“Stop! O’Connell, stop that camel!”
Jonathan’s voice startled Evelyn from the half-drowsing state she was in. Against her – around her, really – she felt Rick’s body stiffen. A gesture of his, and their camel slowed down and stopped. She remained exactly where she was, snug against his torso and his arms warm around her, unwilling to change a state of affairs that felt so good.
She hadn’t moved since they had climbed on the camel after escaping Hamunaptra. Since she had turned and looked up to find Rick’s eyes on her, intent and soft and so inviting that she wasn’t sure, even now, who had initiated the kiss.
Oh, that kiss.
She had been right, on the boat. The one Rick had forced upon her at the prison when he thought he was going to die really hadn’t been much of a kiss. Now that she finally had grounds for comparison, it simply didn’t come close.
She had opened her eyes as their lips parted and they’d pressed their foreheads together, their noses had bumped, and they had laughed in wonder.
Nobody had ever warned Evelyn that falling in love was so breathtaking, so complicated yet simple, and above all so much fun. The memory alone made her smile giddily, even half-awake.
There had been other kisses, since they had set off: small pecks on the lips, a taste of Rick’s skin – sweat, dust, and a faint fragrance that was unique to him – in his open collar, and the feeling, every now and then, of his lips brushing her hair, her temple, her brow.
All those sensations crashed together in a way that was almost overwhelming. Evelyn buried her face into his neck, savouring the taste, the smell, and the sheer nearness of him, and her hands still sought to grip as much of him as she could. It was the most she had sensed in years.
She could touch him. She could reach and let her hand rest on his hipbone, on his broad back, on his thigh, and she was allowed. And goodness but she loved the permission she’d given him to answer in kind. Her skin burned and froze in turns under his touch, making her long for circumstances more amenable to exploring that feeling.
And no Jonathan to give exaggerated sighs and roll his eyes at the couple’s antics.
She knew, somewhere in the back of her mind, that at some point they would have to return to civilisation, people, and the knowledge that physical demonstrations of affection like these were frowned upon – even, to an extent, between married couples. She also knew they would have to clarify things once in Cairo, talk with a clear head about the future, whatever they wanted it to be. Which is why she was determined to make the most of her current situation as the heroine swept off her feet by her dashing adventurer. One did not live a romance novel every day, after all.
Hence a twinge of annoyance when her brother’s voice pierced her little bubble and brought her back to the ground. She had been so warm and content.
On second thought, he sounded more excited than he had in ages. Even if for the past few years she had found his enthusiasm less infectious than she used to, the curiosity factor alone…
Evelyn opened her eyes just as Rick turned to Jonathan.
“What?” he said, sounding just a little alarmed.
Jonathan had somehow managed to get his camel to sit. He clambered down awkwardly before going straight for their own mount.
“I bloody well thought so!” he exclaimed, pulling something from a saddlebag.
Something that was small, absurdly shiny, and that made both Evelyn’s and Rick’s eyes bug out.
“What the hell…?” Rick muttered. He got the camel to sit down as well and slid down – rather more smoothly than Jonathan had – to inspect the bag Evelyn had barely even noticed till now.
It was one of a pair. On the left, the bag contained full water-skins and what looked like cured meat and dried dates; on the right, however, was a veritable cornucopia of riches. Boxes, goblets, ushabtis1, pectorals, statuettes… Evelyn’s mind raced, trying to identify the objects, the materials, the periods they were from, the scenes, gods and people they represented…
Oh, she was wide awake now.
“Where did those come from?” Rick mused aloud.
“Who cares?” said Jonathan, lost in wide-eyed contemplation, and Evelyn caught herself almost agreeing with him. Then she shook herself.
“That man, that… horrible little fellow, what was his name…”
“Beni?” Rick supplied.
“Yes, him, God rest his soul. He scurried away at some point, didn’t he? Imhotep knocked me out after raising his priests from the wall, and when I woke up on that altar he was nowhere in sight. He must have gone to get the ‘rewards’ he talked about…”
Rick’s expression went from surprise to thunderstorm in the space of a second.
“Imhotep did what?”
“His priests,” said Evelyn with a hand wave, still captivated by their find, “those awful shambling mummies, they – they came from a wall, he crushed the contents of one of Anck-su-namun’s canopic jars and blew them on—”
“No, Evelyn –” she felt his hands tip her chin and brush her hair aside, surprisingly delicate, and her knees went weak at the look on his face “– are you okay?”
“Oh,” she breathed. “Um, yes, I’m all right now. It just… slipped my mind.”
Suddenly she was whisked back to the aftermath of the Medjai attack on their camp, when she had underestimated the elephant gun she had fired and the recoil had knocked her to the ground. Rick had picked her up and checked her out for injuries with a gentleness that she would have found surprising if she hadn’t been so thoroughly shaken. Being in his arms had felt so natural, so right, even then, that she had not wanted to let go of him at all.
Rick let out a breath of a laugh and moved his hands to her shoulders. This allowed her a clear path to his chest, which she took the opportunity to embrace. From her spot in his arms she could see Jonathan standing near, priceless artefact still in hand. She expected a mock-disgusted face at the display; but he simply stared at her.
“He knocked you out?”
The expression on his face was an interesting mix of blank shock and anger. It was a rare sight; the last time he had looked like that, she’d seen him punch the rather horrid fellow who had leered at her and called her “pretty, if you like skinny half-breeds”. He’d got himself beaten to a pulp by the man’s friends, but the entirely spontaneous – and heartfelt – gesture had reminded her that for all of Jonathan’s often flaky behaviour, some things were just Not On.
“Yes, well,” said Evelyn to both men, oddly touched, “he’s dead now. With the whole of Hamunaptra on top of him, to boot.”
“And good riddance to him. I hope he enjoys being buried with those bloody scarabs for all eternity – again.” Jonathan paused, the uncharacteristic fierceness switching back to his customary geniality in the space of a second. “Now, let’s see what kind of surprises my mount has in store…”
He was sorely disappointed. His camel did have something in the way of equipment – rolled up blankets, a little bag tucked against the saddle, even a small, rudimentary tent – but his investigation revealed no additional treasures. Unless one counted the bottle of Seagram’s in the bag, still warm from what Evelyn surmised had been a long stay between the sun and the body of the camel.
Jonathan squinted at the bottle and made a face.
“Well, call me snobbish, but I expected somewhat better.”
“Okay, you’re snobbish,” said Rick with a twinkle in his eye that belied the deadpan tone of his voice. “You lucked out2 with the Glenlivet last time, buddy. Can’t expect to win every time you decide to ransack somebody else’s bag.”
“Lucked out…? If anything, I lucked out with this! Give me a good, honest Scotch whisky anytime. Still,” he muttered, tucking the bottle under his arm and fiddling with the black fabric wrapped around his left hand, “it’ll have to do.”
Evelyn watched him gingerly unwrap what must have been a makeshift bandage in mingled curiosity and concern. Rick had something like this around the knuckles of his left hand as well. She’d vaguely felt it against her skin when he had rested his hand on her bare shoulder to draw her close. The cloth that wrapped her brother’s hand from the knuckles to the wrist had barely even registered, she realised, slightly ashamed. She hadn’t thought to ask, too lost in the moment and relieved that the three of them were alive and safe.
“What happened to your hand?”
It was difficult to tell in the dim light – night was falling in earnest by now – but she thought he coloured a little.
“Ah, well, you see… Um. It’s – it’s nothing, really. Merely a scratch.”
Evelyn knew that tone of voice. Whatever had happened must be quite embarrassing. Probably on par with the time he had tried to sneak back into his bedroom by climbing the façade and ended up straining a muscle in his right buttock.
Her curiosity was well and truly piqued. She strode towards him and grabbed his hand to get a better look.
And immediately regretted it when he promptly lost all colour and cried out in pain with an intensity that startled her.
“Jon!” she exclaimed. “What—”
“Bloody hell, Evy,” he gasped, cradling his hand while also trying not to drop the bottle, “warn a fellow next time!”
“That’s… not really important,” Rick cut in, “right?” Jonathan gave a fervent nod, which seemed to satisfy him. “Right. You need some help with that?”
This time Jonathan shook his head.
“Thanks, old boy, I’ll manage,” he said, still breathing heavily. “I’ve got all the help I need right here.”
“Okay. Don’t use it all at once, there’s still a few hours to go before the next oasis. Besides, I got nothing against Canadian whiskey.”
Jonathan snorted and walked off to sit behind his camel. Evelyn turned to Rick, confused and not a little worried.
“Well, uh –” Rick threw a glance at Jonathan’s camel, still sitting placidly on the ground, hiding Jonathan from view “– he got hurt.”
Evelyn barely refrained from tapping her foot.
“I gathered that,” she said impatiently. “But how?”
“Jeez, Evelyn, you’ll have to ask him. I’m not saying if he’s not. It’s not some big secret, just… I guess it’s just a little stupid.”
Jonathan could be unpredictable about things like that. Evelyn had known him to milk a simple cold for all it was worth and pretend to shrug off a broken wrist that must have hurt like the dickens.
“How bad?” she asked, more softly.
“Not too bad, I think. Still, even with the whiskey as disinfectant he’ll be better off seeing a doctor once we get back to civilisation.”
Evelyn wasn’t really looking forward to ending what felt like a wonderful, if surreal, break from normality. Cairo loomed large in their near future, and with it all sorts of everyday concerns, like what would happen to the Museum, whether she still would have a job in its library, how they would handle their miraculous windfall…
The new life she and Rick would have to create together…
On the other hand, beautiful as the desert was, it was slowly starting to lose its appeal. With seemingly endless dunes and mountains and the night sky all around them, overwhelming in its immensity, it was easy to feel like they were the only three human beings left on Earth. Every now and then the sharp cry of a bird of prey came from high up in the sky. Evelyn shivered. Populated areas had their downsides, but they were not half as merciless as the desert could be.
She allowed her brother some semblance of privacy until he emerged from behind the camel, black fabric wrapped up around his hand once more.
“All good?” asked Rick.
“All good. Antiseptic applied externally in a liberal fashion. Which reminds me – hold on a second.” Jonathan took a good swig before corking the bottle and handing it to Rick. “And internally as well now.”
Rick tipped the bottle in a kind of toast and took off his own makeshift dressing. Evelyn hesitated, suddenly unsure. Should she offer to clean his wound? Was she supposed to? Would he accept her help, for that matter, or would he balk at being coddled?
Oh for goodness’ sake, girl, you know better than to dither like this.
She was saved having to decide by a quiet throat-clearing behind her.
“Um. Evy? Do you think you could…”
Evelyn turned to Jonathan, who was holding the two ends of the strip of cloth, looking a bit sheepish. She shook her head at her own indecision and went to help her brother.
