Forbidden: Chapter Nine- Trust Me!

By: Ëlen Lístë Aldá

Two days later, Atem and a large force at his command poured out of the City.

As he rode Camros proudly at the head of the army, he thought about the past two days. During that short time, he worked to correct the damage he'd wrought. He was still unsure as to whether or not his highest officials, stuffy and set in their ways, would accept Nefra as his stand-in. He prayed Akunadin and the others would do all they could to help her while he was away.

He also spent whatever time he was spared with Nefra. She was still sore with him for leaving her behind. However, last evening, she was very calm—almost serene.

When he approached her, she threw him off balance by demurely saying, "I have come to accept that I must be left behind, Brother."

He's stared at her as the moonlight softened her features—turning them silver.

"Am I hideous? Is that why you stare at me so?" she quipped.

"You know you are the most beautiful woman in the realm. It goes without saying. No, I stare because I did not expect you to say what you just did."

She negligently shrugged. "What would you have me do? Yell, scream or cry? Surely you know me better than that. It is weakness! I would never lower myself in such a way," she haughtily scoffed.

"Of course not," he agreed as he tried to smooth her ruffled feathers. He smiled to himself. 'Feathers.'

"What is so funny?" she asked guardedly.

"Nothing to worry over, Sister. Nothing at all…"

Sighing, Nefra reached up and cupped his cheek. He could smell the fragrance that was uniquely Nefra courtesy of a soft breeze. He smelled jasmine, fresh air, and her own feminine scent. It enveloped him like a cocoon.

"It grows late, and I know you are tired. Come, let us retire and face the rising sun with defiant faces."

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'Oh, I know you, Sister. That is what still bothers me,' he thought to himself as he passed the massive City gates and out into the desert.

'Ra. Osiris. Her birth gods. Please, guard her, and I pray you keep her from committing anything foolish.'

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"It is folly to go! You could be killed! Ooooh! Mahado and the others will kill me!" Mana's lamentations flitted in her mind.

Nefra shooed her friend's voice away, muttering, "I cannot—I will not let him face this alone. I—I must be there!" Her voice caught—drawing the attention of Gahnim. She looked forward and walked as nonchalantly as she could past her brother's head general on her way to her tent and prayed the layers of dust and grime made her features indistinguishable.

She threw her tired body down on her pallet and contemplated removing the grit off of her person. She remembered Gahnim's expression as his piercing eyes watched her pass by like a bird of prey and she was the unfortunate sparrow. Poor Scion, she'd covered his magnificent coat in muddy sand so that he would not be recognized. He'd glared at her balefully as she smeared a coat of grim on him. 'Sorry, my friend.'

She shuddered and swallowed her fear. "No, most definitely not a wise decision," she told herself.

Instead, she miserably envisioned a thorough cleaning with a cool cloth. She sighed to herself. "There must be a trace of sickness in the family for me to torture myself in this way…" she grumbled.

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Nefra remained in her little tent long after the sun began its blazing descent.

'And the spark from the Sun god's chariot fell to her nest and the phoenix burned…' she recited.

She ate a small portion of her rations and listened to the men as they talked outside and sung around the bonfires. She heard bawdy tales of lust and heroism mixed in with running monologues of how they were going to win the war. The lusty ballads occasionally made her ears burn, so great was their detail, and she yawned as the youth launched into debate with a seasoned veteran as to how the war would be won.

The activity outside had long since died down and she began to drift off to sleep. She was feeling the pleasant fuzziness that only sleep could deliver when the flap to her tent was rudely opened. All she could do was watch in growing horror as Gahnim stepped in, taking up far too much room than was comfortable. She pulled the camel hair blanket up to her chin as a thin defense against his scathing gaze.

He reached down and ripped the blanket from her cold fingers. She sat up in cold dread.

"It is as I thought," he growled. His rough voice was edged with a steely tinge that made the hairs on her arm rise. He eyed her generous curves now revealed without her armor and his lip curled. He reached down and yanked her off of her pallet and shook her by the arm.

