the lamps and carry the torch back up the passage to return it to its holder, and bowed her head to look at the remnants of her bonds. It still stung, that her brother had treated her so -- and it awed her to remember how easily Nur had broken the metal, more to recall that he had come for her through such obstacles even then. She was trembling slightly now, uncertain whether the agitation in her stomach and breast, the heightened pulse she could feel in her throat, were due mostly to fear of what they had begun -- for this was a rebellion (or from her perspective a reclamation), beyond doubt -- or to exhilaration.
Bare feet, especially of one skillful at stealth, can be very silent on a stone floor. Her first awareness that Nur had returned was his low-voiced "Nephri?" just before he joined her on the heap of cushions, his own clothing leaving more smears than hers.
She looked up quickly and offered a smile, wearier but warmer and far more genuine than those that had dazzled the court since she was little more than a child, and with her eyes alight. Touched of any of the gods or none, he was her savior, her champion, and with him so close by her side she found that exhilaration was winning out.
That and wonder....
"En Sabah Nur," she replied softly, reaching to touch his hand with slender fingers. "I have not yet thanked you for returning for me."
The long-fingered gray hand that could break bronze like dry twigs turned itself palm up to close on hers in a gentle grip. "Of course I returned."
"It was not 'of course,' to me," she protested. "Why should you come to such a place of death for my sake?" Yes, the eyes she looked into now were the same as those in which the lamplight had danced last time they had been here, save for being clear of that lingering dazed delirium which before had been dispelled only by an equally fevered determination at her mention of the Sphinx.
"For your sake, exactly," he affirmed, deep voice warm and tender, just faintly reproachful. "Have a little faith in me, Nephri." He shifted his balance a little, raised his free hand and moved a lock of hair from her cheek, ever so gently with fingertips that still had blood under their nails, though he seemed to have rubbed most of it from the rest of his hands. "I told you before, I care for you. I could not stand by in hiding and watch you hurt, not when I could intervene. Certainly not when... when it was because of me in the first place."
Nephri shook her head and told him adamantly, "You were not at fault. You did try to warn me away; I didn't listen." She had, she recalled, been quite vehement about not going back to safety. "Don't look so sad, Nur," she added more softly. "I can certainly not blame you for Ozymandias and Rama-Tut using me to bait a trap for you -- yes, that is why they left me there --"
"Then it was because of me," he interrupted. "But for who and what I am, you would not --"
She interrupted him in turn, shaking her head. She thought the more of him for having considered it an obligation, indeed, but he did not deserve to feel guilt for the plight he took her from. "Have been there? No. Very well, because of you, but none of your doing."
She leaned towards him, earnestly. ~You must believe me.~
"You deserve no blame in the matter, none! It was my choice to go with you at first; I had heard you speaking to Logos and awaited my chance to speak with the bold stranger who dared oppose both my brother and the usurper-king. They are the ones who receive my anger for what they did to me -- what they tried to do to both of us! But I am glad of it, Nur. I am glad you came for me, glad even that I was placed there, glad even of their plotting now it has come apart around their ears."
Her small fingers had tightened fiercely upon his as her voice grew more intense, and she stopped to take a deep breath before she went on. "I would rather be here with you than back at the court. I would rather be with you than with them, no matter what, now I know you." She let her lips curve into a slightly teasing smile as she added, "I only wonder why you began to care for me at first," reveling in the knowledge that he did and asking playfully for compliments even as she did, in truth, wonder why and marvel at it.
She regretted her teasing the next instant as Nur's demeanor grew somehow yet more serious -- ~Does he ever smile?~ she wondered suddenly, remembering that although he had laughed once, she had not seen him do so since Rama-Tut had uncovered his mouth... not that he'd had much occasion for smiles so far -- and she suddenly felt she had somehow wronged him by the asking, or perhaps by the lightness of her tone.
"You rescued me first, if you recall," he said quietly, "and I... I had never before been touched so, by such gentle hands." She felt his thumb stroke across the one he held, but he never took his eyes from hers. "You didn't seem to fear me; you hid me from your own brother and the Pharaoh, and offered aid... offered your heart... soothed me with the softest, warmest hands I ever felt. And --" He stopped abruptly and turned his head away; while she had some doubts as to how to read that strange visage, Nephri could hardly misunderstand this, and the pain in his voice when he resumed speaking made her heart go out to him. "And do you think that because my face is... hideous... I cannot appreciate beauty, and adore the loveliest woman in the land?"
"No, I --" she stopped, reproaching herself bitterly for that word, those looks, that had too clearly left more lasting cuts than the soldiers' weapons. Gathering her courage, she stretched out her hand and touched his cheek, lightly fingering the blue mark. The texture was almost imperceptibly different beneath her fingertips as she traced the streak from the corner of his mouth to the tip just in front of his ear before laying her entire hand flat against his face along the length of the mark. He looked up with a faintly startled expression. "Nur... please, forget I ever said that. ...I beg of you, my love." She couldn't find the words for more, so she fell silent and let her eyes plead with him.
Not for long; Nur turned his head slightly, bringing his lips to the edge of her palm and sending cool fire up the length of her arm, and her eyelids fluttered down for a second.
"Consider it forgotten," she heard him say, and when she opened her eyes again it was to meet his as he drew her suddenly close, her side against the left half of his broad chest and her shoulder tucked into his, and stared at her with such heat she could not look away. Nor did she wish to.
The skin of his body was almost scalding against hers in the slight chill at the heart of the pyramid; she yielded this time to the impulse to press against him, her softer flesh seeming to mold against gray-sheathed hard muscle while the heat spread through her along with desire. He broke the lock of their gazes to drop his mouth to the base of her neck, and Nephri shivered as gooseflesh sprang up all along one sleek arm and leg. She twisted in his arms to embrace him and buried her own lips against his throat, drawing an answering shudder with a dancing flicker of her tongue, barely registering lingering odors and tastes of decay that any other time should have made her retch, or the hint of salt from sweat. The thought occurred to her and brought a smile that at the least he should not think her own shiver had been disgust, and then it fled as she rose up on one knee amongst the soft cushions and swung her other leg over his.
Nur made an incoherent sound deep in his throat as she settled again against him, her leg now draped around his waist and hip, and then brought his hands up onto her shoulders from behind and tumbled them both down into the pile of cushions, heedless of the muck and stench they both still carried. Nephri shook her head, trying to clear her long hair from her eyes and mouth, and then frowned as Nur stilled suddenly.
"Nephri... we don't have time for this. We will be discovered." It was almost a groan.
She looked up, through the dark strands still over her eyes, at the gray body that arched above her, propped on one strong arm, and at the unmistakable strain in his face. His eyes were shut; she had to concentrate to attend to what she saw with her own instead of on sensation alone, the fire within her and where his body still touched hers. Frustration rose even though she knew he was right... ~Yes, we'll be discovered if we stay too long... but... but not yet, surely!~ ...and the movement of her hips that brought back the pressure of his weight against her was almost unconscious, almost involuntary. Almost.
She wondered fleetingly if she should feel remorse, but then forgot to think of it, lost for time she didn't count in feeling only, thin garments pushed out of the way, eyes closed or fixed almost sightlessly on En Sabah Nur's, lost in warmth and love and the tangle of tongues and of limbs, pleasure, heat, pressure, occasional pain not worth notice, and a crescendoing urgency, one he matched, something as irresistible as the flood-time of the Nile that subsided at the last and left her spent, panting, yet still somehow enriched like the fertile banks left to steam in the sun once the river retreated.
"I am going to kill your brother, you know. Also Rama-Tut." His voice rose no louder than the rasp of their breathing had all this time, a conversational whisper.
"...Yes." ~I thought we had already established that.~ "I knew this." Even her own brother's death, she could approve now; she had known that either she or he must die since she had called to the soldiers to turn on him... no. She had known since he ordered them to kill her. Nephri preferred not to be the one to die. With Nur by her side, she even believed she had that chance.