She took his hand much more gently than she had moments before, but still felt it twitch, as though he meant to tug his arm free reflexively. Up close, he looked pale and drawn. Even the whisky had failed to put colour back into his cheeks.
“You’ll be all right, won’t you?” she whispered when she finished her knot.
“You were almost sacrificed by a mummy, old mum,” he said with a slightly unsteady smile. “I can survive a little scratch.”
Then, without warning, he wrapped his arms around her and held her close. Despite her initial surprise she threw her arms around his neck, and with decades-old familiarity tipped back her head to rest her chin on his collarbone. Every so often she was grateful that her brother was only four inches taller.
“You gave me such a scare,” she heard him murmur in her hair. “When you went with him, I thought…”
So did I, she thought but didn’t say, remembering the terror that had flared up in her when Imhotep had broken his promise to spare her friends and family a minute after making it. Or her shocked despair as the plane screeched down and hit the sand dunes.
Evelyn allowed herself five seconds of unspeakable relief before breaking the embrace.
“Well,” she said around the lump in her throat, “I’m not going anywhere now.”
Her lower lip wobbled a little, and Jonathan blinked a lot more than should be necessary. As usual both facts went unacknowledged, and Jonathan lightly bumped her forehead with his and made silly faces until she giggled.
“Seriously, don’t do that again, all right?” he said with a levity that still felt slightly forced. “You’re not allowed to scare me like that, young lady, and that’s final.”
“Neither are you, and I hope you remember it the next time some huge Russian comes after you because he doesn’t usually lose this much at poker,” she pointed out, only happy to follow his lead.
“Can I help it if I get lucky at cards? It’s more lucrative than being lucky in love, anyway.”
“Remind me to not play cards with you,” said Rick from behind Evelyn, fiddling with a strap on their camel’s saddle. The small bandage around his knuckles was tidy and neat and didn’t look like it had required a long time to take care of. He’d given them the space they needed, she realised with a warm rush of gratitude. “How ‘lucky’ do you get, exactly?”
“Just the occasional stroke of luck the Lady sees fit to send me.”
“And the occasional ace up your sleeve, huh?”
Jonathan had the good grace to look slightly abashed.
“Well, sometimes Lady Luck needs a bit of prodding.”
Rick shook his head with a snort. “Figures.”
There was light sarcasm in his voice, but no real bite, a sure-fire sign that he hadn’t played against Jonathan. People who did and lost tended to hold grudges.
Evelyn caught Rick’s gaze; they rolled their eyes in unison, and a thrill went through her. For the first time since her parents’ deaths, she had someone to share those kinds of little moments with besides Jonathan. She’d had good working relationships with the Cairo Museum attendants, and Dr Bey could be pleasant enough, but professional and personal were not the same thing at all.
Rick gave the strap one last tug and unfurled the blanket he had untied from the camel.
“Are we stopping here?” Evelyn asked curiously.
“Nah, we’re too much in the open. Besides, Baris is only about thirty miles away, we can reach the oasis by tomorrow morning if we just keep going. We can get supplies, some clothes, maybe some rest, and from there it’s a hundred and fifty mile stretch to Edfu where we can take a boat up river.”
“Ooh,” said Evelyn with sudden enthusiasm, “there’s a temple of Horus in Edfu. Ptolemaic, I believe. According to the Bembridge scholars, it’s one of the best-preserved temples in all of Egypt!”
Rick raised an eyebrow. “Thought you’d have enough of old temples and dead guys by now.”
Evelyn waved a hand impatiently, her mind already on the statues and bas-reliefs she had only ever read accounts of.
“Don’t be silly. We can’t go back to Cairo saying we found Hamunaptra – nobody would believe us anyway – but we can say we ‘discovered’ a few of the objects in this bag in nearby temples, provided the periods match. That way Egyptologists get some priceless artefacts to study, we get some compensation, presumably… And I can send my application to the Bembridge scholars again now that I do have some ‘experience in the field’!”
She ended on a triumphant note, an irrepressible grin on her face. Maybe returning to normality wouldn’t mean picking up where she had left things before Imhotep, before the locusts and the crazed mob, before Jonathan had placed a little puzzle box in her hand and she’d demanded they track down the man it had belonged to. Maybe it would lead to something else entirely. The world had been turned on its head, almost ended, and now it was lying in front of her anew, like the banks of the Nile after the flood waters receded.
Jonathan, she noted, shook his head with a grin, but Rick was staring at her with a gentle awe and the beginning of a smile.
“This whole thing didn’t scare you off at all, did it.”
She returned his stare with her chin up.
“Why should I let it? I’m not abandoning my life’s calling simply because we got into a spot of bother.”
Rick blinked. “A spot of both—? We barely got away with our lives!”
“Well,” she countered, barely faltering, “these things will happen. My parents did say that exploring was not for the faint of heart. But,” she continued, “modern Egyptology has existed for almost a hundred and thirty years. Believe it or not, a staggering majority of Egyptologists died in their beds, not from ancient curses!”
“And hardly any died from booby traps, either,” Jonathan piped up. Honestly, sometimes it was hard to tell whether he was being sarcastic or not. Evelyn glared at him on general principle.
Rick looked at the both of them in turn, an unreadable look on his face.
“Right. Well, at least we all have something to look forward to once we get back.”
He climbed on the camel and extended his hand for Evelyn to grasp, which she did with a certain amount of awkwardness.
Did he expect her to drop everything if they were to marry? Field archaeology, research, cataloguing?
She knew for a fact that marriage had not ended her mother’s career – quite the opposite. John and Salwa Carnahan had been loving parents, who both worked in the same field and took pleasure in their chosen profession without overshadowing each other. Granted, they didn’t see much of their children during the school year, but any weekend and holiday was a pretext to either immerse themselves into ancient civilisations – Egypt in particular – or take the long trip to Cairo. Evelyn and Jonathan had grown up with a father who regularly asked for their mother’s advice or knowledge when she wasn’t offering it herself, and the default way of thinking in the family was that everyone’s voice deserved to be heard. Their mother’s education and background might have been slightly less academic than their father’s had been, but that mattered little, as both were founts of theoretical information as well as practical know-how.
It had taken Evelyn leaving for Oxford to understand just how unusual her household had been. She had hardly paid attention to the world outside her books and her little family till then. Her coming of age had coincided with her coming out in a society where she was expected to find a husband at some point, preferably soon. Even a few of her friends at Somerville – a place of learning and the making of scholars – were of like mind, and made it very clear to her that a working woman was an oddity at best, a disappointment and a disgrace at worst.
Evelyn, like always, had responded by burying herself in her books, even during those wretched dances and parties where she knew nobody except Jonathan and just waited, bored to tears and feeling horribly out-of-place.
The one and only silver lining of their parents’ untimely deaths was that it had put a stop to the silliness. Even after the appropriate mourning period was over, she just… refused invitations and threw herself into her work, unwilling to cast off something that felt like such an integral part of herself. If men didn’t like the thought of a wife with an occupation, then they held no interest for her.
But what if Rick was like that, too?
Or, alternatively, what if he wasn’t, but refused the idea of anything dangerous happening to her? Of course being an Egyptologist generally didn’t mean running the risk of awakening dark forces and running for one’s life, but like any field occupation, it had its share of dangers. A couple of weeks ago she would have scoffed at the very idea of ‘dark forces’, but archaeologists could still face entirely mundane threats like determined grave robbers or bandits in search of easy gold. Rick, with his experience with the darker side of life, was probably only too aware of that. Considering the protective streak she’d seen him display towards herself, Jonathan, and even that nasty little Beni character in the end, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think he might prefer her to stay home, or at least in a place where one didn’t run the risk of being attacked on a regular basis. Which she had no intention whatsoever to do.
She shifted a little on the saddle she shared with him and tipped her head to look at him.
He had wrapped up the blanket around himself, and by extension her, and while her bare calves felt the sting of the cool wind the rest of her was nice and warm. It felt a shame to break such a peaceful atmosphere. But some things she had to clarify.
“Did… Hamunaptra, Imhotep, everything – did it, um… ‘scare you off’?”
Rick lowered his head slightly to rest it against hers.
“Well, Egyptology. Exploring.” Me. “Everything.”
“Everything, huh?” He transferred the stick to his left hand to rub his face with his right. “I don’t know. Can’t say I did a lot of exploring before.”
And, just as she wondered how to rephrase her question in a way that didn’t make her sound clingy, he said, “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I was scared. You’d have to be a fool not to be. But scared off? Hell no.” His left arm slipped around her waist again, naturally, almost unthinkingly. “Look, I don’t know much about… ancient civilisations, or hieroglyphs, or this or that pharaoh. I’m not an archaeologist and barely an adventurer. I’m just a guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time – or, y’know, the right one. But a thing I do know a lot is dangerous places, and dangerous people. So…”
Evelyn stared at him, wondering where he was going, unwilling to interrupt him.
“So, I guess… If you still want to go into tombs, and dig up mummies, and… and go out there and learn things, I could, uh. Give you a hand sometime. If that’s okay with you.”
His voice had that soft, hesitant tone it had when he had handed her the pilfered toolkit. She felt it rumble through his chest, making her shiver – and not from the cold.
However, she was determined to not be distracted.
“You would?” she said, her own voice small and hopeful. “It wouldn’t bother you?”
“What, looking out for you?”
“No, I mean…” She took a deep breath. “If we were to, er. Keep… seeing each other. You wouldn’t mind a w—you don’t think a woman who works is… unbecoming?”
“‘Unbecoming’? What kinda stupid – oh, you’re serious.”
Despite her good will, Evelyn scowled.
“Of course I’m serious! It’s a very serious question!”
Rick stared at her like she had grown a second head. She looked for traces of sarcasm in his face, a sign that he was having her on. She found none.
“Oh, okay. Well, to answer your serious question, no, I don’t think a woman who works is ‘unbecoming’. Like, mummies and plagues aside, you being a librarian has worked pretty well for you so far, right? Why?”
“Oh for heaven’s sake, old mum,” came Jonathan’s tired voice from her left, “just ask him to marry you already and put the poor man out of his misery.”
Evelyn almost fell off the camel, and Rick made a strangled noise.
“Jonathan!” she snapped, poking her head out of the blanket to glare at her brother.
“What? It’s not like I have much choice but to hear the two of you jabber. It’s that or self-imposed exile, and I’m not putting a hundred yards between us just to give you some privacy. It’s dreadfully easy to get lost in the desert, especially at night.”
“I wish you would get lost,” she retorted, if only to distract herself from the feeling that someone had set her head on fire. “That way I could have one serious conversation without… idiotic interruptions!”
“It’s not too late to trade you for another camel, you know.”
