In the Blink of an Eye
Once again properly fed, I set down my napkin with satisfaction. The meal tasted far better than the last I had partaken in the Winter Palace, even though I had ordered the same plate. It must have been the company. Emile did not pry and was far more charming than I expected. This charm was not staggeringly overwhelming, but it made him a far preferable dinner companion to Moody, who was, if anything, the cliched bull in a china shop.
“I hope you do not mean to walk to your lodgings alone, Helen.”
He still paused before saying my name, pronouncing it with unfamiliarity.
My finger traced the rim of my wineglass. “That is my usual habit.”
“Why do you live on that side of the river? It cannot be comfortable for a lady.”
A British lady, he meant, a civilised lady. There were a lot of women living on “that” side of the river, thank you very much. The fact that few of them were European....
But there were certain things one could not say to one’s employer, particularly if he had just treated one to dinner. I let out a small sigh of impatience.
“It is comfortable for me, not to mention closer to the Valley.”
Our eyes met, and I braced myself for whatever attack was going to come. If he possessed magic as well as the power of a Legilimens, there was nothing I could do to keep him from viewing the contents of my mind. I kept watching him for signs of magic, for the things I tried best as I could to keep subtle, but each time, I came up with nothing. If anything, he was a Squib, which made him very boring indeed.
He looked away first. Had he seen any thoughts in my head, they would have only been for him. That was a rather convenient way of getting about Legilimency, thinking of nothing in particular.
“And that is what sets you apart, Miss Black.” He sat back in his chair, arms crossed and a smile on his face. “You place comfort before all else.”
I shrugged. “It is an essentially English trait, is it not?”
There was a small smile on his face. He did not meet my eyes, but he was still amused
“Indeed. And look, I have already failed to retain use of your first name. Forgive me... Helen.” He bowed his head in a way that seemed more French than English. “A perfect name, if I may say so. Your parents must have had a great premonition of your beauty.”
I stiffened automatically. Too automatically.
“Oh, forgive me!” He took up my hand, eyebrows flying up his forehead. “I have spoken wrong. It was a very improper comment and I am sorry for it.”
He actually thought that my reaction was about his silly comment about being as beautiful as Helen of Troy, ha! So his brain leapt from my being “set apart” from the other frivolous English ladies to being as shy and maidenly as they pretended (and it was more an act for them than for me; I practiced what they preached).
I extricated my hand to take a sip of wine, thinking. It was best if he continued to believe as he did; I could not allow him to know anything of my family.
The smile that came onto my face was painful in its sweetness. “There is no need for that, Emile.” A little batting of the eyelashes here, a little pout to the lips there. “I am not used to gentlemen making such advances, so forgive me for my... naivety.”
So the wording was more appropriately that of a virginal bluestocking who’d learnt about “the birds and the bees” from a book, but it seemed to work well enough on him. At least he was more subtle about his attraction, unlike Moody. In just about every regard, he was far superior to the querulous American, and it would not be difficult to believe that Cadogan had singled me out as a tour guide just so that he could look at a pretty face.
I sincerely hoped that looking would be the extent of it.
“Well, I should really be going now, Emile.” Tossing back the last dregs of wine, I rose and planned on making a quick exit. “Early morning tomorrow, if you’re up to it.” It sounded light and cheery on the outside, but was edged with a sharp note of stubbornness.
“What will be the destination of our journey?” He was also getting up, laying down a few bank notes without even glancing at their value.
I started walking away, too fast for him to follow without making a mess of things. He was not the type to go charging through a dining room, and it left me enough time to do some charging myself, out the door and into the ill-lit streets. No, I would not wait for the ferry tonight, for then he would find me and I just wanted to be alone now. It had been one of those days, those days that drain all of one’s energy.
Just enough energy for apparition, that was all I needed. Energy and a little bit of time.
Which lead me to run off in the direction of the temple instead of the ferry, where I assumed he would assume I would go. Something still nagged at me, but what? I tried to recall the expression on his face when I had named Philae. It had been somewhat of a test, to see if he knew of the place, and if he did, whether he would question the choice of that particular location. An island submerged in the Nile for much of the year, it was supposed to be an excellent example of temple art and architecture that was only accessible by boat. A confused reaction would have proved– what exactly?
This was the fatigue sending me off on tangents. Now I actually had to take him to Philae, which meant finding a boat and explaining the purpose of such a journey upriver.
