In the Temple of Luxor
The page had gone blurry, the symbols dancing across it, ever elusive. Even with bright sunlight filtering through the window, my eyes refused to focus on the hieroglyphs I'd been hoping to translate before my own civilization collapsed. It wasn't as though I needed to do this; I was sure that my work would only be rejected. But, if I thought of it that way, I would probably end up dead drunk in the Winter Palace. Not a pleasant prospect. It was bad enough I already had a reputation for salaciousness. Lovely word, that. Had a great way of rolling off the tongue.
I pushed away the muddled paper I’d been scribbling on and rose with a sigh, itching to do something that didn’t involve hunching over a desk. My dream to become a real archaeologist - was it that cliched a thing to wish for? - had not yet been fulfilled. That didn't stop me from trying. Each day since the tomb’s opening, I had ventured down to watch the stream of workers going in and out, in and out, then in and out again. Once or twice I saw Mr. Carter emerge from the depths, talking excitedly to one of his colleagues. No one appeared to notice my presence; I suppose they took me for a curious tourist. Or a primped tour guide (was there more money in that?).
In the days following the tomb's opening, I could find no explanation for the strange wind that had come out of the tomb. It was probably just dehydration and sun-stroke. Simple enough to get out here in the desert.
There was always the chance that something magical had happened, and it had come into contact with my own magic. The Ancient Egyptians were known to use magic, especially in the sealing of tombs to protect the Pharaoh’s soul on its journey to the afterlife. The tomb of Tutankhamun was nearly intact, having been sealed by the priests, who would have, of course, made sure that the spells on the tomb were in working order.
But all that was merely conjecture. The magic of the Ancient Egyptians had been long forgotten. Hell, their language had only been rediscovered in the last century. It was one thing to learn an ancient language, but quite another to learn their magic as well.
I shoved back my chair, still rubbing my eyes. There could be no harm in taking a nice walk through Luxor and treat myself to dinner at one place or another. It wasn’t like Cairo, where a person could nip into the grand market and eat one’s fill on whatever one could discreetly snatch from the stalls. Here, I would either get caught and my hand promptly chopped off or I’d be seen by some scandalised acquaintance of mine. Knowing my luck, I’d be seen by a prospective employer. Not that anyone was actually serious about giving me a job.
"Yes, that's a perfect idea."
It was nice to hear a voice sometimes.
Now, to change. I couldn’t exactly walk into the Winter Palace wearing my current eccentric mix of native and European clothing. I might as well wear a backless ball gown. The question of which would be more gossip-provoking came to mind. It would certainly be an interesting experiment ... but not tonight. All I wanted was peace and quiet, preferably not in my lodgings. That bottle under the bed needed some time away from me.
After a walk down a dusty road and a harrowing ferry ride across the Nile, I managed to arrive on the East Bank none the worse for wear. The village ferry was usually less crowded than the tourist ones, but unfortunately, it did not receive the same degree of upkeep. I was never a fan of boats, even less so after my sojourn in Egypt. Sneaking behind a well-placed palm tree, I dusted off my clothes, making me presentable enough for entry to the Winter Palace, as tempted as they may be to turn me around and send me out again. Come to think of it, that would have been a better choice. At least then I would not have run into the most annoying Moody.
Of course he was there. Where you expecting otherwise?
Entering the restaurant awarded me with a number of strange glances that were entirely unwarranted. What was wrong with a single young Englishwoman wanting a nice meal? I sat down and placed an order, glaring right back at a rather plump woman wearing a dress that would have been in fashion perhaps twenty years before. When she sniffed and looked away, I smiled to myself, then focused my attention on my teacup. I couldn’t help but wonder sometimes if the fact that I was a witch was evident to Muggles, and that's why they couldn't stand the sight of me. Or perhaps it was my lack of proper wardrobe, social graces, and patience for their ignorance.
And money. One could not forget money. Except I had.
My eyes widened at the thought. I reached into my pocket, hoping that I had enough for dinner, or even for the cup of tea I was drinking. One, two, three ... no, not quite; I was short a few shillings.
“Shit,” I muttered under my breath, trying to ignore the low growl emanating from my stomach.
“Now that’s not very lady-like, Miss Black." That drawl... oh Merlin, not him. “No wonder that lady in the old dress over there is looking at you in such a way.”
“Blast." I made sure to say this so that only he could hear. “What the bloody hell are you doing here?”
There was a flash of off-white as he grinned. His teeth were even more noticeable in comparison to his pristine white shirt. “Mind if I join you, Miss Black? My treat.”