“I’m sorry,” said Rick in a voice that sounded a little faraway, “can we go back a bit? You want to marry me?”
“I’m not supposed to ask, am I? Oh goodness, I’ve made a hash of things again –”
“No, I mean… That’s not… You actually want to?”
The air felt thinner between them. Evelyn suddenly had the sensation of standing precariously on her ladder between two shelves, a book in hand, and a deep void beneath her feet. The smallest motion, the slightest breath could lead either to stability or utter disaster.
“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes, I would like that very much.” Her breath trembled in her chest.
The world wavered.
“Okay,” he said finally, his face slowly catching up with the smile in his eyes.
“Okay?” Evelyn could barely believe the sound of her voice.
“Okay.” He bent down a little, she straightened up just a bit, and their lips met halfway. That kiss was another one for the books. “We’re getting married.”
Any apprehension she might have had dissolved at the way he smiled at her. His half-closed eyes were shining, and his lips were stretched in a wide grin that seemed to light up his face from the inside out. It was the goofiest, most wonderful smile she had ever seen.
“Thank God that’s settled,” muttered Jonathan. Evelyn didn’t even have to look at him to know he was trying not to smile, and failing.
She shook her head and let out a chuckle that turned into an absolutely beaming smile.
She was getting married. To a man who had stood by her side even as the world around her threatened to topple, the man who had stolen a toolkit for her and shuffled and stammered like a schoolboy, the man who for some reason looked at her like she hung up the stars in the night sky.
The man whose depths she had glimpsed but had yet to explore at length.
The man whose touch made her feel so vibrantly alive and like her heart would stop beating any second at the same time.
Her life as she knew it was over, and she had never more looked forward to what would come next.
Speaking of which…
“Oh my God,” she exclaimed after what had been a long, peaceful silence, “I’m getting married.”
Rick’s snort of laughter shook his entire upper body.
“Well, yeah, I thought we established that.”
“No, I mean – I don’t know the first thing about weddings, how to proceed, or – or if I even want to get married in a church, and –”
Books. She needed books. That kind of information had to be easily found somewhere…
Rick tightened his arms around her slightly. The warm kiss she felt against her cheekbone did wonders to calm her mild panic.
“Hey, it’s okay, we’ll figure it out. We have time – we’re not even at Edfu yet.”
“I know, I just… Well, to be honest, marriage has never been very high a priority for me, so I never really took time to, er, examine the question.”
“Me neither.” He paused. “To be honest, I don’t even know who to ask to be my best man.”
She looked at him curiously.
“Well, yeah. Most of my old army buddies are dead, and those who aren’t… Well, let’s put it that way: either I wouldn’t want them at my wedding or they want nothing to do with me.”
“What about your family?”
“My parents died about fourteen years ago. I got no family to speak of.”
Evelyn was searching for something commiserating to say that wouldn’t sound awful, when it hit her that her own situation was hardly different.
“To be honest,” she said in a thoughtful voice, “I don’t really have anyone I might invite besides Jonathan, either. I haven’t been much of a social butterfly since my parents’ deaths.”
He gazed at her silently, with the soft, solemn expression she recognised as the look of someone who knew how to read between the lines and understood, in a visceral way, no matter how flippant she tried to be about it. She did her best to return the look.
“So you have no family at all?”
The thought broke her heart. She recalled the agony of grief, the crushing loneliness that loss had built around her like a brick wall, just thick enough to isolate her from the world but too treacherous to lean on, and tried to imagine what it would have been like without Jonathan to share it with. She stopped quickly.
“Nope,” he said, and she saw her own attempt at nonchalance in his face.
She rested her head against his shoulder and tried for a small smile.
“Well, I have a brother. I can share.”
He sounded amused, but something deep in his eyes told Evelyn he just might be taking this family thing more seriously than he let on.
“Absolutely. Although I must warn you, if you were thinking of asking him to be your best man, I must put my foot down.”
Rick’s smile widened. His eyes twinkled.
“Oh yeah? Why’s that?”
“Well, who else do you think I’m going to ask to be my bridesmaid?” she asked with a wicked grin. She was rewarded by a low, rich chuckle that made her laugh, in turn.
It occurred to Evelyn that her potential bridesmaid had been silent for an uncharacteristically long time, and as the giggles died down she popped her head out from under the blanket again.
“What do you say, Jonathan?” she asked gaily. “Would you…”
Her voice trailed off. Jonathan’s eyes were half-closed and he appeared to be dozing, but for the way his face seemed more and more taut with every movement of his camel. Evelyn knew her brother since her birth; she was familiar with the way sleep – and the occasional overindulgence in alcohol – slackened his features. This wasn’t it. Moreover, he made no sign at all that he had heard her.
“Rick,” she said urgently, “stop.”
Rick took one look at Jonathan and immediately slowed their camel to a halt. Not a minute too soon: the next moment, Jonathan slid bonelessly down the side of his camel and crashed into the sand with a thud.
Evelyn didn’t even wait for her camel to sit. She slipped out of Rick’s arms and flung herself down. Only the long-standing familiarity of what was her second-favourite pair of shoes prevented her from turning an ankle on landing.
She ignored Jonathan’s camel, who ambled on as though nothing had happened, and ran to her brother. Alarmingly, the fall had done nothing to rouse him – quite the opposite.
“Jon? Jon, wake up.” She tapped his cheek, gently at first, then harder when he didn’t react. “Jon, for Heaven’s sake, what’s the matter with you?”
Dimly she registered Rick bringing back Jonathan’s camel to make it settle down next to theirs.
“Does he feel warm to you?” he asked as the beast finished its complicated manoeuvre. There was something tense in his voice that made Evelyn’s heart beat faster, and not in a pleasant way at all.
“Feverish, you mean?” She laid the back of her hand on her brother’s forehead. Somewhere in the back of her mind she wondered when her hands had started shaking. “I don’t know,” she said, biting her lip. “I mean, yes, he does, but my hands are cold, so it might not mean anything.”
Jonathan’s hands, she noted, were warm, like they usually were. Evelyn’s heart sank in her chest. The fingers of his left hand were noticeably warmer than his right.
She drew in a breath. “Rick, give me that bottle, please.”
He was at her side in an instant.
“Evelyn,” he said seriously, “if the wound’s getting infected, you know it won’t –”
“I know. This’ll just wake him up. Hopefully.”
She uncorked the bottle and prised Jonathan’s jaw open to wedge the neck between his teeth.
“Well,” she muttered, “bottoms up. It’s not Turkish coffee, but it’ll have to do…”
To her immense relief, the effect was almost instantaneous. Jonathan’s face scrunched up and he started coughing and spluttering.
“Evy – what the –” His eyes popped open, his gaze jumping from Evelyn to Rick and back. After a while he frowned and let out a groan. “Did I just… fall from the camel?”
“I think you fainted first,” Evelyn pointed out, more dryly than she intended. Her fright had left her quite cross, and she could still feel it nestled around her heart. The fact that Jonathan’s eyes were a little bit too bright didn’t help matters.
Jonathan looked miffed.
“How’s your hand?” asked Rick, corking the bottle again. “And your shoulder? That looked like an ugly fall.”
“Both feel lousy. Like the rest of me, actually. How far did you say that oasis was?”
“Baris? About twenty-five miles north-east of here. You up to it?”
“We’ll find out, won’t we?”
He made to sit up, slowly, but still ended up white as a sheet once his torso was reasonably vertical. While he waited to regain some colour, Evelyn looked at him curiously, intrigued by Rick’s question.
“What’s wrong with your shoulder?”
She could see now, peeking from under the open collar of Jonathan’s shirt, the same kind of black fabric his makeshift bandage was made of. Now that she thought about it, the fabric reminded her a lot of the black robes their Medjai ally had worn. What had been the man’s name, Evelyn wondered. None of them had even thought to ask before he vanished into the desert just like he had seemed to materialise from it.
Delicately, she lifted her brother’s shirt collar to take a better look. Rick raised his eyebrows at her; Jonathan merely swatted her hand away absently.
“Not now, old mum. At least wait until we reach civilisation and I can get blind drunk on something better than bloody Seagram’s before playing Florence Nightingale.”
“Oh for goodness’ sake, Jonathan…”
She huffed and rolled his eyes, but was secretly pleased that he wasn’t slurring his words. Their dad had come home with a tropical fever, once; her dignified, articulate father mumbling incoherently, lost in delirium, had left an impression she suspected would follow her to the grave. The rest of their little family had been badly scared for weeks until they were sure he would make a complete recovery.
And then he and their mother had boarded a plane that never landed, leaving her and Jonathan alone.
Allowing the memory back in her mind was a mistake. Evelyn rubbed her stinging eyes energetically and did her best to force down the lump in her throat.
Rick had thrown Jonathan’s right arm over his shoulder and hefted him to his feet. The support didn’t look superfluous: Jonathan’s legs might as well have been made of rubber.
“I might have been a little overoptimistic,” he said sheepishly.
Evelyn’s heart now felt as though it was bobbing up and down in her chest, like she herself had on the camel. Rick, she noticed, was glancing thoughtfully at their mounts.
“We could tie him to the camel,” she suggested, keeping her voice carefully even.
Jonathan sputtered. “Now see here –”
“Wouldn’t work. Anyway, we’d need rope for that.”
“I mean really, is nobody even going to –”
“He could ride with me, I could use a blanket to rope us together.”
“I don’t know, Evelyn. The way things look, you’d both end up on the ground sooner or later.”
“Look, I am standing right here, you know.”
“I wouldn’t call it ‘standing’, exactly,” Rick pointed out with a deadpan look.
Jonathan made a face.
“Technicalities. My point is, well. We’re twenty-five miles from the nearest town, or what passes for a town in these parts. The only real choice is either making those twenty-five miles or staying here, isn’t it?”
As if on cue, a bird of prey screeched in the distance, closer than the last one. The sound, combined with the cold wind and the fact that she was only wearing a flimsy sleeveless dress, chilled Evelyn to the bone.
“Well we’re not leaving you here, you nit,” she all but snapped. Her sharp tone must have surprised Rick to some extent from the glance he threw her.
Jonathan gave a sigh of relief that was a little too overdramatic to not have a measure of truth behind it.
“Oh thank God. I really did not want to be left behind. This place is just dreary.”
They all downed a mouthful of water from one of the water-skins they had discovered in the saddlebags and clambered on their respective camels, Evelyn snug in Rick’s arms again with the blanket around them both, and Jonathan holding both stick and reins in his right hand, jaw clenched, shoulders hunched, but stable.
While the camel worked its way into an upright position she managed to slip her hands around Rick’s. They were warm compared to her own; she could feel them holding the reins and the stick with easy strength. The skin around the small bandage didn’t feel any hotter or tighter than the knuckles of his other hand did. She mentally sighed in relief and thanked God for small mercies.