He tensed suddenly and lifted himself partly off her, frozen for an instant with legs bent and the fingers of one hand still splayed on the ground, the heel of his palm just touching her shoulder, breath held, head tilted and eyes alert as if he listened to a sound she had not heard. Then came a clash of metal and a noise, softer but still audible in the otherwise still tomb (or did she only imagine it?) that Nephri had lately learned to identify as the ripping of flesh, and Nur had moved more rapidly than she would have guessed possible, springing over her and out toward the sounds of combat. A hastily whispered "Wait here" and the flutter of air were left behind.
~He was right when he said there was no time: we are discovered,~ Nephri thought ruefully. She rose swiftly herself and went to fling aside the drapings she had used to conceal that which she had secreted here, conspiring with her servants, when she had planned to hide Nur for longer than had proved to be required. She had not known whether she would have need to attire herself for disguise or ceremony to emerge, and touched a luck-amulet in thanks that she had prepared for either before shedding her elaborate, now bedraggled, gown to catch up and drape herself instead in a simple white linen robe that would shield her at least a little in the desert. She could hear low voices echo faintly as she changed; Nur must be speaking with the guards at the entrance -- she'd learned through seemingly idle questions that the hallway was built in such a way as to let the innermost guards hear what happened farther out.
She snatched up a tiny gold pot of kohl and for the sake of speed forewent brush and mirror, dipping her fingers in and streaking the dark makeup over and under her eyes by feel, with quick motions.
The slap of running bare feet -- Nur's: guards or soldiers would be shod -- approached. "Nephri, your guards killed three searchers. We have to go; bring something to shield you from the sun if you --" The rapid words and steps halted simultaneously as she turned to see him in the doorway. "Good," he added, in a rather startled tone. Nephri clapped the lid back on the kohl pot and cast it down after he shook his head at her quick offer of the protective dark powder. There was a plainer one bound to the waterskin she snatched before running to be swept up by Nur's outstretched arm. Her aging nurse had dreamed, she said, that her mistress would make a desert journey if she took in this stranger from Deshret, the Red Lands -- and while it was, to be sure, important to interpret symbolic dreams, only a fool ignored the ones that made their meanings obvious.
She found herself clutched firmly against Nur's side yet again, as he sped back along the dim hallway, past the innermost guards, who were returning to their waiting stance after having readied themselves to help their fellows ahead if aid were needed.
It had not been, thus far. Glimpses of these were replaced by the sight of the two guards normally stationed outside and the first pair from within, standing uneasily around the corpses of three slain soldiers. They had turned on their brethren in arms for her sake, as implied in their promise to her. Nur halted long enough to lift one body and hurl it deeper into the pyramid. "Tell them," he said roughly to the guardsmen, "tell them I did this, that I was pursued in here. You are yourselves wounded; they may believe."
~That was a good thought -- we will need such men later.~
No one, she marked with grim amusement, questioned the plausibility of claiming that Nur had, on being cornered, killed three of seven well-trained opponents and injured the rest before -- still encumbered with a woman -- resuming his flight. But why should they? Even those who had not indeed seen him fight, such as these men, would have remarked or been told of the slave who had risen from his fall at Osiris's feet. Who knew what such a one could do?
They did look to her, quickly, almost ashamedly, for affirmation; she nodded, then tightened her grip on Nur's shoulder as he lifted one of the remaining dead men and slammed him against the stone wall, hard enough that bones and armor cracked and broke together. Nephri's teeth clicked sharply with the jarring; she barely avoided biting her tongue.
Letting the smashed body fall to the floor and leaving the third to lie, Nur dashed out into the light again, heedless for the moment of who might see him. The heat of the sand struck up at them at once, after the cool of the burial chamber, although they had not tarried long enough for the blinding sun to be high. Even the youth of the day made Nephri blink and duck her head, fixing her eyes on En Sabah Nur's smooth gray shoulder rather than the light reflecting off the sand, glad of the kohl that helped to ease the glare. Nur seemed unaffected by the brighter light, his skin strangely cooler than hers again -- despite his exertion -- as it had been before the onrush of fever when they'd been first in the burial chamber. Her fingers had left black smudges on the gray skin, next to a splash of fresh blood she didn't think was his, and the manacles that still circled her wrists winked at her when her hair and the hood failed to shade them. Reminded by the kohl-smears, she! tucked the waterskin she'd brought against her side so it couldn't bounce against his shoulder blade.
He headed out into the desert, easily outstripping those who followed afoot and eluding pursuers on horseback. The sand shifted beneath his feet too readily to leave a clear trail, and while she could always find their current direction by the slow-climbing sun, it was not long before Nephri admitted to herself that she had, in fact, a shadow of an idea what direction might lead to either beginning of end of this bewilderingly circuitous path. Nur had come out of the Red Lands and knew them as well as men could, it seemed; presumably he had somewhere in mind, and she would not ask him to use his breath for speech as he raced over the sands.
The only times they were still were two when he leapt for rocky ground and then cover, scrambling over to lie behind larger stones with her, waiting for horsemen to lose the trail. The first came too close and Nur rose up to seize and twist the spear's haft in the midst of the man's panicked thrust, tumbling him from his horse. The weapon snapped just past Nur's hand, leaving him with the spearhead and a few inches of wood; he sighed as the horse shied sharply away, evaded him, and fled. Nur cast the too-obvious mark of his passage behind the rock he'd used for concealment. Then he drank, thirstily but sparingly, from the waterskin Nephri silently held out to him, lifted her again, and ran on.
On the second occasion they were never in sight to begin, and had more time; the rider failed to see them at all beneath the overhang Nur had chosen, and Nur held her still, pressed against the rough sand and rocks she could feel prickle and dig into her flesh through the linen of her garment, until the sound of hooves faded away. She realized suddenly, seeing the brightness of his eyes as they waited, that in a fierce way he was enjoying this. ~Although somehow I suspect he would prefer to be the hunter.~
He did speak to her once, voice steady despite the pounding of his feet. "Are you unhurt? I didn't ask."
~Would it not be a little impractical to do anything about it now if I were hurt?~
"I am well," she said to his ear before letting her voice drop to a sultry purr. "Did I act as if I were injured, before?"
She felt his muscles bunch to squeeze her. "Hah! No, you didn't. And stop making me laugh!" There was a smile on the blue lips as he spoke, and this was only the second time she could recall evoking laughter from him, but she promised solemnly to desist -- at least until they found a place to stop.
In strict truth, the bruise on her hip still was sore when bumped, but that was negligible; it hardly counted as an injury, especially after all she'd seen this night and morn. The low aches in her muscles from a new kind of exercise were still less worth noting, except perhaps as interesting reminders. They did rouse her curiosity.... ~I clutched at him with all my strength, unthinking. I was not likely to hurt him; the thought is laughable! But he cannot have done the same, or I would be hurt. Was it less overwhelming for him,~ she speculated, ~or is it being accustomed to his own power that makes him careful by habit?~
This was not, however, a good time to ask or investigate, and as her lover continued his convoluted journey over the sands long past any evidence she could detect of pursuit, Ra's course made the day blaze ever hotter. The bright rays persuaded her eyes to close and her head to droop nearer the muscled shoulder, and between the rhythm of his stride and her wakefulness all the previous night, she found herself easily lulled.
Still, she was unaware she might have slept until, with the sun high enough to surprise her and hints of sunburn on the skin she'd failed to shade as fully, she felt her feet strike hot sand. ~I heard Ozymandias and Nur both swear 'by the burning sands.' I think I begin to appreciate why.~ She stumbled, blinking, and kept a hand on Nur's arm as she looked around to see... tents. A camp?
"Where are we?"
"The Sandstormer camp -- such as it is, now. Were you asleep?" He lifted the waterskin from her hand and slung it over his shoulder; as she was surprised to find herself still clutching it, this was perhaps wise.