"If you were the soldier you impersonate, I would whip you for your insolence. As it is, Princess, you will answer to the pharaoh," he threatened.

"I am no child, Gahnim. Nor a man for you to speak to me in such a manner," she coolly informed him as she tried to control her rampaging fear. 'Atem will be very angry…' For her to impersonate a soldier was a great sin. Her being a woman was taboo in the army and was punishable by death.

"I assume my brother wishes my presence in his tent," she continued—every inch the princess she was.

Gahnim had always admired her pluck and harbored a soft spot in his war-battered and crusty heart for her. However, he never allowed her to be privy to such weakness. 'Better she understand the severity of her actions,' he told himself as he strode outside the tent with and marched her down the deserted path to the royal tent.

Each footstep that brought her closer to her brother's tent caused her misapprehension to grow until she could swear hear heart was threatening to jump out of her mouth. 'He would not. He would not,' she kept telling herself. 'However, a princess is not above the law…'

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When she entered the spacious tent, she saw her brother standing with his back to her as he warmed himself at the large fire that dominated the interior; it was the only light in the plush tent. His anger was palatable. And growing.

Gahnim stopped ten feet away from the lone figure by the blaze. He bowed, saying, "I have done as you requested of me, my pharaoh."

"You are dismissed, Gahnim. Go and seek your bed."

Gahnim bowed lower and turned to exit. He hesitated as he drew abreast with the princess. He bowed to her and let the flap close shut behind him.

For long, tense minutes, silence reigned supreme and was broken by the occasional pop from the fire. The terse silence drew her nerves to its limit and she jumped when his deep voice finally addressed her.

"I am very disappointed with you, Nefra," his silhouette said. "Why did you do this?" his restrained voice was a clue to how furious he truly was.

She remained stonily silent.

"How is it possible that for someone who always has a word to say, even when it is not called for, is suddenly silent? Surely you have something to say."

Silence.

"So, you have nothing to say?" he bit out as he looked over his shoulder. "Nothing at all?"

"Would it matter?" she challenged with a bravado she did not feel. It took much to make her cow before another person, but she had never been subjected to her brother's wrath before—not at that level.

"You bring shame upon our name, and you ask if it matters?!" he growled as he spun on his heel to face her. His eyes blazed while hers glittered with a growing defiance that matched the tilt of her chin.

"If I had known you would do this, I would have—," he began as he stalked towards her.

"Have what? Confined me to my chamber under a guard's supervision? Why stop there? Perhaps place a set of guards below my balcony and others at the stables," she taunted. Her bravery was no longer feigned; her increasing anger was enough to give her lagging courage a boost. "I am no child!"

"Nor do you resemble a woman," he countered, eyeing her shorn locks. "Even the underclothing of a soldier poorly disguises your body. Did you bind your breasts? You must be incredibly uncomfortable. Let me offer you relief!"

He reached out and tore her bodice and the binding cloth. Her breasts were revealed in the large tear, and the fire light illuminated them in golden tones.

Nefra tried to reach up and conceal them from him. "No," he said, swatting her hands away. "Leave them be. It is time you realized that you are not a man. You cannot be a warrior and save the day. We are no longer children playing war at our father's knee. Women—your kind of women—have no place here. It is the other type that is tolerated. Their type follows the army and slates a man's growing frustrations."

Atem cursed. "Nefra, I do not want to do this. However, if this is the only way to teach you this then so help me, you will learn!"

He grabbed her arm and tossed her none too gently on his soft pallet. He straddled her hips and bore his weight down on her. He caught her wrists in one hand—feeling her rapid pulse—and forced her legs apart using his.

"At—Atem!" she breathily cried out in panic as she struggled to move.

"What would you have done if some strange man were to force himself on you? Do you understand your weakness? Someone else would have taken you and ruined you. You would be broken, and I would kill the man who touched you. But…it would not fix what was ruined inside," he quietly finished, his anger drained.

He threw himself off of her and glared down at her as she lay stupefied on the pallet.