As they set out into the night once more, Rick whispered, “Tell me something. Are all siblings like that?”
“Like what?” Evelyn asked, puzzled.
“Like – I don’t know, you call him names, he says he wants to trade you for a camel… Except it’s obvious that neither of you means a word of it. So is it like a brother-sister thing, or are you two just weird that way?”
The question disconcerted Evelyn somewhat. She and Jonathan had always expressed affection via good-natured teasing, as well as the occasional slap upside the head for her and him tweaking her ear or chucking her under the chin. She had called him an idiot a thousand times, and his calling her “old mum” used to drive her insane. Nevertheless she simply could not picture the world without her brother in it, and, as recent events had proved – if proof were needed – the opposite appeared just as true.
“I have no idea,” she said truthfully, before adding, her voice just a little lower, “I only have one brother.”
And I’d like to keep him.
Rick looked down at her, glanced at Jonathan, then at her again, and Evelyn got a funny feeling that he’d heard everything she hadn’t voiced out loud.
This stage of the trip was a little tense and mostly silent, on Jonathan’s part anyway. Evelyn and Rick shared snippets of conversation, alternated chitchats and more serious tête-à-têtes; around them, the rolling dunes made way for a flatter, rockier terrain, with the odd cliffside looming ten or twelve feet above them and covering the ground in shadow.
They kept a tranquil but even pace, and Evelyn was starting to feel hopeful that they would reach the oasis without further mishap, when an hour or so after they had set off she heard Jonathan’s voice, low and curiously flat.
“Evy – I can’t.”
Something in his voice made Evelyn’s heart seize in her chest. Her brother could be a lot of things depending on his mood of the moment: sarcastic, teasing, cheerful, peevish, fond… He didn’t sound – or look – so lifeless unless something was seriously wrong.
This time she waited until the camel had its four legs on the ground before slipping down from the saddle, albeit barely. Jonathan had stopped his camel; he slumped in the saddle, left hand limp on his lap, eyes half-closed again. In the moonlight his face looked practically bloodless.
“What?” she asked, determined to keep him talking if it meant keeping him conscious. “You can’t what?”
“I can’t… go any farther. I can’t.”
There was no trace of irony nor whine in his voice. In fact, there was no trace of anything. It was completely toneless.
The grip Jonathan had on consciousness seemed tenuous at best, and he probably would have toppled over the head of the camel as the beast pitched forwards to sit if Evelyn hadn’t kept a solid hold on him. When the camel was settled his body slid down the side of the saddle like something poured from a bottle.
His head lolled on Evelyn’s shoulder. At least the sensation was familiar. But for a few crucial differences, he might have been in that peculiar state between sozzled and hungover she’d found him in a few times on very early mornings.
He still felt warm, though not much more than he had earlier. Realising this helped drive away some of the chill around her heart.
“Well then,” she said with confidence she didn’t have, “we’ll just have to set up camp for the rest of the night, won’t we? Can’t have you walking off into the desert with just a note saying you might be some time, like Captain Oates3.”
There was a small sound in the vicinity of her shoulder that might have been a snort in other circumstances. She tightened her hold around his waist and looked to Rick.
“Can we set up camp here?” she asked in a low voice, trying to keep it steady. The landscape looked rather unforgiving, all sand and rocks and small spiny shrubs; to their left stood a few craggy rises, like a rocky hill missing one half. There didn’t seem to be much in the way of shelter.
Rick shook his head.
“Not right here, but I’m going to scout around a bit for a decent place to stop for the night. I’ve been here before, there’s a couple of decent spots we can set up camp in.” He paused and lay his hand, large and warm, on her arm. “You gonna be okay, waiting here?”
“I’m not leaving him alone, so I suppose my options are rather limited.”
Evelyn stubbornly kept her chin up and her upper lip stiff. Maybe it was ridiculous to be scared now, instead of twenty-four hours earlier, while they were being chased by a mob of mind-controlled people covered in boils and sores and a three thousand years old mummy with godlike powers. But she could not help it. She did not want Rick to leave.
She knew why he – and Jonathan – had insisted on continuing on to Baris instead of simply setting up camp for the night earlier. Her parents had taken her and Jonathan on a number of digs since they were fairly small; while those digs had played a large part in kindling her passion for Ancient Egypt, they had also impressed upon her the necessity of treating a wound – any kind of wound, serious or not – immediately. Delay meant danger. She had been all of ten years old the first time she had seen a previously healthy man in the prime of his life die two days after getting what should have been a simple cut on the leg; she wouldn’t forget the shock and the sorrow on his friends’ and colleagues’ faces in a hurry.
Jonathan had been right there with her that day. He had spent almost two years on the Western Front, during the Great War. He, too, was intimately familiar with what infections could lead to.
Rick stared at her solemnly, his face hard and his eyes soft. His kiss nearly undid her resolve.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” he whispered. She nodded, her jaw clenched.
She felt his thumb brush her cheek, her lips, before he tore his gaze from hers and walked away. His footfalls soon faded into the tapestry of small sounds around them. The desert was never completely silent.
There was nothing left to do now but wait. With a sigh, Evelyn gently set Jonathan down against the flank of a camel, untied a blanket, and sat down next to him, shoulder to shoulder. Before unfurling the blanket, however, she gingerly took her brother’s hand and unwrapped the bandages.
What she found when she was done made her heart jump in her throat. Even in the dim light, the wound looked ugly. There was a big tear in the middle of the palm, as well as a thin red welt that started there and snaked up along his arm, disappearing under the sleeve of his shirt. When she inspected his shoulder, she found it bound tightly in the same black material, now stiff from having been soaked twice, first with blood then with whisky.
“Oh, Jon,” she said softly. “What happened to you?”
His voice was so low she thought she misheard the word. Still, when she looked at him and realised his eyes were open, eyelids at half mast, she couldn’t help a sigh of relief.
“What do you mean, ‘bug’?”
Jonathan let her wrap the bandages around his hand again with only a sharp intake of breath or two. Either she managed to be particularly gentle, or he simply didn’t have the energy for a stronger reaction.
“The… the flesh-eating scarabs. Remember those?”
The memory made her shudder so hard she had to pause before tying the knot.
“Of course I remember. I wish they’d all stayed in their fossilised state. How did they even survive all these millennia?” She trailed off and reached to grab the blanket. “Anyway. Why did you look so… so embarrassed, earlier? Being attacked by those nasty little creatures is nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Um. Well, I wasn’t… You see, I found these little shiny things that looked like… blue gold, possibly, or amethyst gold. Thought they might be heart scarabs4. So I… I picked one up for a closer look. Feel free to say ‘I told you so’ anytime.”
Evelyn almost smiled. Jonathan had always had something of the magpie about him, even before he had mastered the dubious art of picking other people’s pockets.
“Turns out the little bugger wasn’t dead. Just… dormant, I guess. It dug in here –” he pointed at his palm “– then burrowed its way up here –” his finger followed the weal up his arm to his shoulder “– and O’Connell stopped it here. Cut it out with his butterfly knife.”
His hand fell. She stared at the spot he’d been pointing at. If the little beast had delved its way just a little bit higher…
“Say, remember when I said the stinky warden must’ve died from something he ate? I think something ate him. That’s why he went mad and cracked his head against a wall. Honestly, I can understand the fellow… Just three more seconds of that bloody scarab and the wall would’ve looked positively inviting…”
This time Evelyn felt a whole-body shudder go through her like a draught through an empty room.
“Don’t,” she snapped, wrapping the blanket tightly around the two of them. “Not now. Not here.”
Jonathan fell silent.
She had been cold in her thin dress, but now between the camel, the blanket, and Jonathan’s body against her, she was starting to warm up again. Once her hands stopped feeling icy, she reached over her shoulder and felt his forehead. And sighed.
“You’re definitely running a temperature.”
“I know. It’s about the only amount of running I’m capable of right now.”
“Can’t you be serious for once, Jon?”
Her tone came out a little sharper than she meant to. He raised his head to look her in the eyes.
“I’m not going to die, Evy,” he said quietly. “I’m just… tired. That thing feels bloody awful and it’s exhausting. Won’t even let me sleep properly.”
“But the infection –”
“– Will take some time before it does some real damage. We’ll rest for a bit, go to the oasis tomorrow, and I’ll get this –” he made a vague gesture to his left side “– taken care of. And then we’ll go home and split the treasure.”
Then, as she still hovered between worry and the urge to shake her head – trust Jonathan to still be thinking about treasure at a time like this – he added, “And then you’ll get married.”
Despite herself, Evelyn smiled. “And then I’ll get married.”
“That’s the ticket. You don’t think I’d miss my baby sister’s wedding, do you?” His head flopped down on her shoulder again. “Besides, you said it yourself – who else is going to be your bridesmaid?”
This time she gave a chuckle with just the hint of a sniffle.
“I might have known you were listening after all.”
“Like I’d leave the honour to anybody else.” She glanced down at him and saw him purse his lips in mock contemplation. “I’m only wearing a dress if O’Connell is, though.”
“Idiot,” she said fondly, drawing him closer.
In the following silence, warmer and more comfortable than it had been when she had settled the both of them against the camel, she listened for Rick’s footsteps. Hearing nothing but the normal sounds of the desert nightlife, she lay her head against Jonathan’s and spoke quietly.
“Do you think they would have liked him?”
From the corner of her eye she saw her brother blink. Then blink again, more slowly.
“I think… I think Father wouldn’t have known quite what to make of him, at first. But he’d never pass the chance to make Great-Uncle Augustus and the others froth at the mouth a little more. Imagine their faces when they find out his daughter brought into the family an American ex-Legionnaire who got hanged within an inch of his life…”
“Great-Uncle Augustus and the others can go to hell.” Evelyn did not swear often, let alone with so much venom, but if something could bring this out in her, it was the way her father’s family had utterly abandoned him after his marriage. She and Jonathan had never lacked for love despite lacking grandparents, uncles and aunts, and cousins; it had taken her until her late teenage years to even notice she was supposed to have more relatives.
She still couldn’t believe almost none of them had come to the funeral. John Carnahan hadn’t just been a husband and a father, he had also been a son, a brother, a nephew, an uncle, a cousin. But apparently none of that counted after he married Salwa al-Masri.
“Mum would have liked Rick,” she added in a lower voice, almost defiantly.
She felt Jonathan smile into her shoulder.
“Mum would have loved him.”
“She wouldn’t have cared where we met or what he was doing before. She…”
Evelyn rubbed her eyes and drew in a shaky breath.