"I think so." She hesitated, unwilling to speak of it, but began anyway. "I thought m-- thought Ozymandias destroyed --"
"He did." Nur bowed his head for a moment in sorrow after that grim declaration, then took her hand to lead her inward, where hills that hid the camels'-hair tents from a distance offered a little shade and cooler, less painful sand. "But Logos spoke to me of an ambush, and if there was time to prepare for an ambush there might, I thought, have been time to send the women and children, perhaps even some of the better livestock, ahead to the next campsite. As it seems was done. It is not really so far as you might think by now, from here to the city -- I did not wish to lead anyone to it."
"Of course not." Nephri looked around again and marked that though the air was still here, there were partially-open tent flaps stirring. Most moved a little and then fell back into place as if someone peered out from the interior gloom. She jumped when one was, instead, flung aside.
A thin, dark woman emerged, dropping the flap behind her and shading her eyes toward the sunnier space beyond the hill-shadow only for a moment before advancing briskly on Nur, who halted. "En Sabah Nur! Have you taken leave of your senses, running through the desert at this time of day, and burdened besides? Where have you been? We thought you and Baal dead, when you did not return to fight for us." Nephri eyed the desert woman in some shock, at the unexpected scolding, although there was a friendly tone in it as well and a glance at Nur told her he was unangered.
"We were lost," Nur admitted to the woman, voice not perfectly steady. "Baal -- Baal met his death trying to protect me." He sounded almost as though he expected words of blame, but was given none. Was this the one of whom Nur had spoken before, who had died, he said, when his own protection had failed? The pain in his voice was the same.
"Live for him then," the Sandstormer woman said, then looked Nephri up and down, her gaze sharp; Nephri drew herself up and returned the inspection. The Sandstormer was a little smaller than she, not very much shorter but clearly built by a much harsher life, with less food and more work. Nephri guessed the other to be a few years her elder, though she was unsure how to gauge years well under the darkening and weathering of the desert sun. "And who is this?" the woman added, after that raking glance.
"She is Nephri, the princess, sister to Ozymandias and formerly betrothed to Rama-Tut. And I am going to return to the city to kill them both -- you will care for her while I'm gone, won't you?" He turned back to Nephri before she could find words to protest being handed off to some random outlander woman, of his tribe or not. "Hatshupet has been my friend for a long time; we were children together. There aren't many, even here, I'd trust so. Wait for me with her."
Nur turned away again, then hesitated and turned back, to pull her impulsively close and kiss her fiercely... and then was off again beneath the burning heat. The Sandstormer woman -- Hatshupet, Nephri reminded herself -- raised her voice after him, crying out, "At least take water!" before stopping, fists on her hips, to shake her head as it became plainly useless to attempt calling him back.
Nephri found herself left standing barefoot on sand warm even in the shadow of the hills, wobbly from half-numbed legs and lack of sleep and the dying fervor of crisis, with the imprint of his lips burning on hers and this woman of his people eyeing her a little quizzically. "He has water," she said, the thought penetrating that this was important, and not necessarily something the Sandstormer woman would have had time to observe, given the way Nur had been carrying the waterskin. She wasn't entirely sure if her voice was audible to the other or not.
"Well." Hatshupet, abandoning the exasperated stare after her wayward kinsman, addressed Nephri directly. "Won't you come in?" Nephri still felt slightly dazed: she had coped with her surprising bold stranger's still more surprising strange actions, with exploration of new depths of betrayal by her kin, and with her own newfound ferocity of both love and ambition, but being sun-dazzled and then deposited in a camp of nomads who'd escaped her warlord-brother's slaughter seemed, she discovered, to tax her composure more than she liked. Still, she inclined her head with such grace and graciousness as she could muster, and stepped into the dark of the Sandstormer tent.
She found it was not so dark after all, once inside; no lamps were lit, but the sunlight filtering through the entrance lessened the contrast with the partial shade just outdoors.
It also smelled. ~Not, however, nearly as bad as the Vault of the Damned. Think how sweet this rankness is by comparison to the reek of years' worth of corpses -- probably still on your body, princess -- before you offend Nur's... kinswoman.~ As Hatshupet followed her in and they both seated themselves on the tent floor, Nephri was struck forcibly by the realization of how little she knew of this champion's life. A most uncommon commoner, a nomad strayed into the city and adopted by the king he planned to kill, a frighteningly malformed, marked visage (which she was becoming accustomed to far more swiftly than she would have expected, and even growing fond of) juxtaposed with a loyalty astonishing in speed and faithfulness -- but almost nothing of the years before she heard his angry words beneath her balcony, music to the ears of one caught as she had been between the usurper and her brother.
"Nephri." She started at the sound of her name, and frowned at its free use. Then it occurred to her that the tribe of one who called in the same breath for the usurper-Pharaoh's head and that of the warlord whose throne he'd taken was perhaps not likely to stand much on ceremony of such a kind (or at least that it might be unwise to insist), that it had seemed natural enough for En Sabah Nur to call her by name, even though she rebelled at allowing it to this woman. ~But not her; he's different! ...Well, that is an understatement, to be sure...~ And, after all, "Nephri" had been her introduction and she had voiced no objections. She smoothed her expression quickly and blinked a few times before accepting the proffered... goat's milk, she discovered. The Sandstormer's expression betrayed a hint of uncertainty that Nephri suspected might explain the excessive firmness in the address. Now it came to mind, the other must be as nonplussed at having a princess un! expectedly left at her tent as this princess was at being left, and Nephri drew enough humor and courage from the thought to smile her thanks.
The Sandstormer woman studied her a moment longer and appeared to relax; Nephri found this unaccountably annoying but countered by deliberately recovering at least the semblance of the languid poise with which she was accustomed to face the men who played their power games with her while forgetting she might play in her own right.
Apparently her hostess took this as an invitation to converse. "So," she said thoughtfully. "'Formerly' the Pharaoh's betrothed?"
"Would I be here, if I still were? I no longer consider myself bound to him or to my brother." The words were quick and haughty, filled with a defiance whose targets were far off.
"So you were willing to come away with Nur?"
Nephri parted her lips to point out indignantly that her status rendered her normally too well guarded to be carried off easily without her complicity or at the very least consent, but the Sandstormer woman had gone on, which perhaps was just as well after the way Nur had torn through the guards.
"I have to admit your arrival was something of a surprise -- did he carry you all the way here?"
"Yes." Nephri thought back over their winding course and added, "Farther than 'all the way,' to be more correct."
Hatshupet blinked. "I beg your pardon? How --?"
Nephri realized her statement had been somewhat lacking in clarity and amended it. "He took a very indirect path to reach your camp."
The perplexity cleared. "Oh, I see. Yes, he would have sense enough to take care on that score -- if not enough to avoid running across the desert in the heat of the day!" A frown. "Surely this wasn't at your prompting?"
Was the woman accusing her? "No, but it was in rescuing me that he found the need to flee."
"From what?" Implicit, Nephri fancied, was the question "What threat could the city offer that might make Nur flee?"
"A plot of my brother's." She frowned herself, resentfully. "The purpose was to capture Nur for Rama-Tut." Deciding it was high time she asked a question of her own, she followed at once with, "He said you were friends, and children together. How did you come to be close? The only boy I knew well as a child was my brother, and he was older; my male cousins preferred each other's company as playmates." None less highly born would have been permitted to consider hers.
The Sandstormer woman's smile, like Nur's, was startlingly bright when it came, though somehow the woman's lacked the same feeling of excessive rarity. "Well, to begin, my earliest memory is when Baal brought his gray foundling to camp one morning before dawn was full, and cast him on my mother's knees. He said, 'This is my son, En Sabah Nur, and you will nurse him.'" The reminiscence turned to laughter as she added, "Or so my mother told me he said. I was too young to listen, and only remember being moved over on her lap to make room for a smaller, squirming warm thing that looked funny to me and seemed to be very hungry."
"A foundling, I should think so. You did not resent this?"
"Not much. I think I'd had my fill and was only curious."