The stomach, ever victorious, voiced a complaint I could not ignore. It would be worth sitting through a meal with him in order to actually get that meal.
I put on a dazzling smile. “That’s very kind of you, Mr. Moody. Please, sit down.”
He slid into the chair with all the ease of a serpent curling up on a rock.
“In answer to your question, miss, I came here to catch up with Luxor’s social scene. I suppose that you’re doing the same?” His gaze was almost unnerving. Too curious. Step lightly.
“You can think what you like of me, Mr. Moody. Everyone else seems to enjoy that pastime.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Tut, tut. Bitter, are we?”
I snorted loudly, making the frumpy woman across the room look even more discomfited. She stuffed another biscuit between her scarlet lips.
“Indeed I am, and if you knew me better, you might understand why.”
Step lightly, ha. Couldn't even follow my own advice.
He winked. The repetition was annoying me. “I wouldn’t mind knowing you better, Miss Black. It’s not every day that a man like me meets a woman like you.”
I almost regurgitated the whole cup of tea. Was this man real? Better yet, was he sane? They didn't seem to teach much in the way of manners over in Lima, Ohio.
“I can tell you one thing, Mr. Moody, and that is if you knew me better, you honestly wouldn’t like what you saw.”
He smiled, eyes taking on a carnivorous light. “I’ve always loved a girl with mystery.”
Oh for Merlin’s sake! He took every word I said and turned it around to suit his own desires. It was like he was running circles around my mind, and it was putting off my appetite. Too much thinking doesn't do well for the stomach. I signalled to the waiter, pretending that Moody had vanished into the ether.
He remained silent until the food arrived, interrupting me as soon as I raised the fork to my mouth.
"Have you been back to the tomb?"
Taking my time to swallow a large mouthful of chicken, I nodded. “If I hear of something interesting coming out, that's all. Gaining entrance is beyond my means." Damned if I’d tell him that I went everyday, filled with childish hope. With my luck, he’d already been inside the tomb and was only waiting to gloat.
But he was nodding in agreement. “Same here. I’m not really the type that they’d offer an invitation to.”
So perhaps I wasn’t right all the time. That didn't mean I had no excuse to dislike him.
“Most of the people in Luxor now are in the same boat,” he continued, sorting through the vegetables on his plate. “What I’d do to get into that tomb. From what I saw of you at the opening, Miss Black, I’d say that you feel the same way.”
I glared at him before taking another forkfull.
“Don't guess at my thoughts, Moody." He didn't deserve the Mister part, not if he was as low down the social scale as I was. "You'd definitely not like what I'm thinking now."
“And what would that be?” he asked innocently. His eyes had grown so wide that I expected to see the edges of his eyeballs.
I thought of turning him into a toad. Only then would I be a real witch in these Muggles' eyes.
"I'm thinking of throwing down my napkin and screaming to the world that you were attempting to seduce me." It sounded like a lie to my own ears, even though I thought it wasn't a half-bad idea.
He started to laugh, attracting more attention to us. I hoped that all these onlookers would also see the fury inscribed across my face.
“You probably would have done that anyway, Miss Black." He sounded far too cheerful. "Except that I'm treating you to a meal.” Now he lowered his voice. "One that you seem to have needed."
Damn him! Damn him to Hades and back! I’m sure the man would even find a way to send Hades begging for mercy. I had to escape his presence, even if it meant missing dessert (and they made such nice cake at the Palace).
Of course, I made sure that my plate was clean before throwing my napkin on it in anger.
“Thank you for the meal, Moody." I rose from my chair with all the grace I could muster. "However flawed the company."
He rose and bowed gallantly. “The pleasure was all mine, Miss Black.”
I decided not to swear at him under my breath. He didn’t deserve the attention.
Stalking out of the Palace while grumbling about annoying Muggles, I hardly noticed my direction until I found myself in the middle of Luxor temple. With a quick glance around to ensure that I hadn’t been followed by Moody, or anyone else for that matter, I settled down for a nice evening stroll through Amenhotep's colonnade. Among the monuments of a bygone era, I was able to find a small degree of peace. There was something in this place, in all of Egypt, that made all my troubles worth struggling through.
I wandered until the sun vanished from view, forgetting myself in imagining the temple as it once had been. It really wasn’t a long walk to the ferry from the temple, except for the fact that I’d probably missed the last Balidi Ferry to the village. The tourist ones ran longer into the night for those who were taking a moonlight stroll through the archaeological sites. But tourists travelled in herds, rather like sheep, and I was very much alone.