"You are a woman, Nefra! A princess! You do not belong here!" he growled. His hands were balled at his sides. She stared up at him in hurt confusion. "Do not look at me like that. It is a hard truth you should have learned long ago. You may know about survival and you can use your body to earn money, but war is an ugly and all together different world than the one you know." He turned away from her.

Nefra sat up and carefully slid off of the pallet. She walked towards him on shaky legs and held the torn edges of her clothes in place with one hand. Her ears were buzzing, and her mind was working at the speed of light. She stopped behind him and stood still. Her forehead touched the area of his back between his shoulder blades.

"You do not comprehend the torture it would be to be obliged to sit at the palace—on your throne—and act as though I am a statute—a pillar of strength—when inside I would be crumbling under the weight of uncertainty. I—I would die," she cried with real anguish.

Silence reigned.

"Surely…surely you do not wish that upon me…I could not bear it," she asked, her voice trembling.

Atem stood as still as a statue as she softly cried. "I—I had a dream. The day war was announced. You rode off on your horse—proud and full of vitality. I waved you off with a smile planted on my face, but my clothes were stained with the blood from my crying heart. The dream shifted, and I was sitting in the garden on the bench in front of the Great Tree. I saw you stabbed from behind by a blood-red blade. You slowly collapsed to the ground, and your assailant hacked your head off and put it on a pike. I could not go to you because the roots of the tree broke the ground below my feet and wrapped around my body…I could only sit on the bench and curse as you died in front of me…You—you died, and I could do nothing to prevent it. I…am certain it was a dream granted to me by the gods so that I may devise a method of preventing you from losing your life on the battlefield. I did not know how and you were to leave in two days…this was the only solution I had at the time…I feel it is necessary for me to be here. With you…,"she choked.

Atem turned around and looked into her tearful eyes. He saw the desperation and the conviction she felt in those eyes. They spoke to him on a primal level, and he knew she did what she thought she had to do.

He kissed away her tears before he briefly placed his lips over hers.

"I am sorry…" his voice conveyed the regret he felt and his determination.

She had a stunned expression on her face as she slid down the length of his body to fall in a heap on the floor at his feet. "But you will die…,"she whispered. "Is there nothing I can do?" she asked. Whether it was directed toward him, her, or the gods she had no idea. Atem kneeled in front of her and raised her up by her hands. "There is something you can do for me, but we will discuss it in the morning. For now, cleanse yourself and rest. There is a basin of warm water behind the curtain in the right corner of the tent. Over there," he pointed to the purple silk curtain shot through with gold thread.

As she bathed, he made an extra place for her on the pallet. She stepped out from behind the dressed in a flowing white robe. It was much too large for her and the neckline sagged to reveal the shadowy valley between her breasts.

She sat on the pallet and drank wine and ate some cheese. The silence between them was awkward.

Atem cleared his throat. "Nefra, about what I did…"

She set down her goblet. "Atem…I believe I understand, but I do not wish to discuss it as of yet. My thoughts are too confused for discourse."

Atem sat down next to her, but kept his distance. "I see…I did not plan on it happening… This is something we will have to discuss at a later date."

"I agree."

"I only pray it does not change anything between us. I do not want our relationship to grow cold and awkward," he haltingly explained.

Nefra scooted over and put her arms around her brother. "Brother, nothing you do could ever result in you seeing my back. I promise you," she answered. She lightly touched her lips to his and pulled his head down to rest against her warm breasts. "Rest now. The morning will come soon enough, and we will face it together." She ran her fingers through his spiky hair and softly sang a song. The song was an old ballad about the love of Isis and Osiris. Her soothing voice calmed his fearful heart, and he allowed himself to fall back with her on the pallet.

After a while, her song ended and her breathing grew deep and even; the long and harrowing day had finally gotten the better of her. Atem pulled her close to his heart and kept her there. He brushed a strand of hair away from her face and looked down at her serene countenance. He lightly traced her arched brows, down her straight nose, and over her slightly parted lips. Her warm breath touched his finger and he felt like he'd been scalded with hot water. He slowly brought his head close to hers and, with a held breath, touched his lips to hers. He could taste the wine on her lips and the moist heat of her breath on his tongue. He bunched the blankets in his hand and fought for control. His eyes were trained on the gaping neckline. With a shaking hand, he fixed the collar and turned away from her. He lay on his side with his back facing her and listened to the occasional pop of the fire. Sleep was a long time coming.