"Where was he found?" The fancy entered Nephri's mind for an instant of his turning out to be a long-lost brother or the like, but no -- surely her parents would not have hid such a loss from her. Most improbable, even if the idea of the Great House having given rise to the qualities in him she had learned to miss in Ozymandias did hold appeal.
"Akkaba, they say."
"Akkaba... I have heard that name." Nephri searched her memory for the word's significance; it had been something minor, yet still sounded familiar. Her eyes widened at the recollection. "Akkaba was a small settlement believed to have been slaughtered by the raiders who killed my father." Her father had breathed long enough to tell Ozymandias his murdering foe's name, that he had called himself Baal of the Crimson Sands but was one who had been known by another name and title in his past. She froze. Baal.
The Sandstormer eyed her steadily. "Our men are raiders," she said calmly.
Nephri swallowed, unsure whether to feel fury or terror. "Baal of the Crimson Sands struck down my father," she spat.
The only reply she received was a shrug, and she found herself shaking, still not wholly sure why. She stoppered the milk and set it down carefully, then let her hands curl until her nails bit painfully into the skin. "My father died defending his son," she enunciated coldly, "and at the hands of a traitor."
The eyes across from her narrowed and kindled as she spoke, the tone sparking heat before the words were even through. "Traitor? What loyalty do you think Baal owed to your father?"
How dare she -- "That due his Pharaoh," Nephri replied after deliberately unclenching her teeth. "And as that may carry little or no weight with," ~Careful,~ she warned herself, "your people, since you have been named to me outlanders and raiders, the loyalty due one who was once a friend. Before my father died he had time to tell my brother that years ago this Baal had been no raider, but his own warlord and advisor."
"I don't know why Baal left that office, but perhaps he was right to forsake such a 'friend.' Your father called his own death when he allied himself with the betrayer Rama-Tut! He's hunted our people since before my birth, Nephri; the People of the Sands were the first to welcome him when he appeared, and he turned on us." Hatshupet's voice was bitter with the outrage of violated hospitality, and Nephri felt some of her own wounded rage at the accusation against her father bleed away as the Sandstormer woman went on, a little more softly but as fiercely as before.
"When your brother led the army of Egypt against us it was not the first time, nor the worst; years ago Rama-Tut led what must have been a far vaster force than the few hundreds sent against us this time, and who could have given it to him but the Pharaoh?" She shook her head and straightened her shoulders. "We were a much greater people before that betrayal and now little more than a shadow's shadow, but we will go on, will survive. Yet even you, High-born, can surely see that Baal would have little love or sense of obligation left after your father had his people treated so."
~So she does know the correct form of address,~ Nephri thought, absurdly, as the dry lilt the Sandstormer put to the title caught her ear. Then she resumed assembling the multitude of stories, whispers, and half-heard conversations regarding her father's death and its reasons. "My father was himself also betrayed," she told the woman slowly. "From what I have heard, I think that once the man you call Baal had departed -- after a quarrel of some kind, nothing ever detailed to me -- he could not find a replacement to satisfy until Rama-Tut arrived."
The Sandstormer made a sound in her throat and opened her mouth; Nephri lifted a hand and went on, though it pained her to trace her family's fall so. "He is impressive, it cannot be denied -- he has knowledge and tools I do not understand, and claims still more, and it can be," she hesitated with distaste for her own coming words, "very difficult, even for those of our line, to resist him directly at times. He seems -- I think -- to have insinuated himself into my father's confidence, but only bided his time until he could steal power for himself." She gave the Sandstormer woman a sharper look and added, a little spitefully, "He seemed entirely too pleased over both my father's death and the manner of it."
The cold look that greeted this comment told Nephri that the remark had struck as desired, but it brought also shame: the spite had been unworthy of her; this woman could have had nothing to do with the raid. Nephri hurried on. "He pushed my family aside and seized the throne and the crowns for himself. Ozymandias has been scheming to displace the usurper ever since...."
"But you don't support that butcher, or you'd not be here."
"Believe me, my brother was not always so. I do not support him; his schemes were unlikely to work -- he can think only on the battlefield, perhaps -- and I no longer even believe he would be better than Rama-Tut, but for the matter of blood. Still, he is not as I remember him. Rama-Tut has much to answer for."
"He does." Agreement on that, at the least, came as no surprise. Then a silence fell, one the Sandstormer seemed to see no reason to break. It left Nephri less at ease.
Thoughts on her brother and what he had done to these people -- not without a high price in Egyptian soldiers, to be sure -- insisted on parading through her mind; she had no desire to ask Hatshupet how the remnant of the Sandstormers planned to go on, to survive as a people, to rebuild, when all their men or nearly all lay dried in their blood in the sand or torn apart by the desert's scavengers. Instead she remarked after a time, "You spoke of the battle against my brother... somehow as if you were there."
"I was," the Sandstormer woman responded simply. Nephri stared at her, astonished. A smile. "This surprises you."
"A woman on the battlefield? Most certainly." She gestured around them, indicating the camp with a flutter of her hand. "En Sabah Nur did say that women and children had been sent away, to here, as indeed appeared to be the case from what I have seen; I thought...." She had assumed, naturally enough, that Hatshupet had been among those sent onward aforetime.
She spoke without pride or shame. "Widowed and childless, I could stay and die with our warriors in my husband's place if I chose, hoping to bear some of our enemies to death with me. I did wound some -- we may not train or raid with the men, but the women of the People of the Storm are expected to be able to put up some defense. I was wounded myself soon, badly enough to crawl to the side, half fainting." She smiled ruefully. "At least after one of my brothers snarled for me to get out of the way and stop hindering. I was only at the edge when the earth swallowed most of both sides."
"When the earth swallowed them?" Nephri asked, taken aback.
The Sandstormer nodded. "The sand opened its mouth and nearly all the warriors fell in.""
"I see." ~Of course it did.~ Nephri absorbed this, nonplussed at the Sandstormer woman's matter-of-fact tone, and opted to retreat to safer conversational ground. "My condolences on your husband's death. What befell him, if I may ask?"
"Nur killed him."
~Apparently that was no safer after all!~
"The previous night," Hatshupet continued calmly, "had been Nur's initiation: three armed men of the tribe against him, unarmed. I watched from a nearby slope -- only the men may be actually present, but it is almost traditional for women and girls with an interest in the results to watch from a distance. No one forbids us the hillsides, as long as we take care; the ground there has long been known to be treacherous."
~Long known? Perhaps their territory when they were numerous enough to require and hold it -- but how can she be so serene as she tells me of her husband's death at Nur's hands, the hands of my lover and their kinsman?~ Nephri sought some appropriate response and found none. ~Perhaps she cared little for the man? It is possible he was chosen for her and against her will, as Rama-Tut was for me, and she has not seemed to be angry with Nur about it either in or out of his presence.~ "I... am sorry for your loss," she finally ventured. "Although you do not seem in an excess of sorrow -- is this your custom or, forgive my frankness, was he as little to your liking as my erstwhile betrothed was to mine?"
Hatshupet's next words held a hint of careless laughter as she shrugged. "Not that unpleasant, surely -- you speak of Rama-Tut as if the thought of him makes your flesh creep."
Nephri blinked -- ~Was I truly so unguarded?~
"No," the other continued, "he was not a bad husband, particularly, but he brought it on himself. He joined in insisting that the rite be a fight to the death -- it need not be, you understand. We would not have survived this long as a tribe if three men had to die for every boy who grew up! And he insisted on taking part."
This seemed unarguable, even had Nephri been inclined to argue. "Why did he insist, then?" Her voice caught dryly in her throat and Hatshupet nodded sharply to the skin of milk. Nephri took it up again and swallowed, the tepid moisture refreshing in her mouth.
"Why did anyone? They feared him for his unnatural looks and strength. Many of them whispered he should have been left to die as was done by the people of Akkaba."
Hatshupet gave her a wry look. "He was called monster, and abomination. Baal's insistence and his own strength kept him alive -- and it is obvious that our kinsmen chose his initiation rite with every intention of killing him." Her voice was hard.