I ducked down an alley and leaned against a wall, taking a deep breath. Not the best of choices, seeing that my previous experience against walls had not been a positive one, but there seemed to be no one about, no shadows, no voices. There was a little window further down the alley, high up on the wall. Light shone from within, a flickering lamp, but it was far enough away.
Stepping away from the wall, I brought out my wand and went through the motions, turning quickly, and just as the magic took effect, I saw a shadow at the end, just past the window.
My breath stopped, but it was too late, I was already home.
Someone had seen me apparate, a Muggle.
Or worse. Someone like me.
~ * * * ~
The early sun woke me, a strip of orange light falling across my face through the shutters. Another day and I had not yet gotten over the previous one. Perhaps it would have been preferable to ask for the day off that Muggle servants always seem to get. It was a very different thing having human servants than house elves, who needed no holidays at all – I could not imagine what they would do with themselves on such a day.
Upon emerging into that sunlight, now a blinding yellow, rising steadily, I tried to remember whether I had given Emile any details about today’s proposed trip. Nothing. Just a name tossed as a challenge across the dinner table. Just perfect, Helen. This is the way to keep yourself employed.
The usual cloud of dust rose up from the direction of the Valley as the crews were already well into the working day. I thought of walking, then hesitated. No, I would have to go into town for this infernal trip. With each moment, I hated the idea of it more and more, if only because it took me too far from here, no matter whatever problems “here” offered.
There was a distant commotion, a horse galloping up the road, shooting past at top speed, the dust swirling up around its hooves. Its rider was unrecognisable, but he too obviously wore a uniform. One of those interfering British soldiers (who were, by this time, not supposed to be quite so present), likely to be followed by more or the police. I knew the signs. This was not a place devoid of crime, and from the looks of things – his direction, the frantic speed – the crime seemed to be one of great interest.
I turned and followed on foot, jogging part of the way.
It was a very long way.
Usually, I borrowed my landlady’s mule, but he was not in that morning (perfect timing for her sons to have taken him down to market laden with wares). There was the option of bartering a ride on a rickety cart or blistering carriage top, but the last time I’d done that, I hadn’t been able to sit straight for a week, whether from the blisters, slivers, or potholes, I could never be sure. Walking was, however, out of the question, so a couple coins, saved from being fed by generous male subjects, paid my way.
By the time I actually did arrive, just as blistered, and now sunburnt and sand-covered from head to toe everything had been cleared away and the tourists were getting back to their business, unabashed and unashamed.
That alone told me that no crime against a tourist had been committed, and if it had, the authorities had done a bloody wonderful job at concealing it. The solider and his horse were still hanging about, providing a semblance of imperial order and looking very put-out. And then came the straw that broke the camel’s back: Moody standing to one side, arms crossed and brows furrowed menacingly. Dressed as he was in unrelieved black, he had to be boiling from the inside out (and outside in), but from the look on his face, I could see that such mortal considerations were below him at the moment.
From the state of his appearance, I would bet that he’d even taken a bath.
Perhaps it was that above all things that drew me closer. Of all the people here, he was the type to have observed everything that had gone on before I’d arrived. And, better than that, he would answer my question as to what that “everything” had been.
I didn’t think of it being a very stupid idea until I’d already spoken his name.
He smiled in the most demeaning way possible. “Ah, Miss Black. What a surprise.”
I swallowed, letting stubbornness take root. “I suppose I don’t need to ask whether it’s a pleasant one for you.”
The smile widened into a leer, but the glint in his eye revealed actual amusement.
“It’s not every day that a beautiful girl walks up, calling my name.”
It was like he wanted to goad me into arguing with him. Probably liked the attention, the prick. But I wasn’t going to give in, not when I wanted to know something and know it now.
“So, what happened here?” In sounding casual, one usually sounds suspicious.
A raising of his eyebrows was all I got at first. He turn to survey our surroundings before bothering himself to respond, arms still firmly crossed in front of him.
“Nothing to concern yourself about, Miss Black. It wasn’t too interesting, anyway.”
This from the man who was standing as close to the spot as possible, looking around as though he was expecting something. An answer, perhaps. I dropped my eyes to the ground, scanning the sandy surface for something that was probably already long buried in the sand. Cursed stuff, that sand. It was always getting in the way.
“You won’t find the blood, if that’s what you’re looking for.”
He let the bait drop, and like a well-schooled fish, I rose to it.
“I thought you said it wasn’t interesting.”
One of his shoulders jerked in what was meant to be a shrug. “Just a dead worker. Like I said, nothing to concern yourself about.”
