Chapter One – An Arranged Marriage
Khay Alden slammed the books she was supposed to be cataloguing onto the table top with a loud bang. With a great sigh of frustration she swept her hair out of her eyes and glared at the leather bound titles before her.
"If I had known you hated cataloguing so much I'd have asked you to translate the major domo's stock inventory instead." The female voice was colored with laughter and Khay turned to her employer with a wry grin.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. O'Connell. I've got a lot on my mind and I'm afraid I rather took it out on these old fellows."
Evy O'Connell did laugh at that. "That's quite alright," she informed her secretary. "It wouldn't be the first time these tomes have borne the brunt of a female's need to vent some frustration. Believe me!" Her knowing smile made Khay laugh.
"I take it you've done some 'cataloguing' of your own?" she asked, stressing the word.
Evy nodded sagely. "Oh, yes. More times than I care to admit. I've found, however, that it's much better to talk to a willing ear than those dusty old books. I'd be happy to listen."
Khay studied her boss. She was sweet and kind and possessed the kind of strength of character that Khay felt she herself lacked. She would like to talk to someone but she wasn't sure the curator of the British Museum would understand her problem. After all, Evelyn O'Connell was married with a child and a career. Khay was a spinster at twenty-five and had a job. Not that she didn't dream of doing something wonderful with her life someday. It was just that she didn't feel her future would be pinned down to this place, to England. She'd always felt she belonged somewhere else. She doubted that Evelyn O'Connell could understand that. The curator was always traveling hither and yon and couldn't possibly know the restlessness that haunted Khay in the dark of the night. As for what Khay had been through over the weekend, she wasn't sure anyone could understand that.
"You'd be surprised," Evy said softly, as if she'd read Khay's thoughts.
Khay was startled. "What? How did you know . . .?"
"The look on your face. It was as if no one in the world would understand what you were going through."
Khay stared at Evy for a moment, then grinned. "Maybe you will understand," she said finally. Evy smiled and pulled out a chair next to Khay. She folded her hands in her lap and waited while her secretary sat down. After a moment's awkward silence, Khay spoke.
"Have your parents ever done something so outrageous you thought they'd lost their minds?"
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxArdeth Bey stared at the group of elders surrounding him. He felt trapped by their gazes, by the power they held over him simply by virtue of their age and wisdom. Still, he could not believe what he had just heard. "You have done what?" he asked, his politeness a mask for the rage that threatened to build within him.
"We have found you a wife," Safiya said very slowly as if she were addressing a child.
Ardeth dipped his head once to acknowledge that he heard her. He became even more polite. "And what prompted this action, may I ask?"
Safiya cringed inwardly. This cold courtesy was a clear danger sign and she wasn't sure the other elders knew the fury it portended.
"We have waited patiently for you find a wife of your own choosing. It was time to take steps of our own." It was Abbud, Ardeth's uncle, who spoke this time.
The Med-jai warrior inclined his chin, his eyes flashed. "I was not aware that I was required to take another wife," he said quietly. "I have found an heir. I have fulfilled my obligation to the tribe."
There was a stony silence in the council chamber. Finally, the eldest of them all stood and approached his king. "It is not your obligation that concerns us, my child," Muzakir said quietly. "It is your heart. You have mourned Iman as is right but you must continue with your life." He put up a finger, silencing the protest that he could see forming on Ardeth's lips. "We have seen your brother and his wife. We have seen how you watch them together. It is clear to all that your heart cries out for someone. We have only done as we see fit. We do not like to see you hurting. Now that you have found that part of your soul that was missing, it is time to find your heart once again."
"And where do you think that might that be?" Ardeth asked, the sarcasm he tried to keep veiled in deference to their status creeping into his tone.
The elders looked at each other, then at Ardeth. It was Safiya who responded to their unspoken request. "England."
"And that's it. Do you think they've lost their minds?" Khay leaned in close to Evy and laid a hand on her knee, silently begging her to understand.
Evy put an arm around her young friend, for she did consider Khay a friend, and hugged her quickly. "I think it's impossible to decide until you've learned all there is to learn. I mean, after all, it may turn out to be wonderful."
Khay groaned. "But this is medieval! I want to make my own choices in life! This goes against everything I believe in."
"I'm not saying they're right, but your parents have their reasons. Gosh, that sounds so like a mother, doesn't it?" Evy grinned and shook her head at herself. "Now come with me. I've got something to show you." Khay followed her down the hall and Evy smirked to herself. Changing the subject always worked. "I've just received some interesting artifacts from Egypt. The hieroglyphics are completely intact! Would you like to have a go at figuring them out?"
Khay gave her a mock frown. "It's not more stock inventory, is it?" They both laughed. Some months ago the museum had received several elaborately marked parchments that were in wonderful condition. They thought they been privy to a great find but discovered to their dismay that the ornate scrolls belonged to a rather fastidious steward of one of the lesser pharaohs who had insisted on listing every piece of stock in the kingdom. They'd spent hours translating chicken populations and goat declines, until they were all trying to foist the tedious job off on someone else. It was now the museum employees' private joke.
"No. It's not that. Thank God." Evy's grin was contagious and Khay returned it in full. "It was sent to me by a friend. It concerns a place called Hamunaptra."
Khay gasped. "The City of the Dead?" she asked, shocked to her core.
"Yes!" declared Evy, somewhat surprised her very English secretary had heard of it. "Only these are tablets which describe, in detail, the effects of the curses that guard the city. It's very interesting in an extremely gruesome way! I think the translation will be a deterrent to anyone stupid enough to try and find it."
"The City of the Dead doesn't exist," Khay stated firmly.
Evy turned to face her and looked down the hall, making sure they were alone. "It exists. Trust me," she whispered conspiratorially. "And I intend to make sure that no one ever tries to find it again."
Together they walked down the stairs and into Evy's large office. She went to a side table where a large black cloth was covering what looked to be several small squares. When the cloth was lifted, the squares were revealed to be four equal sized stone tablets. They were made of black marble and hieroglyphics covered every inch of them. Khay breathed out in surprise and she reached out her fingers to touch the ancient markings.
"This isn't Egyptian," she breathed.