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Dawn the following morning was cold and clear. Nefra awakened to find Atem's side of the pallet empty and sat up—clutching the blankets to her chest. The fire was burning brightly and next to it was a basin for her to cleanse herself. She could not groom herself like she was used to, but it would suffice.

She'd bathed and donned dry clothing when Atem entered the massive tent. Nefra blushed and blamed the fire for being too hot. Atem was carrying a saddle bag and he began to toss a few blankets inside.

"Atem, what are you doing?" she asked. He avoided eye contact with her.

"Atem!" she called to him. Again, he ignored her.

Nefra strode up to him and pulled the bag out of his hand and tossed it to the carpeted ground.

"Answer me!" she cried, becoming angry.

"You are to return to the palace," he quietly answered.

"What?! But last evening we agreed—," she began.

"Last evening, we agreed to do what I had in mind this morning. Are you going back on your word?" he taunted.

"You tricked me!" she cried. "You tricked me!"

She began to ineffectually beat at his chest with her balled fists. Atem shook her off and moved to retrieve the bag. With a cry, Nefra threw herself on his back like a hissing cat.

With an oath, Atem plucked her off his back and tossed her onto the pallet. "You cannot do this to me! You cannot do this to me!" she cried as she trashed underneath him. Atem brought his arm back and slapped her with the back of his hand. Nefra froze in shock. Her chest was heaving and her eyes slowly focused. Her lower lip trembled and tears spilled from her eyes. Atem, crying, pulled her upright and sat her on his lap. He rocked her and whispered how sorry he was and that he loved her. Her cries broke his heart. He brought his head down and kissed her tears away. She brought her lips to his and kissed him. Nefra broke the kiss, saying, "I cannot loose you!"

Atem turned them so that she was on her back. "I do not fearing dying. It is you I cannot loose," he answered, passionately. "I will not see you die in this miserable desert. I love you too much to see that fate befall you!"

"You can never loose me, At. Never," she whispered.

Atem stood up and pulled her up with him. He hugged her tight and told her his plan.

"But—," she protested.

"Nefra, do not think only of your brother, but of our people who will be slaughtered should we fail. You must send those close to the desert into the palace for protection. Mahado and the others can defend them there. Our uncle is acting as viceroy at the moment, if I know him. You must rally troops as you go and have them march to give us aid."

After what felt like an eternity, she reluctantly nodded her head. She drew away from her brother—hugging herself as though she was cold. "I do not like it. However, you leave me with little choice. I shall do as you bid me, my pharaoh," she proudly answered with a slight trace of bleakness in her tone. She turned to gather what she would need when Atem caught her by the arm and swung her around to face him.

"I do not do this to hurt you."

Nefra smiled sadly. "I know. It is for my sake." She slowly pulled her arm free and donned the soldier's clothing she'd worn the previous day. She tightened the belt and bent to retrieve the bag from the gilded chair next to the table. She turned to exit the tent and stepped out into the cool morning sunshine. She shivered, but it was not because of the cold. She secured the saddle bag and pulled a hooded cloak on. Next to her horse was another bag containing rations as well as flint stones and a reserve of oil.

She vaulted onto the horse and adjusted her cloak. By that time, Atem had followed her out in silence. As she gathered the reins, his hand reached out to rest on top of hers. "Exercise great caution and follow the route on the map. Our current location is several leagues away from the City and we march in two hours. We will engage the enemy near the valley I pointed out to you. Have the reinforcements meet with us there."

Nefra's hand turned to clasp his in a tight grip. She nodded.

"And Nefra, do not follow the troops."

Her hands clenched the reins—causing Scion to dance. She remained silent. "Nefra! I mean it!" he hissed silently.

She jerked her hand free from his and kicked her horse. As one, they wheeled around and thundered down the lines. As she passed, the men began to murmur amongst themselves.

