In the Teeth of the Lion
“You have some explaining to do, Black.”
Moody was now glaring down at me, for all the world sounding like the sherrif of a distant western American town. I half-expected him to rip a pair of pistols out of his jacket, silver star glittering on his chest as he stared down the enemy with cold dark eyes.
It was an amusing image, and I reacted accordingly.
“Hell, she’s gone hysterical.” His face actually softened a touch. “Calm down,” he said louder, placing his hand on my shoulder. “Those are strange marks, but they can’t be what you think they are.”
I pulled away from him, rubbing a sleeve over my face. “I’m not hysterical.” A little bit of a lie; I’d be surprised if I wasn’t hysterical at that moment. “And they are exactly what they appear to be. Claws. From a very large animal who’s bloody brilliant at climbing sheer cliffs. And what did I say earlier about touching me?”
He was examining the rock for himself, probably not listening to a word I said. I stood over him with crossed arms, dividing my gaze between him and our surroundings, just in case. Neither was worth trusting, even if Moody had saved my life. Yes, I was ready to admit that he had, but that didn’t mean I had to trust him, or better yet, like him.
When he finally rose again – and it seemed like hours had passed – he looked around once more, eyeing every grain of sand.
“A good climber and well-camouflaged.” He ran a finger along the scar that ran from ear lobe to chin. It was thin and pink, slightly puckering the skin around it. “It must be a strange animal. Perfect for this place, don’t you think?”
He turned to look at me, that grin playing around the corners of his mouth.
“And it definitely doesn’t like you.”
Much too cheerful about this, and thus was his revenge against my earlier laughter.
I wouldn’t stoop to responding to such a comment. My only defence was to leave, scrambling back to civilization with my tail between my legs, the bruises on which would require attention if I wanted to wear a fashionable hemline. Stockings could only cover so much.
“It’s best if I go back now.”
Easy to walk away.
Until he caught up.
“Going back to your beloved boss, Black?” He was far too entertained by his alliteration.
I made a face. “Beloved? Certainly not.”
“Just another job, then?” His teeth showed, whether from a sneer or laugh, I could not tell. He was talented at inscrutability.
Stopping, I felt my fists clench. “Yes, it is. And shouldn’t you be more worried about the rock that almost killed us?”
He met my eyes. “You. Almost killed you.”
The fear, the shock of it all, was sinking in. I could feel its weight on my lungs, its impression on my imagination. And the only thought that came to mind was that even Canis Malfoy wouldn’t think of killing me that way. A quick spell, that would do the trick, an Avada Kedavra that would reveal nothing to a Muggle, no sign of violence. Malfoy was not a hands on sort of wizard.
I could also be sure that Moody was not an assassin. Although I could be sure that he was a low-life of the lowest denomination, assassins weren't really in the business of saving lives. No, instead, he has to save my life, and according to the deepest, most ancient laws, a connection had been forged between us, one that I must forever resent.
“So you need to be more careful.”
Of course he didn’t care about deep and ancient laws of magic. I made a face. “Thanks, Mummy. I’ll be sure not to talk to strangers.”
He reached out to grab my arm, then pulled it back at the last moment, his fingers curling inward. I could see more scars on that hand, and they weren’t from a pet kitten.
“It’s not surprising that no one puts up with you for long.” His once-laughing mouth twisted into a sneer. “Shouldn’t have wasted my energy in saving you. Good day, Miss Black.” He gave a mocking bow and started walking in another direction. Not into the desert as such, but it seemed like it at the time.
So I asked the obvious question: “Where are you going?”
Speaking of hysteria, at that moment I realised that I didn’t want him to leave. Not just to leave me here, but to leave at all. I watched him take each step, a startling black figure against the sand and sky, and I very much wanted him to turn back against all my better judgment.
Wait. Hadn’t we gone through this already? I glanced from side to side, waiting for the next stone to target my head.
After a few more steps, he turned, arms at his sides, but with tense shoulders. “Just listen to one word of advice, if you’ll ever take any. Don’t trust that employer of yours.”
There was a little twinge in my stomach that was, for once, not from hunger.