“She would have an ally against Father’s obsession with mint sauce,” she continued with a small laugh. “And she might have teased him, a little. But she would’ve seen he was a good man, and he would have liked her…”
Her voice died down. She almost gave a start when she felt Jonathan’s hand find hers under the blanket.
“I miss them too,” he mumbled, his voice very low.
Five years and a half, Evelyn decided, should be enough to at least dull the sharpness of grief; but it was still there, buried under her ribcage like an arrowhead. She squeezed Jonathan’s fingers and gave herself ten seconds to get herself together.
After twelve seconds, she wiped her cheeks, sniffed a little, and whispered, “Jon?”
“I told you so.”
The answering snort against the side of her head was subdued, but it was there. Small as it was, it was a comfort.
Everything was quiet around them: the only sounds were the wind in the dunes, the faint song of crickets and other various chittering insects, and the occasional stomach rumble from the camel they were huddled up against. Which made the sudden crackle all the more noticeable.
Evelyn’s head snapped up, and she cast a wary look around. Against her she felt Jonathan’s body tense.
Oh thank God.
Rick’s footsteps may not be quite so familiar that she recognised them yet, but the sound of his voice sent relief flooding through her. Along with a rush of warmth and the sudden need to hold his hand, embrace him, touch him in any way she could. It was as though the events of the last few weeks – could it really have been so short a time? – had turned the air between them into rubber; the farther he was away, the stronger the pull became, until she almost expected either of them to snap right back to the other’s side. Maybe that was why they called it “attraction”.
She wondered if he felt the same, and whether it sounded just as silly in his head as it did in hers.
Rick emerged from behind the camel and crouched in front of her. His eyes flicked to Jonathan, whose head was barely visible on her shoulder under the blanket, and back to her again. Perhaps her face still showed traces of the last conversation, no matter how composed she tried to look, because he reached for her face and lightly brushed his thumb under her eye and over her cheekbone.
“You okay?” he asked softly.
“More or less,” she said, quite proud of how steady her voice was.
“Msflg” was Jonathan’s answer. If his eyes were overly bright, the expression in them slightly dulled, at least they were still open, though not all the way.
“I’ll take that as a maybe.” Rick took his good arm and hauled him to his feet, not ungently. Deprived of her main source of heat, Evelyn kept the blanket around her shoulders, doing her best not to shiver.
“So,” she asked, “did you find a good place to stop?”
“Yeah, I did. There’s a little outcrop five minutes west of here, just off the trail, near a couple of dead shrubs. We’ll be sheltered from the wind and maybe even get a fire going. Can you get the camels?”
For someone whose previous contacts with camels had been somewhat limited so far and rather a long time ago, Evelyn was becoming quite the dab hand at handling them. She managed to get the two animals to stand up in what was – for her, anyway – record time and they followed her lead placidly, with nary a complaint.
As for her, she followed Rick, who walked with confidence in the dark, keen-eyed and sure-footed. Jonathan was making a valiant effort to walk, but his body appeared determined to impersonate a ragdoll’s. From the way he shuffled and occasionally tripped, he would have fallen half a dozen times but for Rick’s support.
“You know,” Rick said after a couple of minutes, “if just twenty-four hours ago you’d asked me where I thought I’d be by this point, I think I would’ve been wrong no matter what I answered.”
Evelyn considered the timeline. “Twenty-four hours ago… Was that when we were at the Museum, or trying to get away from that crazed mob?”
“Couldn’t say,” mumbled Jonathan. “No idea what time it is. I lost my watch somewhere between the plane crash and the scarabs. Sorry, Evy,” he added, sounding a little more normal.
He did look apologetic, and Evelyn knew why. The watch had been a Christmas present from her, that first Christmas they’d spent as a family of two instead of four.
“Oh, well,” she said in a placating tone, making an effort not to shake her head at the sheer absurdity of their conversation, “at least I know what to give you for your next birthday now.” You’d better be alive for it, she didn’t add, though the thought resonated so loudly in her mind some of it must have come out in her voice.
Then she pondered a little bit and said, “If I’m honest, I hardly gave a thought about the future at all until… a few hours ago, I believe. It seemed like too much to hope for, between the Plagues and Imhotep and everything.”
They reached the shelter Rick had found, a sandy spot at the base of a shelf of rock five feet high. Rick deposited Jonathan against the outcrop, handed him a blanket, and went to help Evelyn with the camels.
“If it hadn’t been for… y’know –” Rick made a vague gesture “– Imhotep, Hamunaptra, and, well… me, I guess.” He threw her a curious look as she finished tying her camel to a dead shrub and sat down next to Jonathan. “What would ‘the future’ have been, for you?”
Evelyn had had dreams, ambitions, goals; she still had them now, mostly unchanged, but only now did she let herself realise that she might have been rather lonely as well.
“I suppose I would have continued to apply to the Bembridge Scholars – maybe tried my hand at a doctorate. Be a proper Egyptologist, like my parents. But mostly,” she added with a smile that was more than a little sheepish, “I would be looking at months and months of work trying to put the Museum’s library back together after that, um… little accident with the bookshelves. Actually, I think I’ll be on my own for this, since Dr Bey and the Museum attendants will no doubt be busy with the repairs – the mob did a lot of damage in the…”
Rick and Jonathan exchanged a look.
“What?” she asked, puzzled.
“Evelyn, the curator’s…” Rick’s voice was soft. “Well, he died.”
Evelyn’s response was purely instinctive. It preceded sorrow, and even shock. When both hit, she was surprised by the sudden grief, and how much of it she felt.
“Oh,” she repeated in a small voice.
Dr Terrence Bey had been irascible, sometimes scornful, a severe and demanding supervisor; he had never made secret of the fact that he’d first hired her more out of respect for the memory of John and Salwa Carnahan than for her actual skills and knowledge. He had also – she was fairly certain of this – not only alerted his fellow Medjai that she was in possession of the key and the map to Hamunaptra but also conspired twice to have her, Rick and Jonathan, and later the entire American expedition assassinated to keep Imhotep’s final resting place a secret.
Nevertheless, he had also shown her kindness, had accepted to sell the odd trinket of value Jonathan managed to scavenge from various digs, and had been the only person besides her brother whom she could talk to about her parents.
She had simply assumed that he had stayed behind in Cairo…
“He grabbed a sword and attacked those poor hypnotised bastards who wanted to rip us to pieces,” said Jonathan quietly. “Made himself as much a target as he could so we could escape. I swear I’ll never say an unkind word about the old fellow again.”
They were sheltered from the wind, and Rick had started a fire; with the blanket around her and Jonathan’s good shoulder pressed against hers she should have been quite warm. But she found herself shivering all the same.
Yet another unfortunate person who’d died because of Imhotep, if not quite at his hand.
Imhotep, who had only been alive because she had raised him from the dead…
Her eyes were burning; she blinked hard, spilling tears on her cheeks.
“I wish…” She wiped her face and swallowed. In her chest her heart was beating uncomfortably fast. “Oh, I wish I’d never opened that blasted book. If only…”
Two voices rose at the same time.
“Aw, no, Evelyn –”
“Hold on there, old mum, it wasn’t –”
“But it was,” she said fiercely. “It was my fault. The Americans might have opened the chest, but I was the one who read from the Book. I said the words that brought Imhotep back to life. Everything he did after, all the people he killed…” She drew in a sharp breath. “If not for me, they would still be alive.”
Rick sat next to her and put an arm around her. It didn’t stop her shivers, but her heartbeat slowed down a little.
“Look,” he said evenly after a short silence, “mistakes happen, right?”
“My mistakes got people killed, Rick.”
“I was in the Foreign Legion. So did mine. Besides,” he added as her mind backpedalled to try to hear everything he was not saying, “I was about to be hanged when we met, remember? Believe me, I did some pretty dumb shit before I ended up in that prison.”
The admission and the swear startled a smile out of her, but it was fleeting.
“But without me—”
“Evy, without you, we’d be dead,” said Jonathan bluntly, looking up to catch her gaze. He shivered a little under his own blanket as well; whether from the fever or a sort of delayed reaction, like her, was anyone’s guess. “It’s as simple as that. Who read from the Book of Amun-Ra to put down Imhotep while O’Connell here got pummelled trying to keep our mummy pal busy? And I mean the right inscription, not the one that somehow summoned more bloody mummies.”
“Thanks for that, by the way,” said Rick wryly. “Dealing with just Imhotep and those priest mummy things would’ve been way too easy. My point is, Evelyn, you made a mistake; it happens. But you insisted on sticking around to fix it, which is a damn sight braver than I was. Anyway, what was that ‘accident’ with the bookshelves?”
As attempts at changing subjects went, it was so completely transparent that Evelyn couldn’t help a smile. Then the question sank in and she felt her ears grow warm.
“I, um… I made a little bit of a mess. Knocked down a few books, if you must ask.”
“A ‘little bit’ of a mess, Evy?”
Jonathan had gone limp against her again, his head heavy on her shoulder, but his characteristic irony was back in his voice. She gently elbowed him under the blanket.
“Hush, you. You’re supposed to be resting.”
“I’m guessing that messing with the books might be a capital offence for a librarian,” said Rick, drawing her closer against him, “but what kind of a ‘mess’ are we talking here? Why will it take you ‘months and months’ to put the library back together?”
This time Evelyn was grateful that neither starlight nor firelight were enough to see by properly. Her entire face must be bright red by now.
“I may have… knocked over a bookshelf or two.”
From the corner of her eye she saw Rick’s eyebrows climb.
“The entire library, old boy.” Jonathan’s voice was faraway, almost dreamy. If she didn’t know better she would have said there was an undercurrent of respectful awe for the mayhem she had caused. As it was, she wouldn’t put it past him. “She managed to knock down something like eighteen bookshelves. Solid oak, with all the books on them. Do you know how many strong men it takes to move just one? Attila the Hun has nothing on my sister. She’s like the chaps who built the pyramids – in reverse. Ow.”
This last word was due to Evelyn elbowing him again, more sharply this time. She could barely look Rick in the eyes.
When she did, she was surprised to see him laughing silently, albeit in a way that looked devoid of mockery.
“Oh, all right,” she exclaimed after a while. “If you must know, I do happen to have a passing touch of clumsiness.”
She resolutely ignored a snigger from her left and looked to her right instead, to Rick, his bright eyes and his slight smile.
“Destroying an entire library takes more than a ‘passing touch of clumsiness’, honey. That’s a special kind of talent.”
Evelyn narrowed her eyes at him. Then something in his sentence caught up with her and her mouth fell open. She blinked.
“…You called me ‘honey’.”
“Yeah, I guess I did.” He scratched the back of his neck with the hand that wasn’t around her waist. “Is that okay?”
Evelyn felt herself smiling widely.