"Wasn't that Princess Nefra?!"

"What?"

"The princess?!"

"What would she be doing in this sand hole?"

"Where is she going?"

"Why does she flee?"

"Does she go for help?"

Atem stood in silence as he watched his sister ride out of the camp like a possessed woman—at his side stood Gahnim. "She is a smart girl. She will do what is best," he reassured the pharaoh.

Atem remained standing where he was and watched until she was nothing more than a vanishing dot in the horizon. Re-Atun, Nefra's ever present companion, took flight and followed his mistress out into the desert.

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Nefra rode in intervals of galloping to walking. She set up camp that first night, and after rubbing down her horse, she tossed a blanket over its back. Nefra found some dry tender in her saddle bag and make a little fire—taking great care to use only a small amount of the precious oil. Nefra pulled out some of her rations and fed a part of the rations she'd set aside for herself to Scion. "I am sorry; this is all I have. It is not much, and I know your stomach is much larger than my own, but it will have to suffice for now."

She ate her food by the little fire she'd built with a blanket around her shoulders and then huddled close to her horse for warmth. She lay there shivering next to Scion and tried to focus on the stars above her.

"According to the constellations, I am on course. If I keep to the path, I should reach the City within another two days. I am sorry to put you through this, Scion, but you are the only hope I have left," she addressed the massive horse.

They both passed the night safely and began the day again.

As the sun reached its zenith, Nefra began to get impatient. She spurred the horse into a gallop and kept it at that pace. After hours of ceaseless galloping, the horse below her began to slow. The unbearable heat finally took its toll on the poor animal and it collapsed. Nefra pulled her leg out from underneath the horse after much effort. She tried to stand on it, but collapsed as a hot lance of pure pain washed up her leg. She knew her ankle was badly sprained if not broken. She crawled over the hot sand to the horse's head using her arms and her one working leg. Scion was so lathered that it was foaming at the mouth. Its body racked with shudders as it tried to breathe. Its velvety nostrils were flared, and its eyes rolled in its head.

Her horse's agony broke through the haze of pain that cloyed her mind. "Scion! Oh, Scion, no!"

"Oh, gods! I am so sorry! Please. Please do not die, Scion! I did not mean to push you so hard," she cried. "Please. Please. I am sorry. Do not leave me, Scion!" she cried in broken whispers to the dying horse. Nefra threw back her head and cried to the gods. "Please, Ra. Osiris. I beseech you, oh mighty gods, spare my horse and grant me passage to the City."

Her tears would not stop. She knew what she had to do. She clutched her sai in her badly shaking right hand in a grip so tight her knuckles were white. It would be cruel to allow the horse to suffer through such pain. She'd raised the horse from a foal and treasured its friendship as much as her relationship with her brother and Ryske.

Nefra kissed his soft muzzle and her tears fell on his nose. "All will be well, Scion. It will end soon; I vow it will, my friend."

The horse seemed to accept her crooning for his big, liquid, gold-flecked brown eyes met hers in quiet understanding.

"I love you," she whispered as she plunged her sai into his heart. The horse instantly went still.

Her lower lip trembled. "Scion, Scion," she crooned his name over and over as she rocked herself.

Nefra waited for many hours—continuously stroking its velvety muzzle and combing out his mane well after Scion's death; his blood soaked the front of her clothes. With her precious horse dead, she was left to face the wrath of the desert by herself.

Nefra licked her cracked lips, and her tongue felt thick and swollen in her mouth. Overhead, the carrion gathered and circled—dipping ever lower. She clutched Scion's long mane and laid her head on his massive chest; she whimpered Scion's name. Slowly, Nefra's vision blurred, and she passed out from the heat.

She woke up in an oasis to the sound of a voice calling her name.

"NEFRA…"

The oasis was the very same one that she and her brother used as a retreat from the world. Lying next to her was Scion. Nefra bit back a sob.

"NEFRA…"came the multi-layered voice again from the glassy pool of spring water.

"Who—who is it that calls me by my name?" Nefra called out.