He took a step toward me. “Because no one knows how he arrived in Egypt. No boat or train brought him. It’s like he–”
“Appeared out of nowhere,” I mouthed along, now staring into nothing.
It made sense, at the same time that it didn’t. Maybe Cadogan had just come by some private boat – he seemed wealthy enough for that distinction – and there were a large number of illegal means by which he could have travelled. It made things difficult, but only for those trying to discern who he was and why he had come to Egypt in the first place.
And then I wondered how some swarthy thief-like individual like Moody would have heard such news. That was an even stranger thing and something I could not rationalise.
Perhaps the question was in regard to one Alexander Moody. He could have been faking that accent – it was a bit too American-sounding, if you know what I mean, very much on the cliched side of things – and all those scars and... well... swarthy visage could have been artificially applied. Maybe tattoos or makeup. Everything about him could have been a lie. Even the saving my life bit could have been staged so that I would begin to trust him, enter into an uneasy friendship....
“Moody! You’re so damn dramatic.”
“The pot shouldn’t call the kettle black!”
How ironic of him. Without another word or thought, I turned my back on him and hoped to Merlin that I could find my way back from here without getting lost amid the ever-changing sands.
That was a bit of an exaggeration because I only had to follow my nose.
I will not begin to philosophise on the smell of domestic animals and improper sanitation in the colonies as that would take far too long and would cause too much of a disturbance to the readers. Needless to say, it was not a very pleasant smell at all, but it was practical enough for the situation.
I hadn’t gone very far when I looked back. Always the fatal mistake, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Moody was already out of sight.
So I got myself out of sight too and returned to my lodgings.
It was, at first, hard to remember the events of the previous day; I had promised to take Cadogan on a cruise to Philae. It was a very stupid idea, not at all made more dear by Moody’s warning. While I also distrusted him, but it would not be wise to ignore his words. He knew something, and I had to find out what that was.
Just think, I was fully prepared to trust Moody and I did not, would not, rebel against it.
I stood for too long on my rug - its mood of late made me refuse to call it a carpet, its proper title – and it shooed me off with a shake of its tassels. Horrible object! But I refrained from kicking it or, worse, stamping on it. It might come in necessary at a later time, when I would not have the opportunity to argue with it over my negligent treatment of its fine woolen strands.
A bath was definitely required, the day already having been exhausting, frustrating, and marked by being knocked into the sands by one who was neither light nor fresh scented. Moody continued to ignore the more basic levels of hygiene. All I could, at the moment, manage was a wet cloth to wash the perspiration from my forehead and neck, but it was moderately successful in clearing my brain.
The book on Philae was in my hands after a useful “accio” and opened to the correct page: the map. Maps are very handy things, and having never been that far south myself, I needed to know the lay of the land down to the smallest detail. It was an island, I knew, threatened by the flood waters from a dam just slightly younger than myself.
The book went limp in my hands.
It was also an island that lay beneath the water from October to July. The buildings were entirely submerged now, and had been since beneath the war. Its loss stood for the wonders of British Muggle technology, destroying in order to create.
With all of this in mind, it was easy to distract myself from the worries at hand.
I had to admit to myself that he had been very successful at ingratiating himself into my consciousness. When I thought of something, his voice would answer in disagreement. Madenning at the very least; disturbing when I contemplated the sub-conscious motivations behind it. One thing to trust him on one single occasion, quite another to think of him inside my head.
The rug slapped my leg and crawled away.
I went to bed. It may have only been midday, but it felt as though weeks had passed since the sun had rose that morning. The run across to Thebes. The discovery of the murder scene. Being crushed beneath Moody as a rock fell over our heads. It was more than enough for a day.
When I re-opened my eyes, it wasn’t yet evening. It seemed like a good opportunity to take advantage of the slowly-passing hours. There were still many things to plan, to organize, to understand, that when Hassim scampered in with a solemn look in his eyes, I knew that there would not be a moment for any of it. .
“Sitt, there are men come for you. Are you leaving us?”
Men. Come for me. That did not sound encouraging.
“Not that I know of, Hassim. Your mother won’t lose her income anytime soon.”