“Yes, darling, it’s ‘okay’.” More than okay, she thought. The word had such a soft, warm ring to it – nobody had ever called her that before.
Rick’s lips pressing against her temple told her ‘darling’ had his own seal of approval.
There was a warm huff against her left shoulder, followed by a grumbled “Oh for heavens’ sake” that had her rolling her eyes.
“Honestly, Jonathan. I’m not… I won’t refrain from addressing my fiancé –” she put special emphasis on the word “– the way I want to in order to spare your sensibilities. Which begs the question – since when do you even have sensibilities?”
“I really don’t,” he countered, sounding a little cross. “I think we’ve long established that you got the lion’s share in all matters regarding propriety.”
“You mean you have no sense of shame whatsoever.”
“Precisely. I just thought I’d let you know you’re being perfectly nauseating. Can’t wait for you two to get married so you finally stop being so mawkish.”
Evelyn had absolutely no intention of letting married life dull either the jolt that went through her every time her skin brushed against Rick’s – which she had come to recognise as desire – or the wonderful warmth purring in her chest that she had to let out somehow, whether in lingering touches, longing stares, or endearments. Besides, she recalled with a pang, like someone pressing on fresh scar tissue, their parents had never stopped being ‘mawkish’. She distinctly remembered her mother taking her father’s arm or her father dropping his arm around her mother’s waist, the glances, the smiles, all the tiny little connections that society highly disapproved of at the time and was barely starting to tolerate between married couples.
“Well, you might have to wait a long time, then,” she said pointedly – although not nearly as pointedly as she might have in normal circumstances. Their back-and-forth was reassuring in its familiarity, but she was also well aware of the way Jonathan’s jaw was clenched, how heavy and warm his head felt on her shoulder, or the little hiss of pain he gave every now and then. “Because I—”
She trailed off when she felt Rick’s body tense and looked at him. He was facing away from her, features taut, eyes narrowed.
“What’s wrong?” she whispered, straining her ears and staring into the darkness to try to find out.
“We’re not alone. Someone’s coming.”
It was no use trying to hide, she knew. The fire would have given them away long before they knew who and how many were approaching. Rick rose, body spontaneously assuming a fighting stance, combat training and instincts kicking in. Evelyn stood up as well, surmising that two people made a less obvious prey than one. Jonathan must have had the same idea, because after some scraping and a sharp intake of breath or two, he was standing at her side, leaning on the shelf of rock that had sheltered them from the wind.
There was definitely something out there that was neither them, their camels, nor part of the usual desert soundscape. Evelyn squinted in its direction, trying to adjust from the glare of the fire to the dim moonlight as fast as she could, and finally made out a dark silhouette.
A lone rider, probably on horseback from the gait.
“We don’t want any trouble,” said Rick in Arabic, in the sort of calm voice that promised trouble would ensue, and not necessarily for them, should the stranger make the wrong choice. His accent was quite good, if a little mixed, with traces of Moroccan and Algerian underlying Egyptian.
“And we are armed,” Evelyn added, also in Arabic. Rick turned to her, surprised. She couldn’t help but return his gaze resolutely, with a touch of pride and defiance, all too used to people looking askance at her because she had chosen to keep – and study – her mother’s language.
The wariness dissolved almost immediately. This was Rick, not some rotter back home.
Maybe the language wasn’t why he’d stared at her, however. What she had said was, as Jonathan would probably put it, a load of bollocks: the only weapon between the three of them was Rick’s butterfly knife. But it might dissuade the newcomer from trying something reckless.
Which was also, perhaps, why Jonathan’s contribution – also in Arabic – was a phrase so filthy it made both Rick and Evelyn turn round and stare at him, dumbstruck. Rick’s eyebrows climbed; Evelyn’s shock quickly turned into slack-jawed outrage. This sentence she knew he hadn’t got from their mother.
Just as she opened her mouth to chide her brother – old habits died hard – she was interrupted by the most incongruous sound.
The rider was laughing.
While that laughter was unfamiliar, the voice itself was not. Evelyn sighed in relief, Rick relaxed, Jonathan’s shoulders slumped.
“I was not aware you all spoke Arabic,” said – in English – the Medjai chieftain who had helped them against Imhotep. He brought his horse a little closer and dismounted gracefully, adding with a smile in his voice, “Your pronunciation is quite good, by the way, even if the choice of words is a little… unconventional.”
“Sorry about that, old boy,” said Jonathan sheepishly. “I thought you were someone else.”
“What are you doing out there? Did something come up?” Rick asked a little shortly, before adding in a more amicable tone, “I mean, weren’t you going back to… your ancient society?”
“I did go back. But there are businesses we must attend to in Cairo, if only retrieving Dr Bey’s body and giving him a proper burial.” Grief flashed in the dark eyes, and Evelyn wondered if the two men had been family, or close friends, on top of being colleagues of sorts. “Besides, I also received a message from lookouts patrolling the area.”
“What kind of message?” asked Evelyn, curious. “We didn’t hear any other horses nor camels. How do you communicate?”
“We have our ways.”
The man’s voice was even, but had a finality to it that made Evelyn think more questions would be useless. She curbed her curiosity a little reluctantly. After all, the Medjai chieftain had risked his life with them, for them; they could hardly deny him a little mystery. He would be well within his rights not to trust the foreigners who had woken the cursed dead and brought on plagues and disasters.
“So if everything’s okay,” Rick said, a hint of suspicion still in his voice, “what was the message about?”
“You, actually.” The Medjai’s keen eyes went to each of them in turn before going back to Rick. “I told the men patrolling this area to alert me if they spotted you.”
Rick shook his head with a wry smile.
“Had to make sure we got out of your hair, huh? Can’t say I blame you.”
The man looked stern.
“When I said you’d earned the respect and gratitude of my people, I meant it. You managed to send the Creature back to the Underworld—”
“After I woke him up in the first place,” said Evelyn quietly.
“Yes, you did, but somehow the three of you also succeeded in burying him again. The least we could do was make sure you reached Cairo safely and did not get lost. Why did you go off the path?”
“That was on my account, I’m afraid.” Jonathan’s voice was just as low as Evelyn’s had been, though not, she suspected, for the same reasons. His breathing hitched a little. “I wasn’t, er… quite up to making the trip to Baris in one go.”
The Medjai chieftain’s eyes flicked to his shoulder, down to his hand, and up to Rick’s face with an inquisitive expression. Rick nodded.
Jonathan picking up that scarab must have happened before the three men separated, Evelyn surmised. The Medjai didn’t look at all surprised.
And then, quite unexpectedly, his features softened into something that was almost a smile.
“Then you’re lucky I caught up with you when I did. Sit down.”
Jonathan complied – somewhat more abruptly than he might have in other circumstances – and the Medjai returned to his horse. After rummaging through a bag tied to his saddle he took out a jar sealed with wax.
“Take off your shirt,” he told Jonathan, who squinted up at him.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, old chap, but before I do I’d like to inquire about your intentions towards my person.”
“Jonathan!” Evelyn all but snapped, feeling her face go quite warm. Fortunately, when the Medjai worked out the innuendo he appeared amused rather than offended.
“Nothing untoward, I assure you. This is honey.”
“Oh, good. For a moment there I thought we were not stuck in some rubbish romance novel after all. Except you –” this was said with a jerk of his chin towards Evelyn “– get to ride into the sunset with your dashing adventurer while I have to content myself with having my shirt ripped off and getting slathered in honey. Rather think I got short-changed, to tell the truth.”
Evelyn barely resisted the urge to bury her face in her hands in order to hide both her embarrassment – sometimes Jonathan really did seem to have no sense of shame whatsoever – and a smile she couldn’t quite suppress. When she risked a glance at the Medjai leader, he met her eyes with a bemused, inquisitive look.
“Is he always—?”
“Yes,” she replied with something that was half a long-suffering sigh and half a chuckle. “Always.”
“You left out the part where she got tied to an ancient altar and almost sacrificed,” Rick pointed out from where he had tied up the Medjai’s horse next to their camels. “Still think you got short-changed?”
Jonathan silently conceded the point and focused his attention on undoing a button on his shirt. With one hand out of commission, however, the task was proving difficult, so Evelyn crouched down to help him.
Several buttons were missing. From the look of it, Jonathan hadn’t been exaggerating – that shirt really had been ripped off of him.
“I didn’t take you for an amateur of romance novels,” she said, her tone lightly teasing. “What kind do you read, then?”
His face went several shades paler when he made a wrong move that jarred his shoulder, but her question got a smirk in which fondness was transparent.
“Only the most lurid ones, old mum.”
Once both shirt and bandages had come off, Evelyn couldn’t hold back a sharp intake of breath. The cut on her brother’s shoulder was somewhat cleaner, less jagged than the one in his palm, but the skin around it was puffy and a shade of red it had no business being. Even with honey to clean the wound it was likely to leave a nasty scar.
“Why honey, though?” asked Rick, coming to sit near the fire, very close to Evelyn, who instinctively inched nearer to him. “Won’t that draw, I don’t know, ants and bees and things?”
Jonathan had been fussing with his ruined shirt, shivering slightly and looking a little self-conscious. At Rick’s words his head snapped up.
“What?” he said sharply.
“Don’t worry,” said Evelyn. “The use of honey as antiseptic dates back to Ancient Egypt. I’m sure this gentleman knows what he’s doing.”
“It does, and I do,” said the Medjai. “Now, if you’re more comfortable with someone else—”
Jonathan made a dismissive gesture – or, rather, lifted his hand a little as if to wave away the idea but quickly let it fall as though it was made of lead.
“I’m more worried about the ‘ants and bees and things’, really – although, to be honest, if I decide to let someone take my kit off and play around with honey I generally prefer to know their name first—”
“And how many times has that happened to you so far?” asked Rick with a healthy dose of sarcasm and a touch of actual curiosity.
“Don’t answer that,” Evelyn cut in hastily as Jonathan opened his mouth, in case he was about to give an actual reply. “I really don’t think we need to know this.”
“Ardeth Bay,” said the Medjai.
Everybody stopped and turned to him.
“What?” said Rick, just as Evelyn, puzzled, asked, “I’m sorry?”
Jonathan just blinked tiredly.
The man gave a genuine smile, unveiling white teeth. His eyes twinkled.
“My name. It’s Ardeth Bay.”
Oh, this was much better. As certain as Evelyn was that it hadn’t been the man’s intention to make himself appear mysterious and imposing, his having a name went a long way to making him less mysterious and imposing. It made him a man, more than a legend that rose from the desert sands, first as a grim warning then as an ally against a monster. But between the Plagues and the thralls and the urgent need for information, slowing down even ten seconds for something as trivial as asking “By the way, what’s your name?” had felt incongruous. Besides, since he hadn’t offered it, it hardly seemed Evelyn’s place to ask.
“Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mr Bay,” said Evelyn as courteously as she could, hoping her voice conveyed the amount of gratitude she felt. “I’m Evelyn Carnahan, and this is my brother, Jonathan.”
“How do you do,” said Jonathan weakly, probably more out of deeply ingrained habit than anything. Despite all his quips he had yet to regain the colour he’d lost when he had taken off his shirt.
Ardeth Bay nodded solemnly, and turned to Rick, who held out his hand in the forthright manner typical of Americans.
“Rick O’Connell. Thanks for having our backs back there.”
Hand clasped hand frankly, and despite the obvious differences between the two men Evelyn got the fleeting but distinct impression of like meeting like.
“Now,” said Ardeth Bay as he cracked open the wax lid on the jar, suddenly business-like, “like I said, if you’re more comfortable having your sister—”
Jonathan gave a listless one-shoulder shrug.
“Knock yourself out, as our American cousins say. Apparently. Does that sound right to you, O’Connell? He’s American,” he added conspiratorially to Ardeth Bay, who was applying a generous dose of honey to his shoulder with a cloth. “Uses all manner of colourful slang like ‘broad’ and whatnot. Do you know, they even call rugby ‘football’ over there?”
“Is it just me,” said Rick to Evelyn in a carefully level tone, “or does it sound like he’s been dipping into the Seagram’s while we weren’t looking?”
Jonathan made a face, then rubbed his eyes with the tips of his fingers. “I wish. It’s the bloody fever – making me go a bit loopy, I’ll wager. And speaking of knocking out, is there any chance this –” he gestured vaguely towards the jar “– is going to help me get some sleep? I’m this close to asking someone to whack me on the head. At this point it would be an improvement.”
“The honey will kill the infection and help the flesh scar.” Ardeth Bay, having finished with one wound, turned to the other. He worked diligently, with a serious expression on his face. “It won’t make you sleep, but it may help.”
Jonathan looked somewhat disappointed.
Evelyn, who had completely forgotten about the bottle of alcohol they had made a medicinal use of a few hours earlier until Rick’s remark, looked at her brother curiously.
“If you wanted to ‘knock yourself out’,” she said as Ardeth Bay rose to his feet to go back to the bag tied to his saddle, “why didn’t you use the whiskey? There must be enough in there to put a horse to sleep.”
“Because, my dear sweet baby sister, there is an art to getting drunk as a lord if one wants to avoid as much of the usual punishment that follows as possible. A lot of it involves drinking lots of water concurrently with the booze. Keeps the headache down afterwards.”
Evelyn had never seen the point of getting drunk, if ever there was one. Jonathan did, though; she had covered for him a couple of times in their younger days when he turned up sloshed to the gills at three in the morning and spent the entire following day looking greener than the duck pond. Now that she had experienced both states – the actual getting drunk and the inevitable hangover – she was thoroughly unimpressed. But she did see what he meant. Dealing with an upset stomach and a headache like the one which had resulted from her unfortunate overindulgence in Scotch whisky, all the while bobbing up and down on a camel with the Egyptian sun beating down on one’s head, had to count among the worst forms of self-inflicted torture.
Ardeth Bay came back with strips of clean cloth he used to bind Jonathan’s shoulder and hand. Once he was done and Jonathan had donned his shirt again, Jonathan was almost grey in the face and still shivering, but seemed to breathe a little easier.
“Well,” he declared, “that was not quite as unpleasant as I feared. Thank you,” he added more seriously. Ardeth Bay nodded.
“Yes,” said Evelyn, who still didn’t know exactly how the Medjai had ‘had their backs’, as Rick had put it, but didn’t doubt a second that he had been instrumental in their making it into and out of Hamunaptra alive – and that his timely intervention had probably saved her brother’s life. “Thank you very much.”
Ardeth Bay settled himself down beside the fire and smiled in acknowledgement.
They made a picture, the four of them, Evelyn realised. Four people who – not counting her and Jonathan – hadn’t known each other just a few weeks earlier, and who had apparently precious little in common save the shared experience of almost dying several times and surviving against all odds where others had not. And now, there they were, huddled against each other with the cold immensity of the desert all around them: the Medjai leader, looking very dignified as he sat cross-legged and straight-backed; then Rick, one arm resting lightly on his knees and the other around Evelyn; Evelyn, nestled under her blanket with her legs tucked under herself; and Jonathan wrapped in his own blanket, good shoulder pressed against hers again.
His chin kept drooping onto his chest. Evelyn glanced at him and shifted a little.
He blinked at her in confusion, rather sluggishly, but let her lower him down gingerly on his side until his head lay on her lap. She lightly brushed his hair from his forehead and left her hand on his temple, almost unthinkingly; his skin, she noted with an uncomfortable pang in her chest, felt very warm. It took a few minutes, but gradually his breathing eased and he went completely limp, only shuddering once in a while.
When she was a little girl, there had been so much for her to do, to learn, to think, that sometimes at night she had trouble quieting down her thoughts enough to go to sleep. When that happened, she’d pad over to Jonathan’s room; he’d look at her, say “Can’t sleep?” and let her climb under the covers with him. She’d talk and talk until she stopped feeling like her brain was too big for her skull, and he would make her laugh and tell her ridiculous stories until she fell asleep. Even years after she realised he’d been just as scared of thunderstorms as she was, even being acquainted with the laundry list of his flaws, she could not keep a tiny part of herself from feeling that, as long as her big brother was there, things would be all right.
No matter how childish it was, it still rang true. She couldn’t help but hope the opposite did, as well.
“So you’ll be going back to Cairo with us, huh?” Rick asked Ardeth quietly after a while.
“I will, if you welcome my company.”
“So we don’t get lost?”
This got a slight smile.
“In the desert it’s always better to travel in a group rather than alone. Besides, I know a small pathway to Baris that’s shorter than the trail you were on. If we leave an hour before sunrise, we might reach the oasis well before noon.”
That would mean not only getting a few hours of rest but also avoiding the worst of the heat. Something taut in Evelyn’s shoulders eased, and she relaxed against Rick. The warmth of his body and his arm around her, combined with the scent of him underneath the sweat and the dust, was doing wonders to ease the tension coiled in her stomach.
She caught Ardeth Bay’s eyes briefly and wondered if she had imagined the twinkle in them as he looked at her and Rick.
“What will you do, once you’re in Cairo?” he asked.
For a second, everything going on in Evelyn’s life that their trip to Hamunaptra had interrupted surged at the forefront of her mind, quickly replaced by one shiny thought which made her smile widely without even thinking about it.
“We’re getting married,” she said around a grin she imagined must look beyond silly.
If Ardeth Bay appeared slightly amused, he also looked thoroughly unsurprised.
“ʾAlf mabrūk5,” he said with a bow of his head. ‘A thousand congratulations’, the usual marriage wish in Egypt. Evelyn’s cheeks warmed up and a little thrill ran down her spine. Hearing her very first felicitations in what had been her mother’s language, and for a wedding which would take place in the country her mother had been born in, felt nothing short of right.
“Thank you, Mr Bay,” she said, making him almost-smile again.
“‘Ardeth’ will do.”
“Oh – all right. Well, thank you anyway. Of course, if the Museum reopens and I can still work there, straightening up the shambles in the library will also keep me quite busy for quite some time.”
“By the way,” said Rick, “what happens to that museum? Are you the new curator, do you appoint one? How does that work?”
Rick’s question appeared to throw Ardeth, who chuckled.
“I will not be the new curator. I don’t have the right training for it. But he will have to be a Medjai, for only a Medjai can watch over the artefacts and the lore stocked there.”
Evelyn’s breath caught in her throat. Whether out of fear or excitement, she couldn’t tell. “Do you mean to say some of the objects in the Museum of Antiquities are cursed?”
“Not to my knowledge. The curses we are sworn to protect humanity against are mostly on the souls of people: some were cursed because they committed great sacrilege, like the Creature, some others cursed themselves because they thought it would bring them eternal life or great power against their enemies. But the Curator of the Museum is in an ideal position to hear about ill-advised expeditions to unholy places and notify the rest of the tribes.”
“Yeah, we figured.” Rick’s voice, while even, had something of a dark undertone. Ardeth met his gaze steadily.
“I will not apologise for trying to protect the world from the Creature.”
“I get that. People died on that boat, though. And a lot of diggers.”
“I lost men, too, both times.”
“When I’m attacked I fight back. I won’t apologise for that, either.”
Evelyn’s gaze jumped from one man to the other and back again. Their voices were calm, quiet even, but she didn’t like the slight tension underlying their words.
“Well,” she interrupted, low enough to avoid waking Jonathan, “I apologise. I was in charge of this expedition and I didn’t stop to think that reading aloud from the Book of the Dead might have actual consequences. I thought it was a holy book like any other, and clearly I was very wrong.”
Rick and Ardeth didn’t appeared chastened, exactly, but they did stare at her as if they had just remembered she was there at all. The tension dropped down a notch. They looked at each other, just a little embarrassed; then Rick’s expression grew solemn. He drew Evelyn closer to him and pressed his lips against the side of her head.
“You had no way of knowing.”
“I know. It doesn’t change what happened.”
“Would you have acted differently,” asked Ardeth, looking at both of them in turn, “if you had known the outcome?”
Evelyn thought long and hard. She had pondered the question before during the first trip back from Hamunaptra. Those few days and nights on camel-back had been an awful blend of terrified hurry and stifling quiet as everyone tried to process what had happened. Poor Mr Burns moaned from time to time, a living reminder of the nightmare they thought they were leaving behind.
At the time she had been filled with nothing but horror and deep remorse, which had gradually evolved into fierce determination to set things right. No time to be wasted on what ifs.
But now… Even with everything that happened, even after the deaths and the fear, she could not bring herself to regret all of her actions.
If she had given up when Dr Bey had burned the map, she would never have pried the truth out of Jonathan about how he’d ‘found’ the puzzle box, she wouldn’t have gone to the Cairo prison with him, and Rick would have been hanged. He would have met a horrible death, alone, with not a single soul to mourn him. The mere thought made her want to scream.
If she had heeded the warning on the boat – if indeed the ‘river pirates’, as she’d initially thought the Medjai to be, had succeeded in scaring her off – she, Jonathan, Rick, and the Warden would have limped back to Cairo, having lost both clothes and equipment and the prospect of treasure, whether gold or knowledge. She and Rick would probably have parted ways afterwards, and she would never have known that he was the exact shape to fill a hole in her heart she was only just starting to acknowledge.
The second attack was another matter, but…
“No,” Evelyn said softly. “I suppose I wouldn’t have.”