"CHILD, WE HAVE ANSWERED YOUR SUMMONS. WHAT WOULD YOU ASK OF US?" asked another voice from the same silvery pool of water.

"I ask that my horse be spared my ignorant and inexcusable behavior. He should not have died in such a way. It was ignoble. I also ask to be able to save my brother—your son."

"IT WAS WRONG OF YOU TO PUSH YOUR STEED AS HARD AS YOU DID, CHILD," the older voice chided her.

Nefra hung her head in shame. "I did wrong, and I understand that. Please, I ask you to restore life to Scion and grant me time to reach the City."

The other voice spoke. "YOUR WISHES SHALL BE GRANTED, NEFRA. ASK OF US AND IT SHALL BE BEQUITHED TO YOU."

"RISE, SCION, WITH LIFE RENEWED AND CARRY OUR CHILD TO MEET HER DESTINY. FOREVER WILL YOU BE BOUND TO HER SO LONG AS HER SPIRIT DESIRES IT," commanded the older voice

Behind her, Scion's eyes opened and blinked. He shook out his mane and slowly rose to all fours. He softly whinnied, and Nefra spun on her heel.

"Scion!" she happily cried out as she ran to throw her arms around the horse's neck. "Forgive an ignorant girl her sins."

Scion's head nodded up and down as he clawed the soft turf.

Nefra laughed and spun around to face the pool. "You have my eternal thanks, my gods."

"BOTH OF YOU, BATHE IN THIS WATER AND YOUR SPIRITS WILL BE RENEWED. YOU WILL REST HERE TONIGHT AND CONTINUE YOUR JOURNEY AFTER THE FIRST RAYS OF HORUS HAVE KISSED THE DESERT."

"The blood…" Nefra began.

"THE BLOOD MATTERS NOT. STEP INTO THE POOL, BOTH OF YOU," the younger voice reassured her.

Nefra and Scion both slowly walked towards the pool. They looked at its smooth surface, and their hearts were gladdened. Slowly, they stepped into the pool. As they did so, the blood that soaked Nefra's tunic and the blood that was encrusted on Scion's chest were washed way. Nefra cupped her hands and washed Scion's head as he bent to drink from the pool. After washing him, Nefra dipped her head under the water's surface and looked at the silvery sand below her feet. She rose up out of the water renewed. Her skin no longer burned and her ankle was well.

Nefra removed her clothing and danced on the soft grass in thanks to the gods. She felt the gods watch her as she gracefully swayed and dipped in a slow rhythm.

"NOW, REST. THE GODS WILL BE WATCHING OVER YOU, CHILD. NO HARM WILL COME TO YOU. SOON, YOU WILL GRASP YOUR DESTINY WITH BOTH HANDS. AT THAT TIME, WE WILL COME TO YOU AGAIN…," said the older voice.

Nefra laid herself down next to Scion, and her mind thankfully lost itself in a dreamless sleep.

Re-Atun gently landed on the saddle that lay on the ground next to Nefra's pack.

"RE-ATUN, CONTINUE YOUR VIGIL OVER THE PRINCESS. SHE IS PRECIOUS TO US."

Re-Atun bowed his head and squawked his understanding.

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Nefra and Scion galloped with vigor through the city gates—past the startled guards the following morning. As she passed them, they beat on a large bronze plate with a hammer and its reverberations were heard all the way to the palace where activity there stirred. As they charged their way through the bazaar, they scattered the crowds. People jumped left and right to avoid the horse and rider. Cocks and other animals scurried to the relative safety of the stalls to avoid both the horse and the people.

Once cleared, Nefra gave Scion his head, and they blazed their way through the avenue of sphinx and burst into the outer courtyard of the palace. They drew to a stop at the foot of the large, white marble stairs. They were met by two guards and one of the stable boys. Nefra threw herself off of the horse and tossed the reins to the child with thanks. Nefra ordered the guards to summon the pharaoh's Inner Six to the war room.

"Tell them I shall be with them shortly."