That was, of course, the usual Western response. It was the reason why no tourists remained at this spot, gawking and exclaiming about bad food, the pains of the heat, or a pharaoh’s curse (all three of which were equally possible fates for tourists). It was also the reason why the soldier who’d rushed here with word of a dead body had looked so disconcerted. He needn’t have rushed at all. Probably didn’t need to bother coming, for that matter.
It was not something I believed for myself, and from the stiffness in his stance, the guardedness of his expression, Moody didn’t either.
“Death is death. Details, Moody. And don’t look at me like that.”
He was looking at in me in a more disturbing way than usual. This was no lascivious up-and-down glance, but it wasn’t lacking in admiration nor surprise. His eyebrows were raised again, and he loosened his arms to let one hand rub the day-old stubble on his jaw.
“Not just here for the thrills, are you?”
So he was still intent on figuring out my place in the whole grand scheme of things. He really must have been bored. Not enough thievery out here, not with the size of the guards lately. As tall as they were wide, in some cases.
All the same, I felt that he needed some grain of truth, if only to temporarily pacify his starved curiosity.
“A bad feeling. Something’s off here.” I waved a hand at the Valley. “This whole place isn’t right, not the way that it should be. Not since the tomb–” In other words, not until I’d met him. That was the day I’d felt the magic in the sand and wind, the powerful force that knew what I was right away, something no Muggle had so far found out.
But that was getting too far ahead of myself. Moody was not a wizard, not even a hit-wizard, and however... odd he was, the most he could be was an annoyingly curious Muggle, one of those who had glimpsed the magical world, perhaps, or who was naturally suspicious of everything.
Rather like me.
“Was opened, yes.” His eyes narrowed, assessing the situation.
“I thought that because you were here right now, that you’d seen the proceedings, and that it made you the best person to ask.” Batting my eyelashes would have been too over-the-top, so I resisted the temptation.
The eyes narrowed further, and I wondered how he did it without fully closing his eyes. Must be a lot of willpower there.
“Will you walk with me?”
Because one wouldn’t want to shock the tourists with talk about dead natives. Not that any of them were looking our way. A grim, black-clad man and a very disheveled young woman were oddities, to be sure, but easily forgotten ones, especially when the crowds were too busy scouring the cliffs for the next big find.
Still, there were too many eyes and ears here. A bit of paranoia goes a long way.
He led us away from the main path, and my footsteps slowed instinctively.
“I’m not going to touch you. Won’t even look at you, if you’d rather. God, you’re a strange one, for all the things they say of you.”
I let that one pass, having no idea how to respond to it.
“Tell me about the body. Were there any wounds?”
He rounded on me so fast that I tripped backwards into the sand.
“Would it surprise you if I said no?”
I bit my lip, but hid my face as I rose, dusting off my clothes with equally dusty hands.
“Nothing at all to show how he died?”
He stared now, forgetting his promise (if it was even that) not to even look at me.
“Nothing. His heart stopped on its own.” His upper lip pulled back in distaste. “They put it down to poor health, though he wasn’t an old man, nor an unhealthy one.”
I stepped closer to Moody, surveying his face. Too hard to read. Those features were inscrutable when they wanted to be, however much his voice revealed. He must have known the dead man, if only a little. It explained things.
What could not be explained was the possible use of the killing curse in a place like this. There were curse breakers around, I was sure, but they were always good at hiding themselves amongst the Muggles, vanishing as soon as their job was done. Not that they would ever use the killing curse, even if faced with an angry hoard of Muggles.
But – and this was a heavy, terrifying “but” – if there was another witch or wizard in the vicinity, they might have detected my own magic.
“Not even fear on his face? No shock?” My voice shook, however much I hated it. I looked away from him, finding great interest in the rocks.
I’d only ever heard about the effects of the killing curse. No sign of harm, just death, the heart stopping, supposedly as soon as the spell hit, though some argued that a second or two passed before death actually happened. It was enough time for the fear to strike, the shock of death suddenly taking over.
“You know what did it. Or you think you do.”
I did not need him to read my thoughts. It would just get messy.
“No. I just thought that he’d been scared to death, that’s all.”
He moved toward me, grabbing my arm in a violation of his first potential promise. He was not doing very well, overall, but he did manage to make me look at him, and something in his face prevented any complaint. It was not masculine authority (that is easy enough to ignore), but rather fear, a fear of knowledge, of someone else’s knowledge, a knowledge that exceeds your own. His skin, tanned as it was, had gone pale.
“A poison, then. Something he’d ingested.”