It seemed that I was more than just very much alone. I was absolutely and entirely alone in an isolated temple. Noises from the town were still present, but none close enough to provide comfort. Definitely time to go.
Walking towards the entrance, I began to feel rather odd. Something was out there, watching me, spying from a dark corner, and it was not human. It didn't feel right. Or rather, it felt right to me, recognizable as something magical, something remotely familiar. As far as I knew, there were no other witches or wizards closer than Cairo at the branch of Gringotts there. None of the recent tourists were of my kind; I could just tell if someone was a witch or wizard, even if they appeared in Muggle costume.
Biting my lip, I continued down the pathway between the rows of sphinxes. My hands were beginning to tremble as I imagined spectres leaping out from behind each stone. The eyes of each statue seemed to be watching my every move. It was like a very bad Muggle novel.
I reached into the folds of my blouse to retrieve my wand. Nothing. I'd left the damned thing in my lodgings. Wonderful. Pretty soon, I'd be another stupid Muggle woman, helpless in society. I'd have to take to stowing a knife in my boot or something like that. Even if I'd had my wand, when was the last time I'd used it? Did they go rusty over time?
A good spell to use on miscreants. Hmmm... Preferably not an Unforgivable (never actually tried one before). The body-bind jinx, perhaps? But what was the incantation?
Useless. Bloody useless. Just like a Squib.
When I finally reached the entrance to the temple, I kept my back against the wall, glancing about to try and see if anything or anyone was about. There were some carousers further down the street, singing bawdy songs; they'd be more of a hindrance than a help in that condition. Most of the houses were dark - just how late was it? I could have sworn it was just only sunset, unless the sun had taken a hell of a long time to set.
There was a whisper in the shadows. Nothing there. My mind must have really been going. Or the fear was getting to me.
With whatever it was out there watching me, I really shouldn’t have been surprised. Beings like the one I thought it was had strange control over the world and over time. It wanted me in this place at this particular time.
Lumos would have been handy right now, if only to light my way.
One of the shadows to my left moved. I ducked out of the way just as a nasty-looking stick cut through the air where my head had been a moment before. Rolling on the ground, I avoided the next attacker as he - it had to be a he to carry a stick like that, damned phallic symbols - aimed a kick at my abdomen. The boots on his feet told me that I wasn’t dealing with any petty thieves or beggars. These men meant business, not at all good. Drunks I could handle, but not professional assassins (dramatic, yes, but it sounded good). All I had was my bare hands. Everyone knew that Slytherins never fight with bare hands - that was reserved for idiotic Gryffindors - but they were better than nothing.
So I kicked back at the kicking man, right in the knee cap. The resounding crack was quite stomach-turning, but it did stop him from trying to impale me with his extremely large foot. Probably steel-toed, from the looks of it.
Before I could get my feet under me, I was slammed into the nearest wall, stunned.
"Well, well." He spoke with a slight accent, indiscernible above the roaring in my ears. "Just what we were looking for. A pretty one."
He began to laugh, the smell of his breath invading my lungs. Vodka, the really heavy stuff. A hand, too smooth to be that of a poor man - a tourist? another archaeologist? - ran down the sharp protrusion of my hip bone. The lack of curves made him hesitate a second; and there I'd thought skinny was in fashion these days. His partner was rising from the ground, swearing as he limped over to the wall, his breath heavy with pain.
One out of two wasn’t so bad, after all. He'd be an easy one to crush... if I had my wand, that is.
Then something came to mind, an obvious thing that revealed how much of Muggle I was becoming. Apparition. Did it require a wand? No one had ever mentioned that it did. But would it work? That was the question. Even though I did have my licence, Father had never approved of using apparition in and around the house. He called it lazy.
A knife appeared in the hand of my attacker. I could hear the grin on his face as he brought the knife to rest against the flesh of my throat.
Even if I tried to Apparate, he'd slit me right open. That was not part of my long-term plans.
So I took the lady-like way out. I pretended to faint.
"Oy!" His cry split the silent night. He'd not been prepared for any weakness on my part. Interesting.
The knife departed from my flesh, giving me room to lift the heel of my boot in the direction of his groin. Thank Merlin for sharp heels. Practical at the best of times.
He gurgled, nothing more, but it was enough to give me the strength to push away from the wall, sending him tumbling into his fallen comrade. While they fell against one another, I bolted. At this instance, the boots were utterly impractical, slowing my pace, but I hadn't spent two years in this backwater without learning the labyrinthine street pattern.