"Your kinsmen, including your husband. And Nur was your friend."
Nephri hesitated. She could understand finding En Sabah Nur's features fearsome, true, but she had learned otherwise. Even the common people and the slaves had come to awe after pure terror. "I have seen him fight, though," she said finally. "I would have thought warriors of his tribe would not be so eager to be rid of him."
"Ah, but those who call him demon are not likely to trust him at their backs, and in any event those near his age especially had to compete with him -- and, as I'm sure you can guess, he usually won even though no one wished to stand with him."
~Which of course did not make him dearer to their hearts, already shut in fear of the features he was cursed with....~ "But you were not afraid."
"I was a girl; what did I have to fear from him more than any other? If he could impart a curse I was most likely already doomed from my mother's breast, and if not...." Hatshupet shrugged. "A blow now and then, perhaps? But I didn't anger him that much. He liked me. And I didn't have to fight him. He could have made me lie with him, I suppose, when we were older, but I was grown up sooner than he was. Besides, I doubt I'd have objected. Nothing to fear...." Her smile turned sour. "So I thought, anyway."
"I was careless in disobedience. Baal had forbidden me to go near his son; I was a bad influence --"
"You? A bad influence?" Nephri interrupted in surprise. Hatshupet had not, to this point, evinced any terribly alarming tendencies....
"Too soft-hearted, too ready to offer help or comfort where I could. Baal said that it was a weakness in me and he could not allow it to weaken Nur."
Nephri was tempted to protest; surely even the greatest of warriors needed friendship, and someone to bind his wounds, and compassion was not an ill thing. She held her peace, though, while Hatshupet went on.
"We were still friends in secret for a time. Then one day I saw him hurt and ran to him, unthinking, right under Baal's eye. It was foolish, I suppose. I was flogged... and when I recovered, both I and the men of the tribe were given to understand that I had best be taken in marriage, and soon, to keep me out of further trouble."
Nephri nodded slowly. Not a terribly unreasonable response to disobedience, except that the initial command still made no sense to her. "If it was you who taught him what gentleness was, I owe you thanks."
Hatshupet looked startled for a second, then laughed. "Do you now? Tell me your story, then. I know the battle, and that Nur carried you here -- but very little of you, or how you came to be the bait in a failed snare for my kinsman in the first place." She eyed the princess evaluatively, and Nephri fought the impulse to try to smooth her hair again, keeping both hands and the skin of milk firmly in her lap. "You are very pretty, but that's not a tale in itself. He'd at least have to have seen you, for one thing."
Nephri thought to herself that, given her probable state after two nights with very little sleep, the Vault, and the journey across the desert, the Sandstormer woman was probably being unwarrantedly kind in her assessment. She nodded quietly and cast her thoughts back for a beginning, passing the milk back to her hostess in the meantime. Hatshupet laid the skin aside and waited.
"My mother followed my father into death in the flood season," Nephri began. "She had been the one who taught me to read the signs and omens, and she was the one who advised me how to behave. I cannot say certainly that Rama-Tut had a hand in her death, but I am almost certain he found some way to contribute to its coming."
Hatshupet frowned; Nephri suspected the Sandstormers tended toward a more direct route to ridding themselves of enemies and rarely if ever engaged in intrigue of the variety found in the court. ~The man who had begun to call himself Baal was a clever enough schemer in his time, surely -- his hand reaches out from death toward Rama-Tut even now, in the person of his adopted son, does it not? Yet somehow I think perhaps he preferred a direct fight. I suspect Rama-Tut succeeded in using him to effect my father's death, too....~ She had no intention of saying so, although she wondered suddenly if the same thought had prompted Hatshupet's expression.
"Rama-Tut pushed the true heirs aside and set the crowns on his own head. Ozymandias, who in the natural course of things should rightfully have had both the throne and me, was made his warlord, and I watched my brother grow cruel when he had formerly been kind to me and usually reasonable. I looked on Rama-Tut's face and saw omens only of fear and doom; the brother I had loved soon seemed little better. In scheming to regain the throne, he offered me up to be Rama-Tut's queen. My true place, yes, but also one where I might gain -- not confidence, Tut knew my contempt for him too well -- but at least --"
"A chance to put a knife in him as he slept?" Hatshupet suggested helpfully.
Nephri blinked at her for a moment and deliberately chose not to be offended by the interruption. Besides, it was an appealing thought in its way. "I was thinking of something a little less messy and perhaps more subtle. Poison under my fingernails and a pretense of passion, perhaps, or simply influences that could eventually bring his downfall."
"Well, the poisoned nails are a good thought, but a knife doesn´t necessarily have to be messy, if you do it correctly. And use a thin one."
"That would still require arranging for the knife to be present without his notice, his sleeping in my presence -- he is cautious -- and most importantly, skill with a knife's use that I do not have."
"I could teach you."
"I think Nur will have taken care of him by the time I would have the opportunity. I am not fussy about who does the killing; I am quite happy not to have to get close enough."
Hatshupet shrugged impatiently. "At some point you might want to use a blade on someone else. As you wish, however. You can ask Nur if you become interested later, but he doesn't know how a woman should fight."
"Perhaps," Nephri acceded, a little faintly. She strengthened her voice as she found her place again in her story. "I was betrothed to the usurper by the time Logos came to bring word of a strong youth living among your people -- with Baal; I now recall his mentioning that name. Rama-Tut ordered that En Sabah Nur be brought to him, and spoke of a wedding present -- thus it was, I think," she said regretfully, "that Ozymandias and his armies were sent against your camp. He rode through the city in a victory parade the day the betrothal was announced."
"A victory? He may have destroyed our men, but more of our tribe remained, nonetheless, than of his army!" Hatshupet exclaimed angrily.
"I know," Nephri said quickly, quellingly. "He was the only one who returned." She met the older woman's eyes. "I did not say it was legitimate; the celebration was all too clearly false. He'd brought back neither his soldiers nor the youth he'd been sent to capture. Rama-Tut knew even before Ozymandias's return; Logos, who'd been sent not to fight but to watch, had brought back his report."
"Who is this Logos? Rama-Tut's eyes and ears?" Hatshupet asked with some irritation in her voice as Nephri paused, both to gauge her hostess's reaction and to fill her lungs again with air. "You have mentioned him twice, both times giving the Pharaoh --"
"Usurper," Nephri corrected in a mutter. She herself had called him by the title, it was true, but that had been necessity and prudence. Now the possibility that she was truly free from his yoke beckoned tantalizingly within reach, and hearing Rama-Tut so called from the lips of another galled.
"--Giving him news of the People of the Storm," Hatshupet continued, unperturbed. There was a flex to the corners of her mouth that might have been a smile, though, and Nephri was momentarily uncertain whether it was amusement at her resentment or -- perhaps more likely given the disgust with which both Nur and Hatshupet tended to speak of the man -- agreement. Or mockery of Rama-Tut himself. "I do not think I like this Logos."
"He was the Grand Vizier and a most curious man, always looking, it seemed, at the stars or designing strange devices. He and Rama-Tut planned out the pyramids together, I think. Not blind to human things, however, look you. He warned Rama-Tut against me." She paused a moment in thought. "Rama-Tut sent Logos out to seek Nur, after Ozymandias's return. He did not bring him back, and it appeared for a time that he had failed also. Then -- and only at this time did I begin to pay attention -- I heard someone speaking to the Vizier beneath my balcony, daring to oppose Rama-Tut and Ozymandias in one breath."
"Nur? Of course he dared." Hatshupet's eyes glittered in what sunlight filtered into the tent. "Both are our enemies."
"I understand that," Nephri replied with care, "but you understand that I was without certain allies but for servants and a few guards -- and few of these underlings had reason of their own to oppose either, but that they were loyal to me. I had little chance of mounting any claim except that which was planned for me, or so I believed. It lifted my heart to hear someone, a warrior by his voice even if, as he said, he hid among the slaves, call for their severed heads."