He screwed up his mouth in disbelief. “One is the effendi who came last.”
The rug was still twitching. At least Hassim knew better than to stand near it. Unlike me.
“I’m definitely not leaving forever.” I gave him a very fake and silly smile. “Just going for a quick trip up the river, alright?”
He wasn’t fooled a single iota.
“I have no good feeling about this, Sitt. You should not go with this effendi.”
There seemed to be some information circulating that I had no knowledge of. How was it that all these other individuals – male individuals, when I came to think of it – were all so concerned about Cadogan? He was an odd man, to be certain, and I wasn’t sure what to make of him, but I wasn’t about to do let my guard down in his presence. Constant vigilance was always wise.
So when I went outside to see what was going on, I realized too late that I’d forgotten my wand again.
I was not at all performing well in the constant vigilance category.
It was Cadogan. Some wistful segment of my imagination had raised the possibility of Moody reappearing, perhaps with a bouquet of flowers and a sincere apology, but as I said, it emerged from a very wistful part of my imagination.
“Miss Black! I am prepared for our journey.”
The sound was spoken by my lips as I stared at him.
He had, it seems, taken my earlier suggestion – had it only been yesterday morning? – to heart and had made all the preparations for such a trip, assuming that I too was prepared to start that very day. It had been only a few hours....
“Already?” I asked, glancing over at the open carriage, the horses pawing the ground in impatience. He was nearly doing the same thing.
“You have not yet packed?”
“Packed? No.” I took a deep breath and swallowed before finding any rational train of thought in my head. “I wasn’t aware that you wanted to depart so soon.”
He held out his arms, brilliant white suit blinding in the late day sun. “But it’s the perfect day to go, Miss Black. Helen,” he added after a pause, eyes meeting mine. “A few days away from this....” He looked over my shoulder at the house and didn’t need to say anything more.
A few days away, even if in his company, could not do any harm. It would give me time to keep him in close regard, witness his personal habits, and perhaps understand who he was and why he was here. And I will not neglect to mention the other bonus of leaving: that Moody would also be left behind, as well as whatever kind of thing threw that rock at us.
I gave him a bright smile, hopefully as blinding as his suit – how did he keep it so clean?
“I’ll just go in and finish. Won’t be long.” I turned on my heel and vanished into the house, running across to my rooms.
A wave of my wand sent them flying into my trunk. I made sure to bring my only dinner dress, a gift of the past, and not too many years out of date.
Second, hygiene insurance, including makeup.
Third, reading material, though I couldn’t be sure that I’d need it.
The rug wiggled beneath me, each edge twitching. It could be a very helpful object, if worst came to worst, and it fit perfectly into the trunk, which I slammed shut before the rug could escape. The whole trunk shook once or twice before it gave up.
With another wave, I shrunk it down to a decent size and reentered the sunlight, blinking, to announce that I was ready. He didn’t make any comment on the length of time, or rather lack of it, that I’d taken to pack, but maybe he was trying to be polite. Silent. I liked people who understood the fine art of silence.
I earnestly wished that I could feel comfortable that nothing at all could possibly go wrong, especially when Cadogan realised just what condition in which the famed Philae currently was. Not to mention that a witch on a boat for a long period of time is never a very happy situation, and there I went to spend Merlin-knew how many days on one.
Have I also mentioned that I have a small problem with sea-sickness?
Though even there I exaggerate. Small is not the correct term.
The boat was an antique out of the last century, called a dahabeeyah, with stunning white sails and a wooden body that appeared to be neither rotting nor damaged. But all the same, it would be close quarters for the next number of days, and that I was not at all looking forward to.
“Do you like it?” Cadogan asked. He sat opposite me, watching my face for its reaction.
So I decided that honesty was necessary.
“Is it large enough?”
He smiled. “It is larger than it appears.”
I wondered if he knew just what kind of monument I was going to be showing him on this little trip. Not that it could be that upsetting for him. It was for me. Very much so. It meant lacking the necessity to leave the boat at any time.