She strode into her room and quickly divested herself of her dusty clothing and hastily bathed herself with a cloth. Her clothes were ready for her to wear in her bed chamber. She snapped at a servant when the girl dallied overly long with the fall of her cloak.

"I have not the time for frivolity! Harshness is not my intent, but I am in great haste!"

With that, Nefra left the girls to stare after her as they wondered why their normally kind mistress—who liked to look her best—was so put out with them.

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Nefra entered the war room—cloak billowing out behind her—as she took her station at the head of the long, white, map-riddled table. Sitting at the table were the Inner Six, as well as other ministers. Around her, weapons from kings past graced the walls and one of Atem's hounds lay in the corner next to a large chest. Mahado had taken the initiative and created a real-life illusion of the land.

Nefra sat in proud silence in her seat and waited; she did not have long to wait.

"Princess Nefra. How could you leave the palace at such a grave time and follow the pharaoh no less!"

"Ibal…," Shimon warned.

Nefra held up her hand to silence Shimon. "Let him speak." She trained her eyes on Ibal. "You were saying, Minister?" she prodded.

The man turned red in the face, but remained silent. It was easy to tell by the hard edge to her voice that she was not in the mood to listen to criticism and to do so was deadly.

"Come, Ibal. Not a heartbeat ago, you wished to give voice to your thoughts. Out with it," she quietly ordered. The hard edge was still in evidence, but now it was cloaked in velvet. The ministers and priests stirred uneasily in their seats.

Still, the man did not speak.

"Very well. I shall say what you now refuse to. I am a shame unto my name and my ancestors. I do not deserve to be seated here in this chair; I should be clapped in chains and thrown into the dungeons. I am a woman who dared to dress as a man and impersonated a soldier of the royal army. I have committed several great sins…all at the behest of the gods," she ended.

Silence reigned and then the murmuring spread like fire around the table.

"The gods?"

"Surely not!"

Then came one voice who asked the question they all wanted to know the answer to. "Why would the gods bid the princess to commit such treason?" asked Ibal.

"Frankly, I care not what you think of me, but so help me, I will not allow my brother—the pharaoh—to die in that misbegotten valley!" she told them—voice risen. Her hands were braced on the table as she leaned forward—eyes blazing and chest heaving—as she stared down every one of those who would not aid her.

The ministers were cowed into silence.

'Disgusting lot of snakes' she thought to herself. 'Little better than women in fancy robes, the lot of them.'

Nefra resumed her seat and barked, "Any objections?"

Silence.

Nefra's eyes met those of Shimon's. His were laughing. 'Wily old man…'

A brief smile graced her full lips before it rapidly disappeared. "Excellent! Hear now my plan…"

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As the preparations were being made, Seto found Nefra in the garden standing in front of the tree. He quietly walked to her side. He stood there for some time before she finally spoke.

"The decision has been made; I will not yield, Seto."

Seto sighed. "This I already know. However, it is my wish you would not do so alone."

He turned her to face him. "You are wealthy in friends, Nefra."

"It is not my desire to involve others; I alone must do this."

Seto gritted his teeth. "You think only of yourself! I, too, share the bonds of friendship with the pharaoh. Shada, Karim, Mahado, Isis, and myself. Our lives we would give up—gladly. The pharaoh is your blood kin, but he is my closest friend!"

"I understand your sentiments, Seto. Truly I do. However, I was not referring to your mutual bonds of friendship with my brother. I was speaking of my destiny."

Seto smiled faintly. 'Destiny. Always destiny for you, princess. Such a heavy burden that you will not share. Even with me.'

Without thinking, he reached up and ran his fingers down her now shoulder-length hair.

Nefra self-consciously patted her shorn locks. "It grows back!" she hotly defended herself.

He sighed in resignation and let his hand fall to his side. "Here is where I will remain—with the others—and do what I am able to safeguard the City."

"Seto…" she whispered. She slowly reached for his hand and held it between the distance that separated them. "I do not know if you truly understand, but thank you nonetheless."

Seto briefly squeezed her hands because he dared not touch her further. "Just…exercise as much caution as you can. Return safely."