I thought of presenting myself at the Winter Garden for assistance, perhaps medical help for the scrapes on my face and arms, but any reception there would not be worth the trouble. Like it rough, eh, Miss Black? Instead, I took the ferry, hiding in the shadows so as to keep away from prying eyes.
It was safe to say that I was very confused. I'd felt the same presence as was at the tomb; it was there in the temple, waiting for me. Yet I had been attacked by those men, not a magical thing. Those had been Muggles, certainly not wizards, who would have immediately taken advantage of my wandless state. At least one of them had been drunk, so it was likely that they were gentlemen on the town, looking for excitement à la Jack the Ripper.
No, no, that couldn't be right. It didn't seem plausible enough; there hadn't been any reports of crazed Englishmen hanging about.
A couple passed by my seat. I made sure to keep my face averted.
If the men had been thugs, they'd be decently-educated ones. Nice clothes, public school accents, imported liquor on the one's breath. Even the knife had been of good quality, un-knicked and well-polished. It was more of a possibility that they'd been sent after me, but by who?
Pain shot up my arm. The bastard had twisted it behind my back when holding me, and how I wouldn't be able to move it for a week. Damn him. Damn all men.
Could Moody have sent them?
I couldn't think of a motive. My brain was too weak to think of anything. Bath, bed, maybe a shot of that Firewhiskey to keep the nightmares away. I'd have a good few of those now.
When I reached by lodgings after a too-long walk, the first thing I did was not jump into the bath or reach for a nice stiff drink. No, I tripped over my blasted Persian rug, falling face-first into a chair. My face would look splendid in the morning.
“Sitt, are you alright?” asked a shy voice from the doorway.
The youngest son of my landlady stood there, watching me with gigantic eyes. I jumped up and felt my face flush with embarrassment. My day was going from bad to worse. Maybe I'd skip the drink, just to avoid the hangover.
"Fine, yes. Just tripped over the carpet.” The words spilled out of me.
He tilted his head and looked down at the rug with curiosity, as though he expected it to explain things.
“Did it mean to trip you, Sitt?”
This boy was smarter than any of his siblings.
“It has a mind of its own.” Perhaps the truest thing I'd said all day.
“There was an effendi to see you,” he said, giving me a look filled with suspicion. Perhaps he doubted my virtue, too.
“What sort of effendi?” If it was Moody, I could safely ignore the message, whatever it was.
“What other sort is there?” he asked with a miniature sneer. “He looked like he comes from the same place that you do. All pale and sickly.”
Moody may have been American in voice and manner, but he was too swarthy to ever be regarded as sickly. It could be another possible employer... or my attackers of tonight, looking for me here before trying the temple.
"Did this effendi leave a message?" Hopefully my voice didn't give away too much of my terror.
He reached out with a small folded piece of paper between his fingertips, as though unwilling to touch too much of its tainted surface.
"Thank you, Hassim." I passed him my final few pence.
He rolled his eyes and left the room at his usual shuffling pace, probably wondering why his mother had taken on such a poor lodger. It was something I often asked myself. She had more patience than a saint to put up with the likes of me.
As soon as he was out of sight, I leapt behind the desk and rummaged through the drawers until my hand came upon my wand. It was a rather pretty thing of mahogany, about ten inches long, with a very nice carved handle. Father had paid dearly for it, I remembered with a small frown when I saw a small dent in the wood. It felt better just to hold it again. No Muggle was going to get the best of me in a fight. Never.
Stuffing the wand in my pocket, I unfolded the letter, which was more of a short note. The penmanship was enviable, all monkish in style with clear letters, all smooth and sloping to the left. A lefty then. Legend had it that Slytherin himself had been a lefty. Good sign.
Its contents were even better. I smiled, pleased at the words.
Forgive me for presuming too much, but I have been informed that you possess knowledge of this area and are in current need of employment. If you would be so kind as to meet me tomorrow at noon on the steps of the Winter Palace.
A job. The honest pleasure of that alone helped to alleviate the pain of today's numerous failures. I tried not to think of all the different forms of employment this Mr. Cadogan could offer, but instead imagined the clinking of coins and crinkling of monetary paper. Oh the sweet sounds!
The nightmares still came, the face of my attacker merging with whatever corporeal form a tomb guardian took (anything from Chimaera to Dementor), his voice emerging as an unintelligible whisper. I smothered my cries, then later my sobs, in the pillow. Choking on the feathers was worth the trouble.
Merlin, a job would do me good.
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