He led me onto the boat, arm around my waist, guiding me around to each room of importance, and I still did not tell him about Philae. It was not much larger than it appeared, the rooms small of size, seeming even smaller because of the bulk and quantity of furniture included in each. One room for him, one for myself, a dressing room and water closing, as well as a sitting area. I did not see any area for the staff, obviously destined to sleep on the deck.
“Now tell me what you think.” He smiled down into my face, and my own lips twitched in response, wanting to smile with him, wanting to... to... no, that couldn’t be right....
“It’s very nice.”
He laughed and bells rang in his voice, echoing off the walls and clanging within my ears.
“Nice, such an ambiguous word. It cannot at all be trusted.”
There was something in his eyes that pulled me in. They seemed, no were, they actually were endless in depth, their fathoms never explored, always to be unknown. I fell up into them, as impossible as it had to be. I fell and fell and drowned within those eyes that had no colour of their own, the blue was of the sky and the water, not of him. There was so much within those eyes, within him, that I was so easily lost, so easily defeated.
Whether I leaned toward him in my falling or he leaned toward me with his mesmerism, I could only be sure of the briefest touch of his lips upon mine, and combined with the caress of his fingers, he assured my body of all that was to come.
“Fate is perfect, is it not?” his whisper was only another caress. “To bring two such as we together in such a way?”
What thought could there be of resistance to such an assurance, one given with so much confidence and grace? My mind was no longer my own, and soon my body would join it.
“In the temple–”
A noise from the deck made him release me in all senses of the word, and disappear into the sunlight above, his voice glowing as he addressed the crew with stern words, unclear to my still-reeling head.
I stared at the wall, eyes wide and unblinking, akin to the dead. The room was crackling with something akin to magic, but my senses were all confused and befuddled, wandering about in the darkness without him that I could not tell for certain. Nothing at all felt certain anymore, not after that. He’d been inside my head without any apparent effort, without me even realising it until I had been cast adrift.
“What are you getting yourself into, Helen?” I said the words aloud to reassure myself that I did still have a brain.
The boat slipped out of the dock, and I could not retain my balance, smooth as our exit was. Cadogan appeared once more, though I had not heard him on the deck.
“I believe that not having your sea-legs is the correct phrase.”
He helped me onto my feet, gripping my hands in an oddly delicate manner. His hands were unnatural in shape, the bony fingers protruding far beyond the normal length. He would have made a very good pianist, stretching his fingers to those long octaves in the Moonlight Sonata. Ivory in colour, his hands should have been in some long-lauded portrait of a poet or saint.
“Are you alright?” Now more than ever, his voice was beautiful.
I pulled away before I dared meet his eyes again. “Yes, and no, I don’t have sea-legs. It made the journey from England absolute torture.”
He watched me for a moment before speaking again. “I will leave you to rest until you are well. Come up when you are ready.” His smile was dazzling, and I allowed myself to be dazzled, if only within his presence.
None of the chairs here were particularly soft, and when I settled into one, it groaned beneath my weight, revealing its poor quality. I hoped that the boat was not in a similar state of repair. Then I hoped that I was not having a romantic entanglement with my current employer. Next to death, that was a very serious issue indeed.
What would have happened if he had kissed me? Would it have continued from one step to the next, following that age-old pattern of seduction and submission, loss and abandonment? And then I would be the woman that I had been labelled by gossip, the woman I never wanted to become, no matter what the circumstances.
“How fast, effendi?”
The voice drifted down from the deck.
“Not fast at all. Time is not an issue.”
I did not like the sound of that. Ominous at best, it should have induced me to leap into the Nile right away.
Although hardly begun, I wanted it to end.
But it was my fault that I had been set into the boiling cauldron. I myself had made the suggestion of this trip in the first place. Had he misconstrued the situation to believe that I– that I could have possibly– had I really invited such an incident with my suggestion? All along, he could have been planning this, taking me on in order for this to happen, and now I was trapped, my only escape apparation, a pretended splash from the end of the boat that would make him believe that I had fallen overboard, drowned.
I could not have drowned any more than I had by looking into his eyes, by being so close, too close, to him.
He had smelled like mint.
Head in hands, I leaned over my knees. How was I going to escape this mess?