"I'm sure he will acquire them," Hatshupet supplied loyally.
Nephri smiled; the Sandstormer's faith in her kinsman was borne out by the princess's own experience and instincts. "I believe he will."
"Was this when you first met with one another as well?"
"No." Nephri sighed, and the distaste flavoring the back of her throat flavored her words as well. "I had to attend Rama-Tut at that time, so I departed before the attention of others could fall to the conversation." Her voice smoothed again as she proceeded. "The next day, however, Ozymandias was engaged in tormenting the slaves who had been put to the pyramids, and one whom he struck from the heights did not lie broken on the stones as did most." She lowered her eyes to her hands, mourning once more for the kindness she had once found in her sibling that now was lost, before setting such regrets again aside.
Then she looked up again, the awe of the moment she described still with her. "He fell at the feet of Osiris, and then -- then he rose up into the air, arms outspread, and it appeared as though the sunlight poured from him instead of its natural source; he seemed for a moment to outshine Ra himself. And when I looked on him, through my tears I saw the face of Hope, and I knew that this was my champion. So I spoke with those of my servants I could trust, and disguised myself in a soldier's garb to reach him in the confusion, cover him and have him borne into hiding. As Rama-Tut's betrothed I was given passage into the heart of the pyramids and nearly anywhere else I desired; I hid Nur in the royal burial chamber itself."
Hatshupet clasped her hands with a laugh of delight that sounded also awed. "Then he is truly blessed of the gods, and not accursed as so many of our people feared!"
Nephri heard triumph in the words even though Hatshupet had, she thought, been among those who had at least doubted -- but then, it sounded as though the Sandstormer had allowed such fears less purchase on her actions than Nephri herself. The shame bit at her sharply. "He is. I cannot say which ones laid their hands upon him, but it is certain he is no creature of Set's."
"Well, it seems you at least have laid hold," Hatshupet murmured.
Nephri allowed herself a smile at that and nodded, some small heat blossoming in her cheeks independently of that of the air. "He woke there in the chamber," she continued, thoughts of their second sojourn there rising unbidden to mind, "and I, having sent my aides away, told him where we were and why I had brought him thither.." Half romance and half politics. "He seemed feverish; I sought to loosen the wrappings with which he'd disguised himself, but he seized my wrist to stop me." She paused for a moment, pensively. "I did not then know why."
"They covered his mouth, didn't they," Hatshupet said in tones of understanding. Her eyes glinted, becoming very direct. "Against dust, of course. Many of our men did so at times, when working stone, for instance."
Nephri elected not to seem to cloud the issue by asking what stonework nomads engaged in. She supposed it would be durable, if heavy to transport. "There was no dust in the burial chamber," she replied, tacitly acknowledging Hatshupet's real meaning -- somehow she suspected the Sandstormer was testing to see if she would recognize that protection from eyes had been that of more import. "And, of course, Logos knew he was being sought."
Nephri shook her head. "Logos was not our enemy; at least, not Nur's, I think. He may have desired to use En Sabah Nur against Rama-Tut, but that would have furthered Nur's own aims as well."
"True," Hatshupet admitted. "Still, it's possible to have allies you wouldn't want at your back."
"It is. But I think what came next was none of Logos's doing, though he had little enough love for me. I mentioned the possibility of going to the Sphinx; Nur insisted at once on doing so to spy out Rama-Tut's secrets...." Her lips set for a moment in anger. "Ozymandias had anticipated him. We found Logos bound to a stake; he had resisted torture to conceal his ally's whereabouts, but to no avail. All were caught; to punish those who had hailed En Sabah Nur as savior and godling and who had rushed to his aid when he fell to earth in fire, Ozymandias had had the slaves slaughtered." She had bowed her head as she spoke; Hatshupet's soft, ululating wail caught her by surprise. "What--?"
"No bounds to his jealousy -- were there any among these slaves who wore studded red headcloths?"
"Yes, though I never saw why...."
"They were our kinsmen too, then," Hatshupet replied. Nephri was silenced. "Rama-Tut took prisoners in the midst of his killings; some escaped, but not all. Yet others had survived so far, even in shame...."
Nephri thought on this and then spoke slowly. "When next I see Nur, then, I will tell him that they were his kinsmen who called for water to cool the flames of his falling and who fought most fiercely to protect him from the troops my brother called." There had been one, too, whom she'd enlisted to help bear the unconscious Nur -- she resolved not to raise false hopes, but to find the man if he still lived. If the task had taken long enough he couldn't simply run back to the battle, perhaps he'd had the sense to hide or flee.
"That, at least, is good to know." Hatshupet steadied her voice and straightened her shoulders again. "Now -- what of your capture?"
"We were taken -- I was bound to a stake by Logos's, much to my outrage, and En Sabah Nur was taken elsewhere. In the morning, after a most anxious night, I finally learned why: Rama-Tut had garbed him as a prince, shaved his head, and made ready to declare him his heir."
"But did he not know Nur for a Sandstormer, his sworn enemy?" Nephri was uncertain whether there was more astonishment or outrage in the cry.
"I was not privy to his reasoning," she replied dryly. "It came as something of a surprise, as he'd previously indicated that I was to birth his heir." ~And a most revolting thought that was, too, though with the slightest favor from the gods I should have been able to exert my influence over the child more than his -- after all, any child of mine would have at least a portion of the blood. Then again, my brother serves as a caution.~
"Perhaps he was suspicious of you."
"Probably. At the same time, he introduced a strange woman -- very strange; I suppose hair might be dyed such a yellow color, but her skin was even paler than his -- as his new queen." She thought the new arrival might have been a bit stunned by the honor -- ~Or possibly horror, seeing her new betrothed?~ -- or perhaps sunstruck. She omitted to elaborate on such speculations, however, as she did not wish to appear jealous. Of the office, perhaps, but the greatest notice she'd taken of Rama-Tut's concubines had been to arrange with the physicians to keep up with their health.
"He began the proclamation -- Nur refused to kneel to him, which I was glad to see. He resisted having his face uncovered then, too, until Rama-Tut spoke low to him -- I couldn't hear what he said. The assembled people were terrified first, then awed, and made obeisance as demanded...."
In her heart, Nephri had hoped to leave that part out. She hedged, "I was bound to one of the stakes for those to be executed; I couldn't very well have bowed even had I wished to."
"I wouldn't expect you too. That isn't what I meant." Hatshupet's eyes were as uncompromising as before, but not without some kindness. "I am used to him. You were not, and I can see you have a regret here."
~And I am not to escape admitting it, is that it, Sandstormer?~ "I feared too, and faltered, looking away," she admitted. "He saw it as desertion, for I'd sworn not to forsake him before. I swear now to make restitution my life through."
"Don't tell me, tell him," Hatshupet advised her. "Then again, tell me too. What do you plan? Will you stay with us and live as a nomad, be a Sandstormer's woman?"
Nephri stared at her. "No, I had not planned that. With Rama-Tut and Ozymandias gone, the throne is mine by right of blood, and I want Nur as my consort."
Hatshupet eyed her consideringly. "Does he know this?"
"I assume so...." Nephri blinked, bewildered. "Is that not the natural thing to attempt?"
The Sandstormer snorted. "No. Not really. Perhaps it is for you, but you were raised in the palace. You've always expected to stay there no matter who was Pharaoh. Nur isn't so likely to think of such a thing, much less plan on it. If you want the throne and him beside you, you might want to be sure you mention that to him. Are you sure that's what you want, though? Is he?"
"Of course I'm sure," Nephri snapped, chin going up and spine stiffening in indignation. "Would I have said so else? Why do you doubt me?"
"En Sabah Nur is a Sandstormer," Hatshupet said levelly. "A commoner, to you, if a very unusual one and a very proud one. He won't automatically know all you and your court take for granted, any more than you know how to do all the tasks Sandstormer women do in the camp, or our customs. It looks to me as if he loves you; I will hate you our lives through if you grow impatient or ashamed and discard him, because he doesn't come of your world or doesn't give you the reverence you expect."