She smiled crookedly. "You know me."

"Indeed, I do. Thus, I said what I did."

The wind picked up and stirred their hair and clothing. Her cheeks began to warm—so intense was his gaze. She tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear self-consciously.

"Nef!" Mana called out. Nefra and Seto let go of each others hands like they were burned and took a step away to add more distance between themselves. She ran, waving, to where Seto and Nefra stood; she came to a halt and bent over so that she could catch her breath.

"The (pant) armor you wanted (pant) delivered to you rooms after cleaning is ready (pant)."

Nefra nodded briskly. "My thanks. I will attend to it momentarily."

"Ahhh… I see." Mana grinned and waggled her eyebrows comically. She did not see them hold hands, but she had noticed one watching the other with their eyes when they thought that they were not being observed.

"I take my leave, Princess…Seto," she coyly called over her shoulder as she skipped away.

'Mannnaaa! Cuteness is inherent to you, but this time you have gone too far!'

The atmosphere was tense after Mana made her abrupt departure.

Seto cleared his throat; the tips of his ears were red. "You must make haste. The preparations will be nearing their end soon."

Nefra reluctantly nodded. "You are correct. I should be on my way now."

She began to turn away, but, after gathering her courage, she spun around on her heel and hugged him. As the wind began to softly blow, she hugged him with her eyes closed tightly. Seto stood there—stunned for a heartbeat. Then, his arms automatically closed about her slight frame as though they had a mind of their own. It felt so right.

The wind rustled her hair and Seto breathed in her scent like a drowning man. She smelled of jasmine, lilies, and sunshine. He felt her warm breath against his collarbone and a shiver went down his spine. She buried her nose against the juncture of his shoulder and neck and inhaled his masculine scent; her mouth went dry. He dared not move his hands, and the warmth from his large hands comforted Nefra. Nefra nestled closer, and Seto put his cheek against the top of her head and stood there with his eyes closed.

They stood there in each others arms for a few brief minutes before slowly separating. Nefra's cheek brushed Seto's as she hesitantly drew back and whispered something in his ear. Nefra cautiously inclined her head to bring her lips close to his and their warm breath mingled. She looked into his eyes and saw something she did not recognize briefly flare in those mesmerizing depths. She swallowed her emotions and walked away from him in the direction of her chambers.

Seto stood rooted in place. He slowly released the balled up fists he'd unconsciously made and took a calming breath. He had held her. Her lush, warm body was pressed against his. He could still feel her breasts against his chest and her breath at his neck. His breathing came in ragged gasps between his clenched teeth. A muscle in his right cheek twitched. He ran a frustrated hand through his hair and walked to his chambers—ignoring everyone he passed. He dismissed the servants and washed his face with cool water. It did little to ease the pain in his groin. Seto knelt on a rug and turned his thoughts to prayer with a single-mindedness he did not know he possessed.

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Ten hours later, Nefra rode out of the City on Scion's back at the head of some thousand additional troops. Messages were sent ahead to other cities and villages via falcon requesting supplementary aid.

Seto and the others stood at the top of the palace gate and watched the mass exodus ride off in a large cloud of dust with Re-Atun circling high above his mistress. The turmoil of emotions he felt did not show on his face, but it would have been akin to those Nefra would have felt if she stood in his place and had watched her brother ride off to war.

After the dust had settled and the City gates were tightly shut behind them, Seto stood on the walkway above the palace gates by himself and watched the red sun continue to sink lower to the horizon. The wind ruffled his hair and teased his clothes with gentle fingers that bordered on a caress. It felt like a warm hand had run down his cheek and rested over his heart.

With the wind, the words Nefra had whispered to him as they embraced surfaced from memory.

"Trust me…"

"I do trust you…Nefra."

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And that will do it for Chapter 9!

My thanks goes out to those who have read my fanfic up til now as well as to those who faved me. I'm sorry it's taken me sooooo long to update. I kinda got caught up in life and college. ^^' But, I haven't entirely neglected Nefra and the others. I have several chapters ready for my beta, and I hope to post them soon!

~Ëlen