Rick was looking pensive; at Evelyn’s words he glanced at her, then at Ardeth.
“Same here. Especially if I’d known the outcome.”
Ardeth gazed at them both with a wry smile that softened a little as he said, “Then maybe it was written, and fated to end this way.”
“Kismet, huh?” said Rick thoughtfully. “I don’t know about that. Never been a fan of fate. But hey, look at it this way: at least we’re all still there and Imhotep is dead – for good, since the Book of the Dead got buried with him. So maybe it’s not the best outcome, but it sure ain’t the worst, either.”
“No,” Ardeth admitted after a second’s reflection, “it’s not.”
The exchange felt very much like a mutual peace offering. The atmosphere was considerably warmer for it.
Evelyn couldn’t help but smile.
“You know, if we ever do find another artefact that might lead us to someone who was cursed three thousand years ago and might unleash more plagues on the world, I would very much appreciate a warning. Only this time we could discuss it all around a table instead of immediately going for guns and swords.”
Rick conceded the point with a grin, and Ardeth gave her a nod and a small smile.
“I will make sure to contact you if that is the case.”
“Please do. You’re welcome to tea whether the world is ending or not.”
This time Ardeth almost grinned.
“I may take you up on your offer if it’s all right with your family.”
For a split second Evelyn’s sense of independence bristled – it felt like being back in England, with people who couldn’t picture a respectable young woman living alone – before her heart plummeted in her chest. She tried to rally best she could.
“You’re looking at them, actually,” she said with a quick glance at Jonathan then Rick. “Well, in Rick’s case it’s not official yet, but we’re hoping to change that soon.”
Sympathy flashed in the dark eyes, followed by something more genial.
“When is the wedding, then?”
“We haven’t set a date yet,” said Evelyn, beaming as though they already had. She couldn’t help it; despite her apprehension at not knowing the first thing about weddings, the thought made her ridiculously happy. “It’s all very new.”
“For the moment the priority is ‘getting back to Cairo’, and preferably in one piece,” Rick added with a quick glance down at Jonathan, who still shivered a little in his sleep. “And then we’ll take care of details like where, when, and how.”
“At least making the guest list won’t take us long.” Ardeth’s curious look prompted Evelyn to explain, a little ruefully, “This will be a very small wedding, you see. Just the three of us.”
“Four, if I can find a best man,” said Rick. He ran the hand that wasn’t around Evelyn over the back of his neck. “You’d think it’d be easier than finding someone who can fly a plane when the world is supposed to end in a few hours. Good thing we don’t have a deadline yet.”
Ardeth squinted at him.
“What does a ‘best man’ do?”
“Mostly things like keeping hold of the rings until the right moment and signing the register. Y’know, as a legal witness. From what some of the guys said back in the Legion he’s also supposed to keep the groom from bolting, but I think they were kidding.”
Evelyn felt laughter rise in her throat which she just barely managed to turn into a chuckle.
“That doesn’t sound like any of the traditions I know.”
“Not that I know many traditions, but yeah, I think it was ‘make fun of the dumb American’ hour.”
Rick picked up a stick and stoked the fire a little. The sudden flare lit up his face for a second, highlighting every one of his features: his cheekbones, the bridge of his nose, and every little bruise he’d got from his fight against Imhotep. His hair fell into his eyes. His expression looked more sober for it.
“I mean, I could’ve asked Winston,” he said in a lower voice. “He probably would’ve gone for it, too.”
The name was only vaguely familiar, Rick’s tone much more so. A chill went through Evelyn. Slight as it was, she felt it in her very bones.
“Winston?” she asked softly.
“Havlock. He was in the Royal Flying Corps during the war, stationed in Palestine, and I think his mind stayed there. Most of his buddies got killed in the war. He’d get drunk and ramble about how he should have ‘gone down in flame and glory’ too.”
It was the phrasing. It sparked a brief memory of a night at the British Embassy and a jovial older gent with round blue eyes and a handlebar moustache. He had been a little bumbling, probably a little in his cups already, and the short conversation had indeed been a lot about the Great War. Jonathan, who had been her escort to the do, had fled in the direction of the buffet as soon as the man had opened his mouth. When she had jokingly chided him for abandoning her afterwards, he’d muttered something about the old fellow being something of a gloomy pill and not the best drinking partner.
Jonathan had come home from the war luckier than most, with only a flesh wound and more of an inclination for irony and gallows humour than he used to have, but he adamantly refused to say a word about it except for the odd oblique allusion. Evelyn never insisted, too grateful that he was still there with her, both physically and mentally, and she hadn’t broken tradition then.
Evelyn adjusted the blanket around her sleeping brother and rested the back of her hand, cooler than her palm, on his temple. Then she laid her head – indeed, her entire side – against Rick’s shoulder and murmured, “What happened to him?”
Rick ran a hand across his face. For the first time since they left Hamunaptra, he appeared bone-tired, shoulders slumped, limbs heavy.
“He got his wish,” he replied hollowly. “When the three of us –” his gaze went from Jonathan to Ardeth, then back to Evelyn “– went after Imhotep, we asked for his help. He was real easy to convince, too. All we needed to do was say ‘Hey, man, we need that plane of yours’, and there he was, no questions asked. He died when Imhotep brought the plane down.”
In the flickering light of the fire Ardeth looked a little less tired, but no less grave.
“He was a good man, raḥimahu llāhu6,” he said. “It takes a brave soul to face the unknown without hope of either success or a reward.”
Rick hung his head a little. “Yeah.”
Evelyn, her throat tight, said nothing. Winston Havlock was yet another death to add to Imhotep’s tally. Yet another soul lost because of a monster that she had helped release. Yet another shadow that would probably weigh in her mind until she died.
She hoped so, anyway. The kindly old gentleman with the twinkling eyes deserved to be remembered.
“You know,” said Ardeth after a heavy silence filled with dark thoughts and the never-ending song of insects, “I have never set foot in one of your churches and I would never say I’m a ‘best man’. But if you need an ally to stand beside you – well, that I could do.”
Rick’s hollow-eyed expression shifted to something more alive. His eyebrows shot up.
“Yeah? I mean, you’d do that? For a complete stranger, almost?”
“We shed blood together against a common enemy, O’Connell. To some that would make us brothers.”
“Does that mean we’re friends?” asked Evelyn with tentative hope. Ardeth gave her a smile which, though small, did not lack for warmth.
“Yes, I think so.”
Something like sunrise bloomed in Evelyn’s chest, undoing some of the cold knots and warming her more efficiently than the blanket had. Having an ally of circumstance was good; having a friend – and something told her Ardeth Bay did not use the word lightly – was infinitely better.
“So…” said Rick, sounding half amused and half sincere. “Will you be my best man?”
Ardeth’s eyes twinkled as he nodded.
Rick’s smile widened. “Okay. Wow. That was way more simple than I thought it’d be.”
“Well, I thought it’d take weeks or even months to find who I should ask and track him down. And it turns out I only needed to ask you.”
“Not everything needs to be complicated.” Ardeth indicated the sleeping form beside Evelyn with his chin. “I assume this means you couldn’t ask your future brother-in-law.”
“Oh, no, he’ll be Evelyn’s, uh…” Rick hesitated a second, probably searching for an alternative to the word ‘bridesmaid’. “Witness, I guess you could say. Besides, he’ll probably give her away, too.”
For a second Evelyn imagined holding her father’s arm and seeing his usual small smile wobble under his moustache as he led her to her future husband. Her father would have liked Rick once he got to know him, that much she knew. The thought sent a sharp twinge between her ribs. Evelyn Carnahan liked to think she was not the kind of person who wasted time on ‘what ifs’ – not an unreasonable amount, anyway – but for a second she wished she could have had her father walk her down the aisle and her mother kiss her cheek on her wedding day.
The mental picture of her father faded, quickly replaced by one of Jonathan, crooked smile wobbling just the same. For all that she knew she could expect to find a spider or two on her wedding gown (“It’s good luck7, old mum,” she could almost hear him say), he would probably be very proud to fulfil that role, she thought fondly.
Jonathan’s features were slack with sleep when she glanced at his face to check on him, except for a slight crease between his eyebrows and an unusual tautness around the eyes.
“Will he be all right?” Evelyn asked Ardeth almost in spite of herself.
“I think so. Honey works very well – I’ve seen it clean worse wounds before. He should be well enough to ride tomorrow morning.”
This was said with a quiet conviction that managed to soothe the part of her that still felt frazzled and full of snarls. She pressed closer to Rick’s body, against the warm skin she could feel beneath the fabric of his shirt, and let the cool stillness of everything wash over her.
“Thank you,” she said softly for the third time. Ardeth made no comment, and just inclined his head, black eyes bright in the gloom.
The sunset had been glorious, a triumphant blaze of colours like Evelyn only ever saw in Egypt. The night was all shades of blue, from the soft azure of moonlit cliffs to richest cobalt where the shadows were deepest. Their little fire glowed orange and red, warm hues she knew could appear ominous in some circumstances (“Maybe this place really is cursed,” Jonathan’s grim voice echoed in her head); right now, it seemed to envelop her like Rick’s arms did, like he had while they were on the camel, as if no matter what would get thrown their way now, they would be all right.
They would, Evelyn told herself as firmly as she could, even as she recognised the signs of encroaching sleep were stealing upon her like they had earlier. They had defeated evil, saved the world, and got away mostly unscathed – well, got away with their lives, at any rate.
Riding triumphantly into the sunset was always an ending in novels and moving pictures. It was only fitting, she mused even as the sounds of quiet conversation and the two sets of breathing against her, one deep and the other reassuringly steady, lulled her to sleep, that it should make such a good beginning as well.
1Also called ‘shabti’ – figurines representing servants (sometimes animals), put in tombs in case the deceased needs manual labour in the afterlife. They could be made of a number of materials, more or less precious according to the mummy’s social status.
2To luck out, US version: to be lucky. To luck out, UK version: to be unlucky. Separated by a common language, huh…
3Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates was one of the officers in charge of the ill-fated 1910-1913 Terra Nova expedition to the South Pole. He was badly hit by gangrene and frostbite and essentially committed suicide by walking out of the tent into the blizzard to improve his companions’ chances of survival. His sacrifice and his last words (“I am just going outside and may be some time”) made a profound impression on the English people at the time.
4Small (roughly) scarab-shaped amulets, made out of different materials, some more valuable than others.
5(ألف مَبْرُوك – if my Arabic is right. Please tell me if it’s not!)
6(رحمه الله), “God have mercy on him” (eulogy)
7Apparently one of the many wedding superstitions in England. Check out the “England” section on the “Wedding superstitions” Wikipedia page – there are 8 entries for good luck and 9 entries for bad luck!