Well, he did have a point. He’d seen the body, not me. He would know what the man’s face had looked like, how the man had been lying, though why I assumed he’d know all this, I cannot be sure. It must have been the way he’d been standing when I’d found him, with that appearance of being entirely in control of the situation.
How strange for a thief, if that was what he was. I really had no idea, but unlike him, I was not going to harass the object of my curiosity with endless questions.
I had an idea about this death, insane as it would sound to him. After the things I’d felt down by the tomb, the magical trace in this area could be from a creature, not a witch or wizard, something conjured up by the pharaohs left to roam the Valley at night (I made a mental note to check the current moon phase).
“Or something he saw.”
Moody glared this time, all semblance of fear melted away.
“Curses again, Black.” So I was no longer deserving of any title. That was fine with me, seeing that I’d stopped using one for him ages before. “So the mummy was running around last night, scaring grown men to death?”
I wrenched my arm out of his grasp, turning my back on him.
“I never said that. A man can die of fear.”
Could he? I must have read about it somewhere for the idea to have come to mind, but all examples were evading me completely.
“I don’t have time for this.”
He passed me, returning along the same route from which we’d come, not glancing back to see if I followed. Not that we were necessarily far from the Valley entrance, but still, all these blasted rocks looked the same.
I couldn’t believe that, this time, I was the one doing the pursuing.
He turned his head as my voice echoed along the cliffs, but there was another sound, a crunching, a scraping, or something in between. It echoed downward, and I knew, I could feel the ground trembling beneath my feet, the stones and shards of stones rattling against the sand.
I could not. I trembled with the ground, eyes forcing themselves to look to my right.
But I blinked, and saw only the back of my eyelids, followed by sand, and a very close examination of Moody’s chest. This was accompanied by the sounds of my breath being forced out of my lungs, a tuneless grunt (not mine), and a crash as the boulder landed in the exact spot where I had stood, preparing myself to chase after Moody.
“Are you alright?”
A nonsensical question to ask the person upon whom you were lying. I could not breathe, much less reply. From the feel of his weight crushing me into the ground, I surmised that the rock could not have been so painful. Sudden death by boulder wasn’t painful, not when you were dead as a result.
“Ugh,” I gurgled, hands struggling to find something to grab onto that was not him.
Moody raised himself on his elbows, keeping low as he glanced one way, then the other.
“Gone already. Shit.”
“What?” The lessened pressure allowed for single syllable words to emerged, one at a time.
“Whoever pushed that, obviously.” He stared down at my face, hair hanging down over his ears. “The rocks don’t fall on their own.”
It was a highly uncomfortable position, though perfect had I been a proper heroine, and he worthy of the title “hero”. I was neither interested in being a heroine nor was I aware of any sort of tension between us in this moment. All I wanted him to do was get off and get away, cursing myself for calling him back (conveniently forgetting that, if not for him, I’d be dead, or worse).
“Why the hell would anyone want to kill you?”
He was getting up now, reaching a hand down to help me. With a glare at him and it, I rolled and struggled upright on my own, probably looking like I’d been wandering the desert for months (if not longer).
“Maybe they meant you.” I continued to glare as I brushed off my clothes.
A little smirk appeared, breaking that stone-hard visage. “Then they have very bad aim.”
I looked down to retrieve some coins that had fallen from my jacket, and when I raised my head, he was gone.
“What in Mer–” No, no. No wizarding curses in range of Muggles, remember (I should not have needed such reminders, after this long. Perhaps I was starting to miss home at last).
He was still there, just scaling the cliffs in a spider-like manner. Strange man, indeed.
The rock became my point of interest. Perhaps it had, after all, just fallen. There had to be tremors or something that could shake these things loose. There were a few others, fallen around the place. This particular rock looked no different from the others, except in size. Ah, yes, it was larger, which should have triggered warning bells, if I had been not continuing to curse Moody and rocks and all human kind under my breath. Any idea of the killing curse being used on a local Muggle and whatever unnatural occurrences were taking place around the tomb had vanished in that impossibly short moment. The noise, then the rock, the expression on Moody’s face–
“No footprints, but something was there.”
He was back down again. I thought only apparition could make one move that quickly.
“How can you be sure?”
Eyebrows rising, he pointed down at the rock.
“Didn’t you see the marks? Something scraped against it before it fell. Metallic, I think.”
Yes, it was there, if you squinted and turned your head upside down to see it. I knelt beside the stone, touching my hand to the marks. Stretching my fingers, I could fit one into each shallow groove. I could not suppress a shudder.
No. That was not correct.
I bit my lip, not daring to meet Moody’s gaze.