The long breath at the end alerted Nephri to the other signs, in posture and expression, that the steadiness of Hatshupet's words had been the result of effort. "I don't want reverence from him. I love him." The words ran a thrill along her breastbone as she spoke them. She grinned, trying to put the Sandstormer woman more at her ease. "You aren't exactly reverent yourself, Hatshupet, and I begin to wish I thought I could bring you back with me to give advice."
Hatshupet laughed. "No, I somehow think I wouldn't care for the fate of a court advisor." She looked mischievous. "Although, if you send a man for me who can find me in the desert, and I like him well enough, I might consider allowing myself to be fetched."
"I will keep watch for such a one," Nephri replied with a smile. She made a note in her mind to be careful of her advisors. The last few grand viziers seemed to have been problematic in one way or another, and either maltreatment -- presumably the source of Hatshupet's doubts -- or over-trust of them could be a danger to the Pharaoh. Especially of advisors likely to hold a grudge and involve others in it....
"My thanks." Hatshupet's demeanor changed then, as she abandoned the laughter and grew serious. "I really do think you had better return to your city. Join Nur there. If you go directly, it's not too far to walk before sunset -- if you're strong."
Nephri hesitated for a moment before confessing, "By this point -- I don't know the direction."
"If Nur was evading pursuit, that's hardly surprising. I'll point you the right way; that should do until you can see for yourself." Hatshupet leaned forward, reaching out, then paused. "May I see your foot?"
A little perplexed, Nephri extended one, leaning back on her hands. Hatshupet ran a callused thumb across the sole, then up the arch and beside the ankle. "Soft, as I thought," she remarked. "I have sandals you can wear; I'll set the straps for you so they rub as little as possible, but this skin is likely to blister anyway." She rose and moved deeper into the tent, returning with a pair of leather sandals in one hand and two long strips of cloth in the other.
"I thank you," Nephri began, "but won't you need them?"
"Not today. If it turns out I do, I can probably make do with others or make new ones. Besides, my feet are hardier. And I'm not one of those who'd say you should be made to go barefoot across the sands to prove yourself."
Nephri blanched at the thought of the burning sand, but pride could be stung as well as skin. "If I must, then I will," she snapped, standing abruptly.
Hatshupet paused in the act of sitting down again, then shrugged and completed the motion. "I just said you didn't need to. I said it was a possible walk, not that it would be an easy one, and you're more used to cool stone than sun-beaten sand -- even if you don't seem that used to sandals, either. I believe you'd try it, probably that you'd make it -- but I want you to get there. Today." She looked up, sitting back on her heels. "Besides, you haven't yet finished your tale, and if I have hold of your feet you can't get away."
Nephri gazed down at her for a moment, then shifted the hem of her robe out of the way and offered her right foot. Hatshupet nodded and began wrapping one of the cloth strips around it and up the calf. "Much better. Now where were you?"
"Tied to a stake."
Hatshupet snorted and looked up. "Very funny."
Nephri suspected Hatshupet remembered perfectly well at what point they'd digressed from the story, but took the hint mostly as it was intended. "Logos warned Nur against Rama-Tut's blandishments and promises, then died with my brother's spear in his heart while Nur looked on in horror. When Rama-Tut called on him to accept and become his son and heir, the new prince turned on him with a roar of 'Never!' and hoisted the usurper by the throat."
"Good." The lone word held a savagery that was startling, though not even remotely surprising. Deft fingers finished wrapping fabric around Nephri's foot with a steadiness that seemed incongruous in the face of the vehemence in Hatshupet's voice. "Was this when he carried you away?"
"Not yet, for Rama-Tut was loose somehow shortly after, and used words and some device that must have been magic -- I didn't understand either, but they cast Nur crashing down from the platform. Then he ordered him dismembered."
Hatshupet scowled over the sandal she was adjusting; Nephri saw the furrow between the Sandstormer woman's eyebrows and was mildly surprised she hadn't yanked on the straps.
She forbore more than a slight smile as she added, "They didn't find Nur to carry that sentence out, of course, and this led to their taking me down and chaining me in the Vault of the Damned, where they cast those denied hope in the afterlife." Nephri lifted her hands together; one snapped-short chain clinked softly against the manacle on her other wrist. "I did not believe En Sabah Nur would come to such a place for my sake, but he did," she said softly.
"It does not surprise me," Hatshupet told her, "but if that was the loyalty your own kin showed you... well. Nur's would be refreshing, and he is unwilling to forsake those who earn his care."
"He... I had doubted he even lived; when he rose up in my sight I was unsure whether I feared the snakes or my rescuer more." ~No wonder he accused me of babbling.~ "Nevertheless, he cleared the serpents from me, heedless of their fangs, and then...." She shuddered. Hatshupet tapped at her other foot during the pause, and Nephri shifted her weight before resuming. "Then a truly monstrous one emerged from the shadows; it enveloped him in its coils as he faced it. I thought him lost, but to my amazement he burst free and ripped it asunder."
She saw the Sandstormer woman smile in satisfaction, then look up, dark eyes laughing. "You truly didn't know him well yet, did you?"
"Because I feared for his life? You did not see that snake," Nephri retorted. "It was the length of several men, and as thick as one's waist or more, and armored all over with its scales. Yet he defeated it, and then he came back, broke my chains, and brought me away, despite the soldiers my brother sent to recapture us. Nur set me behind him and fought against them all, then blocked them with flame and rubble from pursuing -- we took shelter again in the burial chamber, though we tarried a little too long there and were nearly caught, but that the guards kept faith with me. And then --" she paused, realizing there was little more to tell, only the run across the desert. "He brought me thence to you."
Something in her face or voice must have hinted at what she left out; keen eyes studied her sharply before Hatshupet grinned. "Tarried? You lay with him, didn't you?"
"Yes," Nephri admitted, eyes on her hands and a warmly reminiscent smile touching her lips. She felt she should be glowing.
"Good." Hatshupet gave the sandal a last tug. "And done. Now, you should also have water -- don't worry; we have a spring here, only not much grows because it's in a cave and goes back underground." She stood, pushing a waterskin into Nephri's hands, then led the way out to the edge of the camp and past the sheltering hills. "Your city lies that way," Hatshupet told her, stopping to point as rocks gave way entirely to sand.
Nephri nodded and glanced up for an instant at the sky and rocky slope. ~I believe Nur approached from almost the opposite direction.~ She met the other woman's eyes. "My thanks for your hospitality and all your aid," she said quietly. She wanted to promise that the remaining People of the Storm would have nothing to fear from her soldiers, but swallowed the words. Not only would such phrasing offend, but she was all too aware that no matter how their women's and children's current plight and fierce pride moved her, no matter that they were her champion and lover's people, if they eventually resumed their life as raiders she would be unable to allow such depredations to pass unopposed.
"I will return it, and do you and your kin honor, if you allow me the opportunity," she finally said instead. The words promised nothing if they chose to remain in their desert independence, and all she could give if they came to her capital or called on her protection.
Hatshupet smiled faintly, only for a second; Nephri thought it was in understanding. "My youngest brother still lives; the unproven boys were forbidden the battle. He may come to you someday -- I think he would fight at Nur's command."
"I will remember. I would be glad if you accompanied him."
"I told you...."
"To send a warrior able to find you, yes." Nephri arched one delicate eyebrow. "What if Nur approves of him enough to give him a hint?"
Another quick smile. "That might be the only way anyone could find us." Hatshupet glanced at the shadows and nodded again toward Nephri's destination. "You should be on your way. I wish you a good journey."
"Thank you." Nephri turned away, marked the sun, and began walking purposefully toward her goal, glancing back only once to see the Sandstormer woman's form disappear behind the rocks.
The walk was long and arduous for her, with the sun blazing down on her head and the heat of the sand beginning all too soon to strike up through the soles of the sandals at her feet. Nephri gauged the progress of the sun and, assuming from Hatshupet's words and her own lack of experience that she would take all sunset and perhaps a little longer, determined that she would drink just so often and so much as would leave her a little water remaining at that time.
It was as well that she had this to think about; after a while weariness and heat drove nearly all thoughts but that one and her ultimate goal from her mind, and sometimes even the latter. She could feel the incipient sunburn, begun in the hours on the stake and aggravated while Nur bore her away, deepen and goad her brown skin darker.
The sandals were surprisingly good ones, and it was clear by the feel of them that they'd already been worn and molded to the shape of feet -- and just as clear that those feet had been slightly different from her own. They and the wrappings did offer protection, and she was grateful indeed... but even with the cloth in the way, the leather straps soon chafed blisters on tender skin. The sweat that dried on the fabric didn't help. She should be glad the cloth seemed to have been fairly clean to begin with; it was more than she could possibly have expected.
She kept watch on the ground as she walked, fearing to step on anything that could kill her for the offense. The harsh, noisy scrape of rough-edged scales on sand made her look around in alarm; she froze, revulsion nearly choking her, as one of the most deadly of vipers rasped across her path.
It moved on, giving her no notice, and when it was past Nephri swallowed, dry throat made drier with fear, and remembered to breathe again.
When she looked up and ahead, however, she found that the highest parts of the city were in view, and the sight lifted her heart and helped her persuade weary legs to move onward. She refused to let it hearten her so much as to forget herself and drink sooner than planned, though. It tempted her, especially after the fright of the viper -- but no. ~I do not know how long it will take me to walk; it could well still be until sunset or later.~ Besides, she feared her hands would shake.
Later still she was nearly at her goal, hot and exhausted, encouraging herself with the nearness of the pyramid project and the Sphinx, both of which loomed high and filled the sky ahead, when fire shot up from the belly of the Sphinx and out overhead. Nephri ducked instinctively, nonsensically, then turned to follow the bright fiery trail with her eyes even as it faded. Greenish-blue afterimages streaked her vision, and she tried to blink them away as she walked, worry forcing her trudging steps to quicken.
She did not know how to interpret this omen.
There was already visible a great, restive throng gathered on the near side of the Sphinx. The people's attention was all focused, fearfully, inward toward Rama-Tut's stone beast; no one turned to see a lone woman walking up to them from the desert. Something in the mood of the crowd made Nephri wonder if they would have looked up for an army.
She halted a little way beyond the outer edge, unsure of the reason for the assembly -- they had gathered before the fire, she thought, or at least been near -- but why, and what had caused the fire itself? ~It is surely something to do with Nur, but what?~ Nur was powerful; so too was Rama-Tut, but she never doubted Nur would win out. Still, she would have liked to know what that fire had been, and why the very earth and air seemed to quiver with the expectation that something more was about to happen.
Then suddenly there truly was a violent shudder in the ground, accompanied by a roar and a billow of smoke. A moan of fear went up from the gathered crowd, and Nephri glimpsed motion at the side of the Sphinx -- then within moments her view was cleared entirely as the people bowed themselves to the ground.
She stood still, and watched in amazement as En Sabah Nur strode forth from a gaping hole that led back into the Sphinx; the smoke and blast had also issued from there, and it was at the sight of him emerging whole from a place where stones had broken that the people cowered.
He had changed, somehow; he was the giant again, for one thing, and his clothes were different -- a loincloth and a flowing cape of blue in place of his old garment. More than any of that, however, there radiated from him as he looked around at those who bowed and trembled before him a kind of terrible majesty.
Nephri felt it, as her people did, and trembled as well, but not in awe alone -- in exultation and desire. She saw this as fitting to him, fitting to the man who would sire the next heir to the Two Lands. She thought him magnificent.
Impulsively, she stretched out her arms to him. He looked up, and even at a distance she could see his surprise as he saw her and recognized who stood at the edge of the multitude. Long strides carried him swiftly through the mass of people and brought him soon to touch her face, as if to be certain she was truly there, then seize her hands in his.
"Nephri! I'm overjoyed to see you, but what are you doing here?" He spoke quietly, hands tight on hers as she gazed up at him. "Don't tell me Hatshupet sent you away...."
Weary as she was, Nephri could still smile. "No. She sent me to you." She looked past him, indicating with a motion of her chin the destruction from which he had emerged -- and the people, who were just beginning to stir, the boldest among them to look around. "What has happened here?"
At her gesture, Nur cast a quick glance over his shoulder, then turned back to her. "I laid a trap for Ozymandias, thinking he would walk into it in hopes of finding out Rama-Tut's secrets, or be killed by Tut himself in the attempt. Tut was busy with his... visitors at the time -- actually I think they were prisoners, though how he held them I don't know. They had stranger powers than mine: one was stone; one turned to fire; the third's body and limbs stretched -- I might be able to do that -- and the woman vanished before my eyes! They escaped while I confronted Rama-Tut; unfortunately, he then escaped me, but I think we will not see him again. He fled back to the sky or died in the flames he fell from."
"If he came from them, could they kill him?"
"I'm sure they could." Blue lips twisted in what held too much pain and vicious satisfaction to be called a smile. "Were it not for my people's mercy, they'd have killed him the first time."
She squeezed the hands that held hers, and thought gratitude flashed in his face along with tenderness. "What of Ozymandias?"
"Ah, him." Nur's features grew -- perplexed? "He fell into my snare, indeed; I struck him against one of Rama-Tut's devices, intending his death, but instead it turned him to living stone."
Nephri blinked. It was strange, true, but with Nur's actions and Rama-Tut's secrets both involved there was little she would dismiss as impossible. She felt herself beyond surprise, now. "What did you do with him?" What did one do with an enemy of live stone?
"Locked him away and left him chiseling in the walls of a lower chamber, once he awoke, while I went to find Rama-Tut. I think the device made him a prophet of sorts; Rama-Tut said it held secrets of the future, and I believe that because my people's Eye of the Ages was once a part of it, and that gave visions. When Tut departed, the fire destroyed some of his devices; I destroyed more in my anger at not killing him myself, and... I think the rest should be sealed away."
His hands tightened suddenly on hers, voice low and urgent. "Nephri -- come away with me, out to the desert. Will you?"
~So Hatshupet was right.~ She was silent for a moment. "Your kinswoman is wise," she murmured. "Nur, with Rama-Tut gone and my brother unable to claim them, the throne and the crowns are mine by right -- and, my love, how shall I leave my people? They need a ruler." She saw the start of stricken disappointment on his face, felt his grip become almost painful and then begin to loosen; she clutched at his hands to hold them and hastened to finish. "Will you stay with me, here, instead? Lend your strength and honor to the House Royal -- the gods know we need them, that I need them -- need you. Be my champion, my warlord -- and most of all my love."
They stilled that way for a long moment, and Nephri held her breath.
"Will your people accept me, Nephri? Or you, if you keep me at your side as you rule them? For how long?"
"They will. Time enough to deal with it then, if some don't. Look at them, Nur! At this instant they would take you as Pharaoh, without care for your blood or features, much less that you rejected Rama-Tut's adoption."
"Only because they are afraid."
"What of it? I am not."
They stared into one another's eyes for the space of five heartbeats, while the throng, finally all aware of the conversation though not its content, looked on.
Then Nur said softly, "I will stay," and dropped to one knee, lowering his head until it came level with hers, and he kissed one of the small hands he still held.
A murmur rose from the multitude, and Nur rose as suddenly as he had knelt. He rubbed a fingertip quickly under one of her eyes, then stepped quickly behind her, that her people might look on her; Nephri felt the hood pulled back from her head and the sun falling freely on her hair and face, then his hands warm on her shoulders through the linen. She held her head high as his voice swelled over all theirs, drowning and silencing them with its thunder.
"PEOPLE OF EGYPT, BEHOLD YOUR PHARAOH!"